06 June 2023

Adam Worth: American thief, British gent

The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth,
by Ben MacIntyre, 1998

Adam Worth (1844–1902) was born in Ger­m­any but taken to the USA as a little boy, settling in Cam­bridge Mass. Worth left home early and by 1860 was in New York, em­ployed as a clerk in a boring de­p­art­ment store. But for Worth & others, the out­break of Amer­ic­a's Civil War in 1861 provided an opport­unity for adventure.

At 17 Worth enlisted in the Union army. He was promoted to ser­g­eant in the 34th New York Light Artillery Regiment. When in a battle in Aug 1862, Worth was seriously wounded and shipped to a Washington D.C hospital. On recovering, he found that he’d been listed as killed in action. 

Officially dead, Worth could now re-enlist and claim an­other bounty. He took the money, deserting, then re-enlisting in another unit under another name. [I men­­tion this because it marked a life of illegal activities].

After the Civil War, Worth saw his chance in the N.Y criminal under­world, using his talents for planning and financing criminal enterprises. Alas he landed in the very nasty Sing Sing prison on a 3-year sent­en­ce. Worth soon es­c­aped and vowed to move into a more lucrative career, robbing banks.

Altering his appearance with fine whiskers, he established a prof­it­able relationship with a conduit for stolen goods, Frederika Mandel­baum. Worth had masterminded great robberies and was tr­usted to sp­ring the high class robber Charley Bul­lard from prison. This succ­essful oper­at­ion involved brib­ing guards and digging a tunnel.

Worth and Bul­lard now formed a long term part­nership, and one of their most not­able successes was robbery of the National Bank in Boston in 1869. They set up a health shop near the bank and excav­at­ed a tunnel to gain entrance. The men were now so succ­ess­ful that the Pink­er­ton Detective Agency launched a serious investig­ation. The Agency tracked the shipment of trunks from the shop­front to Worth and Bullard, so the two crims mov­ed to Europe.

After the 1870 Franco-Prussian War and the Commune that fol­lowed in 1871, Paris was the corrupt city immortalised by Zola and de Mau­pas­sant. As the “American financier Henry Raymond”, Worth ac­quired the polish to carry it off. He and Bullard oper­at­ed a ma­jor gambling centre in Paris and succeeded with high-value robberies.

In the mid-1870s they moved to London where “Raymond” established himself as a popular member of smart society, a wealthy acquaintance of Albert the Prince of Wales. He bought a superb villa in Clapham and maintained a flat in fashionable Piccadilly.

Scotland Yard was aware of Worth’s network but couldn't prove anything. Inspector John Shore made Worth's capture his personal mis­­­sion. From his London base, the Worth operation expanded in­t­er­nat­ionally, including a theft of uncut diamonds in South Africa that Worth personally oversaw in the 1870s. 

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, 
by Thomas Gainsborough, 1787, 127 x 102 cms
stolen by Worth in 1876; 
retrieved in 1901 by the Agnew Gallery
Back in Chatsworth House since 1994

Now pay attention readers! In May 1876, Thomas Gainsborough’s port­rait Geor­giana Duchess of Devonshire caused a stir when it was au­c­tioned at Christie's London. It sold to the art dealer Will­iam Agnew for $51,540, the high­est price ever paid for an auctioned paint­ing. The London dealer quickly hung the Duchess at his Agnew Gall­ery

Worth was in love with the Duchess painting. He org­anised its succ­essful theft with two associates, thus triggering an international fuss for years. Police thought that the unknown thieves would att­empt to sell it, but it was actually in Worth’s London flat, near the gal­lery.

Stealing the Duchess of Devonshire led to Worth’s eventual down­fall; his co-conspirators, Joe Elliot and Junka Phillips, were ang­er­ed by not being financially rewarded for steal­ing the valuable painting. When Worth refused to divulge its where­abouts, Elliot and Phillips went to the police and Worth was sent to prison. Following his release for good behaviour after 4 years in 1897, Worth returned to America, and began negot­iations with the Pinkerton Detective Agency to ransom the painting.

Worth formed a criminal network, organising major robberies via intermediaries; as a result his name was unknown to those who were involved directly. The focus was on high-value pro­ceeds and Worth reemphasised that guns were never used. Det­ect­ive William Pinkerton affirmed this was 100% true. Nonetheless Scotland Yard starting calling Worth the Napoleon of the Criminal World. This title seemed to have insp­ir­ed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, with the idea of a crim­inal mastermind, Professor James Moriarty

In the 1880s, “Henry Raymond” married Louise Boljahn and had two children

By 1892, Worth was arrested during a robbery of a money-transport in Belgium. He refused to talk, but it all fell apart when his photograph and details were circul­ated to Scotland Yard, Pinkertons Detective Agency and NYPD. He was now betrayed by his criminal colleagues and after the trial, got 7 years in a Belgian gaol. It appeared to have broken him.

The American financier wanted to ret­urn to the USA, where his two children were living, but he needed funds to sail. So he robbed £4,000 worth of diamonds from a London dealer!

Worth was at risk of prosecution in the U.S for his earlier offences there. He still had the Duchess of Devonshire painting, kept sec­ret for 20 years, hiding it under his mattress. He appr­oached the Pink­er­tons and agreed to return the painting to the Agnews, in return for a healthy ransom and a guarantee of non-pro­s­ecution. The exch­an­ge of portrait and payment occurred; cashed up again, Worth-Raymond returned to London with his child­ren.

