Did you know that most of the famous thieves found in literature, films, and TV are based on real people?
Throughout history, all kinds of notorious people made a name for themselves as art, jewel, or bank thieves. Most of the pop culture characters we see today take inspiration from these famous criminals. For instance, people often mention Bonnie and Clyde in all kinds of media to refer to a couple who would sacrifice anything for each other. This is actually based on Bonnie Park and Clyde Barrow, two very real criminals from the 1900s.
Of course, Bonnie and Clyde aren’t the only ones out there. There are even more interesting slick criminals in history that you should know of. Read on if you want to learn more!
Alias/es: Napoleon of Crime, Henry J. Raymond, Edward Grey
Deathdate: January 8, 1902
Adam Worth is one of the most famous thieves in history. In fact, he was so famous that he became the inspiration of one of the famous criminals in fiction: James Moriarty. James Moriarty is the fictional villain from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous book series, Sherlock Holmes.
Worth started off as a bounty jumper, men who joined the army solely to collect bounty then immediately leave after. Following these stunts, he left for New York, where he founded a gang of pickpockets. Worth had a long and colorful criminal career. He continued to plan and execute bank robberies even after spending three years in prison.
Alias/es: Dinnertime Bandit
Birthdate: August 9, 1955
Alan Golder is best known for being a cat burglar. He snuck into people’s houses during the night, usually during dinnertime, to rob them. Because of this, people gave him the nickname, “Dinnertime Bandit.”
He began his criminal career at the young age of 6. This could’ve been rooted in his father (who was also a criminal) leaving him and his family to fend for themselves. Golder became a full-time robber when he was 21 years old.
For a brief time, he became a criminal informant for the police. However, he went back to his criminal ways not long after. Golder continued to rob houses in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. By the time he was arrested, the police estimated he had stolen around $5 million worth of jewels and items.
Alias/es: Bert, Sewer Gang
Birthdate: December 14, 1932
Deathdate: June 8, 1989
When talking about famous thieves, one can’t leave out Albert Spaggiari. Spaggiari is one of the most famous bank robbers in history. He is the mastermind behind the Société Générale Bank heist.
On a Friday in 1976, Spaggiari led a team of 20 men into the bank vault. Their point of entry was a tunnel they dug from the sewers. Once inside the vault, they welded the door shut and stayed there until Monday. They spent the entire weekend emptying safety deposit boxes and cash. They robbed the French bank for $10 million in cash, gold, and jewelry.
Before leaving, the gang left a message on the wall. It translated to, “Without Guns, Without Violence, Without Hate.”
Alphonse Gabriel Capone
Alias/es: Scarface, Big Al, Big Boy, Public Enemy No. 1
Birthdate: January 17, 1899
Deathdate: January 25, 1947
Alphonse Gabriel Capone, or simply Al Capone, isn’t just one of the most famous thieves in history. He is also one of the most famous crime bosses in America. Al Capone is the co-founder and boss of the crime syndicate, Chicago Outfit.
Together with his organization, Al Capone committed a series of crimes, including robberies, gambling, prostitution, and murder. As the crime czar of Chicago, his reputation grew. To some, he was the modern-day Robin Hood because of his donations to different charities. To the police and media, he was “Public Enemy No. 1.”
One trivia about this famous thief is that he has a scar on his left cheek. He received this from a fight in a saloon during his youth.
Birthdate: March 8, 1697
One of the most famous thieves in history is Anne Bonny, a pirate from the 1600s. She was a crewmate on Captain John Rackam’s ship, and the captain himself was her lover. Together with the rest of their crew, they sailed the Caribbean and robbed other ships.
During ship raids, Bonny dressed as a man, with a sword and pistol strapped to her waist. In 1720, a privateer attacked and captured their crew. The Governor of Jamaica ordered for their hanging. While her lover was executed, Bonny was imprisoned because she was pregnant.
Historians are not sure of her exact death date because accounts vary. However, some texts claim she died in April 1721.
Most thieves prefer to keep their entire careers a secret. Some thieves, however, will write autobiographies to tell people their misadventures. Bill Mason is one of the latter. In 2003, Mason published Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief. He detailed his robberies in his memoir and named the celebrities he stole from.
To many, Mason is one of the most famous jewel thieves in history. He robbed celebrities like Armand Hammer, Bob Hope, and Truman Capote. He also stole the Olympic gold medal of swimmer Johnny Weissmuller. At the end of his criminal career, he amassed a total of $35 million. Now, he lives in New York City as a successful author.
