11 Facts About the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

For 68 years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been alerting the public to some of the most dangerous criminals in their midst. The organization's 10 Most Wanted list has become an iconic portrait of federal pursuit—referenced, parodied, and posted all around the world. For more on this famous rundown of felonious fugitives, check out these facts about how the Bureau approaches the most dangerous list in circulation today.

1. IT STARTED OVER A CARD GAME.

FBI Most Wanted poster for Thomas James Holden
FBI, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The notion of “wanted” posters has been around since the 1700s, when slave owners circulated descriptions of runaway slaves in an effort to force their return. The idea of itemizing society’s most hardened criminals originated in 1949, when a newspaper wire story profiled several “tough guys” who were in the Bureau’s sights. The writer had quizzed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover during a game of cards. After seeing how popular the story became, Hoover approved the idea of circulating a top 10 list as a way of soliciting tips and other assistance from the general population. The first name on the list, released March 14, 1950, was Thomas Holden, who had murdered his wife and two of her relatives. Holden was arrested after a newspaper reader in Oregon recognized his photo and alerted authorities.

2. YOU NEED TO BE REALLY BAD TO MAKE THE LIST.

Not just any run-of-the-mill felon is suitable for this kind of scrutiny. Typically, criminals who appear on the list are fugitives who have a long history of disobeying the law, have current charges of a serious nature, are believed to pose a considerable threat to the public, and have potential to be captured based on knowledge submitted by citizens. To make the list, all 56 FBI field offices are tasked with submitting names for consideration. From there, the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division and the Office of Public and Congressional Affairs weed out candidates for final approval by the FBI’s deputy director.

3. IT ALSO HELPS IF YOU HAVE DISTINCTIVE FEATURES.

Wanted By The FBI: Andrew Cunanan
FBI, Getty Images

In selecting fugitives they think the public could provide information on, the FBI looks at the ease with which someone could be recognized. A person with unremarkable features might blend in more easily, but a criminal with a peculiar facial quirk or who otherwise stands out in a crowd might be more likely to be featured.  

4. MOST OF THE FUGITIVES FEATURED HAVE BEEN CAPTURED.

As of 2018, the FBI had featured a total of 519 criminals in the 10 Most Wanted rundown. The Bureau says that 486 of those individuals were eventually captured, with the publicity of the list being a key reason. Of those 486, 162 were apprehended based on information shared by a tip.

5. IT’S NOT ALWAYS A LIST OF 10.

Nice round number that it is, the FBI can’t always restrict their criminal prey to a list of 10. If names on a list are part of a string of arrests, the sheet can drop to seven or eight names before being replenished. If criminals are co-conspirators, it might grow to 16. Anyone numbering 11 or beyond is labeled as a “Special Addition,” which is a polite way of saying a person is so dangerous that their capture is imperative. Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who planned the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, is just one example.

6. ONE GUY REMAINED ON THE LIST FOR MORE THAN 32 YEARS.

At one time, the FBI might have considered changing their list from the 10 Most Wanted to “Victor Manuel Gerena and Nine Other Fugitives.” In 1983, Gerena was working as an armored truck escort when he decided to swipe $7 million from a Wells Fargo truck. Gerena tied up his co-workers and injected them with a mixture of aspirin and water to make them sleepy, then took off and disappeared. It turned out Gerena was a pawn in a larger robbery scheme involving a Puerto Rican separatist group. In total, 19 men associated with the heist were either caught or killed. Gerena, however, remains at large—though he was finally removed from the list in 2016. Though the FBI didn’t specify why, removal is usually only on condition of the perpetrator’s death, dismissal of charges, or the belief they’re no longer a public menace.

7. THE LIST CHANGES WITH THE TIMES.

FBI Most Wanted poster for Eric Robert Rudolph
FBI, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Looking at the list from different decades reveals a lot about which types of crimes happened to be in fashion during a given era. According to the FBI, bank robbers and car thieves populated the sheet in the 1950s. In the 1970s, counterculture figures engaged in sabotage or kidnappings took over. Today, terrorists and white-collar criminals are most likely to be the most wanted.

8. CALIFORNIA IS A HOTBED OF MOST WANTED ACTIVITY.

The FBI maintains a breakdown of crimes perpetuated by offenders in various states, and California doesn’t come out looking too good. Of the 519 criminals to make an appearance since 1950, 58 committed a crime in the Golden State. Illinois (38) and New York (33) are also prone to harboring Most Wanted activity. Alaska, Hawaii, North Dakota, and Rhode Island have never had one.

