Passion, greed, insanity …
There are many reasons that crimes are committed, and while most crimes are quickly forgotten, except by the people directly involved, some are still remembered and talked about decades later.
In “The Most Notorious Crimes in American History,” Life magazine rounds up some of the most mysterious, gruesome, and shocking crimes in American history.
Business Insider rounded up 13 of the most notorious crimes highlighted in the book.
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln — April 14, 1865
Fresh off his second inauguration and the salvation of the Union, Lincoln went to see the popular comedy “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865.
One of the most notorious assassinations in American history took place there, as the actor turned Confederate radical John Wilkes Booth sneaked up behind the president, drew a pistol, and fired a single shot at the back of Lincoln’s head. Lincoln died the next morning.
Booth, who had previously performed in Ford’s theater, knew the scene of the crime well. He had also been stalking Lincoln for some time. He held a fanatically pro-slavery position and desperately wanted to see the South freed from the rule of Lincoln.
It is rumored that Booth belonged to the clandestine Knights of the Golden Circle, whose members were fierce opponents of the Union. At one point he planned to kidnap the president in exchange for thousands of Confederate soldiers, but he was foiled by a last-minute itinerary change.
On March 4, 1865, at Lincoln’s second inauguration, Booth stood on a balcony behind the president. The Civil War ended a month later, and days later Booth killed one of the greatest US presidents of all time.
Sacco and Vanzetti — April 15, 1920
“Long live anarchy.” Those were the last words spoken by Nicola Sacco before he was electrocuted on August 23, 1927.
Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were two anarchist Italian immigrants who were found guilty of killing a paymaster and a guard of a shoe factory in South Braintree, Massachusetts, in April 1920 and of stealing $16,000 in payroll money.
The two were brought together by their support of anarchist Luigi Galleani’s militant activities and fled to Mexico in 1917 to avoid being drafted to fight in World War I. Their trial received worldwide attention.
Both were arrested in connection to the shoe factory robbery even though they had never been convicted of a crime before, and they were found guilty by a jury despite “contradictions in eyewitness testimonies and questionable ballistics evidence.”
The trial was largely perceived as being unfair and sparked protests that eventually forced the Massachusetts governor to order an investigatory commission, which agreed with the jury.
The countless books and legal reviews written on the trial have now mostly confirmed Sacco’s guilt, but Vanzetti’s remains questioned.
The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre — February 14, 1929
Prohibition was a windfall for organized crime in America, and for gangsters Alphonse “Scarface Al” Capone and George “Bugs” Moran in particular.
The two gangsters’ rivalry led to one of the best-known incidents of organized crime in the US, which led to the killing of six mobsters and one other person on Valentine’s Day in 1929.
One of Capone’s top men, Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn, was sure Moran had tried to kill him twice before he decided to stage a setup designed to kill Moran and some of his men.
He lured Moran into a garage at 2122 North Clark Street in Chicago by pretending there was an opportunity to buy cheap whiskey from a bootlegger. Moran went for it, though he was not one of the seven men killed that day. He was either late or saw the police car in front of the house and hid, according to varying accounts.
The police car Moran might have seen was a fake one. This was part of McGurn’s plot. Four people entered the garage, two men wearing police uniforms and two men dressed in plain clothes.
The plan was to make it look like a regular raid against bootlegging, and the plan worked perfectly. The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, as it would come to be known, also marked a turning point for the fight against gangs in Chicago.
At the time, William Russell, the police commissioner of the city, said, “We’re going to make this the knell of gangdom in Chicago.”
The Lindbergh baby kidnapping — March 1, 1932
The kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month-old child on March 1, 1932, was dubbed the crime of the century at the time.
In 1927, Lindbergh was the first man to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic, from New York to Paris. He subsequently received the $25,000 Orteig Prize, the French Légion d’Honneur, and the US’ Medal of Honor. He was widely viewed as an American hero.
This explains the shock and coverage the kidnapping of his young son received in 1932. The boy disappeared from his crib on the second floor of the family house in New Jersey, where a ransom note demanding $50,000 was found. The note said the child was in good care. The family immediately called the state police.
A few days later, a new note upped the ransom by $20,000. What followed was a weird string of events including a retired teacher who volunteered to be a go-between and met twice with the alleged kidnapper. During the second meeting, the teacher handed over the ransom and was told to look for the child in a boat off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.
But the child was nowhere to be found.
