History’s Greatest Crime Sprees

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees

Khalid Elhassan - April 15, 2021

History has never had a shortage of crime and criminals, but few were more fascinating than the crooks below. Take the designer of history’s first successful submarine, who ended his days as a grifter trying to peddle a death ray. Or the guy who had a bad experience with a giant nineteenth-century corporation, and retaliated with a crime spree of robbing its stagecoaches. Or a kinky Far Eastern romance that ended with what might be described as the unkindest cut of all. Following are thirty things about those and other historic crimes and criminals.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
An 1864 painting of the CSS Hunley, by Conrad Wise Chapman. American Civil War Museum

30. The Designer of History’s First Successful Submarine Turned to Crime

The American Civil War witnessed the first successful submarine attack that sank an enemy warship. It happened on February 17th, 1864, when the CSS Hunley, a 20-foot-long Confederate submersible with an eight-man crew, sank the 1240-ton USS Housatonic. The Hunley did not survive the attack, however, and sank with all of her crewmen. The idea of a Confederate submarine was the brainchild of Louisiana planter Horace Lawson Hunley, who used his own money and private funds raised from others. He got engineer James R. McClintock to design and build a submarine, and McClintock eventually built three.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Horace Lawson Hunley. Alabama Department of Archives and History

Unlike Hunley, who drowned in the CSS Hunley, McClintock survived the war by not sailing in one of his creations. His first submarine was scuttled in New Orleans when the city fell to the Union in 1862. The second foundered and sank while attacking Union ships off Mobile. The third, the Hunley, sank twice and drowned thirteen crewmen, including Hunley, before sinking again while attacking the Housatonic and drowning another eight men. McClintock thus had a fascinating wartime resume. His postwar career, in which he turned to crime, was even more fascinating.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
An 1876 advertisement by James McClintock’s partner, J.C. Wingard. New Orleans Times-Picayune

29. The CSS Hunley’s Designer Tried to Peddle a Death Ray After the War

For decades after the Civil War, little was known about the fate of James McClintock. The gist of it boiled down to a statement by a grandson, explaining that McClintock was: “killed at the age of 50 in Boston Harbor when he was experimenting with his newly invented submarine mine“. Researchers eventually discovered that McClintock was a grifter who had tried to con the Confederate government into paying him to build an unfeasible bullet-making machine. The CSA did not bite, but Horace Hunley, who heard about McClintock, did. McClintock eventually got a consortium led by Hunley to pay him $30,000 to design submarines.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Pre Civil War photo of James R. McClintock. Naval Historical Center

After the war, McClintock hooked up with J.C. Wingard, a spirit medium, and George Holgate, who made bombs for nineteenth-century terrorists. Wingard claimed to have discovered a “Nameless Force” that could destroy ships from five miles away and recruited McClintock and Holgate to help him demonstrate its effectiveness. In 1876, the trio pointed their weapon at a derelict ship two miles from New Orleans and blew it up. However, some kids spotted a wire running to the ship, which the authorities discovered had been rigged with explosives by McClintock and Holgate. Their crime exposed, the trio fled to Boston.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
James R. McClintock in 1876, around the time when his New Orleans crime caper was foiled. Naval Historical Center

28. James McClintock Died in the Midst of Committing a Crime – Or Did He?

In Boston, James McClintock and his partners in crime tried to repeat their New Orleans death ray con. In 1879, shortly before the public demonstration, however, McClintock was rowing towards the target ship in Boston Harbor with a 35-pound explosive mine, when it detonated. Nothing but splinters were left of the boat or McClintock, and his criminal co-conspirators promptly fled the city. That should have been the end of the story for the CSS Hunley’s designer, but it was not.

A year later, in 1880, a man claiming to be James McClintock visited the British Consulate in New York City. He stated that Irish Republican terrorists had hired him to build mines to sink British ships, and offered his services as a double agent. The British promptly hired and paid him, and McClintock – if that was him and not an imposter – proceeded to screw both the Irish and Queen Victoria’s agents. After collecting a small fortune from both sides, the double agent vanished. The Irish never got their explosives, and the samples delivered to the British turned out to be fake.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
A Wells Fargo stagecoach. Wells Fargo History

27. This Englishman Had a Bad Experience With Wells Fargo, So He Went on a Crime Spree Against the Company

Charles Earl Boles, better known as Black Bart (1829 – died after 1888), was born in England before his family emigrated to New York in 1831. He joined the 1849 California Gold Rush and spent a few years prospecting, before heading back east and settling in Illinois. During the Civil War, he enlisted in an Illinois regiment and was a good soldier. He became Company First Sergeant within a year and was brevetted as a lieutenant before his discharge in 1865. After the war, Boles returned to prospecting for gold, but an 1871 bad experience with Wells Fargo agents left him vowing vengeance.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Black Bart’s crime spree got him placed on wanted posters. Nate’s Nonsense

