In the 18th century Jeremy Bentham proposed building a circular prison in which well-lit cells face a central “inspection house” where a single watchman dwells. Because the prisoners can’t see the watchman, they never know when they’re being watched and so must constantly police their own behavior.
Bentham called this “a mill for grinding rogues honest” and listed the benefits in the preface to a 1791 book: “Morals reformed — health preserved — industry invigorated — instruction diffused — public burthens lightened — Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock — the gordian knot of the poor-law not cut, but untied — all by a simple idea in Architecture!”
He was so taken with the idea that he proposed putting it into practice himself. “Allow me to construct a prison on this model,” he wrote to the Committee for the Reform of Criminal Law. “I will be the gaoler. You will see … that the gaoler will have no salary — will cost nothing to the nation.” He spent much of the 1790s pursuing the project, but he couldn’t find enduring support for it and nothing was ever built.
In November 1869 Missouri farmer Charles Burden sued his neighbor, Leonidas Hornsby, for shooting his dog Drum. Hornsby denied it, but neighbors had heard the shot and the dog’s cries of pain on the night in question, and Drum had been found dead of a gunshot the following morning. Furious, Burden sued Hornsby for $50, the maximum amount allowed by law. The two battled back and forth in the courts for a year. Finally, at end of the fourth trial, Burden’s attorney George Graham Vest rose to make this closing argument:
Gentlemen of the jury. The best friend a man has in the world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter whom he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith. The money that a man has he may lose. It flies away from him perhaps when he needs it most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads. The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is the dog.
Gentlemen of the jury, a man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground when the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he can be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer, he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince.
When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens. If fortune drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him, to guard him against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in its embrace and his body is laid in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws and his eyes sad but open, in alert watchfulness, faithful and true, even to death.
Burden won, getting $50 and justice for his dog. Hornsby appealed to the state supreme court but lost.
Vest, the attorney, had said he would “win the case or apologize to every dog in Missouri.”
In 1554 Sir James Hales drowned himself. The coroner returned a verdict of felo de se, meaning that Sir James was guilty of the felony of self-murder. His estate was forfeited to the crown, which planned to award it to one Cyriac Petit. Sir James’ widow, Margaret, contested this. So the case turned on the question whether the grounds for forfeiture had occurred during Sir James’ lifetime: Had his suicide occurred during his life, or after his death?
Margaret Hales’ counsel argued that one can’t be guilty of suicide while one is still living, practically by definition, so self-murder shouldn’t be classed as a felony: “He cannot be felo de se till the death is fully consummate, and the death precedes the felony and the forfeiture.”
But Petit’s counsel argued that part of the act of suicide lies in planning to do it, which certainly occurs during life: “The act consists of three parts: the first is the imagination, which is a reflection or meditation of the mind, whether or not it is convenient for him to destroy himself, and what way it can be done; the second is the resolution, which is a determination of the mind to destroy himself; the third is the perfection, which is the execution of what the mind had resolved to do. And of all the parts, the doing of the act is the greatest in the judgment of our law, and it is in effect the whole.”
The court ruled for Petit, finding that Sir James had killed himself during his lifetime: “The forfeiture shall have relation to the time the original offence began which caused the death, and that was the throwing himself into the water, which was done in his lifetime and this act was felony. That which caused the death may be said to be feloniously done. The felony is attributed to the act, which act is always done by a living man; for, Brown said, Sir James Hales was dead, and how came he by his death? It may be answered by drowning; and who drowned him? Sir James Hales; and when did he this? It can be answered, in his lifetime. So that Sir James Hales being alive caused Sir James Hales to be dead, and the act of the living man caused the death of the dead man.”
The case is remembered, and not charitably, in the churchyard scene in Hamlet:
First Clown: Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here stands the man; good; if the man go to this water, and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes,–mark you that; but if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.
Second Clown: But is this law?
