November 28, 2013

The Tale of the Forty Thieves: Alice Diamond and the All-Girl Gang that Terrorized London

In the 1920s, an organized crime ring of female bandits, extortionists, and blackmailers, terrorized London’s West End. The Forty Elephants was affiliated with the male Elephant and Castle Gang, and had existed from about 1865 as a shoplifting outfit.

The Forty Elephants (also known as the Forty Thieves) specialized in robbery, blackmail, shoplifting, and break-ins. The gang’s blackmailing outfit frequented West End hotels and night clubs searching for aristocrats to blackmail. But shoplifting was the gang’s bread and butter.

They made headlines in the tabloids. One newspaper described the Forty Elephants as “amazons.” Others declared that thirty of the Forty Elephants were “big handsome women about six feet tall” of “giant physique” while the others – scouts and lookouts - were “much smaller” and of the “doll variety.” Members were reportedly chosen for “either beauty or brawn.” They dressed stylishly; some were reported to have even worn the jewelry that they stole. Gang members had special clothes made with secret pockets to hide their loot. The crooks got bold enough to make off with fur coats and entire rolls of silk. They could go through high end shops and society soirées without raising any suspicion. Many of the women even got hired to work in mansions to practice stealing or to get their hands on floor plans for future burglaries. Their stolen income went into wild parties and living well.

Some of the criminals kept razors hidden to protect themselves. Gang members were arrested regularly, but the Forty Elephants could always afford the money to bail them out.

One member, Doris Stewart is known to have given away her stolen wealth instead of spending it all on herself. She was a factory girl from the age of fourteen until she was eighteen in the town of Salford. At eighteen, to escape her life in Salford, she told John Peters, the factory foreman that her father physically abused her and stole her wages. It was all a lie, but John Peters wanted to marry her to rescue her. She wanted to be married in London, and after he gave her half of his savings they decided she would go one day ahead of him to avoid suspicion. Of course, she had no intention of going to London so she went to Manchester with his savings. It was in Manchester that Doris met Alice Diamond who taught her how to make even more money. Doris earned the nickname “Daredevil Dolly”. After her first arrest for pinching her date’s wallet, she finally made it to London in about 1919. She was reportedly thrown into Holloway Prison for six months for stealing a man’s watch. She had lived a double life as pickpocket, jewel thief, and con artist, and then as a rural gentlewoman – living on a rented estate in a village near Sutherland as the aristocratic and refined Mrs. Hamilton. There she supervised charity committees and give her stolen money to the poor by handing out Christmas baskets, food, clothes, and toys. She cared for the sick and even hired a local girl as a maid after townspeople tried to shun her for an indiscretion. To continue making money she took the train to London every fortnight, telling the townspeople that she was visiting her husband to try and reform him. In reality, she hung around elite stores - jewelry stores in particular – pilfering pocketbooks and watches. On her final journey to London she made off with a man’s pocketbook and watch, but he was on to her and soon the police chased her down. When asked why she turned to a life of crime, she said, “Because I love danger for its own sake.” When asked why she was so charitable she replied, “Because I love to do that too.”

Alice Diamond

Born in about 1886 (or 1896 depending on the source), the main leader of the gang was Alice Diamond - also called Diamond Alice, Diamond Annie, the Diamond Queen, or the Queen of the Forty Thieves in the press. Before becoming the leader of the Forty Elephants in 1918, she ran with a male confidence gang. She was described as being the tallest woman criminal in London and having “terrific strength.” As leader, she kept tabs on the police. Her crimes were shoplifting and general instances of hooliganism – she was known to assault her victims with the steel blackjack she armed herself with. Alice Diamond also oversaw the muscle of the gang – all the women who were armed and ready to handle any of the “rough stuff.” This faction of enforcers, who violently settled disputes with male counterparts of the criminal underworld, was able to take control of the area between Elephant and Castle and Waterloo Road. One unfortunate young gangster was reportedly beaten by 6 women after falling foul of them.

Margaret Hughes

Her co-leader and first lieutenant, Mrs. Margaret Hughes (also called “Baby-Faced Maggie”), helped plot the gang’s activities. She was in the courts over twenty times for theft, shoplifting, and attempted murder. Her coy manner, and angelic appearance got her slaps on the wrist or outright release. Baby-Faced Maggie handled the slightly less violent activities of the gang, including blackmail. According to the police, rich married men would go out with a pretty member of the gang, and the girls expected payment to keep his indiscretion a secret. Or the pretty members would hand the men over to the rough members, who took the men’s valuables.

