26 Famous Gangsters From The Height Of The Public Enemy Era

Published March 6, 2018
Updated January 30, 2019

From Al Capone to Bonnie and Clyde, these famous gangsters of the 1920s prove that they just don't make criminals like they used to.

George "Baby Face" Nelson

Baby Face Nelson
George "Baby Face" Nelson was a notorious bank robber and killer who operated in the 1920s and 1930s across America. An associate of John Dillinger, Nelson was named public enemy number one by the F.B.I. upon the former's death. In 1934, the 25-year-old Nelson died following a shootout with the F.B.I. during which he was struck by 17 bullets.Wikimedia Commons

Ellsworth Raymond "Bumpy" Johnson

Bumpy Johnson
Ellsworth Raymond "Bumpy" Johnson was an African-American mob boss who ran rackets in Harlem for the Mafia during the Prohibition era. Because he was able to cut a deal with Mafioso "Lucky" Luciano when the latter took over number rackets (illegal lotteries) in Harlem, Johnson was regarded as a hero by many Harlemites. After Johnson was indicted for conspiring to sell heroin, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. But when he returned to Harlem in 1963, he was greeted with a parade. He died five years later as a result of heart failure.Wikimedia Commons

Al Capone

Al Capone Famous Gangsters
Al Capone was the co-founder and boss of the Chicago Outfit that made as much as $100 million each year through various illegal activities such as bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution. Capone was, and still is, the main suspect in the notorious Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre during which seven of Capone's rivals were killed. However, Capone's downfall wasn't these murders or any others. Rather, he went down on tax evasion charges and was sentenced to 11 years in prison, some of which he spent in Alcatraz, where he was diagnosed with syphilis. In 1947, Capone suffered a stroke and then caught pneumonia which ultimately led to his death.Wikimedia Commons

Bonnie And Clyde

Bonnie And Clyde Famous Gangsters
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, among the most famous gangsters in American history, traveled the country robbing cars, banks, gas stations, and grocery stores — and killing those who stood in their way. In the end, the duo’s downfall came after an accomplice betrayed them to police who gunned them down in an ambush in 1934.Wikimedia Commons

Enoch "Nucky" Johnson

Enoch Nucky Johnson
The Atlantic City political boss and racketeer Enoch “Nucky” Johnson was notorious for his involvement in bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution during the Prohibition era. He was allies with a number of underworld figures such as Arnold Rothstein, Al Capone, "Lucky" Luciano, and Johnny Torrio. In 1939, Thompson was indicted on tax evasion charges and was sentenced to ten years in prison but was paroled after only four years. He died of natural causes in 1968.Bettmann/Getty Images

Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel

Benjamin Siegel
The charismatic Jewish-American mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel made his living in the worlds of bootlegging, gambling, and murder. Together with the Jewish-American gangster Meyer Lanksy, he founded the Bugs and Meyer Gang. After spearheading the development of Las Vegas in the 1940s, he was killed in Los Angeles in 1947, perhaps due to a disagreement with Lansky although the motives remain uncertain.Wikimedia Commons

John Dillinger

John Dillinger Famous Gangsters
Along with his Terror Gang, John Dillinger robbed enough banks in the early 1930s to become a nationwide celebrity and earn himself the title of "Public Enemy No. 1." Dillinger's downfall came in 1934 when he went to the movies with his new girlfriend and a friend. Unbeknownst to him, his friend had betrayed him and police had taken position outside the theater. Dillinger was gunned down upon exiting.Wikimedia Commons

Abraham "Kid Twist" Reles

Famous Gangsters Abe Reles
New York mobster Abraham "Kid Twist" Reles, one of the most feared of all hitmen, was known for killing his victims with an ice pick which he'd brutally ram through his victim’s ear and straight into his brain. He eventually turned state's evidence and sent many of his ex-colleagues to the electric chair. Reles himself died in 1941 while in police custody after falling out a window. He appeared to have been trying to escape but some claim that he was actually killed by the mafia.Wikimedia Commons

Charles “Lucky” Luciano

Lucky Luciano
Charles “Lucky” Luciano was an Italian-American mobster who was largely responsible for creating the modern Mafia and its national organized crime network known as the Commission. Living up to his nickname, "Lucky" Luciano survived numerous attempts on his life, but his luck didn't last forever sd he eventually brought down thanks to his prostitution ring in 1936 and was sentenced to 30-50 years in prison. During World War II, Luciano struck a deal with the U.S. government to assist the war effort. As a reward, he was released from prison, albeit deported to Italy, where he died of a heart attack in 1962.Wikimedia Commons

