Stealing is a crime. It can’t be excused if you are in a museum and you decide that a certain painting would look better in your house, and you simply grab the painting and take it there. However, society may excuse it if you are extremely hungry and you don’t know any way of earning money, so you grab the painting, take it to your house, and eat it. Take a look below for our list of 10 of the most famous thieves that have ever lived.
1. Frank William Abagnale Jr.
Frank Abagnale, now an American security consultant, is known for his history as a former confidence trickster, check forger, and impostor. He is one of the most famous imposter in the world having assumed more than eight identities including airline pilot, a doctor, a U.S. Bureau of Prisons agent and a lawyer. He managed to escape from police custody twice before he was 21 years old.
After he was finally caught, he served in prison less than five years of his twelve years prison sentence and then was recruited to work for the Federal Government. He is currently a consultant and lecturer for the FBI academy and field offices. He also runs Abagnale & Associates, a financial fraud consultancy company. Abagnale is the inspiration behind Leonardo Di Caprio’s famous character in the movie “Catch me if you can.”
While the primary motive of these thieves was to steal, they were made popular by film-makers and story tellers who were attracted towards their extraordinary habits and activities. If not in their lifetime, they were made immortal after their death.
Mithilesh Kumar Srivastava, better known as Natwarlal, was the noted conman who was accused of stealing and cheating people with lakhs of money. He is best known for having sold the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, and the Rashtrapati Bhavan and also the Parliament House of India along with its 545 sitting members. “Mr. Natwarlal” starring Amitabh Bachchan which was released in the year 1979 was inspired and named after him. He was a lawyer turned conman. He was arrested several times but each time, he conned the Police and vanished. He was wanted by 8 states police and was sentenced to 113 years in prison. However, he managed to escape everytime he was caught.
He was last seen on 24th June, 1996, when he was being transported from a prison to hospital for treatment. He vanished near the Delhi Railway station. He was 84 years old at that time. His brother said he died in 1996 but his lawyer maintains that he died in 2009. So, the actual date of death is uncertain. People in his native village Bangra in Bihar hail him as the Robin Hood and have also erected monument in his memory. He still remains a living legend in India.
Veerapan was an Indian bandit who ran amok in the southern forests for almost more than two decades before finally being caught and killed in 2004. He was wanted for poaching about 200 elephants and smuggling ivory worth US$2,600,000 and about 10,000 tons of sandalwood worth approximately US$22,000,000. In 1987, he murdered a forest officer named Chidambaram from Tamil Nadu. This was the first time he attracted attention of the Indian Government. He, later, went on to kill many eminent personalities including IPS officers, ministers and ever civilians.
He never hesitated to kill anyone whom he thought to be a hindrance to his lucrative business of poaching and smuggling ivory. Even though his activities were notorious and he had become a widely recognized figure in India, he managed to evade arrest for 20 years. On 18 October 2004, Veerappan and two of his associates were killed by the Tamil Nadu Special Task Force headed by K. Vijay Kumar. Many books have been written on his life and a number of movies have been made on him.
4. Jesse Woodson James
Jesse James was an American outlaw, bank robber, train robber and gang leader. Jesse James and his brother Frank were Confederate guerrillas during civil war who later turned to bank robbery, and train robbery. In 1869, the brothers shot an unarmed cashier. They then made a daring escape through the midst of a team sent to capture them and later declared that “they would never be taken alive.” This was the first time that the newspapers mentioned Jesse James and he loved the attention.
Soon he began tailoring his robberies to attract as much of it as possible, even leaving press releases behind. Jesse began constructing a myth of himself as a heroic Southern fighter, a noble Robin Hood who helped poor Missourians crushed under the weight of Republican outrages and he started considering himself a bold robber and compared himself to Alexander the Great, Julius Ceaser and Napoleon Bonaparte. He later married his own cousin Zee but he was still restless. He tried his hands on various money making schemes including buying horse races but he never grew tired of the spotlight. In 1882, he was killed by his own gang member.
After James’s death, the James Gang became the subject of dime novels that represented the bandits as pre-industrial models of resistance. There are various museums and sites devoted to Jesse James. The Defeat of Jesse James Days in Northfield, Minnesota, is among the largest outdoor celebrations in the state and is held annually in September during the weekend after Labor Day. He has a lot of comics, music, stage plays, television shows and films dedicated to him.
5. Bill Mason
Bill Mason is an American jewel thief who has confessed in his autobiography “Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief” that he has stolen $35,000,000 in property from the private residences of Phyllis Diller, Johnny Weissmuller and Armand Hammer. He would climb high rise apartments of celebrities in Florida at night and steal jewelry. He would do a thorough research before the actual event including the risk of security system that could get him caught. He once stole an Olympic Gold Medal belonging to Johnny Weissmuller, though he mailed it back to Weissmuller months after the theft, claiming guilty consciousness haunting him because of stealing something with such sentimental value. In 2010, Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief was optioned by Anthony Mastromauro of Identity Films.
6. Albert Spaggiari
Albert Spaggiari was a bank robber and was famous as the mastermind behind break-in into a Société Générale bank in Nice, France in 1976. Spaggiari planned to break-in into the bank when he first heard that that the sewers were close to the vault of the Société Générale bank. Eventually he decided to do it by digging into the bank vault from below. He rented a box in the bank vault for himself and then put a loud alarm clock in the vault. He then set the clock to ring at night so that it could detect any possible existence of acoustic or seismic detection gear.
