The curse of the Bahia Emerald, a giant green rock that ruins lives

“Right now, in a vault controlled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, there sits a 752-pound emerald with no rightful owner. This gem is the size of a mini­fridge. It weighs as much as two sumo wrestlers. Estimates of its worth range from a hundred bucks to $925 million.

“Over the past 10 years, four lawsuits have been filed over the Bahia emerald. Fourteen individuals or entities, plus the nation of Brazil, have claimed the rock is theirs. A house burned down. Three people filed for bankruptcy. One man alleges having been kidnapped and held hostage. Many of the men involved say that the emerald is hellspawn but they also can’t let it go. As Brian Brazeal, an anthropologist at California State University Chico, wrote in a paper entitled The Fetish and the Stone: A Moral Economy of Charlatans and Thieves, “Emeralds can take over the lives of well-meaning devotees and lead them down the road to perdition.”

This is a long read but I can only beg you to please still read it. The story is like a Coen Brothers movie, and the writer had had the decency to tell it like one. Bookmark or something for when you have time.

For more of this sort of thing, sign up to my weekly newsletter, The Whippet

Keys, umbrellas, fingerprints

This morning I rode past a hand-written sign saying “Lost your keys? Message me which Disney character is on the keyring and I’ll get em back to you.” They wanted to make sure the keys went back to their rightful owner, not just any sneak who called up and claimed them.

Which makes sense with wallets and jewellery and handsome tartan umbrellas, but if you don’t know what Disney character’s on the keys, how do you know which lock they fit?

I realised that you could stumble across the keys to the national mint, the Louvre, to every door in Berrimah jail, and they would be utterly worthless if you didn’t know what they were for. Keys are a treasure that depend on a very specific piece of information.

It was known in the early 1800s that people had unique fingerprints, and that these could be lifted from crime scenes, but it was only really useful if you already had a suspect. Otherwise, what – are you gonna compare the one from the crime scene to every single fingerprint you have on file, one by one, by hand and eye?  It wasn’t until a system of categorisation was developed (by length, width, type and direction of whorl, etc) that fingerprints became look-uppable, and about a billion times more useful.

You see what I’m getting at. Context and connections are what makes something valuable.

Assuming that somehow having the keys to the mint also gave you the legal and moral right to take everything you found there, money only has value because people agree that it does (if it was from the mint, it would have sequential serial numbers, and it could be declared worthless. Then you’d have to see how many people you could convince it was still money before you got caught). Art is a bit more objectively valuable, because you have an emotional reaction to it that has intrinsic worth, but financially it’s bizarre. The Mona Lisa is valued at US$790 million but it’s also worth US$0 because you couldn’t sell it.

In conclusion, go for the handsome tartan umbrella every time.

For more of this sort of thing, sign up to my weekly newsletter, The Whippet

“What’s your favourite historical crime?”

Reader question from someone who doesn’t realise I’ve already got a fair bit of crime in this issue. (Oh my god, CRIME starts with C.)

Look there’s so many good ones, but: Jenny Diver was probably the most skilled pickpocket (‘diver’) of the 18th Century. Among a million other tricks, she would put pillows under her dress so she looked pregnant, and she had a pair of waxwork arms made that rested on the faux-pregnant belly. She had relatively upper-class looks so she could go to church services in rich areas of London and pick the pockets of anyone sitting next to her without being suspected.

She lived extremely well, had a gang of about eight others, and when she was finally convicted she was so famous, she was allowed to travel to her execution in a mourning carriage, wearing a black dress and a veil.

“If any Woman hath more Art than another, to be sure, ’tis Jenny Diver. Though her Fellow be never so agreeable, she can pick his Pocket as coolly, as if money were her only Pleasure. Now that is a Command of the Passions in a Woman!” — John Gay, 1738

Ask me a question on literally any topic (doesn’t have to be about criming) by commenting or emailing thewhippet(at)mckinleyvalentine.com  make sure to include how/if you want to be named/linked.

For more of this sort of thing, sign up to my weekly newsletter, The Whippet!

For more of this sort of thing, sign up to my weekly newsletter, The Whippet!

The stupidest successful prison escape

In 1995, two murderers (sorry) escaped a Darwin, Australia, prison by making a copy of the prison master key, which could open every lock in Berrimah jail. In 2013, a former prison officer revealed how:

“The prisoners’ information handbook had a pair of crossed keys on the front of it. Those keys were a dead-set copy of the keys that we had.”

