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The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief

Author: Ben Macintyre
Date: 1997
ISBN: 0-385-31993-2
Recommended: No

This book is a fairly detailed chronicle of the life of Adam Worth who was regarded as the master criminal of the latter half of the 19th century. Based on extant manuscripts by various criminals along with massive documentation from the archives of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, the author has produced an entertaining account of the subject.

Worth lived as a gentleman and socialite in England after fleeing America. His wealth was amassed over the years from numerous high-level thefts ranging from notes, to diamonds to gold. His most famous theft was that of the Gainsborough painting, “The Duchess of Devonshire.” The author goes to some lengths to weave this theft as a central part of the entire story (and does a good job of it). He became an inspiration for numerous stories, not the least of which was the character of Professor Moriarty in the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle “Sherlock Holmes” series.

Positive aspects of this book include a very descriptive account of what it was like to be a criminal in New York in the mid to late 1800s, the negative consequences of crime that were suffered by various criminals, the mercy shown to Worth by William Pinkerton and its effect upon him and the truth of loneliness that results from someone who chooses to promote and live a lie.

Negative aspects of this book include unnecessary sexual quotations from third party manuscripts, somewhat lengthy discourses upon background material designed to weave the Duchess painting into the story and a tinge of the glorification of the criminal in the process of the biographical pursuit. However, the work is well researched.

Lessons: All in all, the reader comes to an understanding of the immense weight that burdened Adam Worth because of his commitment to create a lifestyle of lies built upon the shifting foundation of theft. He lived long enough not only to enjoy his sin but also to pay for it dearly by seeing the devastating effects of it upon those he cared for the most. Like so many of his criminal colleagues, Adam Worth died a very lonely old man who was broken in body and pretty destitute financially.

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