9. THERE’S NO TIME LIMIT ON BEING ADDED.

Not all subjects have committed contemporary crimes. In 2014, the FBI added William Bradford Bishop Jr. to the list even though his crime—murdering his wife, mother, and children with a hammer—took place 38 years earlier in 1976. Bishop had been at large the entire time before the FBI made a “surprise” entry to the list, hoping someone might recognize the then-79-year-old with the aid of age-advancing imagery. After two years on the list, he was removed due to a lack of viable leads and because Bishop was no longer believed to be a danger to the public at large.

10. ONLY 10 WOMEN HAVE EVER MADE THE LIST.

Of the 519 criminals who have been featured on the list, only 10 of them—or less than two percent—were women. Ruth Eisemann-Schier was the first woman to earn the notorious distinction; she was added to the list in 1968 and wanted for kidnapping, extortion, and other crimes. She was eventually apprehended on March 5, 1969 and ended up pleading guilty at her trial. She was sentenced to seven years in prison but paroled after four on the condition that she return to her native country of Honduras.

11. THERE’S AN APP FOR IT.

If you feel like scoping out your neighborhood for fugitives, the FBI has an app available via iTunes that guides you through their list and also allows you to be alerted to missing children or other public assistance situations in your region. It’s free, and if you have a tip that leads to capture or resolution, you might even get a reward.

When Pablo Picasso Was Suspected of Stealing the Mona Lisa

On August 21, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from Paris’s Louvre Museum. It was a Monday—the museum was closed and security was minimal—and the thief had reportedly spent the weekend plotting the heist while hiding in one of the museum’s closets.

At the time, security at the Louvre was abysmal. There were less than 150 security personnel in charge of guarding 250,000 artifacts, and none of the paintings were bolted to the walls. (The Mona Lisa, for example, hung from four measly hooks.) According to Ian Shank at Artsy, “Months before the heist, one French reporter had spent the night in a Louvre sarcophagus to expose the museum’s paltry surveillance.”

After the painting's disappearance, France’s borders were effectively closed, with officials examining every vehicle crossing the country's eastern border. Media coverage of the heist spread across the globe, turning the little-known painting into a household name. The Paris-Journal offered 50,000 francs for the painting’s return. Soon, a tip from an art thief would cause police to turn their attention toward one of the country’s most promising young artists: Pablo Picasso.

Picasso, who had moved to Paris a decade earlier, lived with a gaggle of Bohemians dubbed la bande de Picasso. Among this crew was the poet and writer Guillaume Apollinaire, whose former secretary was Honore-Joseph Géry Pieret, a Belgian man of questionable morals. Shortly after the Mona Lisa was stolen, Pieret—lured by the possibility of a cash reward—stepped into the Paris-Journal's office and claimed that he had lifted art from the Louvre before and had given the works to "friends."

Pieret was telling the truth. In 1907, he had stolen at least two Iberian sculptures made in the 3rd or 4th century BCE and sold them to Picasso, who paid him 50 francs per piece. (Picasso used these artifacts to inspire his work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. [PDF]) That wasn't all. According to Nick Mafi at The Daily Beast, Pieret also stole a similar piece from the Louvre in 1911 and placed it on Apollinaire’s mantel.

The police read about Pieret's exploits with great interest. They believed that the people who were in possession of these sculptures might also have the Mona Lisa. And they didn’t have much trouble piecing together who, exactly, the thief's friends were.

Realizing that they were in deep trouble, Picasso and Apollinaire packed the Iberian sculptures into a suitcase and ran off in the middle of the night with plans of throwing the artworks into the river Seine. But when the two artists reached the water, they could not will themselves to dump the statues. Instead, Apollinaire visited the Paris-Journal the next morning, deposited the statues, and demanded that the newspaper give him anonymity. The newspaper agreed ... until the authorities stepped in.

Within days of Apollinaire's visit to the newspaper, the police had detained him. In early September, Picasso was ordered to appear before a magistrate. When asked if he knew Apollinaire, the terrified painter lied. “I have never seen this man,” he replied.

Recalling the events, Picasso said, “I saw Guillaume’s expression changed. The blood ebbed from his face. I am still ashamed.” As the proceedings continued, Picasso wept.

Although both men were indeed in possession of stolen art, the judge determined that the situation had nothing to do with the Mona Lisa’s disappearance and decided to throw the case out. Two years later, both men would be cleared of any possible connection to the crime when police discovered the painting had been stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian artist who had been working at the Louvre.

