A Very Irish Scandal: The Gay Rumors Behind the Unsolved Irish Crown Jewels Heist of 1907
By Brigit Katz
On the afternoon of July 6, 1907, an office messenger at Dublin Castle made an unsettling discovery in one of the site’s towers. He had been instructed to deposit a knight’s gold collar inside a safe containing the Irish Crown Jewels, a collection of dazzling insignia. But when the messenger, William Stivey, went to open the door of the safe, he found it was already unlocked.
Stivey rushed to inform Sir Arthur Vicars, who presided over the Office of Arms, a small bureau that, among other duties, was responsible for the maintenance of the jewels. Vicars possessed the only two keys to the safe. One, which he had temporarily given to Stivey, was normally kept in his pocket or on a chain around his neck. The other was hidden at his house in Dublin. Vicars told Stivey that he was certain he had locked the safe after last opening it. He raced to the office’s library, where the safe was located, and peered inside. The Crown Jewels—along with his own mother’s diamonds, which he had stashed in the safe—were gone.
The stolen jewels have never been found, and their disappearance remains one of Ireland’s most tantalizing mysteries. In the months following the theft, astonishing revelations emerged about security breaches at Dublin Castle and shifty characters with links to the Office of Arms. The British king was accused of covering up details of the crime. The brother of a famous explorer was named as a suspect. And at the heart of the scandal were salacious allegations—first whispered, then shouted—about a secret, gay party scene within the castle walls.
“There is more to play for here than just the theft of the jewels,” Myles Dungan, author of The Stealing of the Irish Crown Jewels: An Unsolved Crime, tells Mental Floss. “There are reputations at risk.”
A Reward for Loyalty to the Crown
A grand complex in the center of the city, Dublin Castle was, for some 700 years, the seat of English and British rule in Ireland. The turn of the 20th century was a relatively “quiescent” period in Irish history, according to Dungan, but the push for an independent domestic government was underway, setting nationalists in opposition to unionists loyal to the Crown. It was against this simmering political climate that the jewels—an enduring symbol of colonial rule in Ireland—disappeared from the castle.
Unlike their English counterparts, the Irish Crown Jewels were not used in coronations, but were instead the insignia of the Order of St. Patrick, founded in 1783 to reward Irish nobles and office-holders with prestigious knighthoods. The jewels comprised several knights’ collars and a star and badge adorned with Brazilian diamonds, shamrocks made of emeralds, and ruby crosses. In 1907, the jewels were valued at more than £30,000; today, according to Dublin Castle, they would be worth “several million euro.”
Vicars, who held the centuries-old title “Ulster King of Arms,” was primarily responsible for tracing aristocratic genealogies and overseeing heraldry in Ireland. A pedantic fellow, he relished this niche work, but was less enthused about caring for the Crown Jewels—another important part of his job. He was at times bewilderingly cavalier about the insignia's security, an attitude that would come to haunt him until the end of his life.
An Inside Job?
The trouble arguably started when the Office of Arms moved to new accommodations in Dublin Castle’s Bedford Tower. A strong room was built to house the Crown Jewels, but in a farcical turn of events, workers found that the safe holding the insignia didn’t fit through the door. In consultation with the castle’s Board of Works, Vicars decided to put the safe in the library, a high-traffic space that also functioned as the Office of Arms's waiting room. He never got around to acquiring a smaller safe, even after revising the Order’s statutes to stipulate that the jewels should be relocated to the strong room.
The insignia were last seen on June 11, 1907, when Vicars took them out of the safe to show them to a visitor. Then came a series of alarming incidents that pointed to nefarious goings-on at the Office of Arms.
On June 28, Vicars’s key to the front door of the tower went missing; it would reappear two days after the theft was discovered. On the morning of July 3, the office cleaner, Mrs. Farrell, arrived at work to find the door already unlocked. “Did she?” Vicars reportedly responded upon being informed of this concerning development. He similarly failed to act when, three days later, Mrs. Farrell noticed that the strong room’s outer door had been left ajar.
When the disappearance of the jewels came to light later that afternoon, Vicars finally summoned the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Investigators concluded that the locks to the front door, strong room, and safe had not been forced, indicating that the thief had the original keys or well-made copies. Chief Inspector John Kane of Scotland Yard was called in to help solve the crime, which he believed was an inside job.
The Other Shackleton
Suspicion soon fell on Francis Shackleton, the younger brother of famed Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. The Shackletons were a middle-class Irish family living in England, where charming Francis rose in aristocratic circles, enjoying friendships with the likes of the 9th Duke of Argyll, brother-in-law of King Edward VII. In 1905, Vicars offered Shackleton the position of “Dublin Herald” in the Office of Arms; it was an unpaid, largely honorary title.
“He's on a path where, if he's a good boy—which he wasn't—he will probably get a knighthood or something,” Dungan says.
Shackleton had been trying to make his fortune through land speculation in Mexico, but police discovered that his finances were strained—a plausible motive for stealing the jewels. He also lived with Vicars during his visits to Dublin, which would have made it relatively easy for him to slip away with one of Vicars’s safe keys and procure a copy.
But building a case against Shackleton proved problematic. For one, he had an alibi; he had left Dublin for England on June 11 and returned after the theft was discovered. That didn’t rule out the possibility that Shackleton had orchestrated the crime with the help of an accomplice, but investigators may have been reluctant to press Shackleton on this theory. At a time when sex acts between men were illegal in Britain, Shackleton’s homosexuality was an open secret; police may have feared he’d reveal scandalous information about prominent aristocrats in his orbit—like his friend the Duke of Argyll, who was also rumored to be gay, or the duke’s closest friend, the sculptorLord Ronald Gower.
