Whenever Hollywood is feeling a dearth of creativity, all it has to do is look at history for inspiration. There are so many crazy, weird, and mysterious tales waiting to be told. The following stories would do well on the silver screen.
8. The Life & Times of Timothy Dexter
Everybody loves a good rags-to-riches story and everybody likes a comedy where the protagonist is a bumbling eccentric. The life story of Timothy Dexter has them both. He was barely educated, but ended up with a fortune after making one profitable decision after another.
Born in 1747 into a poor family, Dexter received little education and began working as a farmhand when he was a little boy. His first stroke of fortune came when he married a moderately rich widow named Elizabeth Frothingham.
Dexter spent almost all his money buying Continental dollars which, by the end of the Revolutionary War, were basically worthless. Other members of the upper class did this, too. They bought the depreciated currency from soldiers as a show of good faith. None of them, however, spent their entire fortune on them. But then, Congress passed Alexander Hamilton’s economic plan which allowed the currency to be traded for treasury bonds at 1% face value. All of a sudden, Dexter became one of the richest men in Boston.
His life is full of stories that all involve him somehow turning a profit from idiotic ventures. The most famous one says that a trader once convinced Dexter to ship coal to Newcastle, a city which already had a giant coal industry. He did this, and when his ship arrived to England, the miners were on strike so Dexter sold his coal at a premium.
Another time, he allegedly gathered all the stray cats in Boston and sent them to the Caribbean. Warehouse owners bought them to hunt mice. Once, he sent bed warmers to the tropical West Indies. They were bought and used as ladles for molasses. It seemed like there was nothing this man couldn’t do that would not make money.
These stories are likely apocryphal, but that would hardly stop Hollywood from using them.
7. Ten Days in the Madhouse
The story of Nellie Bly is ready and waiting for any studio looking for a shocking journalism movie. She became a pioneer of investigative journalism in her early 20s when she got herself committed in an insane asylum to expose the horrid conditions that the patients lived in. The Pulitzer Prize didn’t exist back then, otherwise this story would have been a cinch to win it.
Born Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, Bly first started writing for the Pittsburgh Dispatch, but left for the Big Apple when she got tired of only covering “women’s interests” stories. In New York, she impressed the editor of the New York World enough that he tasked her with writing an exposé on mental institutions.
The first thing Bly showed us was how shockingly easy it was for a woman to convince everyone that she was crazy. All the 23-year-old reporter had to do was show up at a boarding house with a fake name and a messy appearance. A few rants and sleepless nights later and the authorities were called in. A judge had her checked at Bellevue Hospital where, after just a few days, medical professionals had her committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Roosevelt Island.
Bly spent ten days inside the institution as a patient. While there, she witnessed and experienced physical abuse from the staff, inhuman treatments ordered by careless doctors, vermin infestations, rotten food and undrinkable water, and living quarters covered in feces.
Bly’s report was first published in the newspaper, and then as a book titled Ten Day in a Mad-House. Her work had an immediate impact as New York passed a bill to increase funds for mental institutions.
6. Murder in Monaco
The life story of Vere Goold can be told in a variety of ways. It can be presented as a “rise and fall” sports documentary that showcases the first ever tennis player to win the Irish Open in 1879. Then again, it can also become a gruesome crime movie filled with betrayal, gore, and homicide. After all, Goold has the dubious distinction of being the only Wimbledon finalist to be convicted of murder, and a particularly ghastly one at that.
As we mentioned, Vere Goold was once a promising tennis player. His time at the top did not last long, though, and was brought down by heavy drug and alcohol use. He was successful enough for him and his wife, a dressmaker named Marie Giraudin, to get used to a comfortable lifestyle that they could not afford. The two moved cities several times to escape creditors.
In 1907, the couple went to Monte Carlo to break the bank at the casino. There, they billed themselves as Sir and Lady Goold. They befriended a rich widow named Emma Levin, who loaned them some money. The exact sum isn’t certain, but it didn’t matter because, inevitably, their luck at the tables ran out. Once again, the Goolds were planning to flee from their debts, except that Levin showed up at their hotel room, expecting to be paid back. That is when fraud escalated to murder because the couple not only killed Emma Levin, but dismembered her corpse in order to dispose of it later. They stuffed her torso and arms in a trunk while Vere Goold carried her head and legs in his kitbag.
