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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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