Adam Worth: The World in his Pocket
"London is such a wonderful sight... With people there moving all day and all night..."
—The Mountains of Mourne (Anonymous)
In Paris, Worth had experienced a strong taste of respectability, if not actual, then in pretense. He enjoyed it. He loved being the respected businessman, the connoisseur of fine wines, the aristocrat, the gentleman. And he planned to carry that mien to London, the center of all that was refined and fluent. If his gains were ill-gotten, to him they were merely the plunder of one sharper brain over another, mirroring what that professor named Charles Darwin was writing about in all his latest scientific texts, what he had termed so accurately "survival of the fittest". But, Worth, in his estimation, had taken the cycle a level higher onto a more civilized plateau. His own successes were not the result of clawing and gaming as animals in a jungle fight for the larger share of meat; he stole from those who could afford it, inflicting no wounds on the innocent nor the unprepared. He was, he said, comparable to the greatest country in the world to which he was redeploying his art, Great Britain. She had lost territories and won territories, fighting always in honor, accepting defeats with humility, parading its gains with as much pomp and circumstance as the sheen on the surface of its crown jewels in London Tower.
That was the Empire under Queen Victoria. And London was its hub, its treasure trove. Paris had been a prism of colors, London was grey and black and white, seeming to hang untenanted on its own fog, uplifted by an airy breath of majesty, but stable — oh, so stable! — nonetheless. Sturdy in its age and as forever as the Merlyn who defined it and as traditional as the Arthur of Camelot who shaped it. New thoughts persisted all the same in the minds of new writers like Stevenson and Thackeray and Tennyson, and in the minds of Oxford chaps like Oscar Wilde, but the new visions didn't topple the ideal, as in Paris, but challenged it in rhetoric and in verse, as Dickens had triumphed the plight of the poor a decade earlier with A Christmas Carol.
London was mystical. It preferred shadows to sunlight, whether to masquerade the decay of slums in Cheapside and Billingsgate, or to blanket the secrets caught lopsided between old-fashioned morals preached from the pulpit of St. Paul's Cathedral and the new morality, or merely to keep itself wrapped in a reserved bubble where earthen colors kept the diorama serene. It was a world of crinoline gowns with wrist-fans and cravats with silver-knobbed canes that blended on the same avenues with ragged poplins and workman's wrinkly whites. It emanated cobblestones and gaslight, and cross-pane windows and cross-stitched dormers over Elizabethan eaves, inch-thick window panes mirrored the glow of a ruddy British sunset and a rainy gray morning. London's landscape brought narrow mews and dark green parks with ancient oaks and chalk-colored domes and black spires and slanted rooftops with chimneys all askew. In sunlight one might hear the clatter of carriage teams, call of the costermonger, tinkle of the muffin cart, whistle of the British "bobby" and the sacred toll of churches announcing hours, both holy and non. At night, there was very little sound, every echo cushioned on the pad of the fog.
Worth found in London what he had traveled halfway around the globe to find, a breeding spot of culture where a smart crook could be a man about town and a rogue simultaneously, where the police had little dossier on him. To London some of the best of America's crooks had migrated ahead of the law, waiting for a new Marm Mandelbaum-like personae to lead them into temptation.
If Worth planned to be the pirate captain of these land-docked buccaneers, he knew he must begin acting more like a prosperous captain, worthy of imitation and esteem. One of the first things he did when reaching London was to purchase a capacious estate for himself, Bullard and Kitty called West Lodge, located just south of the city in Clapham Common. Set back from the streets, the manor house was an imposing red-brick two-story structure built early in the century by tallow shipper Richard Thornton and later occupied by a Member of Parliament. Worth filled his temple with expensive furniture, oil paintings, bric-a-brac, antiques and rare books, some of these items remnants of the American Bar. The huge ornate mirror that had hung behind the bar in Paris now hung in the central parlor, reflecting the hearth fire across the room, radiating a warming, amber glow across the entire mahogany chamber. On the grounds of the Common were his own private tennis court, shooting gallery and bowling green.
Worth's residence might well have been described by a Victorian novelist whose description of a fine British estate is printed in Life in Victorian England by W.J. Reader: Of it, she wrote, "An ivy-mantled lodge with curley chimney stacks stood immediately within (an ancient gateway); and beyond, sloping gently upward for a mile or more, a straight, grassed drive between thick woods..."
