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Sure, stupid criminal stories are hilarious, and we’ll never get enough of them. But we’re well aware that not all law-breakers are dumbasses. Some use their wit, charm and intelligence to take money from people who have plenty. They’re classy as hell, and they bring much panache to this whole thievery thing. Especially people like ...
Willie Sutton: Gentleman Bank Robber
Willie Sutton was born in 1901, back when “bank robber” was a totally viable career option along with “wandering hobo clown,” “town horse butcher,” and “guy who beats the Irish with a stick if they try to vote.” He quickly earned the nicknames “The Actor” and “Slick Willie,” the latter of which he shares with both a saxophone-playing former president and that oily guy that hangs out in the forest behind Modern Rogue HQ.
Sutton stole an estimated $2,000,000 during his career as a bank robber, which is around $50,000,000 in today’s dollars, an incredible feat in and of itself. But it’s not the amount of money he took that makes him awesome -- it’s that he managed to do so without ever firing a gun in the process. Rather, he used his acting ability and penchant for disguise to make his way into banks, begin the hold-up, then just charm the pants off of everybody.
His modus operandi was to disguise himself as a policeman or a mail carrier or a custodian, basically anything that would get him access to a bank. Once the robbery was in progress, though, he was nothing short of the most cordial gentleman you would ever meet. In fact, one witness described it like “being at the movies, except the usher had a gun.”
Look at that face. You just want to pinch his little cheeks!
While he was technically a criminal who spent a fair amount of time behind bars and had a home on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, Sutton was hailed as sort of a lovable celebrity. In fact, he was so adored that the guy who became famous for recognizing him and turning him in to the police ended up receiving a bunch of threatening letters and phone calls. Sadly, he ended up murdered in a park, all for doing the right thing, and the killer was never found. And learning of that man’s fate upset Sutton deeply.
After serving a small portion of his “two life sentences plus 105 years”, he was eventually released, having been diagnosed as terminally ill with emphysema. Shortly thereafter, the bank robber who had been described by one of his arresting officers as the friendliest criminal he had ever met, Sutton went on to try his hand in acting ... in a television commercial for a bank.
James Freney: Irish Robin Hood
Back in 1740s Ireland, a well-meaning man by the name of James Freney moved to Waterford to open a new pub and live a quiet, respectable life with his wife. Unfortunately, it didn’t exactly work out, after having been sort of pushed out by the locals.
His aspirations of successful barkeepery now dashed, Freney grew somewhat bitter about the whole thing and decided to just start robbing the crap out of absolutely everyone. Or rather, those who could afford it. In fact, that was exactly his motto: “Only rob those who can afford to be robbed.” And he did so with remarkable tenacity.
But he wasn’t your standard, butthole highwayman -- Freney became known as the “Gentleman Robber,” thanking people for the stuff he was stealing from them, apologizing for the hassle, and sometimes returning items to his victims that carried some sort of sentimental value. He was also super nice to the women who were swept up in the robberies, ensuring that no harm came to any of them.
He also had a reputation for helping the poor, kind of like the Robin Hood of his time. But it was less stealing from the crown and handing people bags of cash, and more brute intimidation of wealthy landlords trying to evict the poor from their homes. Imagine that: You’re about to become homeless, and in a last ditch effort, you enlist the help of some badass who grabs his guns, mounts his trusty, hilariously-named horse (he called her Beefsteaks), then proceeds to go bully the guy trying to kick you out of your house, into letting you stay. And maybe snag some of that rent money back while he’s at it.
Wait, is he riding an undead horse?
He was eventually apprehended, and was looking at the very real possibility of being put to death as punishment for his crimes. But one thing Freney had going for him is that he never killed anyone during any of his robberies. Sure, it was speculated that this might only be true because his gun jammed up a few times, but still. Oh, he also ratted out his friends, so there’s that. And while that might seem like kind of a dick move, it’s important to note that the only reason he was caught was because they snitched on him first.
After being pardoned and not hanged, he went on to become a customs officer and wrote an autobiography, which became a huge hit. In his book, he never mentioned the times he helped the poor, possibly out of modesty, or possibly out of fear that they would be targeted by the British for retribution. Either way, that was pretty classy.
Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy: Destroyer Of Monarchies
Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy was a bit of a scam artist who was active during the late 18th century in France. She enjoyed adventure and living a luxurious lifestyle, so she turned to stealing stuff and screwing people over in order to live the life she wanted. And while many thieves throughout history can brag about their impressive feats of taking stuff that isn’t theirs, not many can claim they helped topple an entire monarchy.