Alias/es: Queen of the Oklahoma Outlaws, Bandit Queen
Birthdate: February 5, 1848
Deathdate: February 3, 1889
Myra Maybelle Shirley Reed Starr is one of the most famous female thieves in history. Starr was closely tied with the James-Younger Gang. They were a group of outlaws based in Missouri. The gang often plundered and murdered to satisfy their greed for more money.
After the Civil War, Starr got married, but she did not stay away from the criminal world. Her husband, Jim Reed, was also a thief. They stole horses and robbed travelers in carriages. Starr died a few days before her birthday. To this day, people still do not know who shot her from behind.
After her death, The National Police Gazette published her story. Published in 1889, Belle Starr, the Bandit Queen became a historical reference for many. The novel led to her popularity, and she quickly became one of the most famous thieves ever.
Bonnie and Clyde
Alias/es: Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut Barrow
Birthdate: October 1, 1910 (Bonnie) and March 24, 1909 (Clyde)
Deathdate: May 23, 1934
Like we mentioned earlier, Bonnie and Clyde are so famous that they often get referenced. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were lovers who committed crimes across the Central United States. Together with their gang, they robbed stores, gas stations, and even funeral homes. During their robberies, they also allegedly killed several police officers.
The couple died on a rural road, where the police conducted a stakeout. Around 9 a.m., Clyde’s vehicle appeared, and they lured him to pull over. Once he stepped out, the police opened fire and killed Clyde with a single headshot. Bonnie, who was also in the vehicle, suffered fatal gunshots.
Bonnie and Clyde have inspired several films after their death. One example is the 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde. Another is The Highwaymen, a Netflix film released in 2019.
Alias/es: Friday Night Bank Robber
Birthdate: October 12, 1947
When it comes to bank robberies, Carl Gugasian stands out. People regard him as the most prolific bank robber in the United States. Throughout his criminal career of 30 years, he robbed over 50 banks.
He was a meticulous fellow who planned his robberies to the tiniest detail. Usually, he would stake out a bank, observe the employees for a few days, and come back on a Friday night to finally rob them with all of his equipment. He preferred robbing banks and stores on Friday nights because he believed there would be fewer civilians.
The police could build a case against him after finding his plans and equipment in sealed drainage pipes. They finally arrested him in 2002.
Birthdate: May 14, 1832
Deathdate: February 25, 1879
Despite being thieves, many of them live by some moral code. Some famous thieves will refuse to use violence. Charles Peace, however, is not one of them. Charles Peace is a famous British thief who is also responsible for the murder of several people.
Throughout his life, he robbed several houses. The police often caught him, so he spent several years going in and out of prison. Eventually, in 1879, he was finally found guilty of murder and later hanged.
In 1949, British director Norman Lee released The Case of Charles Peace. This film showcased the life and crimes of Charles Peace. This is not the only piece of media about Peace. A lot of literature and films make mention of him.
Alias/es: Barefoot Bandit, Colton A. Harris, Colton Koehler, Colton A. Burgess
Birthdate: March 22, 1991
A lot of famous thieves begin their life of crime at a young age. Colton Harris Moore is one of them. As a teenager, he had already stolen boats, cars, and even small aircraft. Despite being a minor, he had already stolen vehicles worth over $100,000.
In 2010, he fled to the Bahamas using a stolen plane. However, a week later, police arrested him after finding him on a stolen boat. He was sentenced to six and a half years and released on parole in 2016.
People dubbed him as the “Barefoot Bandit” because they believed he did most of his crimes barefoot. However, the police declared this rumor to be false since it is proven that he wore shoes during robberies.
Alias/es: Interstate Bank Mart Bandit
There are a lot of crime documentaries that show how police catch famous thieves. One example is CNBC’s feature on David Brankle. Brankle is a serial bank robber who robbed over 40 banks in just 20 months. He robbed banks in Florida, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, and more.
It took a long time before police could identify and name him. Despite this incredible feat, he started off as a clumsy robber. The first time he robbed a bank, he forgot to bring a bag and simply stuffed his pockets with the cash.
Today, Brankle is serving a 20-year sentence in the Federal Correctional Institution.
Derek Creighton Smalls
Alias/es: Bertie Smalls
Deathdate: January 31, 2008
When criminals find themselves unable to escape the police, they’ll sometimes strike a deal in order to avoid or lessen their sentencing. In Derek Creighton Smalls’ case, he became what British people call “supergrass.”
Supergrass is slang for a criminal informant. As a supergrass, Smalls turned in many other thieves in London. He was able to present substantial evidence against his accomplices during the trial. Because of this, he did not have to serve time in jail.
Dinner Set Gang
Alias/es: The Fat Cat Burglars
Most famous thieves are known individually. However, some are also famous as a group. The Dinner Set Gang is one example. They are a group of thieves who stole from the estates of rich people. They traveled from Florida to New England just to rob the elite.
