I was pretty excited to begin this book. I love books about art crime (Mostly the gentleman thief variety). Art and antiquities crime is a huge international black market. Truly harrowing to think about.
Adam Worth was a master criminal, known for his frauds and deceptions, but also for stealing a painting of Georgianna Cavendish (Duchess of something) by Thomas Gainsborough. There are run-ins with the Pinkertons (before they became totally union busting jerkfaces), safe cracking, crimes across Europe and America.
Adam Worth is also the supposed inspiration for Moriarity in the Sherlock Holmes books. Allegedly. Ben Macintyre does talk about this in one of the chapters, so fun to read about it.
Title: The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief
Author: Ben Macintyre
Page Number: 384 pages (paperback)
Genre: history, nonfiction, biography, true crime
The Victorian era's most infamous thief, Adam Worth was the original Napoleon of crime. Suave, cunning Worth learned early that the best way to succeed was to steal. And steal he did.
Following a strict code of honor, Worth won the respect of Victorian society. He also aroused its fear by becoming a chilling phantom, mingling undetected with the upper classes, whose valuables he brazenly stole. His most celebrated heist: Gainsborough's grand portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire--ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales--a painting Worth adored and often slept with for twenty years.
With a brilliant gang that included "Piano" Charley, a jewel thief, train robber, and playboy, and "the Scratch" Becker, master forger, Worth secretly ran operations from New York to London, Paris, and South Africa--until betrayal and a Pinkerton man finally brought him down.
In a decadent age, Worth was an icon. His biography is a grand, dazzling tour into the gaslit underworld of the last century. . . and into the doomed genius of a criminal mastermind.
Adam Worth began his life in time during the Civil War. He would join U.S. Army units and accept bounties, then would abscond after receiving the money. Bounties were money bonuses to entice men to enlist in the Army. The system was quite abused and was eventually retired in the early twentieth century.
Worth moved to New York City after the war and started climbing the ranks of the New York underworld. First as a pickpocket and then as a bank robbery. After making a large steal, he moved to London and set himself up as a man of means. He did smaller thefts to keep up his state of living (as a man of means).
The book does have photos, on regular paper. All the main characters have photos in the book, which is quite nice.
This is a well-researched book, with lots of contemporary sources and other contemporary literature quotes to add to the mood. The problem with Adam Worth as a main subject is that many of his life stories are not actually documented. The instances where he went up against the law and lost are documented. The sparsity of information does create a fairly long life full of holes. I think Macintyre does quite well with the lack of main sources, but he does get a bit repetitive at times. Perhaps to pad out? Perhaps because he wanted to emphasize his point.
Some of his suppositions on the meaning of art to Adam Worth, the Morgans, or in general are open to disagreement (I don't think the portrait of the Duchess looks like Adam Worth's lover, but Macintyre does spend time laying out why he thinks they do look alike).
I had always heard that Adam Worth's two children, Henry and Beatrice, were raised by Pinkerton after Worth's death. Macintyre disagrees with this (I mean, he did the research!) noting that Henry and Beatrice were raised by their Uncle John. William Pinkerton does send money to the two children and writes to them. Eventually Henry grows up and goes to work for the Pinkerton Agency.
Overall, I quite liked the book and I ended up keeping it because Adam Worth is really a fascinating criminal. I think this is probably the most comprehensive biography of Worth, and I learned quite a lot of information about Adam Worth, the Pinkertons, and the Victorian era.
Ben Macintyre has an excerpt of the book on his website.