Sometimes there’s no question about it—fact is more unbelievable than fiction. And the story of Alice Elizabeth Black, aka “Alice Diamond,” and her gang Forty Elephants is one of those facts.
My research began when I came across this picture:
This is not, in fact, a picture of a 19th century girl gang, FYI. It’s just a really fascinating photo of Victorian women smoking while dressed as men, which, in and of itself, is fucking awesome. But it led me to discover the story of an actual 19th-century all-female London crime syndicate, and their stories are pretty “LOL” unbelievable.
So let me introduce you to Alice Diamond, mother fuckers, declared by a leading detective of the time (Sherlock, is that you?) to be “queen of the cleverest gang of hoisters” in London. In case you were wondering, “hoisters” are thieves. Now, let me be clear: I don’t condone stealing shit. By listing Alice as a anti-heroine, I am speaking for women of the times, women who were born into poverty, and were likely to live and die in poverty with too many fucking kids; women who did not have the right to own their own property, make their own money, sign a contract, or vote. If I had lived in that time and place… Shit. I can’t tell you the kind of trouble I would have caused. I’m *pretty sure* I wouldn’t have lived to see the ripe old age of 39, let me tell you. (I mean 25. I’m only 25. Right.)
Alice never had a snowball’s chance in hell, ya’ll. She was born in a workhouse, which was basically a prison for poor people. Remember, folks, that this was in a time when child labor was legal—and used to its full advantage (children were often split from their families and hired out to work for factories.) Alice’s parents were at the very bottom of the social strata. Her father was, actually, a career criminal who was known for punching the heads of politicians through glass doors (I don’t know about you, but I like her already). Alice was the oldest of 8 fucking children—which meant she probably helped raise most of them—and she was pretty, which, you know, meant she knew she had some sort of power, even if it was her only one in her cruel, harsh world. Still, it took her a while to use it; she got busted for stealing chocolate when she was 15, and that pretty much sealed the deal. Alice was destined for infamy.
The story really begins with a gang of men called the Elephant and Castle. These dudes were a network of brutal thieves who worked south of the Thames. They were named after a tavern they hung out at, because OF COURSE. *My gang, by the way, would totally be called “Spec’s Liquor Store Gang.” (We’d be a roving gang of drunk soccer moms who make fun of you for spending the entire day at your kids’ school in a tennis skirt “volunteering.” Fucking watch yourself.)
Anyway, the technicalities of how Alice became involved in a gang isn’t a simple love story—she did not, in fact, fall in love with a gangster and decide to join a girl gang. The truth is actually the opposite: Poor girls learned early on that men were not their friends. They knew that getting pregnant was the end of them, so they banded together to fend boys off. The braver ones understood that, in order to get a piece of the riches, however, they had to enter a man’s world, and that’s exactly what they did.
Daughters who had seen their mothers knocked about by their husbands resolved not to suffer in the same way. As they grew older, many learned how to fight, not just to defend their honour and avoid becoming pregnant but to stand up to rough men. They fought coppers too, and shop assistants when that became necessary. They called their leader ‘Queen’, a woman with two essential qualities: brains to plan and brawn to front the men.
—Alice Diamond And The Forty Elephants: Britain’s First Female Crime Syndicate by Brian McDonald
So basically, these chicks walked into the Elephant and Castle Tavern, looked the male gangsters in the eyes, and challenged them to the right to drink, be merry, and, most importantly, rob the rich. Oh, sure—they got the guys to help them out on occasion. But this didn’t happen often, because it cost them a pretty penny. The girls learned very quickly that “women only” was the way to make the most money, so that’s what they did.
Alice became “Queen” of the already infamous Forty Elephants when she was only 18. She’d already become a skilled, crafty thief, at this point, having already been sentenced to hard labor multiple times for stealing gowns, coats, and—no shit—explosives to blow up safes. Alice had somehow proven herself worthy of “Queen,” despite her youth. That said, she wasn’t a big, mean-looking chick. In fact, many of the Forty Elephants were beautiful and used their looks to the full advantage by dressing all “high class” and “putting on the posh” to deceive shopkeepers. Under Alice, the gang was basically like pirates: They had a strict code that they adhered to, with rules that included…
- Money is equally split among all members, regardless of status.
- No drinking before a job, and get your ass to bed early.
- “Subscription” money will be used to hire defense lawyers.
- Members will not wear the shit they steal.
- Members will not steal other members’ shit (including their boyfriends).
If a girl broke the rules, she was shunned from the group. And if she showed her face in that hood again, she was liable to get her ass whooped. Essentially, the rules for women were no different than they were for men. Alice was such a good a leader that she didn’t lose her position as “queen” even when she was in prison for months at a time, which GODDAMN (and she was in prison A LOT.) Bitch must have commanded RESPECT from her fellow gang members, amiright?
Look, the fact that newspapers in the United States covered the stories of the Forty Elephants is enough proof you need that Alice was a force a to be reckoned with: They had a trick. A decoy. A ringer. They had these elaborate plans that ensured they stole successfully for years. I mean, forget Ocean’s Eleven. Or twelve. Or fucking sixteen. These women had a fucking plan.
When Alice was finally caught, the newspapers—both in England and in the US—celebrated:
The Forty Elephants have at last been trapped. For months London’s most notorious gang, made up of women, picked for their beauty or brawn, terrorised the Elephant and Castle district, in which they had their headquarters, and played havoc with the stocks of expensive London stores. But a mass attack waged against the family of a renegade member of the gang brought the police, brought nine members into court and brought jail sentences for the six leaders. London at last breathes more easily. Police believe this is the first case of a gang of this size and viciousness being composed and directed by women and girls.
—The Sunday Morning Star
Thus ended the reign of Alice Diamond. Unfortunately for the Establishment, her incarceration sparked a 10-day strike by coal miners in Alice’s neighborhood because their wages had recently been reduced. The lesson to be learned? Don’t underestimate a human being simply because she has a vagina.
Damn straight, bitches. Now fuck off.