Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail

Khalid Elhassan - January 28, 2022

In 1915, a group of elegantly-dressed women, clad in expensive clothes, furs, and jewels, exited chauffeured cars and entered London’s posh Selfridges department store. The staff showed them the usual deference extended to upscale customers, and because of the era’s prudish mores, allowed them great privacy to try out clothes. It was only after they left that Selfridges discovered that the women had stolen a fortune’s worth of jewels, furs, and clothes. They were members of the Forty Elephants, an all-female criminal gang that operated for nearly two centuries. Below are thirty things about them and other lesser-known historic criminal facts.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
An old-timey female shoplifter. Wikimedia

The Female Gang That Operated for Nearly Two Centuries

As a rule of thumb, gangs and gangland activities tend to be overwhelmingly male domains, but like most rules, there are exceptions. One such was a female gang known as the Forty Elephants. For nearly two centuries, from the 1700s, throughout the nineteenth century, and all the way into the 1950s, they held sway over a part of London. Their criminal activities were not limited to their own neighborhood. They operated across the British capital, and eventually, their reach extended throughout Britain. They got their moniker because they were based in the Elephant and Castle, an area in London’s Borough of Southwark whose most famous landmark was a pub and coaching inn that bore that name.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
Alice Diamond, who headed the Forty Elephants in the interwar years. Bitch Media

The Forty Elephants specialized in shoplifting, helped in no small part by the voluminous, multilayered, and complicated clothing worn by women until well into the twentieth century. The era’s prudish attitudes, which afforded women significant privacy, also made it easier for female shoplifters to escape notice. They nearly bled posh West End stores white with their shoplifting raids. Eventually, mere rumors of their presence in an upscale neighborhood sufficed to trigger panics among shop owners. They also exacted tribute from smaller gangs that engaged in shoplifting. Those who refused to pony up were beaten, and sometimes kidnapped and tortured until they changed their minds. Although store thefts were a key part of their criminal activities, it was not all that they had in their bag of tricks.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
Newspaper coverage of the arrest of some Forty Elephants members. Pinterest

A Tough Girl Gang That Didn’t Hesitate to Throw Down and Duke it Out With Guys

The Forty Elephants stole thousands of pounds worth of goods, which was serious money in those days. It was enough to financially support gang members and their male spouses and allow them to live in relative comfort. They also got into document forgery. That helped in another side hustle, whereby they got hired as housemaids with fake reference letters, then robbed their employers’ homes. Another criminal hustle was blackmail, as members seduced men of respectable backgrounds into brief affairs, then threatened to ruin their reputations unless they were paid. As evidenced by their willingness to kidnap, torture, and dish out beatings to exact tribute, the Forty Elephants were not squeamish when it came to violence. Nor did they shy away from a rumble. They were reportedly able to duke it out with an equal number of men, and their toughness earned the respect of male gangsters.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
Female crooks in action. Wix Static

In the interwar years, they associated with the all-male Elephant and Castle Gang, a huge collection of burglars, receivers, smash-and-grab artists, and assorted criminal roughnecks that operated in south London. Unlike their often messy male allies, however, the Forty Elephants were well-organized, disciplined, and tightly run. While they stole expensive clothes, they never wore them. Instead, they distributed them through a network of fences, and to unscrupulous store owners who altered their labels and got fake receipts – often furnished by the Forty Elephants – to show that they had been legally purchased. That brains-before-brawn attitude helps explain the Forty Elephants’ longevity. They lasted for nearly two centuries, while the Elephant and Castle mob lasted for barely a decade before it was put out of business by rivals.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
An eighteenth century public execution. British Library

Before a Professional Police Force Was Created, England Had “Thief-Takers”

Scotland Yard and London Bobbies are well known nowadays. However, England did not get around to setting up a professional police force until the nineteenth century. Before then, to bring a criminal to justice was pretty much an ad hoc affair that often relied on private initiative. Into that void, a profession of so-called thief-takers cropped to partially fill the void. They were private individuals a bit like bounty hunters. However, while bounty hunters were paid by courts to bring in fugitives who skipped their court appearance, thief-takers were paid by crime victims to catch criminals or recover stolen property.