First Clown: Ay, marry, is’t; crowner’s quest law.
adj. armed with a noose
adj. hanging from a rope
adj. pertaining to the gallows
On Feb. 23, 1885, convicted murderer John Lee of Devon was brought to the scaffold and positioned on the trapdoor. The noose was fitted around his neck, and executioner James Berry pulled the lever.
Two warders tried to force the trapdoor to open under Lee, but they failed. They removed the condemned man and tested the door, and it worked. So they put Lee in position again, and again Berry pulled the lever.
Again nothing happened.
Exasperated, the warders again put Lee aside and set to work on the door, this time with hatchets. When they were satisfied, they returned him to the scaffold, and Berry pulled the lever a third time.
So the Home Secretary commuted Lee’s sentence to life imprisonment.
In the early morning of Aug. 9, 1976, the bodies of a young man and woman were found on a secluded dirt road in Sumter County, S.C. Each had been shot in the throat, chest, and back. Both were white and in their mid-20s. They bore no identification, but there were signs that they were wealthy: He wore an expensive Bulova watch and had had specialized dental work, and she wore a jade ring.
“They were clean, neat,” remembered county coroner Verna Moore. “She was beautiful, real pretty girl. He was also.”
Police circulated composite drawings across the country and asked anyone with information to come forward. The case was publicized on numerous national news programs, and police consulted Interpol, immigration authorities, and U.S. Customs investigators. In 30 years, thousands of tips have been offered, but every lead has fallen through. No one has ever explained who the pair were, how they came there, who might have killed them, or why.
“I have not given up on this case,” Moore said in 2001. “The reason I am haunted is, I cannot understand how two young people disappeared from somewhere and that their parents would not be looking for them. … I can’t count the times when somebody hasn’t asked, ‘Have you ever found out who those children are?'”
Henry Hunt’s “graffiti prevention apparatus,” patented in 1997, offers a novel way to keep city walls clean: Paint manufacturers would mix magnetic material into their products, and a sensor near each building would sense when a vandal was near.
“When a proximity sensor on, or in the vicinity of, the structure is triggered by an approaching intruder, a magnetic field created along the targeting surface acts to repel the spray of marking media directed at it.”
Alternatively, the sensor would direct a signal to the spray-paint can, turning the nozzle away from the wall or shutting off the flow of paint. But I guess the spray-paint manufacturers would all have to participate … and vandals may be their biggest market.
In December 1895, Norwegian mining engineer Adolph Beck stepped out of his London flat and was accosted by a woman who accused him of tricking her out of some jewelry. Beck protested his innocence — he had been in Buenos Aires at the time — but the police accused him of an unsolved series of such swindles, and he was sentenced to seven years of penal servitude.
He was paroled in July 1901 and essentially the same thing happened again — a woman accused him of stealing her jewelry, he was arrested, and a jury found him guilty. He was saved only because another man was arrested for the same crime while Beck was awaiting sentencing. Wilhelm Meyer, it turned out, was the real swindler; Beck had been convicted twice for crimes he hadn’t committed.
They set him free and gave him £5,000, but he died a bitter man in 1909.
This past February, brothers named Elwin and Yohan were arrested for six rapes in France, but both denied the charges. Deciding which is guilty is a tricky affair — they’re identical twins, so the genetic difference between them is very slight. Marseille police chief Emmanual Kiehl said, “It could take thousands of separate tests before we know which one of them may be guilty.”
This is only the latest in a series of legal conundrums involving identical twins and DNA evidence. During a jewel heist in Germany in January 2009, thieves left behind a drop of sweat on a latex glove. A crime database showed two hits — identical twins Hassan and Abbas O. (under German law their last name was withheld). Both brothers had criminal records for theft and fraud, but both were released. The court ruled, “From the evidence we have, we can deduce that at least one of the brothers took part in the crime, but it has not been possible to determine which one.”
Later that year, identical twins Sathis Raj and Sabarish Raj escaped hanging in Malaysia when a judge ruled it was impossible to determine which was guilty of drug smuggling. “Although one of them must be called to enter a defence, I can’t be calling the wrong twin to enter his defence,” the judge told the court. “I also can’t be sending the wrong person to the gallows.”
