Tag: Kidnapping

Day 992: The John Wilkes Booth World Tour


When John Wilkes Booth was crouching in Richard H. Garrett’s tobacco barn, listening to Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger’s orders to surrender, he decided to go out with a bang. He refused the surrender, then once the barn was lit on fire he took a bullet to the neck, delivered by Sergeant Boston Corbett. He was dead by the break of dawn, less than two weeks after he had prematurely terminated the presidency of Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre.

Or was he?

Way out in the sprawling suburbs of historical perception there exists the notion that the man whose life was snuffed to a nub in that barn was actually a man named James William Boyd, a Confederate soldier who looked enough like Booth that his body passed through ten pairs of identifying eyes (not counting the pair that aimed the gun that took his life), as well as an official autopsy. The composers of this theory also posit that the government knew about the mix-up and let it happen. Because where is the fun in a murder without a deep and sinister government conspiracy?

As for the “real” John Wilkes Booth… well, on the off-chance that this is all true, we can say with a relative certainty that Booth was, in fact, this guy:


One day in 1873, some eight years after the furor over the Lincoln assassination had been pressed between the leaves of history, Memphis lawyer Finis L. Bates met and befriended a liquor and tobacco merchant named John St. Helen. It’s good to get to know the man who sells you booze and smokes, and Bates was particularly taken by John’s ability to spout Shakespeare from memory. The two became good friends outside the seller-consumer relationship.

Five years later, John St. Helen was on what he believed to be his deathbed, profoundly ill. He confided in Finis Bates that he was in fact John Wilkes Booth. He asked Finis to advise his brother, Edwin Booth, of his demise. Then he recovered. Read more…

Day 931: Children Of A Weirder God


And so it was said in the First Epistle to the Corinthians (known as much for their spiritual pluck as their fine leather upholstery) that a woman’s body belongs not to her, but was purchased by Jesus through the sacrifice of his crucifixion. Which is shocking, because as a Jew you’d think Jesus could have finagled himself a better deal.

Next we turn to Matthew 4:19, when Jesus said unto a pair of fishermen that he would make them “fishers of men”. This was the Biblical snippet passed on to the women of the Children of God, a.k.a. The Family International, a cultish bastard-child spin-off of Christianity in which women were at one time encouraged to seduce men into the faith, using their charm, their guile, and their humptastic bedroom skills. They called it ‘Flirty Fishing’, and their pimps – sorry, their mostly male spiritual leaders – claimed it worked.

The Children of God parlayed the hippie sensibility for metaphysical exploration, along with the cultural acceptance of free-form boning of the Sexual Revolution, into a twisted garble of quasi-religious teachings. And somehow they have been able to pull this off and stay viable for over 45 years.


Meet Dave.

David Berg, also known as Moses David because it looks better on a cult leader’s business card, hooked up with Karen Zerby in 1968 to form the Children of God. They boasted the flavors of the day: free love, communal living and a rejection of authoritarian rhetoric. But members also needed to souse their snouts in the primordial goop of religion, subscribing not only to the most finger-wagging tenets of Christianity – along with a healthy sprinkling of apocalyptic doom – but also to the teachings of Moses David and his spouse. Read more…

Day 906: Lord Gordon-Gordon & The Case Of The Tycoon’s Million Bucks


How does one judge the success of a swindle? To my hopelessly naïve and tragically honest mind, I believe one must be able to enjoy the bounty of one’s evil in order to truly rate it as a win. Others might disagree, claiming the mere act of absconding with a victim’s money is sufficient grounds for a toast of victory champagne. No matter how the cards tumble, a good scam makes for great human theatre.

When a British man adopted the curious name of Lord Gordon-Gordon and set out to pilfer a fortune from American railway interests, he was likely after the money and not the thrill of the swindle. To Jay Gould, the man who found himself a million dollars lighter courtesy of Lord Gordon-Gordon’s smooth and smarmy charm, it didn’t matter. He’d been taken. Humiliated. Kicked squarely in the fiscal nads. And he’d get his revenge, dammit.

The revenge itself is as weird a tale as whatever backstory Lord Gordon-Gordon might have used to explain his bizarre moniker. This is the story of how one schmoozy Brit almost singlehandedly instigated a war between the United States and Canada, all for the sake of a few bucks.


Almost nothing is known about this man’s history. There’s a rumor that he may have been the illegitimate child of a North Country priest and his maid, but we don’t even know his real name so tracing his origin story is little more than an effort in fiction. He first appeared in London in 1868 under the name of ‘Glencairn’, insisting he was soon to become the heir to the title of Lord Glencairn, along with the immodest fortune that came with it. Read more…

Day 870: The Cruel Capture & Cunning Calculation Of Fanny Kelly


Classic tales of the old west are filled with men who are forced by circumstance to be MEN. By the code of the west, a guy’s holster must be overflowing with the gooey, musky froth of machismo. Whether it’s Marshal Will Kane awaiting a fleet of vengeful gunmen at high noon or Ethan Edwards roaming the desert for years in search of a niece, a man’s got to do what societal norms dictate that a man’s got to do.