The killer couple made it to Marseille before being captured. In that city, a porter noticed a foul smell and red liquid coming from the trunk. He called the police who made the grisly discovery. The crime became known around the world as the “Monte Carlo Trunk Murder.” Both Goolds died in prison.
5. The Tale of the Gentleman Bandit
The story of Gerald Chapman is one that fascinated audiences and sold countless newspapers during the 1920s, but one that has fallen into obscurity. What better way to resurrect it than with a gangster movie?
Chapman’s tale begins like that of many well-known criminals — born in New York, he started committing petty crimes as a teen. He graduated to the big leagues with a case of armed robbery that got him sent to prison. There, he met his mentor and future accomplice, George “Dutch” Anderson.
Dutch was actually born into a wealthy Danish family and benefited from a superior education. Therefore, he had an air of sophistication that Chapman admired and emulated for the rest of his life. Of course, Chapman wasn’t erudite. His refined persona was just for show — smoking cigars, wearing fancy clothes, living in the upscale neighborhood of Gramercy Park, going to expensive restaurants. He even put on a fake British accent.
His character might have been shallow, but it was enough for the press. When he went back to committing robberies, the newspapers called him things like the “Gentleman Bandit” or the “Count of Gramercy Park.” He became America’s “celebrity gangster” before John Dillinger, before Bonnie and Clyde and others better remembered today. He even was the first to earn the moniker of “Public Enemy No. 1.”
Chapman escaped custody several times, adding to his notoriety. His downfall came when he killed a police officer during a crime spree in Connecticut. An accomplice was captured and quickly identified Chapman as the murderer.
He was arrested in Indiana in 1925. President Calvin Coolidge actually pardoned him for the crimes in that state so he could be sent to Connecticut, where he was tried, convicted, and hanged for the murder.
If the movie needs more blood, we can add that Dutch Anderson swore vengeance on everyone involved in Chapman’s death. One night, he ambushed Ben Hance, the man who tipped off Indiana officials to Chapman’s location, and killed him and his wife. He later died in a shootout with the police.
4. The First Great American Road Trip
No good list would be complete without a road trip movie, and what better road trip could there be than the first great American road trip in history? In 1903, physician Horatio Nelson Jackson bought a Winton automobile he named the “Vermont,” hired a young mechanic named Sewall Crocker, and set off on the first crossing of the United States by car. On the way, he even added a lovable mascot in the form of a pit bull puppy named Bud.
On May 23, the team set off from San Francisco. On their way to New York, they crossed hills, valleys, dry lakes, badlands, marshes, and even the occasional road. The car broke down more times than you can imagine and a large part of the journey was spent by Jackson and Crocker simply staying in towns, waiting for spares to arrive.
Especially in 1903, car parts weren’t exactly found on every street corner. In fact, the racers set off with only one spare tire because it was the only right-sized tire they could find in the whole of San Francisco. They had to use it after just 15 miles. Their saving grace was the fact that the Winton company heard of their stunt and granted their full support.
As if that wasn’t enough, the trio often got lost because only the traveled roads between major cities were mapped out. Oftentimes, they relied on locals for directions and some of them purposely steered them wrong just so that the “Vermont” would pass through their towns.
Despite all the setbacks, the racers arrived in New York City 63-and-a-half days later.
3. The Gold in Dents Run
An entertaining movie list needs an engrossing mystery, and what could fit the bill better than the search for a long-lost treasure?
Back during the Civil War, shortly before the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, the Union Army sent a shipment of gold from West Virginia to Philadelphia to pay its soldiers. Trying to avoid the enemy, the wagon traveled through the woods, but it never reached its destination. The treasure disappeared without a trace somewhere near the town of Dents Run in Pennsylvania.
For over 150 years, treasure hunters have braved the wilds of northern Pennsylvania, trying to find the lost Civil War gold. None of them have been successful, as far as we know. Truth is that the plunder could have been recovered a hundred years ago by someone who kept it quiet and lived like a king for the rest of their years. Or maybe it never existed in the first place — the original shipment could have made it through Dents Run just fine or, perhaps, the Confederates ambushed the wagon and stole the gold right then and there.