“Heiss was in a cell where he could reach his arm through the window and reach the lock,” the prison officer said. “Baker [a jeweller who had jewellery-making equipment in his cell] was in a cell where he couldn’t reach the lock.He used to give the key to Heiss and he would put it in the lock, then give it back and say ‘I think it needs a bit more off here or there’.”

The officer said Heiss’s escape caused a huge amount of embarrassment for the authorities. “The handbooks were taken off the prisoners straightaway and the contractors were called in to change all the locks,” he said.

(Full article is a Murdoch paper so no link)

For more of this sort of thing, sign up to my weekly newsletter, The Whippet!

The 23 types of vagabond

Each one was a separate chapter in Thomas Harman’s A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursitors, vulgarly called vagabonds(published 1566).

Adolf Hitler in 1899

This woodcut is of the vagabond Nicholas Jennings, and appeared in a pamphlet titled Gentleman and Beggar. Jennings was executed in 1566. He was caught with a bag of blood used to paint fake injuries on his head.

The several disorders and degrees amongst our idle vagabonds:

1. Rufflers (thieving beggars, former soldiers, apprentice uprightment)
2. Uprightmen (leaders of robber bands)
3. Hookers or anglers (thieves who steal through windows with hooks)
4. Rogues (rank-and-file vagabonds)
5. Wild rogues (those born of rogues)
6. Priggers of prancers (stealers of horses)
7. Palliards (male and female beggars, traveling in pairs)
8. Fraters (sham proctors, pretending to beg for hospitals, etc.)
9. Abraham-men (feigned lunatics)
10. Fresh-water mariners or whipjacks (beggars pretending to have been shipwrecked)
11. Dummerers (sham deaf-mutes)
12. Drunken tinkers (thieves using the trade as a cover)
13. Swadders or peddlers (thieves pretending to be peddlers)
14. Jarkmen (forgers of licenses) or patricoes (hedge priests)

Of Womenkind:

1. Demanders for glimmer or fire (female beggars pretending to have suffered loss by fire)
2. Bawdy baskets (female peddlars)
3. Morts (prostitutes and thieves)
4. Autem morts (married harlots)
5. Walking morts (unmarried harlots)
6. Doxies (prostitutes who begin with uprightmen)
7. Dells (young girls, incipient doxies)
8. Kinchin morts (female beggar children)
9. Kinchin coves (male beggar children)

More details on A Caveat and the types of vagabonds here.

For more of this sort of thing, sign up to my weekly newsletter, The Whippet!

Interviews with female bodyguards


“I’m nearly 50 and I am shocked that I’m still alive. I was shocked at 30 and I was shocked at 40. I keep saying it’s time to wind down, but I miss doing my job too much. I need the adrenaline.”

“It’s the same thing every year: you have to be vetted by a guy from the Saudi embassy saying, ‘Oh, my God, you are a woman!’ At which point you have to throw one of his blokes on the floor and stamp on his windpipe to prove you can do the job.”

“It’s very frustrating working with people who have no understanding of the value of money, who think they can buy anything. There was one 10-year-old Middle Eastern princess I had to take round London. She asked: ‘Can you go and get me a kitten, a puppy, and a baby to play with?’ I said I couldn’t get a baby and all hell broke loose.”

I was also so interested in how they said most of the work was done beforehand, on the computer – researching the situation in a country, where the risks are, safe routes, etc etc.
Full article

For more of this sort of thing, sign up to my weekly newsletter, The Whippet!

I’m anti-crime, but I’m pro-heist

(This is a cool story / I know crime is bad)

Image result for grimoire

“Antiquarian books worth more than £2m have been stolen by a gang who avoided a security system by abseiling into a west London warehouse.

The gang are reported to have climbed on to the building’s roof and bored holes through the reinforced glass-fibre skylights before rappelling down 40ft of rope while avoiding motion-sensor alarms.

The most valuable item in the stolen haul was a 1566 copy of Nicolaus Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, worth about £215,000.

Among the other books stolen were early works by Galileo, Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci and a 1569 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

One source familiar with the case said: “They would be impossible to sell to any reputable dealer or auction house. We’re not talking Picassos or Rembrandts or even gold bars – these books would be impossible to fence. It must be for some one specialist. There must be a collector behind it. The books belong to three different dealers working at the very top of the market and altogether they form a fantastic collection.” Full article (but honestly that’s the gist of it)

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