The Great Pearl Heist: London’s Greatest Thief and Scotland Yard’s Hunt for the World’s Most Valuable Necklace
By Molly Caldwell Crosby
On July 16, 1913 the most expensive necklace in the world was stolen out of the mail. Converting figures into today’s dollars is not an exact science, but by Molly Caldwell Crosby’s calculations the necklace, which was a string of sixty-one pearls, may have been worth anywhere from $18 million to $120 million. She also pegs its value as twice that of the Hope Diamond.
Only a few months later, four members of a gang of London jewel thieves were tried at the Old Bailey and convicted of the theft. All but one of the pearls was finally accounted for.
I thought this was a great read, telling the story of a fascinating historical crime that I knew nothing about. I’m not sure why the case was subsequently, in Crosby’s words, “all but lost to history,” as at the time it was huge, with the trial built up by the press as yet another “trial of the century.” (As an aside: how many trials of the century were there in the twentieth century? The Lindbergh kidnapping trial and the O.J. Simpson trial have both received that billing, and I think arguments could be made for either.)
Crosby suggests that the outbreak of the First World War pushed a lot of the big news items of the pre-War years, or Belle Époque, not just off the headlines but out of public memory. I think this is probably right, as I was often thinking while reading this book of the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911, which was also a big story at the time but which has mostly been forgotten about today (though there were a couple of books that came out about it in 2009: The Crimes of Paris by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler and Vanished Smile by R. A. Scotti). The two cases had a similar cachet, which was recognized by contemporary observers, as the New York Times called the necklace “the Mona Lisa of pearls.” And by coincidence the trial of the pearl thieves ended the same week as the Mona Lisa case was resolved.
But as much as I liked it, I have tocall The Great Pearl Heist out on a few counts.
In the first place, it gets failing grades on the visual materials. The photo section has a bunch of pictures, but some of them are of no relevance to anything in the book. The Ten Bells Pub is shown because it “was a favorite haunt for Ripper victims.” What has that to do with anything? Meanwhile, the only picture of any of the thieves is a small, poorly-reproduced shot taken from a newspaper story where they are all shown in profile standing in the dock. The only picture of the lead detective is an even smaller picture, also cropped from a newspaper page and also a group photo, where you can barely make him out. A picture section like this is arguably no better than no picture section at all, which is something I could also say for the single map provided. A good map of the Hatton Garden area showing the location of the different shops would have been nice. But the only map is a crowded one showing a good chunk of London. What’s worse is it looks like a contemporary map, which means it’s almost impossible to read. I didn’t bother referring to it once, recognizing right away that it would be useless.
A second point has to do with the way Crosby fashions the story into a contest between “London’s greatest thief,” the gang leader Joseph Grizzard, and Scotland Yard’s top detective at the time, Alfred Ward. This is the usual formula of cops and robbers, but it doesn’t fit the facts of this case that well. The theft was unraveled only because a pair of continental jewel traders sold the gang out in hopes of getting the reward being offered for the necklace’s return. Ward then had to properly land Grizzard and his accomplices in a sting operation, which was well done but isn’t great detective stuff.
Finally, Crosby says there was a “lengthy legal battle” to determine who got the reward in the end, but doesn’t say how it worked out.
Noted in passing:
When looking at Grizzard’s motives for adopting a life of crime, Crosby quotes a snippet from a letter written by the poet William Blake:
Want of money and the distress of a thief can never be alleged as the cause of his thieving, for many honest people endure greater hardships with fortitude. We must therefore seek the cause elsewhere than in want of money, for that is the miser’s passion, not the thief’s.
This is an interesting take on criminal psychology. After the theft, the New York Times would suggest something a little grander than money as a motivating force: “the theft was committed just for the ‘glory’ of the thing and . . . the purloiner ranked among the great criminal artists.”
Personally, I’ve thought most thieves, at least of the common break-and-entry variety, not so much greedy or artistic as lazy. They think having a real job is too much work and would rather just grab money when they need it in the quickest way possible. Though for someone like Grizzard, and a few other frauds and swindlers that I’ve known, stealing isn’t always easy. Indeed, I’ve often wondered about burglars who put as much effort, and run far greater risks, to steal money that they could have made more of in a much easier, and legal, way.
Grizzard would fall back into his criminal ways after his release from prison, perhaps because it was the only thing he knew how to do. Or perhaps there’s something to the realization Walter White comes to at the end of Breaking Bad: that some people just take to a life of crime when they find out they’re good at it.
I’d also like to note all the wonderful names in this story. Grizzard is a great name for a master of crime, and it’s fitting that he should have been undone by a seedy underling named Lesir Gutwirth. Meanwhile, the jewel agents fishing for the reward were Samuel Brandstatter and Myer Quadratstein. I stumbled over the latter every time I read it. But the winner in the great-name lottery is Nicholas If-Jesus-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barbon. I think Crosby just wanted to drop his name into the mix for the sound of it, since he was a seventeenth-century economist who doesn’t have any connection to the rest of the story.
Any criminal conspiracy is only as strong as its weakest link. This one was undone by the aforementioned Lesir Gutwirth. Just because.