“His life in London was totally documented by Scotland Yard,” Brian Lacey, author of Terrible Queer Creatures: Homosexuality in Irish History, tells Mental Floss. If Shackleton had nothing left to lose, he might spill the tea to save himself from prosecution.
There were other sensitive matters to consider. In his book, Dungan writes that police discovered Vicars was in the habit of hosting “soirées” at the castle, with “some of Dublin’s leading homosexuals” among his guests. The son of the Lord Lieutenant, who represented the king in Ireland, reportedly attended these parties—another aristocrat with potentially damaging connections to the heist. The king’s secretary was made aware of “scandalous conduct” at the castle, according to Dungan, and some have theorized that Edward VII stepped in to prevent any scurrilous revelations from becoming public.
A report written by Inspector Kane upon the conclusion of his investigation subsequently vanished—perhaps because it contained mention of “other stuff going on in the Office of Arms,” Dungan says. But someone had to pay for the theft of the jewels, which had caused considerable embarrassment to the administration. Vicars was asked to resign, but he refused, demanding a public inquiry. The Lord Lieutenant instead assembled a viceregal commission in January 1908, which sat in private, had no authority to compel witnesses to give evidence, and was primarily concerned with determining whether Vicars “exercised due vigilance … as the custodian” of the jewels. Not without justification, Vicars was found negligent and fired from his post. But the proceedings were essentially a “whitewash,” more concerned with scapegoating Vicars than uncovering the facts of the crime, writes historian Sean J. Murphy.
Officials may have hoped that heaping blame on Vicars would put the debacle at Dublin Castle to rest, and they were successful in keeping any whiff of a gay scandal out of the Irish press. But across the pond, shocking allegations were percolating. On July 4, 1908, a damning headline blared across the front page of The Gaelic American, an Irish American newspaper: “ABOMINATIONS OF DUBLIN CASTLE EXPOSED.”
The article proceeded to name Shackleton as “either the thief or a party to the theft of the jewels.” Since his appointment to the Office of Arms, the piece contended, “rumors began to circulate in Dublin that there were nightly orgies at the Castle, in which several prominent Government officials were mixed up.” Those “whispered stories,” the article asserted, were true, but had been “hushed up” under the direction of Edward VII.
The piece was published anonymously, but it is known to have been written by Bulmer Hobson, a journalist and influential member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which sought to establish an independent republican government. Hobson does not name his sources, but later revealed that the information came from Pierce O’Mahony, a nationalist politician and Vicars’s half-brother. Hobson’s objectives in publishing the exposé were undoubtedly political.
“What he really was trying to show was that the British were evil and wicked,” Lacey says.
Lacey thus suspects that the “nightly orgies” Hobson describes with a sensational flourish were more likely “relatively nice drinks parties, in which [guests] may have camped it up a bit.” But Dungan is more inclined to accept Hobson’s allegations.
“I don't think they're outlandish at all,” he says, “because it wouldn't have been the first time.”
A History of Scandal
In fact, the theft of the Crown Jewels marked the third gay controversy in two decades that embroiled high-ranking members of the British establishment. In the early 1880s, allegations made by an Irish nationalist journal led to the exposure of a “network of gay men who were active in the city’s gay underground,” writes historian Brian Crowley—among them the director of detectives with the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Secretary of the General Post Office of Ireland. The Dublin Castle Scandal—so called because it implicated Crown employees in Ireland—was followed by another salacious event in London. Known as the Cleveland Street Scandal, the affair began in 1889, when police discovered that a cohort of “telegraph boys” from the post office were working at a male brothel catering to aristocratic men.
These incidents were the source of great “public anxiety” and may explain why officials were eager to conceal even remote aristocratic connections to the theft of the Crown Jewels, according to Lacey. “Any investigation that would reveal God-knows-what ... would open up a can of worms which leads right up to the monarchy itself,” he says. “That couldn't be allowed.”
Because no one was ever arrested for stealing the jewels, theories about the heist have simmered over the past 115 years. Was it a nationalist plot, hatched to embarrass the Crown? Or perhaps unionists stole the insignia to disrupt the push for an autonomous Irish government? Suspicion has also been cast on Francis Bennett Goldney, a former mayor of Canterbury who, like Shackleton, held an honorary position at the Office of Arms. Goldney, it turns out, was a thief; after his death, it emerged that he had stolen ancient charters belonging to the City of Canterbury and a painting belonging to a duke.
But many believe that cash-strapped Francis Shackleton remains the most plausible culprit, and likely enlisted an accomplice to break into the safe. That accomplice may have been Captain Richard Gorges, a military man with a notorious reputation; he was known to be gay and was reportedly prone to violence, eventually going to prison for killing a police officer. Gorges was acquainted with Shackleton, whose own propensity for criminal behavior became clear in the years after the jewels went missing. In 1913, having declared bankruptcy, he was convicted of financial fraud and sentenced to 15 months' hard labor.
Vicars—woefully careless, but ruled out as a suspect by police—also met a sorry end. After being fired from the Office of Arms, he tried to establish his own genealogical practice in London, but was not successful and moved back to Ireland. In 1921, a mob claiming to be affiliated with the IRA shot Vicars to death outside his house. To the end of his days, he remained deeply embittered over his treatment during the Crown Jewels scandal.
“I might have had more to dispose of had it not been for the outrageous way in which I was treated by the Irish [government] over the loss of the Irish Crown Jewels,” he wrote in his will, claiming Shackleton was the true culprit. “My whole life and work was ruined by this cruel misfortune.”