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crime

Stealing the Duchess of Devonshire

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Gainsborough's the Duchess of Devonshire
Gainsborough’s the Duchess of Devonshire

For a large part of the late 19th century, one man confounded, outwitted, and bemused the police forces of multiple continents: Adam Worth (1844-1902). So difficult was it to catch him red-handed, so wily were his swindles, and so brazen were his thefts that Scotland Yard called him the “Napoleon of Crime.” His greatest and most famous theft of all was that of Gainsborough’s portrait of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire in 1876. Worth, who was born to Jewish parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts, worked his way up from a bounty jumper during the Civil War (bounty jumpers were those who joined the Army and then deserted with their enlistment bounties), to bank robber, to gambling saloon owner, and finally to jewel and art thief. With his dapper good looks and excellent manners, Worth even managed to infiltrate English high society for a brief period–though of course he used his position to rob his esteemed and flattered aristocratic friends.


Adam Worth
Adam Worth

In 1875, several members of Worth’s band were arrested at Smyrna, in Asia Minor, on a charge of uttering forged notes. Among the members thus captured were Joe Chapman, Charles Becker and Joe Elliot, all American thieves, who had followed the reluctant Worth into his exile. Always obsessed by the fear of a captured confederate turning State’s evidence, Worth, as he never failed to do in similar cases, moved heaven and earth in his efforts to secure their release from the Turkish prison into which they had been cast. Finally, though it cost him almost the whole of his remaining fortune, Worth succeeded in bribing the jailer and the thieves escaped. They came back to join Worth in London, and there resumed their old business of forging bank paper.

One of them was arrested in Paris on complaint of a swindled bank and was extradited to London, where it again became the first duty of Worth to get the man out of the clutches of the law. But English authorities are of quite a different type from those who rule the prisons of the sultan, and Worth knew the futility of attempting bribes. Moreover he had no money, even if bribery had been possible. It became necessary in some way to secure the release of his confederate under heavy bonds. Then he could cut and run, leaving the bondsman to pay the forfeit. But how should a professional criminal, without funds or friends, secure the signature of a man who would be willing to take the risk and whose responsibility would be accepted by the sharp-eyed English courts?

In his flush days, Adam Worth—then as always a lover of the fine arts and something of a connoisseur—had often visited the galleries of the Messrs. Agnew & Co., for many years one of the leading art dealers in London. He had seen hanging on the walls of their galleries a portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire, by Gainsborough, the famous English artist. He knew that the painting was a famous one and was valued by its owners at fifty thousand dollars.

To the cunning mind of Worth, evolving plan after plan for securing a bondsman for his trapped confederate, finally came the idea of stealing this noted canvas from its frame and using it as a lever for getting the necessary signature. His resources were exhausted, his confederates in hiding, his need was instant. He was, in fact, desperate, and he hailed the idea of stealing the masterpiece as an inspiration.

Contrary to his invariable rule, Worth decided to take an active part himself in the actual robbery. It may well have been that his boldest lieutenants were frightened by the sheer audacity of Worth’s plan. At any rate, one dark and rainy night, when a fog fell down over the streets of London, Adam Worth and one confederate, a gigantic thief named Philipps, started out from their lodgings to commit the theft. They crept down Bond Street in the dark, waited until the policeman on the beat had passed them by, then Philipps made a ladder of his broad back and the dapper little Worth climbed up until he was able to reach the stone coping which ran around the front of the gallery. From this, as a standing place, Worth was able to reach a second story window, the sash of which he pried up with a jimmy. Once inside it took him less than a minute to reach the Gainsborough picture, the location of which he had clearly in mind. Lighting a single match to make sure of his prize, he quickly ran a sharp knife through the canvas, close to the edge of the frame, and in an instant the treasured masterpiece was rolled in a tight cylinder, wrapped in a sheet of paper and hidden away under Worth’s coat.

Listening for a moment for a possible signal from Philipps on the outside, Worth quickly mounted to the window and jumped lightly from the coping to the ground.

The negotiations through which Worth hoped to obtain a bondsman for his captured confederate,—using the stolen picture as a lever,—came to nothing. Their only result was to make it fairly certain that the missing Gainsborough was in Worth’s possession. He being an American thief, the Pinkertons were called in to secure, if possible, the return of the picture. They made immediate efforts towards that end, but it was not until twenty-six years later that William A. Pinkerton personally secured the precious bit of canvas in Chicago and turned it over to the representative of the Messrs. Agnew, who had crossed the ocean for the purpose of receiving it.

