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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The (Real) Napoleon of Crime

Most mystery fans and all Sherlockians know that Sherlock Holmes referred to his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, as "the Napoleon of Crime." But before there was Moriarty, the term was applied to master thief Adam Worth.

Recently  I acquired a copy of Ben Macintyre's highly engaging 1997 biography of Worth. It would be well worth reading, even without the chapter called "Alias Moriarty" that draws the connections between the real-life criminal and the fictional one. 

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Moriarty was suggested by Worth than that he was based on him. Worth was no genius mathematician, nor did he look like the famous Sidney Paget illustration of the professor. An American who made most of his ill-gotten gains in England, Worth stood only five-foot-four. I guess it would be no stretch to say that he had a Napoleonic complex!

Macintyre's boook is as much the story of a duchess and a detective as it is the story of thief and organizer of thieves who stole on a grand scale, lived a life of conspicuous consumption, and died nearly broke.

Worth's signature crime was the theft of a famous Gainsborough painting, The Duchess of Devonshire. He lived with the painting for 25 years, taking it back and forth across the ocean a number of times. In a sense, the Duchess was the love his life. He only gave her up near the end.

William Pinkerton, head of the famous American private eye agency, pursued Worth all that time. But in the end, they became close friends and exchanged a series of letters that can only be called touching. Pinkerton helped Worth broker the sale of the painting and watched out for Worth's children after he died of numerous diseases related to dissolute living.

The"Alias Moriarty" chapter of the book is rather thin, but no matter. This is still a fascinating yarn, much of it culled from the private archives of the Pinkerton agency.

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