Everyone loves a good heist movie. From the planning to the execution and finally, the victory, heist films completely undermine our moral expectations and enable us to root for the bad guy, guilt-free. While cinema has given us some of the best thieves in history, there are a whole lot more of them out there in real life, and throughout history, there have been a number of highly successful and incredibly underhanded thieves at work.
While we wouldn’t want to meet these guys face to face; their abilities are undeniable. Collectively, the efforts of these thieves have racked up one of the biggest debts in the world, taken from right under our noses. Keep a close eye on your wallet; these notorious thieves would pocket it in a second.
10. Doris Payne
The only female thief on the list, Doris Payne is one of the most notorious names around. With a career spanning five decades, Payne would target high-end jewellery stores and boutiques. Payne made her money by posing as a rich client on the search for an engagement ring. Asking to see a huge number of items outside of the case, Payne would then confuse the clerk and slip a piece or two into her bag. Despite her years’ of stealing, Payne was sentenced to just two years of imprisonment at the age of 83, and a warning to stay away from jewellery stores.
9. Derek "Bertie" Smalls
The 1960’s and 70s were something of a golden age for British armed robberies, and Derek Smalls was at the height of the game. Committing himself to a life of crime at the age of 15, Smalls is known for having successfully robbed a British bank of over £230,000, a record at the time. Fleeing the scene, Smalls escaped to Paris and later to Costa Del Sol, where he followed his manhunt through newspapers. Smalls eventually gave himself up to the Britsh police and was given immunity in return for his help in locating the other gang members. He was the first true “supergrass” informant and the notorious Kray twins placed a £1million bounty on his head.
8. Carl Gugasian
Securing over £2 million worth of stolen goods and money, Carl Gugasian is one of the most famous thieves in history. Making his debut with a series of car thefts, Gugasian later moved onto more high profile projects, targeting banks. Working only on a Friday night, he earned himself a reputation as the Friday Night Robber, wearing a gruesome mask to disguise his identity. Gugasian was later found and arrested, but while he was free he was as notorious as they come.
7. Frank William Abagnale Jr.
Anyone that has ever see Catch Me If You Can will likely be very familiar with the life and "work" of Frank William Abagnale Jr. One of the most famous imposters in the world, Abagnale is known for his successful impersonations of an airline pilot, a doctor, lawyer and prison officer. Abagnale was so good at what he did that, when the FBI eventually caught him, he was employed as a security consultant, helping them track down crooks and thieves.
6. Albert Spaggiari
French banks are well known for their high-security measures; but they proved to be little challenge for Albert Spaggiari, the thief who successfully broke into a Société Générale vault. Digging underground, he formed an eight-meter long tunnel from a nearby sewer into the heart of the vault, taking 60 million francs home for his trouble. Spaggiari and his gang were later found and arrested, however; they remain known as some of the only people to break into a high-security bank vault.
5. Jesse Woodson James
A wanted criminal of the American civil war, Jesse Woodson James was one of the first of his kind. Journeying with his Confederate brother Frank, Jesse was responsible for numerous high-profile bank and train robberies during the 19th century. Jesse loved the press attention he received, and he began to manipulate his activity to get more exposure. Unsurprisingly, he was eventually killed by a fellow gang member, who had grown tired of his games.
4. Bill Mason
Although nowadays, jewel thieves are something that we only really come across in the movies, throughout history, there have been an enormous number of successful cases. Perhaps most famous of all is American Bill Mason, the robber who stole $35 million worth of jewellery from various private residences. Perhaps his most interesting escapade was stealing the Olympic gold medal of athlete Johnny Weissmuller, which he later returned by post.
With a roster of bandit tales that could have been directly lifted from any Western, Indian thief Veerappan was one of the most successful and wanted of his kind. Running amok in India’s southern forests for more than 20 years, Veerappan was responsible for poaching an enormous amount of wild game, smuggling thousands of tonnes of ivory and sandalwood and killing a forest officer. While he was eventually caught, Veerappan is remembered as one of India’s most notorious criminals.
2. Vicenzo Peruggia
While Leonardo Da Vinci’s celebrated Mona Lisa now stands proudly in Paris’ Louvre gallery, its fate hasn’t always been so secure. Vicenzo Peruggia, a former gallery worker, managed to steal the priceless painting in broad daylight, donning the clothing of a more senior member of staff.
Peruggia succeeded in smuggling the painting all the way to Italy, where it remained for several years. Although he was eventually caught, Peruggia will always be remembered for his wily talent and quick-fingered abilities.
India is home to a lot of internationally recognised icons, so the fact that one man attempted to sell a number of them is incredibly shocking. Mithilesh Kumar Srivastav, more commonly known as Natwarlal, managed to sell the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, the Rashtrapati Bhavan and also the Parliament House of India, complete with its 545 sitting members. While he was cornered several times by numerous authorities, Natwarlal always managed to escape and died without ever being incarcerated.
With ever-advancing technology and DNA detection practically available on tap, getting past the law is nearly impossible these days. Of course, a life of crime is hardly something that anyone wants to add to their list of skills, but by peering into the past, we can understand how things used to run when criminals held more cards than the police.
This article was originally published in July 2015.