So he went on a crime spree against Wells Fargo. Boles changed his name to Black Bart, after a character from a dime novel, and became a highwayman. He specialized in robbing Wells Fargo stagecoaches in northern California and southern Oregon. Bart was viewed as a gentleman bandit because of his politeness and air of sophistication. He robbed on foot, wielding a double-barreled shotgun and clad in a linen duster and bowler hat, his face concealed by a flour sack with eyeholes cut into it.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
A restored Wells Fargo stagecoach. Wells Fargo Stories

26. Black Bart Confessed to a Crime in the Mistaken Belief That the Statute of Limitations Had Run Out

Black Bart’s modus operandi after halting a stagecoach was to cover the driver with his shotgun, and politely tell him to throw down the strongbox. He would then order the driver to move on, recover the strongbox, and flee. Bart never fired his weapon, and sometimes left behind handwritten poems, which further enhanced his notoriety and gained him the nickname “Black Bart the Poet“. His crime spree ended in 1883 when a robbery went bad and he was shot in the hand. Fleeing, he dropped some personal items, including a handkerchief with a laundry mark. Wells Fargo detectives canvassed San Francisco laundromats until they found the right one, and discovered the identity of the handkerchief’s owner.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Black Bart. Heritage Auctions

Black Bart eventually confessed to robbing Wells Fargo stagecoaches, but only before 1879, on the mistaken assumption that the statute of limitations had run out on robberies committed before that year. The company pressed charges only for the last robbery, and he was convicted and sentenced to six years for that crime. He served four and was released in 1888 for good behavior. In poor health, Black Bart did not return to his family, and wrote his wife that he was depressed and wanted to get away from everybody. His last known whereabouts are at a hotel in Visalia, California, from which he vanished a month after leaving prison.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Benito Mussolini. Huffington Post

25. The Man Who Curbed the World’s Most Influential Crime Syndicates

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini has gone down in history as a blowhard and a buffoon. He had vainglorious delusions of restoring Italy to the glories of Ancient Rome, and of creating a modern Italian empire to rival that of the Caesars. He ended up biting more than he could chew, and plunged his unprepared country into World War II. It ended in disaster for Italy, for Mussolini’s Fascist regime, and for Mussolini himself. He was captured by Italian Partisans at war’s end, was tried, executed, and his body was strung up by the heels for angry crowds to jeer at.

However, one thing that Mussolini did right was to curb the mafia and organized crime – a feat that no Italian government before or since has pulled off. The Sicilian Mafia and Camorra throve – and still do – in Italy’s corrupt political culture. They worked the system and mastered its intricacies, subverted politicians, police, and judges by bribes or threats. They bent officials to their will until organized crime became a state within the state. Mussolini crushed those crime syndicates.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Rounded up Mafiosi and organized crime figures. Mafia Stories

24. Mussolini Took on Italian Organized Crime by Speaking to it in the Only Language it Understood

In the 1920s, Prohibition in the United States produced a business boom for organized crime in America in general, and for the Italian-American mafia in particular. The 1920s were also when Benito Mussolini and his fascists came to power in Italy. No Italian government before had managed to keep the Sicilian mafia and the Camorra in check. Nor did any Italian government since. The Sicilian Mafia and Camorra had grown so powerful that they had become a parallel states in Italy.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Cesare Mori, ‘The Iron Prefect’ set loose by Mussolini against organized crime. Amazon

The Fascists did not share power or tolerate challenges, however. To the misfortune of Italian organized crime, Mussolini was neither concerned with nor constrained by legalities. The dictator simply bypassed the criminal justice. He selected an underling named Cesare Mori, who became known as “The Iron Prefect” for his toughness, and set him loose. Italy’s army and Black Shirts rounded up Mafiosi en masse and killed any who resisted. For generations, Mafiosi strutting as scary tough guys had intimidated civilians. They discovered that soldiers were scarier and tougher.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Mussolini. Internet Movie Database

23. The Mafia’s Misfortune in Fascist Italy Was a Stroke of Good Fortune for the Italian-American Mafia in the US

Benito Mussolini might have been a farcical clown, but he had successfully curb-stomped Italian organized crime. It was not until WWII and the Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy that the Camorra and Sicilian mafia were reborn. Wartime exigencies required the use of whatever help was at hand to win and save American lives. The Mafiosi, especially after what Mussolini had done to them, were committed anti-fascists. So American authorities used the crime syndicates’ remnants to help administer the occupation of Italy.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Italian Mafiosi rounded up by the Fascists. Okruchy Historii

The Fascists’ suppression of organized crime in Italy had an unintended consequence: it turbocharged the rise of organized crime in the United States. Luckily for the Italian-American mafia, Mussolini’s crackdown on their peers in Italy forced many of them to flee. The push factor at home in Italy coincided with a pull factor in the US, where Italian crime families were experiencing an unprecedented boom. So Italian Mafiosi fleeing Italy swelled the ranks of Mafiosi in America, just when their nefarious services were most needed.