In 2003, a Missouri woman had sex with identical twins Raymon and Richard Miller within hours of one another. When she became pregnant, both men denied fathering the child. In Missouri a man can be named a legal father only if a paternity test shows a 98 percent or higher probability of a DNA match, but the Miller twins both showed a probability of more than 99.9 percent.
“With identical twins, even if you sequenced their whole genome you wouldn’t find difference,” forensic scientist Bob Gaensslen told ABC News at the time. More recent research shows that this isn’t the case, but teasing out the difference can be expensive — in the Marseilles case, police were told that such a test would cost £850,000.
It goes on. Last month British authorities were trying to decide how to prosecute a rape when DNA evidence identified both Mohammed and Aftab Asghar. “It is an unusual case,” said prosecutor Sandra Beck. “They are identical twins. The allegation is one of rape. There is further work due.”
In December 1912 Hungarian tinsmith Béla Kiss told his neighbors that his wife had run off with another man. At the same time he began collecting large metal drums, telling the town constable that he planned to stockpile gasoline against the approaching war in Europe.
In November 1914 Kiss was drafted and left for the front, and in 1916 he was declared dead in combat. When soldiers visited the town that June in search of gasoline, the constable directed them to the dead man’s drums. On opening these they found that each contained not gasoline but the body of a nude woman, strangled and pickled in alcohol. A search of the house showed that Kiss had been luring women using newspaper advertisements in the name of Hoffmann, a “lonely widower seeking female companionship.”
In the surrounding countryside authorities found 17 more drums, each containing a corpse. Among them were Kiss’ wife and her lover.
It got worse. In 1919 Kiss was spotted near the Margaret Bridge in Budapest, and police discovered that the Béla Kiss who had been reported dead was in fact another man. In 1924 a deserter from the French Foreign Legion told of a legionnaire named Hoffmann who matched Kiss’ description and boasted of his skill with a garotte. But this Hoffmann himself deserted before police could apprehend him.
In 1932 New York detective Henry “Camera Eye” Oswald, who was renowned for remembering faces, insisted that he had seen Kiss emerge from the subway in Times Square, but crowds had prevented him from reaching him. Kiss was never apprehended, and his final fate is unknown.
After the Great Fire of London, a French watchmaker named Robert Hubert confessed to having started the blaze in Westminster. When he learned that the fire had never reached Westminster, he claimed to have thrown a fire grenade into a bakery window in Pudding Lane. It turned out that the bakery had no windows, Hubert was too crippled to have thrown a grenade anyway, and in fact he hadn’t even arrived in London until two days after the fire had started. He was convicted and hanged anyway.
Related: In 1797, the crew of the frigate Hermione mutinied and killed the cruel captain Hugh Pigot. An Admiralty official later reported, “In my own experience I have known, on separate occasions, more than six sailors who voluntarily confessed to having struck the first blow at Captain Pigot. These men detailed all the horrid circumstances of the mutiny with extreme minuteness and perfect accuracy; nevertheless, not one of them had ever been in the ship, nor had so much as seen Captain Pigot in their lives. They had obtained, by tradition, from their messmates the particulars of the story. When long on a foreign station, hungering and thirsting for home, their minds became enfeebled; at length they actually believed themselves guilty of the crime over which they had so long brooded, and submitted, with a gloomy pleasure to being sent to England in irons for judgment. At the Admiralty we were always able to detect and establish their innocence, in defiance of their own solemn asseverations.”
From Southwood Smith, “Lectures on Forensic Medicine,” in the London Medical Gazette, Jan. 20, 1838. See also The Campden Wonder.
Excerpts from the diary of 16-year-old Pauline Parker of Christchurch, New Zealand, 1954:
February 13th: Why could not mother die? Dozens of people, thousands of people are dying every day. So why not mother, and father too? Life is hard.
