There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Adam Worth and Morris Cohen might have crossed paths in London sometime before World War I. As far as anyone knows, they never met; if they had, the conversation would have been priceless. Worth, an American-born German Jew who affected the manners and lifestyle of an English gentleman, became, in the words of his great adversaries, the Pinkerton detectives, “the most remarkable, most successful, and most dangerous professional criminal known to modern times.” Cohen, a Polish Jew who grew up in cockney London before emigrating to Canada, eventually became the bodyguard for Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China.
Cohen lived his legend on a large, open-air stage, while most of Worth’s was formed in the shadows. In the words of British journalist Ben Macintyre, “Worth made a myth of his own life, building a thick smokescreen of wealth and possessions to cover a multitude of crimes,” crimes that included the theft of cash, jewels, and works of art that may have been worth the incredible sum, by Victorian standards, of $10 million.
Macintyre’s detective work is as exemplary as that of Worth’s great nemesis and eventual confidant, William Pinkerton, of whom it was said, “He made more money out of crime than any of the people whom he hunted down.” (Leaving behind an estate worth more than $16 million, he certainly wound up with more than Worth.) Macintyre cuts through the myth to trace Worth’s history from the dives of New York (with such friends and colleagues as Hoggy Walsh, Baboon Dooley, Gyp the Blood, Dago Frank, and the charming Hell-Cat Maggie, who filed her teeth to points) to London, where for a while he lived the double life of “a Victorian gentleman and master thief who merged the highest moral principles with the lowest criminal cunning.”
Worth brought a class to his profession that few since have approached; unlike the fictional character he inspired, Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Professor Moriarty, he disdained violence and became the leading exponent of what Macintyre calls “wing-collar crime.” He never disposed of his most famous plunder, the Gainsborough portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire, largely because of his affection for it. Worth eventually returned the painting, decades after the theft.
Worth seems like a creation of the movies, but Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen—he got the nickname from the Smith and Wesson revolvers he carried, one in a shoulder holster, one in his belt—would have been rejected for a cinematic subject as too fantastic. At 17, Cohen emigrated for the first time, to the west of Canada, where, feeling himself an outcast, he gambled and engaged in petty crime before befriending a member of the even more disenfranchised Chinese community. Through an amazing series of coincidences, Cohen came to meet Dr. Sun Yat-sen, then on a tour of North America and building support for the Chinese revolution. The meeting changed Cohen’s life: He took the oath as a member of the Tongmenghui, the Chinese Republican Brotherhood and, in his own words, walked away “pledged to devote my life to the service of Sun Yat-sen…and the liberation of the Chinese people.”
Through two revolutions, countless massacres, and even a harrowing stay in a prison camp, Cohen kept his word. He hyped his own life to the point where one journalist actually compared him to Lawrence of Arabia—it’s amazing that no one ever thought of “Genghis Cohen”—but, as in Worth’s case, the truth was amazing enough. Through scores of shady deals, he ran guns, carried out secret missions, and straddled the political fence with such skill that at his funeral in London in 1970 there were representatives of the Nationalist and Communist Chinese governments. He had carried the rank of general in the Chinese army for decades, and he died without knowing enough Chinese to read a menu. CP