Weird History
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How 10 Notorious Criminals From History Actually Got Caught

April 8, 2021 1.5k votes 247 voters 19.2k views10 items

List RulesVote up the most surprising ways notorious criminals finally got caught.

Some of the most notorious criminals in history have committed truly heinous acts. Not all of them were caught, with identities of serial killers like Jack the Ripper and the Zodiac Killer still unknown today. However, there are some murderers, thieves, and other offenders who did end up in the hands of the authorities - one way or another.

Not all famous historical criminals were apprehended for their worst acts. A technicality, a mistake, a small offense, or even the need for attention have brought down numerous crooks. What finally did in these villains may not be what you'd expect, but it ultimately brought their crime streaks to an end. 

  • Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, killed three people and injured nearly two dozen more between 1978 and 1995. He mailed bombs to college and university campuses, the homes of business executives, and even placed an incendiary device on an American Airlines flight in 1979. His bombs were lethal, made by hand, and untraceable, making the Unabomber elusive for nearly two decades.

    It wasn't until 1995 that Kaczynski - a recluse who lived in a cabin in Montana - released a manifesto that ultimately led to his downfall. The work explained his views about the destruction being wrought on the world by technology but, after it was published by the FBI, the style and ideas it contained were recognized by one reader - David Kaczynski.

    After David contacted the FBI, the documents he provided linking his brother Ted to the manifesto were enough to get a search warrant of the Montana cabin. FBI agents found bomb-making materials, additional writings, and other items that ultimately led to his identification as the Unabomber. 

    Ted Kaczynski was arrested in 1997, plead guilty to all charges against him in 1998, and was sentenced to life in prison.

    Surprising downfall?
  • Harold "Fred" Shipman (also called "Dr. Death") was a physician in England who killed hundreds of patients over the course of his career. It wasn't the death of his patient Kathleen Grundy that initially alerted authorities that something was amiss, however; it was the falsified will he'd created prior to killing her that led to his arrest.

    Grundy was 81 when she died in 1998, reportedly having just been visited by her physician, Dr. Shipman. No autopsy was performed, but when Grundy's will was presented to the family, they were surprised to see she had left Shipman the majority of her estate. Shipman's daughter Angela Woodruff was convinced the document was fake and took it to the police. 

    Grundy's body was later exhumed, and an exam determined she had died from an overdose of morphine. Because Shipman's visit coincided with Grundy's final hours, the police seized his records and searched his home. His typewriter was determined to have produced the forged will.

    Shipman was charged with Grundy's murder in 1998, and investigations soon linked the physician to 15 additional deaths. He was charged with 15 additional counts of murder in 1999 and sentenced to life in prison. At the time of Shipman's death in 2004, he was believed to have possibly killed more than 250 patients. 

    Surprising downfall?
  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    H.H. Holmes, born Herman Mudgett, began scamming insurance companies to pay for his medical degree, essentially taking out insurance policies on cadavers. During the 1880s, he worked as a pharmacist in Chicago, where his access to drugs and his propensity for crime allowed him to earn money to open "The Castle" in 1893. 

    "The Castle" was where Holmes carried out murders, dissections, and acts of brutality as he continued to defraud insurance companies with bodies of people who stayed at the site. Castle "residents" weren't Holmes's only victims, however. After his partner, Benjamin Pitezel, was found dead in 1894, Holmes collected a $10,000 payout from the Fidelity Mutual Life Association.

    Subsequent investigation led the insurance company to doubt the claim, and Holmes fled to Boston. He was arrested while there, but it wasn't for insurance fraud or murder. Rather, Holmes was detained by Boston police and a Pinkerton detective for "larceny of one horse." Once in captivity, Holmes was put on trial for Pitezel's murder. 

    Holmes was convicted and sentenced to death but, before his execution, he confessed to 27 murders. He received a hefty sum from Hearst newspapers for his statement, however, and the number of people he killed remains unclear. Holmes was hanged on May 7, 1896.

    Surprising downfall?
  • Photo: Police Department photographic records / Wikipedia / Fair Use

    During the 1970s, John Wayne Gacy assaulted and killed at least 33 boys and young men. Gacy, who frequently dressed up like a clown for appearances at hospitals and charitable events, was accused of sexual assault in 1968 and spent time in jail as a result. After his release, continued accusations aroused suspicions by authorities, and Gacy was a person of interest in numerous disappearances in suburban Chicago.

    In 1978, a 15-year-old boy named Robert Piest was reported missing by his mother. After his shift at the local drug store, Piest had reportedly gone to talk to Gacy, a contractor, about a construction job, but was never seen again. 

    As the last person to see Piest, Gacy was questioned, and a foul odor at his home led to surveillance and, ultimately, a full search of the property. It was during the surveillance that Gacy gave a gas station attendant named Lance Jacobson pot. As a felony, delivering weed was enough to arrest Gacy. 

    During the search of his home, authorities found a receipt from the drug store where Piest worked and items connected to other missing persons. Gacy then confessed to roughly 30 murders, with police later finding corpses on and near his property. 

    Gacy was put on trial for 33 murders, sentenced to death, and executed on May 10, 1994.

    Surprising downfall?