During the 19th century and half of the 20th, the Forty Elephants Gang became one of the most wanted and dangerous criminal organizations in London.
When we talk about gangsters, it’s impossible not to think of characters like Al Capone, John Dillinger, or the famous criminal couple, Bonnie and Clyde. In other words, the term gangster makes us automatically think about that era in the US during the Depression, when bootleggers in dapper suits carrying huge weapons ruled the cities. Moreover, except for Bonnie, the image of the gangster and the criminal underworld is often associated with men. However, gangsters have existed for a long time, and more importantly, despite what we might think, women have been actively part of gangs since forever. One of the most known cases was the Forty Elephants Gang that terrorized London for (as historians claim) almost two centuries. Here’s the story of how a group of women managed to scare even the most ruthless criminals of their time and continue their activities without being caught by the police for such a long time.
Though the first traceable news about this criminal organization appeared in 1873, it’s believed that this group of women had operated in London since the late eighteenth century, and over time they only grew or and changed leaders. More than just a crime organization, the Forty Elephants Gang was a syndicate where members got benefits according to their history, but also responsibilities that were controlled by a leader, often referred to as the “Queen.” Their main activity was shoplifting, especially at those fancy stores in London’s West End. As was mentioned before, it’s believed that the Forty Elephants Gang lasted for about two centuries, but they reached their peak during the nineteenth century, and one of the elements that made them so successful during their crime sprees was the fact that most stores were very conservative (and sexist) and gave women the chance to have some privacy when shopping. As a result, they were left alone trying out clothes and some jewels and this gang took advantage of this opportunity to steal as much as they could without being seen by the store’s staff.
Another aspect that was crucial to their becoming the most dangerous gang of their time (surpassing even their male counterparts that went by the same name) was their level of organization, which didn’t leave any loose ends, but also because they knew how to trick the system to be able continue their criminal activities. These women were so recognized and feared throughout the city that they soon started to spread their territory to nearby towns. The Forty Elephants Gang was so organized and thought about every single detail that they would alter their clothes to add hidden pockets to take everything they stole. Besides shoplifting, they would also forge recommendation letters to work for wealthy families and then rob them when they had gained their trust. Another of their favorite moves was seducing high-profile, wealthy men only to blackmail them and get easy money.
By the turn of the century, they knew they had to modernize their techniques, and so, they started investing in cars to be able to escape the police in case they were caught. They also developed a system in which they would travel by train and leave empty suitcases to fill them after a robbery. One thing that’s impressive about this particular gang was that they would never wear anything they robbed since they saw it as the product they were working with (also, it would be like giving away their identity). Instead, they would rapidly sell everything and share the profits. That doesn’t mean they didn’t like to lead a lavish lifestyle; especially those affiliated in the twenties, who embraced the fabulous flapper lifestyle. One great example is Annie Diamond, who became queen of the Forty Elephants Gang at the time, considered by the police the “cleverest of thieves,” and who got her nickname because she would wear several diamond rings at once, making of punches extra painful.
After almost two centuries active in the market, they professionalized their schemes and diversified in the field, becoming the most profitable and fearsome gang in the history of the UK. They seized any opportunity to make money, like demanding a percentage from other gangs who worked in their territory and even moving throughout the country to avoid the police. Eventually, the gang was finally beaten in the 1950s, when the leaders got caught, but they ended up leaving a mark in history thanks to their ruthless and infamous deeds.
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