Her largest score is now famously known as the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. It began when a jewelry firm made, well, a diamond necklace, that was worth millions of dollars. The intention was to sell it to one of the only two people who could afford it: the late king Louis XV’s mistress, Madame du Barry, or his successor’s wife, Marie Antoinette. Unfortunately for the jewelers, neither prospective buyer wanted it. And in retrospect, making a product that only two people in the world might want to buy probably isn’t a solid business plan. Then again, that’s never stopped an airport Cinnabon.
When Jeanne de “Maybe More Hyphens Will Make Me Seem Legit” Valois-Saint-Rémy got wind of this incredibly valuable necklace, she hatched her plan. Through her social circles, she had learned that Cardinal de Rohan, the Bishop of Strasbourg, was desperate to regain his social standing after falling out of favor with Marie Antoinette. So she told the Cardinal that Marie Antoinette wanted the necklace, but to keep it on the down-low, so don’t ask her about it or anything. All he had to do to get back in the monarchy’s good graces was purchase the diamond necklace on Marie Antoinette’s behalf, and then everything would just be hunky-dory.
And thus was born the worlds first Jim Halpert glance.
Pretty soon he was exchanging letters with “Marie Antoinette,” which were, of course, actually written by Jeanne. When he asked to meet in person, Jeanne arranged a nighttime meeting in the gardens of Versailles between the Cardinal and the Queen. Well, actually, she was a prostitute that Jeanne had paid to impersonate Marie Antoinette, but it was enough to fool the Cardinal. This is either a testament to Jeanne’s incredible mastery of the roguish art of deception or proof that the Cardinal de Rohan was blind as hell. Or maybe he had no idea what she looked like? Either way, he fell for it.
So Jeanne began turning up the intensity of the letters, claiming that “Marie Antoinette” was falling in love the Cardinal. This apparently did the trick, and he ended up negotiating for the diamond necklace on behalf of the Queen, got it, and gave it to Jeanne to transport. And transport it she did -- to London, where she sold it.
When the jewelers didn’t get paid, they petitioned Marie Antoinette directly to ask, “What the hell?” That’s when the entire scheme started to unravel, and everyone involved was inevitably arrested. However, the reputation of the monarchy was already kind of shaky, and this latest scandal cemented the idea in people’s minds that the king sucked at his job. And then the French Revolution happened.
Now, we’re not saying that Jeanne caused the French Revolution. But we’re also not not saying that her con wasn’t another crack in the dam that was holding back a tidal wave of political fury and class resentment that, when released, would fundamentally alter the course of history and irreversibly alter the political hegemony of France forever.
Black Sam Bellamy: The Democratic Pirate
“Black” Sam Bellamy began his piratical career in 1716, and he is often considered to be the highest-earning pirate of all time. Over the course of his career, he amassed a treasure that would have been worth over $120,000,000 today -- nearly enough for a two bedroom home in Los Angeles.
Bellamy is thought to have been born into poverty before joining the British Navy at a young age, where he grew into a talented sailor. After the War of the Spanish Succession had ended, he found himself jobless, so he and a friend set out to make some money. He eventually turned to piracy, and it wasn’t long before he found himself the captain of his own pirate crew. A mutiny had ousted what was then the current captain, and a vote was organized to elect a new one, with Bellamy coming out on top. Democracy was something of a running theme for Bellamy: All major decisions were put to a vote with the crew, and every crewman got a vote regardless of race or social status prior to joining.
Bellamy and his crew soon captured a ship called the Whydah Gally, which was a state-of-the-art marvel of warfare for its time. But despite having a shiny new unbeatable ship, he operated under a strict code of honor. If he and his crew boarded a ship and found that it wasn’t stocked with fabulous treasure, they typically just left it alone. He never killed captives, and he only stole from the extremely wealthy -- a fact he and his crew took great pride in, calling themselves “Robin Hood’s Men.” To quote the good captain himself: “[The rich] rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, while we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage.”
But he mostly got rich, playing lead guitar for Queen.
Pirate historian Colin Woodward described Bellamy’s style as “Fight smart, harm few, score big.” He was devoted to equality, didn’t hurt anybody when he didn’t have to, only stole from those who deserved it, and was still the most successful pirate ever. He was kind of a nice guy (for a pirate), is what we’re saying, and it paid off big time.
And if you’re wondering what motivated this honorable pirate to choose the profession he did, it was love. Before he had initially set out to strike it rich, he was romantically involved with a girl he intended to marry. Her father, however, told him a penniless ex-sailor wasn’t good enough for his daughter. So, by god, he was going to fix that whole penniless part, knowing that nothing melts a father’s icy heart like knowing his daughter is going to marry the most wanted criminal in the world as long as he’s bringing home enough bacon.
Tragically, as Bellamy and his crew were sailing back to Boston, either to find his lady love or to start a revolution, they were sunk by a freak storm. But not before he’d made himself the most successful pirate of all time, even beyond the the more famous ones like Blackbeard, at only 28 years of age.