By Dr. Jim Adamitis
Criminal Justice Program
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Wright State University

Famous criminals are those individuals whose criminal behaviors become widely known to the general public for their unscrupulous acts. Described below is a sample of individuals whose extreme transgressions have brought the ire or admiration of their communities and the attention of society as famous criminals.

Joseph ADONIS (1902 - 1972)
Adonis was born Joseph Doto. Alleged to be vane and self-centered, he changed his name to Joe Adonis, and was known to the inner-circle as "Joey A.". In 1927, with other underworld figures he formed the Seven Group to control the illicit alcohol trade. He was also involved in controlling gambling in sections of New Jersey and New York. In 1951 he pleaded guilty to violating New Jersey's gambling laws and served a two year prison term. Rather then encounter New York's indictment against him for violating their state gambling laws, as well as perjury charges brought about by the Federal Government concerning his citizenship, he accepted deportation to Milan, Italy, where he died of natural causes.

Albert ANASTASIA (1903 - 1957)
A senior Mafioso leader of New York's underworld, Albert Anastasia was known as the "Lord High Executioner" of Murder, Incorporated. He was involved in numerous violent criminal acts, the narcotics trade and those victimless crimes of gambling and prostitution. Appearing before Senator Estes Kefauver's United States Senate Crime Investigating Committee, Anastasia (with known organized crime figures Adonis, Cohen, Costello, Lansky and others) stated he was innocent of any wrong doing and lacked sufficient knowledge concerning the syndicate and its operations. He was shot to death while having a haircut in a New York Hotel. The murder was allegedly perpetrated by individuals representing Mafia leader Vito Genovese.

Arizona Donnie Clark "Kate" BARKER (1872 - 1935)
Known to the public as the infamous "Ma" Barker, she was born near Springfield, Missouri, and in 1892 married George Barker, with whom she had four sons, (viz.,) Herman, Lloyd, Dock and Fred. She instructed her sons and other known felons of the time on the mechanics of robbing banks and trains. Barker left her husband, undertaking a criminal career as maternal advisor to the so-called "Barker Gang." She was also involved in extortion and kidnapping. Barker was killed in a shoot-out on Lake Weir, Florida, by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents headed by Edward J. Connelley.

Clyde Chestnut BARROW (1909 - 1934)
Part of the "Bonnie and Clyde" famous duo, Clyde Barrow was born to a Texas farm family. Prior to living with Bonnie Parker and undertaking a violent crime spree of robbing banks, he was involved in numerous robberies with his brother, Buck Barrow. After serving a prison sentence in Texas, Clyde Barrow increased his violent criminal activities. It was with Bonnie Parker, that Clyde Barrow, his brother Buck and his wife, Blanche, along with a robber named William Jones and a thief named Ray Hamilton, formed the legendary "Barrow Gang." After a succession of robberies and murders, the "Barrow Gang" disintegrated with the killing of Buck Barrow and the arrest of his wife, Blanche. It was on May 23, 1934, that Clyde Barrow with his partner, Bonnie Parker, died in an ambush conducted by famed lawman Frank Hammer and five other law enforcement officers outside of Gibsland, Louisiana. Hammer was known for hunting criminals as prey and attempting to think as they would in order to predict their next activity and implement his plans for capture.

Joseph BONNANO (1905 - 2002)
Joseph "Joey Bannanas" Bannano arrived in the United States from Castellammare del Golfa, Italy, and got involved with the Brooklyn Mafia. In 1931, Bonnano with Gagliano, Luciano, Mangano and Profaci was involved with Salvatore Marazano, the "capo di tutti capi" (supreme head) in reorganizing the Sicilian sydndicate into what is currently termed the Cosa Nostra. He became one of the five New York Mafia families. Bonnano began his career in Brooklyn by owning a garment factory and getting involved with usery, drugs and the numbers. He was one of a number of syndicate heads who was arrested by the New York State Police at the famed Apalachin meeting. Being extremely ambitious, Bonnano was once kidnapped in 1964 by the organized crime commission and agreed to retire. He was only one, of a rare few, who was released alive from such an experience. After hiding for almost a year-and-a-half, he returned and got involved in the so-called Banana War for control of his family with his son. In 1967, Banno had a heart attack. He attempted to retire in Tuscon, Arizona, however, a number of bombing attempts were made against him by members of the syndicate. In their failure, Joseph Bannona finally did retire; his family succumbed to the leadership of one Natale Evola.