During the quarter of a century which elapsed between the theft of the picture and its return, it was always in the custody of Worth or hidden away where he alone knew its location. Many times Phillips, who assisted in robbing the Agnew gallery, forced Worth to pay him money under threats of exposure. Once, indeed, he actually told the people most interested, that Worth had stolen the picture, and still had it in his possession. But the crafty Worth had never revealed to anyone the hiding place of the masterpiece, and the employers of the Pinkertons were less anxious to punish the robber than to recover their lost and extremely valuable property. So for some years negotiations went on, Worth using his possession of the Gainsborough picture as a shield against punishment for other crimes.

Finally Pat Sheedy, of international notoriety as a gambler, who had known Worth for years, came to the Pinkertons endowed with all the powers of an ambassador to negotiate terms for the return of the painting. Such terms were finally arranged,— though never made public,—and, at a hotel in Chicago, before the wondering and delighted eyes of the Agnews’ representative, Sheedy finally produced a little metal cylinder, within which was enclosed the canvas, rolled up as it had been on the night of the theft, and none the worse for its long confinement in such narrow space.

Meanwhile, during these long, drawnout negotiations, Worth continued his career of crime. He introduced the American railroad train “hold-up” into South Africa, and succeeded in stealing nearly a million dollars’ worth of diamonds in this way. Then he purchased a steam yacht, and cruised for a time in the Mediterranean, hoping thus to evade the constant demands of his confederates, who hounded him continually with demands for “hush money.” But even a steam yacht did not prove a safe refuge for the King of Criminals. He was forced to sell his “floating palace,” and to engage again in robbery and swindling operations. In Belgium, while attempting the robbery of a mail wagon, he was captured, and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment.

–“Greatest Detective Agency in the World,” The Strand (1905)

Read more about the extraordinary life of Adam Worth in The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief by Ben Macintyre

Sin and Scandal: The de Saulles Murder Case

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Blanca de Saulles
Bain News Service, publisher. – Mrs. J.L. DeSavlles, Blanca Errázuriz – [between ca. 1910 and ca. 1915]

I stumbled across a mention of this murder while writing up Tuesday’s post on jazz and jazz musicians in interwar Britain, and had to do some digging! I turned up a plethora of New York Times articles–which, incidentally, made up the bulk of the Wikipedia pages for Blanca and John. The furor surrounding this murder case reminds of the trial of Madame Henriette Caillaux, which dominated newspapers right up to the declaration of war in 1914.


The 1906 murder of architect Stanford White by Harry Thaw was characterized as the Crime of the Century, but eleven years later, American society was gripped by yet another crime passionnel–the shooting of former Yale football star and playboy, John de Saulle, by his ex-wife Blanca (née Errázuriz). Blanca, a Chilean aristocrat and heiress, married de Saulles, who was sixteen years her senior, in 1911. Their marriage broke down after the birth of one child, a son named John de Saulles, Jr., and Blanca obtained her divorce with a testimony of her husband’s adultery from one Rodolfo Alfonzo Raffaele Pierre Philbert Gugliemi (the future Rudolph Valentino), a taxi dancer who obtained fame in New York circles for his sensuous tango moves.

The divorce was bitter, and the custody battle over their young son even bitterer. Blanca, furious over her ex-husband’s refusal to acknowledge their joint custody, took matters into her own hands in early August of 1917.

From the New York Times article (August 4, 1917):

Mrs. Blanca de Saulles shot and killed her former husband, John Longer de Saulles, ex-captain of Yale’s football team and society man, on the porch of his country home, “The Box,” in Meadow Brook Colony, near Westbury, Long Island, at 10 o’clock last night. About an hour later Constable Thorn found the woman, who is a Chilean heiress, 23 years old and famous for her beauty, hiding behind a hedge in the tear of the house. With her was her maid, Susanna Monteau. When he arrested her, Mrs. de Saulles exclaimed:

“I killed him and I am glad I did it. He refused to give me my child, although he was ordered by the court to do so on the first of July. He has refused again and again since then to let me have the boy.”

Mrs. de Saulles […] drove her own touring car from her home at Roslyn, Long Island, with her maid, walked up to the porch on which her husband was sitting, presented a revolver at his head and demanded that he should give up the child instantly. De Saulles either sought to parley with her or to disarm her, and a few seconds later she fired five shots at him….he was taken to the Nassau County Hospital, where he died at 10:20.

The murder trial of a wealthy and beautiful socialite was so sensational, it even pushed news of the war off the front pages. Blanca was represented by the formidable Henry Uterhart, who used the testimony of her personal maid of John de Saulles infidelities and abuse to excellent use. Blanca was acquitted of murder on December 1, 1917, after the jury deliberated for one hour and forty-three minutes, to much hurrah–though an op-ed in The Independent, titled “ARE WOMEN ABOVE THE LAW?” showed not all were pleased by the verdict:

It has come to this. The trial of a woman for murder or for almost any serious offense in the United States has become a disgraceful farce and a waste of public money. If the American people have no intention of holding women accountable before the law, why not say so and be done with it, and amend the statutes accordingly? Let it be understood that the only crime or sin that a woman can commit is to dress unmodishly or unbecomingly, and we shall know what to expect.

