6 Real Crime Waves From History That Were Hilariously Insane

Thanks to the news, it's easy to feel that right now is the most dangerous time to be alive. However, the truth is that the world in general keeps getting safer. You see, not only was the past lousy with criminal terrors, but ye crime waves of olde were also bit more ... eccentric. Case in point ...

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6
A Bootleggers' Turf War Included Tank Battles And Bomber Planes In 1920s Illinois

Illinois was both a great and terrible place to be a beer fan during Prohibition. Sure, there was no real shortage of booze, but there was a decent chance you'd be shot while drinking it. But while we all know about the glamorous gangland violence of Al Capone's Chicago, a wholly different criminal empire was tearing it up in the southern part of the state at that time: the hillbilly mafia. And when they got into fights, it wasn't with blunderbusses and cussin', but with homemade tanks and aerial bombs.

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During Prohibition, the booze king of Southern Illinois was a bootlegging antihero named Charlie Birger. He was loved because he drove the KKK out of the area, omitting that he did so mostly because they kept trying to steal his liquor. Soon after, he joined forces with the Shelton brothers, who agreed to take a cut of the profits from Birger's speakeasies in exchange for providing him with only the most primo hooch directly from Florida. And if Floridians use it to blot out their reality, you know that's some powerful hooch.

The partnership quickly dissolved, however, and the two sides went to war. Like, actual war. The Sheltons' retribution involved attacking Birger with an armored truck they'd made themselves which rolled through the streets equipped with "an assembly of weapons" -- i.e. a freaking tank.

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And it was probably created while freaking tanked.

As if that wasn't enough, the brothers then performed perhaps the first aerial bombing on U.S. soil ever when a plane they hired dropped a few bottles of nitroglycerin wrapped in dynamite over one of Birger's hideouts. You might be okay with dozens of people dying on the street, and you might be okay with criminals blasting each other with Tommy Guns, but when your criminal element is better-armed than the Army Reserve, it's time to move.

5
19th-Century Sexual Harassers Were So Bad That Women Would Stab Them

While it's oddly comforting to know that street harassment is not a modern problem, we should all long for a return of the Edwardian era, and not only because their catcalls involved complimenting a lady's ankles and expressing a strong desire to experience the sublime sight of her ravishing bosom. At least in our great-great-grandmothers' day, harassment had to be done face-to-face, which gave them a lot more options regarding what to do with said faces.

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By the end of the 19th century, it became commonplace to fend off unwanted advances by plucking one's hatpin out of one's fashionably enormous hats and stabbing the f**ker. These were no puny little thumbtacks, either -- they could be well over a foot long and do fatal damage.

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Cutting-edge fashion.

One woman even forced robbers from a moving train armed with nothing but her hatpin, while 100 factory workers all wielding theirs fought off police who had come to make one of them as a political prisoner. You simply don't see that kind of sisterhood anymore. Two women in Chicago, upon the former's discovery of her husband's infidelity with the latter, "drew hatpins and circled each other, duel-style, until policemen broke it up." Cops just don't get called to bust up hatpin phalanxes anymore these days.

And while today there'd be badly kempt rioting in the streets if dudes got stabbed every time they "accidentally" brushed a woman's derriere on the sidewalk, 19th-century society still had a strict "gentleman or GTFO" attitude. Reporters were only too happy to dub someone a harasser, or "masher." Even asking "insulting questions" was all it took to find yourself cast as the mustache-twirling villain. It was such an accepted part of society that it became a trope in the fiction of the era, and newspapers printed tutorials on how to get the most out of your deadly accessory, mostly by encouraging the lady to go straight for the balls. The clothes might make the man, but a hatpin can reverse that process in a pinch.

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Repeat: One foot long. Right through the balls.

Unfortunately, errant hatpins had a nasty habit of stabbing people by accident, too. At least, that was the purported reasoning behind laws banning or regulating hatpins -- which, coincidentally, women weren't allowed to vote against. Those laws are presumably defunct now, so if any fashion industry moguls happen to be reading, please bring back ridiculously huge hats and their pins. Plenty of people need reminding of that particular fashion tip.

4
New York Had a Gang Of Child Criminals Run By A Kindly Matron

When Fredericka Mandelbaum emigrated from Prussia to New York City in the mid-19th century, all she wanted was for her husband and herself to eke out a modest living to feed their children. She didn't count on becoming the country's first female crime boss.

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Starting out as a snazzy street peddler, Mandelbaum discovered there was a fortune to be made befriending the countless Dickensian pickpockets in the city and buying their stolen wares. "Marm" Mandelbaum then used her motherly charms to recruit these baby criminals as her own private ragamuffin army.

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To supplement her regular muffin army.

Mother Mandelbaum used her stolen-goods-for-candy-and-affection racket to move up in the criminal world, leasing a store as a front from where she ran her operations, which ranged from financing bank robberies to moving stolen livestock. As a devotee of continuing education, she used the back as a classroom to teach her young delinquents how to become better at crime, a sort of finishing school for repeat offenders. She particularly exalted her female students, whom she was proudly saving from "wasting their lives being housekeepers" -- a weird glass ceiling to break. With her sharp eye for business and nurturing of young talent, Mandelbaum soon had enough resources to buy the most important thing for a criminal: friends in high places. She had everyone from the local cab drivers to the police to the city's highest-powered defense attorneys in her pocket.

