Book Review: Strange Crimes and Criminals by Carl Sifakis


Are you familiar with the Astor Palace Riots?

In 1849, an English actor was selected to play MacBeth at New York’s Astor Place Opera House.  Capt. Isiah Rynders, a politician who had built up a following by denouncing the rich as being wannabe Englishmen, claimed that an American actor should have been given the role and he led a protest outside the theater.  When the play started, his followers pelted the stage with eggs and insults and the show had to be stopped.  When another attempt was made to perform MacBeth a few days later, Rynders and his people returned.  This time, the protest led to one of New York City’s biggest riots.  At least 23 people died and over 130 were injured.  The crowd attempted to hang the actor who played MacBeth but, fortunately, he was able to catch a train to Boston and then sailed back to England.  This, of course, was not the only time that Shakespeare would be linked to violence in America.  Abraham Lincoln would be assassinated by one of the country’s most popular Shakespearean actors, with some contemporaries alleging that John Wilkes Booth was inspired by Julius Caesar.

How about the 1857 police riots, which occurred when two different groups claimed the right to police New York City and spent so much time fighting amongst themselves that criminals were often allowed to go free in the confusion?

How about Kitty Ging, who was murdered by a man who claimed that another man had hypnotized him and ordered him to commit the crime?

Or the Lady Gophers, an all-female gang who developed a reputation for being tougher and more deadly than any of their male counterparts?

Or Carter Harrison, the most corrupt mayor in the history of Chicago?  Everyone knew that Harrison was crooked but, when he was assassinated, the entire city mourned.

Speaking of Chicago, Chicago’s first official riot was in 1855, when the city ordered that saloons close on Sunday.  It was called the Lager Beer Riot and it nearly destroyed the city.

Did you know about the attempt to abduct a school bus full of children and hold them for ransom?  Did you know about Boston Corbett, the man who was celebrated for killing John Wilkes Booth but who then turned out to be a crazed religious fanatic who mysteriously vanished after performing a self-castration and then firing his pistols while standing in the gallery of the Kansas Legislature?  Speaking of disappearances, whatever happened to Judge Crater?

Everyone knows about the Hatfield-McCoy feud but what about Texas’s far bloodier Horrell-Higgins Feud?

All of these crimes and many more are discussed in Strange Crimes and Criminals, which is an encyclopedia of the odd, the bizarre, and the illegal.  Some of the entries are humorous.  Some of them are disturbing.  Some of them document man’s inhumanity to man.  Some of them celebrate the spirit of people who refuse to let something like the law get in their way.  It makes for interesting reading and, for the aspiring writer, it’s a treasure trove of inspiration.

It’s a strange world, isn’t it?

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