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Burt Alvord

The Lawman Who Went Bad

Although Burt Alvord is all but forgotten today, this Arizona sheriff-turned-outlaw was notorious in the frontier era. He grew up in the rough-and-tumble town of Tombstone, where he may have witnessed the gunfight at O.K. Corral in 1881. After a fifteen-year career in law enforcement, he turned to robbery and was pursued by lawmen all over the West. Alvord disappeared in 1905, never to be heard from again. He remains a fascinating character study, his life representing a classic example of a good man gone bad. (Photo: Pinal County Historical Society)

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Maxwell Bodenheim

The Mad, Sad Poet of Greenwich Village

One of America’s most intriguing writers, Maxwell Bodenheim was seemingly bent on self-destruction. This once immensely popular habitué of Greenwich Village turned out a dozen books of poetry and prose in the 1920s, only to spiral downward into an alcoholic degeneracy that ended with his murder in a Bowery flophouse in 1954. His rocketing fame and plunging decline perfectly embodied the highs and lows of the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. (Photo: Library of Congress)

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Herbert Bridgman

Master Salesman of a Dubious Legend

Through a relentless publicity campaign, respected New York newspaperman Herbert Bridgman played a major role in convincing the public that Adm. Robert E. Peary was the first to reach the North Pole, an accomplishment many experts now question. In promoting Peary and casting rival explorer Dr. Frederick A. Cook as a pretender, Bridgman became one of the twentieth century’s early masters of media manipulation, in effect dictating history. (Photo: His Last Voyage: Herbert Lawrence Bridgman, 1844-1924, published by Brooklyn Standard Union)

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John Brinkley

A Huckster’s Rise and Fall

From 1917 through the 1930s, Kansas physician John Brinkley made millions by implanting goat testicles in gullible male patients, a useless and sometimes fatal procedure purported to restore virility. Thousands traveled to Brinkley’s clinic sixty-five miles west of Topeka, eager to subject themselves to an operation that seems laughably suspect today but which, in the early years of the twentieth century, struck many people as perfectly plausible. The goat gland doctor’s luck eventually ran its course, and he died in bankruptcy after being exposed as a quack. (Photo: Library of Congress)

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John Chivington

Architect of a Tragedy

John Chivington was the Army officer responsible for one of the worst Indian massacres in American history, the slaughter of some 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho women, children, and elderly on November 29, 1864, at Sand Creek, Colorado. Undisciplined and a relentless self-promoter, Chivington hoped that public acclaim over his “victory” would sweep him into public office, although he was disappointed in that regard and died in disgrace. (Photo: Denver Public Library, Western History Collection)

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Charles Davenport

Keeper of the Immaculate Sperm

In the early twentieth century, biologist Charles Davenport sought to create a master race of white Protestant Yankees through eugenics, or selective breeding. Davenport and his followers advocated immigration restrictions for “undesirable” ethnic groups, the prevention of interracial marriages, and sterilization of “defective” individuals. By the time eugenics lost favor in the 1940s, between 40,000 and 70,000 Americans had been sterilized against their will, mostly minorities or the poor and uneducated. (Photo: Courtesy of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives)

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James DeWolf

Merchant of Misery

James DeWolf was the leading figure in the most active slave-importing family in American history, an elite Rhode Island clan that enjoyed lives of extreme luxury paid for by the suffering of others. From the early 1700s to the early 1800s, dealing in human chattel earned immense fortunes for many prominent Northern families like the DeWolfs, a heritage that’s unfamiliar to most Americans, who generally associate slavery strictly with the South. (Photo: U.S. Senate Historical Office)

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Samuel Dickstein

The Bifurcated Congressman

In the years prior to and during World War II, New York congressman Samuel Dickstein kept watch on the subversive activities of Nazi supporters in the U.S. He also bolstered his income from 1937 to 1940 as a bumbling Soviet spy. Dickstein’s attempts to thwart fascism and anti-Semitism led to the creation of the House Un-American Activities Committee, an investigative body that ran roughshod over individual rights, culminating in the anticommunist frenzy that spawned the showboating demagoguery of Senator Joseph McCarthy. (Photo: Library of Congress)

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Daniel Drew

Uncle Daniel the “Speckerlator”

From the 1840s to the 1870s, Daniel Drew was one of Wall Street’s most ruthless speculators, a religious but unethical banker who believed that nothing should stand in the way of his making a profit. A former drover, Drew earned a lasting place in the history of finance through his practice of bloating cattle with water prior to sale to increase their weight, a trick memorialized by the stock market term “watered stocks,” which refers to assets whose value has been artificially inflated. (Photo: Library of Congress)

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Fong Ching

The Late, Unlamented Little Pete

In San Francisco’s lawless 1880s and ’90s, Chinese immigrant turned gang leader Fong Ching became known as the “King of Chinatown.” His power was so complete that newspapers claimed there wasn’t a lottery ticket sold, a shipment of opium smuggled, a trick turned in a backstreet bordello, or a game of fan-tan played without his taking a cut. Little Pete’s luck ended in 1897 in a hail of bullets in a Chinatown barbershop. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

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Maggie and Kate Fox

Who’s that Rapping On My Floor?