Theodore Robert BUNDY (1946 - 1988)
Primarily known for the sexual assault and strangulation of women, Ted Bundy utilized his charm, physical looks and law studies background to disarm his prey prior to attacking them. On several occasions he attempted to ask for assistance while wearing a false caste in order to get near his victim. He was arrested for the breaking in and entering the rooms of two Florida State University co-eds who he killed. Bundy's fame was brought about by his own attempt to represent his legal interests and the significant number of murders he was alleged to have committed against women in the Pacific Northwest, the West and Florida. After several appeals, he was executed.

Alphonse CAPONE (1900 - 1944)
Once known as Public Enemy Number one, Al ("Scar Face") Capone is, perhaps, one of the most famous criminals in America. Coming from an impoverished Italian Neapolitan family, Capone began his career in crime as a Lieutenant in the Five Points gang in Manhattan. Johnny Torrio, head of the Chicago syndicate, offered Capone a position to assist him with Chicago's illict liquor and beer trafficking. Later they expanded into prostitution, gambling and the running of saloons. Violence, murder and mayhem were Capone's trademarks. To insulate himself from the authorities, he corrupted numerous officials as well as used sawn-off shotguns and sub-machine guns to assure his power. Aside from being violent by nature, he was also outgoing, gregarious and flamboyant in his style. It has been alleged that over 500 murders were committed by Capone's henchmen, and well over 700 violent criminals were in his employ. To acquire Chicago's Gold Coast, he had Dion O'Banion assassinated; to gain control of the Mafia's Unione Sicilione, he had three of the Genna brothers killed while forcing the remaining three brothers to emigrate to Marsala Sicily, Italy. For protection he traveled in a specially designed steel lined automobile. Capone was also involved in ordering the killing of the George "Bugs" Moran gang in the famous St. Valentine's Day Massacre. He served eight years in a federal penitentiary for failure to pay his income taxes and died in 1947 at his estate located in Palm Island, Florida, from syphilis and related causes.

Caryl CHESSMAN (1921 - 1960)
Known as a "criminal genius" for his ability to extend his death sentence appeal to last for twelve years, Caryl Chessman was also known as the "red light bandit." He would use a red light, similar to a police officer, to stop his victims and then rob, sexual assault and kidnap them. For the later endeavor involving female victims, he was charged under California Penal Law for a capital offense. While in prison, Chessman wrote three books: TRIAL BY ORDEAL; CELL 2455 DEATH ROW, and THE FACE OF JUSTICE. Chessman was executed in the California State Prison at San Quentin on May 2, 1960, just minutes before Judge Goodman attempted to grant him one more stay of execution. Chessman's fame was based on his ability to extend his execution, his publications and the intricacies of his various legal manuvers.

Jeffrey DAHMER (1960 - 1997 )
One of the most bizarre criminals in the 1990s. Jeffrey Dahmer was accused of sadistically murdering, mutilating and canibalizing male victims in his apartment. Court records noted he allegedly dismembered fifteen men or boys in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For several weeks his case brought the attention of the Milwaukee Sentinel and the Milwaukee Journal, as well as the local electronic media and the national media which made him known as a "media criminal." The defense pleaded Dahmer was insane and a necrophilec. Being raised in a broken home, sexually abused as a child and having above average intelligence, Dahmer complemented the classic pattern for a serial murder. The twelve member jury found him sane. He was sentenced to fifteen life terms in prison since Wisconsin does not have a death penalty. He was clubbed to death in a prison bathroom.

Albert Henry DESALVO (1933 - 1973)
Known as the "Boston Strangler," DeSalvo was accused of raping and strangulating thirteen women in Boston, Massachussetts. One of his first victims was Anna Slesers, a divorcee and active participant in Latvian endeavors in Boston. She was sexually assaulted and strangled with a cord from her robe. The key or trademark was the manner in which the bow shaped knot was tied with the cord that was used to strangulate the victim, and the way the victim's lower extremities were parted. DeSalvo's killings occurred from August, 1962 to January, 1964. His victims ranged from nineteen to eighty-five years of age. He was identified for police by one victim whom he sexually assualted, but left live. DeSalvo was found guilty on November 26, 1973. He was later stabbed to death with sixteen wounds by fellow inmates in Walpole State Prison.

