Adam Worth ran a criminal ring in England during the latter part of the Nineteenth Century. A London detective once called him “The Napoleon of the Criminal World,” and Worth is thought to be the model for Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis, Professor Moriarty. And though Holmes never had any dealings in Chicago, the real-life Moriarty did.
Born in Germany in 1841, Worth grew up in Massachusetts. He eventually settled in London, posing as an American financier with social connections. During the 1870s he put together an elaborate underworld organization, specializing in high-end burglaries of his unsuspecting society friends. Scotland Yard suspected him, but could prove nothing.
Then, in 1876, Worth’s brother was arrested on forgery charges and needed bail. At the time a famous Gainsborough painting, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was about to be offered at a London auction. So one night Worth simply got a ladder, climbed through a window at the auction house, cut the painting from its frame, and made off with it.
As it turned out, the charges against little brother were dropped. Rather than fence the stolen painting, Worth decided to keep it.
Georgiana became Worth’s constant companion. He usually kept it in the false bottom of a suitcase as he traveled. At some point he smuggled the painting out of England and put it in storage in the United States. That’s where Georgiana was in 1893, when Belgian authorities convicted Worth of a string of robberies and sent him to prison.
By 1899 Worth was out of prison. His crime ring was in shambles and his fortune was gone. Using the Pinkerton Detective Agency as a go-between, he began negotiating a “no-questions-asked” return of Georgiana to the auction house. After nearly two years haggling, a price of $25,000 was agreed upon. The transfer was to be made in Pinkerton’s headquarters city, Chicago.
“Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire”
Morland Agnew of the auction house came over from London, arriving in Chicago on March 27, 1901. As instructed, he checked into the Auditorium Hotel. The next morning, accompanied by William Pinkerton of the detective agency, Agnew cashed a bank draft for the ransom. The money was put in the safe at the Pinkerton office. Then the two men went to the hotel to wait.
At 1 p.m. a messenger arrived at Agnew’s hotel room, carrying a parcel wrapped in brown paper. After Agnew identified himself, the messenger handed him the parcel and left. Inside the parcel was the long-lost Georgiana.
Within hours Agnew was on the train to New York, and from there the ship to England. Not until the painting was safely back in London was the news released to the world. Then the Chicago papers ran the story on the front page for a week.
Adam Worth in disguise had been the messenger returning the painting. Less than a year after collecting the ransom, he was dead of natural causes. But in a twist worthy of Conan Doyle himself, the real-life Moriarty’s son refused to take over the family business. Instead, he found a new career—as a Pinkerton detective.