Some people gain fame by inventing something that advances society, inspiring social change, creating immortal works of art, or performing athletic feats that are the stuff of legend. Unfortunately for humankind, some people have become famous – or infamous – for the criminal acts they perpetrated.
To compile a list of some of the most infamous criminals in world history, 24/7 Tempo turned to sources including Britannica, Biography, Crime Museum Mysteries Unresolved, the BBC, the New York Times, Fox News, and CNN, using editorial discretion to assemble our final list. While the majority of people here are mass murderers, we have also included examples of massive fraud, and several other horrible crimes. (These are the most depraved serial killers in history.)
Some of the heinous crimes in human history are represented here: Hungarian noblewoman Elizabeth Báthory may have killed as many as 600 people in the 17th century; Austrian Josef Fritzl who held his daughter captive in his basement as a sex slave for 24 years and fathered seven of her children; one-time medical student Henry Howard Holmes built a house of horrors in Chicago where he killed over 200 victims. (Here’s a look at the most infamous crime committed in every state.)
Not of all of the criminals have blood on their hands – directly, anyway. Italian immigrant Charlie Ponzi created a scheme in the early 20th century to defraud investors that bears his name to this day. Bernie Madoff, once a respected member of the investment community, concocted a pyramid scheme in the 1990s that victimized high-powered figures including movie director Steven Spielberg and former Mets owner Fred Wilpon. The most recent criminal on our list, 31-year-old Samuel Bankman-Fried, was the architect behind the spectacular collapse of the FTX cryptocurrency exchange that cost investors billions.
> Victims: 600 (?)
> Crime: Torture and murder by Various methods
> Location: Central Europe
> Time frame: 1600s
Hungarian noblewoman Elizabeth Báthory, also known as the “Blood Countess,” may have killed as many as 600 people, making her the most prolific female murderer ever, according to Guinness World Records. She was accused, along with several of her servants, of torturing and murdering other servants and noblewomen of lesser stature who came to her for education.
Báthory was apprehended but because of her aristocratic station, did not face the death penalty. Instead, she was forced to live out the rest of her life in her castle and died there in 1614.
> Victims: 40 (?)
> Crime: Murder by poisoning
> Location: Indiana
> Time frame: 1884-1908
Norwegian immigrant Belle Gunness came to the U.S. looking to strike it rich in her adopted country. Her scheme for acquiring wealth was to post public lovelorn messages to lure men to her farm, marry or romance them, and kill them for their insurance money. At least 14 men died by her hand. Some of their children from previous marriages were also killed. Gunness may have been involved with as many as 40 murders in all.
Gunness also may have died violently. In 1908, a fire burned down her Indiana farm. Authorities found the remains of some of her suitors, several children, and a woman presumed to be Gunness — though some believe she faked her death.
Jack the Ripper
> Victims: At least 5
> Crime: Murder by stabbing
> Location: London
> Time frame: 1888
Jack the Ripper, one of the earliest known serial killers, terrorized London over a two-month period in 1888, slaying at least five sex workers in the city’s Whitechapel section. Taking advantage of the emerging mass media in print in the late 19th century, the assailant taunted police with letters that were published in London newspapers. The murderer was never caught. Many theories have circulated as to the Ripper’s identity, including the possibility that Jack was a member of the British royal family or that the killer was a woman.
> Victims: 200 (?)
> Crime: Murder by poisoning and other methods
> Location: Chicago
> Time frame: 1890s
Henry Howard Holmes started his bizarre crime spree while he was still in medical school in Michigan. He would steal cadavers, burn and disfigure them, and arrange them to look like accident victims to collect insurance money. In 1855, after he passed his medical exams, he moved to Chicago. There he bought an empty lot and built a three-story hotel dubbed the “castle.” Holmes paid the premiums on the life-insurance policies of employees and hotel guests if they listed him as a beneficiary. Many of these people disappeared. The hotel was a house of horrors. Some rooms were soundproof and there were rumors, later proven to be untrue, that some had gas lines so Holmes could asphyxiate his victims.
Eventually, Holmes’ insurance-scam scheme caught up with him and he was arrested. He confessed to 27 murders, but was convicted for only one and was hanged in 1896.
> Victims: Thousands
> Crime: Investment fraud
> Location: United States
> Time frame: 1919
Italian immigrant Charles Ponzi was the creator of the original “Ponzi scheme.” This involved luring investors with the promise that they could double their money within 90 days through the arbitrage of international reply coupons – vouchers accepted by multiple countries that could be converted into local postage stamps. Instead of trading these items, Ponzi used new investors to fund returns to older ones while seeking legitimate investments to keep the scam going. Ponzi’s scheme eventually cost investors $20 million, or about $250 million in today’s dollars. After serving 42 months in prison, Ponzi was deported to Italy, where he died.
