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Thief vs. Detective in Edwardian England



Rob Hardy


A brilliant crime boss in Edwardian London pulls off an elaborate theft of some famous jewels, and Scotland Yard is on the case. You have heard this story before, but you probably don't know the tale Molly Caldwell Crosby tells in The Great Pearl Heist: London's Greatest Thief and Scotland Yard's Hunt for the World's Most Valuable Necklace (Berkley Books). That you haven't read about this theft (or seen the movie about it; it would make a good one) is probably due to timing. The crime happened in 1913, and soon Britain was in the middle of a huge war that would wipe the spectacular theft from the public's mind. It may have taken almost a hundred years for the story to be told, but fans of Sherlock Holmes, and of true crime stories, and of Downton Abbey, will find this an intricate and rousing tale. 




The stolen necklace was the property of Max Mayer, a prosperous London jeweler who bought the strand of pearls in 1912. It was a fabulous piece of jewelry. The process of culturing pearls would not be developed until the next decade, and so every one of its flawless pink pearls was plucked from a wild oyster. It was insured by Lloyds of London for 135,000 at the time, probably a conservative estimate that barely reflects the millions it might bring today. It was worth more than the Hope Diamond, but it seemed a good investment, for everyone in the jewel trade centered within Hatton Garden know about the Mayer pearls.  




Everyone in Hatton Garden knew of the pearls including Joseph Grizzard, who posed as a legitimate jewel trader there. Everyone knew, however, that Grizzard was "The King of Fences," a brilliant organizer of crime who was the subject of popular legends. Someone in 1907 made off with the Ascot Cup trophy, containing more than four pounds of gold. It eventually became Grizzard's property, and if you were very close to him, he'd serve you cocktails from it; the trophy was never otherwise recovered. One time police came to his home to search for stolen diamonds. Grizzard was hosting a dinner party, but was unperturbed, and perhaps the intrusion added to the entertainment of his guests. The police looked everywhere, found nothing, and left. Grizzard sat back to his soup, and pulled a long string of diamonds from the bottom of his bowl; I bet his friends gave him polite applause. Grizzard had risen through the ranks of crime starting at age thirteen, had spent little time in jail, and was living a prosperous life. He liked appearing a gentleman, and he liked being helpful to the many men in his employ; if a man wanted to leave the life of crime and go straight, Grizzard could be counted on to help him in such an aim. He did not need Mayer's necklace for money; it was, however, a fetching bauble, and he arranged its theft for the sport of doing so. He had long since given up being a thief directly; as a fence, he was the general who planned the battle, organized his army, and paid off anyone who might get in the way. 




Taking such a valuable necklace would require Grizzard's most careful planning. It is astonishing to learn that to get jewels of this caliber from the saleroom in Paris to London no fancier transport was used than the standard mail system. Mayer or his courier would not carry them; to do so would make the courier an obvious target for the theft. It used to be that postal officials would register such parcels and label them for special delivery, but that was doing potential thieves a favor. Instead, valuable packages of jewels would be in the bags with the regular mail, in bags with thousands of letters, each bag handled just the same, so that a potential robber could not tell in a transit of hundreds of bags which one might have something worth his trouble.  




Grizzard and his confederates prepared carefully for an intricate operation that would involve paying off just the right mailman to look the other way while the thieves dug into the sealed package that held the jewels and replaced them with a scrap of French newspaper and some sugar cubes in packets from a French restaurant, and then resealed everything perfectly. The dimmer members of the London police assumed that some nefarious Frenchmen had stolen the necklace before it crossed the Channel. Crosby describes the intricate planning and execution of the plot, the first part of which was a complete success. After all, Grizzard did get the necklace. The difficulty which was to come, and this was a hazard that Grizzard knew well, was unloading the necklace to an unscrupulous buyer. The situation was made worse because of the nature of pearls: they could not be cut down to make smaller gemstones, nor could they be melted down like gold. The longer Grizzard and his men held the pearls, the more likely it would be that they would be caught. 




The leader of the detectives set to retrieve the necklace was Alfred Ward, a fine criminologist who was chief inspector of Scotland Yard. Detectives had been a new concept within the London police force, and they were not completely accepted. After all, they employed disguises and worked undercover; many felt that this way of policing was not gentlemanly. Ward and Grizzard had similar backgrounds, and were smart, self-educated men who had raised themselves into respectable levels of society, each with talented and powerful friends to help him on the way up. The police teamed up with an investigator from Mayer's insurance company, and real jewel dealers, to devise a sting that had all the intricate planning of the original heist. The dance of mirrors is fascinating: "In this convoluted exchange, the thieves were pretending to be legitimate jewelers while the actual jewelers pretended to be thieves..." Indeed, police and thieves disguised themselves and watched each other knowing that the other side was watching; in Hatton Garden during the operation, "the swarms of pedestrian men and women might be made up entirely of police and thieves disguised and following each other." 




In this book, Part I is about the heist, Part II is about the sting, and Part III is about the trial, and while the first two parts are full of surprises, the third is pretty much legal routine. Ward and Grizzard, coming from the same backgrounds and employed on different sides of criminal effort, had respect for each other, and Grizzard became Ward's consultant, nudging Scotland Yard in the right direction in one case after another. In 1916, Grizzard was sincerely sorry to lose his friend Ward to a zeppelin bomb that hit near his home. He didn't quite fully reform, though, and was back at his work when all the legal repercussions of the necklace heist were over. It is clear, though, that he was at the top of his game in the delicate cat-and-mouse he played with Ward. Crosby has reported the game in a vivid recollection, full of colorful detail and with two fascinating heroes (yes, both) trying to get the better of each other. 




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