There is some evidence to suggest that Doyle modelled his arch-villain on the German-American who, in the mid-1870s, moved to London where he set up a criminal network. True or not, there is no doubt that Sir Robert Anderson referred to Worth as "the Napoleon of the criminal world". Had this nickname come from the sensational press, it would, in all probability, be wise to discount it. But Robert Anderson was, possibly, the most famous policeman of his day. Anderson was a spy-master and a chief of detectives at Scotland Yard, having been appointed, in 1888, Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner in charge of the CID. Coming from him, the title "Napoleon of the criminal world" was no small accolade.
Adam Worth was born in Germany but raised in the United States. He began his criminal career during the American Civil War when he became a "bounty jumper," joining a New York regiment to gain the enlistment bounty of $1,000 offered before deserting and enlisting in another regiment. According to Ben Macintyre, Worth's biographer, he developed the technique to new heights "by faking his own death at the second battle of Bull Run before re-enlisting under an assumed name."
Following the war, Worth turned to crime. Here he was quite successful. The detective William Pinkerton described Worth in a posthumous pamphlet (Adam Worth, alias ‘Little Adam’, 1904) "As in everything else that he undertook, he very rapidly went to the front among the crooks, starting first as a pickpocket, and later on associating with an expert gang of bank sneaks." Pinkerton went on to note that "he became an active participant, and still later furnished not only the money but the brains and plans with which to do the work." However, after breaking into a Boston bank from an ajoining shop and stealing cash and securities valued at around $200,000 from its safe, and with the Pinkerton in hot pursuit, he, and his partner,fled to England.
After several short interludes in Liverpool and Paris, Worth, having now adopted the name Henry J. Raymond, settled in London living in a lavish style which included running a string of racehorses and sailing in his steam yacht. According to Pinkerton, his home
became the meeting place of leading thieves of America and Europe. ... the rendezvous for noted crooks all over the world, .. a clearing house or "receiver" for most of the big robberies perpetrated in Europe. In the latter 70's, and all during the 80's, one big robbery followed another; the fine "Italian hand" of Adam Worth could be traced, but not proven, to almost every one of them.
Sherlock Holmes, described Professor Moriarty in similar, albeit somewhat more fanciful, terms. He was, for the great detective "the greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every deviltry, the controlling brain of the underworld..."
Worth's greatest crime, and one which Holmes could hardly have failed to admire for its sheer audacity, was the theft of Thomas Gainsborough's painting of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, which he painted in the mid-1780s. The portrait itself has a fascinating history, having disappeared for many years before surfacing in the 1830s in private hands. After passing through several hands, it was purchased in 1876 for the then unheard of price of 10,000 guineas. The new owner, art dealer William Agnew put it on display in his gallery from where it was stolen by Worth and some of his henchmen on the night of Thursday, the 25th of May 1876.
|Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire|
Worth's reasons for stealing the portrait were two-fold. On the one hand, he had seen the picture and apparently fell very much under its spell. Like anyone in love, Worth assumed that others would have been just as smitten with the painting and so decided to use it to bail an associate out of jail. He intended to either sell the portrait or use it to force the owners of the gallery from which it had been purloined, to go bail for his incarcerated colleague.
Worth told Pinkerton that the plan was
that he would go to an acquaintance, a solicitor of shady reputation, who was an ex-convict, and instruct him to call on the prisoner in the jail, and hand him a small canvas clipping cut from the side of the picture. The attorney was then to go to Agnew & Co. and say to them that he had a client in the Newgate Prison who could give them valuable information concerning the Gainsborough picture. The prisoner in jail was to say to them, that if his liberation was effected, he would guarantee to return the picture, and as an evidence of good faith, and that he was telling the truth, he was to produce the piece of canvas cut from the side of the picture, which they could fit on the frame as a test.
Before the plan could be put into effect, the prisoner was released and Worth was left holding a portrait too well known to sell and with which, in all probability, he had no desire to part. At the time nobody knew who had taken the picture although over the years rumours frequently laid the crime at Worth's doorstep. In 1892, Worth was arrested in Belgium and sentenced to seven years hard labour for his part in an attempted robbery. While in prison he was approached with offers of freedom if he would return the Gainsborough. He steadfastly denied any knowledge of the painting.
In 1899 after being released from prison broken in health and with no resources, Worth contacted William Pinkerton, agreeing to meet with him in America to discuss the fate of the portrait. After extensive and prolonged negotiations, the painting was returned and Worth pocketed $25,000. When the picture was put up for sale, in London, shortly after its recovery, J. P. Morgan purchased it for $150,000. In 1994 it was purchased by the llth Duke of Devonshire and Georgiana now resides "at home" in the Chatsworth House collection.
Although ill, on his return to England, Worth lived a quiet life with his two children until his death in 1902. Unlike Holmes' Moriarty, Worth was completely opposed to violence. According to William Pinkerton,
In all his criminal career, and all the various crimes he committed, ... he was always proud of the fact that he never committed a robbery where the use of firearms had to be resorted to, nor had he ever escaped, or attempted to escape from custody by force or jeopardizing the life of an official, claiming that a man with brains had no right to carry firearms, that there was always a way, and a better way, bu the quick exercise of the brain.
Whether Worth was the model for Moriarty, it is clear that he was, like Doyle's creation, a master criminal sitting at the centre of a web of crime in London. Unlike Moriarty, he spent time in prison and was loyal to friends. As Pinkerton comments in his pamphlet, "this man was the most remarkable criminal of them all."
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