The Formidable Forty Elephants
The Forty Elephants stole thousands of pounds worth of goods, which was serious money in the Victorian era. It was enough to financially support gang members and their male spouses and allow them to live in relative comfort. They also forged documents, which helped in another side hustle: they got hired as housemaids with fake reference letters, then robbed their employers’ homes. They were also blackmailers. Members seduced men of respectable backgrounds into brief affairs, then threatened to ruin their reputations unless they were paid. As evidenced by their willingness to kidnap, torture, and dish out beatings to exact tribute, the Forty Elephants were not squeamish when it came to violence. Nor did they shy away from a rumble. They were reportedly able to duke it out with an equal number of men, and their toughness earned the respect of male gangsters.
They lasted past the Victorian era, and into the 1950s. In the interwar years, they associated with the Elephant and Castle Gang, a huge male collection of burglars, receivers, smash-and-grab artists, and assorted criminal roughnecks that operated in south London. Unlike their often messy male allies, however, the Forty Elephants were well-organized, disciplined, and tightly run. While they stole expensive clothes, they never wore them. Instead, they distributed them through a network of fences, and to unscrupulous store owners who altered their labels and got fake receipts – often furnished by the Forty Elephants – to show that they had been legally purchased. That brains-before-brawn attitude helps explain the Forty Elephants’ longevity. They lasted for nearly two centuries, while the Elephant and Castle mob lasted for barely a decade before rivals put it out of business.