#3. The People of Vernon, Florida Mutilate Themselves for Profit
Why did more than two-thirds of all loss-of-limb accident claims in the United States in the late '50s and early '60s come from the Florida Panhandle? Well, in the words of John J. Healy, insurance investigator, "Vernon's second-largest occupation was watching hound dogs mating in the town square, its largest was self-mutilation for monetary gain."
Yep, the good townsfolk of Vernon were deliberately maiming themselves in order to claim insurance policies they'd taken out on their limbs. Nearly 50 people in Vernon (population 780) had some kind of horrific "accident".
L.W. Burdeshaw, an insurance agent, told the St. Petersburg Times in 1982 that his list of policyholders included a man who sawed off his left hand at work, a man who shot off his foot while protecting chickens, a man who lost his hand while supposedly trying to shoot a hawk, a man who somehow lost two limbs in an accident involving a rifle and a tractor, and a man who bought a policy and then, less than 12 hours later, shot off his foot while aiming at a squirrel.
Insurance agents, probably disillusioned by the whole Belle Gunness affair, were a little suspicious. Cutting your hand at work may be possible. Sawing off your entire hand at work really takes some amount of sustained effort. But that the kind of can-do attitude that marks the people of Vernon (besides a disturbing lack of symmetry).
These people either had enormous balls, or they really, really needed the fucking money.
How Much Did They Make?
No one in the town was ever convicted of fraud, and it's not easy to find out just how much they got away with. What we know is that one farmer took out policies with 38 different companies before, in some no doubt comical accident, he lost his left foot.
Luckily, the particular day of the "accident" he happened to be driving his wife's automatic, since if he'd been driving his own stick shift he would have needed the left foot to use the clutch. He also happened to have a tourniquet in his pocket (in case of snake bites, he insisted). He could be telling the truth, right?
Well, it turned out he'd taken out so much insurance that he was paying premiums that cost more than his total income. He collected more than $1 million from all the companies.
The insurance companies fought it but conceded, "it was hard to make a jury believe a man would shoot off his own foot." Proof once again that there is good money to be made by being just a little crazier than the world thinks possible.
#2. H.H. Holmes
You know what makes a bad combination? Medical degrees and murderous insanity.
And so we have H.H. Holmes, who graduated in medicine from the University of Michigan in 1884. He was a likable man, handsome, friendly and charming. In the late 1880s, to seek his fortune, he moved to Chicago and took a job in a pharmacy. A nice man all around, you might think. But only if you were retarded and completely skipped the rest of this article.
By 1888 Holmes had murdered his boss and stolen her drugstore (telling friends she was "in California"). The key to a good business, though, is expansion, so he bought up a vacant lot on the other side of the street and built a large hotel.
Well, it wasn't really a "hotel," except in the sense the Hotel California was a hotel. You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave. Except you can't check out. Because you're dead. Or slowly suffocating in an airtight vault, or being stretched on a rack in the basement that Holmes used to see how far the human body could stretch (Answer: not that far).
In retrospect, it's nothing like Hotel California.
And that's just the basement. The building was designed to Holmes' specific instructions to create a labyrinth with secret chambers, trap doors, sliding walls, hidden laboratories and torture rooms. We'd think the contractors would have asked a few questions, but some people don't like to pry.
But Holmes didn't design all that just for fun. Like everyone on this list, he was a businessman. Once a guest at the hotel had been killed, Holmes would take them to the basement, strip them of their flesh, craft them into skeleton models and then sell them to medical schools.
Holmes left his hotel after 1893 due to a lack of guests, possibly because the Chicago World's Fair had ended, possibly because he'd killed everyone in Chicago. He then moved to Philadelphia and promptly murdered his business partner, to collect on a $10,000 insurance policy.
Actually, "Murdered," isn't really descriptive enough. We'll let Holmes himself tell you about it:
"I proceeded to burn him alive by saturating his clothing and his face with benzene and igniting it with a match. So horrible was this torture that in writing of it I have been tempted to attribute his death to some humane means-not with a wish to spare myself, but because I fear that it will not be believed that one could be so heartless and depraved."
Holmes then went on the run, taking with him, for some reason, Pitezel's three children. Guess what happened to them?
Holmes was arrested for the murder of Pitezel and his three children, and hanged. The only official number of victims is 27, though it's thought the real number is a lot higher, probably around the death toll of a Michael Bay film.
How Much Did He Make?
The reason it's so hard to pin down the number of Holmes' victims is because he was a pathological liar, on top of everything else. So who knows how much cash he collected from his carnival of horrors. What we do know is that he kept turning a profit right up until the end, when he sold his confession to the Philadelphia Inquirer for $10,000.
#1. Dr Marcel Petiot, The Anti-Schindler
It's January 1942, Nazi occupied France. There is a small time con man named Dr. Marcel Petiot, who moved to Paris and set up a medical practice, claiming to have been an intern at a mental hospital. That was pretty close to the truth. He had been a patient there.
Thanks to his well-rounded experience of having seen a mental health facility from both sides of a straight jacket, Petiot spent his time selling addictive narcotics and conducting the occasional illegal abortion. When World War 2 and the Holocaust came along, Petiot saw his opportunity to make some extra cash on the side.
The Nazis were on the hunt for Jews to send off to concentration camps. Petiot put out word that he'd help fugitive Jews escape from the country, for a fee of 25,000 Francs per person. We know what you're thinking. Sure, the guy charged an arm and a leg. But in the end, he was doing good, right? He was lining his pockets, but saving lives at the same time!
Where did he get all those suitcases?
You might want to stop reading now, so you can keep believing that.
When customers came to Petiot, he told them that in order to enter Argentina (their alleged destination) they had to be inoculated. He would stick them with a needle and...
On March 6, 1944, the police arrived at Petiot's burning three story house. Once inside, they found a large heap of quicklime mixed with human remains. There was a pit dug in the stable, full of quicklime and corpses in various stages of decomposition. They found basement sinks large enough for draining corpses and a soundproof octagonal chamber with wall-mounted shackles and a peephole in its door. On the staircase leading to the basement, police found a sack containing a headless corpse, missing its organs.
Petiot was later arrested and during the trial, maintained that the whole thing was a big, wacky misunderstanding. They didn't buy it, and Petiot was beheaded.
How Much Did He Make?
Petiot not only would collect on his huge fee, but would take all of the victim's possessions (they were fugitives, so would come to him with all of their life savings on them). Authorities say Petiot's haul ran up to--holy shit--200 million Francs.
The lesson? Crime doesn't pay, but apparently unfathomably dark, monstrous evil pays quite well.
If you're ready for something totally different from that, to restore your faith in mankind, check out Third Reich to Fortune 500: Five Popular Brands the Nazis Gave Us.