10 Exceptionally Clever Female Con Artists

Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)
Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)
Bain News Service, Library of Congress // No known restrictions

You've heard of "con men"—short for confidence men—but what about the con women of the world? Some deceitful dames used their wits and well-laced lies to achieve great wealth, fame, and even the advantages of the aristocracy.

1. Aurora Florentina Magnusson (a.k.a. Helga de la Brache)

Back before blood tests were readily available, it was pretty easy to con your way into a wealthy family line. One Swedish orphan proved all you need is a grandiose backstory. In the mid-19th century, Aurora Florentina Magnusson declared herself Helga de la Brache, the secret daughter of King Gustav IV of Sweden and Queen Frederica of Baden.

She concocted an elaborate tale of the divorced royals reuniting in a German convent and leaving her to live with her "aunt" Princess Sophia Albertine of Sweden. Following Sophia's death—Magnusson's story goes—she was forced into an asylum, where her claims of noble parentage were sure to be ignored. After her "escape," Magnusson petitioned Sweden for a royal pension deserving of her claimed lineage. However, a trial in 1876 proved all of the above to be pure fiction. Magnusson faced fines, but no jail time. From there, she lived quietly with her female co-conspirator, Henrika Aspegren, for the rest of her days.

2. Mary Carleton (a.k.a. Princess van Wolway)

The old orphaned princess line was also employed by this 17th century Englishwoman. After two failed and simultaneous marriages, a resulting bigamy trial, and a fling with a wealthy nobleman, Mary Carleton fled England for the Netherlands. It was upon her return that she used her posh presents and romantic fantasies to remake herself as Princess van Wolway from Cologne.

With this ruse, she seduced and sometimes wed a string of men, playing each only to rob them. It's believed many of her victims were too embarrassed to reveal her deceit. But enough spurned lovers spoke up that her crimes did catch up with her, earning Carleton a death sentence by hanging at age 30.

3. Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)

Having taken on a slew of aliases in the course of her criminal career, little can be nailed down about this American con woman, including her real name. As enterprising as she was infamous, Ann O'Delia Diss Debar conned countless people through various scams that capitalized on 19th-century spiritualism. This earned her an enemy in dedicated debunker Harry Houdini, who denounced her in his book A Magician Among The Spirits, along with the whole Spiritualism movement, for “mothering this immoral woman.”

The New York Times described her as a “wonderful crook who without personal charm or attraction has set nations agog with her crimes since her girlhood.” After repeated convictions for fraud in the U.S.—and one for rape and fraud in London—Debar vanished from the spotlight and the police blotter. She was last spotted in Cincinnati in 1909.

4. Big Bertha Heyman (a.k.a. The Confidence Queen)

Cigarette card depicting notorious 19th century American criminal Bertha Heyman
Cigarette card depicting notorious 19th-century American criminal Bertha Heyman
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After coming to America in 1878, this Prussian con artist followed in the criminal footsteps of her forger father, regularly ending up in jail. Arrest record aside, Bertha Heyman was considered one of the sharpest con artists of her day. She often played on people's hubris, greed, and ambition to her own ends, offering them the promise of wealth later in exchange for a fat load of cash now.

Even behind bars, she managed to bend people to her will. Not only did she swindle more victims while in jail, but she also convinced prison officials to allow her breaks from confinement to take carriage rides around Manhattan and visits to the theater. It's little wonder she earned the title "The Confidence Queen."

5. Barbara Erni (a.k.a. The Golden Boos)

Born to a homeless couple in 18th century Liechtenstein, Erni concocted an unusual way to make a living, and it earned her the nickname "The Golden Boos." She'd travel the countryside with a trunk she claimed was full of treasure. Wherever she'd stop, she'd ask her hosts to lock it up somewhere safe—like where they kept their valuables. The next day, both the trunk and her host's valuables would be gone.

But how did it work? Erni had a person with dwarfism as an accomplice who'd lie in wait within the trunk. Left alone, he'd emerge to rob the place before both would make their getaway. While her accomplice's fate is lost to history, Erni was eventually caught. After confessing to 17 robberies, she was beheaded in 1785. Erni has the dubious distinction of being the last person executed in Liechtenstein before its death penalty was abolished.

