These are flush times for true-crime fans. Not only did the genre take the Academy Award for Best Documentary last year (O.J.: Made in America), but a slew of podcasts and streaming platforms have consistently been turning more obscure crime stories into masterfully rendered narratives. If you’ve been binging on this bounty like so many have, then you’ll find The Crime Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained, an encyclopedic treatment of the topic, makes for excellent companion reading. A compelling compilation of human trickery and awfulness, it covers crimes from arson, art forgery and kidnapping to bank robbery, drug trafficking and, of course, murder, with many of the entries accompanied by helpful illustrations. (Didn’t you always want a visual aid to help you understand exactly how the Great Train Robbery went down or how the chain of command in the Mafia is organized?)
“It was sort of a daunting task at first. There are so many crimes, known and unknown,” says Cathy Scott, an investigative journalist and bestselling true-crime author who came up with the list of 100 stories detailed in the book and wrote it along with co-authors Shanna Hogan, Michael Kerrigan, Lee Mellor and Rebecca Morris. “We tried to include the famous ones, and then some lesser-known. They needed to be from across the world and across the years and across a variety of crimes.”
One thing the book makes clear is that an enormously broad spectrum of human behavior fits under the title of crime. There’s Harry Domela, a veteran set adrift in post-World War I Germany who supported himself by posing as various members of high society and surviving on the attendant wining and dining. But then there’s the story of James Bulger, a two-year-old who was tortured and killed by two 10-year-old boys in England in 1993. The fuzzy security-camera image of Bulger being led out of the mall where he was abducted, his trusting hand clasped in his tormentor’s, will haunt you for days. “That’s the thing about writing about children, those stories are dark,” says Scott. “I think it’s important to include something like that, because it’s reality.”
Many of the stories are accompanied by sidebars about issues such as law-enforcement techniques, criminal psychology and the public’s perception of the villains who have taken up so much ink in the news. “The cool thing that we did was look at the psychology and motives,” says Scott, “what makes these criminals tick.” But equally interesting, she says, is the psychology of a public that hungrily consumes crime stories, and even sometimes celebrates the criminals. With Bonnie and Clyde and Jesse James’ gang, for instance, “They killed people. They robbed banks. But the public would actually feed them and help them and egg them on instead of wanting to turn them in,” Scott says.
Of course, the vast majority of us remain spectators, perhaps so engrossed in these stories because we maintain that safe distance. “People in their regular lives don’t have any excitement,” Scott says. “They get all wrapped up in it, like watching a movie.” But these stories are also about real life, about what our fellow humans are capable of and what our ethical boundaries are.
“It’s our own species. It’s so horrifying because it is our own,” says Scott. “Part of it horrifies us, but at the same time we’re fascinated by it and can’t take our eyes away. As a child I loved reading the newspaper and following stories. I couldn’t wait to get the next day’s paper to see what had happened – the full story, I think that’s what [people] crave.”
The stories in the book range from the first known homicide, that of a Neanderthal in Spain 430,000 years ago, to the Volkswagen emissions fraud scandal in 2015. Many of the crimes are quite famous –
There is but one unsolved skyjacking case, and it’s a doozy
Plane hijackings were once surprisingly frequent – there were 160 in American air space between 1961 and 1973. (That averages to about one every month.) “And [they were] not heavily covered at the time, not taken that seriously,” Scott says. But one did manage to grab a lot of attention. It was perpetrated by a mysterious figure known as D.B. Cooper, whose uncanny 1971 caper set off a spate of 15 copycat skyjackings. Unlike the politically motivated plane hijackings we’re more familiar with, Cooper’s crime was about material gain.
On November 24th, 1971, a man who purchased a plane ticket under the name “Dale Cooper” (which was misreported as D.B. Cooper in the press; the name stuck) boarded a flight in Portland, Oregon, headed for Seattle. Once in the air, he handed a note to attendant Florence Schaffner, informing her that he had a bomb in his suitcase. He demanded that there be $200,000 awaiting him at Seattle-Tacoma Airport, along with four parachutes and a truck to refuel the plane. Officials met his demands, and Cooper released all of the passengers save one flight attendant and the pilots, who he ordered to fly south toward Mexico. About 45 minutes into the journey, he put on a parachute, lowered the rear stairs and leapt out into a dark and rainy night, never to be heard from again.
The FBI led a massive manhunt but came up empty-handed, and the bureau only just officially ended its active investigation in July 2016. Lest you think Cooper ended up as a splat on the ground, $5,800 of his money was found eight years later, buried near the Columbia River, suggesting he had operable legs after he jumped from the plane. It remains the world’s only unsolved skyjacking case. But Cooper did leave this behind: Shortly afterward, airlines finally started screening passengers and their luggage. “It caused police to step up at the federal level when it comes to airplanes,” says Scott. “We’ve gone though steps, and each crime, the worse it gets, it causes an effect with screening. His did, as 9/11 did.”
Somebody once had the balls to con Capone
Don’t con a con man – or a Chicago gangland overlord, for that matter. Good advice, that went unheeded by Victor Lustig, though he did end up walking away safely from the gamble. Lustig had reason to be cocky; he had already perpetrated some epic cons in France before coming into Capone’s orbit in the late 1920s. He successfully duped targets into buying a fake money-printing machine – for as much as $30,000 – by showing them real $100 bills that he claimed to have made himself. And, most famously, he “sold” the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal. Posing as a government official, he reached out to businessmen with the opportunity to make bids on demolishing the iconic landmark and found a pawn in Andre Poisson, who not only forked over money for the scrap metal but also paid a $70,000 bribe to Lustig upfront to ensure he would get the contract. (Afterward, Poisson was too humiliated to report the fraud, which Lustig was counting on).