The most famous thief-taker was eighteenth-century master criminal Jonathan Wilde, a man whose career reportedly gave us the term “double-cross”. According to folk etymology, the term “double-cross”, as in deception by double-dealing, originated with Wilde. He reportedly kept a ledger in which two crosses were literally placed next to the names of those who ran afoul of him. Wilde also reportedly gave the phrase its figurative meaning when he pretended to have seen the light, given up his criminal ways, and gone straight. As seen below, he had done no such thing.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
Jonathan Wilde. National Portrait Gallery

The Great Double Cross of a Master Criminal

Jonathan Wilde (1682 – 1725) was an English master criminal who reigned over an underground kingdom of thieves and highwaymen. He ran a far-flung extortion racket and was Britain’s biggest fence for stolen goods. After he declared that he had reformed his ways and gone straight, the authorities turned to Wilde to help bring rampant crime under control. They figured that it literally took a thief to catch another thief, so they hired Wilde and set him loose on criminals who had seemingly run amok and terrorized London.

Designated “Thief-Taker General”, he took to his new job and title with a passion. He formed highly effective teams of thief catchers who fell upon the criminal underworld and criminals with a will. However, there was a hiccup. Wilde hunted only criminals who competed against him. He double-crossed the English authorities and used their trust in him to turn himself into the greatest English criminal kingpin to have ever lived. Even as he was lauded for his effectiveness as a crime fighter, Wilde ran an extensive underground criminal empire that spanned the realm.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
A gallows ticket to the hanging of Jonathan Wilde. Wikimedia

The “Reformed” Master Criminal Who Hoodwinked the Authorities

To the authorities’ delight, Jonathan Wilde fell upon the criminal underworld like a ton of bricks. He broke up gangs and sent criminals to the gallows by the dozen. During his career as a thief-taker, at least 120 people were executed based on Wilde’s testimony, and information that he furnished the authorities. He also set up a side business as a private detective to recover stolen goods for a fee. However, he failed to inform his clients that it was his thieves who had stolen their goods in the first place. “Recovery” simply came down to Wilde sifting through his warehouses of stolen property. Wilde had not gone legit but had simply hoodwinked everybody.

The Thief-Taker General became an even bigger kingpin, and delivered competitors to the authorities simply as a mean to rid himself of rivals. He was finally brought down when a criminal whom Wilde had double-crossed turned around and accused the Thief-Taker General of fencing stolen goods. An investigation confirmed the allegation, and Wilde was arrested. Many of his underlings then turned crown evidence against him, and the fact that England’s greatest crime fighter had also been its greatest criminal all along came out. Wilde was swiftly tried, convicted, and hanged at Tyburn, where he had sent so many others to their doom.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
Early Victorian police, known at the time as ‘Peelers’. Universal Group

British Bobbies Were Not Always Admired

London finally got a professional police force in the nineteenth century, but it was met with fierce resistance from many. Nowadays, London cops – the officers of the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) – are generally respected and affectionately known as “Bobbies”. That was not always the case. For decades after they were first formed in 1829, the very legitimacy of police and the need for their services was questioned by many Victorians. Naysayers were not limited to the criminal classes. As a result, MPS officers had a fraught relationship with the public they were sworn to serve. Indeed, throughout much of the nineteenth century, the Bobbies were held in low esteem by much of the public.

Early London cops were not only routinely derided and disrespected but were also frequently actively trolled, baited, and attacked for kicks and giggles. Many people seriously disliked the cops, and there was an active anti-police ideology in the Victorian Era, communicated through a radical press that depicted the new policy as an unconstitutional infringement upon English liberties. The Bobbies were often referred to as “blue locusts” and “blue idlers”. It reflected a perception that police were parasites who were excused by their position from honest work, and who unfairly got to live off the taxes of honest men.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
A contemporary cartoon satirizes the hostility and accusations of violence directed at police. Punch Magazine Cartoon Archive

Victorian Cops Who Tried to Arrest Criminal Miscreants Were Often Attacked by Londoners

Early Victorian cops were especially disliked by the lower classes, who resented the suppression of popular recreations and customs such as public drinking, gambling, prize fights, and street games. Routine police work in poorer neighborhoods, such as patrols to keep an eye out for trouble, raised hackles. It was often viewed as an intrusive and unprecedented surveillance regime. Accordingly, many Victorians, developed an active antipathy towards police and did what they could to make the life of beat cops as miserable as possible.