John Herbert DILLINGER (1903 - 1934)
A classic famous criminal, John H. Dillinger (aka) "Gentleman Johnnie," was admired by the impoverished, but to J. Edgard Hoover he was Public Enemy Number One. During the Depression Era he robbed banks and later was involved in numerous murders. His criminal activities began when he was seventeen years old robbing grocery stores or gas stations. He was brought up in Indianapolis, Indiana, in a Quaker family. One of the first banks he robbed was in Daleville, Indiana, which set the pattern for his adult criminal endeavors. In January, 1934, Dillinger was arrested for killing police officer William O'Malley during a East Chicago bank robbery. While waiting for trial at Crown Point Prison in Indiana, Dilinger carved a wooden automatic pistol and used it on jailer Sam Cahoon to gain his noted escape. After several other crime sprees, on Sunday evening, July 22, 1934, he was shot to death by FBI agents led by Melvin Purvis outside the Biograph Theatre in Chicago. He was identified by Anna Sage, the famed "Lady in Red," because of the dark red colored dress she wore when she accompanied Dillinger that fateful Sunday evening.

John Wayne GACY, JR. (1942 - 1994)
Gacy's fame was through his serial killing of male prostitutes in the 1970s. Born during World War II, Gacy was a building contractor in Northern Illinois. He was cited for killing over thirty individuals whose remains he buried in his home or on his property in a Chicago suburb. The luried manner in which he dismembered his victim's bodies brought him national attention through the media as a mass murderer.

Gary GILMORE (1940 - 1977)
Gilmore's crime as a robber and murderer did not contribute to his fame as did his case, which reinstated the death penalty in the United States. Throughout his stay at the Utah State Prison he did not contest his execution. He requested the state to execute him or otherwise, if he was released from prison, he would probably return to a life of violent crime. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court brought back capital punishment and Gilmore was executed by the State of Utah. The death penalty once again became part of the punitive aspect of the American system of criminal justice.

John GOTTI (1940 - 2002)
John Gotti was born in South Bronx, New York. His family originated from Naples, Italy. He began his criminal activities as a gang leader of the Fulton-Rockaway Boys gang. Later, as a teenager, he became a member of Carmine Fatico's syndicate and got involved in auto theft, burglaries and related crimes. In 1969, Gotti was arrested and found guilty of hijacking goods at Kennedy International Airport. When he was released from prison in 1972, the syndicated promoted him to acting capo of the Bergen Gang of the Gambino Family. In 1973, he assisted in the killing of James McBratney, who it was alleged, kidnapped and murdered Carol Gambino's nephew. After serving two years in the Green Haven Prison for McBratney's killing, Gotti assumed greater authority and power in the Gambino crime family and got involved in racketeering, usery and gambling. Three attempts were made by Federal proseuctors to prosecute Gotti but they failed. In 1992, Gotti was finally indicted and found guilty of racketeering and the murder of ex-godfather Paul Castellano. Gotti's flamboyant behavior, dress, charitable donations, bantering with the media and apprarent enjoyment of teasing the authorities brought him national celebrity status.

John HINCKLEY, JR. (1955 - )
Hinckley was raised in a very affluent family in Colorado; throughout his maturation period he demonstrated signs of extreme withdrawl. At twenty-six years of age, he attempted to assassinate, with a handgun, President Ronald Reagan. Hinckely's insanity plea brought national attention and attempts for handgun legislation. He was determined insane and placed for treatment in St. Elizabeth Hospital for the mentally ill in Washington, DC. In his attempt on the President's life, several individuals were wounded. One of them was James Brady, the President's press secretary. Through this incident, Mr. Brady and his spouse have attempted on numerous occasions to have Congress pass the Brady Bill which would limit access time to obtaining a handgun.

Charles H. KEATING, JR. (1923 - )
Keating is an example of a white collar criminal par excellence. Nationally known for his insider trading of securities, the selling of over $4.5 billion of uninsured junk bonds and the fraudulent sale of a parent company's assets, Keating was the primary architect with four other associates (Judy J. Wischner, Charles H. Keating III, Robert M. Wurzelbacher and Andrew F. Liggett) for the failure of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association and its parent company - American Continental Corporation. He is noted for possibly contributing to the fall of many associations within the savings and loan industry in the early 1990s. In addition, it was alleged he provided significant monies for the political campaigns of Senators Alan Cranston, Donald Riegle and Dennis DeConcini for their political support. On April 10, 1992, under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations ACT (RICO), Keating was found guilty of fraud and given ten years in prison. The accounting firm of Ernst and Young, and the law firm of Jones, Day, Reavis and Pogue agreed to pay damages.

