Adam Worth: The World in his Pocket
Of Tattlers and Diamonds
"All the things I like to do are either illegal, immoral or fattening."
Over the next several months, Adam ruminated. He had told his helpers that, after a sensitive waiting period, he would attempt to sell the painting but that had been before he realized the Duchess of Devonshire's aesthetic value. Now here he was - caught between practicality (he needed money since the bribery of Turkish officials had exhausted his bank account) and a romantic soul that seemed to have been waiting for indulgence. At 35 years old, he knew enough not to be cornered by a pretty face on canvas, but maturity and intelligence aside, he found himself unable to let go of what she symbolized. She was tranquility in his life, a cornucopia of self-satisfaction, a reward for many hard years of labor and fretting. She was all this, and demure, elegant, erotic. She was his paragon. She was his.
Under an alias of Edward A. Chattrell, Worth made a few half-hearted attempts to make contact with art dealer Thomas Agnew, but really did not know why...maybe to please his accomplices who hungered for their share. Across London, Agnew was hysterical. Unbeknownst to Worth and the rest of the world, Agnew had opted to re-sell the painting for a profit to millionaire financiers Junius Spencer Morgan and his son J. Pierpont Morgan, whose lineage stretched back, although thinly, to Lady Spencer. Having discovered that Georgiana was a relative, Morgan coveted the monument.
Worth displayed no real drive to sell the portrait. And Junka Phillips and Little Joe were tearing at the seams. Their boss attempted on several occasions to placate them with cold cash, but when they spent it - which both did immoderately - they were back pecking at Worth's heels. When he refused to give them more, both "friends" tried to betray him.
One evening, not long after the heist at the art gallery, Junka invited Adam Worth for a leisurely ale at the Criterion Bar, a drinking establishment near Picadilly Circus. Worth thought at the outset that something was odd. Junka was never one for social graces nor a habitue of the Criterion, a meeting place of the literati. When they arrived, Worth observed a man in bowler seated in the booth beside the one that Junka chose; the stranger sat alone and obviously craning to hear every word they spoke. The attentive one had policeman written all over him. What's more, Junka was none-too-subtly attempting to draw Worth into a conversation about the night they stole the Duchess of Devonshire. Clearly, Junka was selling him out. For the first and last time in his criminal career, Worth resorted to violence. Though a much smaller man than the behemoth, the Napoleon of crooks turned wrestler and vaulted over the table to tar the stunned Junka. Leaving the latter gasping on the floor, soaked and sore, Worth tipped his hat to the spy across the way and sauntered outside. He and Junka would never associate again.
Joe Elliott was getting the yen to return to actress sweetheart Kate Castleton, whom he had deserted a year earlier, and demanded that Worth dish out for the passage. To avoid another such confrontation as the one with Junka, Worth relented.
Once in New York, Elliot paid a brief visit to his love, but paid more attention to the money vaults at the Union Trust Company. Arrested, he was tried and sentenced to seven years in The Tombs, a castellated lockup for felons. Feeling that he wouldn't be in this position if Worth had coughed up his share of the Gainsborough, Little Joe squealed loud and clear to the Pinkertons. William Pinkerton in turn notified Scotland Yard. But, because Elliott could not substantiate his accusations by telling them exactly where Worth hid the portrait, his demonstrations were merely that. The Pinkertons and the Yard had already known for some time that Adam Worth was the thief - Elliott's news had not been a revelation. The robbery bore all the characteristics of the gentleman bandit. But, until the painting could be traced and directly linked to him, the police could do nothing.
Worth remained cognizant that he might be sitting on dynamite. He knew that it could be a matter of time before his places - West Lodge in the Common and his Picadilly apartment - were raided. Since the night he brought the Duchess home, he had been continually shifting her to various hiding places in his mansion; the artwork spent a lot of time beneath his mattress and in his attic. Whether he traveled overseas or on a one-day gadabout outside London, the Gainsborough went with him, concealed in a specially made Saratoga trunk with a false bottom. It also accompanied him on several criminal forays meant to replenish his bank account since the loyal but fund-draining Turkey debacle. One of these was in Paris when he and two crooks named Captain George and William Megotti broke into the money car on the Calais Express, garnering 700,000 francs' worth of Spanish and Egyptian bonds.
As the 1870s rolled to an end and his gang slowly evaporated, either because its members returned to their respective countries or because they were arrested while performing crimes apart from the Worth circle, the duchess' owner realized that perhaps he and the Gainsborough should vacate Londontowne for a long holiday.
He chose as his destination Cape Town, South Africa. The trip was actually intended to be (as Worth later admitted) more business than pleasure. He wanted to see first-hand the area's diamond fields that acquaintances had told him about. "Having surveyed the criminal landscape (there), he concluded that uncut diamonds represented an excellent, portable, and easily exchangeable form of cash. As an accomplice, he brought along one Charley King, described by the Pinkertons as 'a noted English crook,'" relates Ben Macintyre in The Napoleon of Crime. "The diamond fields...had already proved a magnet for a diverse mixture of visionaries and vagabonds...Two more crooks in the multitude would not stand out, and with diamonds being hauled out of the earth at a prodigious rate, the thieving opportunities were tremendous."
Not one to soil his hands digging, but to reap the profits afterward, Worth took note of how the diamonds in the rough were carried by horse-drawn wagons over rough terrain from the mines near Cape Town to Port Elizabeth on the coast. There, they were loaded upon steamers bound for Europe. Each convoy was guarded by a small band of armed Boers with repeating rifles. Worth and King attempted to hold up one of these wagon trains, western-style, on a mountain road. But, the Boers were not ones to throw down their carbines; the bandits retreated empty handed and within inches of their lives. King continued to run long after Worth slowed down
Bereft of his quivering partner, but not discouraged, Worth acted alone. This time he would act in a gentleman's manner, the way to which he was accustomed. His brain slid into gear. Striking up a conversation with some of the cargo folks in town the men who loaded the diamonds he learned that the teamsters hauling the gems were often stalled because of bad weather and rising waters along the hilly topography. If the express cargo missed the steamer at Port Elizabeth, the diamonds were deposited in the safe at the town post office and held in the vault until the arrival of the next freighter. Worth had a brainstorm and rushed to Port Elizabeth.
There, in disguise of a feather merchant, he befriended the elderly postmaster. Turning on charm, he would stop by the office daily and play chess with the lonely old man until he worked up such confidence that he was allowed to wander practically throughout the station. At one point, when the postmaster left his counter to retrieve a customer's package from the back room, Worth pocketed the vault key, had a wax impression made, and returned it before the old fellow noticed their absence.
All he had to do now was make sure the next scheduled shipment of diamonds would miss the boat. That was the easiest part: He rode horseback to the ferry crossing several miles east of Port Elizabeth and, arriving there a few hours before the coming convoy, simply slashed the rope that secured the flatboat, allowing it to drift downstream. The express was delayed eight hours and its cargo had to be unloaded for safekeeping in the post office that night.
When the freight men turned out at the safe the next morning, they found its door open and the gems $500,000 worth of them - gone to oblivion.