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In the end, it took a private detective agency hired by the district attorney to bring her down, as no local cop dared to raise a hand against Mother. But before the law could close in, Mandelbaum simply packed up and retired to Canada, making everyone to feel bad for never visiting. She lived there quietly under an assumed identity until her supposed death in 1894. Rumor had it that her coffin, transported back to New York City, was filled with stones, and she had in truth returned in the flesh under the name Madame Fuchs, indicating how few of them she gave. In any case, at her funeral, many mourners reported having been pickpocketed. It's what she would have wanted.

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3
Bandits Used To Steal Wigs All The Time

These days, a secondhand wig is worth about as much as the cheap bald bastard who bought it. But in the days of dandies, having a fancy wig was both necessary and expensive. That meant wigs, which cost about as much as the average worker made in a year, were right alongside jewels and cash on every highwayman's wish list.

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Wigmaking was a process that took "six men six days working from sunup to sundown" and a complicated pre-UPS importing system. That's a lot of money for something that looks like a Bond villain's pet died on your head. In fact, getting your hands on a bigwig's big wig was such a score that it made other types of robbery not worth the risk. Instead of slyly trying to cut a purse or pick a pocket, all a would-be bandit had to do was cut a hole or two in the back of a carriage, grab a few fistfuls of powdered perfection, and take off before their now-unsightly owners had any idea what hit them. Boom, that there's a year's worth of absinthe.

Thomas Rowlandson

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And with way less needless crotch contact than pickpocketing.

One story tells of a thief so bold as to simply replace his mark's wig with his own cheap rug when he wasn't looking. The mark, not feeling the difference, simply walked away, not realizing he had lost a fortune in doll hairs. Unfortunately, the bandits too fell victim to fashion. Wigs eventually stopped being stylish, thereby killing one the criminal underworld's sillier sources of revenue.

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2
17th-Century Dairy Farmers Used To Dye Their Cheese To Jack Up The Price

Food coloring is an important staple in today's food, especially when it contains little to no actual food. That's why we'd be more upset at finding out that Cheetos do in fact contain cheese. But back in the day, fake cheese was a huge scandal.

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Before we needed an advanced chemistry degree to read food labels, a food's color was often a sign of its quality. For cheese, a bright orange color signified that it came from quality breeds of cows that eat certain types of grass, which affected the taste greatly. However, in the 17th century, English farmers had figured out that they could get more bang for their cheese by separating the cream first and using it for other products. But it was the cream that had all that orangey goodness, and while their now-white cheese was of the same quality, there's such a thing as branding. Paint those McDonald's golden arches green, and it's game over, baby. Game over.

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So the cheese makers came up with a way to disguise their stupid white skim cheese as the full-fat good stuff. They started using natural dyes from a number of plants, including saffron, marigolds, and carrots, and the monocled masses were none the wiser. Later, they started using an extract called annatto, which is what Kraft now uses instead of artificial coloring, because you can even make fraud more lucrative by making it "vintage." In a matter of decades, the ruse had become an industry standard, being used by cheesemongers all across the UK and the U.S. (except New England, as they prefer to dine on their own smugness). However, the practice of coloring cheese eventually backfired, as it became so common that orange cheese came to be regarded as low-quality instead, begetting an industry of "artificial cheese products" and giving previously exalted cows low self-esteem.

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1
A Gang Of One-Legged Men Terrorized Australia

Everything in Australia is deadlier than it should be, and that extends to their old-fashioned gangs. Around the turn of the last century, the scourge roaming (or rather, hobbling around) the streets of Melbourne was a gang called Crutchie Push, and it consisted almost entirely of one-legged men.

They might not have been fast, but death was certain if you were caught by the Crutchie Push ("push" being so hilariously appropriate Australian slang for "gang"). It was a requirement to be one limb short of a set to join the gang, meaning most of them went into battle already on crutches -- except for one berserker who still had both legs and ran into fights swinging a brick stuffed inside his sweater sleeve like a low-rent Mr. Fantastic. From there, everyone else (hopefully in choreographed synchronicity) balanced on one leg and used their crutches as weapons. Their signature move was to jab an opponent in the stomach with the tip of the crutch, then swing it around and beat him with it while he was doubled over. It was a surprisingly effective way to force compliance from shop owners and random people of whom they demanded money, food, and booze. Still more reliable than Social Security.

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But for a bunch of people who were physically unable to run, the Crutchie Push were bizarrely hard to catch. You'd think you could just lead them to a staircase and be done with it, but when an officer became involved in a brawl with leader Valentine Keating, the one-legged man actually outran the officer before he could be arrested. That's either Olympic-level crutch skills or a hilariously unfit cop. Eventually, the police became so frustrated with the gang that they assembled a task force made up by the ten most violent police officers in Australia. These "Terrible Ten" were sent out to track the Crutchie Push down and beat them with hoses, because there is apparently a very fine line between legitimate Australian history and the fever dream of a wealthy conservative business owner looking to build a casino atop an Army veterans clinic.

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Keating was eventually imprisoned for beating a cop to death with his crutches, after which he ... um, went on to a nice, quiet life as a barkeep until his death from tuberculosis. In all of his days tending bar, he never called the police to break up a fight. Why use them as a crutch if you can beat a man to death with your own?

You don't have to steal to get this wig for your dog.

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