In the late 19th century, nefarious groups ruled the streets of London, but one stood out: the Forty Elephants, London's all-female organization. Contemporaries of the real Peaky Blinders, these women were the best shoplifters in London, able to hide multiple fur coats in their skirts and bloomers; and their queen, Diamond Annie, ran the outfit with ruthless precision in the 1910s and '20s. Dressed in expensive furs and arriving by limousine, Diamond Annie walked into high-end department stores and swiped fortunes' worth of merchandise in under an hour. Annie also enforced a code for the Forty Elephants, even starting an uprising when one individual disobeyed her orders.
Like Mother Mandelbaum, New York's greatest fence, the Forty Elephants sold off their ill-gotten jewels, furs, and clothes; but they weren't just "hoisters," as police called them. They also branched out into complex ruses, like disguising themselves as maids to dupe families out of their fortunes. After decades of disturbing London, Diamond Annie and her unique gang earned its spot as one of the most interesting underground groups in history.
In 1915, the Forty Elephants descended on a Selfridges department store. More than a dozen members showed up in disguise, exiting black hansom cabs in groups of three or four. Behind the taxis, a limousine pulled up, and the chauffeur held open the door for a stately woman wearing furs.
Since they were dressed as women of means, the store managers didn't see any red flags. In an hour, the women plundered the store, taking clothes and jewelry without detection.
Lead by Diamond Annie, the "queen of the cleverest gang of hoisters," the women walked out with a fortune in goods. Annie herself stuffed two sable coats under her own furs and raced off in her limo before the store even realized what had happened.
The Forty Elephants knew how to avoid detection: they looked like respectable women.
That's how Maggie Hughes and Diana Black were able to take a £600 fur coat. The women visited the tailor who custom-made the coat, dressed in fur coats of their own. After asking about the prices of different items in the showroom, Hughes and Black managed to hide the expensive jacket under one of their own. It took 30 minutes for anyone to notice the missing garment, but by then, Hughes and Black were long gone.
As Detective Ambrose Askew put it:
[The Forty Elephants are] the cleverest [lifters] in the country and their associates regarded them as the most expert thieves in the world. They operated all over the country, and their methods were so remarkable that they had never been seen to take any goods and none of the [taken] property had ever been recovered.
The Forty Elephants were experts at their craft. One member wore a false arm so she could conceal her real one under her coat to swipe more goods. Another, who was just 19 years old, was caught red-handed at William Whiteley's emporium in Bayswater. Police found the woman was hiding 45 items under her skirts.
The women used several techniques to take goods. In one ruse, called the "crush," a large group would swarm a counter, asking to see jewelry. The women would pass an item down the line until a disguised associate took it. The others, meanwhile, made a ruckus while proclaiming their innocence since they didn't have the item in question.
During another trick, called the "ringer," a member would "try on" an expensive necklace and then leave to create an identical decoy. A second person would come into the store with the decoy, then swap the real necklace with the fake one.
In a daring move called the "decoy," Diamond Annie would walk into a store that knew her reputation. While the managers and clerks tracked her, someone else took goods without detection.
The Forty Elephants may have been the best ring in London's history. The women donned coats and skirts with hidden pockets before visiting ritzy shops in London's West End. Once inside, they would lift thousands of pounds worth of merchandise in a matter of minutes by stuffing goods into their hidden pockets.
According to author Brian McDonald, the women also hid items in their hats and were given so much privacy when shopping they were even able to put merchandise in their bloomers.