That often took the form of varied degrees of harassment or even violence. Police who tried to arrest criminal miscreants, particularly in lower-class neighborhoods, were often set upon and attacked by the arrestee’s neighbors, friends, and passersby, in order to rescue him from the cops’ clutches. In addition to objections to police interference with street life, there was even greater resentment when the police got involved in domestic affairs and affrays. Cops who approached private residences, regardless of the motive, risked a hostile reception.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
Victorian police. Pinterest

Victorians Liked to Attack Cops for Fun

For Victorian cops to even simply knock on doors to alert residents to security lapses, such as a door or window left open at night, was a fraught affair. It was often met not with gratitude, but with abuse and violence from citizens who assailed the police for their temerity and disturbance of their peace. The Bobbies were especially reluctant to get involved in instances of domestic violence. From bitter experience, they feared to encounter the wrath of both parties, who often temporarily forgot their own squabble and united in order to attack the cops.

Sometimes the violence was not instrumental, such as attempts to free somebody known to the assailants from the police, but was instead visited upon the Bobbies for the sheer fun of it. Many liked to lead policemen on merry chases, while others simply attacked them out of the blue. More creative were some gangs of lower-class youths, who often collaborated to set up ambushes for the police, and baited the cops to chase them down alleys and footpaths strung with tripwires. The wires’ release would spring traps straight out of Looney Tunes, which caused bricks to smash into the policemen, or tipped buckets of refuse to fall upon their heads.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
Nineteenth century New Orleans Mafiosi. Pinterest

The Italian-American Mafia Was Not Born Where Most People Assume

In pop culture depictions, the Italian-American mafia is most often associated with New York City and its vicinity. Many people take it for granted that the mob must have its roots in the Big Apple, home of the Five Great Crime Families, the Godfather, and the melting pot extraordinaire. Indeed, NYC was the first destination of millions of Italian immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who disembarked and were processed into the US at nearby Ellis Island.

However, what would become the American mafia emerged first not in New York, or even the next city most commonly associated with mob lore, Chicago. Instead, that criminal association was born much further south, deep in the heart of Dixie: in New Orleans. In 1869, the New Orleans Times reported that the city’s Second District was overrun with: “well-known and notorious Sicilian murderers, counterfeiters and burglars, who, in the last month, have formed a sort of general co-partnership or stock company for the plunder and disturbance of the city.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
The New Orleans waterfront in the nineteenth century. Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism

The Nineteenth Century Criminal Factions That Fought America’s First Mob War

The favored destination of southern Italian immigrants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was not the United States, but Argentina and Brazil. Those countries’ Latin culture, Romance languages, Catholic religion, and warmer climes, were more hospitable and more easily adapted to than America. New Orleans became a secondary destination in the nineteenth century because of its extensive traffic with those southern locales. As with all waves of immigrants, the new arrivals brought with them their baggage, both literal and figurative. By the 1870s, Sicilian immigrants Carlo and Alberto Matranga had established the Matranga crime family in New Orleans, which operated out of a salon and brothel.

The Matrangas expanded their criminal activities from prostitution to labor rackets and a lucrative extortion scheme known as the Black Hand. They collected “tribute” from Italian laborers, as well as from a rival Italian crime family, the Prozenzanos, who monopolized South American fruit shipments. In the 1880s, America witnessed its first mob war, when the Matrangas fought the Prozenzanos over control of the New Orleans waterfront. Things steadily escalated, as each family brought in more and more muscle in the form of Mafiosi from the old country.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
Rioters outside New Orleans’ Parish Prison. Wikimedia

A Mass Lynching That Helped Establish a Key Mob Rule

As the gang war between the Matrangas and Prozenzanos heated up, the violence spilled over. That put pressure on New Orleans’ authorities to act, so the police chief launched an investigation. For his troubles, he was assassinated in 1890. Unable to identify his killers, he stated “the Dagoes shot me“, just before he died. The result was a fierce backlash, and nineteen New Orleans Mafiosi were arrested and prosecuted. In the first trial of nine of them, the criminal defendants successfully tampered with the jury. Despite mountains of evidence against them, six were acquitted outright, while the other three had hung juries. The next day, March 14th, 1891, a mob of thousands, whose numbers included some of New Orleans’ most prominent citizens, stormed and broke into the prison that housed the defendants.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
A lynch mob breaks into New Orleans’ Parish Prison to get at the Mafiosi within. Wikimedia

