Criminals who are caught typically want to vanish, escaping the long arm of the law and living out their days in freedom – say fixing boats in some remote Mexican beach paradise – instead of behind bars where they belong. While the vast majority don’t succeed (some don’t even try), occasionally, a clever criminal will somehow manage to simply disappear.
These are just a few of the most well-known criminals who mysteriously vanished. Some of the names are notorious: D.B. Cooper, Lord Lucan and so forth. Others remained safe in obscurity. The names on this list represent some of the most intriguing disappearances and cold cases ever.
Frank Morris, John and Clarence Anglin
No list about criminals who mysteriously vanished would be complete without including three names: Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin.
Names don’t ring a bell? They should. These three men were prisoners at San Francisco’s famed Alcatraz maximum security prison who somehow managed to escape. Yes, Morris, along with the Anglin brothers, plotted their daring escape for years before carrying the plan out on June 11, 1962. (Too bad they couldn’t wait a few decades and just rent “The Rock,” but it seems like they were in a hurry.)
They crawled through air vents to reach the prison’s roof, where they shimmied down a large smokestack to eventually reach the shoreline. Where they went from there is the mystery, though many believe the men died before they reached freedom, drowning in the swirling currents of San Francisco Bay. A massive manhunt ensued, of course, but their bodies were never found. The story is related in the 1979 Clint Eastwood movie “Escape from Alcatraz.” (Eastwood played Frank Morris, Jack Thibeau played Clarence Anglin and Fred Ward played John Anglin).
Political activist Abbie Hoffman already had a rap sheet (for political protests) when he mysteriously vanished in 1974, skipping bail after his arrest on drug charges. Hoffman was not seen for seven years, though investigators tried to find him and various sightings were reported. Hoffman went to great lengths to conceal his identity, changing his name to “Barry Freed” and even having plastic surgery to change his appearance. He kept right on supporting causes, however, and even wrote a travel column for “Crawdaddy!” magazine. (I knew I shouldn’t have let that subscription expire!)
Finally, in 1980, Hoffman/Freed turned himself in to police andgave an interview to Barbara Walters. He was sentenced to one year in prison but was released after 4 months, probably because the warden really wanted to catch up on that Crawdaddy travel column.
Hoffman remained involved in activist causes and progressive politics for the remainder of his life. He committed suicide in April of 1989.
Thomas P. “Boston” Corbett was the Union Army soldier who shot Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, to death in April of 1865. Corbett, a member of the 16th New York Cavalry Regiment, and other soldiers were assigned to apprehend Booth, but not to kill him, based on strict orders from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.
Instead, when Booth was discovered in a Virginia farm, the regiment set the barn on fire and then Corbett shot Booth through a crack in the wall. (How many times do I have to tell Virginia tobacco farm owners…make sure your barn is tightly sealed to prevent gunfire from getting in there!) Corbett was arrested for violating orders, but he by that time had become something of a national hero, so the charges were eventually dropped. Corbett’s share of the reward money worked out to a whopping $1,653.84. Enough to make sure he never has to pay for mustache wax again!
Corbett didn’t really get to enjoy his earnings or newfound fame, though, as his life slowly began to unravel. Some have theorized that his regular employment as a hatter and ensuing exposure to high amounts of mercury led to his madness. But it’s also possible that the fame and notoriety of being Booth’s killer got to him. Either way, over the following years, his behavior became increasingly erratic, and it’s said he threatened several people over the years with guns. While working as an assistant doorman at the Kansas House of Representatives (apparently something of a hotspot for opening doors), Corbett got upset and brandished a firearm, which tends to be frowned upon by professional legislating bodies.
Next thing you know, he’s committed to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane, from where he escaped the following year. (Remember? That’s what this list is about!)
Corbett was never officially heard from again. He told a fellow inmate that he planned to head for Mexico, but it’s believed he may have moved into a cabin in the woods near Hinckley, Minnesota, only to then die in a fire a few years later. This has never been proven, but local records do indicate that someone named “Thomas Corbett” perished in the area.
