Charles Manson may have been a wild-eyed drifter with a murky background, but such was his charisma that he created a devoted 1960s commune that was like the dark flipside to the hippy movement. Convinced that the songs of the Beatles predicted a race war between whites and blacks, he tried to move things along by ordering savage murders – including the massacre of movie star Sharon Tate and several friends unlucky enough to be staying at her house that night. Manson remains an emblem of evil in the annals of American crime.
Think "mobster" and Al Capone still springs to mind. That's how mythologised the kingpin of Chicago crime has become since his 1920s heyday. Lording it over an empire that took in bootlegging, prostitution and gambling, he was allegedly connected with the bloody St Valentine's Day Massacre, in which members of a rival gang were mowed down by machine guns. Capone eventually served time in Alcatraz, for tax evasion of all things, before dying from syphilis.
John Wayne Gacy
Anyone scared of clowns, skip over this entry. When not torturing and executing men and boys in his house, serial killer John Wayne Gacy liked to dress up as a character he called "Pogo the Clown" to entertain at charity events. In fact, Gacy was quite the pillar of the community – you can even find a photo of him smiling next to the wife of US President Jimmy Carter. Eventually arrested and sent to die by lethal injection, Gacy whiled away his time on death row painting pictures. Frequently featuring clowns. Shudder.
With his dashing good looks, roguish charm and ability to keep one step ahead of the cops, it's no wonder bank robber John Dillinger became something of a folk hero in 1930s America. He was also a killer, of course, but perhaps his most famous feat was escaping from jail using a fake gun he'd carved out of wood. Dillinger, dubbed "public enemy number one", was ultimately cornered and shot to death while strolling out of a cinema. He's since been brought to the big screen himself – played by Johnny Depp among others.
Ted Kaczynski was a mathematical genius who could easily have become one of the greatest minds in American academia. Instead, he's now serving a whole life jail sentence after being unmasked as the notorious "unabomber" who sent fatally explosive packages to university professors, computer salesmen, and other people he regarded as agents of modernity and enemies of mother nature. He formed his reactionary opinions while living as a recluse in a remote cabin. The irony is he'll never again walk the woods he killed to "defend".
The Zodiac Killer
To this day, nobody knows who the Zodiac Killer was. And that only adds to the dark mystique that swirls around the man who terrorised California in the 60s and 70s. His crimes included gunning down couples in parked cars, killing a cabbie, and stabbing a couple who were basking in a park in broad daylight. He also sent complex coded messages to the media, most of which have still not been deciphered. He also made a mark in Hollywood, inspiring the villain Scorpio in Dirty Harry.
Jesse James is often regarded as a kind of all-American Robin Hood who rode his way through the Wild West robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. This is a load of codswallop – Jesse James was a vicious criminal and there's no evidence he robbed for anyone other than his own gang. He was also bitterly opposed to the freeing of the slaves after the American Civil War. One part of the myth is true: he was gunned down while dusting a picture on the wall.
Police couldn't quite believe their eyes when they finally cottoned on to what Jeffrey Dahmer was up to. Inside the man's pad they found severed heads in the fridge, a human torso in the freezer, and bags of organs stuffed further back in the ice. This was the grisly handiwork of one of America's most gruesome serial killers, who liked to kiss and chat to the chopped off heads of his victims while lovingly preserving their skeletons as trophies. Dahmer was eventually killed in prison. Not many people mourned.
A rare example of a female serial killer, Aileen Wuornos was the daughter of a schizophrenic sex criminal and a mother who abandoned her as a child. None of which excuses her own rampant kill frenzy, which saw her murder seven men. As she herself later wrote, "I'm one who seriously hates human life and would kill again". She was executed by lethal injection, and her last words were "I'll be back."
Some called him the "Dapper Don" on account of his flashy suits and flamboyant personality. Others dubbed him the "Teflon Don" because charges just refused to stick. Either way, John Gotti was the most infamous mob lord of the 80s and 90s, running the murderous Gambino crime family in New York City. The inspiration for movie characters and pop songs, Gotti was eventually got, and sent down for racketeering and murder with no possibility of release. He died in prison.