Are Criminal Masterminds Getting Dumber or Just Lazier?

Their stories and misadventures have inspired some of Hollywood’s greatest films. They are the hucksters, burglars, and schemers whose love for taking risks and search for outrageous fortune made them legends. But after a sudden 1990s resurgence of criminal genius, the standard for bold, high-profile robbery has dropped precipitously. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not great either.

A life of crime used to require both a considerable intellect along with the courage necessary to pull the whole thing off. Years before John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde became America’s most romanticized outlaws, Italian worker Vincenzo Peruggia pulled off history's most ambitious heist in 1911 when he stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. His methodology? Hiding the painting under his smock and walking out. Simple as the getaway may have seemed, the Mona Lisa remained missing for two years.

Through the 20th century, famous crimes like the Great Train Robbery in 1963, the 1978 Lufthansa heist at Kennedy Airport, and the Brinks headquarters fleecing in 1950 taught people about the outside thinking and efficient workmanship of criminals who became cult figures through history, particularly Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber who turned himself into authorities after living a life on the run for 35 years.

The 1990s and early part of this decade saw some of the biggest robberies yet. 1990 saw a group of men posing as security guards rip of Boston’s Gardner Museum on St. Patrick’s Day of all things while the robbery at Dunbar Armored in 1997 yielded the biggest criminal cash payout in American history. But the latter part of this decade has seen a sudden loss of the panache that once made criminals famous. Instead of a slick getaway, last year’s robbery of the Emile Buhrle Foundation heist involved ski masks and a pistol with two of the art works stolen being found quickly in an unlocked parked car. A crude 2004 robbery of the Munch Museum involved guns and all the paintings stolen being recovered in short order.

In fact, rather than romanticize brilliant heists, spotlighting the world’s dumbest criminals has become a go-to media pastime. Recent years have actually seen our most famous thieves come in the form of ponzi schemers and war criminals, endeavors that most people will tell you don’t require the intellect and organizational acuity of a proficient criminal mastermind. Withthe exception of some impressive Brazilian heists, the most recent high-profile conventional criminal may be Colt Harris-Moore, an 18-year-old who became known by authorities in Washington state as the Barefoot Burglar.  His crime? Stealing and crashing a series of small personal aircraft. We’re not calling for all the criminal geniuses to suddenly come out of the woodwork. We’re just wondering if they still exist.

Related Articles

How schizophrenia is linked to common personality type

Both schizophrenics and people with a common personality type share similar brain patterns.

Mind & Brain
  • A new study shows that people with a common personality type share brain activity with patients diagnosed with schizophrenia.
  • The study gives insight into how the brain activity associated with mental illnesses relates to brain activity in healthy individuals.
  • This finding not only improves our understanding of how the brain works but may one day be applied to treatments.
Keep reading Show less

Human skeletal stem cells isolated in breakthrough discovery

It's a development that could one day lead to much better treatments for osteoporosis, joint damage, and bone fractures.

Image: Nissim Benvenisty
Surprising Science
  • Scientists have isolated skeletal stem cells in adult and fetal bones for the first time.
  • These cells could one day help treat damaged bone and cartilage.
  • The team was able to grow skeletal stem cells from cells found within liposuctioned fat.
Keep reading Show less

How exercise helps your gut bacteria

Gut bacteria play an important role in how you feel and think and how well your body fights off disease. New research shows that exercise can give your gut bacteria a boost.

National Institutes of Health
Surprising Science
  • Two studies from the University of Illinois show that gut bacteria can be changed by exercise alone.
  • Our understanding of how gut bacteria impacts our overall health is an emerging field, and this research sheds light on the many different ways exercise affects your body.
  • Exercising to improve your gut bacteria will prevent diseases and encourage brain health.
Keep reading Show less