A gentleman is viewed as an elegant, charming individual normally with impeccable manners and high moral values. Like everybody else they set their values personally, and there are times when they may contradict the rest of their demeanour. The ‘gentleman thief’ is one of the most enchanting character types in books and films. His persona appeals to the audience’s need for excitement, and a little bit of trouble, while still maintaining his likeability. This anti-hero became a major part of creative writing in the late 19th century.
Gentlemen thieves are attracted to stealing for several reasons including: they are quite often kleptomaniacs that steals for the thrill rather than out of lack, they love the challenge of creating a mastermind plan and normally have a higher than average IQ, as well as the fact that it gives them a chance to escape the monotony of wealth and experience the darker side of society. Gentlemen thieves choose their victims carefully, normally focusing on wealthy individuals, organisations or other difficult targets. Their ethical values prevent them from stealing from those that cannot afford to lose the item(s).
Violence is never a part of the gentleman thief’s plans and he avoids it at all costs, using intellect to execute his mission rather than force. He loves proving that he is smarter than authority figures, often leaving them taunting messages and even announcing his intended target beforehand. This increases the challenge for both the thief and the detective, and in many stories they form a strange bond as one searches for the other. A gentleman thief will step in to stop more serious crimes and often becomes an advisor for the police during their investigations.
Gentlemen thieves may also be good Samaritans, such as Robin Hood, stealing from those who have acquired their riches in illicit ways and sharing them among the poor. If not in a monogamous relationship, gentleman thieves will also pursue beautiful ladies, during the chase, even seducing female detectives. This becomes a bonus to the creation and execution of their master plan.
The dress code is an important part of being a gentleman thief and ranges from dated sophistication to modern designer wear. A well-fitting suit, with an elegant signature hat are one of the classic combinations of the character. The female version of a gentleman thief is called a lady thief, and these women are chic, classy and able to cultivate the crime of the century.
The characteristics of the phantom thief overlap heavily with that of the gentleman thief, and those that do not require public recognition for their crimes fall into this category. Their special talent is disappearing after a heist, normally doing so long before the victim even realises what has happened. Their exceptionally high taste dictates that they steal priceless items such as rare collectibles, jewellery and fine art.
Real Life Gentlemen Thieves
- Black Bart (Charles Earl Boles)
Revenge can become the catalyst for an upstanding member of society to discard their ethical values, and begin a life of crime. After he refused their offer to buy his land, banking giant Wells Fargo cut off the water supply to Charles Boles’ California gold mine shortly after the Civil War. This put the former Union First Sergeant out of business, and his alter ego, Black Bart, was born.
Black Bart robbed the Wells Fargo stage coach at least 28 times, in the decade that it took authorities to track him down. He never harmed anybody or stole from the passengers aboard the trains, and in their reports the bank admitted that he was not violent and always polite especially to the females aboard. He travelled on foot to each crime scene with an unloaded shot gun, which was so old it could not possibly be fired. Black Bart worked alone, but made people believe that he had a posse with him by propping up sticks with hats close to the train. To taunt the bank, he would sometimes leave a catchy poem at the crime scene.
Boles became a hero to the general Californian public, and they supported many of his actions. After torturing Wells Fargo for ten years, he was caught by Pinkerton Detectives. He received a four-year prison sentenced, and was released early in 1888 for good behaviour. Black Bart disappeared after he was let out, allowing the bank to continue to recuperate.
- William Simon Jacques
It is well-known that knowledge is power, and one of the greatest sources of knowledge for many centuries has been books. William Jacques, with his above average IQ and Cambridge education, knew this even more than other members of society. He became a unique and unexpected criminal, targeting libraries in the United Kingdom and their collection of rare books, manuscripts and maps. His polite manner and high level of education, meant that he fit into the crime scenes perfectly and nobody spared him a second glance.
In the 1990s, during the time he was studying at Cambridge, Jacques began taking their rare books. The library noticed that some of these were missing, but failed to immediately report the loss because they were responsible for keeping these treasures safe. When the disappearances escalated, however, and two of Newton’s Principia Mathematica along with Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius went missing, they felt it was necessary to alert the authorities.
Jacques continued to steal from other libraries across the UK, all the time evading the police. He would often put the books under his coat while he was having a conversation with the librarians. One keenly observant employee caught him in the act, however, and after his arrest detectives identified him as the prolific antique book library thief. He spent four years in jail beginning in 2002 and upon his release began picking up where he left off, stealing more rare books. This time he used disguises, false names and his never-failing charm to win the confidence of his victims. In 2010, he was once again detained and sentenced to serve 3 ½ more years behind bars.