Also Read: Life in Italy Under Benito Mussolini.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Kichizo Ishida. Iron Spike

22. A Japanese Romance That Went Spectacularly Wrong

Japanese businessman and restaurateur Kichizo Ishida (1894 – 1936) had a reputation as a ladies’ man. Living up to that reputation turned him into the victim of a crime that gripped and terrified Japan. Ishida’s career began with an apprenticeship in a restaurant that specialized in eel dishes. At age 24, he opened the Yoshidaya Restaurant in Tokyo’s Nakano neighborhood, and it became a hit. By 1936, Ishida seems to have left the management of his business affairs to his wife, and dedicated himself to womanizing.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Sada Abe. Wikimedia

Early in 1936, he began a torrid love affair with a recently hired employee, Sada Abe (1905 – 1971). She had been a Geisha and former prostitute before she started working as an apprentice at Ishida’s restaurant. It did not take long after she was hired before her boss made advances, which she eagerly welcomed. The duo became infatuated with each other, and spent days in marathon sex sessions at hotels, not pausing even when maids came in to clean the rooms.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
The love motel where Sada Abe and Kichizo Ishida had their trysts, and where the affair came to a horrific end. Wikimedia

21. This Dude Mistook His Lover’s Attempts to Strangle Him to Death as an Exciting New Kink to Spice Their Lovemaking

Sada Abe’s infatuation with her lover Kichizo Ishida became an obsession. She started getting jealous whenever Ishida returned to his wife and began thinking of murdering him to keep him forever to herself. She bought a knife and brandished it during their next marathon sex session, but Ishida thought it was role-playing and was turned on rather than scared. That threw Sada off. Later, she again steeled herself to kill him and tried to strangle him with a Geisha belt during sex.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Still from a movie depicting the murder that Ishida thought was kinky lovemaking. Iron Spike

That only turned Ishida on even more, as he mistook it for a new kink to spice their lovemaking. He begged her to continue, which again threw Abe off. Finally, Ishida fell asleep, at which point Abe gathered her nerve one more time, and strangled her sleeping lover to death with a geisha scarf. Then she took out the knife and castrated him. Next, she carved her name on his arm, and with his blood wrote “Sada and Kichizo together” on the bedsheets before fleeing the crime scene.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Contemporary Japanese newspaper article about the Ishida-Abe affair and crime. Christian Phelps

20. News of This Crime Threw Japan – Especially Japanese Men – Into a Panic

The horrific crime scene was discovered the next day. When news of the murder and mutilation broke, and that a “sexually and criminally dangerous woman was on the loose“, Japan went into what became known as “Sada Abe panic”. Police eventually caught up with and arrested her, at which point they discovered Kichizo Ishida’s genitals in her purse. Naturally, they questioned why she was running around with Ishida’s penis and testicles. Abe replied, “Because I couldn’t take his head or body with me. I wanted to take the part of him that brought back to me the most vivid memories“.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Sada Abe in police custody. La Republica

Abe was tried, convicted, and was sentenced to prison. She was released after five years, wrote an autobiography, and lived until 1971. The Ishida-Abe affair and its painfully weird conclusion was a sensation in Japan. It became embedded in the country’s popular culture and acquired mythic overtones ever since. The story and variations thereof have been the subject of poetry and prose, both fiction and nonfiction. It has been depicted in movies and TV and was interpreted over the decades by various philosophers and artists.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
John Ernst Worrell Keely. Hive

19. The Inventor Who Turned to Crime to Bilk Investors Out of Millions

John Ernst Worrell Keely (1837 – 1898) never lacked hustle. As a young man, he worked as a painter, carpenter, member of a theatrical orchestra, carnival barker, and a mechanic. He left his mark in history, however, when he turned to crime and fraud. In 1872, Keely declared that he had invented a new engine that would revolutionize the world, by drawing its energy from a new physical force that held limitless potential power. Back then, there was a mistaken belief that all space was filled with something called a “luminiferous ether”.

