THE REAL “NAPOLEON OF CRIME” AND THE THEFT OF A FAMOUS PAINTING
What do Sherlock Holmes, Moriarty and a famous painting all have in common?
Very possibly a man named Adam Worth.
Sherlock Holmes called his nemesis Professor James Moriarty “the Napoleon of Crime,” but one wonders whether Conan Doyle didn’t use a real “Napoleon of Crime,” ie. Adam Worth, as a model for his fictional gang leader.
Police often referred to Worth as “the Napoleon of Crime.” He ran away from his poor Jewish family at age 10 and served honorably in the American Civil War at age 17 – but after that, his life took a wicked turn. In New York City he led a gang of pickpockets and masterminded robberies and heists.
After escaping from Sing Sing where he was sent for robbing an Adams Express wagon, he teamed up with a notorious lady gangster named Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum.
With her help he expanded into bank and store robberies and in 1869, with safecracker Charley Bullard, he tunneled from a neighboring shop into the vault of Boylston National Bank in Boston.
Sound suspiciously reminiscent of the plot in “The Red-headed League”?
As in Doyle’s last novel “The Valley of Fear,” a Pinkerton detective was set on his track. Worth got wind of him and fled to Europe, which already was rife with its own criminal networks. Worth headed one of these, organizing major robberies and burglaries in France and England.
Like Moriarty, he operated through intermediaries. Those who worked for him never knew his name.
With the wealth from his ill-gotten gains, Worth joined high society. Eventually Scotland Yard learned of his network, although initially they were unable to prove anything. Inspector John Shore made Worth’s capture his personal mission.
This is where the famous painting comes in, and it’s worth a story in itself.
During her years in the public eye, the glamorous Georgiana Cavendish, Dutchess of Devonshire, was painted by both by Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds.
In 1785, Gainsborough painted her in a big black hat - a style she made sensationally fashionable. The painting disappeared for many years, turning up in 1830 in the home of an elderly schoolmistress, who had cut it down to fit over her fireplace!
In 1841 she sold it for 56 pounds to an art dealer, who gifted it to a friend. After he died in 1876, the painting was sold at Christie’s in London for the astronomical sum of 10,000 guineas.
Three weeks later it was stolen in a highly publicized theft by – it was later learned – the “Napoleon of Crime” Adam Worth.
It was Gainesborough, not Greuze
In Conan Doyle’s novel “The Valley of Fear,” which supposedly took place prior to “The Final Problem,” Holmes claims he knew Moriarty was worth more than he appeared because a painting by Jean Baptiste Greuze worth 40,000 pounds hung behind his desk.
Was this detail perhaps inspired by the theft of the Gainesborough?
In early 1901, through the American detective agency Pinkerton’s, Worth negotiated a return of the Gainesborough for $25,000. The Wall Street financier J. P. Morgan immediately paid $150,000 for it.
The painting remained in Morgan’s family until 1994, when it was put up for sale at Sotheby’s and bought by the 11th Duke of Devonshire for the Chatsworth House collection. So, after more than 200 years it returned to its place of origin!