Pedro Rodriguez Filho
> Victims: 71
> Crime: Murder by various methods
> Location: Brazil
> Time frame: 1960s-1970s
Pedro Rodrigues Filho was Brazil’s most prolific murderer. He was born with a damaged skull that was the result of a beating his mother received from his father when she was pregnant. This brain damage may have set Rodrigues Filho on his homicidal path, in the course of which he killed some 24 people, by various means and for various reasons. Among them was an official who had falsely accused his father of stealing food and gang members who killed his girlfriend – and also his father himself, who had killed Rodrigues Filho’s mother with a machete. On one occasion, he was arrested and put into the back of a police car with an accused rapist. When the door was opened, it was discovered that he had somehow killed the rapist..
Being arrested and jailed didn’t stop Rodrigues Filho. While he was incarcerated, he murdered 47 more people. His rampage boosted his sentence to 400 years, but the maximum jail time in Brazil was 30 years (since extended to 40 years), and he was eventually released. He claimed to have reformed, and became a YouTube star before being killed himself this March in a shootout.
> Victims: 28 or more
> Crime: Murder by strangulation or stabbing
> Location: Across United States
> Time frame: 1966-1978
Ted Bundy, the subject of documentaries and movies, was a charismatic and intelligent man who preyed on college-age women during his 12-year killing spree. He killed victims in Washington, Utah, and Colorado before he was arrested. Bundy escaped custody twice while awaiting trial in Colorado and went to Florida.
While in Florida, he killed several young women at a college sorority before he was captured. He eventually confessed to 28 murders, though some estimated that he was responsible for hundreds of deaths. Bundy’s trial was televised and he acted as his own attorney. He was found guilty and was electrocuted in 1989.
> Victims: 218
> Crime: Murder by drug overdose
> Location: England
> Time frame: 1970s
Nicknamed “Dr. Death,” Shipman was an English physician who killed at least 218 patients in the 1970s. In 1999, Kathleen Gundy, the daughter of one of his victims, claimed that he killed her mother and tried to create a phony will that named him as the beneficiary. Shipman’s previous victims had been cremated, but Gundy’s mother had not. An autopsy revealed an unusually high level of the opioid diamorphine, which Shipman had used to kill other patients.
He was officially charged with the deaths of 15 people, found guilty, and sentenced to life without parole. He killed himself in jail in 2004.
> Victims: 13
> Crime: Murder by bludgeoning
> Location: England
> Time frame: 1975-1980
Peter Sutcliffe, dubbed the “Yorkshire Ripper” by the British media, killed 13 women and injured seven others in northern England over a five-year period. During the time when he was killing women, Sutcliffe had been questioned by police who determined that he did not fit their profile of the killer. During his trial, Sutcliffe said he was sent on a mission from God to kill the women. Not all of his victims were sex workers, however. Sutcliffe died in prison in 2020 from COVID-19.
> Victims: 17
> Crime: Murder by stabbing
> Location: Milwaukee
> Time frame: 1978-1991
Jeffrey Dahmer, a college dropout and drifter, seduced young men and boys – mostly African-Americans – drugged them, and killed 17 of them. He performed necrophiliac acts on their bodies, dismembered them, and cooked body parts and ate them. Dahmer was caught when one of his intended victims escaped and led police to Dahmer’s apartment. There they found photos of Dahmer’s victims and seven skulls in his apartment and a heart in his freezer. He was sentenced to 957 years in jail in 1992 and was killed in prison two years later.
> Victims: 21 or more
> Crime: Murder by beating, stabbing, or strangulation
> Location: Southern California
> Time frame: 1979-1980
Over the course of a year, William Bonin and two accomplices abducted, sodomized, beat, and strangled at least 21 teenage boys in Southern California in 1979 and ’80. Bonin lured his victims into a van as they walked, biked, or hitchhiked, and their bodies were subsequently dumped along freeways, earning Bonin the moniker the “Freeway Killer.”
Atypically for serial killers, Bonin had accomplices. One of them was arrested for car theft and while in jail, provided evidence linking the freeway murders to Bonin – leading to his arrest. Before he was executed by lethal injection in 1996, Bonin corresponded with victims’ families telling them how their loved ones reacted while he was torturing them.
> Victims: 53
> Crime: Murder by stabbing or strangulation
> Location: Soviet Union
> Time frame: 1979-1990
Andrei Chikatilo was a teacher in the Soviet Union but couldn’t hold a job because of claims that he assaulted young children. He became a clerk for a raw-materials factory, a job that involved extensive travel and gave him the opportunity to attack young victims. Chikatilo befriended young women and children at train stations and bus stops, lured them into forests, raped them, and mutilated them.
After he was arrested for suspicious behavior in 1990, Chikatilo provided details of his crimes to a psychiatrist. He was found guilty of 52 of the 53 murder charges and was executed by firing squad in 1994.
> Victims: Hundreds
> Crimes: Murder, drug dealing
> Location: Colombia, US, Europe
> Time frame: 1980-early 1990s
Pablo Escobar was the leader of the Colombian drug cartel that dominated the cocaine drug trade with the U.S. The Netflix series “Narcos” detailed his influence and the unlimited cash that corrupted society’s institutions, as well as the lack of will of law enforcement to stop him. Complicating attempts to apprehend him were his efforts at funding facilities and donating food to the poor in the Colombian city of Medellín, which made him popular with the downtrodden.