It was a hypothetical substance thought necessary for the movement of light or electric waves. Keely claimed to have figured out how to tap into and extract energy from this (nonexistent) ether. Having unraveled its secrets, Keely claimed that he could now tap the power of atoms in water to furnish energy. As he explained it, atoms were in a state of constant vibration. By harnessing and channeling water’s vibrations in his revolutionary Keely engine, people could tap into limitless energy. By getting the water’s atoms to vibrate in unison in accordance with the principles of the luminiferous ether, one could use its “etheric force” to power motors.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Woodcut of an 1877 private demonstration of the Keely Engine. Fine Art America

18. Selling a Perpetual Motion Machine to the Gullible

Keely’s engine was a perpetual motion machine – a physics impossibility because it would violate the first or second laws of thermodynamics. John Keely demonstrated a prototype to guests in his workshop by pouring water into its engine, then playing a harmonica, violin, flute, or other musical instruments to activate the machine with sound vibrations. Soon, the device gurgled, rumbled, came alive, and provided pressures of up to 50,000 psi on display gauges. Harnessing that power, Keely arranged demonstrations in which thick ropes were ripped apart, iron bars were bent, twisted, and snapped in two, and bullets were driven through twelve-inch wooden planks.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
John Keely and an 1895 version of his engine. Gaby de Wilde

Keely made up science-y sounding terminology to describe the principles of his invention. He began by describing his engine as a “vibratory generator”. Then he started telling observers that they were seeing “quadruple negative harmonics”. At other times, he told gullible investors that he was going to make them filthy rich with his “hydro-pneumatic pulsating vacu-engine”. If a listener sounded a note of skepticism, Keely drowned it with yet more science-y sounding phrases such as “vibratory negatives”, “atomic triplets”, “etheric disintegration”, and “atomic ether vibrations”.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
An older Keely and his con, still going strong. Great Big Canvas

17. Simple Fraud Made John Keely a Multi-Millionaire

John Keely tossed around fancy words that sounded impressive to non-scientists but were actually pseudoscientific gibberish. It was effective pseudoscientific gibberish, however. Within a short time, Keely convinced investors to give him the equivalent of $25 million in 2021 dollars as startup capital, which he used to found the Keely Motor Company. In subsequent years, investors forked over the equivalent of 120 million dollars in today’s money for a stake in Keely’s enterprise. Over two decades, he closely guarded the secret of his invention, refusing to share its details with anybody.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Compressed air tank under Keely’s lab. New York Journal and Advertiser

Keely kept promising that the perfection of a commercial version of his machine was right around the corner. During that time, gullible investors kept giving him more and more money. That happened despite the consensus of physicists that Keely was a quack and charlatan, and that perpetual motion such as he promised was impossible. Finally, when Keely died in 1898, the secret of his engine was revealed: the whole thing boiled down to his willingness to engage in the crime of fraud. The device had not been powered by water, but by a compressed air machine hidden two floors below, and connected to Keely’s engine by cleverly concealed pipes and hoses.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Stede Bonnet. Wikimedia

16. The English Gentleman Who Abandoned His Plantation to Go on a Piratical Crime Spree

Stede Bonnet (circa 1680 – 1718) was nicknamed “The Gentleman Pirate“. A wealthy Barbados plantation owner and a British Army major, Bonnet decided one day, out of the blue, to take up a life of crime and become a pirate. He became famous – or infamous – not because of any piratical success, but because of his utter failure at sea. Bonnet displayed remarkable incompetence after he took up a piracy career that he had no business pursuing, and that he probably should have left to roughnecks better suited to its travails and vicissitudes.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Stede Bonnet’s pirate flag. Amazon

Bonnet, the scion of a wealthy family of landed gentry, had led a peaceful life for years, living with his wife in a profitable sugar plantation. Then in 1717, amidst a midlife crisis, he decided to escape marital difficulties and boredom at home by buying a ship, naming it the Revenge and arming it with cannons. He hired a crew of 70 sailors and sailed off into the deep blue to become a pirate. As might be expected from a rich dilettante who took to piracy on a whim, Bonnet was not very good at it, and soon revealed himself an incompetent sailor and worse leader.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Blackbeard. The Virginian Pilot

15. Stede Bonnet Realized, too Late, that LARPing as a Pirate Was a Mistake

Stede Bonnet seized only a few small and trifling prizes off the coasts of Virginia and the Carolinas. Only the fact that he paid his crew regular and generous wages – the only pirate captain to do so – kept them from deposing him and electing a replacement. He came across the pirate Blackbeard in Florida, who befriended Bonnet and persuaded him to give up command of the Revenge because of his utter incompetence at piracy. Bonnet transferred to Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge, where he remained as a guest. His own ship, Revenge, was taken over by one of Blackbeard’s lieutenants, whom the crew accepted as their new captain.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Stede Bonnet’s punishment for the crime of piracy. Way of the Pirates