However, there were no alarms protecting the vault because it was considered utterly secure as the door wall was extremely thick and there was no obvious way to access the other walls. He made his men make the way into the sewers and began a two-month effort to dig an eight meter long tunnel from the sewer to under the vault. He told his men not to drink coffee nor alcohol and get at least 10 hours of sleep every shift to avoid any danger to the mission. On July 16, 1976, during a long weekend due to Bastille Day festivities, Spaggiari’s gang broke into the vault itself.
They opened at least 400 safe deposit boxes and stole an estimated 60 million francs worth of money, securities and valuables. He also left a message on the wall which said “sans armes, ni haine, ni violence” meaning “without weapons, nor hatred, nor violence.” At first, the police were baffled but eventually all the gang members were caught, possibly by a tip off by a former girlfriend. He was sentenced in absentia to a life in prison. However, reportedly he underwent plastic surgery and spent probably most of the rest of his life in Argentina. Numerous books and television series have been written on him.
7. Vincenzo Peruggia
Vicenzo Peruggia was an Italian thief who managed the greatest art theft by stealing Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting “Mona Lisa” in broad daylight. Peruggia was a worker in Louvre. He hid inside the museum on Sunday, August 22, knowing that the museum would be closed the following day. On Monday morning he came out wearing the white clothes customarily worn by the museum employees and stole the Mona Lisa. He hid the painting in a trunk in his apartment in France for two years. After that he returned to Italy with it.
He kept it in his apartment in Florence but grew impatient and was finally caught when he contacted Alfredo Geri, the owner of an art gallery in Florence, Italy. Geri, after taking the painting for “safekeeping,” informed the police, who arrested Peruggia at his hotel. The return of the painting was celebrated and it was returned to Louvre in 1913. Peruggia was released from jail after a short time and served in the Italian army during World War I. He died on 8th October, 1925 in the town of Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, France. Various television shows and documentaries have been dedicated to this theft which perhaps immortalized the Mona Lisa.
8. Doris Marie Payne
Doris Payne is an American convicted jewel thief whose escapades started six decades ago in 1952. She would enter jewelry stores posing as a well-to-do woman, typically looking for a diamond ring. She would then engage the clerk, asking to see an assortment of items. Eventually, she would “cause the clerk to forget” just how many items were outside the case, and at some point, she would leave with one or two pieces. Payne not only stole jewelry, she bragged about it too. In April 2014 at the age of 83, she was arrested and sentenced to imprisonment for 2 years followed by 2 years of parole and was warned to stay away from jewelry stores. A documentary has been made on her named “The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne.” A feature length motion picture is purportedly being planned about her crimes, starring Halle Berry as Payne.
9. Francois Villion
François Villon was a French poet, thief, and vagabond. He is perhaps best known for his Testaments and his Ballade des Pendus, written while in prison. Villon became a student in arts at about twelve years of age. He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Paris in 1449 and a master’s degree in 1452. Between this year and 1455, nothing is known of his activities. He got involved in a lot of law breaking incidents. In 1456, the chapel of the Collège de Navarre was broken open and five hundred gold crowns stolen. Villon was involved in the robbery.
It is believe that he fled from Paris soon afterward and that this was the time when he composed what is now known as the Petit Testament (“The Smaller Testament”) or Lais (“Legacy” or “Bequests”). This robbery was not discovered until March of the next year, and it was not until May that the police came on the track of a gang of student-robbers, owing to the indiscretion of one of them, Guy Tabarie. After a year of Tabarie’s arrest, he turned king’s evidence and accused the absent Villon of being the leader, and of having gone to Angers, partly at least, to arrange similar burglaries there. Villon, for either this or another crime, was sentenced to banishment; he did not attempt to return to Paris.
For four years, he was a wanderer. He may have been, as his friends Regnier de Montigny and Colin des Cayeux were, a member of a wandering gang of thieves. Villion used to disappear in intervals. Not much is known about him. Villion’s poets and other works gained much popularity. Various plays, music, opera, prose and films have been dedicated to Villion.
10. Dick Tupin
Richard “Dick” Turpin was an English highwayman famous for the horse theft. In 1930’s he joined a gang of deer thieves and, later, became a poacher, burglar, horse thief and killer. He is associated with highway robbery. He disappeared towards the end of 1935 and later resurfaced in 1737 with two new accomplices, one of whom he may have accidentally shot and killed. He fled from the scene and shortly afterwards killed a man who attempted his capture. Later, while he was staying at an inn disguised as John Plamer, the local magistrates became suspicious of “Palmer” and made enquiries as to how he funded his lifestyle.
Suspected of being a horse thief, “Palmer” was imprisoned in York Castle. His true identity was revealed by a letter he wrote to his brother-in-law from his prison cell, which fell into the hands of the authorities. On 22 March 1739, Turpin was found guilty on two charges of horse theft and sentenced to death; he was executed on 7 April 1739. After his execution, he became famous and was often romanticized as dashing and heroic in English ballads and popular theatre of the 18th and 19th centuries and in film and television of the 20th century.