Forty thieves

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When it comes to organized retail crime, the ultimate girl gang operated in London from the late 1800s through the first half of the 20th century. An offshoot of a traditional all-male crime syndicate known as the Elephant and Castle Mob — named for the section of south London where they operated — the exclusively female group was known as the Forty Elephants, sometimes the Forty Thieves. Their specialty was raiding fancy shops and department stores, including Selfridges, D. H. Evans (now known as House of Fraser) and Debenham & Freebody (now known as Debenhams).

The women dressed fashionably in garments that were tailored to include voluminous pockets and pouches into which merchandise could be stuffed. Long skirts, layers of petticoats, bustles, trains, large hats and various accessories meant plenty of room to stash jewelry and clothing, activity made easier by the deference which women patrons were afforded by retailers then.

One of the women reportedly balled-up and stuffed two sable coats into her garments before exiting a store.
Some historians trace the gang’s origins to the late 1700s, but their first mention in the press wasn’t until 1873. They maintained a high profile until the 1930s, when some leaders were arrested, but vestiges of the group stayed active until the 1950s.

The most notorious period of activity dates from late during World War I through the Roaring ‘20s and into the Depression. The leader then was Alice Diamond — also called Diamond Annie — who wore a fistful of diamond rings to worsen the blow when delivering a punch to fend off apprehension.

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