But what about the women? Sure, there were a few gun-toting types like Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, but for the most part women were relegated to the supporting roles, both in history and in cinema. They were the wives, the mothers, the schoolmarms and the whores. When placed out of context, in a position of survival, their best course of action is to stay put and await the manly arms of rescue.

This is where the movies diverge from reality. Apart from a few notable exceptions, cinematic women of the old west might have had some spunk and chutzpah, but they were rarely enabled with the gifts to get stuff done. In reality, the women who hoofed it across the frontier had the potential for every bit the badassery of their male counterparts. As an example I present the typical 1850’s housewife – a lady by the name of Fanny Kelly.


Fanny married Josiah S. Kelly, a guy whose health problems were not well suited to the arid Kansas climate. It was 1864 and the bulk of Americans on the move were headed north and west, far away from the meat-splatter of the Civil War and into the last untamed swath of the continent. They set their sights toward the area we now call Idaho and/or Montana, bringing along Mary Hurley, Fanny’s seven-year-old niece whom the couple had adopted. The trio were joined by Franklin and Andy, two “colored servants”, and a Methodist clergyman named Mr. Sharp.

Shortly afterwards, William and Sarah Larimer hooked up with the convoy, towing their eight-year-old son Frank. Two more men, Gardner Wakefield and Noah Taylor rode with them. They were a party of nine adults and two kids. Enough bodies to ward off lone bandits, with enough provisions to get across the country in relative comfort. Of course the real threat along the trail wasn’t so much pesky robbers or indulgent eating binges. Read more…

Day 842: Locked Up For Life, And Then Some (part 1)


On June 29, 2009, District Judge Denny Chin sentenced Bernie Madoff to a whopping 150 years in prison for defrauding thousands of investors and ripping off more than $65 billion for his own pocket from people who presumably actually worked for that money. Madoff had committed an act of wickedness that would make any Bond villain shake their heads in filthy humbled admiration, but Judge Chin’s sentence was a headline unto itself. The federal probation office had suggested fifty years. Madoff’s lawyers had asked for twelve.

At the time, I questioned the reasoning behind sentencing a 70-year-old man to 150 years in prison. Fifty would have been plenty to ensure he died behind bars, even if Bernie had been spending giant globs of that $65 billion on youth-juice injection treatments. One hundred years would have been sufficient to deliver a message to any would-be Ponzi-cookers out there that the benchmark standard for such schemery was death in the joint, even with time off for good behavior. But 150?

It’s a glorious fuck-you to Madoff’s great-great-great-great grandkids, a permanent etching of shame upon the family name. But even as far as prison sentences go, Madoff’s lengthy booking is far from the longest ever handed down. His crimes may have been more despicable than those committed by some of the others on this list, but I guess it’s all a question of who you piss off.


Velupillai Prabhakaran had a dream. He wanted to create a peaceful Tamil state just northeast of Sri Lanka, a gift unto his people, albeit with himself as the corruptible, mustachioed leader-for-life. He founded the Tamil Tigers, an organization dedicated to achieving this goal through violent means if necessary (which, as it turned out, was constantly necessary). 32 countries called Velupillai’s organization a terrorist group. After an unsuccessful attempt at peace talks broke down, Velupillai was killed in a clash with the Sri Lankan army. Read more…

Day 827: Riding The Double Helix To Sweet Freedom


It’s almost a little frightening how far we have progressed over the past 30 years. And I’m not just talking about the rampant availability of online pornography or that I can watch any episode of Quantum Leap at a moment’s notice (should the need arise); the mid-80’s world of forensic science was shockingly primitive by today’s standards. Since the advent of online databases, DNA profiling and David Caruso’s sunglasses, forensics has never been the same.

The down-side is that you’ll probably never get the chance to figure out whether or not your plan for the perfect heist would work. Who wants to take the chance, now that we know that an inadvertent cough is going to leave DNA juice all over the crime scene? On the plus-side, you aren’t likely to be hauled in for a crime you didn’t commit – or you’re less likely anyway.

When DNA profiling swooped onto the justice system’s radar it was clearly destined to be a game-changer from the very start. For some, like the vile and violent rapist/murderer Colin Pitchfork, DNA evidence was the veritable ink upon his one-way ticket to life in lock-up. For others, like the 17-year-old kid who almost took the fall for one of Colin’s most dastardly crimes, it was a life-raft of hope.


In a grim but historically significant tale from England, Colin Pitchfork raped and murdered two 15-year-old girls – one in 1983 and another in 1986. A married father of two in the Leicestershire area, his only previous indiscretion was a fine for indecent exposure. He was not a suspect in the murders. 17-year-old Richard Buckland was – he knew more about the second murder victim’s body than he should have, and after intense grilling, he confessed to the crime. But not to the first one. Read more…

Day 726: The Astounding Rat-Finkery Of ‘Kid-Twist’ Reles


“I’m not mad, I’m proud of you. You took your first pinch like a man, and you learn two great things in your life. Look at me. Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.”

