Adam Worth: The World in his Pocket
"A friend is, as it were, a second self."
New York City in the mid-1860s was one of the most corrupt metropolises on earth. Its politicians were bribed, its constabulary paid off, and thieves, pickpockets, whores, gamblers and anyone else wanting life easy and fat and rich were prime clients. Graft was accepted procedure and the golden key to finer clothing, tastier food and higher social standing. Crime raged and those who controlled it, many of the politicians and police chiefs, zealously fed it. Scandal spread its Vulcan wings. Lawmakers gasped on the surface, and condemned it on the surface. Then laughed about it when the lights dimmed.
One aghast minister in 1866 estimated that the city's all-told population of 800,000 included "30,000 thieves, 20,000 prostitutes, 3,000 drinking houses and a further 2,000 houses dedicated to gambling." To illustrate the whimsical attitude toward vice, note the names of some of the more popular aforementioned drinking houses: Suicide Hall, The Morgue, Hell's Gate, Cripples' Home, Tub of Blood, and Inferno. Aliases having taken the place of their real names, the denizens of these gin mills bore their monikers like a medal. In any one of these dens of infamy on any night would be spotted characters like Pig Donovan, Eat-em-up Jack McManus, Gyp the Blood, Eddie the Plague and Baboon Dooley. Not outdone, the female consorts of these thugs took on, with relish, names like Red-Light Lizzie, Hell Cat Maggie and Jane the Grabber.
Within the underworld community, the city was fairly well divided by gangs within whose ranks were murderers, leg-breakers, confidence men, faro and keno dealers, black-marketeers, pickpockets, thieves, white slavers and trollops, paid according to individual prestige and talent, as well as the size and affluence of the gang to which they belonged. Gang titles were as colorful as their membership; among the hundreds were the Whyos, the Plug-Uglies, the Bowery Boys, the Roach Guard, the Forty Thieves and the Slaughter Housers.
It was into this off-balanced, though animated world that Adam Worth returned after the war, his sights set on conquering New York's affluent Tenderloin District. Although neither a drinker nor a better, he hung in the low-ceilinged, gas-lit saloons to familiarize himself with and connect to the "employers" who were always on the scout for recruits. Since no one knew this 21-year-old boy, and he had to prove his prowess, he had to start low; the entry position into any gang was usually that of "dipper" or "pickpocket". Sophie Lyons, a well-known woman extortionist and thief who liked the fresh learner, recalled in later years, "(Adam Worth) first tried picking pockets. He had good teachers and was an apt pupil. His long, slender fingers were just made for the delicate task of slipping watches out of men's pockets and purses out of women's handbags."
Unlike most of his peers, Worth didn't drink nor fornicate away the money he earned, but saved thriftily. A man of brain, not of brawn, he avoided the places of limelight and the trouble that often followed within their premises when the sun went down. "Of the 68,000 people arrested in New York in 1865, 53,000 were charged with crimes of violence. Yet Worth made it a rule that force should not play a part in any enterprise that involved him," notes Ben Macintyre, author of The Napoleon of Crime. "Crooks who drank or fought would make mistakes, and for that reason he steered clear of the established gangs, which were often little more than roving bands of pickled hoodlums at war with each other."
It wasn't long before Worth started his own little band of pickpockets and thieves, and quickly gained the trust of the major fences in town who pawned off the stolen materials he provided. He served as planner, employer and financier of heists throughout New York, concentrating his efforts in Manhattan. He took active part in only the more important jobs. What was supposed to be one of the more lucrative grabs, however, went astray when he was caught red-handed stealing a cash box off an Adams Express wagon. Unable to procure judicial favors - that benefit would come later - he was tried and sentenced to three years at hard labor in New York state's dreaded Sing Sing Prison.
But, after a few weeks of prison life, Worth absconded. Night fell and he managed to slip between a corps of guards, slide over a rampart and swim the Hudson River to a passing tugboat. Soon, he was back where he left off. To conceal a face the law might be looking for, he grew a mustache and a set of sporty mutton-chop sideburns. The end result was a more dapper, more prosperous-looking Adam Worth. A successful image, he realized in the offing, was a good beginning.
Tired of trying to exist as a freelance crook, and not wanting to risk another arrest, he sought the patronage of one of several crime lords who controlled the police. Worth found his upholder in female form bearing the name Marm Mandelbaum.