Charles LUCIANO (1897 - 1962)
A key figure in attempting to nationalize organize crime, Luciano, a Sicilian overlord of New York crime was known as "Lucky." He was involved in the 1930s in New York City prostitution and drug trafficking. In 1936 he was found guilty of running a prostitution ring and sentenced to Dannemora New York State Prison. Six years later he was transferred to Great Meadow Prison where he held a number of meetings with recognized underworld figures to assist the United States Government's war efforts. Luciano is attributed with assuring the rackets did not harm the New York docks during World War II, as well as providing underground saboteurs in Sicily. For this activity, in 1946, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, had Luciano taken to Ellis Island and deported to Italy. For several years he lived near his home town of Lercara Friddi and then moved to Havana, Cuba, to run his "Dope International" business. Deported back to Italy by President Batistista, he died of natural causes.

Charles MANSON (1934 - )
A brutal killer and cult leader, Manson was known for the 1969 Sharon Tate murders he committed with his followers (i.e.,) the Manson Family, involving actress Sharon Tate and six other individuals. He portrayed himself as a "savior" who violently opposed society. Manson had disfigured his anatonmy and had branded his forehead with the letter "X" to signify being an outcast. The violent perversity of his acts in having his followers hack to death their victims and write in blood the the words "pig" and "war" reflected his satanic orientation. He and his followers were also charged and found guilty in murdering Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in the same manner.

Lee Harvey OSWALD (1939 - 1963)
Oswald's fame is historically attributed to his alleged assassination, in 1963, of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He was an ex-marine who not only served but lived in Russia, married a native Russian woman (Marina), spoke Russian fluently, was knowledgeable about the socio-ecnomic and political factors characterizing the Soviet Union, and had a close familiarity with weapons. The Warren Commission concluded Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole perpetrator in killing President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, from the Texas School Book Depository. Twenty-nine years later (1992), controversy emerged concerning a number of possible conspiracy theories involving the Central Intelligence Agency, organized crime figures, the former Soviet Union, highly placed United States Government officials and others in assisting Oswald. None of the proposed conspiracy theories have been substantiated.

James Earl RAY (1928 - 1998)
Ray has been known as the man who shot and killed Dr. Martin Luther King on his hotel veranda in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968. Belonging to a white supremacy group, he exposed a philosophy of hate crime. Although not established, it is conjectured he was part of a conspiracy group. While serving time for King's assassination, he escaped from prison in Tennessee. Authorities were able to locate and arrest him. Ray has made several attempts at the appeal process. He died of liver cancer.

Benjamin SIEGEL (1906 - 1947)
Born in the lower east side of New York City, Benjamin Siegel (aka "Bugsy" Siegel) was a colorful mobster. Attributed to his fame was his involvement with select stars from the motion picture industry in the 1930s and 40s, and in establishing the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas for gambling purposes on behalf of the Mafia. Siegel began his criminal career as a murderer, extortionist, gambler and enforcer for the mob on the east coast. In the mid 1930s the Mafiosi had Siegel move to the west coast where he gained significant control over the trafficking of drugs, select motion picture stars and minor actors, as well as a gambling wire service. Given his outoing personality, physical appeal and ability to socialize, Siegel initially represented the mob's interests in California and Nevada quite well. It has been alleged he knew such individuals as George Raft, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and even a Countess named Dorothy DiFrasso. In 1946 he secretly married Virginia Hill, a bag lady for the syndicate. Siegel and Hill had a tumultuous relationship. By failing to pay back the mob for the monies he borrowed to build the Flamingo Hotel, he was murdered with a .30-30 carbine while sitting on a coach in the plush living room of Virginia Hill's home in Beverly Hills, California.

Charles STARKWEATHER (1940 - 1959)
Along with his adolescent companion, Caril Ann Fugate, mass murder Starkweather killed and mutilated his victims in the mid 1950s. He began his killing rampage on December 1, 1957, when he shot a teenage gas station attendant. The illogical approach to the selection of his victims, coupled with his obsessive identity of teenage idol and motion picture actor, James Dean, led to his fame. It was on January 21, 1958, that Starkweather increased the momentum to his killing pattern by shooting Mr. and Mrs. Marion Bartlett, Caril's mother and step-father. He also battered to death her one year old baby step sister. Six days later on January 27, 1958, he killed a teenage boy and girl as well as an elderly male presumed to be in his 70s. In the end, Starkweather killed a total of eleven people prior to being caught and executed in the Nebraska State Penitentiary.

