Bluebeard was a wife murderer in Charles Perrault’s 1679 novel Conte du Temps. The nickname has since been applied to many real-life killers of women. The most famous was Frenchman Henri Desire Landru (1869-1922), who over a period of five years killed 10 women after proposing marriage to them. Gilles de Rais, who was a […]
By far, it was John Dillinger, whose most successful robbery, in Greencastle, Indiana, yielded $74,000. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow stole from gas stations, lunch counters, and small banks; their top job brought only $1,500.
While hanging may have occurred earlier in U.S. history, the practice of lynching was probably started by Colonel William Lynch of Virginia in the 1780s. Lynch organized a vigilante band aimed at ridding Pittsylvania County of its bad element. An 1836 editorial by Edgar Allan Poe discusses Lynch’s career.
During Prohibition, the taking of trucks full of illegal liquor became commonplace. When it happened, a gunman would say, “High, Jack,” to indicate how the driver should raise his hands.
An agency called the Bureau of Investigation was instituted in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt. He believed that the federal government should have an arm to enforce federal law. It was renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935. Twenty-nine-year-old J. Edgar Hoover became its first acting director in 1924.
The phrase, coined by 1920s gang leader Dion O’Banion, referred to the convenient forgetfulness of eyewitnesses testifying about gang lawbreakers. The phrase implied that gang members had persuaded the witnesses to forget whatever they had seen.
Detroit lawmen coined the term in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They realized that Saturday night holdups were committed with handguns purchased in quick one-hour trips to Toledo, Ohio. There, guns could be bought at filling stations and flower shops for $5 or $10, without time restrictions.
A death rattle is the sound a person often makes before dying. It is caused by air being forced through food or mucus lodged in the throat.
Sacco and Vanzetti were pardoned, but not until long after their deaths. On July 14, 1921, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two avowed anarchists, were convicted of robbing a shoe factory and murdering a paymaster and guard in South Braintree, Massachusetts. Their trial was marred by possible perjury, suppression of evidence, and the bias of […]
Aces and eights was the hand held by Deputy U.S. Marshal James Butler (“Wild Bill”) Hickok when he was killed. On August 2, 1876, in a saloon in Deadwood Gulch, Dakota Territory, Hickok was shot in the cheek by fellow poker player Jack McCall. McCall later said he had killed Hickok for shooting his brother.
The Black Hand was the name for groups of extortionists who preyed upon Italian immigrants in the United States from about 1890 to 1920. It was active in cities such as Chicago, Kansas City, New Orleans, and New York. The Mafia, an older and more complex criminal organization, originated in Sicily in the nineteenth and […]
John T. Scopes was a young biology teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, who broke a state law forbidding the teaching of evolution. His 11-day trial in 1925 ended with his conviction and a fine of $100. Authorities later reversed the decision on a legal technicality. Prosecuting attorney William Jennings Bryan died five days after the trial […]
An air dance is an execution by hanging. Other slang terms for hanging: air jig, air polka, and air rumba.
Kim Philby was recruited by the Russians in the early 1930s. He entered the British Secret Service in 1939 and remained a double agent until 1962, when he escaped to the Soviet Union. His orders, he said, were to penetrate British Intelligence and “it did not matter how long I took to do the job.” […]
Yes, and it still is a crime to kiss in public in some places. In 1656 in Boston, a Captain Kimble was placed in the stocks for kissing his wife in public on the Sabbath. To this day, it is illegal in Indiana for a mustached man to “habitually kiss human beings.” In Cedar Rapids, […]
The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre lasted eight minutes. Several members of the George (“Bugs”) Moran gang were killed that day, February 14, 1929, along with a man in the garage who looked like Moran. Moran himself escaped the massacre to die a natural death of lung cancer on February 25, 1957.
MI5 is Britain’s counterintelligence service, which operates mainly at home. MI6 is Britain’s Secret Service, which operates mainly overseas. The official titles are DI5 and DI6, but the “M” titles, for Military Intelligence, Departments 5 and 6, are what everyone uses.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the year 1987 saw 1,781 prisoners on death row. Between 1930 and 1980, 3,862 persons were executed in the United States.
Al (“Scarface”) Capone claimed he received the scar while fighting with the Lost Battalion in France during World War I. Actually, he was knifed in Brooklyn while working as a bouncer in a saloon, in a fight over a woman. Capone never served in World War I.
FBI agent Melvin Purvis was known as the Man Who Shot Dillinger. Purvis never actually fired at John Dillinger in the 1934 shootout in Chicago that ended in the death of”public enemy number one.” But Purvis directed the trap and pointed Dillinger out to other agents and police.
In Italian, Mafia means “beauty, excellence, bravery”. Cosa Nostra means “our thing.”
A bullet shot through a victim’s heart sometimes precipitates a final laugh before death.