A little over two months after the kidnapping, the body of the child was found in the woods close to the Lindberghs’ home in New Jersey. The New York Times reported that there was a “strong possibility that he had been killed on the very night of the kidnapping.”
The FBI then started to investigate the matter, and on September 19, 1934, arrested Bruno Richard Hauptmann. The German-born man was hiding $13,750 of the ransom in his garage. He was indicted on charges of extortion and later murder and kidnapping. His trial began in January 1935, and a jury found him guilty on February 13. He was electrocuted to death on April 3, 1936.
Many conspiracy theories have surfaced around the kidnapping, including that the child’s nanny was involved and that the retired teacher was also to blame. Many also maintain that Hauptmann did not get a fair trial because of Lindbergh’s status and fame.
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy — November 22, 1963
The assassination of President Kennedy is maybe the most researched, talked about, debated, and contested crimes in American history.
The Warren Commission, which was assigned to investigate the murder, found that a 24-year-old Marine veteran named Lee Harvey Oswald, and Oswald alone, shot Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas.
But for many skeptics, the findings of the Warren Commission raised more questions than answers.
Oswald was raised by a single mother in New Orleans. Throughout his life, he showed an inability to settle down. He became enamored with communism and tried to live in Moscow, but he was denied citizenship.
After shooting Kennedy, Oswald fled the building and killed a police officer along the way. When he was finally apprehended, he famously said, “I’m just a patsy.”
This statement, along with Oswald’s murder at the hands of vigilante local strip-club owner Jack Ruby, has spawned countless conspiracy theories.
How was such a high-profile suspect killed by a random vigilante? How did Oswald orchestrate the attack? Was he working with the Cubans? The Russians?
The nation lost a young, charismatic president in his prime, and with Oswald dead, we may never truly know why.
Charles Manson and his “family” — the late 1960s
In August 1969, Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of Roman Polanski, was murdered in her home along with four other people.
She was killed by Manson’s “family” of followers on Manson’s orders.
Manson told his followers on August 8, 1969, that it was time for the apocalypse, ordering them to kill everyone in “that house where Melcher used to live.” (Manson and producer Terry Melcher were friends).
Manson sent four of his followers to the house, where they killed five people, including Tate. Manson had already ordered one of his followers to go kill another man a few days earlier.
In 1971, Manson was found guilty of conspiracy to commit seven murders. He was sentenced to death, but his sentence was automatically commuted to a sentence of life in prison after California suspended the death penalty in 1972. Though the state reinstated the death penalty six years later, Manson’s sentence was not affected.
Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. — April 4, 1968
Even early in King’s life, it was clear that he would be a force to be reckoned with in the fight for equal rights.
Born in 1929 in Atlanta, King witnessed the inequalities in the American South under oppressive Jim Crow laws.
Unlike other civil-rights leaders of the time, King modeled his movement after Gandhi ‘s nonviolent noncompliance. King vocally criticized racial inequality and the Vietnam War, which earned him the respect of many and a wire tap from the FBI. But that didn’t stop him from leading a march to Washington, D.C., to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech.
But while King was ushering the nation into a new era of equality and inclusion, a career criminal named James Earl Ray broke out of prison.
On April 4, 1968, as King stood on the balcony of a Memphis Motel room, a shot rang out, passing through King’s neck and chin. King would be pronounced dead an hour later.
Ray was eventually captured and confessed to the killing. He later recanted his confession and claimed a man named “Raoul” was the mastermind behind the plot. Ray’s checkered past and his reference to the Raoul character have spawned numerous conspiracy theories.
Watergate break-in — June 17, 1972
The Watergate Hotel wasn’t known as anything more than a fancy Washington, D.C., hotel until June 17, 1972, when five men were arrested in the wee hours of the morning after trying to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee.
The DNC was running its candidate, George McGovern, against the incumbent Richard Nixon. McGovern would lose in a landslide, but the Watergate scandal and the resulting cover-up would haunt the Nixon administration over the next two years.
The GOP’s Committee to Re-elect the President, officially known as CRP but later known as CREEP, went to criminal lengths to ensure that its man stayed in office by breaking into the DNC’s office.
Led by a mysterious inside source called “Deep Throat,” two intrepid Washington Post reporters traced the wrongdoing from the arrest of the five men to the highest level of the administration.
On August 9, 1974, The Washington Post, which had doggedly followed the case, ran an article on the front page that stated “Richard Milhous Nixon announced last night that he will resign as the 37th president of the United States at noon today.”
The scandal rocked the nation to the core. Nixon said, “I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision.”