Two of the first members were Peter Salerno and Dominick Latella. They both noticed a pattern in how rich people lived. Whenever the elite had dinner, they did not often excuse themselves. They considered leaving any time during the meal as a rude gesture. Thus, the rest of the house was free for them to rob.
Because they often robbed houses during dinner time, the media dubbed them the Dinner Set Gang.
Doris Marie Payne
Birthdate: October 10, 1930
Doris Payne is one of the most famous jewel thieves in the United States. Her criminal career is one of the longest among thieves. Through six decades, she stole diamonds, jewelry, and high fashion clothing.
What most people know her for is her theft of a diamond ring in the 1970s. In Monte Carlo, Payne stole a 10-carat diamond ring that cost around $500,000. Despite being arrested, authorities were not able to recover the ring.
In 2014, director Matthew Pond released The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne. This film features interviews with her family and other officials involved in her case.
Forty Elephants Gang
Alias/es: Forty Thieves
Another organization on this famous thieves list is the Forty Elephants Gang. While the name might suggest that they had 40 members, this is not the case. The gang comprised around 70 members in total.
The Forty Elephants Gang often robbed estates along the Elephant and Castle area of London. They would dress up as housemaids and sneak into the rich family’s homes to steal from them. Aside from houses, they also robbed shopping centers all over London.
To this day, it is uncertain exactly how many members the gang actually had. The authorities could only associate a few names with the group. However, they did not have much evidence to back up these claims.
Some people might think that famous thieves have no other interests aside from jewels and money. However, this is not true. Some thieves also dabbled in writing. Francois Villon is an example.
Villon was a French poet. To this day, he continues to be the most famous among other French poets from the 15th century. Le Testament is a collection of his poems that historians consider autobiographical.
He robbed a chapel in Paris. Authorities caught up to him, and he was banished shortly after. It is still unknown whether they banished him solely for this act or for other robberies as well.
Frank Abagnale, Jr.
Birthdate: April 27, 1948
One of the most famous thieves today is Frank Abagnale, Jr. He is a convicted felon who started his criminal career at a young age. When he was only 15 years old, he was already conning people with fake checks. For the rest of his youth, he continued to con people and was arrested several times.
In 1980, he published his first book, Catch Me If You Can. He wrote of his life as a criminal. The book quickly gained popularity. In 2002, Steven Spielberg adapted the book into a film. It starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks.
Abagnale has long since turned away from a life of crime. Today, he owns a consultancy firm named Abagnale and Associates.
Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Remy
Alias/es: Comtesse de la Motte, Jeanne de la Motte
Birthdate: July 22, 1756
Deathdate: August 23, 1971
Next on this famous thieves list is none other than Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Remy. Remy is an important figure in French history. She played a big role in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. In the 1780s, Remy forged the signature of Queen Marie Antoinette for the purchase of an expensive diamond necklace.
However, the queen did not want to buy the necklace. This incident almost drove the jeweler into bankruptcy as the necklace was very expensive. This event worsened the queen’s already tarnished public image. With this, Remy helped incite the French Revolution.
Jesse Woodson James
Birthdate: September 5, 1847
Deathdate: April 3, 1882
The leader of the James-Younger Gang is another one of the most famous thieves in history. Jesse Woodson James is a thief who often targeted banks and trains. James and his gang used violent methods to commit theft.
Despite this, people viewed the James-Younger gang as good people. They often likened James to Robin Hood. This is because the James-Younger gang targeted rich people. However, there was no evidence that showed them donating their stolen goods outside of their gang.
To this day, James is still a popular icon. In fact, the portrayal of Wild West outlaws in most modern films is based on the likes of Jesse James.
John Herbert Dillinger
Birthdate: June 22, 1903
Deathdate: July 22, 1934
John Dillinger was one of the most famous thieves during the Great Depression. As the leader of the Dillinger gang, he organized the robbery of several banks. His group also targeted police stations.
Throughout his career, Dillinger had charges of robbery, homicide, assault, and grand theft auto. Despite this, the media was infatuated with him. Dillinger often appealed to them, and it worked. The press painted him as a Robin Hood type.
One interesting fact about Dillinger is his plastic surgery. While on the run to Chicago, he underwent plastic surgery. He did this so that the police wouldn’t identify him. Unfortunately, they still captured and arrested him.
Alias/es: Thief-Taker General, Jonathan Wilde, The Great Corrupter
Birthdate: 1682 or 1683
Deathdate: May 24, 1725
Some famous thieves became criminal informants after getting caught. Jonathan Wild, on the other hand, played both sides at the same time. Unknown to them, the government consulted Wild for information on criminals. As the leader of his own crime ring, Wild knew of many thieves by name.
