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The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief Hardcover – August, 1997

4.2 out of 5 stars 28 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Arthur Conan Doyle fictionalized him as the superhuman Professor Moriarty, and the popular press luridly chronicled his daring heists, though the police never managed to convict him of anything major until he was nearly 50. Forgotten since his 19th-century heyday, master thief Adam Worth (1844-1902) gets a contemporary dusting-off in this cheerfully cynical biography by a British journalist, who sees Worth's story as a case study in Victorian hypocrisy. The colorful New York and London underworlds are as meticulously described as Worth's surprisingly attractive personality.

From Library Journal

The model for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Moriarty, Adam Worth (1844-1902) was one of the greatest thieves of the Victorian era. Macintyre's (Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elizabeth Nietzsche, LJ 10/1/92) entertaining biography traces how the American-born German Jew became the "godfather" of his era, building up a network that stole from banks and the wealthy. His biggest claim to fame was the theft of Thomas Gainsborough's portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire. For a quarter of a century, the obsessed Worth kept the painting. He had such an unusual relationship with the Pinkerton brothers that they acted as intermediaries when Worth returned the painting to its owner, thereby enhancing their detective agency's reputation. Macintyre has done his research well, and his book reads like an exciting detective novel. Providing a rare glimpse of the criminal and social atmosphere during the last part of the 19th century, it is highly recommended.?Michael Sawyer, Clinton P.L., Iowa
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar Straus & Giroux (T); 1st American ed., 1st Farrar, Straus and Giroux ed edition (August 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374218994
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374218997
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #248,988 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A gentleman burglar thumbs his nose at 'impregnable security' in a gallery and steals a priceless portrait of a scandalous woman by literally standing on the shoulders of a giant; then falls in love with the painting and 'elopes' with it for the next twenty years, eventually collecting the award for its return (in disguise) with the help of the detective who first hunted, then befriended, him.
This is the stuff of fiction? No, it all actually happened. Adam Worth was an anomaly even by the standards of his own time (he disdained killing) and preferred to organize teams of cracksmen to maintain his highly organized "web of crime" in London.
It is not surprising to find that Worth was the original of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Moriarty and that he earned the profound respect of his personal Sherlock Holmes, Alan Pinkerton. Worth was a self-made man in a very literal sense, from a poor immigrant German/Jewish background. He reinvented himself as an English gentleman and trained an Irish barmaid, Kitty Flynn, to improve her speech and deportment to pass as a Lady. Flynn eventually married a real sugar daddy and became a 'great lady' in a very literal sense, thereby making Worth and Flynn the originals of Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle as well as of Professor Moriarty and Kitty Winter.
This is a book filled with incredibly colorful characters who specialized in a genteel style of crime. I thank the author for providing information on my favorite New York fence, "Moms" Mandelbaum, and the safecracker "Baron" Max Shinburn (who is immortalized along with his enemy, Worth, in the Sherlock Holmes stories.)By the way, a character very similar to Worth is played magnificently by Sean Connery in THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY.
Truth really is stranger than fiction. I enjoyed this book very much and can highly recommend it to others.
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Format: Hardcover
This book provides a fascinating portrait of one of the last of the gentleman criminals. In fact, Adam Worth wanted to be known solely as a gentleman rather than as a notorious criminal. The crimes were simply his way of gaining power and prestige in a Victorian world where he could never gain this position without buying it. And buy it he did by perpetrating almost every crime imaginable. An honorable thief who was fiercly loyal to his henchmen, Worth was devilishly clever, many times carrying out operations right out in the open without being caught. No wonder Doyle tapped him for Sherlock Holmes' arch-rival and Elliot immortalized him as Macavity, the Mystery Cat. Not bad for a guy who officially "died" in the Civil War at the 2nd Battle of Bull Run (reports of his death were greatly exaggerated--and he used his deceased status for financial gain, thus beginning his very lucrative criminal career).

Much of the book is taken up with his most famous crime, the stealing the "Duchess of Devonshire" by Gainsborough mere weeks after it was sold at the highest price ever paid for a painting up to that time. For a crime that was almost done on a whim, it is the one for which he is most well known and for which he was never caught (he returned the painting 25 years later anonymously).

Two very nice sub-themes run throughout the book. First was his undying love for his best friend's wife, Kitty Flynn. Flynn went on from humble beginnings (and after dropping he thieving hubby) to become a true Victorian lady of note, but Worth never dropped the torch he held for her (he was probably the father of two of her children).

The second was his friendship with William Pinkerton later in life.
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Format: Paperback
A very interesting look at two very complex and enigmatic people; Adam Worth and William Pinkerton. One is a life lived in the shadows, the other a life pursuing people with whom he felt a kindred spirit. There seems to be enough light to shed both interest and information on the subject, yet somehow one still feels unsatisfied, as if there was a great deal more to tell. This is probably due in large measure to the intentional obscurity with which Worth lived his double life and the protection Pinkerton gave his. The psychological analysis of Worth is fascinating, but in making the connection between Worth and Moriarity (as well as the Freudian conclusions about Worth and the painting of the Duchess of Devonshire) the author goes a bit far afield after he has already made his point. This somewhat damages the credibility of his objectivity. Even if the outcome remains the same, the author seems to have invested to much of his ego in his conclusions and strains to prove his points. Overall a fascinating look at a man who probably was the best crook of all time, an interesting example of Victorian hypocrisy turned upside down, and one of strangest frienships next to Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. If the book accomplished one surprising result, it was to send me looking for more information on the Pinkerton family, one of the more interesting and unique families in American history. A genuinely fascinating read conducted with style by the author.
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Format: Paperback
I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, the subject matter is guaranteed to fascinate. Adam Worth was a truly bizarre and unique character who knew and was related to several famous people. The book is also very well-written.

My complaint is that the author often seems not really very interested in his subject, Adam Worth. Large sections of the book--including the beggining and the end--are not about Adam Worth at all. The author seems obsessed with the Gainsborough painting, The Duchess of Devonshire. Admittedly, stealing this painting was perhaps Worth's most famous crime and would certainly have rated a chapter. However, Macintyre drones on and on and on about the painter, the history of the painting, the many people who have owned the painting, wholly unsupported psychological assertions about the painting's affect on Worth. He devotes an entire chapter just to J.P. Morgan, who Worth never met nor stole from. Morgan rates a chapter simply because he was the last owner of the Gainsborough.

This is a basically good book that is fatally flawed by the author's tendency to obsess about what is a peripherial issue. Too bad. If you are an art historian I can recommend this book whole-heartedly. If you are interested in a biography of Adam Worth, I recommend the book only with reservations.
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