April 25th: Deborah [her 15-year-old friend Juliet Hulme] and I are sticking to one thing. We sink or swim together.
April 28th: Anger against mother boiled up inside me. It is she who is one of the main obstacles in my path. Suddenly a means of ridding myself of the obstacle occurred to me. If she were to die …
April 29th: I did not tell Deborah of my plans for removing mother. The last fate I wish to meet is one in a Borstal. I am trying to think of some way. I want it to appear either a natural or an accidental death.
June 6: We are both stark, staring mad.
June 19th: We practically finished our books today and our main “ike” for the day was to moider mother. This notion is not a new one, but this time it is a definite plan which we intend to carry out. We have worked it out carefully and are both thrilled by the idea. Naturally we feel a trifle nervous, but the pleasure of anticipation is great.
June 20th: We discussed our plans for moidering mother and made them a little clearer. Peculiarly enough, I have no qualms of conscience (or is it peculiar we are so mad?).
June 21st: I rose early and helped mother vigorously this morning. Deborah rang and we decided to use a brick in a stocking rather than a sand-bag. We discussed the moider fully. I feel keyed up as if I was planning a surprise party. Mother has fallen in with everything beautifully and the happy event is to take place tomorrow afternoon. So next time I write in the diary mother will be dead. How odd, yet how pleasing.
On the afternoon of June 22, Parker and Hulme ran into a Christchurch tea shop, crying that Parker’s mother had tripped on a plank and hit her head on a brick. “Mummy’s been hurt terribly,” Parker said. “I think she’s dead.” Police found the body of 45-year-old Honora Mary Parker on a secluded path in nearby Victoria Park. An autopsy found “forty-five discernible injuries, twenty-four being lacerated wounds on the face and head.” Parker quickly confessed under questioning:
Q: Who assaulted your mother?
A: I did.
A: If you don’t mind I won’t answer that question.
Q: When did you make up your mind to kill your mother?
A: A few days ago …
Q: What did your mother say when you struck her?
A: I would rather not answer that.
Q: How often did you hit her?
A: I don’t know, but a great many times I imagine.
It transpired that Hulme’s father had planned to take Juliet to South Africa, and both girls knew that Mrs. Parker would refuse to let Pauline go with her. “These girls are not incurably insane,” the prosecutor told the jury. “They are incurably bad.” They were sentenced to five years in separate prisons.
Ludwig Schlekat bought a bank with its own money. Over the course of 17 years, starting in 1936, he embezzled $600,000 from the Parnassus National Bank of New Kensington, Pa. Then he invented two fictional investors and arranged for them to buy the bank and make him president.
In his new position he earned $800 a month, four times the salary he’d been getting as a teller. He bought a $19,500 home, $13,000 in furnishings, and a $1,000 diamond for his wife. When regulators pounced on these he resisted, saying they’d been bought with earned rather than stolen money. He went to jail for 10 years.
In 1799, the English cutter Sparrow intercepted the brig Nancy in the Caribbean. The area was forbidden to American ships, but the Nancy’s captain, Thomas Briggs, produced papers claiming she was owned by a Dutchman. Suspecting a smuggler but lacking evidence, the Sparrow’s captain sent Briggs to Jamaica to have his case heard by the vice-admiralty.
Two days later, another English ship, the Ferret, caught a large shark near the coast of Haiti. In its belly were the papers of the American ship Nancy — which Briggs had thrown overboard before getting false Dutch papers in Curaçao.
The “shark papers” were produced in court, and the Nancy and her cargo were confiscated.
In 1955 Carolyn Wharton became the youngest person ever kidnapped — 29 minutes after she was born, she was abducted from the Baptist Hospital in Beaumont, Texas, by a woman disguised as a nurse.
This might have saved her — in 1992 Thomas Moody proposed adding anti-theft devices to hospital baby diapers. The diapers would bear a distinctive pattern so that any attempt to remove or replace them would be spotted by hospital workers.