Soon thereafter, Bonnet accepted a royal pardon and a royal commission to go privateering against Spanish shipping. However, he decided to return to piracy in July, 1718. Hapless as ever, Bonnet thought that adopting the alias “Captain Thomas” and changing the name of his ship to Royal James would mask his identity. It did not. The following month, a British naval expedition found Bonnet anchored in the Cape Fear River estuary and captured him and his crew after a brief fight. Bonnet escaped escape, but was recaptured after a few weeks on the lam, and taken to Charleston. There, he was tried and convicted, sentenced to death by hanging, and was executed on December 10th, 1718.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Coronation portrait of Queen Victoria. Royal Collection

14. History’s Most Famous Queen Was Not Safe From Stalkers

Celebrity stalkers are an unfortunate feature of the modern era. Such fame fiends are not a new phenomenon, however: they have been around for some time, as Queen Victoria could attest if she was still around. Britain was enamored by the young Victoria when she ascended the throne. Her two predecessors, her uncles, had been old, ineffectual, and corrupt, while their predecessor, the Mad King George III, had been, well… mad. So Victoria arrived as a breath of fresh air: a young, pretty, innocent, and clean new slate.

Admirers tossed letters into her carriage, the bolder ones visited the palace with marriage proposals, and the creepier ones dedicated themselves to the crime of stalking the young queen. Britain’s royal household bureaucracy was an inefficient, inept, and outright incompetent. When Victoria once asked a servant for a fire, she was told no can do: his job was to arrange and prepare the wood and coal for a fire, while a separate department was responsible for actually lighting it. In another example, cleaning palace windows was split between two departments, one for cleaning the outside, and another for the inside.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Buckingham Palace circa 1837, when Queen Victoria ascended the throne. Pinterest

13. Queen Victoria’s Security Was Woefully Bad

The security provided Queen Victoria was also inept and inefficient, with no single person in overall charge of safeguarding the royal residences. Buckingham Palace, for example, had low walls topped with tree branches, and lax guards. As a result, drunks and the homeless were often found sleeping in the garden, propped up against the inner wall, or laid out beneath the trees. Less innocent interlopers, such as stalkers, faced little difficulty in progressing past the garden and into the royal palace.

An invitation to Buckingham Palace to formally see Queen Victoria was a big deal and a great honor, that was coveted by many. On the other hand, just getting into Buckingham Palace and seeing the queen, informally and without invitation, was a cinch. Staggering drunks had little trouble getting into the palace grounds to sleep off a bender in the royal garden. Others, with more sinister and creepy intentions, with crime on their minds, had little trouble reaching the palace itself.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Buckingham Palace in 1840. Pinterest

12. Stalkers Had an Easy Time Getting Into Queen Victoria’s Palace

Those guilty of the crime of stalking Queen Victoria included a silversmith named Thomas Flower. One of Victoria’s more persistent admirers, Flower was found sleeping in a chair near the queen’s bedroom in the summer of 1838. He had managed to get into the palace, then wandered around for hours trying to find the queen – Buckingham Palace was and remains a big building. Finally, after tiring of the search, he fell asleep. He was arrested and imprisoned until friends raised £50 to bail him out.

Thomas Flower’s stalking of Queen Victoria was creepy, but it paled in comparison to that of Edward Jones, a kid dubbed “Boy Jones” by palace staff. Around 5 AM on December 14th, 1838, a palace servant saw a gargoyle of a face in a window, that appeared to be smudged with soot. It belonged to an ugly youth who was impishly grinning at him. Investigation revealed that a palace room had been ransacked, so the alarm was sounded, and the hunt for the intruder was on.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
A contemporary cartoon depicting Boy Jones. Yesterday’s Papers

11. This Kid Stole Queen Victoria’s Unmentionables

After a hue and cry were raised about an intruder being loose in Buckingham Palace, a constable spotted a kid outside the building. He gave chase, caught, tackled, seized, and hauled him in. A closer look revealed that the arrestee was an unfortunately featured teenager, whose face and clothes were filthy, covered in grease and soot. He was wearing two pairs of pants, and when the outer one was removed, several pairs of ladies’ drawers fell out: Queen Victoria’s panties.

