“Napoleon of Crime” – The Real Mastermind Behind Sherlock Holmes’ Greatest Foe

Taryn Smee
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When Sherlock Holmes first battled Professor James Moriarty in the short story The Final Problem, he faced a criminal mastermind so diabolical that it seemed even Holmes, pushed to the very limits of his powers, would be bested.

Through Holmes, we get a description of the man who would become the greatest nemesis in fiction: “He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson.

He is the organizer of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order.”

Professor Moriarty Stood Before Me. From the Sherlock Holmes story The Final Problem, which appeared in The Strand Magazine in December 1893.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is rumored to have taken inspiration for the character of Moriarty from the real-life “Napoleon of crime,” Adam Worth.

Much of what we know about Worth comes from the archives of the Pinkerton National Detective agency who tailed Worth for decades. Towards the end of his life, Worth sat down with the Pinkertons and recounted his life and crimes.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The story was released upon his death as a pamphlet, the introduction of which ruminates that if “a fiction writer could conceive such a story, he might well hesitate to write it for fear of being accused of using the wildly improbable.”

Born into poverty in 1844, Adam Worth’s German Jewish parents immigrated to Cambridge, Massachusetts when Adam was five years old.

He had a strict upbringing, and in one incident when he was six, he was brutally whipped by his father for falling for a con trick involving swapping a new penny for two old ones.

Adam Worth.

This experience had a profound effect on the young Worth and from that day forward, ”no one, be he friend or foe, honest or dishonest, relative or stranger, ever got the better of Adam Worth in any business transactions, regular or irregular.”

Worth ran away from home at 14 and eventually found himself in New York City, where he attempted to find honest employ as a store clerk.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, 17-year-old Worth was hungry for adventure and in need of the $1,000 sign-up bounty, so he enlisted after lying about his age.

Prof. Moriarty at the Sherlock Holmes Museum, London. Photo by Matt Brown CC BY 2.0

It was the August of 1862 when Worth was injured by shrapnel on the battlefield and hospitalized.

While in recuperation, Worth learned that he had been accidentally listed as “killed in action” and rather than correct the mistake he absconded and began bounty jumping his way through different regiments until the heat got too much.

Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. Ilustration by Sidney Paget to the Sherlock Holmes story The Final Problem by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Worth headed back to New York where he became a successful pickpocket. After a stint in Sing-Sing prison, from which he escaped, he came to work for Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum aka the Godmother of New York syndicated crime.

It was under Marm’s watchful eye that Worth honed his criminal style.

The outlandish robbery of the Boylston National Bank in Boston brought Worth and his accomplice Piano Charley Bullard to the attention of the Pinkerton Detectives. Worth and Bullard managed to escape to Liverpool and began living under what would be the first of many aliases.

Pinkerton guards escort strikebreakers in Buchtel, Ohio, 1884.

While in Liverpool the duo met Kitty Flynn, a sixteen-year-old barmaid who would become the lover and accomplice of both Worth and Bullard.

After a stint in Paris running a wildly successful but very illegal gambling den, Worth moved back to England, and under the guise of a society gentleman built a criminal empire whose web was so intricate that those committing the crimes did not know who was in charge.

Detail of photograph of the 1899 Broadway production of Sherlock Holmes, with George Wessells as Professor Moriarty.

Worth would mastermind each crime and take a 25 percent cut of the profits. He was so successful that “In the latter 70s, and all during the 80s, one big robbery followed another; the fine ‘Italian hand’ of Adam Worth could be traced, but not proven, to almost every one of them.”

This web spanned the course of three decades, touching almost all corners of the earth and featuring a litany of crimes including “check forging, swindling, larceny, safecracking, diamond robbery, mail robbery, burglary of every degree, ‘hold-ups’ on the road and bank robbery” (Pinkerton, 1903) from which Worth had complete immunity.

Perhaps Worth’s most audacious crime was the theft of the painting of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Cavendish by 18th century artist Thomas Gainsborough. At the time it was the most expensive painting on the market. Worth quietly slipped in through a window and with the utmost care, cut it from the frame.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, by Thomas Gainsborough (1787), stolen by Worth in 1876.

The beginning of the end came in 1892 when Worth was finally apprehended and imprisoned in Belgium. While he was locked up his criminal empire disintegrated; he was hounded by his enemies, double-crossed by his associates and his fortune was decimated, but no-one was able to find the Georgiana painting.

Upon his release from prison and looking for a quiet life, Worth contacted the Pinkertons, and a deal was brokered between Worth and the original owners of the Georgiana for its safe return. As part of the agreement, Worth was offered full immunity and was paid $25,000, around $760,360 in today’s money.

Worth passed away after a short illness in 1902, having spent his last years living with his children and corresponding with the Pinkertons who, despite being on different sides of the law, came to deeply respect the man they called “the most remarkable, most successful and most dangerous professional criminal known to modern times.”

Read another story from us: 5 Wacky Alternate Versions of Sherlock Holmes

After Worth’s death, the Pinkertons continued to support Worth’s children and when the children emigrated to America, Worth’s son, Harry, was given a job with the Pinkerton Detective Agency.