4 Pioneers in Crime
Innovation is an essential part of the development of humankind. Advancements in medicine, industry and transportation are responsible for the massive steps forward we’ve taken over time. Sometimes, such advancements can even be traced back to single difference-makers, like Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine making it at least slightly less likely to die some sort of horrible, painful death.
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Of course, not all innovations are for the greater good of humankind, as anyone who tried that horrific purple ketchup or tried to use a paper straw can attest. It extends also to pursuits that are a little less wholesome. It would be great if the only things people had come up with were slam-dunks as far as morality goes, but life isn’t ever that clean. Sometimes, somebody can bring the world forward in a truly unpleasant new way, like discovering a cool new rash in the nooks and crannies of our civilization.
In particular, here are four people who were pioneers in the world of crime…
First Serial Killer
Resting pretty comfortably atop the highly unpleasant podium of “evil stuff humans can do” are serial killers. Murder, by itself, is famously “most foul,” so to commit a whole grip of them is a one-way ticket to hell and/or eventually being covered on a podcast. The person who usually pops up when talking about the first serial killer is bowler-hatted demon H.H. Holmes, who was the first in America, but records suggest somebody maybe more disgusting had him beat centuries earlier.
The man in question is Gilles de Rais, a French military man in the early 1400s. Some killers are in search of fame or a place in the history books, but de Rais would have likely had his spot reserved even without all the unpleasantries I’m about to mention. He was a highly successful soldier, one who fought with Joan of Arc, but it wasn’t the state-sanctioned violence he’s most famous for. Instead, he’s remembered as a man who tortured and killed over a hundred children in the confines of his castle. When finally convicted, he was sentenced to being burned alive and hanged at the same time, an answer to “what do you do when the death penalty seems a little light?”
First Cyber Crime
You’d think that, discussing the world’s first cyber attack, the word “computer” would appear more than once. Strangely, you’d be wrong, since arguably the first ever cyberattack occurred far before their invention, via a clever scam using old-timey telegraph networks. This was before even the wired telegraphs most would imagine when hearing the word, and instead used “semaphores,” visual signals atop towers that could be seen from a distance and repeated, tower to tower, to transmit messages quickly.
Two banker brothers in France, Joseph and Francois Blanc, noticed the speed of this method of communication, which was reserved for government use. Realizing that there was a lot of money to be made if they could get information on Paris’ markets faster than the rest of the bankers in their city of Bordeaux, which relied on mail coaches, they got to work. They bribed a telegraph operator in Paris to introduce purposeful errors into government messages that would tip them off, and then had a colleague observe the message towers and report back.
To be honest, it was pretty brilliant and paid off for them big time, only coming to an end when their accessory in Paris underestimated the moral standing of a friend he was trying to bring in to help. The Blanc brothers had another stroke of luck, however, when they went to trial: The court realized that they hadn’t actually committed any official crime.
First War Criminal
War is a nasty thing, and even though it’s hard to reconcile mass murder and violence with moral codes in general, it’s something humanity has found on its plate repeatedly. The further back you go, the cloudier the rules of engagement get, and it took until significantly into human history that somebody finally decided that there were still some things that were off-limits. Specifically, we can find the first person executed for war crimes in 1474, a man named Peter von Hagenbach.
von Hagenbach was sent to rule over a region of Alsace that newly belonged to the Duke of Burgundy. The people who lived in this region vehemently disagreed with their new ownership. Even so, when faced with resistance, von Hagenbach went above and beyond in how he handled the residents of his new land. Things he was accused of doing included executions of dissenters without trial, abuse of neutral merchants traveling through the area and constant sexual abuse. When Swiss and Austrian forces united against the Duke, they took von Hagenbach into custody and tried him in front of what was effectively the first war crimes tribunal.
Despite the fact that von Hagenbach tried to argue he was just following the Duke’s orders (something that was used as precedent in the Nuremberg trials, if that phrase sounds familiar), he was sentenced to beheading.
First Car Thief
There’s a couple very fun details that come to light when you’re looking up the first car theft in history. The first is the name of the woman who committed it: Bertha Benz. In case you’re wondering if that last name is a funny coincidence, it is wholly not. This original surreptitious drive is also basically the origin of Mercedes-Benz’ commercial existence. Bertha’s husband was Karl Benz, and Karl Benz had in his garage the Benz Patent Motorwagen. Karl was more of a nuts-and-bolts than dollars-and-cents kind of guy, however, and he was constantly doubting and perfecting his creation instead of letting anybody see it.
Bertha, on the other hand, thought it was just fine, and overdue for a public test drive. So, one morning in 1888, Bertha snuck down with their two sons and committed one of the world’s most important instances of grand theft auto. She hopped in the car and was off to visit her mother 60 miles away before Karl could take his first bite of nasty 1800s breakfast gruel. Everybody who spotted her tooling along was gobsmacked, and the car immediately became the hottest ride of the time.
Karl was probably pissed, but becoming one of the biggest names in the automobile business will soothe a lot of soreness. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, when the brakes started failing during the trip, Bertha had leather pads attached to them — pioneering brake pads as well.