On May 6, 2013, a young man entered Scott Credit Union in Edwardsville, Missouri calmly, though he did not remove his sunglasses or hat as he approached the bank teller. From all accounts, he didn’t appear threatening, just a 20-something, blonde, white male strolling through the bank, but as he approached the teller, things took a dark turn. The young man implied that he was armed and, just like in old movies, slipped the teller a note demanding cash. He took the money, turned on his heel and walked out.
Nine days later, in Crystal City, Missouri, he strikes again. This time at a U.S.Bank. Again, he enters calmly, implies that he his armed -- without ever revealing a weapon -- and escapes with cold hard cash. By mid-August, he’s suspected of robbing 10 banks in five states. Each time, surveillance cameras catch him, clad in plaid with sunglasses on and all-American college boy looks. He’s not so scary.
By September, the FBI is buggin’. They can’t seem to catch this guy, even though they have plenty of footage of him. They fear he’ll strike again and maybe, eventually, use that weapon he keeps claiming to have. So they do what they always do, they give him a nickname (the "I-55 Bandit") and take it to the news .
Clever, because all of his bank robbery targets were along the I-55 corridor, but really kind of silly. Bandit, huh? Sounds tough. Here in the United States, we love assigning nicknames to everything from celebrity couples to weather catastrophes and especially to criminals. Apparently it makes the bad news easier to swallow. Or it gets people to pay attention. Or, I would argue, it makes it easier for us to disassociate ourselves from the “bad guys.”
These nicknames make scary criminals household names. They stick in your brain like old nursery rhymes. They’re difficult to forget, but they help us separate the oftentimes brutal unpleasantness of their crimes from our everyday lives. With their nicknames, these criminals become fantasy, just characters in some kind of wild movie, certainly not productive members of everyday society.
In a way, we make light of the crimes, they become a fascinating, morbid form of entertainment. We’re on the edge of our seats, wondering where they’ll strike next. It can become tough to remember that real people lost their lives, real people were abused, tortured, raped and robbed. But still, it seems unreal because the person that inflicted pain upon them has a really silly name. Well, maybe we don’t completely disregard their illegal acts as fiction because of their names, but it certainly takes the sting out of it.
Take the Giggling Granny for example. That nickname does not strike fear into the hearts of, well anyone, but it should. Between the 1920s and 1954, Nannie Doss, or the “Giggling Granny” as they called her, was responsible for the deaths of 11 people including two of her children, four of her husbands, two of her sisters, her mother, grandson and a nephew. When finally arrested, she laughed, completely unremorseful for her crimes. But her crimes were serious, vulgar, and unsettling. Since she only killed those closest to her however, the general public didn’t need to fear, they were able to chuckle at her moniker and gasp at her chilling acts of violence which she often bragged about, with a smile on her face, after her arrest.
Oh, sociopaths; they sure make interesting characters, don’t they? We are all obsessed, we just can’t get enough. When John Wayne Gacy was convicted of the sexual assault and murder of at least 33 young men in Chicago in the mid-1970s, America was shocked to learn that he’d previously volunteered his time at charitable events as “Pogo the Clown.” The Killer Clown was an apt name, indeed, but did the moniker take away from the severity of his sins? One thing’s for sure, it didn’t do much for the already shoddy reputation of clowns.
Night after night we sit, clutching our remote controls, staring, wide-eyed at the television screen, our favorite fictitious criminal running amuck on screen. Entire channels exist just to attempt to satisfy our insatiable obsession with the gory details. So when a real criminal enters the fray, we do what we can to make him or her as similar to our favorite characters as we can. Sometimes the real criminals are so crafty, we adapt their actions for screenplays, as is the case with Danny Rolling a.k.a. The Gainesville Ripper. After savagely murdering and mutilating five coeds in August of 1990, Rolling departed Gainesville leaving its citizens and students terrified that he might strike again. The murders were initially pinned on local crazy guy Edward Humphrey until Rolling was eventually arrested after a bank robbery in Ocala, Fl. His legacy lives on however, his story being the catalyst for the 1996 horror-flick Scream, which audiences happily reassured themselves was a work of fiction. Perhaps here the criminal nickname proved accurate and scary, though “ripper” seems a bit outdated.
Maybe our fascination with criminal nicknames was born from the criminals themselves. Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac and Son of Sam all famously provided their own handles, and for those that did not create their own pseudonym, the media was more than pleased to oblige. I’m sure folks in 1930s Texas were terrified when they learned that the Alligator Man a.k.a. Joe Ball was on the loose. Ball, a popular figure in Texas folklore, killed at least 20 women in the 1930s, allegedly disposing of their bodies by feeding them to alligators. That’s horrific! But “Alligator Man” sounds more like a guy with pointy teeth and scales than a true villain. For his crimes, he is remembered in Tobe Hooper’s 1977 film, Eaten Alive.
Though often I feel the aliases applied to criminals whitewash the severity of their crimes, in the case of the I-55 Bandit, they may have solved the mystery. Just 24 hours after the FBI launched its media blitz to learn his identity, the suspect, 19-year-old Andrew Maberry of O’Fallon, IL surrendered to police. So maybe these nicknames are merely a tactic to help track down the bad seeds. In any event, I think they could try a little harder when naming these people. I will never be fearful of a bandit, but the Vampire of Sacramento? Well, that’s a different story entirely.