A Victorian Female Crime Ring
The Forty Elephants were a prominent Victorian female gang that held sway over part of London, and whose roots go back to the 1700s. Their criminal activities were not limited to their own neighborhood. They operated across the British capital, and eventually, their reach extended throughout Britain. They got their moniker because they were based in the Elephant and Castle, an area in London’s Borough of Southwark whose most famous landmark was a pub and coaching inn that bore that name.
They specialized in shoplifting, helped by the voluminous, multilayered, and complicated clothing worn by women well into the twentieth century. Prudish attitudes that afforded women significant privacy also made it easier for female shoplifters to escape notice. They nearly bled posh West End stores white with their shoplifting raids. Eventually, mere rumors of their presence in an upscale neighborhood began to trigger panics among shop owners. They also exacted tribute from smaller gangs that engaged in shoplifting. Those who failed to pay were beaten, and sometimes kidnapped and tortured until they changed their minds. Although store thefts were a key part of their criminal activities, it was not all that they had in their bag of tricks.