Also known as a phantom thief, the gentleman thief is a popular stock character in fiction. Characterized by impeccable manners and style, they often use guile and charm to commit crimes, unlike common criminals who go straight to violence.
Imagine James Bond going rogue and you’ll have a fairly close image of the gentleman thief. His female counterpart is either a lady thief or sometimes, the cat burglar.
What Is a Gentleman Thief?
Gentlemen thieves usually want for nothing and don’t need to work, as they are part of a wealthy or noble family. Their background provides them with superior education, a gentleman’s (or lady’s) manners, and a code of honor. But with everything being handed to them, they’re also unsatisfied with life.
As a result, they pursue adventure through illegal means. While they can easily buy the things they steal, they choose illicit activities for the thrill of doing them. Sometimes it’s also about correcting a wrong, such as stealing ill-gotten wealth or bankrupting evil criminals.
Gentlemen thieves adhere to a strict personal code. This often includes avoiding violence, and preferring instead to use more peaceful methods of thievery. However, when push comes to shove, they won’t hesitate to fight and are depicted as competent, if untraditional, fighters.
Despite being criminals themselves, their nature as gentlemen has them go out of their way to stop more serious crimes, especially when lives are at stake. They also exercise a level of Robin Hood philosophy by stealing strictly from the rich and distributing a portion of it to the poor.
And like all debonair adventurers, they like taking risks. For gentlemen thieves, that often means taunting the police. They leave “calling cards” behind every crime to tell the cops who did it. The more confident ones even call the police in advance to announce their next targets—and still manage to get away with the loot despite heightened security.
Over the course of their careers, they often form odd relationships with their police counterparts. While it’s not outright friendship, they often develop a grudging respect for each other’s work.
Gentlemen Thieves in Fiction
Popular culture has given us many memorable gentlemen thieves. Below are some of the most famous of them.
1. Arsène Lupin
Pretty much the prototype for the gentleman thief, Arsene Lupin is a suave, intellectually gifted, and accomplished thief. No one knows what he truly looks like, as he’s always in disguise. Reformed, he also moonlights as a detective, solving crimes that the police can’t figure out.
Lupin was created as the criminal mirror to Sherlock Holmes. And while he is a criminal, his burglaries are done for a moral reason—most often to steal valuables from the unappreciative rich and give them to those who can either use or truly appreciate them.
2. Robin Hood
To an extent, Robin Hood can be classified as a gentleman thief. He’s a former noble who has had access to formal education, training, and social exposure. As a thief, he’s seen as a hero to the destitute, known for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.
His robbery tactics are more about convincing his marks to give up their valuables rather than taking them by force. Sometimes, he’d even invite his victims to a feast—using the supplies he had just stolen from them, no less.
3. Carmen Sandiego
In the long-running edutainment series of the same name, Carmen Sandiego is the head of the Villains’ International League of Evil (V.I.L.E). A fashionable criminal genius, Carmen is motivated by the challenges of thievery rather than greed.
Most of her crimes are large-scale, spectacular, and often impossible heists involving monuments and other such structures. This, and her ability to escape every situation she’s in, has earned her the epithets of The Queen of Crime, and The World’s Greatest Thief.
4. John Robie
Known as “The Cat,” John Robie was once the most notorious jewel thief there ever was. He’s not a complete villain though, seeing as he was part of the French resistance during World War II.
Handsome, confident, and rich, he enjoys retirement in his luxurious villa in the French Riviera. But when someone masquerading as The Cat puts him under suspicion, he decides that it takes a thief to catch a thief.
5. Sir Charles Lytton
Sir Charles Lytton is a rich playboy who is secretly a thief called “The Phantom.” His calling card comes in the form of a white glove left at the scene of his burglaries.
Throughout the Pink Panther series, he plots to steal or recover the titular diamond and constantly butts heads with Inspector Clouseau.
Gentlemen Thieves in Real Life
Gentlemen and lady thieves do exist in real life. Here are a few notable examples of them:
6. Charles E. Boles
Known as “Black Bart,” Boles earned his reputation as a gentleman bandit by leaving behind poetic messages during two of his robberies. He was also known for his style and sophistication as he never swore, never fired his shotgun, and was civil with his victims.
Despite his gentlemanly behavior, he was still one of the most notorious stagecoach robbers in Northern California and southern Oregon during the 1870s.
7. Sofia Ivanovna Blyuvshtein
Also known as “Sonya Golden Hand,” Blyuvshtein was a famous lady thief and con artist who disguised herself as an aristocrat and robbed the bourgeoisie of a considerable fortune.
Not much is known about her personal life, but many books and films portray her as a Robin Hood figure. She never used violence, and strictly stole from the rich.
8. Matthew Brady
Matthew Brady was a bushranger (analogous to the British highwayman) who operated in the early 1800s. He was given the name “Gentleman Brady” because of his fine manners and good treatment of his victims, especially towards women.
He was also known for his wit, responding to the governor’s bounty on him by putting a price on the governor. When finally captured and sentenced to hang, many admirers left him gifts and called for his release. He was reported to have faced death with dignity.
9. Willie Sutton
“Slick” Willie Sutton was a robber in the 1920s who was known for his talent with disguises. He’s also known as the namesake for Sutton’s Law (where one must go for the most obvious choice) though he denied originating it.
He was known for his wit and nonviolence as a robber, going as far as carrying unloaded weapons as somebody might get hurt. He also allegedly stopped robbing banks when a woman screamed or a baby cried.
10. Samuel Bellamy
Samuel Bellamy, or “Black Sam,” was a sailor turned pirate who operated in the early 18th century. He is recorded to be the wealthiest pirate in recorded history.
He is well known to his contemporaries and to history as tall, strong, well-mannered, and tidy. He liked expensive clothes and is described as cultivating a dashing appearance. He was also known for being generous and merciful to the people he captured and was well-loved by his crew.
As a stock character, the gentleman thief often falls into the category of criminals who you can’t help but cheer for. It’s understandable; they are written to be charming and confident.
What really makes them enjoyable characters is that their stories are essentially a deconstruction of detective stories. Just like in detective fiction, these characters are portrayed as smart, skilled, gifted, and having a personality that pulls the reader deeper into the narrative, The only difference is that they operate on the other side of the law.
And in most stories that involve gentlemen thieves, they’re not really villains, or at least they aren’t complete dastards. There’s a reason for every crime, and these characters give readers a path to a different treatment of crime in fiction.