Year
1876
Month Day
May 06

The theft of “Duchess of Devonshire” painting stirs interest

On May 6, 1876, Thomas Gainsborough’s painting, Duchess of Devonshire, causes a stir when it goes up for auction at Christie's in London. It sells to a London art dealer, William Agnew, for $51,540, the highest price ever paid for a painting at auction.

Two days later, Agnew displays the painting at his gallery—and it is stolen by Adam Worth. 

Worth, whom Scotland Yard later called the “Napoleon of Crime,” and upon whom Sir Arthur Conan Doyle eventually based Sherlock Holmes’ arch nemesis Dr. Moriarty, stole the artwork in order to come up with the bail to release his brother from jail. However, his brother was freed without his help, so Worth decided to keep the painting, even in the face of serious consequences.

READ MORE: 10 Famous Art Heists

Adam Worth was perhaps the 19th century’s most masterful criminal. Born in Germany but raised in the United States, Worth joined the Union Army in the Civil War. After erroneously being reported killed in the Second Battle of Bull Run, he spent the rest of the war hopping from one regiment to another, collecting money to join and then immediately deserting. After the war, he made his way to New York, where he joined a gang of pickpockets.

A conviction for robbery resulted in a three-year sentence at Sing Sing Prison. However, Worth escaped after only a few weeks and vowed to be more careful in the future. Using the alias Henry Raymond, Worth took up a lucrative career robbing banks before moving his criminal exploits to Europe. With perfectly planned heists and a consistent forgery operation, Worth avoided all violent encounters and established himself in respectable society.

Yet the theft of the Duchess of Devonshire led to his eventual downfall. His co-conspirators, Joe Elliot and Junka Phillips, were angered by the fact that they weren’t financially rewarded for stealing the valuable painting. When Worth refused to divulge its whereabouts, Elliot and Phillips went to the police and Worth was sent to prison, albeit on other charges. Following his release four years later in 1897, Worth returned to America. After a change of heart, he began negotiations with the Pinkerton Detective Agency for the ransom of the painting.

The Duchess of Devonshire was finally returned to England in 1901 where J. P. Morgan, Wall Street’s biggest financier, promptly made the journey to obtain the painting for himself. He purportedly paid as much as $150,000 for it. Worth, who had received relatively little for his ransom, died a year later, penniless.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Ohio kidnap victims rescued after years in captivity

On May 6, 2013, three women are rescued from a Cleveland, Ohio, house where they had been imprisoned for many years by their abductor, 52-year-old Ariel Castro, an unemployed bus driver. The women—Michelle Knight, Amada Berry and Gina DeJesus—went missing separately between 2002 ...read more

The Hindenburg disaster

The airship Hindenburg, the largest dirigible ever built and the pride of Nazi Germany, bursts into flames upon touching its mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 36 passengers and crew-members, on May 6, 1937.  Frenchman Henri Giffard constructed the first successful ...read more

Roger Bannister runs first four-minute mile

In Oxford, England, 25-year-old medical student Roger Bannister cracks track and field’s most notorious barrier: the four-minute mile. Bannister, who was running for the Amateur Athletic Association against his alma mater, Oxford University, won the mile race with a time of 3 ...read more

English Channel tunnel opens

In a ceremony presided over by England’s Queen Elizabeth II and French President Francois Mitterrand, a rail tunnel under the English Channel was officially opened, connecting Britain and the European mainland for the first time since the Ice Age. The Channel Tunnel, or ...read more

FDR creates the Works Progress Administration (WPA)

On May 6, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs an executive order creating the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was just one of many Great Depression relief programs created under the auspices of the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act, which Roosevelt had ...read more

John Steinbeck wins a Pulitzer for “The Grapes of Wrath”

On May 6, 1940, John Steinbeck is awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Grapes of Wrath. The book traces the fictional Joad family of Oklahoma as they lose their family farm and move to California in search of a better life. They encounter only more difficulties and a ...read more

Final episode of "Friends" airs on NBC

At 9:00 p.m. Eastern and Pacific times on May 6, 2004, that familiar theme song (“I’ll Be There For You” by the Rembrandts) announces the beginning of the end, as an estimated 51.1 million people tune in for the final original episode of NBC’s long-running comedy series Friends. ...read more

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reviews Cold War in speech at Westminster College

In an event steeped in symbolism, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reviews the Cold War in a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri—the site of Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech 46 years before. Gorbachev mixed praise for the end of the Cold War with some ...read more

Harry Gant is oldest NASCAR winner—again

On May 6, 1991, 51-year-old race car driver Harry Gant racks up his 12th National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) Winston Cup career victory in the Winston 500 in Talladega, Alabama. In doing so, Gant bettered his own record as the oldest man ever to win a NASCAR ...read more

All American forces in the Philippines surrender unconditionally

On May 6, 1942, U.S. Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright surrenders all U.S. troops in the Philippines to the Japanese. The island of Corregidor remained the last Allied stronghold in the Philippines after the Japanese victory at Bataan (from which General Wainwright had ...read more