“In addition to sounding an alarm, the system may be coupled to the doors or elevators of the secure area to prevent egress by would-be abductors or to other security measures such as television recorders.”
The tricks by which a shop-lifter succeeds in plying her profession without being caught are many and ingenious. The most successful of all tricks is the false arm and hand, shown in one of the illustrations. While the shop-lifter’s hands are apparently in sight of the store clerks, one is at work stowing away articles. The false hand is, of course, gloved and thrust through one of the sleeves. The real hand works under cover of the bodice and coat. The second illustration shows one of the pockets in which stolen articles are secreted.
— Popular Mechanics, September 1908
As he enters the room, he knows what awaits him. Resistance is useless. He cannot escape; there are simply too many of them, and there is nowhere to hide anyway. Hands take hold of him and strap him tightly. Now he cannot move. They have total control over him. They set to work quickly, efficiently, and without malice. They follow a strict protocol, their actions being exquisitely coordinated toward a single end. They begin to kill him, deliberately and methodically. This is not their first time to take life. They make no attempt to conceal their intentions or their actions. On the contrary, they do everything in public, before an audience who watch as his life ebbs away.
“If premeditation is central to the handling of homicide, this killing ought to evoke considerable severity. But it does not,” write University of Georgia sociologist Mark Cooney. “In fact, the law tolerates it, and some people even praise it highly. The words ‘homicide’ and ‘killing’ are rarely used to describe it. Instead it goes by another name: ‘capital punishment.'”
(From Cooney’s 2009 book Is Killing Wrong?)
John Van Zandt’s “combined cane and burglar alarm,” patented in 1884, is low-tech but effective: The head contains a percussion cap, and the ferrule contains a spring clamp.
“The operation is as follows: The occupant of the room simply takes the cane and suspends the same over the top of the door, as hereinbefore explained. On the door being slightly opened the support for the cane is released, whereupon the cane drops and, striking the floor, explodes the cap, thus frightening away the thief and arousing the occupant of the room.”
In June 1946, 44-year-old Fern Bowden filed for divorce from her husband James, charging him with “cruel and inhuman treatment” and asking $100 a month to support their two teenage daughters. James filed an answer denying the charges and accusing his wife of keeping company with other men while he had been in Alaska on war business.
In mid-July, James began working with a small trunk which he kept locked in the basement of their Oregon home. He refused to tell the family what it contained but warned them repeatedly not to try to open it; when the girls came upon their father working on it he shouted at them to get out. Only he and their mother, he said, had the padlock combination.
On July 27, alone at home, Fern opened the box. “The cellar of the Bowden residence was wrecked by the explosion,” reported the Associated Press. “Small pieces of flesh and bone found scattered throughout the shattered parts of the home have been identified by the police criminal laboratory as human.”
Detectives determined that the trunk had contained six sticks of dynamite rigged with tacks, wire, and a small battery.
James was charged with illegal possession of explosives and first-degree murder.
On June 23, 1908, a messenger delivered a bottle of ale to the door of Philadelphia doctor William Wilson. “We are taking the liberty of sending a few physician’s samples of our new product,” read an accompanying letter, which bore the name of a well-known Philadelphia brewing company. “As the beneficial qualities of our ale is to be our strong talking point, we have decided to cooperate with physicians as far as possible in the introduction of our goods.” It asked him to sample the product and to respond if he felt he could recommend it to his patients.
Three days later, Wilson sampled the bottle. Within 30 minutes he was dead of cyanide poisoning.
On June 29, coroner Rush Jermon received a typewritten letter:
Dear Mr. Coroner:
I want to write you regarding the death of Dr. W.H. Wilson.
In some way he induced my wife to become a patient of his. As a result of poisonous injections he used, she died a few weeks ago. In order to protect her name, I did not give the last attending physician all the facts, and she was buried with another cause assigned.
To rid the community of this wholesale killer, I have removed him like a weed from a garden. …
Now that this service to the community is rendered and the death of my dear wife avenged, I am going to quit this part of the world. I don’t think you will ever find me but I don’t care much what happens anyhow.
