Criminals are pretty good at disappearing, more so than your average person. This is particularly true when you consider that, many times, they had no choice in the matter, and that it was somebody else’s decision that it was time for them to go away, permanently.
We already looked at some criminals who vanished without a trace but, guess what, there are plenty more. Whether they went on the run or are sleeping with the fishes, the ultimate outcomes of their lives will likely remain mysteries forever.
10. Rocco Perri
Born in Plati, Italy in 1887, Rocco Perri moved to America at the beginning of the 20th century. He then relocated again soon after, this time to Canada. He settled in Hamilton, Ontario, where he built a reputation as one of the country’s leading mobsters, earning himself the nickname “King of the Bootleggers.”
On April 23, 1944, Perri visited a cousin of his named Joe Serge. He had a headache that had been bothering him all day so, right before lunch, Perri went for a nice, relaxing walk and was never seen again.
Obviously, most people think that Perri was killed by other gangsters – “fitted with cement shoes and thrown into Hamilton Harbor” is the most popular version of the story. If this is, indeed, the case, then his body has never been found, but his relatives believe that Rocco survived due to a letter which purportedly explained the whole thing. According to the document, Perri knew that a hit was coming so he faked his disappearance and relocated to Massena, New York, under the name “Giuseppe Portolesi.” Not only that, but he then made a new fortune in real estate before dying of natural causes in 1953.
9. Joseph “Bunco” Kelly
Back in the second half of the 19th century, ships were in dire need of experienced sailors. This led to a criminal practice known in America as “crimping” or “Shanghaiing,” which was widely practiced throughout the country’s largest port cities. It involved tricking, manipulating, intimidating, or simply kidnapping people to serve as sailors aboard ships. The crimper usually forged their victim’s signature and walked away with the enrollment fee, and sometimes even the advance on a few months’ wages. Meanwhile, their victim had to complete the voyage they had been unknowingly signed up for or face imprisonment.
This lasted up until the end of the century when new laws were passed to curb this practice in America, but plenty of men had already made fortunes off this reprehensible act.
Among them was Joseph “Bunco” Kelly, an English-born Oregonian who earned his reputation as “King of the Crimps” by allegedly Shanghaiing over 2,000 people during his career. He was a hotel operator whose modus operandi usually involved getting his targets blackout drunk before selling them to ship captains more than happy to look the other way. His nickname “Bunco” came from a few cons he pulled on the ship captains themselves. On one occasion, a captain purchased 22 men from Bunco at once, believing they were all unconscious. Only later did he find out that most of them were either dead or dying, not due to Kelly, but because they had previously broken into a mortuary, mistakenly believing it to be the basement of a pub, and basically poisoned themselves to death by drinking embalming fluid.
Kelly was finally arrested in 1894. Not for crimping, because that wasn’t illegal at the time, but for the murder of an opium smuggler named G. W. Sayres. Kelly was sentenced to life in prison, although he always claimed he was framed by another crimper. While incarcerated, Kelly wrote his memoir and, upon his release in 1908, he embarked on a small book tour. It was a flop, as the world had forgotten about Bunco Kelly by that point, and the former King of the Crimps disappeared soon after, never to be heard from again.
8. Henry Every
Right off the bat, we should mention that if you want the full story on Henry Every, the man rightfully dubbed “The King of Pirates,” you can find it on our sister channel, Biographics. Basically, Every pulled off one of the greatest plunders in history and, even though he became the most wanted man on the planet, he managed to disappear and enjoy his riches.
In 1695, Henry Every aboard the Fancy attacked the Grand Mughal fleet returning to India from its pilgrimage to Mecca. He focused his efforts on the Ganj-i-Sawai, a large ship filled to the brim with treasure. He managed to capture it and its escort and made off with the single largest prize in pirate history.
Every had the British government after him, as well as the East India Company that wanted him dead for jeopardizing their trade relations with the Mughal Empire. He traveled to Nassau, in the Bahamas, where he managed to live for a while under the alias Henry Bridgeman, even befriending the island’s governor, Sir Nicholas Trott. However, he was simply too notorious to remain anonymous for long. The law was on his tail, but Trott tipped him off and Every had time to make his escape.
From that point on, nobody really knows what happened to Henry Every, his crew, or his treasure.