The dirty youth arrested with Queen Victoria’s underwear gave his name as Edward Cotton – subsequent investigation revealed his real name to be Edward Jones, a fourteen-year-old urchin. He had gotten into Victoria’s bedroom, and along with her panties, had stolen a letter, her portrait, and assorted linens. That he had gotten that close to the queen was bad enough, but discovering how long he had been in the palace was worse: Jones had been living in Buckingham for a year.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Nineteenth-century magistrate court with juvenile defendants accused of crime. British Library

10. Despite Hiding for a Year In Buckingham Palace, a Jury Decided that Edward Jones Had Committed no Crime

During the year in which he had lived in Buckingham Palace, young Edward Jones had spent the daylight hours hiding behind furniture, or inside the chimneys and in other spaces within the walls. When night fell, he came out to wander Buckingham’s halls. When he got hungry, he raided the kitchen, and when he got too dirty, he rinsed his shirt in the wash. During meetings between the queen and her ministers, he sometimes hid under the table and eavesdropped.

Jones’ story became a sensation. When he was sent to magistrate court a few days later, the hearing was packed with journalists and curiosity seekers, eager to find out more about the now-famous Boy Jones. The kid was a lovable tramp, and the fact that he had avoided detection while living in the royal palace for so long testified to his intelligence. He was tried for the crime of theft, plus trespass. After a weird trial, filled with laughter and incredulity, the jury found him not guilty. The police congratulated and wished him well, and hoped that he would put his talents to better use. Boy Jones thanked them and left.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Contemporary cartoon depicting the return of Boy Jones to Buckingham Palace. British Museum

9. Boy Jones Could Not Get Enough of Stalking Queen Victoria

Edward Jones soon went back to stalking Queen Victoria. On December 3rd, 1840, less than two years after his acquittal and two weeks after Queen Victoria had given birth to her first child, Jones was found hiding beneath a sofa in a room next to Her Majesty’s boudoir. Whatever the public’s perception of Boy Jones as a lovable tramp, the queen was not amused. As she put it in her journal: “Supposing he had come into the Bedroom, how frightened I should have been!” Jones was rearrested, retried, and got three months’ probation. He was arrested again soon thereafter while trying to break into the palace.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Boy Jones. The Independent

For this latest crime, Jones got three months of hard labor. The authorities were stumped. Jones’ crimes were not felonies, so a long prison sentence was not an option. After he was arrested for a fourth, and then a fifth time, when caught loitering near the palace, he was finally shipped him to Brazil, where he was kept in an offshore prison ship for six years. He returned to Britain, and was deported to Australia, but snuck back to London. He finally returned to Australia, where he became Perth’s town crier. He died in 1893, after falling off a bridge while drunk.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
The Harpe brothers. The Lineup

8. Early America’s Most Depraved Monsters

Generations before Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, or Garry Ridgway, there were the Harpe Brothers. Micajah “Big” Harpe (circa 1748 – 1799) and Wiley “Little” Harpe (circa 1750 – 1804) was born in Colonial America before the United States had even come into being. The brothers were highwaymen, river pirates, and sadists who went on a years long crime spree along the then-frontier west of the Appalachian Mountains. From at least the days of the American Revolution, they left a trail of mayhem, depravity, and terror, throughout Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Mississippi.

By the time their crime spree ended, the Harpes had claimed the lives of over fifty people. The crime-prone siblings, who were British Loyalists during the American Revolution, fought for King George III as volunteer militia and irregulars. After their side lost the war, they became outlaws and took to robbing and killing settlers west of the Appalachians. They seem to have been driven by sheer bloody-mindedness and blood lust, rather than financial gain. That has led scholars to designate them as the country’s first documented “serial killers”.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
British Royal Governor William Tryon confronting the North Carolina Regulators in 1771. The Print Collector

7. These British Loyalists Went on a Vicious Crime Spree Against Patriots During the American Revolution

Wiley “Little” Harpe and his older brother Micajah “Big” Harpe were born in North Carolina to Scottish parents. Their father was a British Loyalist, who had fought in a Tory militia during the Regulator War (1765 – 1771) against local insurgents who rose up against corrupt colonial officials. When the War of American Independence began, their father tried to join the Patriots, but they rejected him because of his past record as a Tory. Instead, Patriot neighbors persecuted the Harpe family.