It was Maggie’s husband, notorious London criminal, Alfred Hughes, who brought her in to the criminal underworld when she was young. The two married in 1912 while they were both out on bail pending trial. She eventually tired of her husband’s freeloading and she found another sweetheart. The couple fought often, and it all ended when Maggie took out the razor from her stocking, injured her husband, and sent him to the hospital. Feeling guilty, Maggie compensated him with money, but she wanted out of the marriage. From there she decided to only make money with women, and joined the Forty Elephants.

The gang didn’t have any actual male members, but it was reported to have had about 6 London gunmen on hand. They were kept in the same way that an all male gang keeps pretty female accomplices. They took care of the activities that the women couldn’t do. Other newspapers however, swore that some of the women dressed up as men, and could work without male accomplices. Some of the women argued over men in general, but Diamond Alice and Baby-faced Maggie were against any romances with outsiders. All it would take to destroy their plans was one handsome detective and a lovestruck member of the gang. Diamond Alice and Baby-faced Maggie were right, of course, because it was romance that eventually ruined their crime spree.

One member, Marie Britten, who reportedly came from a good family, fell in love with an outsider named Jackson. Marie knew what kind of trouble she was in for so she finally asked her father in late 1925 to escort her to speak with “Queen Alice”. There was a struggle as Alice attacked her, while Maggie went after Marie’s father with her razor. Marie and her father, Bill Britten managed to flee. The gang swore vengeance. Marie married Jackson immediately. Two days after the incident the Forty Elephants assembled and attacked the Britten residence. They hurled stones and bottles, smashing all the windows. Then they rushed in, shoving their way through the windows. They made their way to Mr. Britten’s room, but only found his wife and her baby. Mr. Britten had run off to protect his daughter in another room. The hoodlums dragged Mr. Britten’s wife out of bed, blankets and baby tossed to the floor in the gang’s effort to flip over the bed and find Mr. Britten. The gang then began to through the rest of the home until they found Mr. Britten and his son at the bottom of the stairs, armed with clubs. The women were armed as well, and fought the pair up the stairs until Mr. Britten went down. Meanwhile, the police arrived and came after the women, fighting them until several members were arrested. Mr. Britten and his son were taken to the hospital, where Mr. Britten was given at least 20 stitches. The police then caught the remaining members of the gang. What followed was the described as the most sensational trial that London had in years. For a while it seemed that the gang’s famous blackmailing victims would be revealed, but the trial ended up centering on the invasion of the Britten home.

Alice Diamond and Baby-faced Maggie were both found guilty and given lengthy sentences of hard labor. Alice Diamond reportedly barely responded to the sentence, but Maggie screamed frantically to the court; “I’ll be a proper villain when I come out!”

At the time Scotland Yard called Alice Diamond and Baby-Faced Maggie the “most expert shoplifters in the world.” Alice Diamond’s last conviction was probably in 1929, and she died in the 1950s.

The gang was  mostly broken up in about 1926, but ex members still lived a life of crime and the gang existed in a less organized form until the 50s. Months after the break up a “bobbed hair bandit” robbed flats in the West End of everything from a fur coat to a leather dressing case. Police believed that the Forty Elephants was Britain’s first violent gang of its size to be made up of women and girls.

I think this will be the first post in a series on women and crime in the 1920s.  Stay tuned.

"40 Large Women in Strange Gang Terrorize London."  The News 5 Oct. 1925
"Amazing Double Life of England's Female Robin Hood."  The Spokesman-Review 7 Oct. 1927
"Bobbew Burglar is Terror of London."  The Milwaukee Sentinel 25 Aug. 1926
"London Female Crooks Baffle Scotland Yard."  The Evening Independent 26 Oct. 1925
"Police on Trail of London Girl Bandit."  Lewiston Evening Journal 1 Oct. 1926
"The Amazing Rampage of London's 'Forty Elephants'."  St. Petersburg Times 16 May 1926
"Wily Bobbed Hair Bandit Despair of Scotland Yard."  The Evening Independent 3 Sept. 1926

No comments:

Post a Comment