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Adam Worth: The Man Behind Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Moriarty

By Adrienne Rivera. Jan 27, 2024. 4:22 PM.

Topics: Mystery, Suspense & Crime

What's a hero without a villain? It's a question asked in both literature and film, but with the immense popularity of villainous characters, it's no surprise. Villains provide entertainment and conflict and serve as foils from which we can see our favorite heroes from a new angle and against whom heroes can pit themselves to show what makes them special and heroic.

These rivalries are some of the most interesting relationships in pop culture. From Batman and the Joker to Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, the hero versus villain dynamic is one that readers love to see play out. One of the most famous literary rivalries is between two geniuses, master detective Sherlock Holmes and nefarious criminal Professor Moriarty. But what Holmes fans might not know is that this master criminal is based on a real person: Adam Worth.

This real-life thief and crime boss was so impressive and skilled in carrying out his plots and evading capture that he was dubbed the Napoleon of Crime by Scotland Yard, a nickname Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave to his master criminal. Let's take a closer look at the life and deeds of this man who inspired one of the most loved villains in all of literature:

Adam_WorthAdam Worth was born to a poor family in Germany in 1844. When he was young, his family immigrated to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father found work as a tailor. He found work as a clerk in a department store but only worked there for a short time when the Civil War began. Lying to enlist, Worth fought on the Union Army's side at the age of seventeen. He met with some success, being named a sergeant after only two months of service. Eventually, he was injured and treated in a military hospital. However, due to a clerical error, he was listed as having been killed in action. Seeing his opportunity to turn this error into an advantage, Worth left the hospital and did not return to his regiment.

But Worth did not go back to his clerk job in Cambridge. Instead, he began registering for various army regiments under fake names, collecting his sign-on bounty, and then deserting. He had to abandon this scheme after drawing the attention of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, a private detective agency often hired by businesses. He fled to New York and turned to pickpocketing, robberies, and organizing heists. He was caught robbing an Adams Express cargo wagon and was sentenced to three years in Sing Sing Prison, though he escaped and turned to bank robberies with the help of well-known criminal Fredericka Mandelbaum. Together they broke renowned safecracker Charles Bullard out of White Plains jail and moved to Europe to start fresh.

holmesHe began his European criminal career hosting illegal gambling out of his restaurant and stealing diamonds from a dealer before moving on to London, where his exploits earned him the title of master criminal, still pursued by the head of the Pinkertons, William Pinkerton, but unable to be captured. Worth put together an extensive criminal network for which he served as mastermind, most of his employees never knowing his identity. He pulled off numerous heists and robberies and was often forced to spend massive amounts of money bribing judges and law enforcement to maintain the secrecy of the network and keep his contacts out of prison. Perhaps he is best known for stealing the famous painting Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Thomas Gainsborough. He stole the painting with the help of two of his criminal associates, but a rift formed when they realized he'd not stolen the painting for profit but because he liked it. One of his associates attempted to entrap Worth by getting him to confess his crime in front of a member of Scotland Yard, but Worth realized his plan and fired him from his enterprise, sending him back to the United States. This associate went on to be caught by police after a failed bank robbery and told the Pinkerton Agency everything he knew about Worth for revenge, but even that wasn't enough for the authorities to pin anything on Worth successfully.

He was eventually captured, though, after making a careless error. While visiting Bullard, who had recently been arrested and rumored to have passed away, Worth organized an impromptu train robbery. His lack of planning caused the robbery badly, and the police captured him. He refused to admit his true identity and to admit to other crimes, even after he was identified by numerous members of law enforcement, both from England and abroad. In the end, the court managed only to convict him of the single robbery in which he was caught in the act, and he was sentenced to only seven years in prison. He was out in three years on good behavior.

Immediately after being released, Worth robbed a diamond store and went to be with his children. He arranged via William Pinkerton to return the Gainsborough painting in exchange for $25,000, which he had successfully hidden from authorities for a quarter of a century. He also sat down with his old rival and told him the history of his criminal affairs. The manuscript Pinkerton completed from these conversations is still filed at the headquarters of the Pinkerton Agency. In a surprising twist, Worth's connections with the agency allowed his son to join the organization as a detective rather than following his father into a life of crime.

His theft of this famous painting and how he organized a massive criminal organization without ever being tried for these crimes inspired Conan Doyle to create his most famous villain, Professor Moriarty, a man so devious and intelligent that he was the only real match for Detective Sherlock Holmes. Throughout the years, the rivalry between the two geniuses has been depicted numerous times on stage, on small and large screens, and the radio. It is safe to say that while Holmes and Watson are often mentioned in the same breath, the fictional Napoleon of Crime is also a key element and inextricable part of the success of Conan Doyle's most famous and beloved hero.

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Adrienne Rivera
Adrienne Rivera received her MFA in fiction from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She currently lives in southern Indiana.


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