Abner "Longie" Zwillman

Abner Zwillman Notorious Gangster
Known as the “Al Capone of New Jersey,” Abner Zwillman was involved in bootlegging and gambling operations although he desperately tried to make his businesses appear as legitimate as possible. Thus, he did things like donate to charities and offer a generous reward for the kidnapped Lindbergh baby. Ultimately, in 1959, Zwillman was found hanged in his New Jersey home. The death was ruled a suicide but bruises found on Zwillman’s wrists suggested foul play.NY Daily News Archive/ Getty Images

Meyer Lansky

Meyer Lansky
Known as the “Mob’s Accountant,” Jewish-American gangster Meyer Lanksy was responsible for developing a huge international gambling empire with help from his contacts in the Mafia, including "Lucky" Luciano, with whom he helped form the national crime syndicate known as the Commission. Unlike most powerful gangsters, he was never convicted on any serious charges and died a free man at age 80 in 1983 due to lung cancer.Wikimedia Commons

Albert Anastasia

Albert Anastasia
Known as “the Mad Hatter” and “Lord High Executioner,” Albert Anastasia was a feared Mafia hitman and gang leader who was also involved in numerous gambling operations. A leader of the Mafia enforcement arm known as Murder, Inc., Anastasia performed and ordered countless killings centered in New York before himself dying at the hands of unidentified killers as part of a Mafia power struggle in 1957.Wikimedia Commons

Albert Bates

Albert Bates
Albert Bates, a partner of the infamous "Machine Gun" Kelly, was a bank robber and burglar active across America during the 1920s and 1930s. However, as bank robberies became more and more difficult to carry out thanks to increased law enforcement, Bates and Kelly decided to turn to kidnapping instead. Bates participated in the kidnapping of oil tycoon Charles Urschel, which led to his ultimate undoing. He was captured and convicted in 1933 and eventually died of heart disease in 1948.Wikimedia Commons

Arnold Rothstein

Arnold Rothstein Notorious Gangster
Nicknamed “the Brain,” Arnold Rothstein was a Jewish-American racketeer, businessman and gambler. The boss of the Jewish mob in New York City, he is said to have been responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series. In 1928, Rothstein was discovered at the service entrance of Manhattan Park Central Hotel, fatally wounded. When the police arrived, they found the poker game Rothstein had attended still in progress but Rothstein refused to rat out the person who shot him and died shortly afterwards.Wikimedia Commons

George "Machine Gun Kelly" Barnes

Machine Gun Kelly
Nicknamed after his favorite weapon, a Thompson submachine gun, "Machine Gun Kelly" was a notorious bootlegger, kidnapper, and bank robber who operated across 1930s America. In 1933, he was involved in the kidnapping and ransom of oil tycoon Charles F. Urschel. Unfortunately for Kelly, after the ransom was paid and Urschel was released, he provided many clues to the authorities as to who his kidnappers may have been. Both Kelly and his second wife, who often aided him in his illicit activities, were caught only a few weeks after they had released Urschel and were sentenced to life in prison.Wikimedia Commons

George "Bugs" Moran

Bugs Moran
Chicago's George "Bugs" Moran (right), head of the North Side Gang during Prohibition, murdered many of rival Al Capone’s associates, which likely prompted Capone to take revenge and kill Moran's men during the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. After Prohibition ended, Moran left the gang and resorted to carrying out robberies himself before getting caught sentenced to prison, where he died of cancer in 1957.Bettmann/Getty Images

Fred Barker

Fred Barker
The charismatic albeit bloodthirsty Fred Barker was one of the founders of the notorious Barker-Karpis Gang with Alvin Karpis, who called Barker a “natural born killer.” He committed countless robberies, kidnappings, and murders in the 1930s. Despite his attempts to fool the F.B.I. by altering his appearance and fingerprints through plastic surgery, he was eventually tracked to a house in Florida and was killed there after an hours-long shootout with law enforcement.Wikimedia Commons

Fred William Bowerman

Fred William Bowerman
Fred William Bowerman carried out many bank robberies starting in the 1930s and finally made it onto the F.B.I.'s Ten Most Wanted list in 1953 after one particularly daring heist. A month after the incident, Bowerman and his accomplices attempted to rob the Southwest Bank in Missouri. All was going according to plan but, unbeknownst to the criminals, a bank employee had pressed a silent alarm button. In only a few minutes, the criminals were surrounded by 100 police officers and Bowerman was killed.Wikimedia Commons

Harvey Bailey

Harvey Bailey
Known as “The Dean of American Bank Robbers,” Harvey Bailey was one of the most successful thieves of the 1920s. He reportedly robbed at least two banks a year over his 12-year career. He was eventually caught and found guilty of aiding "Machine Gun" Kelly and Albert Bates in the kidnapping of oil tycoon Charles Urschel in 1933 and was sentenced to life in prison. However, he was released in 1964, retired from crime, and took up cabinet making.Wikimedia Commons

