From Dateline to the murder porn that is the ID network, people can’t get enough crime. Darkly fascinating, and a look into the murky waters of human nature, criminals of every stripe draw us in, horrify us, and lead us to endlessly question ourselves. We look at these men and women who live in the shadows, on the other side of the law with not only macabre captivation, but also a kind of reverence. They are undeniably us, but have chosen to deny the rules and mores of average citizens, choosing to help define our society by running contrary to it.
Because we can never get enough peeks behind the curtain of sociopaths, monsters, and the deadly genius of the villains that walk among us, we’re giving a nod to the 16 most famous, most frightening, and most notorious gangsters who made crime not only pay, but gave it celebrity status.
He was called ‘Snorky’ while he was growing up thanks to his tendency to boil over into violence with little provocation, and evident lack of a conscience. Born Alphonse, it’s little wonder that his fuse was short. He died after untreated syphilis left him mostly brain-dead and serving a sentence for tax evasion that made Untouchable Eliot Ness famous.
The cocaine kingpin, Escobar single-handedly raised the crime rate in Colombia and into the United States due to his empire of blow. By importing Bolivian marching powder to the U.S. and ordering hits on several police officers who sought his capture, Escobar gained a level of deadly celebrity that was equal parts respect and fear.
A charming rogue who was probably the first real celebrity criminal, Dillinger was primarily a bank robber, but also a killer of people in Indiana. Famous during the Great Depression, Dillinger was brought down by his girlfriend who led him into a police ambush outside of a theater. Dames: They’ll get you every time.
The smart, interesting, attractive half of Bonnie and Clyde, Parker’s turn-ons included bank robbery, shooting, and pistol battles with police officers ending in death. Though she was a scant 23 years old when gunned down, she still carries a legacy to women that anything men can do, female gangsters can do better while wearing heels and a skirt.
Known as ‘Bumpy,’ Ellsworth is in competition with Capone for badass gangsters given both terrible birth names and ridiculous nicknames. He helped break the race barrier in crime during the 30’s as one of the most infamous African-American mobsters to run numbers, drugs, guns, and anything else you could want. Respected and beloved, Johnson set the standard for suave, charming killers in the public enemies era.
Bulger was not only a Bostonian mob boss, but an FBI informant who spent much of his time on the run from the feds. He would have been the top dog of the Most Wanted list, had it not been for a certain chap known as Osama bin Laden. After years underground, he was caught in 2011 at the age of 81, proving the adroit capabilities of modern crime investigators to capture octogenarians.
A confederate folk hero of the 19th century, James was often likened to Robin Hood in his tendency to steal only from banks and trains where the undeservedly wealthy kept their money, often turning much of his profit over to individuals suffering under the yoke of poverty and financial exploitation. Many in the 99% would love to see him reincarnated.
Stephanie St. Clair
“Queenie” to many on the wonderful isle of Manhattan, this classy lady brought a sense of French refinement and African savvy to the underworld. Though herself a criminal in Harlem, she often brought down corrupt police officers by using the system to her advantage. A deadly adversary, she kept many smaller-minded crime bosses out of Harlem with brilliant, brutal tactics and her enforcer, Bumpy.
John Joseph Gotti, Jr.
The “Dapper Don” or the “Teflon Don,” Gotti killed his way into being head of the Gambino crime family when he offed Paul Castellano. A serious operator whose expensive tastes and easy smile won him friends as much as influence, it wasn’t until the 90’s that heavy charges stuck, giving him a life sentence behind bars.
From the humble beginnings of prostitution and pickpocketing, Blanco eventually plied her wickedly sharp mind to creating a booming cocaine trade in Miami with the help of her Colombian contacts. Earning the name of the Cocaine Godmother, even when incarcerated she ran a booming coke conglomerate.
A child crime prodigy from Sicily, Gambino could handle firearms before he could walk. His skill as a pistolero put multiple kills under his belt while still in his teens. As Mussolini gained power in Italy, Gambino came to New York City, where he rented out as a gun for hire before founding his own crime syndicate in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
The father of organized crime in the United States, Luciano was a Sicilian who grew up with some of the most famous criminals on this list as his pals. Ruthless as a pit viper, he invented new and fascinating ways of breaking the law, with racketeering, prostitution, drugs, murder, extortion, and a whole laundry list of crimes overseen by his vicious organization.
Capone’s primary rival, and a sadistic monster, he’s one of a pair of crime lords nicknamed ‘Bugsy’ thanks to his unpredictable, fearsome behavior. His hobbies included openly gunning down rivals as well as ordinary citizens, and once kidnapped a bodyguard of Capone’s whom he then castrated, hung upside down, burned out his eyes, tortured, then mailed what little was left back to Capone.
The bride of one Lester Gillis, Ms. Wawrzyniak became Mrs. Baby Face Nelson. A smart and cunning accomplice, rather than commit her crimes in the open, she would help facilitate the damage wreaked by her trigger-happy husband, and harbored him after many of his gruesome shootouts, giving her the rank of Ultimate Moll.
The second ‘Bugsy’ on this list, Bugsy Siegel loved illegal gambling so much, he managed to legitimize it in the form of Sin City, Las Vegas where he and his mobster cronies robbed tourists for years before his murder by rival mafiosos. His legacy lives on in sharp neon on the strip where average people are still taken for all they are worth by the casino machinations that Bugsy put in motion.
Frank Lucas was a smart heroine dealer who started his own mafia where he was so adored and respected by those in his neighborhood that it wasn’t uncommon for him to execute people on the street in broad daylight without anyone choosing to testify against him. A devoted family man and pillar of his community, Lucas showed true honor among thieves and is famed as much for his goodness, sincerity, and kindness as his uncompromising crime practices.