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His Last Duchess

Victorian thief Adam Worth stole a famous Gainsborough portrait and found himself in the pages of Sherlock Holmes

By Jonelle Bonta

BROWSING THROUGH THE archives of the Pinkerton Detective Agency outside Los Angeles a couple of years ago, British journalist Ben Macintyre happened across an article from a 1902 issue of the Portland Oregonian headlined "Adam Worth, Greatest Master Thief of Modern Times, Stole $3,000,000." The story related the incredible facts of the life of Adam Worth, an American of German-Jewish ancestry born in abject poverty in Boston.

Worth, it seems, faked his death in the Civil War, changed sides several times to collect enlistment bonds, then used the money to finance his "new" career as the John L. Sullivan of theft, burglary and forgery. Later, disguising his identity by living as a gentleman in London, Worth, without ever resorting to violence, robbed the wealthy and powerful--and always remained loyal to his criminal friends. By 1893, he had attained such notoriety that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle supposedly used him as inspiration for Sherlock Holmes' archenemy, Professor Moriarty.

Intrigued by the article, Macintyre began a quest to fill in the spaces between the known facts. The result is The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief. The first third or so of the book vibrates with life and color as Macintyre describes the underworld of post­Civil War New York, replete with gangs such as "The Dead Rabbit" and the "Roach Guards," saloons with names like "McGurk's Suicide Hall" and thieves known as Ludwig the Bloodsucker, Hell-Cat Maggie and Sadie the Goat.

Macintyre tracks Worth and his accomplices from their education in New York's petty crime schools to Boston and the great Boylston Bank Robbery of 1869, describing in riveting detail the heist that brought Worth to the pinnacle of criminal success.

In 1876, in London, Worth and two accomplices stole one of the most famous paintings in the world, Gainsborough's portrait of Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire. Here, unfortunately, the narrative comes to a halt as Macintyre tries to frame the rest of Worth's life in terms of his "relationship" with the painting, which he kept for almost 25 years, using pop-psychology jargon to explicate Worth's actions when facts were unavailable.

Macintyre explains the breakup of Worth's relationship with his beautiful Irish moll, Kitty Flynn, with the observation, "He had sought to control and hold Kitty, and for the first time in his life he had failed. Gainsborough's Duchess, by contrast, was docile and maneuverable, a perfect painted captive in a way Kitty had declined to be." Maybe, but Kitty or no Kitty, it's likely that Worth would have stolen the painting anyway.

When Worth attacks an accomplice in the theft who threatens to squeal, Macintyre writes, "An uncouth Philistine was attempting to deprive him of his beloved Duchess, and in an upsurge of chivalry, Worth leaped to her defense." Isn't it possible that Worth was just leaping to his own defense?

After the Boylston Bank Robbery early in Worth's career, Macintyre gives us no detailed accounts of Worth's heists and only vague mention of his other criminal activities. The "How did they do it?" aspect that fascinates us about elaborate crimes--particularly Victorian-era crimes--is missing.

Fortunately, as Macintyre's tone wears thin, along comes a real-life Sherlock Holmes, William Pinkerton, the son of the famous detective who founded the Pinkerton Agency, to pick up the story. Pinkerton, who is best known today for his work tracking down Western outlaws such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, actually preferred underworld company to that of his business partners.

He followed Worth's crimes for years, both from his office in Chicago and on the job in London, and he grudgingly came to respect "Little Adam." After Worth's capture, Pinkerton became his confidante and acted as his intermediary in returning the Duchess. The trust between the two men was so great that Worth had Pinkerton hold money to pass on to his children after his death, and when Worth's son wrote Pinkerton in 1902 informing him of his father's death, Pinkerton sincerely responded, "I regret your father's death very much."

As we all know, narrative weaknesses in a biography can always be glossed over in a movie version. It should come as no surprise that The Napoleon of Crime has already been optioned as a movie, and it ought to be a great one. They can have my advice for free: Daniel Day-Lewis as Worth, Kurt Russell as Pinkerton.

The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief by Ben Macintyre; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 328 pages; $24 cloth.

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From the Sept. 4-10, 1997 issue of Metro.

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