Homer Van Meter

Homer Van Meter Famous Gangsters
An associate of John Dillinger and "Baby Face" Nelson, bank robber Homer Van Meter joined his compatriots near the top of authorities' most-wanted lists in the early 1930s. And like Dillinger and the others, Van Meter was eventually gunned down by police (pictured). Some even say that it was Nelson, with whom Van Meter had been arguing, that tipped off the cops.Bettmann/Getty Images

Joe Masseria

Joe Masseria
Known as “Joe the Boss” and “the man who can dodge bullets,” Joe Masseria was the early boss of the Genovese crime family in New York. His power struggles with other Mafia leaders soon started a war that ended with an agreement that informed the structure of the Mafia as we know it. Masseria himself died during that war after being executed in a Brooklyn restaurant.Wikimedia Commons

Johnny Torrio

Johnny Torrio
Italian-American mobster Johnny Torrio, also known as “Papa Johnny,” helped build the Chicago Outfit that was later taken over by Al Capone after Torrio's 1925 retirement prompted by an attempt on his life. After retiring, he participated in a number of legitimate businesses before dying of a heart attack in 1957.Wikimedia Commons

Jack "Legs" Diamond

Legs Diamond
Also known as “Gentleman Jack,” Jack "Legs" Diamond was an Irish-American gangster who was involved in alcohol smuggling operations in Philadelphia and New York City during the Prohibition era. He became known as the “clay pigeon of the underworld” due to his ability to survive numerous attempts on his life by rival gangsters. However, in 1931, he was finally shot and killed.Bettmann/Getty Images

Louis "Lepke" Buchalter

Louis Buchalter
Jewish-American mobster Louis Buchalter was a racketeer and leader of New York's Murder, Inc. hit squad along with Mafioso Albert Anastasia. Buchalter was eventually made to pay for all these killings after being convicted on murder charges in 1941. He then became the only major crime boss to be given the death penalty and was executed in the electric chair.Wikimedia Commons

Alvin Karpis

Alvin Karpis Gangster
Alvin Karpis, also known as “Creepy” due to his unsettling smile, was the leader of the ruthless Karpis-Barker gang. In 1933, the gang kidnapped a millionaire Minnesota brewer and a banker which caused the F.B.I. to label Karpis “Public Enemy No. 1.” In 1936, when the F.B.I. did catch him, Karpis became the only man to ever be personally arrested by F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.Bettmann/Getty Images

Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd

Pretty Boy Floyd Famous Gangsters
"Pretty Boy" Floyd was a Depression-era gangster best known for his bank and payroll robberies. When Floyd moved to robbing banks in Oklahoma, he was celebrated and even protected by the locals because he supposedly destroyed mortgage papers during his heists, thus freeing people from their debt. In addition, Floyd was known to be generous – he often shared the money he stole – and was thus dubbed “Robin Hood of the Cookson Hills.” However, Floyd’s luck was about to run out. It is said that in 1933 Floyd and his friend attempted to stop one of their robbing buddies from being returned to a penitentiary which unfortunately resulted in the death of their buddy as well as the deaths of two officers, a police chief, and an F.B.I. agent. Authorities then hunted him and eventually gunned him down in a cornfield in Ohio in 1934.American Stock/Getty Images

When Prohibition blocked the legal sale of alcohol in America from 1920 to 1933, it created an all-new and incredibly lucrative stream of income for both petty criminals and powerful organized crime figures. Suddenly, there were millions of dollars to be made from making and selling illegal alcohol.

At the end of Prohibition, the Great Depression was in full swing, which led to high unemployment rates and only fueled crime rates and general discontent among the desperate public.

These difficult yet opportune conditions led to a rise in the number of famous gangsters able to make their mark on history.
Members of large organized crime syndicates such as Al Capone and small-gang outlaws and thieves such as George "Baby Face" Nelson suddenly rose to prominence and became household names across the country. In many ways, the public saw these famous gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s as heroes who outsmarted the government, and were thus figures to be celebrated and admired, not scorned.

On the other hand, this rise of a more organized and professional wave of crime prompted the Bureau of Investigation (which didn't yet have "Federal" in its name) to reorganize in an attempt to deal with these gangsters.

One man had a vision of what the bureau should become if it was to be successful: J. Edgar Hoover. He had joined the Department of Justice in 1917 and was promoted to assistant director of the bureau only four years later. In 1924, Hoover became the director and began making serious reforms that shaped the bureau for decades.

This newly reformed bureau enacted a series of daring operations intended to take down gangsters, often known as "public enemies," and bring peace to the streets of America.

Meet some of these public enemies in the gallery above.

After this look at famous gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s, read up on some notorious female gangsters that stole and killed their way into the underworld. Then, check out some of the most incredible facts about Al Capone.

Laura Martisiute
Laura is a freelance writer based in Tramore, Ireland. In her spare time, she likes to explore secret beaches, pet cats, and read.