7. “Mysterious Dave” Mather
Like other shooters of that time, Dave sometimes put his skills to use to help the law, and other times to hinder it. He served as a lawman in El Paso, Texas, Dodge City, Kansas, and East Las Vegas, New Mexico. However, throughout his career, he was also charged with numerous crimes, including robbery, cattle rustling, counterfeiting, and murder.
In 1884, Mather killed a rival saloon operator named Thomas Nixon in Dodge City. He was acquitted of the crime, as the jury ruled that Nixon was the instigator in the fight. However, a few months later, Mather killed another man, this time during a gambling argument. Both he and his brother, Josiah, were arrested, but they jumped bail and fled the city in 1885. Ever since then, the life of “Mysterious Dave” Mather has been, well, a mystery.
Due to his notoriety, tales of Mather’s resurgence in one town or another were reported all the time, but they remained unsubstantiated. A pervasive rumor claimed that Mather traveled to Canada, where he joined the Mounted Police, and lived well into the 1920s, but this remains only a rumor.
6. “Terrible” Tommy O’Connor
In 1921, gunman Tommy O’Connor sat on death row in Chicago, awaiting to be hanged for the murder of patrolman Patrick O’Neill during an attempted arrest. However, just four days before his scheduled execution, O’Connor and a few other inmates managed to overpower a guard, steal his keys and his weapon, and make a run for it by scaling the wall of their prison.
O’Connor got into a car and drove off, but the snowy winter soon caused him to skid off the road and crash the vehicle into a store front. Even so, O’Connor or “Terrible” Tommy, as he was known, still managed to get away on foot and, despite a national manhunt, succeeded in evading authorities.
One story claims that Tommy was gunned down years later, in 1927, while trying to rob a pharmacy in Detroit, Michigan. Others say that he traveled to Canada, robbing stores along the way, and from there he managed to board a ship and head back to his native Ireland.
The city of Chicago was left with a strange memento to remind it of “Terrible” Tommy – the gallows where he was supposed to be executed. Hanging was discontinued in Cook County in 1927, replaced by the electric chair. All other gallows were sold or dismantled, but this one was kept around because, if Tommy was recaptured, the sentence still had to be carried out, and the sentence specified that O’Connor be executed by hanging. It wasn’t until 50 years later that a judge finally allowed the gallows to be sold.
5. Elmer Crawford
Fifty years ago, Australian man Elmer Crawford planned one of the most heinous crimes imaginable – the murder of his pregnant wife and three children. He killed them by stunning them with blows to the head and then electrocuting them with a homemade device at their home in Glenroy, Victoria. Crawford then placed his victims inside the family car and, in the dead of night, pushed it off a cliff in Port Campbell.
He probably intended to make it look like an accident or a murder-suicide, but his plan was foiled because, unbeknownst to him, the car didn’t land in the water, but on a concealed ledge underneath the cliff.
Crawford went back home to clean up the crime scene, but the car and the bodies were discovered the following morning. He was then forced to go on the run and, even though Elmer Crawford left in a hurry, he managed to evade authorities.
What he did from that point on remains a mystery, although most investigators believed he fled the country. In 2010, there was a glimmer of hope that authorities had finally tracked him down when they thought that a man in Texas who had died of a heart attack five years prior was their killer. The man had destroyed his fingerprints and had several aliases but, alas, a DNA test showed that he was not Elmer Crawford.
4. William Sharkey
There was a time when William Sharkey had a promising career in New York’s political machine. Born in the mid 19th century, Sharkey was coming up at the same time as the infamously-corrupt Tammany Hall under William “Boss” Tweed. For a while, he was one of their “golden boys” and received the Democratic nomination for Assistant Alderman while still in his early 20s. However, for whatever reason, Tammany Hall turned its back on Sharkey. He lost the election and, fed up with politics, he reverted to what he was good at – gambling and stealing.
Sharkey opened a faro bank in Buffalo, New York, in 1872, but he lost money immediately. He then recruited a partner, a professional gambler named Robert Dunn, but he also lost Sharkey’s money and, seemingly, had no intention of paying it back. This led to a fight between the two and, on September 1, Sharkey shot Dunn dead. He was later convicted of murder and sentenced to hang.