6. Mary Baker (a.k.a. Princess Caraboo)

An image of Princess Caraboo from "Devonshire characters and strange events" by S. Baring-Gould
An image of Princess Caraboo from Devonshire Characters and Strange Events by S. Baring-Gould (1908)
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One of the most famous princess cons ever perpetrated was the brainchild of an English servant with a big imagination. In 1817, a striking woman in exotic garb appeared in a small English village, speaking in an indecipherable tongue. A Portuguese sailor conveniently popped up, claiming he could translate. She claimed to be Princess Caraboo of the island Javasu. Hers was a story of tragedy and danger that had her escaping pirate captors by jumping overboard and swimming through a storm to the safe shores of the English Channel.

This tall tale launched her to near-instant fame, and earned her fans in the wealthy Worrall family who feted and cared for her with lavish attention. Even when a former employer revealed Baker's true identity, the Worrall family stood by the charming impostor. They paid for her passage to Philadelphia, where her fame—despite its fraudulent claims—only grew. She later returned to her true homeland (England, not Javasu), occasionally donning her Caraboo costume for public performances.

7. Cassie Chadwick (a.k.a. The Lost Carnegie)

Born Elizabeth Bigley, this Canadian con artist took the princess routine in a distinctly American direction by claiming to be the heiress of a massively wealthy industrialist. Her cons started small in Cleveland, with Chadwick dabbling in fortune-telling and forgery. After some jail time served for the latter, the forty-something grifter began her biggest con, claiming to be the illegitimate daughter of steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie.

She said he sent her substantial payments to keep her silent, and this was enough for many to give Chadwick hefty loans. One bank lent her a quarter of a million dollars based on her claims, and later went out of business because of it. Carnegie himself attended her eventual trial, which earned Chadwick 10 years in prison. She died in jail in 1907 at the age of 50.

8. Linda Taylor (a.k.a.. The Welfare Queen)

She wasn't just a con artist, but a galvanizing element of Ronald Reagan's 1976 campaign, where the future president declared, "She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”

Reagan's depiction of "The Welfare Queen" has since been decried as hyperbolic and worse. But Taylor did exploit the welfare system to great lengths through setting up aliases, and spinning her ill-gotten gains into jewelry, furs, and a Cadillac that she'd proudly drive to the public aid office. Taylor eventually did serve time for these offenses. She has also been accused of kidnapping and murder, although never convicted.

9. Jeanne of Valois-Saint-Rémy (a.k.a. Comtesse De La Motte)

A portrait of Jeanne de Saint-Rémy, 1786
A portrait of Jeanne de Saint-Rémy, 1786
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A Frenchwoman of the 18th century with dubious noble ties, Valois-Saint-Rémy spawned a con so big that it's said to have helped incite the French Revolution by irreparably damaging the reputation of Queen Marie Antoinette. The Affair of The Diamond Necklace involved the conning comtesse convincing the out-of-favor Cardinal de Rohan to procure a fabulous necklace for the queen. Desperate to get in the queen's good graces once more, Cardinal de Rohan wrote the royal letters, for which Valois-Saint-Rémy forged responses. She even employed a Marie Antoinette lookalike for this scam, which ended with de Rohan handing over the hefty piece of jewelry valued at 1,600,000 livres.

When its makers demanded payment from the queen, Valois-Saint-Rémy was arrested and her deception revealed. But in the subsequent trial, the forged letters convinced many that the queen was actually carrying on an affair with the cardinal, further damaging her public persona. The necklace vanished, presumably disassembled for the sale of its many diamonds. Valois-Saint-Rémy served time, but managed to escape and fled to London. In 1789, she published her memoir, wherein she boldly blamed the late Marie Antoinette for the whole ordeal.

10. Sarah Rachel Russell (a.k.a. The Beautician From Hell)

This Victorian-era hustler exploited vanity for profit, promising clients at her upscale London salon everlasting youth courtesy of her special products, such as Rejuvenating Jordan Water, Circassian Golden Hair Wash, Magnetic Rock Dew for Removing Wrinkles, Royal Arabian Face Cream, and Honey of Mount Hymettus wash—all of which were essentially snake oil.

She also dealt in blackmail, and lured women into an Arabian bath that was rumored to have a secret spy hole where men could pay for the privilege to peep. Her trial in 1868 caused a massive stir, not just for her crimes, but also because it revealed that the women of London were paying far more (in money and attention) on make-up and beauty treatments than social mores suggested. Yet her three years in prison did little to change Russell, who, a decade after her original conviction, faced fraud charges once more. This time, the Beautician from Hell died in prison.

A version of this story first ran in 2015.

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