The Roaring Twenties was known for its booming economy, prosperity, and elaborate party scenes, but it was also a time filled with organized crime and murder. The ratification of the 18th Amendment brought the Prohibition Era which led to mobsters jumping at the opportunity to start bootlegging and speakeasy businesses. The decade was also known for some of the most famous trials and murders of the 20th century. Here is a list of some of the most famous crimes in the 1920s.
1. Al Capone and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
The famous mobster Al Capone, dubbed “Public Enemy No. 1”, wreaked havoc on the streets of Chicago in the 1920s. Capone, also known as “Scarface”, became a mob boss after the original South Side gang leader, Johnny Torrio, had surrendered after an assassination attempt. Torrio handed over his mob business to Al Capone as they had been partners for years prior.
The Prohibition was seen as an entrepreneurial opportunity for gangsters and gave rise to the illegal sale of alcohol, or “bootlegging”, which created major competition among the most notorious mob bosses in Chicago. Al Capone was known as the dominating figure of the bootlegging industry and had many rivals, including the North Side gangster George “Bugs” Moran.
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre took place on February 14, 1929 in a garage on the North Side of Chicago. The massacre resulted in seven of Moran’s men being gunned down by men dressed in police uniforms with machine guns. Police were never able to link Al Capone to the murders as he was allegedly staying at his Florida home at the time of the crime. There was one gang member barely alive when police came, but he refused to talk.
No one was convicted of the massacre, but people were convinced that Capone ordered the hit on the men. Following the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Al Capone was in and out of jail for the next two years for unrelated crimes until police gathered enough documentation to pin him for income tax evasion in 1931. Capone spent six and a half years in prison and was released in 1939 and would die eight years later in his Florida home.
2. Wall Street Bombing of 1920
The Wall Street Bombing of 1920 is one of the most popular unsolved crimes to go down in U.S. history. On a September day in 1920, a horse-led cart was stopped on the street between the U.S. Assay Office and the J. P. Morgan building on Wall Street. A driver stepped down from the cart and disappeared out of sight. Shortly after, an explosion went off from the cart and killed more than 30 people in the area with over 200 people injured.
Interviews from witnesses and descriptions of the man were vague. The U.S. Secret Service, Bureau of Investigation, and the New York Police and Fire Department were all investigating the attack, but there was no evidence to help build a lead. Flyers were found nearby from the American Anarchist Fighters, similar to other printings in previous bombing campaigns launched by Italian anarchists, but they proved to be unhelpful in identifying the bomber. Investigators spent three years trying to find their culprit, but eventually, the case went cold and the bombers were never identified.
3. Albert Fish: Notorious Serial Killer of the 1920s
Albert Fish was a notorious child molester and serial killer throughout the 1920s. Fish was a vile cannibalistic murderer who preyed on unsupervised children and was suspected to have brutally murdered at least 15 children. The murder that led to the conviction of Fish was that of Grace Budd in 1928.
Grace’s older brother, Edward, had put an ad in the newspaper looking for work. Fish posed as ‘Frank Howard’, a farmer for Farmingdale on Long Island, and met Edward and his friend Willie at the Budd family home. Fish offered Edward and Willie to come work with him and told the boys he would come back to get them.
After days passed, Fish returned to the Budd home where he met 10-year-old Grace Budd. Fish claimed he had to attend a relative’s birthday party that afternoon and invited Grace as his relative was about her age. Grace’s mother was hesitant but agreed as Fish promised to have her back by that evening but Grace never returned. Investigators were unable to track Grace down because ‘Frank Howard’ did not exist.
A letter was sent to the Budd family years after Grace’s disappearance in 1934, describing in detail the murder of Grace. Fish had a previous criminal record and was arrested for sending grossly inappropriate letters to women in the past. The letter sent to the family would ultimately lead to his arrest as the envelopes had been stolen from the New York Private Chauffeur’s Benevolent Association and investigators were able to use this information to track Fish down.
Albert Fish confessed to the murder and cannibalization of Grace, along with the murders of 4-year-old Bill Gaffney, and 8 year-old Francis McDonnell. Fish was also suspected of murdering several other children that had went missing. Albert Fish was sentenced to death after an unsuccessful insanity plea on March 11, 1935 and died in the electric chair on January 16, 1936.
4. Leopold and Loeb: The Murder of Bobby Frank
Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were charged with the murder of 14-year-old Bobby Frank in May 1924. The trial of Leopold and Loeb was the talk of Chicago as the killers were from wealthy families and committed the crime for the “thrill” of it. Leopold and Loeb made a game out of the murder by coming up with an elaborate scheme to kill Bobby Frank for ransom.