Philadelphia-born John T. Noland (1896-1931) earned it early in his career. As a teenager, he joined a gang called the Hudson Dusters, which stole packages from the backs of trucks. For his ability to dodge police in his efforts, he was nicknamed Legs. Diamond was one of his chosen surnames.
The throat-slashings of six prostitutes in London’s East End occurred between August and early November 1888. The identity of Jack the Ripper was never verified.
The red light came from an actual lamp, the red oil-lamp that hung on the last car of a railroad train. These lamps were carried by railroad men to and from trains, and in some cases they were hung outside the brothels the men frequented between shifts.
A Chicago overcoat is a 1920s underworld term for a coffin.
The name is derived from the logo for Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, an eye with the slogan, “We Never Sleep.” As the fame of the agency (founded in 1850) spread, criminals talked about their fear of “private eyes,” as opposed to the public eyes of the police.
The five Mafia families of New York City in the 1980s were the Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese families.
Black-Bag Job. An agent’s work, from bribery to breaking and entering. Demote Maximally. To purge an organization by killing. The Firm. The British Secret Service. The Company. The CIA. Measles. A murder handled so deftly that death appears to be accidental or from natural causes. Legend. An agent’s fake biography, used as a cover. Ladies. […]
It is slang for a policeman or politician who accepts or extorts graft.
On April 22, 1981, in Tucson, Arizona, four gunmen robbed the First National Bank of Arizona of $3.3 million. This was the largest bank robbery on record. Wearing Halloween masks and stocking hoods, the gunmen cleaned out a vault containing cash receipts from 27 other First National branches in Tucson.
Arnold Rothstein (1882-1928) was nicknamed Mr. Big. Arnold Rothstein financed the criminal operations of Lucky Luciano, Legs Diamond, and others. Also known as the Brain, the Fixer, and the Man Uptown, Rothstein was said to have played a role in fixing the 1919 World Series. Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein was a New York businessman who […]
It was “Son of Sam” killer David Richard Berkowitz (b. 1953) who was known as the 44-Caliber Killer. From July 1976 to August 1977 he killed six people and wounded seven others with a .44-caliber gun.
Borrowing from eighteenth-century English penal procedures, southern states began using chain gangs before the Civil War and continued the practice for nearly a hundred years. Georgia became the last state to outlaw this method of punishment in the late 1940s. The decline of chain gangs was due as much to automation as to public protest: […]
At about 11:20 A.M. (CST), on November 24, 1963, the twenty-four-year-old Oswald was shot by Dallas nightclub operator Jack Ruby (formerly Rubenstein). Lee Harvey Oswald was shot while he was being transferred from jail to an armored truck. He was killed by one shot of a .38-caliber snub-nosed revolver.
The two young men from Chicago were fired with the idea of committing the “perfect murder”. They killed fourteen-year-old Bobbie Franks in May 1924 and were sentenced on September 10 to life imprisonment for murder and 99 years for kidnapping. Richard (“Dickie”) Loeb was slashed to death in a brawl in January 1936 in Northern […]
On March 12, 1969, James Earl Ray was sentenced to 99 years in prison for killing Martin Luther King, Jr.
For this crime of shoplifting, women outnumber men by four or five to one.
In 1844, Jonathan Walker had the initials SS branded into the palm of his right hand. He had been convicted of slave stealing, helping slaves escape to the Bahamas. Branding had been used officially as punishment for crimes in America since the seventeenth century.
The woman taken from her Berkeley, California, home on February 5, 1974, by the Symbionese Liberation Army did so. She adopted the name Tania in honor of Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara’s mistress, Tania Guitterez Baer.
The White Hand Society was a community group sponsored by Italian-American business leaders. It was organized in 1907 to oppose the work of the Black Hand and developed its own police force but sustained itself for only five years.
A black act is slang for picking a lock in the dark.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed on June 19, 1953, at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York. They were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage and were labeled communists. Julius Rosenberg, thirty-five, was executed at 8:04 P.m. His wife, Ethel, thirty-seven, was executed at 8:11 P.M. It was the first execution of civilians […]
No. Kate “Ma” Barker was never arrested. Although Mrs. Barker (the former Arizona Donnie Clark) saw three of her four sons serve in Alcatraz, Kansas State Penitentiary at Lansing, and Leavenworth, she stayed behind the scenes of the crimes. Ma Barker and her son Freddie were killed on January 16, 1935, in a 45-minute gunfight […]
A 1979 New York study revealed that only 3.4 percent of state parolees were returned to prison for committing new crimes. 8.5 percent were returned for parole violations. Thirty percent of ex-prisoners, however, were sent back to prison within five years of their release.
State chemists are the executioners who kill condemned prisoners by lethal injection. State electricians perform executions by means of the electric chair.
Cassidy, the leader of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, was born Robert Leroy Parker in Circleville, Utah, on April 1, 1866. He was one of 10 children. The Sundance Kid was born Harry Longbaugh in 1870 in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.
The FBI’s Ten most wanted list was started in 1950. In 1970, the FBI unofficially increased the number to 16.