My only regret is the grief caused his wife and child but I believe they are better off without him. I say let those who live by poison die by poison.
“By the time you get this on Monday morning, I will be far from here,” it concluded. It was signed “An outraged husband and father.”
An investigation showed that the killer must have mailed the first letter from a West Philadelphia postal station at 1 a.m. on June 23, but no one remembered seeing him there. A clerk at the messenger service described a clean-shaven, neatly dressed man of about 40 wearing a black derby, and a station agent at Bristol, Pa., recalled a man of that description jumping briefly off a train to mail a letter on June 27, the day after Wilson had died. This man had apparently bought a ticket at Torresdale, a small station between Philadelphia and Bristol, earlier that day.
But there the trail ended. The mystery became a nationwide sensation, but no further progress was made. An inquest on July 10 returned a verdict of death by cyanide of potassium poisoning at the hands of a person or persons unknown. The killer was never found.
Issei Sagawa took an unlikely path to fame — after killing and cannibalizing a Dutch woman in Paris in 1981, he wrote a fictionalized account of the crime, In the Mist, that sold 200,000 copies in his native Japan:
There is a loud sound and her body falls from the chair onto the floor. It is like she is watching me. I see her cheeks, her eyes, her nose and mouth, the blood pouring from her head. I try to talk to her, but she no longer answers. There is blood all over the floor. I try to wipe it up, but I realize I cannot stop the flow of blood from her head. It is very quiet here. There is only the silence of death.
Since his release from a Japanese psychiatric hospital in 1985, Sagawa has parlayed his reputation into a ghoulish industry. He has produced four novels, written a weekly column for a Japanese tabloid, appeared on the cover of a gourmet magazine, and is a regular subject of television documentaries. His crime inspired the Rolling Stones’ song “Too Much Blood.”
“The public has made me the godfather of cannibalism, and I am happy about that,” he said. “I will always look at the world through the eyes of a cannibal.”
In April 1922, 17-year-old Ernest Albert Walker, the footman to an English colonel, approached a policeman in Tonbridge and said, “I believe I have done a murder.” At the house, investigators discovered the body of messenger Raymond Charles Davis and a handwritten agenda on black-edged notepaper:
- Ring up Sloane Street messenger office for boy.
- Wait at front door.
- Invite him in.
- Bring him downstairs.
- Ask him to sit down.
- Hit him on the head.
- Put him in the safe.
- Keep him tied up.
- At 10.30 torture.
- Prepare for end.
- Sit down, turn gas on.
- Put gas light out.
- Sit down, shut window.
Walker had also left a note for the butler:
I expect you will be surprised to see what I have done. Well since my mother died I have made up my mind to die also. You know you said a gun-case had been moved and I denied it. Well, it had, I got a gun out and loaded it and made a sling for my foot to pull the trigger, but my nerve went and I put it away. I rang up the Sloane Square office for a messenger boy and he came to the front door. I asked him to come in and wait, and I brought him to the pantry and hit him on the head with a coal-hammer. So simple! Then I tied him up and killed him. I killed him, not the gas. Then I sat down and turned the gas full on. I am as sane as ever I was, only I cannot live without my dear mother. I didn’t half give it to that damned boy. I made him squeak. Give my love to Dad and all my friends.
“I don’t know what made me do it,” he told police. “I came to Tonbridge as it would give me plenty of time to think and tell the police here.” He was judged “guilty but insane” and committed to the Broadmoor psychiatric hospital.
Twenty-nine-year-old James Landis was operating a currency-wrapping machine at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing when an idea occurred to him. He went home and cut ordinary bond paper into pieces the size of U.S. currency, and wrapped them to resemble the bricks of $20 bills that he produced at work. On Dec. 30, 1953, he smuggled these packages into work with him and hid them in a locker room. Then he wrapped two bundles of real $20 bills in kraft paper and carried them to a storage area. There he unwrapped them, saving the labels, put the bills into two paper bags he had brought from home, and hid these.
