“INSIDE YOU’LL MEET THE FABULOUS MASTER CRIMINAL WHO STOLE $16 MILLION,"
shouts the sign in a Vancouver shop window.
The "master criminal" is 78-year-old Herbert Emerson Wilson—self-proclaimed King of the Safecrackers and Canada’s most highly publicized professional ex-crook.
His latest venture is the Hall of Mysteries (Admission Free, Donations Welcomed)— a garish arcade hung with a dozen huge, hideous surrealist paintings, each signed by the master criminal himself. One exhibit is a rope “used to hang one of my San Quentin cell-mates” in 1927. It looks brand new.
Wilson's present career got started ten years ago when Collier’s magazine published his story, l Stole $16 Million. Since then it has been retold in a paperback book and in scores of newspaper and magazine articles. He’s given lectures, advised mayors on how to fight crime, written letters-to-the-editor about sex, religion, capital punishment, art and the atom bomb, appeared on radio and TV and written a weekly crime column for the Courtenay Argus. He even muscled in on an art controversy. While Vancouverites were hotly protesting a suggestion that the city buy Jacob Epstein’s ruggedly modern statue of Christ. Wilson said he'd buy it — for $15,000. (The city fathers didn’t: neither did Wilson.)
“All of this work, and my new arcade," he says, “have been dedicated to proving the futility of crime."
The futility of crime was proven once again in 1957. when the man who says he stole $16 million was fined $100 for shoplifting groceries worth $2. Wilson said he was gathering column fodder for the Argus. “Unmitigated bunk!" replied the magistrate.
Did Wilson actually steal $16 million? "I haven’t got receipts to show for it, bul I sure did!" he replies indignantly. "And that’s the FBI’s count, not mine.” One fact he soft pedals: it was for murder—not safecracking—that he served 12 years of a life sentence in San Quentin. In 1922, while awaiting trial for safecracking, he shot and killed one of his own gang during an attempted escape.
lie’s probably the King of the Name-droppers. During the South African War (he says) he was decorated by Queen Victoria for helping Churchill escape from the Boers, He was taught to paint in San Quentin (he says) by a murderer who had studied under Diego Rivera. Edward G. Robinson (says Wilson) recently “indicated his interest in my paintings.” Robinson actually wrote: ‘They arc not exactly the type of picture I collect.”
How profitable is life as King of the Ex-Crooks? When Maclean’s put this question to Wilson he produced an up-to-date bank book showing a balance of $13.390.39. "And every penny earned on the up and up.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.