He gave the names of his rivals, and also bribed prison guards to free his own men. He used his power and influence with the government to carry out his own crimes. This is why people called him the “Thief-Taker General.”
In the end, the police found out. They arrested him, and he was later publicly hanged.
Lester Joseph Gillis
Alias/es: George Nelson, Baby Face Nelson, Jimmy
Birthdate: December 6, 1908
Deathdate: November 27, 1934
Most thief names are scary and intimidating. However, for Lester Joseph Gillis, he earned the nickname, “Baby Face Nelson,” because of his young and innocent-looking face. Despite appearances, Gillis is one of the most famous bank robbers in America. For a time, the FBI dubbed him and his gang as “Public Enemy Number One.”
Gillis joined the Touhy Gang, a crime organization from the Chicago suburbs. They committed a series of armed robberies at various homes and banks. In 1930, they robbed magazine-executive Charles M. Richter’s home. They stole around $205,000 worth of jewelry.
Gillis died young at the age of 25 during the Battle of Barrington. On November 27, 1934, a gunfight between the police and Gillis broke out. This happened in a town near Chicago, Illinois. What started off as a car chase on Highway 12 ended with three deaths, namely of two agents and Gillis himself.
Alias/es: Kate Barker, Rita Ma Barker, Arizona Barker, Arrie Barker
Birthdate: October 8, 1873
Deathdate: January 16, 1935
One of the most famous thieves ever is Ma Barker. Barker appears in plenty of films, literature, and even music. She is a popular figure in pop culture. This is because of her status as the mother of the leaders of the Barker-Karpis gang.
During the Great Depression, many feared the Barker-Karpis gang. They were the scariest and oldest crime organization at the time. They didn’t just rob banks, the gang also kidnapped and murdered people.
Barker was the mastermind behind most of these crimes. She organized and planned while her sons executed them. According to FBI Director Hoover, Barker was “the most vicious, dangerous, and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade.”
Alias/es: Moll Cutpurse, Mal Cutpurse, Tom Faconer
Birthdate: 1584 or 1585
Deathdate: July 26, 1659
Mary Frith is one of the most famous thieves from London. Many from the underground knew of her as the notorious Moll Cutpurse. Aside from being a skilled thief, she was also a fencer and broker.
As an entertainer, she also knew how to sing, dance, and play the lute. Sometimes, she would do this dressed as a man named Tom Faconer. While she distracted the audience, her accomplices would scour the crowd and rob them.
Her story intrigued many writers after her death. The famous William Shakespeare himself mentioned her in his play Love’s Labour’s Lost. Another play that features Firth is The Roaring Girl from 1611.
Mithilesh Kumar Srivastava
Deathdate: June 24, 1996
If you’re wondering what the biggest heist in history is, the answers will always depend on who you ask. However, most people will answer Natwarlal’s con. Natwarlal is the alias of Mithilesh Kumar Srivastava. He sold the Taj Mahal. What is amazing about this con is that he did this three times.
Natwarlal is India’s biggest conman. He knew how to forge signatures and documents. He started off selling autographs of celebrities. Later on, he moved on to bigger things, one being the literally big Taj Mahal, the Parliament House of India, and more.
Like most famous thieves, Natwarlal inspired depictions of his life. In 1979, director Rakesh Kumar released Mr. Natwarlal, an Indian Hindi action-comedy.
Alias/es: Dick Turpin, John Palmer
Birthdate: Baptized on September 1705
Deathdate: April 7, 1739
In the 18th century, it was very common for people to steal horses. One of the most famous thieves was a highwayman who often stole horses and carriages. His name was Richard Turpin. Turpin was originally a butcher like his father. However, he joined a gang of outlaws who often stole deers and other livestock.
Almost a century after his death, Harrison Ainsworth wrote a novel about Turpin titled Rookwood. It told a fictional story of how Turpin rode from London all the way to York on his horse, Black Bess. While the story is not true, it appealed to a wide readership. This novel popularized Turpin and made him famous.
Robert LeRoy Parker
Alias/es: Butch Cassidy, Mike Cassidy, George Cassidy, Jim Lowe, Santiago Maxwell
Birthdate: April 13, 1866
Deathdate: November 7, 1908
Like other famous thieves, Robert Parker was a gang leader. He led the “Wild Bunch,” a group of outlaws from the American Old West. They often robbed trains and banks. Parker quickly gained popularity the more he committed crimes, and eventually, a detective agency began pursuing him.
