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The Greatest Girl Gang in History

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website or at Facebook.

While the recent rise in girl gangs in Britain might be keeping U.K. politicians up at night, bands of female crooks are nothing new to the region. One tends to think of gangs as a mostly male endeavor, and this is and always has been pretty much true. But the greatest girl gang in history outdid most of the male gangs, not only in London, but anywhere.

Possibly beginning in the late 1700's, an all-female syndicate known as the Forty Elephants started their well-planned crime spree. The Forty Elephants (also known as The Forty Thieves) used clever thievery to wreak havoc on the local economies. They were called the Forty Elephants not because they were fat or overweight, but because they operated from the Elephant and Castle district of London.

These ladies operated from, at least, 1873 until the 1950's. There is recent evidence that they may possibly have dated back to the late 18th century. During the early 1900's the Forty Elephants gang was led by Alice Diamond a.k.a. “Queen of the 40 Thieves" and “Diamond Annie.”

These sticky-fingered women became known for using Victorian era fashions and standards to their advantage. The Forty Elephants has specially-tailored pockets sewn into their puffy bloomers and skirts. They also used muffs, cummerbunds and specially-tailored coats. These were used to hide any objects they lifted. And because the prudish norms of the day dictated that they be given total privacy as they browsed and tried on merchandise, the crimes were rarely witnessed. They sometimes robbed dozens of shops across a city all at the same time.

Havoc erupted in London as their fame grew, and eventually they expanded out to other cities. The girls were actually allied to the Elephant and Castle Gang, an all-male criminal gang. The contrast between the guys and the girls, although each were criminal gangs, is quite telling.

The Elephant and Castle Gang were a macho group of smash-and-grab hoodlums, burglars, receivers, a group of hard men and tough villains. The ladies of the Forty Elephants, in direct contrast, were a carefully organized collection of cells that spanned out across London and into other cities. According to The Guardian, the elephants operated with "military precision.”

The girls worshiped the glamorous, exotic movie actresses of the day. They also idolized the flappers of the 1920's. They read about their outrageous behavior and tried to emulate them. The Forty Elephants threw lavish parties and spent their ill-gotten gains freely in pubs, clubs and restaurants.

They never wore anything they stole. The most valuable stolen items went to a chain of fences in north and south London. Smaller items went to pawnbrokers. Stolen clothes went to shops who replaced the labels and remodeled the designs.

The Forty Elephants had many sidelines. Occasionally, an Elephant girl would use false references to get employment as a housemaid, before robbing and ransacking her bosses' home.

Slick and clever as they were, occasionally an Elephant gang member was apprehended. Maggie Hughes, an Elephant gang member, had a police record from the age of 14. She was nabbed in 1923 for stealing 34 diamond rings. She was fleeing from a jeweler's shop and ran right into the arms of a policeman.

So, whatever became of the Forty Elephants? Well, the gang thrived for about 150 years. But soon, the public's views on women changed, out-dating the group's original tactics. Nonetheless, the Forty Elephants got away with countless millions of pounds of stolen goods over the course of their incredible reign of thievery.

In terms of money and stolen goods, the Forty Elephants, although less-famous than their American male criminal counterparts, actually put Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd to shame, making those boys look like amateurs.

Also, in terms of pure survival, the Elephant girls of London were like cockroaches. No male gang in the history of England (or possibly anywhere else) ever stayed active and flourished as long as the Forty Elephants.

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