Fredericka Mandelbaum - known as "Mom" or "Marm" by the criminals she harbored - was, according to laudits in early newspapers, "the greatest crime promoter of all time" and "the most successful fence in the history of New York". Black eyed, corpulent and homely as sin, Marm was also the most beloved lady to grace the era of criminale personae. Operating out of a haberdasher's store that she and her late husband Wolfe had opened as a cover in the Kleine Deutschland district, Marm financed the operations of a range of top thieves - only the best - by underwriting their enterprises and fencing their plunder. She took her percentage off the top, but was generous to her corps of professionals who did the dirty work.
If, perchance, her fraternity fell afoul of the law, she was always here to help them without a hitch. From the estimated $10,000,000 worth of stolen goods she managed each year, she could easily buy the police and politicians. Handling the payoffs were her two brilliant and crooked lawyers, William Howe and Abraham Hummel. And if a case ever made its way all the way to court, a rare thing, these two shysters could find loopholes in loopholes.
Professionals from the all levels of the criminal school paid homage to Marm. Nay, they worshipped her. Because she never acted the goddess nor demanded adulation - only loyalty - she was everthemore a woman deserving of allegiance. Behind her rough exterior was a lady of refinement, entertaining regally in her living quarters over the haberdashery. She doled out sumptuous feasts under iridescent chandelier and held balls under moonlight. Attendees included the nation's most successful underworld figures - as well as lawmakers on the take, and celebrities. Her salon brimmed with furniture and trappings stolen from the city's mansions and best hotels.
At her banquet table sat the cream of the underworld regime, from both sexes, as well as a score of judges, lawyers and policeman who drifted through Marm's back door in masquerade. Usually on hand, dressed in high-society attire, were the likes of "Shang" Draper and "Western George" Leslie, two of the most cunning bandits in New York; glamorous jewel thief "Black Lena" Kleinschmidt; German-born, international burglar and safecracker Max Shinburn, who wore expensive derbies and called himself "The Baron" ever since buying a title of royalty in Monaco; and "Piano Charley" Bullard, a combination of misused talents — former butcher who now cut only into the tenderloins of bank safes, a trained pianist whose nimble fingers could tumble a safe as easily as they could play Chopin's Etudes. His one fault was that he drank too much, but even inebriated, it was said, his digits never failed him, either in profession or in leisure.
It didn't take Adam Worth long to ingratiate himself with these rascals and chanteuses of the night.
"In a profession not noted for its generosity," says Ben Macintyre, "Marm was an exception (promoting many) who might need a helping hand up the criminal ladder." One of these was Adam Worth. Legend claims she met him at one of her lavish soirees, he being an escort to a lady of dubious profession. She found in him a sincerity lacked by the others and in their initial dialogue probably noted a reflection of her own younger self. Both were of the same neo-classic ilk, both avoided violence, both believed in brainpower, both chased the finer material things in life, both sought refinement. Worth became a frequent visitor to Mandelbaum's Haberdashery.
Macintyre muses: "An avid pupil, Worth appears to have found in Marm Mandelbaum an ally and a role model. The easy way she farmed out criminal work to others, her lavish apartments and social graces, were precisely the sort of things he had in mind for himself. Above all, it was perhaps Marm who taught the lessons that being a 'perfect gentleman' and complete crook were not only perfectly compatible but thoroughly rewarding."
Under her tutelage and under the apprenticeship of her master disciples, Worth spent the year 1866 moving away from the soil of the streets and the cheap-shot little jobs they offered into the larger avenues of bank and store robbery, the paths he wished to follow. But, unlike so many of even the skilled thieves who became sculptures really fashioned by the hands of other craftsmen, Worth was fast becoming an artist unto himself. His teachers noticed his creativity, his discontent with normal procedures, his drive to improve old-fashioned methods to grab the plunder more easily and safer for all involved. And they observed his quick wit, his elan, his 24-hour-a-day, untiring, never- satiated obsession for total success. Marm Mandelbaum was proud of him.
Eventually, Worth graduated to higher things, performing jobs for Marm directly or merely practicing his learned skills for his own enterprise within and outside of New York City. For a time, he employed his brother, John, whom he found inept of criminal smarts and was, therefore, glad when the latter decided to return to a more mundane profession. Throughout the latter half of the 1860s, Worth architected several dozen after-hours robberies, emptying bank's vaults and lightening jewelry counters of their stones. On a visit to his hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, he lifted $20,000 worth of bonds from an insurance company.