But it’s doubtful Al Capone would have been so docile. To tangle with him was a challenge, though that must have been part of the allure. “I cannot understand honest men,” Lustig once said. “They lead desperate lives of boredom.” But in dealing with Scarface, Lustig wisely limited himself to a tidy and modest con: He persuaded Capone to invest $50,000 in a stock deal with the promise that he would double his money. Then Lustig sat on the cash for two months before returning it, saying that the deal had fallen through. Capone then did exactly what Lustig expected him to do: Admiring Lustig’s integrity for returning the loot, Capone gave him a reward – $5,000. A small take compared to some of Lustig’s other scams, it may nonetheless have been one of his more gratifying. As The Crime Book points out, “Con artists simply gain great satisfaction from pulling off their scams, regardless of the amount of money they make.”
The name Yakuza originates from a card game
The Japanese mafia, the Yakuza, is thought to date back to the seventeenth century, emerging from milieus at the bottom of Japanese society, namely the bodyguards who would hire themselves out to market traders and the gamblers who ran illegal casinos. Crime networks often originate within marginalized cultures, The Crime Book explains, attracting people “unable to obtain society’s goals through socially accepted means because of class hatred and poverty.” Approximately 30 percent of the Yakuza’s current membership is made up of Japanese-born Koreans, a group familiar with discrimination.
In the card game oichokabu, played at those illegal casinos, the goal was to get three cards that add up to 19; the worst possible hand was yakuza, an 8 (ya), 9 (ku) and 3 (za). The term came to be a moniker for useless members of society, and then for the gamblers themselves, and later, of course, for the notorious organized crime network, which is estimated to be 100,000 strong. “Something is lacking for these people, and they can’t make it in regular society,” says Scott, who has written extensively about street gangs, including in her 2014 book The Killing of Tupac Shakur. “So they’re searching for something and they find it, and become career criminals insulated within organized crime…. It’s violent and it’s as heartless as you can get, yet they set that aside. It’s pretty amazing that they trade their scruples just to feel included, and I think that’s what happens a lot of the time.”
One of history’s most prolific serial killers was a woman
Not that this is an area women are looking for parity in, but the story of Elizabeth Bathory tells us that ladies are capable of being as sadistic and violent as men – though the courts haven’t always believed it. “Historically, many middle- and upper-class women have been spared conviction for murder due to false assumptions about femininity and violence,” the book notes.
Known as the “female Dracula,” Bathory, a Hungarian countess, tortured and killed hundreds of young women – possibly as many as 650 – between the years 1585 and 1609. “My gosh, she was busy,” says Scott. With the help of some of her servants, Bathory would lure poor young women to her castle with the promise of work, and even aristocratic girls through an etiquette school she started. Her victims were burned and beaten and drained of their blood. It wasn’t until one escaped that word of the evil doings reached the ear of King Mathias II and an investigation was ordered. Ultimately, four of Bathory’s co-conspirators were beheaded for their crimes – a fate she avoided because of her noble status, but she was imprisoned and died in solitary confinement four years later.
Corporate execs served jail time for the worst industrial accident in history – but not until 26 years later
On December 2nd, 1984, a deadly gas plume wafting from the local United Carbide Corporation pesticide plant settled on the city of Bhopal, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Considered by many to be the worst industrial accident in history, it took the lives of anywhere from 3,800 to 16,000 people, with thousands of others suffering debilitating injuries. (The Indian government put its fatality estimate at 15,000.)
Why is this in The Crime Book? The leak was found to be the result of a faulty valve, which investigators believed was the work of a saboteur, though no such perpetrator was ever named. The real crime turned out to be corporate negligence. The UCC plant, 49.1 percent of which was owned by the Indian government, was built on land that was zoned for light industrial and commercial use, not for the production of a potentially hazardous pesticide like Sevin – but it was used for just that. And in order to save money, the plant had begun handling the raw materials itself – an even riskier process, which it was not set up for. To top it off, UCC, which was a U.S. company, had let the equipment and procedures lag way behind American safety standards.
Just days after the accident, Warren Anderson, the UCC CEO at the time, appeared in front of Congress, telling them that the company was committed to safety and to assure the public that this kind of disaster “cannot happen again.” Yet civil and criminal litigation have gone on for decades in the aftermath of the tragedy, and legal battles over victim compensation are ongoing. The fatality count is complicated by the difficulty of concluding whether deaths subsequent to the accident were caused by illness due to gas exposure. The UCC’s initial compensation fund was just $120,000, but in 1989 the company paid $470 million in damages in an out-of-court settlement.
But by 2001, the company and the Indian government went further, as the long-term health consequences to the area became apparent: They paid for a hospital and a fund to support the health insurance of 100,000 people (it’s estimated half a million were exposed to the gas cloud the day of the accident). Finally, in 2010, seven Indian UCC executives were convicted of causing death by negligence, each sentenced to two years in prison and a $2,000 fine. No Americans were ever convicted in the case. Anderson, the CEO, was charged with manslaughter in 1991, but the U.S. government would not extradite him. “It was preventable. That’s what was so noteworthy about that case,” says Scott. “The pitifulness of it; that it could have been prevented and wasn’t. Mostly out of greed. Because of money.”