The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Gentleman Thief
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Gentleman Thief is the man of Society, of good breeding and good manners, who enriches himself, or simply earns his daily wage, through crime, all while carrying himself in a high style and dressing in the most au courant fashion.
Most modern readers will immediately associate the phrase “Gentleman Thief” with characters like E.W. Hornung’s A.J. Raffles (see: The Amateur Cracksman). But Raffles and the other late-Victorian fictional Gentleman Thieves are the descendants of the original Gentleman Thieves, the highwaymen of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
There have always been highwaymen, of course, but a new type appeared in the seventeenth century, both in England and France. These “knights of the road” were no mere robbers. Many wore masks, to conceal their real identities. Some were members of Society. Most carried themselves with style, living expensively, dressing well, and spend their money on alcohol, women, and gambling. Many served royalty, either the reigning or deposed king. (As Erin Mackie notes, the most prominent highwaymen of the seventeenth century were outspoken Royalists and were “distinguished by his close affiliation with the Stuart cause and the brand of cavalier, libertine masculinity associated with its supporters.”1). Most were generous with their money and had excellent manners, guaranteeing them the affection of the ordinary people. And all became the subjects of ballads, plays, and stories.
The first of the Gentlemen Thieves was Captain James Hind (?-1652), a Royalist whose preferred victims were regicides. Hind was notably gallant with women, was careful to avoid bloodshed, and was generous to the poor. The most famous of the seventeenth century Gentlemen Thieves was Claude Duval (1643-1670). Duval (see: Claude Duval, the Dashing Highwayman. A Tale of the Road) was born in France but operated in England. He was renowned for his courtly manners with women, reportedly requesting dances or kisses from them before (or in lieu of) robbing their husbands.
In the eighteenth century, Louis-Dominique Cartouche (1693-1721) gained fame in France, though not in England. He led his gang on a series of extremely daring raids, reportedly was an agent of the French Regent, and died courageously on the wheel. Dick Turpin (see: Rookwood) became the most famous of the English highwaymen during his short, brutal career. Another French Gentleman Thief, Louis Mandrin (1725-1755), chose as his special victims tax collectors, almost immediately earning himself folk hero status.
But the most influential of the historical eighteenth century Gentleman Thieves was George Barrington (1755-1804). He was taught how to pickpocket by his theatrical mentor in Ireland, and only avoided arrest in 1773 by moving to England, where he took up thieving in the theater foyers and pleasure gardens of London. Barrington worked alone and in disguise, and for almost fourteen years had a successful and profitable criminal career. Many of his thefts became famous, but the most notorious was his pickpocketing of the diamond snuffbox of Russian Prince Orloff in Covent Garden in 1775. During this time period Barrington was arrested fourteen times, but his eloquence and gentlemanly carriage so impressed the courts that he was forced to serve only three short prison terms. Barrington became a favorite of the press, who called him “the Prince of Pickpockets.” Unfortunately, press coverage of Barrington, including court transcripts and accurate engravings of his face, made him too familiar to his intended victims, and his career as a successful thief was over by 1790. Before his death, however, Barrington’s portrait was painted by Sir William Beechey, Barrington’s caricature appeared on a commercially produced mug, and at the turn of the nineteenth century he was, in popular songs, melodramas, and fiction, the archetypal Gentleman Thief.
For most of the nineteenth century the Gentleman Thief appeared mainly in penny bloods and penny dreadfuls. The highwayman was one of the most popular subjects for the dreadful, whether Duval, Turpin, or other, completely fictional characters. But occasionally the penny dreadfuls and story papers would feature a character modeled on Barrington, a Gentleman Thief who was a creature of the nineteenth century, rather than the eighteenth, and who was most comfortable practicing his trade in an urban environment. Such characters (see: The Dance of Death; or, The Hangman’s Plot) anticipate the Gentlemen Thieves at the end of the century, as do the aristocratic swindlers of mainstream fiction, such as the titular character of Charles Lever’s Davenport Dunn (1857-1859).
By the end of the nineteenth century the most successful professional criminals acted like their seventeenth and eighteenth century counterparts had, living as flamboyantly and expensively as any of the haut ton. Adam Worth, the model for Doyle’s Professor Moriarty (see: “The Adventure of the Final Problem”), had a yacht with a crew of twenty men. “Baron” Maximillian Shinburn, Worth’s rival, tried to outdo Worth in everything, including sartorial excellence. Charles Becker, “the king of forgers,” lived a genteel life while performing acts of forging brilliance. These men were known as “silk hat and kid glove” criminals because of their lifestyles and those they associated with, and served as the real-life models for the fictional Gentlemen Thieves of the time.
Grant Allen’s Colonel Clay (see: The African Millionaire) was the first of the modern fictional Gentlemen Thieves, followed soon after by Guy Boothby’s Simon Carne (see: A Prince of Swindlers). However, neither gained a fraction of the fame of Hornung’s Raffles or Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin (see: The Arsène Lupin Mysteries), who created the standard for Gentlemen Thieves of the twentieth century and were imitated in the popular literature of Europe, Asia, and Central and South America.
The question can be raised, of course, about the ultimate appeal of Gentleman Thief stories to Victorian readers. Was it as simple as the traditional urge, going back at least to the fifteenth century and the tales of Robin Hood, to see unjustly-wealthy people stolen from by a charming, roguish ne’er-do-well? Are the Gentleman Thief stories appealingly subversive, as Gary Hoppenstand describes the Simon Carne stories (see: A Prince of Swindlers):
a subversive critique of the class-based economic system in late-Victorian Britain...the implication behind Carne’s various successful schemes against London’s social elite is that the privileged are a group of blithering idiots undeserving of their great wealth and privilege, because although a supposedly superior social class they are, in fact, easily duped by false appearances and insincere grace.2
A similar subtext–sometimes blatantly-stated–runs through the Colonel Clay stories (see: An African Millionaire), although the Raffles stories (see: The Amateur Cracksman) are too sodden with class-based guilt and shame to indulge in this sort of subversion.
On reflection, the appeal to Victorian readers of the Gentleman Thief stories was both an appeal to the sort of subversion Hoppenstand writes about–a part of the English character since at least the fifteenth century, if not much farther back than that–and the presentation of a potent wish-fulfillment figure in the Gentleman Thief. The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries present a similar kind of figure: one independent of social ties, of the necessity to work a job, of ordinary feelings and guilt and shame–a kind of social übermensch serenely and blithely gliding along far above the exigencies of real life. In the Holmes stories, the übermensch chooses to fight crime and catch wrong-doers out of a combination of vanity and hatred of crime and evil. The Gentleman Thief stories, conversely, appeal to the rogue in men and women, and portray an übermensch who chooses to rob because it pleases him–and in the Victorian era the Gentleman Thief was nearly always a man, although this would change in the 1910s and 1920s–to do so. If the Great Detective is the übermensch restrained by a conscience, the Gentleman Thief is the übermensch unrestrained by anything.
The obvious objection to this argument is Raffles, who steals but feels overwhelming guilt for it. But Raffles was unique in this respect, and his sense of shame and regret are outliers rather than truly representative of the Gentleman Thief character type.
1 Erin Mackie, Rakes, Highwaymen, and Pirates: The Making of the Modern Gentleman in the Eighteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2009), 73.
2 Hoppenstand, “Introduction,” vi.