They dragged out and lynched eleven of them – the biggest single mass lynching (as opposed to massacre – there are specific terms for different types of atrocities) in US history. That had a salutary effect on the mafia. It demonstrated that America differed from Sicily and southern Italy, where criminals could act in brazen defiance of the authorities and society, with little to fear from either. In the US, there were limits to what criminals could get away with. From then on, the Italian-American mafia adopted strict rules against the targeting of law enforcement, and rigorously enforced them. As seen below, the mafia did not hesitate to preemptively kill major mobsters who sought to go after cops and prosecutors, and thus threatened to bring down unwanted heat upon their criminal operations.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
Dutch Schultz. Fine Art America

The Mafia Whacked This Criminal Boss Before He Could Whack Another

The early 1930s witnessed a massive gangland conflict known as the Castellammarese War, that severely disrupted the American mob’s businesses. The conflict finally ended after young Mafiosi Charles “Lucky” Luciano engineered the deaths of the rival factions’ bosses, Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. Luciano then set up a cooperative entity, the Commission, to run the Italian-American mafia and arbitrate its disputes. To give the Commission teeth, Luciano set up a streamlined contract-killing organization that came to be known as Murder Incorporated. Headed by Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, Murder Inc. acted as the muscle and enforcers of the mafia’s higher-ups. In theory, mob killings had to be preapproved by The Commission, who would then direct Murder Inc. to carry out the murders. Their most famous victim was Dutch Schultz.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
Dutch Schultz. Wikimedia

Schultz was a close friend of many mob higher-ups, including Lucky Luciano. Such friendships did not protect him when he threatened to become a loose cannon after crusading prosecutor Thomas Dewey put him in his crosshairs. Schultz sought permission from the Commission to kill Dewey but was turned down. As seen above, ever since the 1891 New Orleans mass lynchings, the Italian-American mafia prohibited the targeting of law enforcement. When Schultz indicated that he might go rogue and kill Dewey anyhow, the Commission ordered his death before he invited a catastrophic backlash upon all with a hit on the prominent prosecutor. Three Murder Inc. hitmen tracked Schultz down to The Palace Chop restaurant in Newark, New Jersey, where they executed him, his accountant, and two bodyguards.

Related: 20 Significant Mafia Hits.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
Benito Mussolini. Ireland’s Own

When Mussolini Put the Mafia Out of Business in Italy

In 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified, and Prohibition of the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcohol throughout America went into effect a year later. One of its unintended and unforeseen consequences was to boost organized crime throughout the US. In effect, Prohibition took what had been a huge legal and taxed industry, and gifted it to the criminal classes. The result was a business boom for organized crime in the US in general, and the Italian-American mafia in particular, which was better positioned than any other criminal group to take advantage of the new opportunities presented.

However, just as fate handed the Italian mob a precious gift in the New World, it dealt it a severe blowback in the Old Country. Benito Mussolini and his fascists came to power in Italy around the time that Prohibition went into effect in the US. No Italian government before had managed to keep the Sicilian mafia and the Camorra in check. Nor has any Italian government since. As seen below, Mussolini crushed them. Farcical buffoon he might have been, but the Italian dictator did manage to successfully suppress the mafia and organized crime in Italy.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
Rounded up Italian Mafiosi and organized crime figures. Mafia Stories

The Mafia in Italy Was Dead, Until the US Military Brought it Back to Life

The Sicilian Mafia and Camorra throve, and still do, in Italy’s corrupt political culture. Key to their success is their ability to work the system and master its intricacies. They used bribes and threats to subvert politicians, police, and judges and bent them to their will until organized crime became a state within the state. The fascists were not ones to share power or tolerate challenges, however, and Mussolini was neither concerned with nor constrained by legalities in his dealings with the mafia and Camorra. The dictator simply bypassed the criminal justice system and sent in the army and Black Shirts to round up Mafiosi en masse, and kill any who resisted. For over a century, the mafia had intimidated civilians, and its members openly strutted as scary tough guys. They discovered that soldiers were scarier and tougher.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
American M4 Sherman tanks getting loaded up into LSTs for the 1943 invasion of Sicily. Pinterest