So said Jimmy Conway to a young Henry Hill in Goodfellas. Being a rat among organized criminals is the lowest of the low – a lawbreaker who won’t even respect the notion of honor among thieves. Any devotee of the gangster genre of cinema and television knows there are only two possible endings to a rat’s story: government protection or a swift and sudden final curtain. But opting for rat-ism is an act of desperation, of self-preservation. Sometimes it’s the only road a guy can take.

Abe Reles felt so snugly crammed into an inescapable corner, ratting out his friends seemed like the only possible route to salvation. But the consequences of those beans he’d spill would shake loose the foundations of a lot of lives, because Abe Reles was no common hood. He was Hit Man #1 for the most gruesome of all organized crime syndicates: Murder, Inc.


Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1920’s, Abe Reles quit school after the eighth grade and started living the good life: hanging out in pool halls and candy stores and fraternizing with local wannabe-hoodlums and aspiring gangsters. He was busted in 1921 for swiping two bucks’ worth of gum (which back then was probably a full bucket) from a vending machine. He was a little guy, but he had a crew: Martin “Buggsy” Goldstein and Harry Strauss. Three Jewish hoods looking to make a living on the grisly side of the law. Read more…

Day 652: Shots Fired – The Marin County Courthouse Incident


It wasn’t so long ago we lived in a world in which people fought with one another based on the color of their skin, rather than the political actions of their preferred party. What follows is an ugly story of racism turned to desperation. It’s a blunt reminder of some of the smarmiest depths of our human potential, manifested in frantic action. Racial equality was law, but it wasn’t even close to the norm. It was ugly.

It’s a story of stabbings, kidnappings, and a guy named Opie. Staged fights and inmates with nothing to lose. One guy loses a testicle. It would be difficult to turn this tale into a Movie of the Week because finding the humanity, or any sense of a feel-good happy ending would be tough.

But the events of what would come to be known as the Marin County Courthouse Incident need to be told, to be remembered. If nothing else, someone with a say in the matter needs to ensure this doesn’t happen again. It all starts in 1969 with a guy named W.L. Nolen.

Nolen either had no discernible face or there simply isn't another photo of him online.

Nolen either had no discernible face or there simply isn’t another photo of him online.

Nolen was an inmate at Soledad Prison in California. He, like many others around him, felt the guards were taking steps to ensure the racial tension at the prison remained skull-scrapingly high. Things like leaving certain cells unlocked to allow groups of white prisoners to beat up on black prisoners, or the filing of false disciplinary reports. Superintendent Cletus J. Harris was named as the responsible party. Nolen claimed he feared for his life. Read more…

Day 571: Surratt Sentenced To Swing


Normally I shy away from writing articles on topics which have already been turned into major motion pictures directed by Robert Redford and starring Robin Wright. But I’ve never seen the film The Conspirator, nor have I spoken to anyone who has, so I’m just going to play this one for the interesting subject matter it truly is.

Mary Surratt possesses the dubious honor of being the first woman in American history to be sentenced to death by a court of law. If ever someone thought to bill a ‘Crime of the Century’ for the 1800’s, Mary’s would most certainly be it: she was part of the conspiracy that took a president’s life. A beloved (and beloathed) president, who had just ended a war and liberated a lot of people.

But Mary’s connection with the assassination may not have been as solid as some (including those in the justice system) may have thought. It all depends on whom you ask.


Mary was a devout Catholic. She met and married John Surratt and promptly spurted out three children, Isaac, Anna, and John Jr. The family lived on an impressive piece of land that John had inherited in the District of Columbia. It was a lovely set-up, a perfect picture of mid-19th-century life. But beneath the surface, things weren’t good. Read more…

Day 542: Who Is Smart Enough To Pull Off The Perfect Murder?


What constitutes the perfect murder?

Clearly getting away with it is probably the first priority. Evading suspicion entirely would be ideal, but so long as your story is straight and your delivery impeccable, you should be able to dance the steps necessary for your freedom. But you can’t commit an act of passion, nor can you deliver the fatal blow to anyone against whom you might have even the slightest motive. The perfect murder should be inscrutably plotted, meticulously choreographed and flawlessly covered up.

Just ask Leopold and Loeb, two friends and students who thought they had orchestrated the most impenetrable crime. Though I suppose if they had, we wouldn’t know who they were, would we?


Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were two unusually intelligent, privileged kids from the right neighborhood in Chicago. They met in college where they were both en route to careers in law. Leopold and Loeb saw themselves as Übermensches, the Nietzschean ideals of humanity. They were fit, they were brilliant – Leopold allegedly possessed an IQ of 210, while Loeb could speak 27 languages fluently – and they happened to possess the societal advantage of having scads of money and being both white and male in America. Read more…