Despite the various scenarios that would discount the existence of the treasure, the story only gets more mysterious in recent years because, in 2018, the FBI got involved. They came in with a court order to excavate the area and, whatever they found, they are keeping secret.
Father-son treasure hunting team Dennis and Kem Parada were allowed to take part in the dig, except not really — they were confined to a car for six hours out of sight of the excavation. Afterwards, they were brought in front of a giant, empty hole as if to say “See? There was nothing there.” The FBI then left, except that neighbors claimed they heard digging machinery starting up again later until the early hours of the morning. The next day, a half-dozen black SUVs arrived at the site.
So is the gold in an FBI vault somewhere? The Paradas sure think so, and so do a few locals. Unsurprisingly, the agency was not forthcoming with details, simply saying that it related to an ongoing investigation.
2. The Red Jack Gang
The Wild West has proven itself to be a remarkable resource for movies ever since the early days of Hollywood. But there are only so many times you can tell the stories of “Wild” Bill Hickok or the Wild Bunch or Billy the Kid before people get bored. So how about, this time, we look at an entertaining, unique, and obscure group called the Red Jack Gang?
The leader was “Red” Jack Almer, also known as Jack Averill. His gang prowled Arizona along the San Pedro River during the 1880s and robbed stagecoaches. They were not shy about using their guns and, sometimes, even opened fire without warning.
The most infamous moment in the gang’s history occurred during a robbery on August 10, 1883. Almer’s henchmen, Joe Tuttle and Charlie Hensley, descended upon a Wells Fargo stagecoach. The guard tried to argue that there was no gold aboard. He was left gobsmacked when one of the female passengers jumped from the coach and called him a liar. Not only that, she then proceeded to show the robbers the gold hidden underneath a seat. She was no ordinary passenger. She was actually Red Jack dressed as a woman. Caught in a lie, the guard went for his gun, but Almer had his weapon handy underneath his skirt and gunned him down.
Tuttle and another accomplice, Len Redfield, were arrested and lynched by an angry mob. Red Jack and Hensley were cornered by a posse led by Sheriff Bob Paul in their hideout in the Rincon Mountains. Fittingly for two Wild West gunslingers, they went out in a hail of bullets, killed in the shootout that followed. Most of their loot was never recovered and could still be somewhere near their former hideout.
1. The Capture of the Ganj-i-Sawai
We cap off this list with a historical epic, one that could have enough action to make Michael Bay blush. We look at the time when Henry Every organized a flotilla in order to pull off the most profitable pirate raid in history — the capture of the Ganj-i-Sawai.
Anglicized as the Gunsway, the Ganj-i-Sawai was a trading ship which belonged to the Mughal Empire. In 1695, it was part of a fleet on its way to India, carrying Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca. Besides people, the fleet also contained a few ships filled to the brim with treasure belonging to the Grand Mughal himself.
Every captained the Fancy, a powerful 46-gun frigate. Even so, he knew he was no match for the Mughal fleet so he joined forces with five other captains: Thomas Tew, Richard Want, Joseph Faro, William Mayes, and Thomas Wake.
The main fleet eluded this piratical alliance. Instead, they caught up to the Ganj-i-Sawai and its escort, the Fateh Muhammed, which had fallen behind. A chase ensued that lasted several days and, in the fight that followed, the Fancy was victorious. Most of the other pirate ships were either destroyed in battle or were too slow to keep up with the chase and were, therefore, denied their share of the plunder. The Mughal trade ship contained hundreds of thousands of gold and silver pieces worth tens of millions of dollars today.
Although not as famous today as some of his compatriots, there is a reason why, in his own time, Every earned the moniker “King of Pirates.” He had a short, but extremely profitable career, only serving as a pirate for two years. More importantly, though, and unlike almost every other notorious buccaneer, he got to escape with his plunder. Despite a massive bounty on his head, Every eluded capture and simply disappeared from the history books. His ultimate fate will forever remain a mystery.