Still, we do not think it right to drop the matter at this point. There is an intellectual as well as a moral problem here which ought to be put into clear terms. The American people have fallen into wretchedly loose thinking on everything that concerns misconduct. We palliate it, we seek excuses for it, we explain it as proceeding from bad environment, intolerable provocation, misfortune, anything and everything except the one outstanding and dominating thing, namely, failure of self-control.

Failure of self-control it is, and this fact carries the problem back to our education and our mores. We teach smatterings of languages and of sciences, we pretend to teach vocations, we miserably fail to teach self-control. Neglect begins in the family, it is fostered by an anarchistic educational philosophy, it is defended as an inalienable right, or as a duty even, by all the revolutionaries who insist that the way to develop children into intellectual and moral prodigies and “democratic” citizens is to let them go on the loose. Discipline of any kind is tabooed as medieval and reactionary.

Boys and men are seriously harmed by this educational program, girls and women are in too many instances ruined by it. Happily, boys and men as a rule get enough hard knocks in the struggle for existence to acquire some things that formal education has omitted. The girls and women, who are finding their way into self-supporting activities, also acquire, as men do, habits of disciplined action and self-control. But for those who have little to do beyond amusing themselves and seeking their own gratification, the educational failure is fatal. They begin life as spoiled babies, they are told by everybody that they are sweet and altogether wonderful, they are indulged without restraint, they are permitted to get and to have their way by resorting to “tantrums,” they develop pronounced tendencies toward emotional ebullition and hysteria in adolescence, and by the time they are of marriageable age they are well equipt to make life hell for any man who is a big enough idiot to make love to them. The next chapter is soon written. If the husbands are patient hard-working “boobs,” faithful and uncomplaining, they learn to get their happiness out of their work and their companionships with men. If a husband is himself uncontrolled or dissolute, there is a story of unfaithfulness, the wife gets a gun, shoots up the offender, is put on trial for her life, calls in the insanity experts, gets newspaper headlines and portraits, and is triumphantly acquitted.

And the psychology that runs thru all this disgraceful business runs thru our attitude toward all women who seek to attain their ends by the “tantrum” method. This is the short and ugly, but strictly scientific description, for example, of the methods employed by the militant suffragettes, the White House picketers and the hunger-strikers.

It is because The Independent has fearlessly and consistently stood for the rights and opportunities of women, including the right of suffrage, that it feels called upon in the present crisis—for a crisis it is—to use these harsh words. Women must have every educational, industrial and professional opportunity. They must have the right to vote and to hold office. But with these rights they must accept responsibilities and acknowledge the imperative obligation of self-control. They must set their faces against the “tantrum” method and insist, with all good citizens of the other sex, that neither women nor men are above the law.

In the aftermath of her acquittal, Blanca escaped to San Francisco, and later Japan, with her son, then into a second marriage and divorce, and lived in relative obscurity until her death in 1940. And with her went this appalling scandal, which briefly distracted Americans from the war raging in Europe.

The Organization of Scotland Yard

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Scotland Yard, 1911
Scotland Yard, from 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica – Wikimedia Commons

The great deterrent against crime is not vindictive punishment; the more certain you make detection, the less severe your punishment may be. The brilliant sleuth-hound work of which we read so often is a less important factor in police work than organisation. Organisation it is which holds the peace of London. It is organisation that plucks the murderer from his fancied security at the ends of the earth, that prevents the drunkard from making himself a nuisance to the public, that prevents the defective motor-bus from becoming a danger or an annoyance to the community.

Inside the building of red brick and grey stone that faces the river, and a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament, there are men who sit planning, planning, planning. The problems of the peace of London change from day to day, from hour to hour, almost from minute to minute. Every emergency must be met, instantly, as it arises—often by diplomacy, sometimes by force. A hundred men must be thrown here, a thousand there, and trained detectives picked for special work. With swift, smooth precision, the well-oiled machinery works, and we, who only see the results, never guess at the disaster that might have befallen if a sudden strain had thrown things out of gear.

In the tangle of departments and sub-departments, bewildering to the casual observer, there is an elastic order which welds the whole together. Not a man but knows his work. The top-notch of efficiency is good enough for Scotland Yard. Its men are engaged in business pure and simple, not in making shrewd detective deductions. The lime-light which occasionally bursts upon them distorts their ways and their duties. Really, they have little love for the dramatic. Newspaper notoriety is not sought, and men cannot “work the Press,” as in times gone by, to attain a fictitious reputation.

