If you can go through life and not steal anything you might belong to a very small group of people.
Did you steal candy from your friend in school? Did you illegally download a movie? What about taking some cash from your mom’s jacket pocket? Or have you ever taken it a step further and lifted something from a store shelf; have you taken something from a stranger’s house, a towel from a hotel or did you ever not pay for a meal at a restaurant?
We’ve probably all taken something that wasn’t ours, but we haven’t made it a lifestyle, a job of sorts, a criminal pastime that can be as addictive as it is a means to support ourselves. Some thieves are better than others and today we’ll look at the supreme leaders of stealing.
Before we start we’ll just add that we will feature thieves that worked mostly alone, so that discounts gangs that performed heists, or criminal organizations such as the Italian Mafia.
10. Frank William Abagnale Jr.
If you’ve seen the movie “Catch Me If You Can” you’ll know all about this once precocious young thief. He started forging checks from the age of 15 and defrauded banks all over the USA.
But it was how he managed to keep doing it that was his masterpiece. From the age of 15-21, he took on many different identities and pulled them off with aplomb. This is the reason he’s called one of the best imposters that ever lived.
He didn’t just pretend to be people, but he worked their jobs by forging documents and being a great actor. He was an airline pilot, a lawyer, a physician – popular with the nurses we might add – a teacher’s assistant and an attorney.
According to Abagnale himself, he wrote about 17,000 bad checks which amassed him about $2.5 million.
9. Vincenzo Peruggia
This thief goes down for pulling off only one big theft, but he did go and take arguably the most famous painting in the world in 1911. Yes, he lifted the Mona Lisa and got away with it, for a while anyway.
He didn’t really use much skill when he took it. He just hid in the Louvre in Paris and took the painting in the middle of the night, stuffed it in his jacket and walked past the guards. He kept it for two years and then tried to sell it in Italy, only for the prospective buyer to turn him in.
He told the police he did it for patriotic purposes, to bring the painting back to Italy. But letters to his dad that were found tell a different story. He had his eyes on a small fortune.
8. Dick Turpin
We have to include some British history and one of those guys that shouted, “Stand and Deliver, Your Money or your Life.” This was what English highwaymen said when they held up your coach.
Dick Turpin is probably the most famous of them all, and he was real, unlike characters such as Robin Hood. He robbed people all over England in the 18th century and was feared from county to county.
He changed names and evaded arrest, but was eventually caught and executed on 7 April, 1739.
7. Bill Mason
Back to present times and a master jewel thief. Mason would prey on the rich and famous, surveying them and working out what they might have. He did this by attending high-society parties.
When he had his mark, he would burgle their houses, and in all, it’s thought he got around 35 million dollars worth of jewels. In 2004 he told the New York Times how he would find his victim, saying, “When I was working, I liked a place where you could mingle, chat, you know? A society function. You wait until everybody’s nice and drunk and then leave with four or five good names in your pocket.”
He got five years in federal prison for his thieving. He said he just couldn’t stop, mostly from the thrill of it. In another interview after he got out of prison, he said, “It was like a giant jigsaw puzzle, putting these things together and trying to figure out how to circumvent all the security precautions. I became addicted to it. It’s like climbing a mountain.”
6. Doris Payne
We had to have a female thief on this list, and Doris Payne fully deserves her place. This West Virginia gal (now 87) was born to a coal miner but saw herself having a bit more money in life.
What’s amazing is her modus operandi and how long she got away with it. She would dress up and look like a woman with plenty of cash to spend, and then she’d go to a jeweler’s store. In there, she’d talk posh and be charming all the while viewing lots of different expensive pieces.
The mesmerized clerk wouldn’t notice when she took a couple of things. Just one piece she took in Monte Carlo was worth half a million dollars. And she did this all over the world for six decades.
She was eventually arrested at age 80 in 2010 and at age 83 in 2013, again for stealing jewels. She even got caught stealing a cheap bracelet from Walmart at age 87. Now, that’s commitment.
5. Mithilesh Kumar Srivastava
This guy is better known as Natwarla and perhaps his greatest trick was to sell the Taj Mahal numerous times. Perhaps India’s greatest ever con-man, during the 20th century he also sold the President’s house, the Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Parliament House of India.
He forged documents and signatures and duped a whole lot of rich people. Not only that, he escaped from prison several times. He got 113 years for his scams, but at 86 he managed to escape from prison and he was even using a wheelchair at the time.
It’s thought he could now be dead, but who knows. If you are wondering how he sold the Taj Mahal three times, the India Times tells us he posed as a government official and sold it to foreigners.
4. Carl Gugasian
This American man goes down as perhaps one of the most prolific thieves in American history. Over 30 years he robbed more than 50 banks throughout the country and got away with it.
What’s quite funny is that he usually only robbed on Fridays, hence his sobriquet, “The Friday Night Bank Robber”. He also had intricate getaway plans and just like the movies he wore really scary horror masks.
He stole around $2 million but was eventually caught in 2002. He was released from prison in 2017 aged 69.
3. Charles Frederick Peace
There are many stories about this man, known as the Victorian age’s biggest criminal. He came from Industrial Yorkshire and preyed on the rich in London and other parts of England.
It’s said he was born in a circus to a lion tamer and had gymnast skills with which he used to cat burgle. He also murdered people and was wanted all over England for years. He evaded arrest by changing his facial features and even using a fake arm as he had lost fingers.
Scotland Yard, it’s said, had no idea who they were looking for as he was so good at changing his appearance. Alas, he was eventually caught and hanged in 1879.
2. William Francis “Willie” Sutton, Jr
We thought we’d add to the list what is called a “gentleman thief”, a thief with impeccable manners who would try not to cause harm to his victims. He robbed for over 40 years in the mid 20th century.
Did he carry a gun? “You can’t rob a bank on charm and personality,” he once said about that. He also said they were never loaded, because “someone might get hurt.”
He took over $2 million and escaped from prison three times. When asked why he robbed he said, “Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life.”
1. Stéphane Breitwieser
There is no one that even comes near to this thief. We won’t say too much because he will soon be featured and have a show all to himself. We think you’ll agree that he deserves it.
The Frenchman traveled around Europe in his early 20s working as a waiter from 1995 to 2001. But he had a second job, and that was stealing from museums. He was good at it, too, taking 239 works of art.
Stolen arts were worth around $1.4 billion. He was caught stealing in 2001 and went to prison. He served 26 months, but then in 2011 police found more of his stash, paintings they didn’t know he had. He got another three years.