He fled to Argentina and then Bolivia with his close accomplice, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh. In Bolivia, Parker and Longabaugh met their demise in a gunfight with San Vicente police. The local police could not properly identify the bodies. They only knew them as the robbers of a payroll courier.
To this day, people continue to speculate about his death. Some even believe he might have survived. Either way, he continues to be a popular “Wild West” icon.
Alias/es: Sante Kimes
Birthdate: July 24, 1934
Deathdate: May 19, 2014
Sante Singhrs is a thief from the city of Oklahoma. Her son, Kenny Kimes, was her partner in crime. Together, they robbed and killed several people.
The crime that made them two of the most famous thieves in the US was the murder of Irene Silverman. Silverman was a New York socialite. She had power, money, and a $7 million townhouse. The mother-son duo sought to steal her townhouse.
They managed to get closer to her when Kenny pretended to be a tenant at the townhouse. They went to trial, but the police never found the victim’s body.
Sofia Ivanovna Blyuvshtein
Alias/es: Sonia the Golden Hand, Son’ka the Golden Hand, Queen of Thieves
It doesn’t seem like the media ever gets tired of romanticizing famous thieves. Another example is Sofia Blyuvshtein. She is better known as Sonia the Golden Hand. She is a notorious thief from Russia that the media portrayed as another Robin Hood figure.
Sonia was a beautiful young woman who conned several victims. She stole jewelry and once robbed a banker. Unfortunately, she gained a public image. This often interfered with her dirty work as it caused people to recognize her in public.
In 1890, famous author Anton Chekov met Sonia. He wrote about their meeting in his book, Sakhalin Island. There are also several movies and shows about Sonia’s life. An example is the TV series, Son’ka Golden-Hands.
Out of all the famous thieves, the Starlet Bandit remains the most mysterious. To this day, police have not identified who the Starlet Bandit is. In early 2010, an unknown female wearing sunglasses robbed several banks in Los Angeles. The media and police called her the Starlet Bandit. In just a single week, she managed to rob five banks. Two out of these five occurred on the same day.
While the police had suspects, the actual identity remains unknown. The FBI believes that the Starlet Bandit isn’t just one person. They deduce that several women might be behind the mysterious thief.
In 2013, LA Weekly published a feature about the Starlet Bandit. According to the article, the Starlet Bandit was a team of LA hookers, under the command of Robert St. John.
Alias/es: Book Bandit
Most famous thieves steal jewelry. Stephen Blumberg, on the other hand, stole books. This book thief stole over 23,600 books. These books came from libraries and museums of different states. Some even came from Canadian provinces. Today, these books amount to around $10 million.
Blumberg is the most successful book thief in US history. He was arrested on March 20, 1990. The police were able to build a case against him with evidence from his close friend Kenneth J. Rhodes. Rhodes turned Blumberg in exchange for a large sum of money.
Birthdate: January 18, 1952
Deathdate: October 18, 2004
Koose Munisamy Veerappan is an Indian bandit. He smuggled sandalwood and poached elephants. He sold ivory worth around $2.6 million illegally. What he is most famous for, however, is his kidnapping of politicians.
He kidnapped a former minister, celebrities, and police officers. He demanded ransom money for each of his captures. Throughout his criminal career, he killed 184 people. Most of these victims were police and forest officers.
On October 18, 2004, the Tamil Nadu Special Task Force killed Veerappan by luring them into a trap.
Birthdate: October 8, 1881
Deathdate: October 8, 1925
While most famous thieves earned their popularity through a series of crimes, Vincenzo Peruggia is different. Peruggia only executed one theft in his career. He stole Leonardo DaVinci’s famous painting, the Mona Lisa.
Peruggia was impatient, so he tried to sell the painting after only two years of hiding it. He tried to sell it to the owner of an Italian art gallery. He thought the owner would thank him. Unfortunately, the owner turned him in.
Peruggia claimed he wanted to return the painting to its “homeland.” However, people didn’t believe him. This is because he tried to sell it for profit instead of simply donating it.
Alias/es: Gentleman Thief, Encio
Birthdate: July 22, 1943
Vincenzo Pipino is a thief from Venice, Italy. Throughout his criminal career, he robbed banks, jewelry stores, and museums. He also targeted private homes. Aside from theft, he also has a charge of credit card fraud against him.
Pipino was the first thief who successfully robbed the Doge’s Palace. The Madonna with Child is a famous and symbolic painting in the history of Italian art. Pipino stole this but also returned it after a few weeks.
The public dubbed him as “the gentleman thief.” Like most famous thieves, he had his own code of conduct. For him, Pipino chose to never use violence or blackmail. That is where his nickname came from.