Luckily for the American mafia, Mussolini’s crackdown in Italy forced Italian Mafiosi to flee the Old Country. The push factor at home coincided with a pull factor in the US, where Italian crime families experienced an unprecedented business boom because of Prohibition. The Mafiosi who fled Italy swelled the ranks of the mob in America just when their services were most needed. It was not until WWII and the Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy that the Camorra and Sicilian mafia were reborn when the US Army made use of their remnants to help administer the occupation. It was wartime, and the exigencies thereof called for the use of whatever and whoever was at hand to help win and save American lives. After what Mussolini had done to them, the Mafiosi were committed anti-fascists, and quite eager to help the enemies of Il Duce.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
Forrest Whittaker as Bumpy Johnson in ‘Godfather of Harlem’. Los Angeles Sentinel

The Godfather of Harlem

Interest in Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson has seen a revival after the TV series Godfather of Harlem was released, with Forrest Whitaker in the role of Johnson. From the early 1930s until his death in 1968, the real-life Bumpy Johnson was Harlem’s most feared criminal and crime boss. Born in South Carolina in 1905, he got his nickname from a bump in the back of his head. When he was ten years old, Bumpy’s older brother killed a white man and fled to the north to escape a lynch mob.

Bumpy’s temper and refusal to abide by the day’s racial codes, particularly the deference to whites part, stood out and alarmed his parents. They feared that he would follow in his older brother’s footsteps, and kill somebody, or get lynched. So when he turned fourteen, Bumpy was sent to live with a sister in Harlem. There, he joined a protection racket that shook down local stores. Eventually, Bumpy got his big break when he was hired as a leg breaker by Madam Saint Clair, at the time Harlem’s biggest bookmaker and crime queen.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
Madam St. Clair. Black Past

Harlem’s Most Feared and Revered Criminal

Bumpy Johnson eventually became a numbers runner for Madam Saint Clair, then a bookmaker. When mobster Dutch Schultz tried to take over Saint Clair’s bookie operations in the early 1930s, Bumpy was her point man in a vicious gang war. It lasted until Schultz’s assassination on mob boss Lucky Luciano’s orders in 1935, described in a previous entry above. After Schultz’s demise, Bumpy negotiated a deal with Luciano in the 1930s, by which Harlem bookmakers retained their independence in exchange for a cut to the mafia.

It was the first time that a black man had struck such a deal with the Italian mob, and it made Bumpy Johnson a respected and somewhat heroic figure in the neighborhood. Thereafter, he was the main associate of the Luciano (later Genovese) crime family in Harlem. Bumpy was a criminal both feared and revered for decades. He became friends with famous figures such as Cab Calloway, Billie Holliday, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Lena Horne. His activities were reported in the celebrity sections of magazines such as Jet.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
Bumpy Johnson. E-Bay

Bumpy Johnson Was Little Known Until Recently

Bumpy Johnson became Harlem’s criminal kingpin, and every hood needed his approval in order to operate in that part of town. He was known to be well-read, a trait that earned him another nickname: “the Professor”. He did nine years in Alcatraz from 1954 to 1963, and was greeted with a parade upon his return. Yet, despite his flashy fashion, his poetic pretensions, and ostentatious distribution of turkeys to the poor on Thanksgiving, Bumpy never joined the pantheon of famous American villains. Indeed, he was largely unknown until the recent release of the TV series Godfather of Harlem.

That was despite the fact that the stock gangster boss character in every blaxploitation film, starting with “Bumpy Jonas” in Shaft, is modeled on Bumpy Johnson. And despite the fact that the entire gangsta rap genre is essentially a homage to Bumpy. He almost certainly murdered and ordered the murder of more people than, say, John Gotti, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and perhaps even Al Capone. He certainly ran his criminal empire for far longer than any of them ran theirs.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
A rare photo of Bumpy Johnson, left. Pinterest

The Criminal Kingpin Who Kept Order in the Streets of Harlem

One reason why Bumpy Johnson was not as well-known as other iconic American criminal figures is that he was black, and so were most of his victims. His exploits did not resonate far beyond Harlem. Another factor is that there was something cold and reptilian about him. Most famous criminals were hot and passionate. Bumpy Johnson, by contrast, quietly made his victims disappear. In that, he was like Al Capone’s successor Frank Nitti – another crime boss who ran his criminal kingdom for decades attracted little public attention throughout and died of natural causes while free.

