Public enemies are usually perceived as dastardly characters who threaten the well-being of the general public. Some prey on certain populations; others aren't as discriminating. But they all pose a risk to society when they're at large.
In this article, we'll go over a whole nefarious bouquet of public enemies. Some are traditional villain-types anyone might expect to see, while others will seem surprising additions to a list such as this. But each entry, in its own way, has contributed detrimentally to the welfare of the common good.
Additionally, there have been public enemies who have received a fair share of face time, considering the villains that they were. For this reason, as an example, Adolf Hitler won't make an appearance here. He was an enemy to millions, but he has been vilified ad nauseam and is too well-covered a character to take anyone by surprise. All the public enemies who did make the cut have something compelling about them, something unique to their particular brand of evil that entertains as well as it disgusts.
So get ready to run down a list of 10 people and organizations the world probably would've been better off without. Sure, they might not have been born public enemies, but before their days were out, these guys have all done something to change the course of history -- and not for the better.
Big banks don't have a lot of friends among the general public due to the current economic recession. The same was also true during the Great Depression, so when the charming and charismatic John Dillinger came on the scene, robbing banks and sometimes destroying mortgage records. He quickly became something of a folk hero.
Dillinger robbed his first bank in June 1933, making off with more than $10,000 [source: PBS]. By September, he had relieved several more banks of funds, although this secured him a vacation to the Allen County Jail in Lima, Ohio. He didn't stay long, however. By smuggling in guns and giving them to fellow inmates, he aided their escape. A handful of them came back a couple of weeks later to return the favor.
Not even two full weeks after getting sprung from the big house, Dillinger and his newly formed gang managed a major score; they lifted $75,000 from the Central National Bank in Greencastle, Ind., on Oct. 23 [source: PBS]. The Chicago Police Department set up a special squad to nab Dillinger in December, so he took this as a cue to take a real vacation, and the gang road-tripped to Daytona Beach, Fla., to lay low for a little while.
Following a few more robberies, another escape from jail and plastic surgery, the law finally caught up with Dillinger. On July 22, 1934, he was ambushed and killed by special agents of the Division of Investigation, which a year later would be renamed the FBI.
Al Capone was a hardened mobster from an early age. His rackets included gambling, bootlegging, prostitution, bribery, drug trafficking, robbery and the occasional murder. Thought to have been the mastermind behind the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, a violent confrontation between gangs that left seven members of a rival mob dead, Capone was a singularly ruthless businessman in Chicago's criminal underbelly.
In 1930, Capone headed the newly declared list of Chicago's worst criminals, becoming Public Enemy No. 1 in a very real sense. But authorities had trouble making any charges against him stick for long. That is, until he was busted for tax evasion and convicted in 1931.
It's worth mentioning, however, that Capone also had a generous side. After the 1929 stock market crash, for example, he quickly opened up soup kitchens and donated clothes to the poor at his own expense. It's a good lesson in how slippery public enemies can sometimes have a softer side.
Kenneth Lay quickly grew into a figurehead for corporate corruption following the 2001 collapse of the Enron Corporation. He and other top executives of the Houston-based energy company spun a web of lies to employees and shareholders alike, for years touting strong returns and robust performance. The truth was far from it, however, and the company filed for bankruptcy protection in December 2001. In May of 2006, Lay's trial wound down, and the former chairman and CEO was declared guilty on counts of conspiracy, fraud and false statements. He died of a heart attack later that year.
But it isn't entirely fair to single out Lay -- after all, although the Enron scandal may have been one of the first of its kind to break, others have hit headlines in the years since. Corporate pirates abound in many industries these days. Take Bernie Madoff, for instance. His multibillion dollar Ponzi scheme shook the financial world and shattered the investment portfolios of thousands.
Chances are pretty good you've never heard of Thomas Midgley Jr., but you'd have to live under a rock to avoid hearing about one of his well-intentioned (and completely disastrous) inventions. That's because Midgley is the man behind chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), those pesky little pollutants that are having a field day destroying the ozone layer in our atmosphere. CFCs have now been banned across much of the world, and will be fully banned in developing nations in 2010. We won't reap the benefits of this phase-out for about a century, though -- the length of time it takes for CFCs to say sayonara.
As if that wasn't enough to qualify Midgley as a public enemy, try this on for size: Midgley is also the man responsible for leaded gasoline. It's great at reducing engine knock, sure, but less great in terms of public health. A deliciously potent neurotoxin, lead causes a whole host of health problems from insomnia, seizures and hallucinations all the way up to blindness, coma and death.
Thanks to leaded gasoline and a bevy of other lead-laden products, close to 80 percent of Americans had dangerously high lead levels in their bodies in 1976 [source: Dartmouth]. Luckily -- at least for those to whom the statistic does not apply -- that number is now down to about 2 percent. (There is, however, some debate over what constitutes a dangerously high level of lead, so it's possible that what's considered safe, especially for children, is actually still a serious threat.)
Henry Lee Lucas
Henry Lee Lucas is one of the most infamous serial killers of all time, confessing to more than 600 murders [source: Crime Magazine]. What's interesting about Lucas is that it's widely suspected he committed only some, or even just a slight fraction, of those admitted killings.