Escobar’s reign as the world’s leading drug tsar was brutal: He killed hundreds of rivals, law-enforcement officers, and politicians who opposed him, as well as innocent bystanders. He also has blood on his hands for the number of people who overdosed on the narcotics he trafficked. Escobar died in a shootout with Colombian police in 1993.
> Victims: His daughter
> Crimes: Rape, false imprisonment, enslavement, and negligent homicide
> Location: Austria
> Time frame: 1984-2008
Josef Fritzl is an Austrian man who held his daughter captive in his basement as a sex slave for 24 years. Starting in 1984, the 48-year-old Fritzl imprisoned his 18-year-old daughter Elisabeth in a dank secret room he had built beneath his home. Over the ensuing years, he raped her frequently, fathering seven children with her – one of whom died shortly after birth because of breathing complications. For neglecting this child, Fritzl was tried for homicide. He had already pled guilty to threatening to kill his daughter and her children if they tried to escape. Fritzl is serving a life sentence.
> Victims: 42
> Crime: Murder by strangulation
> Location: Indonesia
> Time frame: 1986-1997
Indonesian cattle-breeder Ahmad Suradji confessed to killing 42 girls and women ranging in age from 11 to 30 over an 11-year period. He claimed he was a mystic who could make them rich and beautiful, then strangled them with a cable after burying them up to their waists at a sugarcane plantation near his home in North Sumatra as part of a ritual. The heads of his victims faced his house, because he believed that would give him extra power as a sorcerer. Suradji had three wives – sisters – who were arrested for assisting in the murders and hiding the bodies. Suradji was sentenced to death by firing squad and executed in 2008.
> Victims: 37 (?)
> Crime: Murder by shooting
> Location: California
> Time frame: Late 1960s, early 1970s
The Zodiac murderer was a still-unidentified serial killer who instilled fear throughout Northern California in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Zodiac sent letters that taunted the police and the media, claiming to have killed 37 people, though only five of the murders were confirmed. The killer wrote some letters to the police in code and included bloody bits of clothing to use as proof of the criminal deeds. In 2020, a trio of codebreakers claimed to have broken one of the ciphers, but the murderer’s identity remains a mystery..
The Zodiac killer has inspired books and films, and was the model for the serial killer in the Clint Eastwood movie “Dirty Harry.”
> Victims: 189
> Crime: Murder by stabbing
> Location: Colombia
> Time frame: 1990s
From 1992 to 1999, Luis Garavito murdered an estimated 189 boys aged 6 to 16, many of them homeless or orphaned. Dressed as a laborer looking for extra help or as a monk or a priest, Garavito would lure the children into an isolated area and promise them money or food, He would then torture, rape, and dismember them.
A nationwide manhunt was begun when a mass grave was discovered in 1997 near the city of Pereira, leading to Garavito’s arrest.
> Victims: 100
> Crime: Strangulation
> Location: Pakistan
> Time frame: Late 1990s
Javed Iqbal sent a confessional letter to police in 1999, admitting that he had abducted and raped about 100 boys aged 6 to 16 – mostly beggars and street children – before strangling them and disposing of their bodies in a tub of acid. Iqbal, who kept meticulous records of the victims, including their names and photographs, was sentenced to death. Besides the depravity of the crime, the episode garnered international attention because he was sentenced to die in a manner similar to that in which he had tortured and killed his victims. Pakistan’s interior minister protested the sentence, but it became a moot point, as Iqbal killed himself in prison.
> Victims: Thousands
> Crime: Fraud
> Location: United States
> Time frame: 1992-2008
Bernie Madoff is the man behind the biggest financial fraud in U.S. history. The former chairman of the Nasdaq Stock Market defrauded thousands of people and institutions out of billions of dollars over decades through his firm Madoff Investment Securities. Among his victims were celebrities such as movie director Steven Spielberg, former New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon, and talk-show host Larry King, as well as banks, colleges, churches, and charitable organizations.
As early as 2003, a whistleblower had exposed Madoff’s scheme but it wasn’t until the economic crash of 2009 that investigators began to look into his massive ruse. In 2021, Madoff died in prison while serving a 150-year sentence.
> Victims: Thousands
> Crime: Cryptocurrency fraud
> Location: Worldwide
> Time frame: 2019-2022
Samuel Bankman-Fried is the face of the scandal surrounding the implosion of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX. The MIT alumnus was arrested in the Bahamas in December 2022 after he was indicted on numerous federal charges for diverting customers’ funds from FTX to his crypto-trading hedge fund, Alameda Research.
FTX faced a liquidity crunch and fell into bankruptcy, cutting off at least a million depositors from their accounts. Bankman-Fried was indicted on eight criminal charges by the U.S. Department of Justice and two separate civil charges by the Commodity Futures Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
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