Bumpy Johnson died of a heart attack in a Harlem restaurant around 2 AM on the morning of July 7th, 1968, when he clutched his chest and keeled over. His death was dramatized in the movie American Gangster, in which he expired in the arms of his surrogate son and successor, Frank Lucas, who went on to revolutionize New York’s drug trade. Bumpy Johnson had dominated Harlem’s criminal scene for decades and maintained some measure of order on the streets. After his death, various contenders scrambled to fill his shoes. Their competition, and a desire to control it and keep things from getting out of hand, led to the rise of what came to be known as the black mafia, until that eventually fractured and chaos reigned.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
Colonel Thomas Blood. National Portrait Gallery

The Criminal Who Went After England’s Crown Jewels

Colonel Thomas Blood (1618 – 1680) was an Anglo-Irish officer from County Clare, who gained a reputation as one of England’s most audacious rogues. Among his deeds – or misdeeds – were his attempts to kidnap, and when that did not work out too well, to kill, the governor of Ireland. He is best known however for a criminal exploit that made him famous as “The Man Who Stole the Crown Jewels”. There was little in his background to indicate his turn to crime.

The son of a prosperous blacksmith, the future Colonel Blood came from a good family. Indeed, his grandfather lived in a castle and was a Member of Parliament. Blood’s career as a rogue started with the English Civil War, when he left Ireland for England in 1642, to fight for King Charles I. However, when it became clear that the royalists were bound to lose, Blood abandoned Charles and switched to the king’s Parliamentarian enemies. He was well rewarded – but only for a while.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde. National Portrait Gallery

Colonel Blood’s Beef With the Monarchy

King Charles I lost the English Civil War, and after he repeatedly betrayed the Parliamentarians who sought a constitutional solution, he was tried and beheaded. The monarchy was abolished, and England became a Commonwealth, then a Protectorate ruled by Oliver Cromwell. In the new regime, Colonel Thomas Blood was rewarded for turning coat with a big estate and was made a justice of the peace. He prospered, but in 1660 the monarchy was restored, and Charles I’s son assumed the crown as King Charles II. Blood lost all his lands, and in fear of reprisals, fled back to Ireland with his family. He was understandably unhappy with his reversal of fortunes and became an avowed enemy of the monarchy.

In a bid to retaliate – and recoup his losses while at it – Blood plotted to kidnap James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and hold him for ransom. However, the plot failed. Blood’s brother, a coconspirator, was captured and executed for treason, while Blood fled to Holland with a price on his head. He returned in 1670 and hatched yet another plot to kidnap or kill Ireland’s lieutenant governor, which also failed. At that point, desperately short of funds, Blood decided to become a criminal and go for a huge score: he would steal the Crown Jewels of England.

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The Crown Jewels. British Heritage Travel

The Theft of England’s Crown Jewels

England’s Crown Jewels were kept in a basement in the Tower of London, beneath the floor of the Keeper of the Jewels’ apartment. The jewels could be viewed by the public, upon payment of a fee to their custodian. Thomas Blood disguised himself as a parson, went to see the jewels with a female companion whom he presented as his wife, and befriended the Keeper. Over the next few days, Blood ingratiated himself with the jewels’ custodian and his wife, whom he won over with gifts of fine gloves.

