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10 Fascinating Tours for True Crime Buffs

Historical bad guys can fascinate even the most law-abiding among us, and if you’re the least bit intrigued by assassins, mafia bosses, or other malefactors, these 10 tours are worth checking out. 

1. MELBOURNE HISTORICAL CRIME TOURS // MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA

During the early 20th century, Fitzroy—Melbourne, Australia’s oldest suburb—was a hotbed of criminal activity. Several factors lured organized crime into the area, including cheap rent, the thinning of local police forces after World War I, and more brothels than the authorities could handle. The year 1919 saw a bloody, inter-gang turf war known as the Fitzroy Vendetta, an escalating series of violent clashes that followed a lucrative jewel heist in the city proper. Next time you’re Down Under, take a walk with Melbourne Historical Crime Tours. Hosted by private historian and true crime author Michael Shelford, these informative walks will bring you up to speed on the legendary bosses and bloody showdowns that cast a dark shadow over Fitzroy from the 1890s to the 1920s.

2. THE KANSAS CITY GANGSTER BUS TOUR // KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI

Out-of-towners might not associate K.C. with gangster landmarks, but the metro area’s got plenty of them. For starters, there’s Union Station, where four officers and a prisoner by the name of Frank Nash were famously gunned down by mobsters on June 17, 1933. Today, it's the departure spot of the Kansas City Gangster Bus Tour. Tag along and you’ll be taken past such historic sites as the Rieger Hotel, where Al Capone frequently stayed (inside, there’s a plaque that commemorates a urinal he often used). Commentary along the way is provided by a lively reenactor in period-friendly garb—namely, a pinstriped suit and fedora.

3. ALCATRAZ CRUISES // SAN FRANCISCO

Alcatraz Cruises/Facebook

Nicknamed “The Rock,” Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary is located on an eponymous island in San Francisco Bay. The facility opened its doors in August 1934 and would house several of the country’s most dangerous felons before being shut down nearly 30 years later. Today, the general public can only access the island by purchasing ferry tickets from Alcatraz Cruises, a private company that is overseen by the National Park Service. During daytime visits, guests may take a self-guided audio tour, one that includes clips from interviews with actual guards and inmates, who paint a vivid picture of the prison’s operating days.

4. NYC GANGSTER TOURS // NEW YORK CITY

NYC Gangster Tours/Facebook

This Manhattan-based group offers three main guided walking tours: The Rise and Fall of the American Mafia Tour will bring you up to speed on the five most historically powerful organized crime families in the New York City area, a.k.a. the “Five Families.” Meanwhile, the Little Italy & Chinatown Gangsters Walking Tour will introduce you to the old haunts of Gotham’s first mafia bosses. There's also the Jewish Gangsters of the Lower East Side tour. On that one, explains company manager Gideon Levy, you’ll pass by “The Jewish Daily Forward Newspaper building, what was once Rather’s deli, [and] the Bargain Street District”—all of which would’ve been familiar sights to men like Meyer Lansky, who helped found the National Crime Syndicate.

5. THE JACK THE RIPPER TOUR // LONDON

Jack the Ripper's identity is one of the world’s greatest unsolved mysteries. Between August and November of 1888, five women were murdered and mutilated in London’s East End. Due to the nature of their wounds, it’s generally believed that all five victims were slain by the same attacker, an unknown assassin who has been nicknamed “Jack the Ripper.” (Various other murders are sometimes attributed to him as well, though some suspect that at least a few of these were done by a copycat killer.) If the opening of London’s controversial Jack the Ripper Museum in 2015 is any indication, it's clear that the world is still utterly fascinated by this Victorian mystery man. Back in 1982, crime enthusiast Richard Jones decided to show off his expertise on the subject by putting out an ad for a walking tour of some authentic Ripper crime scenes in Time Out magazine. To his surprise, no less than 18 people showed up. More than three decades later, Jones is still leading people along his now-famous tour route. To help meet demand, he’s also recruited four alternate guides—all of whom are considered bona fide authorities on Ripper studies.