When they pretended to communicate with the dead in their family’s farmhouse in Hydesville, New York, in 1848, sisters Maggie and Kate Fox had no idea that their prank would lead to their becoming the most famous mediums in the country. Their widespread notoriety led to the birth of Spiritualism, an international movement based on the belief that the human spirit passes through many states and that the dead can speak to the living. (Photo: Missouri History Museum, St. Louis)

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Ed Gein

Hitchcock’s Hideous Inspiration

In the 1940s and ’50s, mild-mannered loner Ed Gein perpetrated a string of ghoulish outrages—digging up numerous dead women and killing two others to harvest body parts that he fashioned into a “woman suit” and wore around his isolated Wisconsin farmhouse. Gein’s abominations became the inspiration for Hitchcock’s terrifying masterpiece Psycho and other horror movies. Gein committed his crimes because he wanted to be a woman himself, a longing prompted by his love for his deceased, domineering mother. (Photo: Library of Congress)

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Mildred Gillars

The Silken Voice of Treachery

From 1942 to 1945, the voice of frustrated actress Mildred Gillars was beamed around the world from war-torn Europe. Dubbed “Axis Sally” by the Allies, Gillars would become one of the most reviled Americans of her time for her anti-Semitic rants as a German propagandist. Her efforts to persuade U.S. soldiers to give up their fight against Adolf Hitler would lead to her trial and conviction for treason after the war. Gillars claimed that she did it all because of her love for her boss, saying he forced her into becoming a Nazi mouthpiece. (Photo: Library of Congress)

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Hetty Green

The Witch of Wall Street

In the second half of the nineteenth century, investor Hetty Green lived like a wretched pauper, despite having become the first woman to earn a fortune on Wall Street. The multimillionaire was so miserly that she once dressed her son in rags in an attempt to obtain free medical treatment. Green never leavened her insatiable desire for wealth with any notable acts of philanthropy. She hoarded her fortune like a dragon sitting atop a pile of gold, an example of the stunted life human beings can lead when their only joy is making money. (Photo: Library of Congress)

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Belle Sorensen Gunness

The Killer They Called Hell’s Belle

At the turn of the twentieth century, Norwegian immigrant Belle Sorensen Gunness became one of the country’s most notorious lonely hearts killers and our worst female serial killer ever. She’s believed to have slain over forty people in Chicago and La Porte, Indiana, including her two husbands and all seven of her children, profiting from insurance claims and other financial scams. Many of her victims were cash-bearing suitors she lured to her farmhouse with promises of marriage, only to drug and murder them. (Photo: La Porte County Historical Society Museum)

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Isaac Harris and Max Blanck

Partners in Perfidy

In 1911, the greed of New York sweatshop owners Isaac Harris (right) and Max Blanck resulted in the deaths of 146 garment workers in the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Harris and Blanck were so afraid that their employees might pilfer a few scraps of cloth that they locked the door to one of the two stairways leading from their firetrap ninth-floor workshop. When a fast-spreading blaze blocked the other stairway, most of their workers either perished in the fire or leapt from the windows to die on the sidewalks below. (Photo: Brown Brothers, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University)

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Peggy Hopkins Joyce

The Consummate Gold Digger

A minor though famous actress in the 1920s and ’30s, Peggy Hopkins Joyce wed six times. Her most celebrated marriages were commercial ventures, calculated liaisons with men of wealth or position that vaulted this woman of humble birth into high society. Her fortuitous marriages, coupled with one particularly lucrative, highly publicized divorce, established her as one of the greatest gold diggers of all time. It was a role she admitted to without apology. “It is better to be mercenary than miserable,” she said. (Photo: Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research)

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Emerich Juettner

The Frugal Counterfeiter

The counterfeiter who eluded authorities longer than any other wasn’t a clever career criminal. It was retired New York building superintendent and junk collector Emerich Juettner. The frugal old widower avoided capture for more than nine years simply because he only produced a trickle of fake one dollar bills—just enough to keep himself and his dog from starving. To save anyone from too great a financial loss, Juettner never victimized the same business twice. The story of the crook with a conscience was made into the movie Mr. 880 in 1950. (Photo: 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives)

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James Lane

Unleashing the James-Younger Gang

In Missouri during the Civil War, no man was more hated than Kansas senator James Lane, an abolitionist guerrilla leader whose murderous attack on the Ozark town of Osceola in 1861 sparked an even bloodier reprisal raid on Lawrence, Kansas, two years later. The savage border fighting Lane kindled produced animosities that lingered long after the war, resulting in the transformation of Missouri farmers Frank and Jesse James and their friends the Younger brothers into notorious outlaws. (Photo: Library of Congress)