He won the couple over even further when he played matchmaker, and proposed a marriage between a fictitious wealthy nephew, and the Keeper’s spinster daughter. The custodian of the jewels was eager to finally marry off his daughter, so he invited Blood and his nephew to dinner. Accordingly, on May 9th, 1671, Blood arrived for dinner with criminal accomplices whom he presented as his “nephew” and two “relatives”. While they waited for dinner to get served, Blood convinced the custodian to show his nephew and relatives the jewels. Eager to impress his prospective son-in-law, the Keeper unlocked the door to the basement.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
Colonel Thomas Blood’s theft of England’s Crown Jewels. Look and Learn

The Criminal Who Almost Got Away With England’s Crown Jewels

Once inside, Thomas Blood and his “nephew” threw a hood over the Keeper of the Jewels’ head, knocked him out with a mallet, stabbed him, then bound and gagged him. Blood then used the mallet to flatten the crown so he could hide it beneath his clerical robes, while his criminal accomplices stuffed scepters and other jeweled items down their trousers. In the meantime, however, the Keeper regained consciousness, managed to remove the gag, and began to scream: “Treason! Murder! The crown is stolen!” Blood and his accomplices fled and engaged in a running shootout with the guards. Eventually, he was cornered, and after a struggle, was subdued and the crown was recovered.

Blood’s accomplices were also captured, and all the stolen items were regained. Unrepentant, Blood declared: “It was a gallant attempt, however unsuccessful! It was for a crown!” He refused to answer any questions except to the king, so he was taken in chains to the palace. Charles II, nicknamed “The Merry Monarch“, liked the audacious scoundrel. Especially when Blood cheekily declared that the Crown Jewels were worth 6000 pounds at most, not 100,000 pounds as widely reported. When Charles asked, “What if I should give you your life?” Blood replied, “I would endeavor to deserve it, Sire!” The king pardoned Blood and granted him an estate worth an annual income of 500 pounds.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
Upper class men’s fashion in the 1840s. Mimi Matthews

The First Conman Literally Got Victims to Hand Him their Belongings

Conmen have probably been around since forever, and there is no way to tell who the first conman was. For all we know, he might have been a hominid ancestor from hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago, who got somebody to trade a juicy chunk of meat for a broken stone ax. However, we can pinpoint the origin of the term “conman”, which is short for “confidence man”. It can be traced back to William Thompson, a nineteenth-century New York City small-time criminal.

Thompson’s method was pretty straightforward: he simply talked strangers into handing him their money or goods. The first conman’s standard procedure was to dress up like a well-off high-class gentleman, approach a high-class mark, and strike up a conversation with him as if the two knew each other. We have all probably been in that kind of awkward situation when we run into people who know us, but for the life of us, we cannot remember where we know them from.

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Broadway in the 1840s. Wikimedia

The Criminal Who Knew Which Social Buttons to Push

William Thompson capitalized on our natural desire to avoid awkwardness in social settings, avert a faux pas, and not give offense. When we run into somebody who seems to know us, but whom we cannot place, we often pretend to know exactly just who that person is. Thus, a well-heeled Thompson would approach a stranger who seemed to be a member of the upper class, strike up a conversation as if the two were acquainted, and shoot the breeze for a few minutes.

He would then ask his mark if he had the confidence to trust him with his watch or a small amount of money until the next day. It was a simpler America back in the nineteenth century, and New Yorkers must have been quite different in those days because, surprisingly, the scam worked. The mark, hesitant to give offense, often obliged. Unsurprisingly, the money or watch were never returned after Thompson walked away and left behind a bewildered mark trying to figure out what had just happened.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
New York City in the 1840s. Useum

The Criminal Whose Exploits Gave Rise to a Common Term

William Thompson’s modus operandi served him well. As a contemporary newspaper described it: “For the last few months a man has been traveling about the city, known as the “Confidence Man,” that is, he would go up to a perfect stranger in the street, and being a man of genteel appearance, would easily command an interview. Upon this interview he would say after some little conversation, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow;” the stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing “confidence” in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do. In this way many have been duped“.

Thompson was finally arrested in July of 1849 when a victim named Thomas McDonald, whom Thompson had conned months earlier out of a gold watch worth $110 – a pretty penny back then – spotted the criminal on the street. McDonald alerted a policeman, who arrested Thompson despite his protestations and attempts to fight and flee. Newspapers, recalling his appeals to the victims’ “confidence” labeled Thompson “The Confidence Man”. Thus was born the term that came to be applied to those who gain a mark’s trust as a prelude to a swindle. The term was given a further boost in 1857 when Herman Melville, inspired by William Thompson, released a novel titled The Confidence Man.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
Paul Castellano. History Network

The Assassination That Made John Gotti

Paul “Big Paulie” Castellano (1915 – 1985) was the boss of NYC’s Gambino crime family from 1976 until his death. The son of a mobster in the Mangano family – forerunner of the Gambinos – who ran a numbers game, Castellano dropped out of school in eighth grade to become a hoodlum. By the 1950s, he had risen to become a capo. Although up to his neck in mob rackets, he acted as if he was a legitimate businessman – an affectation that annoyed many of his underlings, who had no delusions about just what kind of profession they were in.