The real Adam Worth was a clever, cultured, agreeable American gent­le­man, who found acceptance at the highest level of British society. But he’d received rel­atively little for his ran­som. In 1901, the Agnew Gallery reacquired the Duchess portrait and later it was re-hung in its original home, Chats­worth. Worth/Raymond died penniless in London in 1902, and was buried in Highgate Cemetery where a small tombstone was erected by the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation.

I have concentrated on Worth’s theft from the art world. For the rest of his colourful career, read HEADSTUFF.


jabblog said...

He lead a colourful life with great aplomb. Rogues can be very attractive.

bazza said...

He was a remarkable character, having been born to a poor Jewish family thought to have been named Werth. I know some current, British Jewish people with that surname. It is believed that Conan Doyle used Worth as a prototype on whom he based Professor Moriarty!
Two weeks ago I led my charity walking group past Highgate Cemetery; we would have gone in but the entry charge is now £10 per person.😒-

Deb said...

Normally you would assume a private police force was not to be trusted. But when Pinkerton National Detective Agency was founded in mid century, it seemed to be respected. Its expertise was in railway theft cases, grabbing train robbers before they jumped off and ran away. But they also helped wealthy railway bosses lock their unionised workers from keeping their jobs.

roentare said...

You always wrote with finesse and details. The story is rather colourful.

Hels said...


as long as there are no guns, no violence and no-one hurt, I imagine that an intelligent rogue like Adam Worth can be quite sympathetic. And most people who saw a painting they adored would be very tempted to hide it under their mattress.

But Worth spent years in prison, in at least 3 different countries, and he didn't seem to learn from the experiences.

Hels said...


I knew Professor Moriarty very well from Conan Doyle's literature, but I had never heard of Adam Worth until reading Ben MacIntyre's book. Nor did I remember that Holmes called Moriarty the "Napoleon of crime", as in the title to MacIntyre's book. But it makes sense - both crims were intelligent, apparently respectable, well connected and obsessed with making money for themselves as safely as possible.

Worth's family origins are not overly emphasised, except for the funeral stone. But I do clearly know the origins of his close colleague Frederika Mandel­baum, another crim.

Hels said...


the role of Pinkerton Detective Agency in the case of Adam Worth seems very unclear. Who gave the command/request to Pinkerton to pursue Worth and his criminal mates? To chase him in the US only, or in Britain, Belgium and every other country he might have gone to? Regarding the Duchess of Devonshire by Thomas Gainsborough, did Pinkerton get the painting returned to help the Agnews or to help Adam Worth?

Hels said...


if you can find it, read MacIntyre's book The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth. Even if you are not normally interested in whodunits, it is an amazing historical story of police, courts, great art, auctions etc.

DUTA said...

I like it that he was attracted by the painting of duchess Georgiana. It shows good taste and appreciation of beauty.

Luiz Gomes said...

Boa tarde de terça-feira -feira e obrigado pela visita.
Nunca ouvi falar dessa parte da história. Excelente matéria.
Luiz Gomes

Andrew said...

It is quite amazing that someone can almost get away with a life of crime and never be properly punished. We did not see the painting at Chatsworth, because we didn't go inside.

hels said...

the Duchess portrait was indeed beautiful and lots of art lovers would have wanted to steal it. But because it was the most expensive art work ever auctioned back then, Worth might have had a financial gain in mind. Alternatively this portait of a noble woman might have helped Worth join the aristocracy himself.

hels said...

Worth suffered long gaol sentences in several countries, but perhaps he thought it was just the cost of doing business. All the British historians

hels said...

called him a dandy not a criminal :)

hels said...

it is an amazing story, and very unusual. You might like to read the MacIntyre book.

mem said...

A rogue to be sure . Lots of Psychopaths are charming . He seems to have had great charisma . I love that his son Henry went on to become a detective with Pinkertons !!! .

Hels said...


I don't mind rogues who are charming, but I do mind psychopaths. And it seems that a literary psychopath (Prof Moriaty) has confused us about a real crim (Adam Worth). Worth made sure that the men in his criminal networks would never use violence, nor could they ever learn his real name. His two best crimes were 1. the theft of 500,000+ dollars in raw South African diamonds and 2. the theft of Duchess of Devonshire by Thomas Gainsborough. Ambitious, careful and intellectual, yet Worth died in poverty. Probably not a psychopath

Britta said...

Dear Helen, thank you for this interesting and detailed description!
He reminds me a bit of Arsène Lupin, gentleman thief , created by Maurice Leblanc. To choose a criminal as protagonist was a new perspective - differing from the detective novels - and started by Ernest William Hornung, who created A.J.Raffles - also a gentleman thief.
One of the novels of Leblanc is "Arsène Lupin contra Sherlock Holmes"!

Hels said...


a gentleman thief was a complex and intriguing concept. On one hand he was a burglar (or whatever the crime) which made the young reader queasy. On the other hand the author was free to expand the genius, elegance or other fine qualities in the star of the book. When you were young, how did you respond to Arsène Lupin?

mem said...

I actually think he didn't care much at all for the pain he caused to those he stole from . He did care about his own survival and staying out of jail so he had strategies for that including subterfuge and minimizing violence . Psychopaths are motivated in the same way in whatever their endeavors . They just don't care too much about the consequences of their actions . They are deterred by the consequences to them rather than any conscience .
They operate in all spheres of human activity and are particularly good corporate raiders, politicians , Cult leaders and so on . I think that we often see them as violent . The clever ones aren't .

Hels said...


agreed. Worth was very clever, ambitious, self centred and had excellent cultural taste. But because he was totally prepared to work with other nasty crims who could protect Worth's own safety and reputation, he almost got away with all his own crimes.