That drove Big and Little Harpe to seek revenge by fighting on the British side, and they joined a depraved Loyalist gang. Exploiting the wartime breakdown of law and order, the Harpes and their associates targeted Patriots with a depraved crime spree of robbery, arson, kidnapping, violation of women, and murder. At times, they fought alongside the British without pay, subsisting by looting battlefields. They were present at the battles of Kings Mountain and Blackstock in 1780, and the Battle of Cowpens in 1781.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Daniel Boone rallying his men at the Battle of Blue Licks. Indian History for Young Folks

6. The Harpes’ Unshakeable Predilection for Violence

When the British lost America’s War of Independence, Micajah and Wiley Harpe fled North Carolina. They eventually joined Cherokee Indians in attacking settler villages west of the Appalachians in Tennessee. Before doing so, they took revenge upon a Patriot Captain James Wood, who had wounded Little Harpe during the war. They kidnapped his daughter, Susan, and another girl named Maria Davidson. The women were forced to marry the brothers. One of their first Frontier killings occurred when a man named Moses Doss expressed concern over their brutalized women and was murdered for his troubles.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
‘Joseph Brown Leading His Company to Nicojack’, by Howard Pyle. Fine Art America

In 1782, the siblings accompanied a Cherokee war party that raided Kentucky and defeated a frontiersmen army led by Daniel Boone at the Battle of Blue Licks. They ended up living in the Indian village of Nicojack near Chattanooga, Tennessee, for about twelve years. Then in 1794, they got word of an impending American attack, and left just before the village was wiped out. By 1797, the Harpes had settled near Knoxville, Tennessee, when they were suspected of stealing hogs and horses. They were also accused of murdering a man and tossing his body into a river.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
River piracy was an ever-present risk to nineteenth-century settlers, like these descending the Ohio River. Clermont County Park District

5. Big Harpe’s Most Depraved Crime Was Against His Own Infant Daughter

The Harpe Brothers were forced to flee to Kentucky, and began a lethal crime spree en route. They killed a peddler and stole his horse and goods, did in two travelers from Maryland, and slew a Virginian. They were pursued and captured but escaped the gallows by breaking out of the state prison in Danville, Kentucky. When a posse was sent after them, the Harpes retaliated by slaughtering a young son of a man who had helped the authorities pursue them. When Kentucky’s governor placed a $300 reward on their heads, the brothers fled northward to Illinois. Along the way, they slew five men.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Cave in Rock, the crime den where the Harpe brothers sheltered with river pirate Samuel Mason and his crew. Wikimedia

The brothers eventually made their way to Cave-In-Rock, a cave in bluffs overlooking the Illinois bank of the Ohio River. It was the stronghold of a ruthless river pirate named Samuel Mason, and the Harpes joined his crew. However, the Harpes’ sadism appalled even cutthroats like river pirates. Among other things, the brothers enjoyed taking captives to the top of the bluff, stripping them naked, and kicking them off. So Mason forced them to leave. They returned to Tennessee and continued piling up the bodies. Among them was Big Harpe’s own infant daughter, whom he killed in August 1799, because her crying annoyed him.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
The Harpe brothers. Pinterest

4. The Harpe Brothers’ Violent Spree Ended When Violent Justice Caught Up With Them

In August, 1799, the Harpe Brothers also gutted a man. When the unwary Stegall family gave them shelter in Kentucky, they repaid the hospitality by slaying one of their house guests. In another crime against an infant, they also slew Mrs. Stegall’s four-month-old baby boy, because his crying annoyed them. When a horrified Mrs. Stegall screamed, the Harpe brothers did her in too. Those depravities led to the formation of a posse that included Moses Stegall, whose wife and baby the Harpes had slain. They caught up with the siblings on August 24th, 1799, just as they were about to kill another victim. The brothers tried to flee, but Micajah “Big” Harpe was shot in the leg and back.

While Big Harpe was still conscious, Moses Stegall slowly cut off his head, which was later spiked on a pole. Wiley “Little” Harpe escaped and rejoined Samuel Mason’s river pirate crew. Four years later, the Cave-In-Rock was raided, and Little Harpe escaped with Mason, who was wounded. Harpe, who was using an alias, killed Mason, cut off his head, and along with another escaped pirate, tried to claim a reward. While presenting Mason’s head, Harpe and his companion were recognized as outlaws and arrested. They were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. The Harpe depravities ended in January, 1804, when Little Harpe was hanged.

Related: America’s First Serial Killers Were Kicked Out of a Pirate Gang For Being Too Violent.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Harold Cole. Imgur

3. The English Jailbird Who Went on a WWII Crime Spree

Career criminal Harold Cole (1906 – 1946) was an English jailbird who served during WWII in the British Army, the French Resistance – and double-crossed both by working for the Germans. Then he betrayed the Germans by working for the Americans at war’s end to hunt down Nazis. During his extraordinary wartime career, which combined espionage with crime, Cole lied and conned his way across France, joined the Nazis, and snitched on the Resistance, resulting in the arrest and execution of many.

