I always enjoy novels and movies that feature cat burglars who stealthily climb walls, use ropes and grappling hooks, creep along catwalks, bypass alarm systems, pick locks, crack safes, etc. to steal jewels or cash and get away cleanly. But I’ve often wondered: do such people exist, or are they just an entertaining fiction? The answer is the former, if you believe William Mason’s autobiographical account of his exploits as just such a burglar.

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief recounts some of Mason’s most memorable heists and narrow escapes, his infiltration of glamorous society, and his double life as a responsible family man by day and a high stakes, high-rise sneak thief by night. I particularly enjoyed the technical details of his exploits, such as how he fashioned home-made grappling hooks by welding together large fish hooks, posed as prospective tenant to get a tour and floor plans of target buildings, carefully studied security cameras to find their blind spots, scaled walls, and the like. Mason’s standard M.O. was to get onto roofs from the inside then climb down onto balconies, taking advantage of the fact that people often didn’t bother to set their alarms or lock their doors because they never imagined that someone could get to them. He also used clever social engineering to plan his heists, reading high society newspapers and going to events they attended so he could scope out the jewels and learn more about his targets. Mason hit a number of well-known celebrities and tycoons, making off with millions of dollars worth of jewelry without the authorities having any clues.

What I find fascinating about Mason is the fact that even while he was making a comfortable upper middle class living as a real estate broker, with a wife and children in a good neighborhood, he led this dangerous second life and risked everything for the thrill of committing these crimes. Apparently the buzz and challenge of sneaking into luxury homes, outsmarting security measures and being instantly rewarded with small fortunes in jewelry was too potent a drug for Mason to give up. Once he got the taste for burglary as a young man struggling to make ends meet, it seems that he couldn’t stop until the law finally did it for him. This is a common trait we find in shadow operators, whether they are burglars, spies, hitmen or what have you: the real juice is not the money, but the excitement of living a life in the shadows, breaking the laws of daytime society and getting away with it, becoming a kind of shadowy superman who doesn’t play by the ordinary rules.

There have probably always been sneak-thiefs like Mason, targeting the fortunes of kings, nobles and merchants. It’s inspiring to know that such men can still operate in modern times, and can still profit wildly by their ingenuity, skill, daring, and exploitation of human error.  Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief is highly recommended for anyone interested in real heists and criminal shadow operators.

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