6. JOHN WILKES BOOTH’S ESCAPE ROUTE TOUR // CLINTON, MARYLAND

The so-called “American Brutus” didn’t just decide to shoot Abraham Lincoln on a whim. After mortally wounding the president at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth fled via an escape route that he’d carefully mapped out in advance. First, he and an accomplice made a beeline for the tavern of Mary Surratt in southern Maryland, around 13 miles away. The two then journeyed down to a doctor’s Charles County home. Unaware of his role in the assassination plot, this resident physician mended the leg Booth had broken on his way out of Ford’s. Following that, the wanted men rode further south, stopping briefly at the Confederate sympathizer Samuel Cox’s house in Bel Alton, Maryland. From there, Booth and his cohort eventually made their way to Garret’s Farm in Virginia. It was here, while hiding inside a bar, that they were confronted by federal agents, who shot Booth and captured his associate on April 26. If you’d like to follow in their footsteps, the good people at Washingtonian have mapped out a road trip that will take you past six major rest stops on Booth’s last trek. Alternatively, Maryland’s Surratt House Museum offers a 12-hour bus tour that covers the same ground.

7. THE REAL BLACK DAHLIA TOUR // LOS ANGELES

Esotouric's Secret Los Angeles/Facebook

For 70 years, the unexplained—and savage—murder of actress Elizabeth Short has captivated criminologists, moviegoers, and mystery-readers alike. On January 15, 1947, the aspiring actress's naked body was found lying in an empty lot in Los Angeles. It had been cut in half. Her corpse was also drained of all blood and she’d been given a hideous Glasgow smile—two deep cuts stretching from the corners of her mouth to her ears. These mutilations were made with the kind of precision normally reserved for top surgeons. “It was pretty gruesome,” said LAPD detective Brian Carr, “I just can’t imagine someone doing that to another human being.”

Short, whose love of dark clothing earned her the nickname “Black Dahlia,” has posthumously become a legend in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Her murderer was never identified, but nonetheless, several novels and motion pictures have been based on the incident. Anyone who’s intrigued by this cold case is encouraged to take the Real Black Dahlia Bus Tour. Put on by the City of Angels’ Esotouric tour company, the tour makes stops at the last place where Short was seen alive and the exact spot where her body was discovered. As you’ve probably surmised, said tour is not for the faint of heart.

8. THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY TOUR // CHICAGO

Weird Chicago Tours

Named after historian Erik Larson’s bestselling book about the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, this tour focuses on the life and times of Henry H. Holmes, a Gilded Age serial killer who is said to have killed at least 10 people—and possibly several times more—in his specially-designed “murder castle.” A repurposed pharmacy, the building was marketed as a hotel, one where Holmes would poison, burn, or torture his “guests.” On the “Devil in the White City” tour—hosted by Weird Chicago, an organization that also provides separate ghost, gangster, and speakeasy tours—guests will get to see the grounds on which Holmes’s diabolical castle once stood, along with several locations that were used in that World’s Fair.

9. SICILY’S ANTI-MAFIA TOUR // SICILY

Addiopizzo Travel

Thanks in no small part to the Godfather films, Sicily has a thriving crime tour industry. But not everyone is happy about this trend. In an effort to draw attention away from the island’s historic crime bosses and instead celebrate the legacy of those who’ve fought them, Addipizzo Travel offers a comprehensive “anti-mafia tour.” Lasting five days and four nights, the tour showcases nonviolent protest sites, a gallery that features the paintings of well-known artists who stood up to organized crime, and similar places of interest.

10. THE CREAM CITY CANNIBAL TOUR // MILWAUKEE

“This tour is so gruesome,” the official website claims, “it was banned on Groupon—twice.” One can easily understand why. The foray in question covers the former Milwaukee stomping grounds of cannibal and sex offender Jeffrey Dahmer. In 1978, the late criminal murdered his first of what would become 17 victims. When he was finally arrested in 1991, the remains of 11 people were discovered in Dahmer’s residence. And by his own admission, he intended to eat a human heart he’d been saving. In 2012, Hangman Tours, which specializes in offbeat, historically accurate guided walks, kicked off this tour, which takes guests down the very streets Dahmer used to prowl. Controversy inevitably ensued, with one civic leader denouncing the attraction as “sensationalism at its finest.” Hangman spokeswoman Amanda Morden countered by saying “Whether we like it or not, it’s part of our city’s history. It’s part of our nation’s history.” Despite some early outrage, the tour has persisted.

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How a London Tragedy Led to the Creation of 911
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Fox Photos/Getty Images

In trouble? Pick up the phone and call 911. According to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), 240 million 911 calls are made each year. But if it weren’t for a house fire and a group of angry Brits, the system might not exist today.

Though 911 is an American staple, its origins are in England. In 1935, there was no such thing as an emergency phone number, and phone calls were dependent on operators who connected people to exchanges or emergency services when necessary. England did have emergency fire call points, but they didn’t use telephone technology—instead, they relied on the telegraph, which was used to send a signal to fire departments from special boxes [PDF]. There were police call points, too, but they were generally unstandardized and inefficient, since police didn’t have a way to receive emergency calls while on their beats. Instead, officers would check in during their rounds at special police boxes, like the one you probably recognize from Doctor Who.

But all that changed after November 10, 1935, when a fire broke out at the home of a prominent London surgeon, Philip Franklin, at 27 Wimpole Street. As the blaze tore through the building, five women sleeping on the upper floors—Franklin’s wife and niece, as well as three servants—became trapped. A neighbor, Norman MacDonald, heard their screams and promptly picked up the phone to dial the operator. Nobody answered.

“It seemed entirely futile to continue holding on and listening to ringing tone, which awakened no response,” he later wrote. A neighbor went to a fire call point and firefighters soon arrived, but they were unable to save the five women.

27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
Eden, Janine and Jim, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The tragedy sparked a national inquiry—and outrage. Two years later, London unveiled a new service: the emergency number 999. Officials thought it would be best to choose a number that was easy to find by touch on a rotary dial, and rejected a number of other options, like 111, that might be triggered by equipment malfunctions. (It wasn’t unusual for lines rubbing together and other technical glitches to trigger a 111 call; 222 was already in use by a local exchange, while 000 would have just contacted the operator after the first zero.)

The new number wasn’t immediately embraced. Of over 1000 calls made the first week, nearly 7 percent were pranks. And some members of Parliament objected, saying it would be easier to just install an emergency button on phones instead.

A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Images

The United States had a similar system of police telephones and signal boxes, but like the UK it lacked the technology to quickly and effectively call authorities during emergencies. In the 1950s, the National Association of Fire Chiefs, inspired by the UK’s system, requested a national emergency number, and by 1967 the FTC was meeting with AT&T, the nation’s largest telephone company, to hash out a plan.

The first 911 call in the United States—a test call made from a mayor’s office—was made in Haleyville, Alabama in 1968 [PDF]. The numbers 911 reportedly made the grade because they weren’t in use for any existing phone exchange, and were catchy and easily remembered.

As the service rolled out nationwide, police and fire departments struggled to keep up with call volume. Despite the success of the program, New York police, in particular, reported being strained and having to hire more officers.

It took a long time to implement the system. Only 50 percent of the United States had 911 service as of 1987, according to NENA. Today, coverage is still not universal, although it’s close: 96 percent of the country is currently covered.

The evolution of telephone technology has brought new challenges, however: The FCC estimates that a full 70 percent of calls now come from cell phones—and given the mobility of mobile phones, that’s a challenge for dispatchers and phone companies. The 911 system was built for landlines, and cell phone GPS systems don’t always transmit data quickly or accurately. Plus, the proliferation of cell phones has led to a spike in accidental butt dials, which tie up the line and can prevent real emergencies from getting the attention they need. Still, we've come a long way from the days of sending telegraph messages inside boxes.

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The Barnes Mystery: A Twisted Tale of Maids, Murder, and Mistaken Identity
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The Barnes Railway Bridge
Garry Knight, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In the late 1800s, Park Road was a quiet part of Richmond on the outskirts of London. Julia Martha Thomas, a retired schoolteacher, made her home there in the left portion of a semi-detached villa known as 2 Mayfield Cottages. It was a typical English house, two stories high and surrounded by a garden. For the most part, Thomas lived there alone; occasionally, she took on servants like the Irish-born Kate Webster, whom she hired in January 1879.

Three months later, Thomas was nowhere to be found. But her servant had seemingly come into a great deal of wealth.

AN UNSAVORY MAID

The Daily Telegraph would later describe Webster as a “tall, strongly-made woman ... with sallow and much freckled complexion and large and prominent teeth.” Unbeknownst to Thomas, her new maid's resume was far from ideal: She'd first been imprisoned for larceny in her native Ireland at 15 years old, and had lived a life of petty crime ever since. By the time she was 30, in 1879, she’d served multiple sentences for theft.

During one of these sentences, an 18-month stretch at Wandsworth prison in West London, Webster had put her young son in the care of Sarah Crease, an acquaintance and charwoman who worked for a Miss Loder. When Webster filled in for Crease one day, Loder recommended her to Thomas, who she knew was looking to hire a servant.

Webster got the job on the spot, but the relationship between Thomas and the young woman quickly became strained. “At first I thought her a nice old lady,” Webster would later say. But Thomas’s cleaning standards were strict—too strict—and she would “point out places where she said I did not clean, showing evidence of a nasty spirit towards me.” Webster’s love of drink, which she nourished regularly at a nearby pub, The Hole in the Wall, also failed to impress Thomas.

On February 28, after around a month of work, Thomas wrote in her diary that she “gave Katherine warning to leave.” When Webster asked Thomas to extend her employment through Sunday, March 2, Thomas begrudgingly agreed. It was a fatal mistake.

BLOODY SUNDAY

Sundays were half-days for Webster, who was expected at 2 Mayfield Cottages in the late afternoon. Dawdling too long at the ale house, Webster arrived late and Thomas went to church agitated. It was the last time she was seen in public.

That evening, Thomas's landlady's mother Jane Ives, who lived in the other half of the villa, heard a sound “like the fall of a heavy chair.” Ives and her daughter also noticed housework being done quite early the next morning.

The next two Sundays, Mrs. Thomas—a devout Christian—failed to show up for church. Webster, however, seemed to have a new lease on life. She soon met with Henry Porter, a former neighbor from when she had lived in Hammersmith, to share some news. Saying she had married a man named Thomas and spinning a tale of a wealthy dead relative who had left the contents of 2 Mayfield Cottages to her, Webster said she was looking for a broker for the items.

She wined and dined Porter and his son Robert at a local pub, leaving briefly to visit a friend who lived nearby. When she returned, both Porters noticed the heavy bag she had carried into the pub was nowhere to be seen. Robert Porter later helped her carry a heavy box from 2 Mayfield Cottages to a nearby bridge, where Webster said that a friend was coming to come pick it up. As Robert walked away he heard a faint splash, but as Webster caught up with him she assured him that her friend had picked up the container, and he continued on his way.

Several days later, Henry Porter introduced Webster to John Church. In the market for new furniture for his pub, Church offered Webster 68 pounds for an assortment of furnishings. They scheduled delivery vans for March 18.

A HORRIBLE DISCOVERY

The splash the younger Porter had heard was indeed the heavy box he'd helped Webster carry as it hit the river. But it didn't spend long in its watery grave. A coal porter who discovered it near the Barnes Railway Bridge on March 5, a few miles downstream along the Thames from where Webster had let it slip, was horrified to discover the mangled contents: a woman's torso and legs, minus one foot.

The relatively primitive forensic techniques of the day couldn't identify a body without a head, and an inquest failed to establish a cause of death. That a woman's foot shortly turned up in the nearby suburb of Twickenham was little help; police readily concluded that it belonged to the same body, but whose? The unidentified remains were buried in a local cemetery, and the press began buzzing about the "Barnes mystery."