He worked the rest of the morning at his station, then returned to the dummy bundles he had brought from home. In a toilet stall he affixed the labels to the ends of the dummy bricks, using glue he had brought from his station, and he rubber-stamped each “HA 12-31-53,” indicating that a bureau employee with the initials H.A. had wrapped the packages on Dec. 31, 1953. Then he carried the dummy bricks to a storage skid on the first floor, where he left them among packages of genuine $20 bills.
At 3:10 p.m. he finished work, changed clothes, and retrieved one of the paper bags from the dead storage area, using a pair of dirty trousers to conceal the $128,000 that the bag held. And he walked out of the building.
Landis and three friends set about buying inexpensive merchandise in order to shed the stolen money and get change, but it wasn’t to last long. When he returned to work on Jan. 4, a stockman picked up two bricks of currency and noted that one of them felt light. When the dummy bricks were discovered, the Secret Service began an investigation; Landis drove to Virginia and tried to hide the money with his father-in-law, who turned him in the following morning. Landis and his friends pleaded guilty on May 3, and all were sent to prison.
I hope this is true — Charles Whitehead’s Lives and Exploits of English Highwaymen, Pirates, and Robbers (1883) recounts a notable heist by one Arthur Chambers. Chambers rented a room from a wealthy landlord, and after winning his confidence, approached him one day with the sad news that he had just witnessed the death of his brother, who had enjoined him to convey his remains to Westminster Abbey. The landlord, moved by Chambers’ story, agreed to safeguard the coffin overnight in his own house, and Chambers arranged to have it delivered there.
That artful rogue was, however, confined in the coffin, in which air holes had been made, the screw-nails left unfixed, his clothes all on, with a winding-sheet wrapped over them, and his face blanched with flour. All the family were now gone to bed, except the maid-servant. Chambers arose from his confinement, went down stairs to the kitchen wrapped in his winding-sheet, sat down, and stared the maid in the face, who, overwhelmed with fear, cried out, ‘A ghost! a ghost!’ and ran up-stairs to her master’s room, who chid her unreasonable fears, and requested her to return to bed and compose herself. She, however, obstinately refused, and remained in the room.
In a short time, however, in stalked the stately ghost, took his seat, and conferred a complete sweat and a mortal fright upon all three who were present. Retiring from his station when he deemed it convenient, he continued, by the moving of the doors, and the noise raised through the house, to conceal his design: in the mean time, he went down stairs, opened the doors to his accomplices, who assisted him in carrying off the plate, and every thing which could be removed, not even sparing the kitchen utensils.
“The maid was the first to venture from her room in the morning, and to inform her master and mistress of what had happened, who, more than the night before, chid her credulity in believing that a ghost could rob a house, or carry away any article out of it,” Whitehead writes. “In a little time, however, the landlord was induced to rise from his bed, and to move down stairs, and found, to his astonishment and chagrin, that the whole of his plate, and almost the whole of his moveables, were gone, for which he had only received in return an empty coffin.”
In 1968 British police constable David Morris was directing Vincent Fagan to a parking space when Fagan’s car ran onto his foot. Morris shouted at him to move the car, but Fagan refused and turned off the ignition. Eventually he started it again and moved off, but he was convicted of assault for the incident.
This raises a curious legal point. Normally Western law recognizes a crime only if a guilty action and a guilty intent occur at the same time. Here it seems that Fagan’s guilty action (rolling onto Morris’ foot) was a simple accident, and his guilty intent (his resolution not to move) occurred only later. Does that mean that he had committed no crime?
No, it doesn’t, ruled the English court of appeal. Fagan’s guilty action extended continuously while the constable’s foot was pinned under his tire, and he became guilty of assault a soon as he formed the resolution not to move the car. His appeal was dismissed.
(Fagan v Metropolitan Police Commissioner  1 QB 439)