It is through well-chosen lieutenants that Sir Edward Henry works. There are four Assistant-Commissioners upon each of whom special work devolves. Sir Frederick Wodehouse, for instance, is the “Administrative Assistant-Commissioner.” He deals with all matters relating to discipline, promotion, and routine so far as the uniformed force is concerned.

The Criminal Investigation Department is under Mr. Basil Thompson, a comparatively young man who came from the Prison Commission to succeed Sir Melville Macnaghten, and who has successfully experimented with some new ideas to make the path of the criminal more difficult. Mr. Frank Elliott, who was formerly at the Home Office, holds sway over the Public Carriage Office; and the Hon. F. T. Bigham, a barrister—and a son of Lord Mersey, who gained his experience as a Chief Constable of the Criminal Investigation Department—deals with and investigates the innumerable complaints and enquiries that would occur even in a police force manned by archangels. Mr. Bigham is also the Central Authority under the terms of the international agreement for the suppression of the white slave traffic.

There are six Chief Constables, mostly ex-military officers. One of these assists in the administration of the Criminal Investigation Department, the remainder control districts of four or five adjoining divisions. To adopt a military simile, they may be compared to major-generals in command of brigades, with each division representing a battalion, and the superintendents, colonels.

Only once in the whole history of the Metropolitan Police has a man risen from the ranks to the post of Chief Constable, though many, like Mr. Gentle at Brighton, and Mr. Williams at Cardiff, have become the heads of important provincial forces. The post of superintendent in London is at least equivalent in its responsibilities to the average chief-constableship of the provinces. There are metropolitan section sergeants who have as many men under their control as some chief constables of small boroughs.

The unit of the Metropolitan Police is a division which averages about a thousand men. Each is under a superintendent, with a chief-inspector as second in command. Thereafter the ranks run:

scotland yard organization

These are distributed among close on two hundred police stations in the metropolis, and in twenty-two divisions. Some are detailed for the special work with which London as London has nothing to do. Thus there are: the King’s Household Police; divisions guarding the dockyards and military stations at Woolwich, Portsmouth, Devonport, Chatham, and Pembroke; detachments on special duty at the Admiralty and War Office and the Houses of Parliament and Government Departments; and men specially employed, as at the Royal Academy, the Army and Navy Stores, and so on. In all, there are 1,932 men so engaged. Their services are charged for by the Receiver, and the cost does not fall upon the ratepayers.

Scotland Yard is run on the lines of a big business. To the intimate observer it is strangely similar in many of its aspects to a great newspaper office, with its diverse and highly specialised duties all tending to one common end. The headquarters staff is a big one. There are superintendents in charge of the departments, men whom no emergency can ruffle—calm, methodical and alert, ready to act in the time one can make a telephone call.

There are McCarthy, of the Central Criminal Investigation Department; Quinn, of the Special Branch which concerns itself with political offences and the care of Royalty; Bassom, of the Public Carriage Department; Gooding, of the Peel House Training School; West and White, of the Executive and Statistical Departments.

Nothing but fine, careful organisation could weld together these multitudinous departments with their myriad duties. It is an organisation more difficult to handle than that of any army in the field. The public takes it all for granted until something goes wrong, some weak link in the chain fails. Then there is trouble.

The Metropolitan Police is the only force in England which is independent of local control. The Commissioner—often wrongly described as the Chief Commissioner—is appointed by the Crown on the recommendation of the Home Secretary, and has wide, almost autocratic powers. It is an Imperial force which has duties apart from the care of London. It has divisions at the great dockyards; it is the adviser and helper of multifarious smaller zones in case of difficulty. It has charge of the river from Dartford Creek to Teddington, and its confines extend far beyond the boundaries of the London County Council.

In one year its printing and stationery bill alone amounts to over £10,000; its postage, telegrams, and telephone charges to another £13,000. Its gross cost is nearly three millions a year. That is the insurance paid for the keeping of the peace. What do we get for it?

We have taught the world that a body of police can be none the less efficient although their hands are clean; that honesty is not necessarily a synonym for stupidity; that law and order can be enforced without brutality. There are no agents provocateur in the London police, and the grafter has little opportunity to exercise his talent.

In one year 17,910 indictable offences were committed within the boundaries of the Metropolitan Police district. For these 14,525 people were proceeded against, and as some of them were probably responsible for two or more of the offences the margin of those who escaped is very low. There were 178,495 minor offenders, all of whom were dealt with.

The machinery of Scotland Yard misses little. How many crimes have been prevented by the knowledge of swift and almost inevitable punishment it is impossible to say, but they have been many.

Scotland Yard: The Methods and Organisation of the Metropolitan Police (1915)

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