Over the years, theft in any of its forms has always been looked upon with grave disdain whether it is self, situation, or circumstance motivated. Be the thieves professionals or amateurs, their dangerous, yet exhilarating lifestyle, marked by rare intelligence and filled with risks and uncertainties makes for interesting personalities and study. They are opportunists and endeavor to take advantage of any situation that provides them with a loophole, they equally employ whatever tools they can to take what belongs to others. Interestingly, they have been adjudged as famous thieves for their infamous acts.
Throughout history, there have been a number of highly successful famous thieves whose stories could easily pass for a legend. Their abilities are simply undeniable, and their acts, most of which were carried out right under our noses, are grossly amazing. Some of these acts have not only created holes in the pockets of affected individuals but have also racked up some of the biggest debts in the world.
The process may differ as well as the perpetrator(s), going by the dynamism of the profession, but it has been followed by a large number of people not just today but from times past also. This is a roundup of 10 famous thieves who have ever existed.
10 Famous Thieves Who Ever Existed
1. Vincenzo Peruggia
This one man carried out what is dubbed the greatest art theft of the 20th century, the stealing of Leanardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa right from the walls of the Louvre in France on August 21, 1911. The infamous act created a media sensation, which helped to boost the fame of the 16th-century masterpiece, shooting it to international stardom, as well as making it one of the most famous paintings in the world.
Vincenzo Peruggia was an Italian handyman and a former worker at the Louvre. In what he taught was a noble intention; returning the painting to its native Italy, he never could have guessed that her absence would be the very thing that would make her the most recognizable artwork on earth.
Peruggia was aware that the museum would be closed on the day of his famous theft so, he came in the day before and hid. The next day, dressed as a staff, he entered the room where the painting was hanging and carefully took it off the wall. He then took the painting out of its frame and hid the canvas under his smock.
However, the next minute, it seemed luck ran out on him as the door would not open until a kind plumber who happened to be passing by helped him with the door without an inkling of what he had on him. He hid the painting successfully for two years in his apartment until 1913 when it was found. Peruggia was immediately arrested and sentenced to seven months of jail time.
Although he paid the price, Vincenzo Peruggia will always be remembered for his wily talent and quick-fingered abilities and as one of the most famous thieves who ever lived.
2. Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Remy
The second on our list of famous thieves who ever lived is a French woman, Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Remy, also known as Comtesse de la Motte. Her quest to live an extravagant life far beyond what her husband could provide led her to one of the greatest scams in history, dubbed the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. The scandal is one of the many that brought about the French Revolution, as well as the destruction of the monarchy of France. Her only tools were deceit and pretense.
Born on July 22, 1756, she was married to Nichols de la Motte but their marriage was described as unsuccessful. As such, Jeanne took a lover named Rétaux de Villette, and would later meet Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan who she found out was out of favor with the queen, Marie Antoinette and was trying to get her approval to no avail.
At around the same time, the jeweler Charles Auguste Boehmer had made several unsuccessful attempts to sell a great necklace at an incredible price which only the king, Louis XVI could afford. However, neither the king nor his wife had a desire to own such an item. At that, Jeanne connected the dots, figuring out she could get the priced jewelry at no cost.
So, with the help of her husband and her lover who was also a skilled forger, she devised a plan. Claiming to be a favorite of the queen, she convinced the cardinal that she could effect the reconciliation he sought. In turn, she encouraged him to correspond with the queen but has already had a letter written and signed with the queen’s name by her confederate, Retaux de Villette. Therein, the queen expressed her desire to buy the necklace despite the king’s reluctance to spend such an extravagant amount. It also mentioned that she hoped the cardinal could lend her the money as a secret favor.
Additionally, she arranged a late night meeting with the queen’s impersonator. At this, the cardinal was fully convinced that he has not only regained the queen’s good graces but that she was also in love with him. As such, he gladly obliged her request and the jeweler was contacted. He handed the piece over to the Comtesse for delivery to the queen, but of course, it never reached her. Jeanne’s husband took the necklace apart and sold the diamonds in England. The deception only came to light when the jeweler asked to be paid.
The cardinal was arrested, along with Jeanne and a handful of others. She was convicted and sentenced to prison for life but eventually escaped, disguised as a boy. She made her way to London where she published her memoirs in 1789. Therein, she tried to justify her actions while casting blame upon the queen who was her chief victim. She died two years later in 1791.
3. Jonathan Wild
Jonathan Wild (1682–1725) was an English underworld figure who successfully lived on both sides of the law. He lived in a time when the public was paid to assist the police to catch thieves. If successful, they would receive half the value of the returned goods. As such, a new profession was born – the thief-takers; and Wild was one of those that exploited the system.
He posed as a public-spirited crimefighter and helped the authorities to catch other criminals. Thus, he was nicknamed the Thief-Taker General. On the other side, he was in charge of a highly organized gang of thieves in London and systematically arranged robberies and manipulated the legal systems, as well by selling the goods back to the original owners and securing rewards.
Other weapons of his duplicity include bribing prison-guards to release his colleagues and blackmailing anyone who crossed him including other famous thieves who wished to remain independent or are rebellious to his control. He hands them over to the authorities and they are eventually sent to the gallows. However, luck ran out on him after a seven-year reign and he too ended up at the end of a rope.