Worth also leased an apartment in London's most fashionable district, Mayfair, at Number 198 Picadilly. It was from this flat that he planned to conduct most of his criminal business. He was not naïve; he knew that Pinkerton's men would trace his whereabouts in no time and that Scotland Yard, Britain's constabulary, would begin dogging his tails. The more he could keep prying policemen from his social doorstep, the better it would be for his reputation as a man of high integrity among his neighbors at the Common.
Maintaining the name Henry J. Raymond, he became a student of the arts and social graces, attending Shakespeare at the Lyceum, opera at D'oyly Carte, and concerts at Albert Hall. He read the latest literature, reviewed the music critiques in The Strand and Pall Mall, remained particular on British commerce, conservative in politics, and open to the issues of Parliament and Downing Street. He even attended All Souls Church near Cavendish Square where the swells worshipped. Linens and crystal came from Whiteley's, his boots were made at McGovern's, his suits tailored on Savile Row, the darks for business, the lights for picnicking at Hampstead Heath and racing at Ascot Turf. (He purchased a string of ten racehorses, which he stabled on the grounds of his estate.)
But, maintaining this lifestyle required money. And that's where his pirate horde came in. With his most trusted associates acting as his lieutenants, Worth, according to author Ben Macintyre in The Napoleon of Crime, "would farm out criminal work, usually on a contract basis and through other intermediaries, to selected man (and women) in the London underworld. The crooks who carried out these orders knew only that the orders were passed down from above, that the earnings were good, the planning impeccable and the targets - banks, railway cashiers, private homes of rich individuals, post offices, warehouses - had been selected by a master organizer. What they never knew was the name of the man at the top, or even of those in the middle of Worth's pyramidical command structure." Therefore, if a robbery went awry - say, if a burglar was caught with the goods in his hands or a load of stolen cargo was detained wharf-side — the "little men" carrying out the orders could never divulge, even if they wanted to, the architect of the job. The most they could say is that they were carrying out orders "from on high".
A Pinkerton report, published years later, attests that Worth's scope far outstretched the borders of London, even of England; that his masterful hand reached across the English Channel to the Continent where he "perpetrated every form of theft - check forging, swindling, larceny, safe cracking, diamond robbery, mail robbery, burglary of every degree, 'hold ups' on the road and bank robbery - with complete immunity...(that) he became a clearing house or receiver for most of the big crimes perpetrated in Europe. In the later '70s and all through the '80s, one big robbery followed after another (and that the hand of) Adam Worth could be traced, but not proven, to almost every one of them."
Sometimes, Worth himself would take part in a crime, but rarely. If he did so, it was for the sport of it. Also, rarely, he would confer directly with the men actually doing a job if he thought those men capable of silence. On these occasions, he would leave his house, stop at a railway station and change from his clothes to workman's dungarees before continuing to the vicinities of Soho or Whitechapel; the scheduled parley would enact in the backroom of a rookery; after the conference, Worth would return to the station, don his gentleman's frocks, and hire a conveyance to his doorstep. (It is doubtful he knew Victorian novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, but who more so fits the pattern of Stevenson's anti-hero Dr. Jekyll who was wont to make midnight rendezvous as Mr. Hyde?)
To his credit, Worth never lost the principles he had gone in with, principles that he taught the top gang members - Piano Charley Bullard. Little Joe Elliott, Joseph Chapman, Charles Becker, Carlo Sesicovitch and, for a very brief time, brother John Worth. Violence was strictly forbidden. He would remind his men time and again of what had become somewhat of his motto: "A man with brains has no right to carry firearms. Exercise your brain!"
Nor would Worth tolerate excess of any kind, believing that laxity of the mind comes from excess. Intemperance was condemned. Worth worried that his partner and best friend Bullard was slowly losing himself to the bottle, and had he been any other man than Piano Charley he would have been terminated from the team.
But, while the money poured in there was trouble in paradise. First, a Scotland Yard inspector by the name of John Shore had taken it upon himself to be Adam Worth's personal Javert. A man with a reputation among even his fellow officers as a lout and a braggart, Shore promised to have the American Worth and his vultures in chains in no time - but things didn't work out that way. Worth's men outstepped him at every turn, infuriating him. (Legend claims Worth succeeded in bribing two metropolitan detectives and a barrister to report Shore's movements to him in advance.)
