20 Killer Words Every True Crime Buff Should Know

iStock.com/PaulFleet
iStock.com/PaulFleet

Whether we're preparing ourselves for the worst or we just love a good mystery, many of us can't get enough true crime content. True crime intersects with different fields like law, medicine, and forensics—all of which have their own vocabularies that can be hard for people on the outside to decode. Before binging The Staircase or Making a Murderer, brush up on these important terms every true crime fan should be familiar with.

1. COLD CASE

In legalese, a cold case describes a crime that remains unsolved, but isn't being actively investigated due to lack of evidence. The murder of JonBenét Ramsey, the D.B. Cooper hijacking, and the Jack the Ripper killings are all famous examples of cold cases.

2. LATENT PRINT

Crime scene investigator dusting door for prints.
iStock.com/zoka74

A latent print is a fingerprint made of the sweat and oil from one's skin (rather than blood or something more visible). Crime scene investigators usually need powders or chemicals to identify this type of print.

3. BLOOD SPATTER

Blood spatter is the pattern of bloodstains left at a violent crime scene. It's such important evidence in murder cases that there's an entire area of forensics dedicated to studying it. In theory, by analyzing the pattern of blood stains in a crime scene, the investigator can determine important details about the crime committed. But in recent years blood spatter analysis has been criticized. A 2009 report declared that it can give useful information about certain aspects of a crime, but that “the uncertainties associated with bloodstain pattern analysis are enormous” and that “the opinions of bloodstain pattern analysts are more subjective than scientific.”

4. PETECHIAL HEMORRHAGING

Cause of death isn't always obvious in murder cases. When looking at a potential strangulation victim, investigators examine their eyes for petechial hemorrhaging, or the tiny red dots that appear as a result of bleeding beneath the skin. Petechial hemorrhaging isn't a sure sign that someone has been choked to death, but it is likely to appear when the blood vessels in someone's head have been subjected to severe pressure.

5. MASK OF SANITY

Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy—these serial killers were famous not only for their crimes, but their deceptively charming dispositions. This is what crime experts refer to as the Mask of Sanity. Coined by psychiatrist Hervey M. Cleckley in his 1941 book, this describes the phenomena of psychopaths easily blending in with their peers because they don't typically suffer from more noticeable mental symptoms like hallucinations and delusions.

6. MACDONALD TRIAD

The phrase Macdonald Triad first appeared in a paper by J. M. Macdonald published in a 1963 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry. It refers to the three behaviors that, if exhibited in childhood, may indicate one's tendencies toward violence later in life. Those behaviors are animal cruelty, fire-starting, and chronic bed-wetting. While many prominent murderers have checked these boxes, experts today are skeptical of using this as a metric to identify future serial killers.

7. RIGOR MORTIS

Rigor mortis occurs when a body stiffens up a few hours after death as a result of calcium build-up in the joints and muscles. This can last a few days, and is one of the clues crime scene investigators use to determine when a murder took place.

8. ANGEL OF DEATH

"Angel of death" is the name given to medical professionals who intentionally kill their patients. In some cases the killer has convinced themselves they're helping the victim by choosing to end their life, which is why they're sometimes called "angels of mercy."

9. BLACK WIDOW

Female murderers are rare—they comprise just 15 percent of serial killers—but not unheard of. Women who commit murder are sometimes dubbed Black Widows after the spiders that devour their own mates after copulating. The moniker is usually reserved for a woman who targets people close to her, kills for personal gain, or uses her femininity to her advantage when committing the crime.

10. LUMINOL

Luminol reacting in glass.
deradrian, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Luminol is a chemical that emits a blue glow when mixed with a certain oxidizing agent. One of the substances that triggers this reaction is hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein found in red blood cells. By spraying a violent crime scene with luminol, investigators can detect traces of blood that aren't visible to the naked eye.

11. GLASGOW SMILE

The Black Dahlia murderer mutilated Elizabeth Short before leaving her remains in a Los Angeles park in 1947. The wounds that would come to symbolize the case were two cuts connecting her ears to the corners of her mouth, giving her the appearance of a perpetual grin. Dubbed a Glasgow Smile because of its prevalent use among Scottish gangs in the 1920s and '30s, this mark has appeared in numerous murder cases since.

12. GUNSHOT RESIDUE

Gunshot residue (GSR) is made up of the propellant particles that are discharged during a gunshot. It often settles on the clothing of anyone who was within a few feet of a fired gun, and it can be an essential piece of evidence when connecting suspects to a crime.

13. BRAIN FINGERPRINTING

Recently featured in season 2 of Making a Murderer, brain fingerprinting is a relatively new practice in crime investigations. After a suspect is hooked up to a helmet that senses brain activity, they're given details about the alleged crime that only the perpetrator would know. If they recognize what's being described, the sensor is supposed to pick up the telltale electrical signals in their brain. While what research there is suggests that the technology may be more reliable than a polygraph test, there still haven't been enough studies to prove its validity.

14. JOHN/JANE DOE

In the world of crime, John or Jane Doe are the names given to a murder victim whose identity is being concealed from the public. These names are often used as placeholders in court cases.

15. MÜNCHAUSEN SYNDROME BY PROXY

Like Münchausen syndrome, people with Münchausen syndrome by proxy manufacture trauma to gain sympathy—but instead of harming themselves they choose people who are close to them as their victims. People with this condition might intentionally make their children sick or disabled, which sometimes leads to their death.

16. COPYCAT CRIME

A copycat crime occurs when the perpetrator is inspired by a different crime, whether it was depicted in a book, movie, or TV show or it happened in real-life. Investigators sometimes have trouble distinguishing between copycat killings and the acts of a single serial murderer.

17. TROPHY

Many serial killers collect "trophies" from their victims after committing a crime. These can be fairly innocuous, like jewelry and footwear, or as gruesome as body parts. Ed Gein—the real-life inspiration for the novel and movie Psycho—used the human souvenirs he kept from his murders to make clothing and furniture.

18. BALLISTICS

Gun at crime scene.
iStock.com/FireAtDusk

Ballistics is the study of the mechanics of firearms. In forensics, this science can help investigators identify gun deaths and determine where and how the weapon was used in a crime—and possibly who pulled the trigger. Though, in the past few years, the ability of ballistics to provide a definite answer has been called into question, with courts preferring "more likely than not" statements.

19. FORENSIC ENTOMOLOGY

One of the more unusual careers for someone who studies bugs is that of a forensic entomologist. These scientists look at how insects interact with crime scenes. Based on what type of bugs are hanging around a corpse and which stage of development they're in, a forensic entomologist can help investigators determine a time of death.

20. LOCARD'S EXCHANGE PRINCIPLE

Put simply, Locard's exchange principle is "with contact between two items, there will be an exchange." Twentieth-century forensic scientist Dr. Edmond Locard came up with this idea after observing that criminals will almost always bring something into the crime scene with them and leave something behind, providing valuable evidence to investigators.

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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