This is a lovely little article — I liked the way the author related the historic crimes and Moriarty to the recent Hatton Garden robbery in London. And I’m entirely tickled pink by anyone referring to ACD as “Sir Arthur.” The One and Future King, by Jove! ~ Chat
“There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before” — Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet.
On Monday, November 22, 1869, security guards at Boylston National Bank, the largest bank in Boston, opened up the vaults to discover that a robbery had taken place over the weekend.
Thieves had drilled through a wall and more than 30 tin trunks containing diamonds, cash, jewellery and securities had been prised open and looted. The Boston Postreported that the thieves got away with $US200,000 (roughly $4.5 million today), in a robbery of “infinite cleverness”.
It transpired that a few weeks earlier a man calling himself William Judson had rented the property next door to the bank in order to sell Gray’s Oriental Tonic, 200 bottles of which were displayed in the window.
The thieves had tunnelled from the shop into the bank basement, and then carried the swag out of the front door of the shop. Neighbours heard noises during the weekend, but assumed it was building work.
It is no accident that the Boylston Bank heist sounds remarkably like the Hatton Garden safe deposit robbery that took place in London this month, for the successful raid on the Boston bank was the prototype for countless robberies that followed, in fact and fiction: a weekend break-in, sounds of tunnelling ignored, brazen crooks walking out with the booty, and behind it all a shadowy “Mr Big” of infinite cleverness.
Literary sleuths have spotted similarities between the Hatton Garden robbery and the plot of the 1992 novel The Black Echo by Michael Connelly, itself based on a series of Los Angeles bank robberies in the 1980s. But the literary antecedents of this, and almost every other well-organised bank theft of similar scale, go back far earlier, to the greatest fictional detective of all: because the real name of William Judson was Adam Worth, a criminal mastermind who was the model for Professor Moriarty, the sworn enemy of Sherlock Holmes.
The relationship between crime and crime fiction is one of the oldest and oddest of cultural phenomena. The more sophisticated crooks often read books and gain ideas from them; novelists plunder real crime for inspiration. Reality and imagination feed off one another in an extraordinary cycle. Villains avidly study their own mythology: only spies, the police and the mafia are more fascinated by reading about themselves in fiction.
A former pickpocket, con man, burglar and Civil War deserter, Worth was an immoral prodigy of boundless ambition and remarkable cunning. With the proceeds from the Boston robbery he moved to Europe, using the alias Henry J Raymond, settling first in Paris and then London.
Operating out of a large house on Clapham Common, Worth ran an international criminal network of bank robbers, forgers and con artists. Although a dedicated and unrepentant felon, he was in some ways a man of principle who refused to condone violence, and a romantic: in 1876 he broke into Agnew’s art gallery in Mayfair and stole Gainsborough’s portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire, which strongly resembled his former lover. For the next 25 years he concealed the painting in a false-bottomed trunk. In 1881 he carried out a robbery in Hatton Garden, in which an accomplice cut the gas main to extinguish the lights, enabling Worth to escape with two sacks of uncut diamonds.
By the 1880s he had accumulated an apartment in Piccadilly, a 110-foot yacht and a string of race horses. He had also attracted the attention of Pinkerton’s detective agency in the US, and the Metropolitan police. Robert Anderson, the head of the Criminal Investigation Department at Scotland Yard, described him as “The Napoleon of Crime … None other could hold a candle to him”.
Worth’s crimes were finally exposed in 1893, and five months later Professor James Moriarty made his literary debut. “He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson,” Holmes tells his sidekick.
“He is the organiser of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city …”
Arthur Conan Doyle knew William Pinkerton, the American gumshoe who had chased Worth around the world for three decades, and undoubtedly the character of Moriarty was inspired by Worth and his exploits. “The original of Moriarty was Adam Worth”, wrote Vincent Starrett, one of the earliest Sherlock Holmes scholars. “This was revealed by Sir Arthur in conversation some years ago.”
Hanging on the wall of Moriarty’s secret lair is a painting by Greuze: La Jeune Fille a l’agneau or, young girl with lamb. There is a delicious bilingual pun here, for the painting’s title could be read as “the girl from Agnew’s”, the gallery from which Worth filched his duchess.
The plot of The Adventure of the Red-Headed League — in which thieves tunnel through a wall into a bank over a weekend from the neighbouring pawn shop — bears strong similarities to both the Boylston Bank and Hatton Garden robberies. TS Eliot’sMacavity: The Mystery Cat, the feline “Napoleon of Crime”, is the direct descendant of Worth/Moriarty.
The Hatton Garden robbers remain at large, and yet we already know them well, for this story has become part of our cultural DNA: the audacious drillers, the weekend heist, the sneaking admiration for a nonviolent crime well-executed, the astonishing haul; and somewhere in the background a crooked mastermind, Keyser Soze from the 1995 film The Usual Suspects, another Napoleon of Crime.
Whodunnit? Who knows. But Professor Moriarty dunnit first.