He enjoyed living on the edge. Once, when slipping through the front door of a Boston jewelry shop after a robbery, his pockets bulging with precious gems, he found himself face to face with the local beat patrolman. Without a blink, he smiled, saluted the officer and went about the business of a store owner locking up his own shop for the night - exchanging pleasantries with the policeman the entire time.
When Piano Charley Bullard got himself arrested by the Pinkerton Detectives after helping himself to a $100,000 shipment from the Hudson River Railway Express on May 4, 1869, Marm missed his piano concerts which would routinely accompany her parties. She summoned the two men who, if anyone could, could get Piano Charley out of White Plains (New York) Jail where he was awaiting trial. They were Adam Worth and "The Baron" Shinburn.
Marm wasn't disappointed. Correspondences were secreted between the inmate and his rescuers, a tunnel was quickly dug under a jailhouse wall, and, at rendezvous, Bullard, grinning and chuckling, ran into the embrace of his two comrades in the very shadows of the slammer. Sentries on the wall, either paid off or extremely incompetent, missed the whole play.
Worth and Bullard became staunch friends from that moment and decided to go into business together. While there was no outward sign of contention between them and "Baron" Shinburn, they didn't invite him to come along - simply, they didn't like him; he was, despite his aristocratic dreams, loud, a braggart and dealt a better-than-thou attitude so crisply. Whether this caused a resentment no one knows, but Shinburn would spend the remainder of his life trying to outdo - but never exceeding - the successes of Adam Worth.
The new team of Worth-Bullard went straight to work. They chose Boston as their first "hit" since it was wise to remain aloof of New York where the law was scouring for its escaped prisoner. On the corner of Boylston and Washington streets stood the imposing columns of the Boylston National Bank, an edifice Worth remembered from childhood and a landmark in contrast to his moneyless childhood. Worth was not a vindictive man, but when he robbed that bank he did so with more than his usual touch of emotion - not with revenge against a prejudiced youth, but with a reassurance that his time was, finally, coming. The Boylston Bank job was Worth's crowning achievement to date.
And it was ingenious. "Posing as William A. Judson & Co., dealers in health tonics, the partners rented the building adjacent to the bank and erected a partition across the window on which were displayed some two hundred bottles, containing, according to the labels mucilaged thereon, quantities of 'Gray's Oriental Tonic,'" explains Macintyre. "Quite what was in Gray's Oriental Tonic has never been revealed, since not a single bottle was ever sold...After carefully calculating the point where the shop wall joined the bank's steel safe, the robbers began digging. (They) piled the debris into the back of the shop, until finally the lining of the vault lay exposed."
After the bank closed on Saturday, November 20, 1869, the final operation commenced. Inch-thick bits bore a succession of holes drilled side by side until a circle - large enough through which a man might crawl — was created. Hammers, wrenches and jimmies completed the task, prying the cut-out section off the vault. Worth wiggled through the opening and, by candlelight over the next few hours, undisturbed, handed to Bullard one million dollars in cash and securities. Not long after dawn Sunday, the thieves had already deposited their loot in steamer trunks and had shipped off with them to New York.
Boston was shocked at the crime, but praised the criminals' boldness and cleverness. The Boston Globe went so far as to hint admiration at the thieves "of no ordinary ability". But, the board of bankers was less impressed and called in the national Pinkerton Detective Agency to run down the crooks. Begun by Scottish-born Allan J. Pinkerton during the Civil War, these detectives were, according to Alan Axelrod in The War Between the Spies, "the world's first 'private eyes'...that served as the historical model for what in time would become the Federal Bureau of Investigation."
It didn't take long for Pinkerton operatives to track the shipment of trunks from the bogus storefront to New York through the steerage company that handled the cargo. Worth didn't want Marm involved because he knew the property he held was too hot, and that the Pinkertons were known for hanging on suspects relentlessly. Marm could not afford detectives hovering over her place of business day and night. Rumor mill among the New York underworld was that Worth had been the one who invaded the Boylston Bank, and investigators were giving everyone the third degree; it was only a matter of time, Worth figured, before someone would crack under pressure.
There was one recourse. Handing the security bonds to lawyers Hummel and Howe to dispose of through underground financiers, Worth and his musical buddy grabbed the S.S. Indiana bound for Europe.