The Most Notorious Criminals of All Time

The most notorious criminals grab headlines and leave a legacy of destruction.

The most notorious criminals of all time capture our collective consciousness for periods of time that live on long after they're gone. We immortalize them (incidentally) in our culture through books, movies, and television, in turn guaranteeing that there will be more to follow. These high-profile criminals are some of the most recognizable faces in American history—right up there with the founding fathers.

Notorious criminals can be bank robbers, cult leaders, gangsters, and even serial killers. There is no single factor that puts them on the list of the most notorious, but these criminals are among the most vile and talked about villains the world has ever seen. 

Ted Kaczynski

Ted Kaczynski should have led a great life and been known for other reasons than being one of the most notorious criminals of all time, as he was a genius with a huge IQ who enrolled in Harvard at 16. However, Kaczynski is better known as the Unabomber, a domestic terrorist responsible for over a dozen bomb attacks that caused many serious injuries and a few deaths.

The Unabomber believed that the industrialized world and technology was a disaster for the human race, and he wrote it all down in between bombings at his isolated cabin in the Montana wilderness—his manifesto was even published in the Washington Post. His attacks sparked the largest and most expensive manhunt in FBI history, ending with his capture in 1995. He mailed his explosive packages to airlines, university professors, computer salesmen, and anything else he deemed associated too closely with modern society.

Charles Manson

Charles Manson is one of the more famous figures in American history, and one of the most notorious criminals of all time by any measure. Manson was a charismatic cult leader who became the bad side of the hippy movement, as he and his family tried to spark a race war by killing Sharon Tate and several of her friends in the Hollywood Hills.

Oddly enough, Manson thought he heard the messages in between Beatles songs. The term "Helter Skelter" was the name he gave the race war between whites and blacks, but it's actually a cut off the White Album. Strangely, some think none of this would have happened if critics had been more responsive to Charles Manson's music.

Al Capone

Al Capone is straight out of central casting when you think mobster, and during the 1920s he became one of the most notorious criminals who ever lived. He ran a violent empire in Chicago known as the Chicago Outfit that dealt in bootlegging, prostitution, and gambling. 

Capone was also connected to the bloody St Valentine's Day Massacre, where many members of a rival gang were cut down by machine guns. It was largely due to the rival Irish gang hi-jacking Capone's liquor shipments, and for this he shot up an entire city block.

John Wayne Gacy

Known as Pogo the Clown, John Wayne Gacy is one of the most notorious criminals in American history, as well as one of the most prolific serial killers ever. Gacy was convicted of murdering 33 young boys between 1972 and 1978, stuffing them into the crawl space of his home. 

Dressed in his clown uniform, Gacy would perform at various fundraising events, while also giving him access to tons of children. Gacy was put to death by lethal injection in 1994. 

Jesse James

Jesse James, one of the most notorious criminals of all time, is often better thought of than many on this list. He had a reputation of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, but none of that is true. All the evidence points to him being a dangerous criminal who only stole for his own gang. James and his gang robbed banks, stagecoaches, and trains across the Midwest. Additionally, James was a brutal pro-Confederate guerrilla who took part in atrocities against Union soldiers and civilian abolitionists. 

Despite the brutality of the crimes, the James Gang garnered sympathy among the public. He was a legendary figure in the Wild West, and his legacy was further cemented when he was shot dead by a member of his own gain, depicted in the great movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Timothy McVeigh

Timothy McVeigh was a domestic terrorist who detonated a truck bomb in an Oklahoma City federal building on April 19, 1995. The Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 people, the largest terrorist attack to ever take place on American soil at the time—until 9/11 obviously. 

McVeigh was a veteran of the Gulf War, and he was apparently seeking revenge on the US Government for their role during the siege on Waco that killed cult leader David Koresh and 75 of his followers—many of them children. McVeigh, one of the most notorious criminals in American history, was sentenced to death and died in 2001.

Pablo Escobar

Pablo Escobar was known as the "King of Coke" during reign, and he amassed a fortune of over two billion dollars. He is one of the most notorious criminals of all time, and his flagrant attitude has been subject of many movies and television shows.

He ran the The Medellin Cartel, one of the most violent and notorious cartels to ever exist. Escobar murdered anybody that got in his way—cops and children included—and during the 70s and 80s he had a near monopoly in the cocaine smuggling business to America, shipping over 80 percent of the drug smuggled into the country.

Jim Jones

Jim Jones was one of the most notorious criminals to ever live, as he was the man behind Peoples Temple. Peoples Temple, or Jonestown, was a cult run by the disturbed and paranoid Jones who didn't permit anyone to leave. When a congressman from California came to investigate, he and four cult members were gunned down at the airport. 

Shortly after, the entire cult drank cyanide, killing 909 in the largest murder/suicide the world had ever seen, and up until 9/11 no more American civilians had ever died in a single day. Jonestown is further explored in The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, one of the best true crime books of 2017

John Dillinger

Bank robber John Dillinger became one of the most notorious criminals of the 20th century after a series of high profile heists caught national attention and made him public enemy number one. Dillinger was also a killer, as many folks met their fate from his machine gun, but the press loved him for his looks and style.

He famously escaped prison with a fake wooden gun, and the hunt for him only intensified. Eventually, the law caught up to him and he was shot walking out of a movie theatre.

Jeffrey Dahmer

Lastly, Jeffrey Dahmer's heinous acts will never be forgotten, making him one of the most notorious criminals of all time. What cops found in his Milwaukee apartment, everything from severed heads in the fridge to a torso in the freezer, would be remembered forever. 

Dahmer was attempting to preserve his victims, and some say he was trying to make sex zombies. Whatever he was doing, the cannibalistic killer's gruesome apartment is the stuff of nightmares. 

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The Most Notorious Criminals of All Time