This public enemy captured the attention of the nation during the mid 1980s, but none more so than law enforcement officials across the country. After Lucas began confessing to murder after murder, they swarmed to the Texas task force headquarters where Lucas was imprisoned to question him about unsolved cases in their jurisdictions. As long as Lucas kept confessing -- a fact he later claimed was made easy because officers would feed him damning information to fuel his confessions -- he was spared death row and received excellent treatment.
Whether or not Lucas murdered only a few people, or in fact hundreds, will likely never be proven conclusively. Many suspect he actually killed only three women, but with Lucas' death in 2001, the truth remains elusive.
Pedro Alonzo Lopez
Pedro Alonzo Lopez has been nicknamed the "Monster of the Andes," and with good reason. A convicted serial killer, whose current whereabouts are unknown, Lopez is allegedly responsible for killing hundreds of young girls in the late 1970s all across Ecuador, Peru and Colombia.
Lopez confessed to having raped and murdered more than 300 young girls when he was eventually caught, and he led Ecuadorean police on a macabre tour of the countryside, showing them grave after grave and describing the grisly details of each encounter [source: A&E Biography]. His victims were usually prepubescent girls who he had lured away from busy marketplaces into secluded areas. After spending the night with them, he would strangle them at dawn. Sometimes instead of simply abandoning the bodies, he would reportedly set up a few of the corpses together in a sick imitation of little conversational parties until he got bored with them.
Lopez was eventually convicted of 110 counts of murder in Ecuador, but after a relatively short sentence given the magnitude of his crimes, he was released from jail and deported to Columbia for the authorities there to prosecute. Later set free by them as well, nobody knows where Lopez is now, but many of the victims' families hope that someone has taken it upon him or herself to end his fearsome reign of terror once and for all.
The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) known more commonly by the acronym FARC, have been stirring up trouble in South America since the 1960s. While FARC is not the only insurgent group plaguing Colombia, it's the most powerful and best-equipped. FARC gets its funding largely through drug trafficking -- to the tune of some $500 to $600 million a year -- although kidnapping and extortion are among its other income sources [source: Council on Foreign Relations].
The group is some 9,000 strong, with an estimated 30 percent of its fighters under the age of 18 [sources: Council on Foreign Relations and GlobalSecurity.org]. This means overall numbers are down from several years ago, but the number of child soldiers is on the rise. Over the years, FARC has committed numerous bombings, arms dealing, hijackings and killings. It frequently targets foreign tourists, rich landowners and prominent officials for kidnappings. On-and-off peace negotiations have been held since the 1980s between FARC and the Colombian government with mixed results.
Mexican Drug Cartels
Moving north, we encounter Mexico's various drug cartels, which vie for control of the country in a continuously escalating drug war that threatens the lives of an ever-increasing number of Mexicans and Americans. In 2008, more than 6,000 people in Mexico were killed in drug-related violence [source Lacey].
Between January 2000 and September 2006, the Mexican government reported that 79,000 people were arrested on drug charges, although the vast majority were minor drug dealers. There were, however, 15 cartel leaders, 74 lieutenants, 53 financial officers and 428 hitmen among the total [source: Congressional Research Service]. Police corruption has grown so widespread in some cities that the police force had to be entirely rebuilt from the ground up. Huge numbers of soldiers in the Mexican military, while considered less corrupt than the regular police force, have quit and gone to work for cartels in the past few years -- an estimated 100,000 in the past seven years alone [source: Lacey].
Of course, drug trafficking isn't the extent of the crimes committed by Mexico's drug cartels. Kidnapping, money laundering, human trafficking, arms trafficking, bribery, theft, torture and murder are also rampant. Beheadings are growing increasingly common. Machine guns, grenades and even ground-to-air missiles are quickly becoming the preferred weapons of choice.
The Khmer Rouge Regime
The years 1975 through 1979 were not good years to be a Cambodian. While violence preceded and extended beyond the '70s as forces vied against each other for regional power, the reign of the Khmer Rouge Regime was unarguably the worst.
The Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot as prime minister followed an agrarian communist ideology. When they took power, the first thing they did was march everyone out of all urban centers, forcing those who survived to till the land. New villages were poorly equipped and often lacked agricultural tools, food and medical care.
It's impossible to determine how many people suffered and died during the Khmer Rouge regime. Many hundreds of thousands were killed outright, while hundreds of thousands more dropped from starvation, disease and forced labor. According to the U.S. Department of State, estimates range from 1.7 to 3 million Cambodian people who died during that time period [source: U.S. Department of State].
Mao Zedong left a complicated legacy for his people and the rest of the world to comprehend. Considered a revolutionary theorist, a strong political leader and a powerful statesman, Zedong was also principally responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of his own countrymen.
Certainly many of Mao's actions do not qualify him for consideration as a public enemy, but there lingers the fact that during the Great Leap Forward, poor planning coupled with untimely natural disasters caused a surge in widespread famine that led to devastating death tolls. Estimates of the number of people who perished during the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s and early 1960s vary immensely. Some estimates place the number at around 20 million, while other estimates soar to around 30 million [sources: Encyclopedia Britannica and CNN].
For more information on public enemies and crime of all sorts, click over to the next page.
Dillinger was responsible for 10 deaths, three jail breaks and some 20 bank robberies. HowStuffWorks takes a look at how he was finally stopped.
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