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Don Lapre

Imperfect Pitch

Starting in the early 1990s, shrieking infomercial pitchman Don Lapre made and lost fortunes peddling questionable products and services, such as his “Making Money” self-help package. His empire finally came tumbling down when he was indicted for fraud over his online vitamin business, charges that led to his suicide in 2011. Though personally likable, Lapre had the character flaw that separates an honest salesman from a huckster: a willingness to hawk just about anything as long as it makes a profit. (Photo: New Strategies)

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Samuel Mason

The Cutthroat Captain of Cave-In-Rock

Pirate and highwayman Samuel Mason conducted a reign of terror along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and the Natchez Trace at the turn of the nineteenth century, making the dangers of frontier travel even greater than usual. From a riverside cave along the Ohio, depicted here, Mason descended on traveling pioneer families, robbing and murdering them and scuttling their boats. Among the criminals of his day, Mason has been called “the worst of the worst.” (Photo: The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock, reprinted by Southern Illinois University Press)

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Dean O’Banion

Chicago’s Florist-Mobster

Before mob boss Al Capone rose to power, a short, chubby Irish American florist named Dean O’Banion held sway over criminal activities throughout Chicago’s northeastern neighborhoods. Although he could be jovial and outgoing, he was linked to the deaths of twenty-five men, prompting the chief of police to call him “Chicago’s arch criminal.” In the 1931 film The Public Enemy, actor James Cagney used the jaunty mobster as a model for his character Tom Powers—the menacing psycho who famously smashes a grapefruit in his girlfriend’s face. (Photo: Guns and Roses, published by Cumberland House Publishing)

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David O’Keefe

King of the Cannibal Islands

Leaving his wife and daughter behind in Savannah after killing a man, seafarer David O’Keefe sailed for China in 1871. He spent the next thirty years among the islands of the western Pacific, building a reputation as a wily trader and accumulating a horde of money, property, wives, and children. Called the king of the Micronesian island complex of Yap, O’Keefe was a major league bigamist, ruthless competitor, and spinner of self-promoting yarns, although he’s still fondly remembered by the Yapese as a colorful part of their past. (Photo: Courtesy of Don Evans, O’Keefe’s Waterfront Inn)

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John Parker

Lincoln’s Missing Bodyguard

A drunken ne’er-do-well, Washington cop John Parker abandoned his post at Ford’s Theatre (far left) on the evening of April 14, 1865, allowing John Wilkes Booth unchallenged access to President Lincoln’s box. Parker had previously been hauled before the police board over a dozen times for conduct unbecoming an officer, so it was a tragic coincidence that he drew the assignment to guard the President that fateful night. Had Parker properly executed his duties, Lincoln might not have died at the hands of an assassin. (Photo: Library of Congress)

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William Stoughton

Salem’s Rabid Witch-Hunter

Minister William Stoughton, the homicidal judge who presided over the Salem witch trials of 1692, had no legal training whatsoever. Rigid and prideful, the sixty-year-old bachelor demonstrated the ham-fisted tactics of a grand inquisitor, denying defendants representation, allowing witnesses to introduce gossip and conjecture as evidence, and unfairly sending nineteen innocent victims to the gallows. Stoughton was later said to have perpetrated “a series of judicial murders that have no parallel in our history.” (Photo: Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Harvard University Portrait Collection)

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Alvin Thomas

You Bet Your Life

Gambling was like breathing to Alvin Thomas—the man they called “Titanic” Thompson. From the 1920s to the 1940s, this tall, slender, dark-haired hustler from the Ozark hills fleeced cigar-chomping mobsters and country club dandies with equal ease. He even mastered bowling and horseshoes to round out his betting arsenal. Thompson, who once won nearly a million dollars in a 1920s poker game, became one of the era’s top golfers, but he refused to turn pro because “a top pro wouldn’t win as much in a year as I would in a week.” (Photo: The True Story of Titanic Thompson, published by W.W. Norton & Company)

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Libby Thompson

Squirrel Tooth Alice

A dance hall hostess, prostitute, madam, and occasional rustler, frontier hellcat Libby Thompson caroused with the likes of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Bat Masterson during her long and adventure-filled life. Born before the Civil War, she endured capture by a Comanche raiding party as a child and survived into the 1950s. She adopted the nickname Squirrel Tooth Alice because of the prominence of her own front teeth and the fact that she kept a prairie dog as a pet. (Photo: Kansasmemory.org, Kansas State Historical Society)

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Joseph Weil

The Very Mellow Yellow Kid

Chicago confidence man Joseph Weil had an uncanny talent for separating the gullible from their money while using a variety of assumed identities. From the 1890s to the 1940s, the “Yellow Kid” passed himself off as a stockbroker, banker, physician, mining engineer, chemist, geologist, land developer, and international purchasing agent. Weil originated or perfected numerous cons, including the phony bookie operation portrayed in the Paul Newman-Robert Redford movie The Sting. (Photo: “Yellow Kid” Weil, reprinted by Nabat/AK Press)