Canadian organized crime boss Rocco Perri entered a life of crime as a young man, after losing his job working on the Welland Canal Project and working a variety of odd jobs in the intervening years. After the Ontario Temperance Act of 1916 cut off the legal sale and distribution of alcohol, Perri found his calling and began a bootlegging operation along with wife Besha Starkman. He eventually came to be known as “Canada’s King of the Bootleggers,” though he never did get the respect of his American counterparts. (Al Capone once said of Perri: “I don’t even known what street Canada is on. Oh, that Scarface…)
Perri disappeared in April of 1944 in Hamilton, Ontario. He was never heard from again, and no body was ever found. It’s commonly believed his body was deposited into the Hamilton Bay, possibly postmortem. (The fishes were also unavailable for comment.)
Sort of the Mr. Glass of his day, but without the comic book obsession, Hungarian mechanical engineer Szilveszter Matuska tried repeatedly to derail Austrian trains in the early 1930s by blowing up portions of the track with explosives. (Why? Because screw trains, that’s why. No, in all seriousness, Matuska’s motives are unknown. It has been suggested he may have been politically motivated, but later statements indicated that he may have just been a psychopath who wanted to kill people for pleasure.)
He succeeded in actually derailing the Berlin-Basel express train near Berlin, Germany, in August of 1931, injuring many but killing none. He tried again with some success in September of that year, derailing the Vienna Express and killing 22 people. Matuska was actually captured during the incident but released, as he was assumed to be a passenger. He was apprehended and arrested in October, and confessed.
Matuska was sentenced to life imprisonment in Hungary, but escaped from jail in 1944. He was never seen alive again, though various rumors state that he ended up working as an explosives expert during World War II, and even that he fought with the communists during the Korean War. Also, I’m now going to start a rumor that he went on to become Keyser Soze. Just try to prove me wrong!
‘Lucky’ Lord Lucan
Richard Bingham, the 7th Earl of Lucan, was a British noble who mysteriously vanished after the murder of his children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, in November of 1974. He was later charged with the crime, largely because his own wife, The Countess of Lucan, named him as the attacker/killer.
While he was officially declared dead in 1999, police continued to investigate purported sightings of Lord Lucan for many years. (Say his name three times into a mirror and he may show up to haunt you!)
Theories about what happened to Lucan vary. Some believe Lucan fled to India; others think he committed suicide. A report in 2007 claimed a Scotland Yard detective was investigating whether Lucan was living under the assumed name Roger Woodgate in Marton, New Zealand. We may never know exactly what happened, or whether Lord Lucan was, in fact, a killer.
Nazi war criminal and Austrian doctor Aribert Heim was known as “Dr. Death” because of his horrific medical experiments on Jews at the Mauthausen concentration camp during World War II. He was captured by U.S. solders in 1945, but later released.
Heim returned to work as a gynecologist for many years. One day in 1962, after learning the police were waiting for him at his home, he vanished.
What happened after that remains somewhat of a mystery. Many believe that Heim lived in Egypt under an assumed name (Tarek Farid Hussein. The New York Times reported that he’d died of cancer in Cairo back in 1992. Because of a lack of evidence, however, German police are still actively investigating Heim’s whereabouts.
German gestapo official Heinrich Müller remains the most senior Nazi regime member who hasn’t been captured or found. Müller disappeared one day after Adolf Hitler committed suicide in May of 1945 and hasn’t been seen since.
What happened? Theories vary. Some believe that Müller died during the fall of Berlin, while others believe that Müller managed to escape and fled to another country, living out his days in relative obscurity. Exhaustive searches by the CIA and others have yielded absolutely no trace of Müller. For decades, the U.S. believed that the Soviets were harboring Müller, but could find no solid proof. Perhaps he did die in Berlin in 1945. Either way, the search officially continues. We’re gonna get this guy!