4. Stephen Blumberg
Stephen Blumberg’s only crime was his obsession with books which he converted into a specialty for book thievery otherwise known as “book collections”. The bibliomaniac was arrested in 1990 for stealing over 23,600 rare and valuable books which became known as Blumberg Collections from universities and museums. The lot was valued at a worth of $5.3 million and the heist was dubbed the largest book theft in US history. Blumberg, in turn, became known as the Book Bandit and is regarded as the most successful book thief in history, thus, joining the league of famous thieves in heist history.
Blumberg, who also suffered from Schizophrenia stated that the reason he stole books was to preserve them from what he termed destruction. He believed that the government was trying to ensure that ordinary persons do not have access to rare books and unique materials. Thus, his collections was an attempt to thwart the plan. Interestingly, he did not sell any of the stolen items as according to him, that would be a dishonest thing to do, he believes that they would be returned to their owners or at least someone who would look after them, in the event of his death.
He was found guilty and sentenced to four and a half years in prison. However, after he was released, he went back to his hobby; stealing and collecting books.
5. Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie Elizabeth Parker (1910-1934) and Clyde Barrow (1909-1934) were an American duo that wreaked havoc across the central US during the great depression era. The pair robbed over a dozen banks but specialized in stealing cars, robbing smaller stores and rural gas stations. They are likely the most notorious couple that ever lived and captured headlines with a long crime spree before dying by the gun in an ambush on 23 May 1934, laid by the Louisiana police.
They met in 1930 and although Bonnie was married at the time and remained so until her death, she partnered with Clyde from 1932 in what became a 21-month–long crime bout. As part of their infamy, they evaded the FBI and police until 1934 and in the process, killed people when cornered or confronted, set free five prisoners from Eastham State Prison in Texas, killed three police officers, and kidnapped a police chief.
The twosome has been noted many times in popular culture with a number of books, music, films, and TV shows inspired by their lives.
6. John Dillinger
John Dillinger (1903-1934) was one of the depression era outlaws who became known as the Public Enemy No. 1. His first major brush with crime was in 1924 when he robbed a grocery shop with his friend, stealing $50. He was convicted of assault and battery with intent to rob and conspiracy to commit a felony. Against his expectation to get a lenient probation sentence, he was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison. Afterwards, he swore to be a terror when released and was embroiled in a criminal lifestyle while incarcerated.
He was paroled in 1933 but went on to specialize in bank robberies and ranked among the world’s famous thieves in crime history. Dillinger robbed over 24 financial institutions and four police stations with his famous crew known as the Dillinger Gang or Terror Gang. His other criminal exploits include escaping from jail twice. After evading police in four states for almost a year, he met his Waterloo in Chicago on July 22, 1934, when he was killed in a shoot out by the police.
7. Jesse James
An American outlaw, Jesse James was born in Missouri in 1847 and grew up with his brother Frank James before the violence of the U.S. Civil War transformed him from farm boy to vicious robber and killer. He formed the James-Younger gang with his brother and the gang carried out thefts that ranged from bank to train robberies from 1866 to 1876 when several of the members were either captured or killed. Nevertheless, they recruited more members and continued with their acts which made him popular in the wild west.
James ended up being killed by a member of his gang, Robert Ford on April 3, 1882. Ford shot and killed him with the aim to collect the reward for Jesse James and promised amnesty for his past crimes.
Already a celebrity during his lifetime, Jesse James was even more after his death. He became a legendary figure of the Wild West and his life has been dramatized, recounted and memorialized numerous times, including in a film starring Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt.
8. David Brankle
Brankle made the list of the 10 famous thieves that ever lived infamy for always targeting bank branches inside supermarkets near interstate highways which earned him the moniker – the Interstate Bank Mart Bandit. One other interesting thing about him is that he treated bank robbery more like a profession than a crime. To perpetrate his crimes, the serial bank bandit conducted in-depth researches into the techniques of the best bank robbers and followed the progress of police investigation into the crimes he committed.
He was caught in 2004 and after admitting to 42 Midwest bank robberies in less than two years, he was charged for bank robbery and sentenced to a 21-year prison term. He is scheduled for release in 2022.
The penultimate on our list of famous thieves that ever lived is Koose Munisamy Veerappan Gounder better known as Veerappan. He was an Indian bandit or dacoit who terrorized the nation, killing both humans and animals for more than 30 years. He was notorious for kidnapping, murdering and smuggling ivory and sandalwood in India’s southern forests, evading and killing police officers, as well as civilians. Veerappan lived from January 18, 1952, to October 18, 2004, when he was eventually killed by the Special Task Police Force.
10. Frank William Abagnale Jr.
This list of famous thieves that ever lived would somehow be incomplete without the man who carried out his act in the 20th century. Rather than carry weapons of guns and knives, he carried out his acts with the simplest of tools, a pen. Frank Williams Abagnale Jr. (b. 1948) perfected in the act of forgery and impersonation. The film Catch Me If You Can starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale and Tom Hanks would give anyone who has seen it an insight into the life and work of the famous imposter. Frank carried out his acts between the ages of 15 and 21 with his father as his first victim and claimed to have assumed not less than eight identities including impersonating an airline pilot, a doctor, lawyer and prison officer.
Moreover, he became so good in this that when he was eventually caught by the FBI, they employed him as a security consultant to help them track down crooks and thieves. Besides his work for the federal government, he also runs a financial fraud consultancy company known as Abagnale & Associates.