this day in crime history: march 25, 1990

happylandfireOn this day in 1990, an argument turned into a mass murder at the Happy Land Social Club in the Bronx, NY.

Earlier in the evening, Cuban immigrant Julio Gonzalez was ejected from the club after arguing with his ex-girlfriend, who worked there as a coat check girl. Gonzalez, who had recently lost his job, was enraged. He screamed threats at the bouncers as they ejected him from the club.

Gonzalez returned to the club armed with a container of gasoline and some matches. He poured the gas on the stairs to the club and ignited it. The fire spread quickly. Due to a lack of working fire exits (they were blocked to prevent people from entering the club without paying), the people inside were trapped. Several managed to escape by breaking through a barrier that blocked one of the fire doors. Eighty-seven people died in the fire.

Among those who survived was Gonzalez’s ex-girlfriend. She told police about the argument and Gonzalez’s threats. They tracked him down and arrested him the following afternoon. Shortly after being arrested, Gonzalez confessed to the crime. He was tried and convicted on 87 counts of arson and 87 counts of murder. He was sentenced to 25 years to life on each count. Since the crimes occurred in a single incident, New York State law required that the sentences be served concurrently, rather than consecutively. Gonzalez is currently incarcerated at Clinton Correction Facility. He is scheduled for a parole hearing in November 2016.

The owners of the building were sued by the victims and the families of the deceased. The case was settled for $15.8 million, divided between the plaintiffs.

Further reading:

New York TimesRefugee Found Guilty of Killing 87 in Bronx Happy Land Fire

Murderpedia – Julio Gonzalez

Wikipedia – Happy Land Fire

this day in crime history: march 21, 1963

On this date in 1963, the prison they called “The Rock” was closed by the Department of Justice. The federal penitentiary at Alcatraz opened in 1934. At its peak, it held over 200 inmates. Some of its more famous residents include Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert “Birdman” Stroud.

For more info, check out these sites:

National Park Service Alcatraz website

Alcatraz History

Alcatraz Cruises

Ghosts of Alcatraz

this day in crime history: march 20, 1933


On this date in 1933, would be presidential assassin Giuseppe Zangara was executed in the Florida electric chair. Forty-five days prior to his execution, Zangara had tried to assassinate President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. He missed Roosevelt, but managed to shoot several other people, including Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. Cermak later died of his wounds.

The general consensus among historians is that Roosevelt was the intended target, and that Cermak was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But there is another school of thought: Cermak was the real target. As the story goes, Cermak was behind the attempted assassination of Chicago Outfit boss Frank Nitti. The designated hitters for that job were officers of the Chicago PD, who claimed that they shot Nitti in self defense. Nitti survived the shooting and stood trial for his supposed assault on the officers. The jury didn’t buy it, and Nitti was acquitted. The officers, on the other hand, were eventually charged with assault. One flipped on the other, and they were both convicted and fined $100 each.

As payback for the attempt on Nitti’s life, the Outfit supposedly contracted Sicilian immigrant Giuseppe Zangara to kill Cermak. The hit went down as planned, and Zanagara took the fall as a “crazed gunman.” Of course, there’s not much proof to support this theory, which is fairly standard for conspiracy theories. But it makes for an interesting story. Maybe Oliver Stone will make a movie about it someday.

Further reading:

Awesome Stories: Frank Nitti – The Enforcer

Chicago TribuneThe Shooting of Anton Cermak

Executed Today – 1933: Giuseppe Zangara, who is not on Sons of Italy posters

this day in crime history: march 19, 1943

On this date in 1943, Chicago mob boss Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti committed suicide. Nitti, who rose to prominence as Al Capone’s right hand man, was facing a prison sentence for shaking down several Hollywood movie studios. Severe claustrophobia, which had surfaced during a previous eighteen month stint in prison, made the mobster terrified at the thought of being locked up again. On the morning of March 19th, after his wife left for church, Nitti began drinking heavily. Once he had enough liquid courage, Nitti got his gun and went for a walk. He wound up at a rail yard several blocks from his house. He sat down on the ground, put the gun to his head, and pulled the trigger.

Further reading:

My Al Capone Museum – Frank Nitti

Find A Grave – Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti

Wikipedia – Frank Nitti

this day in crime history: march 18, 1990

On this date in 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA was robbed. It was just after midnight when two men dressed as police officers appeared at the museum’s door, claiming they had received a report about a disturbance at the museum. One of the two guards on duty that night let them in. Minutes later the guards were overpowered, bound with duct tape, and stashed in separate parts of the museum’s basement. The two bogus cops went to work stealing various items, including works by Rembrandt, Degas, and Manet. The estimated value of their haul: over $300 million. It was the largest art heist in US history. To date, the case remains unsolved, and none of the stolen works of art have been recovered.

Further reading:

FBI – Art Theft program

Boston.com – Secrets behind the largest art theft in history

this day in crime history: march 16, 1934


On this date in 1934, Herbert Youngblood, an accused murderer who escaped from the Lake County Jail in Crown Point, IN with John Dillinger, was killed in a shootout with police in Port Huron, MI. Undersheriff Charles Cavanaugh was also killed in the shootout, which left two lawmen and a civilian injured.

Further reading:

Time“Bad Man at Large”

Dillinger: The Untold Story, by G. Russell Girardin, William J. Helmer, and Rick Mattix

YOUNGBLOOD IS SLAIN IN BATTLE

this day in crime history: march 15, 44 b.c.

Beware the Ides of March. At least if you’re Julius Caesar. Cornered by a bunch of (literally) back-stabbing politicians, Caeser’s political career was ended the old-fashioned way: assassination. You can get William Shakespeare’s take on it here. Better yet, check out William Shatner’s take on Shakespeare’s play from Free Enterprise: