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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.