Now comes the interesting part. Sharkey was held in a municipal jail in Manhattan colloquially known as The Tombs. On November 19, 1873, he was visited by his lover, a woman named Maggie Jourdan, who was accompanied by another woman named Mrs. Wesley Allen who was there to see a different inmate. Both women were given passes to enter and exit the building. Maggie Jourdan visited Sharkey, then left using her pass. Then came the other woman who used her pass and was also allowed to leave the prison. Guards thought she looked rather masculine, with broad shoulders, but didn’t check her up close. It wasn’t until the real Mrs. Allen approached them without a pass that they realized what had happened.
The second woman was Sharkey, dressed in women’s clothes smuggled in by Jourdan. He fled to Cuba and his movements remained uncertain from that point on. An article from 1900 said that he was finally located in Spain and would soon be apprehended and returned to the United States, but a much later article in The New Yorker from 1931 said that William Sharkey was never found.
3. Frederick Mors
He was born Carl Menarik in Vienna, Austria, in 1889. In his youth, his greatest ambition was to become a doctor, but his family was too poor to make this happen. Consequently, in 1914, Menarik boarded a ship and traveled to America, where he started a new life as Frederick Mors. In New York, he soon found work at an Odd Fellows’ Home which housed hundreds of orphans and elderly people.
Mors started off as a porter, but was then promoted to nursing assistant. His megalomania soon started showing, as the young immigrant began dressing up in a lab coat and wearing a stethoscope everywhere, and even insisting that the patients in his care address him as “Herr Doktor.”
The elderly residents were terrified of him and even the staff were creeped out by the nursing assistant. Therefore, when the care home had 17 deaths in just four months, everyone feared they might have an “angel of death” in their midst. They alerted the police and suspicion immediately fell upon Mors.
Authorities didn’t have to work too hard. When questioned, Mors readily admitted to murdering eight patients, in order to put them out of their misery. He calmly described the killing method he perfected using chloroform, which he described as the “most painless, scientific fashion.”
Unsurprisingly, Frederick Mors was found guilty and committed to the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in 1916. However, sometime during the late 1920s, Mors managed to escape the hospital and was never heard from again.
2. Anthony Strollo
There are so many mobsters who “disappear” that it would probably be more notable to make a list of the ones who actually got to live to a ripe old age and die of natural causes. But since we are not doing that, let’s take a look at Anthony Strollo, a high-ranking capo with the Genovese crime family.
Strollo was nicknamed “Tony Bender” because he had a reputation of switching sides as his loyalty was often available to the highest bidder. When Vito Genovese orchestrated an assasination attempt against the previous boss, Frank Costello, in 1957, Strollo helped him plan it. Two years later, Strollo switched allegiances and joined a conspiracy against Genovese, helping to send his former boss to prison for 15 years.
Then, on the morning of April 8, 1962, Anthony Strollo left his home in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and was never seen again. Unsurprisingly, almost everyone believes he was murdered on the orders of Vito Genovese, who was still running the family from prison and likely found out that Strollo betrayed him.
1. Bela Kiss
Bela Kiss was a popular man in his hometown of Izsák in Austria-Hungary, but nobody really knew that much about him. He was a bachelor, and while plenty of young, beautiful women visited his home, none stuck around long enough to meet any of the locals. When World War I started, Kiss was sent to the frontlines, leaving his home in the care of his housekeeper.
In 1916, there was a shortage of pretty much everything thanks to the war. The town constable remembered that Kiss had a lot of large metal drums, which he said he used to stockpile gasoline. He decided to open one, and was quickly overwhelmed by the stench of death. He sent for a detective from Budapest who was on the scene to make the gruesome discovery – the barrel contained the body of a young woman who had been strangled and then preserved in a brine of methanol. And she wasn’t the only one. A thorough search of the property found 24 victims, all killed the same way and preserved in barrels.
The military was alerted, but Kiss’s exact whereabouts were uncertain. At one point, authorities received word that the killer was recovering in a hospital in Serbia. When they arrived, they found a dead man in his bed, but that man was not Bela Kiss. It was believed that somehow the murderer heard of their arrival and managed to switch places with a corpse before making his disappearance.
Dozens of tips poured in from all over the world. One said that Kiss joined the French Foreign Legion. Another that he was imprisoned for burglary in Romania. The latest tip was from 1936, saying that Kiss was in New York City, working as a janitor. His true fate remains a mystery.