Meanwhile, by the time Church's delivery vans arrived on March 18, Thomas had not been seen for two weeks—and her neighbors had grown suspicious. The younger Miss Ives went to investigate the vans, and was told that a “Mrs. Thomas” was selling her furniture. When “Mrs. Thomas” was summoned, it was none other than Webster, who Ives knew was Thomas’s servant. Webster told Ives that Thomas was away somewhere—she couldn't say where, exactly—but the game was up. Webster panicked and fled with her son, traveling by train to her family home in County Wexford, Ireland. Meanwhile, the police were summoned.

When authorities searched 2 Mayfield Cottages, they discovered a grisly scene: There were blood stains everywhere (some showing signs of cleaning), charred bones in the kitchen grate, and a fatty substance behind the laundry boiler. They also found Webster’s address in County Wexford. The criminal was hauled back to Richmond, and a trial began on July 2, 1879.

The trial turned into a major spectacle, and crowds gathered both inside and outside the courtroom. Webster’s social position made her crime especially salacious—not only had she committed a gruesome murder, but she had attacked her betters. And she was a woman. According to Shani D'Cruze, Sandra L. Walklate, and Samantha Pegg in Murder, “Victorian ideals of femininity envisaged women as moral, passive, and not physically strong enough to kill and dismember a body." Webster's crime had put the lie to those ideals.

Initially, Webster accused Church and Porter of the crime. Though police did find Thomas’s belongings at Church’s pub and home, both men had solid alibis and were cleared. Webster then said an ex-boyfriend, a “Mr. Strong”—whom she occasionally claimed was the father of her child—had driven her to crime. But despite her attempts to shift blame onto others, Webster was eventually convicted of killing her employer.

The night before her execution, she finally confessed to the priest: “I alone committed the murder of Mrs. Thomas.”

According to Webster, she and Thomas had argued when the latter returned home from church. The argument “ripened into a quarrel,” and Webster “threw [Thomas] from the top of the stairs to the ground floor.” Then, Webster “lost control” and grabbed her victim by the throat in an attempt to silence any screams that could alert the neighbors and send her back to prison. After choking Thomas, Webster “determined to do away with the body” by chopping up the limbs and boiling them in the laundry tub.

Legend says Webster attempted to sell the fat drippings from Thomas to the proprietress of a local pub, and even fed them to two local boys, but neither rumor has ever been substantiated. But Webster did burn some of Thomas’s remains in the hearth, and divided much of the rest between the heavy bag she had carried into the pub and the box. Running out of room, she also disposed of one of Thomas’s feet in the nearby suburb of Twickenham. She never revealed where she hid Thomas’s head.

Webster was executed on July 29, 1879. “The executioner having drawn the cap over her face, retired from the scaffold,” read a broadside detailing Webster’s sentencing and execution. “The unhappy criminal was launched into eternity.”

A SURPRISE IN THE GARDEN

The Execution of Catherine Webster at Wandsworth Gaol
The Execution of Catherine Webster at Wandsworth Gaol, The Illustrated Police News
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Thomas's story has a strange modern twist. In 2009, English broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough bought the vacant pub next door to his house. The building was the former home of the Hole in the Wall, Webster's favorite watering hole, which had closed three years previously.

As contractors were excavating the site to build an extension on Attenborough's property, "they saw a ‘dark circular object,’” according to The Telegraph. That object turned out to be a human skull—one missing its teeth and with “fracture marks consistent with the fall down the stairs and low collagen levels consistent with it being boiled,” an investigating officer told West London Coroners Court. According to a local coroner, there was “clear, convincing and compelling evidence” that the skull belonged to Julia Martha Thomas.

The discovery came too late for the murdered woman, however: Since records of her body’s precise location in Barnes Cemetery were lost, her head wasn’t laid to rest alongside her (its exact whereabouts are somewhat unclear). Though a disappointing ending for a woman who liked things neat and tidy, the Barnes Mystery, at last, was entirely solved.

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