Leopold and Loeb wrote a letter on a typewriter for Bobby Frank’s father, demanding a $10,000 ransom for Bobby and promising his return once they received the money. Leopold and Loeb had no intentions of returning Bobby as they lured him into a rental car and bludgeoned his head with a chisel. They disposed of the body and the bloody clothes, thinking that they had gotten away with murder.
The boys were connected to the murder after a pair of eyeglasses was found near the body of Bobby. The eyeglasses were sold at a specific shop in Chicago and only three people had purchased them, one being Leopold.
Both Leopold and Loeb gave their confessions and were sentenced to 99 years for kidnapping and given a life sentence for murder. Loeb died in prison at the age of 30 after being stabbed by another prisoner in 1936. Leopold won parole in 1958 after serving 33 years and died of a heart attack at the age of 66 in 1971.
5. Feme Murders
The Feme murders took place in Weimar Germany between 1918 and the mid-1920s after the first World War. Germany was attempting to stabilize its government and economy after taking responsibility for the war and signing the Treating of Versailles, which included a massive bill for reparations. The Weimar Republic was harshly criticized by right-wing extremist groups for signing the treaty and quarrels against the government grew.
The Weimar Republic used the Freikorps, paramilitary groups, to put down revolts that were taking place in Germany. After the Freikorps groups began to dissolve, there were still many members of the groups who continuously grew angry at the economic and political despair the country faced.
The Organization Consul was formed in 1920 as a result of the Freikorps dissolution and consisted of right-wing, anit-semitic unemployed youth and ex-military extremists who felt abandoned after the war. The Organization Consul was funded by money that was left over to fund the Freikorps and the judicial system turned its back on their crimes.
Approximately 354 political murders were committed by the group, including the murder of Matthias Erzberger, Germany’s Minister of Finance, and Germany’s Foreign Minister, Walther Rathenau. The group would later combine with the National Socialist Party and turn into the Nazi Party.
6. Sacco and Vanzetti
The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti proved to be one of the most controversial trials of the century. A paymaster for a shoe company and a guard were murdered and robbed of $15,000 on April 15, 1920 in South Braintree, Massachusetts. Despite having very little evidence on the case, Sacco and Vanzetti were tried and convicted for the murder.
Neither Sacco nor Vanzetti had a previous criminal record, but upon their arrest, they made false statements and both carried guns. The trial took place in the midst of the Red Scare and much of the trial concentrated on Sacco and Vanzetti’s radical beliefs as Italian anarchists. The two men were convicted of the murders despite the lack of evidence and sentenced to death by electric chair in July 1921 and electrocuted in 1927.
There was a huge disagreement about whether the two committed the crime. Some thought that Sacco and Vanzetti were being falsely accused of a crime they didn’t commit and others believed they were guilty. There was also rumor that Sacco was the only one involved in the crime and Vanzetti was innocent.
7. The New Orleans “Trunk Murders”
One of the most famous crimes that shocked the French Quarter in New Orleans was the Trunk Murders in 1927. A housekeeper, Nettie Compass, stumbled upon a murder crime scene in one of the apartment rooms she planned to clean on October 27, 1927. Police were called and they discovered two women had been bludgeoned to death and stuffed into small traveling trunks.
The women were identified as Theresa and Leonide Moity. Their husbands were brothers Joseph and Henry Moity and they were at the top of the suspect list for New Orleans Police Superintendent Thomas Healey. Joseph turned himself in and was not investigated further because Healey got a tip that Henry Moity was trying to flee New Orleans by ship.
The crime made newspapers so although Henry tried to escape by ship using an alias, he was recognized and caught. Henry immediately confessed to both murders. Henry claimed he was heavily inebriated at the time of the murders and he was outraged over the assumption that his wife, Theresa, was having an affair with their landlord. He blamed his sister-in-law, Leonide, for Theresa’s unfaithfulness as Leonide had cheated on Joseph with another man previously.
Henry was found guilty and sentenced to two life sentences that would be served concurrently at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in July 1928. Henry was given special responsibilities and allowed to take trips to the post office and used this to his advantage as tried to escape after 16 years of imprisonment. He was caught in 1946 in Missouri and returned to prison.
He was pardoned in 1947, which proved to be a mistake as he was later convicted of attempted murder by shooting his girlfriend of the time, Alberta Orange. Henry was sentenced to five years in Folson Prison in 1956 for the attempted murder and died a year later from a stroke.
8. Santa Claus Bank Robbery
The First National Bank in Cisco, Texas was robbed on December 23, 1927 which led to an extensive manhunt to catch the criminals. Marshall Ratliff, Henry Helms, Robert Hill, and Louis Davis conspired a plan to hold up the bank. Various Texas banks had been robbed previously and there was a $5,000 reward out for anyone who could shoot a robber during a heist. The reward led the First National Bank robbery to turn into a manhunt after the robbers initially got away.
