Criminal Secret Society: The Story of Forty Elephants

From the lecture series: The Real History of Secret Societies

By Richard B. Spence, Ph.D., University of Idaho

In the summer of 1914, a group of well-dressed women entered a Selfridges Departmental Store on Oxford Street in London. An unusual thing about them was that they were carrying muffs in the warm weather. They had a look at watches, jewellery, and clothes; and soon enough, they got into waiting cabs and vanished quickly. This was a robbery by the Forty Elephants gang, the most feared all-female criminal secret society in London underworld.

Painting of members of Apache gang fighting with police in 1904 in Paris.
A criminal gang is not principled and doesn’t work for spiritual enlightenment, fellowship, or political conspiracy.
(Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Criminal Gang and Criminal Secret Society

Is a criminal gang actually a criminal secret society? It definitely is. There are many similarities between criminal gangs and secret societies: their membership is selective; members need to take oaths and be initiated into the gang; and members generally move up through ranks and grades. The most important part is what they do and how they do it are matters of top secrecy.

Map of secret society buildings in Yale college.
Criminal gangs had many similarities with secret societies, though they both functioned on different principles. (Image: Miss Alice Donlevy/Public domain)

However, a major difference between a criminal gang and other secret societies is that a criminal gang is not principled and doesn’t work for spiritual enlightenment, fellowship, or political conspiracy. But when they have to make money, some criminal groups do flirt with politics.

A criminal secret society is, in fact, mainly about money. They exist for profit, though that’s not all there is to it. Their path is full of dangers, so they usually have rituals for supernatural protection. And like other secret societies, criminal gangs also act as artificial families for their members; sometimes the only one they’ve ever known. Once someone enters the gang, there is no going out, definitely not alive. When the members take oaths of loyalty and silence, it is not just a formality.

This is a transcript from the video series The Real History of Secret Societies. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Forty Elephants or Forty Thieves

Forty Elephants was the biggest and most feared all-female gang in the London underworld. The gang is mentioned in police reports going back to the 1870s, and something like it was operating possibly a century earlier. When police departments began compiling statistics in the 19th century they suddenly ‘discovered’ organized crime.

Forty Elephants probably got their name because of their home turf, which was Lambeth area of south London, and its landmark was Elephant and Castle statue. The nearby Elephant and Castle Pub was a kind of headquarters. Another story is that ‘elephant’ was word-play for ‘elegant’. Yet another story is that it referred to the way many of the women looked when they came out of a store loaded down with swag.

At other times, the gang was called Forty Thieves. The main job of the women was shoplifting, which they carried out in groups. A big part of their success came from looking like upper class socialites. Pretty females in smart clothes were unlikely to be questioned, much less searched. Long skirts and bustles contained hidden compartments to stash goods. More could be concealed in hats and muffs.

But shoplifting was not the only thing they did. Some members of the gang would use false references to get employment as housemaids. Once settled, they would call other members and totally clean the house.

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Alice Diamond: The Young Queen

What was unique about Forty Elephants as a criminal secret society was that it was not just composed of women, but was also run by a woman. The top position in the gang was of the Queen who had absolute authority.

Photograph of Alice Diamond.
Alice Diamond was known as ‘Diamond Annie’; the man-killing Amazon. (Image: The People/Public domain)

Sometime around 1915, the post of the Queen went to a 20-year-old girl named Alice Diamond. Alice was the daughter of an alcoholic petty thief; born and raised in the same London workhouse that sheltered a young Charlie Chaplin. British tabloid described her as ‘Diamond Annie’, the man-killing Amazon. She was definitely strong physically; the rings on her fingers could smash anyone’s face, but her success was more due to her brain than her toughness.

She used early automobiles to spread the group’s activities beyond London. By the early 20s, they had started targeting stores as far as Coventry and Liverpool.

Alice thought that police, courts, and laws were a ploy by the rich to keep everything for themselves. While this could lead us to believe that Forty Elephants was a feminist fairy-tale of sisters doing it for themselves, the truth was different.

There was a man behind every bad woman. The Forty Elephants was very much connected to the all-male Elephant and Castle gang, another criminal secret society. Alice Diamond was the lover of one of the leaders of that gang, Bert McDonald, and her second-in-command Maggie Hill’s brother was another criminal, Billy Hill. Most of the money that Forty Elephants earned ended up in the pockets of assorted husbands, boyfriends, and male fences.

As the Queen of Forty Thieves, Alice kept a close watch on who her girls engaged with. They had to take her approval before starting any relationship or getting married. The husband or boyfriend had to be reliable because he was bound to learn something about the gang’s activities. In 1925, one of the Elephants married a man in spite of disapproval by Alice Diamond. It resulted in what is known as the Battle of Lambeth, and it was the beginning of the end of Forty Elephants. Alice and Maggie led the attack on the newly married couple, and it ended with a big brawl with police and both Alice and Maggie landing in jail. A new Queen, Lillian Rose Kendall, took charge but things could never get back to how they were in earlier times.

The Forty Elephants were active through the 1930s and World War II, but they had all but vanished by the 1950s. Alice Diamond, who was a formidable force once, ran a brothel after her release from jail and took retirement.

The fall of the Forty Elephants was also connected with the end of Elephant and Castle gang. In the ‘30s, Elephant and Castle was pushed out by the rival Saffron Hill Mob led by Charles “Derby” Sabini. He used connections in Italy to import a brace of Sicilian gunman.

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The Mafia

The mafia is hands-down the most famous criminal secret society. In fact, the term ‘mafia’ has become generic for just about any organized crime group. But mafia was never there as a real criminal secret society. For the members, it was and still is just La Cosa Nostra or ‘our thing’.

Like so many secret societies, its origins are unknown. The term has been taken from a Sicilian word mafiasu, whose origin is again unknown. It basically means guts or bravado. People who wanted to be tough started calling themselves mafiosi.

As a label representative of organized crime, it came into focus when officials of the Kingdom of Italy started compiling and analyzing the statistics of organized crime in the 1860s. And since then, mafia has been used as a name for organized crime gangs.

Common Questions about Criminal Secret Society

Q: What is a secret society?

A secret society is an organization whose members take an oath of secrecy and are initiated into the society with a compulsion to help each other. They have secret passwords and rituals.

Q: What was Forty Elephants?

Forty Elephants was the biggest and most feared all-female gang in the London underworld.

Q: Who was Alice Diamond?

Alice Diamond was the Queen of Forty Elephants, an all-female gang in London. Around 1915, the 20-year-old Alice Diamond became the Queen of the gang. She was known as as ‘Diamond Annie’, the man-killing Amazon.

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