By the time he was a teenager, Cole was already a burglar, check forger and embezzler. By 1939, he had served multiple stints behind bars in various prisons. When WWII began, he lied about his criminal history to enlist in the British Army and was sent to France. Promoted to sergeant, he was arrested for stealing money from the Sergeants’ Mess to spend on hookers. He became a POW in May 1940, when the Germans captured the guardhouse where he was jailed.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
A disguised Harold Cole. Second World War Blogspot

2. Stealing From the French Resistance

Harold Cole escaped from his German captors, and made his way to Lille, France. There, he got in touch with the French Resistance and falsely claimed that was a British intelligence agent sent to help stranded and escaped British military personnel. For some time, Cole actually did some positive work and escorted escaped personnel across Nazi-occupied territory to the relative safety of Vichy France. From there, the fugitives slipped into neighboring Spain, and secured berths on ships headed to Britain.

However, Cole was unable to shake his shady ways. He went back to the same kind of crime that had got him locked up in a British Army guardhouse, and embezzled from French Resistance, stealing from the funds intended to finance escape operations. Cole used the money to pay for a high society lifestyle of nightclubs, pricey restaurants, expensive champagne, fast cars, and faster girls. When his thefts came to light in 1941, the Resistance arrested and locked him up. While they deliberated what to do about him, Cole escaped.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Harold Cole in disguise. Daily Mail

1. This Crime Bird Betrayed the Resistance by Joining the Nazis, then Betrayed the Nazis by Helping the US Army Hunt Them Down

On the run from the French Resistance, Harold Cole turned himself in to the Germans. He gave them 30 pages of Resistance member names and addresses and became an agent of the SS’ Sicherheitdienst, or SD. In the ensuing roundup, over 150 Resistance members were arrested, of whom at least 50 were executed. Cole was present during the interrogation and torture of many of his former colleagues. When the war turned against the Germans and Allied armies neared Paris in 1944, Cole fled in a Gestapo uniform. In June 1945, he turned up in southern Germany, where he claimed to be a British undercover agent and offered his services to the American occupation forces.

History’s Greatest Crime Sprees
Harold Cole mugshots. Daily Mail

Triple crossing, he turned against the Nazis, hunted and flushed them out of hiding, and murdered at least one of them. The British discovered Cole whereabouts and arrested him, but he escaped his military prison and headed to France. There, French police received a tip revealing his whereabouts in a central Paris apartment. On January 8th, 1946, they crept up a staircase to seize him. However, the cops’ heavy tread gave them away, and Cole met them at the doorway, pistol in hand. He was killed in the ensuing shootout after he was hit multiple times and bled to death.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

American Weekend, October 23rd, 1998 – Frontier Serial Killers: The Harpes

Bondeson, Jan – Queen Victoria’s Stalker: The Strange Story of the Boy Jones (2012)

Botting, Douglas – The Pirates (1978)

Cracked – 7 ‘Whaaat’ Crimes You Won’t Believe Are True

Daily Mail, June 30th, 2017 – The Worst Traitor of All: How an East End Jailbird Lied and Cheated His Way Across France, Joined the Nazis and Condemned 150 Resistance Fighters to Death

Duggan Christopher – Fascism and the Mafia (1989)

Gigantino, Anthony, La Salle University Digital Commons, The Histories, Volume 4, Issue 1, Article 3 – Il Duce and the Mafia: Mussolini’s Hatred of the Mafia and the American Alliance With Organized Crime

Guardian, The, December 11th, 2003 – Keely’s Trickster Engine

History Collection – Criminal Schemes You Won’t Believe Actually Happened

Legends of America – The Vicious Harpes: First American Serial Killers

Lock Haven University – The Keely Motor Hoax

Murderpedia – Harpe Brothers

Murderpedia – Sada Abe

Murphy, Brendan – Turncoat: The Strange Case of British Sergeant Harold Cole, the Worst Traitor of the War (1987)

Museum of Hoaxes – Keely Motor Company

Republic of Pirates – Stede Bonnet Biography

Smithsonian Magazine, July 31st, 2007 – The Gentleman Pirate

Smithsonian Magazine, June 30th, 2014 – The Amazing (if True) of the Submarine Mechanic Who Blew Himself Up Then Surfaced as a Secret Agent for Queen Victoria

Timeline – This Teen Stalker Stole Queen Victoria’s Panties and Lived in Buckingham Palace Chimneys For a Year

True West Magazine, October 11th, 2016 – October Was Black Bart’s Favorite

Wikipedia – Harpe Brothers

Wikipedia – Sada Abe