Ratliff dressed in a Santa Claus suit as a disguise and was the money grabber while the other three men held hostages at gunpoint. One of the bank customers was able to run out the door and get the attention of other civilians. Citizens with guns swarmed around the bank and the hostages were forced outside as the robbers began to flee. Gunfire reigned in the area in an attempt to stop the robbers and many were wounded in the process, including Chief Bedford and Deputy Carmichael who were shot and killed by the robbers.
The robbers managed to escape in their getaway car, but not without being followed by citizens and police in a manhunt. Davis was severely wounded and left in a vehicle the robbers attempted to steal and later died at the hospital. The robbers got back into their own vehicle and escaped, only to realize they had left the money with Davis.
The manhunt went on for several days until Hill, Helms, and Ratliff were finally caught. Helms was sentenced to death for killing Chief Bedford and Deputy Carmichael and executed in September 1929. Ratliff was originally sentenced to 99 years imprisonment but later sentenced to death for his involvement in killing the two officers. He managed to escape prison in November but was found within a day by a mob who hung him. Hill was sentenced to 99 years, but was released on parole in the 1940s.
9. The Butcher of Hanover: Fritz Haarmann
Between 1918 and 1924, Fritz Haarmann committed numerous rapes, sexual assaults, and murders of young men in Hanover, Germany. Haarmann had a previous criminal record for assault, larceny, and embezzlement in the first decade of the 20th century. After serving a five-year sentence for burglary in 1913, Haarmann served as a Hanover police informant and frequented the Hanover Central Station where he preyed on young men.
Haarmann lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Hanover where he would lure young men from the rail station, promising them food and a place to rest between their travels. Neighbors grew suspicious of Haarmann as they saw many young men enter his apartment but never saw them leave. Increasing disappearances of young men in the Hanover area began to raise eyebrows. In 1924, a human skull was found by children playing near the Lena River and another human skull along with a sack filled with human bones was discovered nearby.
Residents of Hanover came together to search the Lena River in June 1924 and after finding a number of human bones, police dragged a section of the river where they uncovered more than 500 human bones. Most of the bones found were identified as being ones of young men between the ages of 15 and 20. Haarmann was put under surveillance after a number of witnesses came forward expressing their suspicions of Haarmann.
Undercover policemen witnessed Haarmann having an argument with a young man, Karl Fromm and approached the two men. Fromm claimed that Haarmann had repeatedly raped him while staying at Haarmann’s apartment. Haarmann was apprehended the following day and charged with assault. Police searched Haarmann’s apartment where they discovered bloodstains and stolen property of youths.
Police allowed family members of missing youths to come to the police station and search through the confiscated property, where a number of items were identified. Haarmann confessed to numerous rapes and murders between 1918 and 1924. He claimed to have potentially killed 50 to 70 young men, but police could only connect him to 27. Haarmann was charged for 27 murders, pled guilty to 14, and found guilty for 24 out of the 27 murders.
Fritz Haarmann received his nickname “the Butcher of Hanover” because after he killed the young men, he would dismember their bodies and dispose of them in the Lena River and nearby areas. He was sentenced to death and beheaded by guillotine in April 1925.
10. Black Sox Trial of 1921
The Black Sox Trial of 1921 as a result of players on the Chicago White Sox purposefully losing the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds for money. Eight members of the White Sox were tried for throwing the game but were found not guilty after records and the confessions disappeared during the trial.
The following players were indicted for the scheme and dubbed the “Black Sox”.
- “Shoeless” Joe Jackson
- Eddie Cicotte
- Charles Arnold “Chick” Gandil
- Charles August “Swede” Risberg
- George Daniel “Buck” Weaver
- Claude “Lefty” Williams
- Oscar Emil “Happy” Felsch
- Fred Drury McMullen
The players were allegedly supposed to receive $20,000 after each loss, but the gamblers responsible for bribing the players were not fulfilling their end of the deal. After purposefully losing the first few games, the players called off the deal and proceeded to win the following games. However, some players claimed that they received threats after their winning games and the White Sox lost the eighth game of the series, giving the 1919 World Series winner title to the Reds.
Even though the players were found not guilty, they were unable to continue their careers in baseball as they were banned permanently from the professional sport. Many rumors circulated about others involved in the scandal, such as Arnold Rothstein who was a New York crime boss, but there was not enough proof for anyone else to be tried or convicted for the scheme.
Famous Crimes of the 1920s: An Overview
The Roaring Twenties was a prosperous decade in history, but also included some of the most notorious criminals and trials of the century. Organized crime was at an all-time high due to Prohibition.
Al Capone was just one of the many gangsters that were involved in racketeering. Many people turned a blind eye to crime, such as the Feme murders, and others went unsolved. There was a lot of disorganization within the justice system in the ‘20s, but justice was still served to some of the vilest criminals of the time, often by the death sentence.