Adam Worth: The World in his Pocket
Unlike a Hero
"The more things a man is ashamed of, the more respectable he is."
— George Bernard Shaw
The words refined and gaudy, by all practical standards, contrast. But, somewhere between the ether of the two words there is a fine line that, when the words blend across that line, a rarity is created. This specimen is one of color but with an ability to control that color to his/her advantage; to sip of the grapes of life with a celebratory vigor and vim and always emanate what the Parisians call en elegance.
Adam Worth steered between the earthiness of the lowlife and the headiness of the lavish high society crowd with such ease that he, at times, didn't seem to merely live life, but manipulate it. Much of his actions were more instinctive than by design; he followed his desires. For one, he was neither a parasite nor a hypocrite, but enjoyed the beneficence offered by his company in sunlight and in shadow. In Victorian London, he could command a troop of Fagin-like pickpockets before sunrise, then discuss the qualities of imported silks over domestic weave in the gentlemen's clubs at noon.
He knew the poor and he felt comfortable with, and enjoyed, their camaraderie; but he also relished the architecture of the wealthy frame of mind and, yes, enjoyed their camaraderie a little more.
Adam Worth was a thief. He stole cash, he stole jewels, he stole women's hearts and he stole a priceless work of art. Of the women he loved most in his life, one was a duchess, albeit only on canvas. She was the Lady Georgiana Spencer, a controversial figure of uninhibited womanhood, and ancestor of the 20th Century's remarkable Princess Diana.
Because of his combined knowledge of the streets and his aptitude to recognize arte d'clasique — and most of all because of his ingenuity - Adam Worth became what the world-famous Pinkerton Detective Agency called "the most remarkable criminal of them all". Scotland Yard commissioned him "the Napoleon of Crime" and mystery writer Arthur Conan Doyle used him as a model for the fictional consummate of evil, Professor Moriarty in his Sherlock Holmes stories. But, Adam Worth was not "a villain of the lowest degree," to employ a piece of literary light from the Victorian Melodrama. Worth never harmed anyone's person, never threatened a life with knife or gun; he robbed only those whom he considered rich enough to lose money; he stole fortunes and he lost fortunes. He gave thousands of British pounds and French francs and American dollars to friends who were on the skid and he never asked to be repaid - all he asked was loyalty.
He performed honest jobs for probably only a few months in his life - and became one of the wealthiest and most respected men in Europe.
* * * * *
Despite later rumors that he was the son and heir of wealthy aristocrats - perhaps of royal English birth - Adam Worth was born to rag-poor German-Jew parents in Germany in 1844. When he was five years old, the family sailed to America where the elder Herr Worth (probably Werth, or perhaps Wirtz) set up a tiny tailor shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The father toiled, used his talents with needle and thread, and sewed up enough money to barely feed a wife and, eventually, three children; another boy, John, followed Adam, and then a daughter, Harriet.
He grew up in the area of the city that only dreamed of the "mighty Massachusetts rich". His playmates were children from families like his own, sons and daughters of the sweating lower class, German Jews all, whose parents slaved in the mills, the factories and the backrooms of the garment shops; whose culture was left alone and unrecognized by upper-crust Protestant Cambridge. The children, faced with the obvious demarcation between Anglo-Americanism and their own reputation as "stupid immigrant Yiddish," learned early the value of that mystical American thing called a dollar. Of how possessing many of them would remove them from their lowly status. The ways and means of getting ahold of one were often crooked, but, often, for them, the only way.
Into adulthood, Adam Worth would relate the foundation of his criminal career. A schoolmate told him, then a naïve boy, that he would trade him a new, shiny penny for two older, duller ones. Impressed by the sheen of the recently minted coin, little Adam accepted and ran home to show his father the great bargain he had made. Herr Worth erupted at his son's lack of wit and chastised the boy for the fool's play.
"From that moment on," Worth would say, "I never again let anyone take the advantage over me."
Worth was growing into a fine looking boy of dark hair and eyes; his once-open expression of hope had chiseled into a wiser one. His aquiline nose seemed to be always sniffing life's experiences, inhaling and imbedding what his eyes saw into his brain, recording it to memory. Wandering through Cambridge, he would watch with keen interest the behaviors and the fine clothing and conveyances of the students from Boston who passed into and out of the gargoyle-crowned doors of Harvard University.
