Infamous Criminals with a Command of the Written Word (Part One)

"I'm not a bad Lego mini-figure--I was built this way. Read my forthcoming memoir!"
“I’m not a bad Lego minifigure; I was built this way. Read my forthcoming memoir!”


As a professional writer, I enjoy using social media, even though some of what I read online is disheartening. The various platforms don’t necessarily encourage use of full sentences and proper grammar when you post or share content and photos. This greatly disturbs me!

But you don’t have to be a straight-A student to become a published author. In fact, the need to be a model citizen wasn’t even a fleeting thought for the people I’m about to showcase. Hey, notorious criminals can also be writers…


Bonnie Parker Was a Poet (And You Didn’t Even Know It!): Miss Bonnie Elizabeth Parker of Rowena, Texas, wasn’t your ordinary cigar-chomping, BAR-toting gun moll of the 1930s (specifically, 1932-34). Oh no. According to Wikipedia and other sources, she was a bright student in high school who demonstrated prize-winning talents in public speaking, spelling, and writing.

While on the lam with Clyde Barrow and his infamous gang, Bonnie Parker allegedly crafted two poems swallowed whole by the scoop-hungry press: “The Story of Suicide Sal” and “The Trail’s End.” The second poem became known as “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde.” But the poem’s publication wasn’t enough to save them from the long arm of the law (and Texas Ranger Frank Hamer).

In the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde (directed by Arthur Penn), snippets of Bonnie’s prophetic poetry were worked into the screenplay. If ever you’re “down Texas way” near Dallas, stop by Mrs. Thornton’s (she never divorced her husband, Roy Thornton) final resting place.

Caryl Chessman Extended His Death Sentence AND His Mind in Prison: It’s unclear whether the man known as the “Red-Light Bandit” was innocent of his alleged crimes. That said, I’ll focus instead on his authorship during his time on death row. From 1948 until his execution in 1960, Caryl Chessman was housed at the San Quentin State Prison in California.

According to the website, “His first book, Cell 2455, Death Row, sold more than half a million copies and was translated into 18 languages.” Dang, somewhat inconceivable for a guy accused of kidnapping and raping women.

Mr. Chessman wasn’t permitted to write books while incarcerated. And yet, he managed to do exactly that AND smuggle his manuscripts to a publisher. He also authored The Kid Was a Killer (a novel), The Face of Justice, and Trial by Ordeal.

An Aussie Nicknamed “Chopper” Was a Prolific Author (And Self-Confessed Murderer): His full name is Mark Brandon Read. He spent a cumulative 23 years in prison for a variety of naughty, anti-social offenses. Chopper also wrote at least a baker’s dozen of books, both during and after his incarceration(s).

If I had a notion to read any of these books, the one at the top of my list would be How to Shoot Friends and Influence People. (Hopefully, Dale Carnegie’s soul isn’t too disturbed regarding Mr. Read’s liberal borrowing from the iconic How to Win Friends and Influence People.) My next choice would be Chopper 10: A Fool and His Toes Are Soon Parted. And by the way: his nickname has no correlation to Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

Per, Mark Read “… gained international fame in 2000 after Australian-born actor Eric Bana played him in the film Chopper.” He died a free man in October 2013, succumbing to his extended battle with liver cancer.

Henri Charriere’s Final Escape from French Guiana Was “Coconutty” (Maybe): As a seasoned reader, I now possess the proper perspective to say this: Papillon reminds me of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, minus the Paris barricades. An unbelievable (and possibly 50% – 75% true) story, the book’s title comes from the butterfly (le papillon) tattoo that decorated Henri Charriere’s chest.

Charriere was a young man of 25 when he was convicted (wrongly, he claimed) of murder in France. He was eventually shipped out to French Guiana’s penal colony (South America) in 1933 to do hard labor for the remainder of his life. After more than a few prison-break attempts, Monsieur Charriere gained his lasting freedom in 1945. He allegedly jumped off a cliff (and onto a raft made from coconut shells) to escape his solitary confinement on Devil’s Island. But who knows for sure…

Charriere’s 1969 “autobiography” was originally published in French and translated into English in 1970. His story was then immortalized via a 1973 film, with Franklin Schaffner directing Steve McQueen in one of his best performances ever (my opinion). Vive le Papillon!

Frank Abagnale Taunted the Feds to “Catch Me If You Can”: We all know Leonardo DiCaprio interpreted young Frank Abagnale’s penchant for impersonating well-educated professionals (and committing embezzlement) in the movie Catch Me If You Can. But did you know the film was based on a book with the same title?

Although he did serve some time for his white-collar crimes, Abagnale earned his parole at age 26. He indentured himself to the FBI, promising to teach its agents and staff all his fraudulent methods.

His entry states that “Frank worked for the FBI for more than 30 years as one of the world’s foremost authorities on document fraud, check swindling, forgery and embezzlement. He also started his own company, Abagnale & Associates, which educates others on how to avoid becoming fraud victims.” Other books by Abagnale (regarding fraud prevention) include The Art of the Steal and Stealing Your Life.

Clarence Alexander Rae’s (Say Who?) Poetic Abode Was a Prison Cell: Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) hosted many a well-known criminal from 1829 until its closing in 1971. Names like Al Capone and “Slick Willie” Sutton are regularly associated with ESP. But if it’s a criminal with a poetic bent you seek, the name you’re looking for is Clarence Alexander Rae.

While doing time at ESP (starting in 1916) for a kidnapping conviction, Mr. Rae wrote a book of poetry entitled A Tale of a Walled Town: And Other Verses. Although he was eventually set free, our felon-poet friend landed back in prison for, of all things, book-stealing. Now that’s what I call poetic justice!


Have you read any of the books or poems penned by the members of my criminal roll call? If your answer is “no,” which book or collection of poetry would you tackle first (and why)? What literary suggestions do you have regarding other felonious authors? Don’t worry–you won’t be strip-searched if you leave a comment…

Lori Shapiro is the owner of By All Writes LLC, a business-to-business (B2B) writing, editing, and research company in Marlton, New Jersey. She revels in shielding her clients from the pain of writing their own print and web marketing or educational copy. Please call Lori Shapiro at 856-810-9764 or email By All Writes LLC at  for a no-obligation project quote today!

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