However, Shore did have one brief moment of victory. When Worth's brother John sought out Adam in England hoping for a job, the older brother utilized him to run errands and deliver money for payoffs - simple tasks - for he was aware that his sibling, God bless him, did not possess what it took to be a "good" thief. His presumption was confirmed as fact when, acting against better judgment, he invited John to take part in an international forgery scheme. Scratch Becker had just cashed one of his printed checks (value £3,500) at Westminster Bank in London; now it was up to John to exchange the money to foreign currency before the bank caught its mistake. John was sent to Paris to transform the cash to francs. But, once there, the novice half-wittedly went to the very money-changing merchant his brother had warned him to avoid, Meyer & Company. Meyer had previously fallen prey to the counterfeit ring and this time, its senses sharpened, noticed the fake bill of exchange immediately. John was promptly pinched and extradited to England in the company of Inspector Shore, who reveled at his catch.
It cost Adam Worth a small treasure and long, frustrated hours of legal wrangling to convince a jury that no one had actually seen John cash the check in London; he was exonerated. Worth then cordially gave him a loyal pat on the back, a goodly stipend for his troubles and a one-way ticket on a vessel back to America.
Another near-fatal mishap occurred when Worth's top four men - Little Joe Elliott, Scratch Becker, Joseph Chapman and the Russian Sesicovitch - were arrested in Smyrna, Turkey for passing off bad letters of credit. Becker had reproduced, in his usual exquisite manner, credit notes from bankers Coutts & Co., London. The shady quartet then went on a Continental spree, cashing them willy-nilly throughout remote parts of Europe, crossing borders with alacrity.
"The ruse got off to a good start," Ben Macintyre records. "Some $40,000 had been collected in various cities (until) disaster struck. The foursome was arrested while trying to pass off a particularly large credit letter. They were tried in the British consular court, convicted of forgery, and sentenced to seven years' hard labor in a Constantinople jail. John Shore of Scotland Yard was notified of the arrests and sent the Turkish police complete dossiers on each man; the Pinkertons announced that they planned to extradite the gang to the United States...Worth was beside himself with anxiety."
He then did what had worked before, this time on a larger scale. He bribed the officials. Sailing to Turkey with Lydia Chapman, he offered thousands (the sum has never been revealed, but rumor claims it nearly broke Worth) to jailers, police and judges to set the men free. It worked, and the convicts were suddenly "ejected from prison as suddenly and as violently as they entered it," says Macintyre.
Problems were domestic, too. Bullard's drinking worsened. Because of his inebriation, which was becoming chronic, he and Kitty were drifting apart. They had had two children, Lucy and Katherine, but even his love for them couldn't prompt Bullard to sober. Under the haze of liquor, he would disappear for days on end behind the clap-trap walls of cheap houses and brothels in the East End. Midnight squabbles were par for the course when Bullard teetered back to the Common. Then, after a day's respite, the Piano man would be gone again. Kitty's patience evaporated. Eventually, she discovered that her husband was bigamous; he had married in New York prior to their engagement and his wife had sent detectives worldwide in search of her wandering boy.
That broke it, and she turned Bullard from the bed. Without the prospect of love, her husband left the Lodge for good, this time bound for New York. Kitty, after his departure, puttered in London a while, taking her children shopping and to the theatre, but she was obviously discontent and angered by her luck. Nights, she found at least sexual comfort in Worth. To prove his adoration for Kitty, whom he had always wanted, he bought her a 110-foot yacht and christened it Shamrock in her honor.
But, his bed nor his devotion were not enough to placate the fiery, betrayed Irish lass. Without much notice, and despite Worth's pleas, she packed up her daughters and their belongings and returned to the United States. Nothing he could say would keep her there, with him. At last, he relented, dividing the spoils with her and tossing in an extra dowry because he often wondered if perhaps Katherine and Lucy were really his children, after all.
Adam Worth was heartbroken as he stood in the bay-front window of the Lodge and watched the woman - one for whom he would have given up his fortune for if she had asked - climb into the caleche and close the door beside her. As the buggy wobbled off the grounds, he must have thought that there went the only woman he would ever idolize.
He was wrong.