"In the Harvard students who paraded through Cambridge, the immigrant Jewish urchin had ample opportunity to observe the outward shows of wealth and privilege," writes Ben Macintyre in his book on Adam Worth entitled The Napoleon of Crime. "Ashamed of his lowly origins, frustrated by impecunity, the young Worth clearly felt himself to be the equal of the fine young gentlemen strutting Boston Commons. Their wealth and sophistication provoked ambivalent feelings of envy, resentment and anger, and also of admiration and desire. Worth resolved to 'better' himself."
At the age of 14, Adam Worth ran away from home to find his portal into society.
He drifted around Boston for a time with no apparent direction, then in 1860 strayed to New York City, which to a boy his age and in his stature must have gleamed as Utopia. Inspired to a new ambition at the site of the Goliath, of promised gold, the by-then 16-year-old Worth took what Macintyre calls "his first and only honest job," that of a clerk in a department store. He remained in this position only one month.
That staying at this job longer might have led to a different future for Worth is an intriguing, but superfluous, proposition. Fuming over what they felt were limited states' rights and the right to practice their beloved institution of slavery, Southerners ceded from the Union, and President Abraham Lincoln sent millions of armed troops below the Mason-Dixon line to squelch the rebellion. Civil war had come to America. With the first blast of insurgent cannons, the North summoned all grown males to answer her country's call for restoration. Young Worth responded, not so much for a sense of patriotism, but for the yearning of adventure. And pay. Enlisting, he was guaranteed an attractive bounty of $1,000.
Signing up on November 28, 1861, he lied about his age (recording it as 21, not 17), then marched off to boot camp along with other raw recruits of the 34th Light Artillery out of Flushing, New York. After a month of drilling on Long Island, the regiment headed south to converge with the Grand Army of the Potomac under General Pope. Evidently, Worth proved to be eager and able; his captain, the erstwhile Jacob Roemer, quickly promoted him to corporal, then to sergeant in a span of several months. Worth found himself in charge over a cannon battery.
The 34th New York repeatedly skirmished with General Robert E. Lee's forces of Northern Virginia in the hills below Washington, D.C. Worth's cannoneers distinguished themselves in the face of the enemy. In August, 1862, the Northern blues and Confederate grays clashed head-on, hand-to-hand, bayonet-to-bayonet, in what was to be one of the fiercest engagements of the Civil War — Manassas Junction, also known as Bull Run. "Bullets, shot and shell fell like hail in a heavy rain storm," wrote Captain Roemer, "Men were tumbling, horses were falling and it certainly looked as though 'de kingdom was a-comin'.'"
Certainly, the kingdom tapped Worth's shoulder and, in doing so, played him a fortuitous trick. Rebel shrapnel felled him, not severely, and along with thousands of other stricken comrade, he was shipped off to Georgetown Hospital in the suburbs of Washington. While recuperating, he learned that back on the battlefield he had been accidentally listed as dead. This time, he would not be the recipient of a shiny new penny. This time, he would master the ruse and take the extra cent where a cent could be made. The army be damned, he literally walked out of convalescence a free man, free of all obligations to Captain Roemer and the New York 34th, free from the cause of liberty, and free from all but his own goal: to get rich.
He contrived to start bankrolling himself immediately. "Over the coming months, Worth established a system," pens Macintyre, "(to) enlist in one regiment under an assumed name, collect whatever bounty was being offered, and then promptly desert." But, author and researchist Macintyre is quick to point out that, despite these forsakings, Worth was not a coward, his design being financial not timid: "He repeatedly found himself in the thick of battle, including the Battle of the Wilderness in May, 1864, an engagement scarcely less ferocious than Bull Run." Considering that Worth detested violence, and remained armed throughout several conflicts, is a testimony to his loyalty, a trait that was to become more apparent in his business dealings as the years passed.
His chosen occupation was, despite its monetary virtues, an unsafe one. The Pinkerton Detective Agency, which was charged with nabbing runaways, had gotten wise to men like Worth who, in many creative ways, were partaking of the war's spoils. Agents were fast closing in and Worth, remaining a step ahead, had effected several narrow escapes.
Quitting this enterprise, he fled to New York City where general sentiment was one of anti-war anyway. (In late 1864, a large portion of the city was burned to the ground when an intense weekend of draft rioting got out of hand.) By the time he reached the gotham, General Lee had surrendered and the war was over.
The Union was preserved, but Adam Worth's private fight was only beginning. He determined to prove that a German Jew from the slums of Cambridge could reach the pinnacle. Glory, glory hallelujah.