The Forty Elephants: The Victorian-Era Bling Ring

What good is a bustle if you can't use it to hide ill-gotten gains?
The Forty Elephants: The Victorian-Era Bling Ring

Between 1870 and 1950, but possibly as far back as the 1700s, London was terrorized by a lot of things but especially by a group of women known as the Forty Elephants. Where they got the name is the subject of some debate: They were associated with the male Elephant and Castle gang, who were named after the area they lived in, but they were also said to balloon up like elephants with all the goods they hid in their skirts. That was their primary racket: They took advantage of the complicated clothes that covered every inch of their bodies, as required by the standards of the time, to load up with goods from high-end boutiques to resell for a profit.

That was just their main gig, though: They also forged documents to get themselves hired as maids to the wealthy, whose homes they would then clean out, seduced men for blackmail material, and took a cut from anyone who crimed on their turf. They made enough to support their kept husbands, who were often incarcerated, but never did much time themselves. That was mostly thanks to the sexist enforcement of laws that admittedly worked in their favor, but they could also usually abscond with the goods before police caught up to them or convince them through clever accounting tricks that their stock was legit. Basically, they were smart, and they ran a tight operation.

Led by the formidable 20-year-old Diamond Annie (so named because of the diamond rings she wore, not so much as accessories as weapons) starting in 1916, they became a bunch of working-class lady Great Gatsbies, throwing decadent parties and otherwise living it up. They became so notorious that they started getting recognized in London's hottest shopping districts, forcing them to branch out but not to stop. Unlike the crime dramas their story resembles, the Forty Elephants don't appear to have ever gotten their comeuppance, quietly fading away in the '50s. Hopefully, those last few classes have their own little ill-gotten retirement home somewhere, where they have quiet little tea parties and reminisce about their time as some of London's most feared gangsters.

Top image: James D. McCabe/Wikimedia Commons

Scroll down for the next article
Forgot Password?