The disgruntled hoodlums included an ambitious capo named John Gotti. When Castellano failed to attend a prominent subordinate’s funeral in 1985, it offended many Gambinos, and disgruntlement soon grew into rebellion. On December 16th, 1985, Gotti organized a hit squad that waited for Castellano outside one of his favorite restaurants, Sparks Steak House, in midtown Manhattan. As the mob boss exited his car, Gotti watched from across the street as the hitmen rushed in and gunned him down. Gotti then assumed the dead man’s place as boss of the Gambinos.

Crime Facts from History that Belong in Jail
Bugsy Siegel. Internet Movie Database

The Gangster Who Stole From the Mob

Jewish New York criminal and gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (1906 – 1947) became a friend and associate of major mafia luminaries, such as Charles “Lucky” Luciano, and Meyer Lansky. In 1930, Siegel was a member of a hit team organized by Luciano that killed NYC’s then-top mobster, Joe “The Boss” Masseria. A feared hitman, Siegel was one of the original leaders of a contract-killing organization that came to be known as Murder Inc. He was also a bootlegger, and dabbled in gambling before he relocated to the West Coast to expand the mafia rackets there.

Out West, Siegel raised mafia eyebrows when he began to hobnob with Hollywood figures. That was overlooked – for a while – because he helped establish the mafia in Las Vegas when he built the Flamingo Hotel and Casino. However, Siegel got greedy and skimmed off huge amounts from East Coast mobsters who had invested in Las Vegas. When his perfidy was discovered, Siegel’s fate was sealed. On the evening of June 20th, 1947, as he relaxed in a palatial Beverly Hills mansion and perused the Los Angeles Times, a hitman riddled Siegel with rifle bullets fired through the window, including two shots to the head.

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

A Blast From the Past – The Last Secret of the H.L. Hunley

Baptist Quarterly – Colonel Thomas Blood

Costanzo, Ezio – The Mafia and the Allies: Sicily, 1943, and the Return of the Mafia (2007)

Cracked – The Forty Elephants: The Victorian-Era Bling Ring

Culture Trip – The Story Behind London’s Notorious Girl Gang, the Forty Elephants

Daily Beast – The Long Rise and Fast Fall of New York’s Black Mafia

Encyclopedia Britannica – Jonathan Wild, English Criminal

Gambino, Richard – Vendetta: The True Story of the Largest Lynching in US History (2000)

Griffin, Dennis N. – The Battle for Las Vegas: The Law vs the Mob (2006)

Guardian, The, December 27th, 2010 – Girl Gang’s Grip on London Underworld Revealed

Halttunen, Karen – Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle Class in America, 1830 – 1870 (1982)

Historic UK – The Theft of the Crown Jewels

History and Societies, 18(1) 131-152 – Rethinking the State Monopolisation Thesis: the Historiography of Policing and Criminal Justice in Nineteenth Century England

History Collection – These Roving Criminals Terrorized the Plains in the 1930s

History Network – The Grisly Story of America’s Largest Lynching

Howson, Gerlad – Thief-Taker General: The Rise and Fall of Jonathan Wild (1970)

Hutchinson, Robert – The Audacious Crimes of Colonel Blood: The Spy Who Stole the Crown Jewels and Became the King’s Secret Agent (2015)

Lupo, Salvatore – History of the Mafia (2009)

McDonald, Brian – Alice Diamond and the Forty Elephants: The Female Gang that Terrorised London (2015)

New York Herald, July 8th, 1849 – Arrest of the Confidence Man

Raab, Selwyn – The Five Families (2014)

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

Social History, 392:2, 248-266 – ‘I Am Just the Man For Upsetting You Bloody Bobbies’: Popular Animosity Towards the Police in Late Nineteenth Century Leeds

Time Magazine, September 26th, 2019 – The True Story Behind ‘Godfather of Harlem’

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