Nixon’s vice president, Gerald Ford, would pardon Nixon of his crimes, but the damage to Nixon’s reputation had been done.
The deaths of Sid and Nancy — October 12, 1978
One of the best-known tragic love stories of modern times ended in a bloody murder at the storied Chelsea Hotel in New York.
John Simon Ritchie, renamed Sid Vicious, was a member of the influential British punk-rock band the Sex Pistols. Nancy Spungen was a “problem child almost from birth,” according to her mother’s biography. She left her parents’ home in Pennsylvania and eventually moved to the UK, where she was “hoping to hook into the punk scene.”
The two met and went on to engage in a short and intense relationship. After the Sex Pistols broke up during a US tour in 1978, the heroin addiction of Sid and Nancy – as the duo is known – deepened, and Ritchie started getting violent toward Spungen.
The two stayed together at the Chelsea Hotel, where on October 12 the police were called to their hotel room to find Spungen dead under the sink with a single stab wound to her abdomen.
Ritchie – who was found wandering the halls – was charged with her murder but released on bail a day later. He went back to jail in December after attacking another musician and was again released on bail. He died less than a day after his release from a heroin overdose.
The Gardner Museum Heist — March 18, 1990
On March 18, 1990, two thieves committed the largest private-property theft in US history.
As Bostonians were busy celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day, two men dressed as police officers persuaded the security guards of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to let them in. They then tied them up and stole 13 works of art, including one Vermeer, one Manet, five Degases, and three Rembrandts.
The works of art are estimated to have been worth over $300 million.
Though several leads were investigated, the two men were never caught, and none of the artwork was ever returned.
The Gardner Museum still offers $5 million for information leading to the recovery of the stolen paintings and drawings.
The murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman — June 12, 1994
Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson was one of the greatest all-time running backs in college football.
When Simpson’s ex-wife was brutally murdered along with a friend in Los Angeles’ expensive Brentwood neighborhood on June 12, 1992, many initially felt sympathy for Simpson.
But the police quickly began to investigate Simpson. Detectives at the scene of the crime found bloody footprints and a bloody glove. A search of Simpson’s home turned up bloodstains on his driveway, car, and socks.
The police then asked Simpson to turn himself in, but he was nowhere to be found. A surreal low-speed car chase ensued, with the police following a white Ford Bronco carrying Simpson. The chase was broadcast on live TV, and it ended when Simpson reached his home and surrendered.
The next six months gave way to an epic legal battle that may rightly claim the title of “trial of the century.”
In just four hours, the jury decided that Simpson was not guilty. To this day, the crime remains one of the best known in American history.
Oklahoma City bombing — April 19, 1995
April 19 holds historic significance for the US.
On April 19, 1775, “the shot heard around the world” was fired in Massachusetts, beginning the Revolutionary War.
On April 19, 1993, federal agents stormed the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, with a fire destroying the compound and taking the lives of more than 70 people.
And on April 19, 1995, former US Army soldier Timothy McVeigh drove a truck filled with 2 1/2 tons of homemade explosives up to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and detonated it, killing 168 and injuring 800.
McVeigh saw himself as acting in revenge for the heavy-handed response to the Waco, Texas, cultists. He chose the federal building because he believed the agents responsible worked there.
He killed 16 children in a daycare facility and more than 150 other people.
McVeigh was executed on June 11, 2001.
The murder of Laci Peterson — December 24, 2002
Laci Peterson was killed just before Christmas in 2002. At the time she was eight months pregnant with her first child.
It was her husband, Scott Peterson, who reported her missing on Christmas Eve, saying he had last seen her that morning when he left for an all-day fishing trip. From the start, the police detective in charge of the inquiry said something did not seem right.
A few days later, a woman from Fresno, Amber Frey, called the police after seeing the coverage of Laci’s disappearance, telling them Peterson had been her boyfriend for over one month. As the police continued to investigate the murder, they found out that Peterson had bought a $250,000 life-insurance policy on his wife.
The body of a tiny baby turned up in San Francisco Bay in April, and the next day one of a woman appeared, less than 5 miles from where Peterson had said he was fishing on Christmas Eve. A few days later, the police arrested him in San Diego with $15,000 in cash on him.
After it was confirmed that the bodies were those of Laci Peterson and her son, Peterson was charged with two counts of murder. After several months of a highly publicized investigation and five months of trial, the jury returned a guilty verdict on November 12.
Peterson was later sentenced to death and is on death row at San Quentin State Prison in California. He still claims his innocence.
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