Joseph M. VALACHI (1904 - 1971)
Valachi's life was characterized by violence and crime. During his pre-teenage years, he served time in a reform school for assaulting fellow students. His introduction to organized crime started with his marriage to Mildred Reina, who was the daughter of an underworld figure. Valachia served as a "torpedo" (a contracted murderer), was involved in drug trafficking, extortion and gambling. While serving time in prison, it is alleged he was given the kiss of death by former boss Vito Genovese for supposedly agreeing to be an informant for the Federal Government. After three unsuccessful attempts were made on his life in prison, Valachi clubbed to death a fellow inmate he believed was the possible assassin. The man he assaulted and killed had no association with the Mafia. Since Valachi never had any intention of becoming an informant, the attempts made on his life infuriated him and caused him to vindictively provide the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (now the Drug Enforcement Administration) and Senator McClellan's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations with insider information. It was Valachi's decision to go public that created his fame. His testimonies provided the government with precise data on the structure, operation, personalities, issues and events that characterized organized crime.

Throughout human history there have been individuals who aggressively violated the conventional norms of society. The nature of their anti-social behavior contributed to their fame. The individuals briefly identified in this section reflect the diverse ethnic, education, gender, racial, economic and social stratas that characterize a famous criminal. For a more inclusive portrait of such criminals and other violent personalities, the reader should examine those publications cited in the reference section. This site is only a partial listing.

James A. Adamitis, Ph.D.


Abadinsky, Howard. Organized Crime. Chicago, Illinois, 2006.

Bequai, August. White-Collar Crime: A 20th Century Crisis. 5th. ed. Lexington, Massachusetts, 1985.

BPC Publishing Limited. Crimes and Punishment - A Pictorial Encyclopedia of Aberrant Behavior. Paulton, England, 1973.

Hammer, Richard. Playboy's Illustrated History of Organized Crime. Chicago, Illnois, 1975.

Kaplan, David A. "Silence of the Wolves." Newsweek. Feb. 3, 1992, p. 50(2).

Kelly, Robert J. Organized Crime - A Global Perspectie. Totowa, New Jersey, 1986.

Kohn, George C. Dictionary of Culprits and Criminals. Metuchen, New Jersey, 1986.

Magnusson, Ed. "You Sold Your Office: A Scandalous Congressional Fund-Raising System Goes on Trial Along with the Senate's Keating Five." Time. Nov. 26, 1990, p. 35.

Mathews, Thomas. "Secrets of a Serial Killer." Newsweek. Feb. 3, 1992, p.44(5).

Nash, Jay R. Bloodletters and Badmen: A Narrative Encyclopedia of American Criminals from the Pilgrims to the Present. New York. 1992.

Perry, Brian. "Lincoln's Keating Booked on 42 Counts; Bail is $5 Million." American Banker. Sept. 19, 1990, p. 15.

Reichel, Philip. The Handbook of Transational Crime and Justice. Sage Publications. 2004.

Ringer, Richard. "RICO Suit Against Keating is Expected." American Banker. Sept. 14, 1989, p. 1(2).

Ripley, W. L. Springer's Gambit. Leisure Books. 2007.

Schneider, Karen S. "Day of Reckoning - Jury Findings in Jeffrey Dahmer Murder Case." People Weekly. March 2, 1992, p. 38.

Selwin, Raab. Five Famlies: The Rise, Decline and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Maifa Empires. St. Martin's Press. 2005.

Sher, Julian and William Marsden. Angels of Death: Inside the Biker Gangs' Global Crime Empire. Transition Vendor. 2007.

Stevens, Amy. "Lincoln S & L -Case Bondholders to Get About $70 Million." The Wall Street Journal. Sept. 16, 1992, p. B11.

Stone, Michael. "After Gotti - With the Top Wiseguys Taking the Heat, is the Mob Facing a Meltdonwn?" New York. Feb. 3, 1992, pp.22-30.

Weiner, Neil Alan., and Marvin E. Wolfgang. Violent Crime, Violent Criminals. Newbury Park - Beverly Hills, California, 1988.

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