The Weirdest Crimes in NYC History

This city is full of little strangenesses. We have days dedicated to subway pantslessness, our Elmo gets handcuffed, and yeah, it’s true, alligators really do clamber out of our storm drains sometimes. With a population of nearly 8.5 million in NYC, it just makes sense that some of the country’s strangest crimes happen down the block. These are the weirdest ones in NYC history.

lev radin/Shutterstock

1. New Yorkers Riot Over Dudes Wearing Seasonally Inappropriate Headwear

In the 1920s, straw hats were the height of men’s summer fashion. Emphasis on summer: this was a seasonal item, and after September 15th, it was considered extremely tacky to wear a straw hat, the same way your weird judgy aunt raises her eyebrow when you wear white after Labor Day. Unwilling to just give fashion offenders a little side eye, however, some Roaring '20s delinquents would snatch the straw hats from men’s heads and trample them, because why not. Outbreaks of hat-snatching gangs had sprung up along the East Coast since 1919, but in 1922, roving bands of hooligans terrorized the streets of New York in a three-day-long full-on straw hat riot. Hundreds of young men roved the streets, getting into fights and massacring each other’s hats using sticks covered in nails, like a sartorial Tom & Jerry fever dream. There were several injuries, though no one was killed.


2. Dude Robs Pizza Makers, Steals Wrong Dough

This is one of those delicious little pieces of near-irony that would make for absolutely terrible, schlocky fiction, because the coincidence is just too cute. A few years ago, sad clown Salvatore LaRosa robbed the owners of Brothers Pizzeria on Staten Island to the tune of… uh, whatever a sack of flour and water costs. LaRosa reportedly drew a gun and demanded that his victims hand over a weighty-looking bag (we presume it was a white pillowcase with a gigantic dollar sign printed in green on the side). LaRosa fled the scene, only to later discover his error: instead of the day’s proceeds, the sack was filled with pizza dough.

Flickr/Tambako The Jaguar

3. 500-Pound Tiger Discovered in Public Housing Complex

Back in 2003, Antoine Yates came to the decision that a baby tiger named Ming was the perfect addition to his Harlem apartment. Ming started off as a cub, but eventually grew into a full-scale tiger who pissed all over the place and consumed buckets of raw chicken on a daily basis. What really tied the room together, however, was the 7ft alligator, Al, Yates bought as a sort of companion for Ming. Per Yates, Ming and Al “used to get nose to nose and sort of interact” -- and now that we’re envisioning the two of them kind of snuggling, the crime maybe wins the “cutest reckless endangerment charge in New York ever.” Yates was caught after he came between Ming and a rescued housecat, which Ming had decided needed eviscerating. His wounds were atypical to say the least, and the hospital tipped off the cops.

4. Guy Plays Elaborate, Expensive, Months-Long Practical Joke on Minister for No Reason

In the winter of 1880, Trinity Church’s pastor was plagued by a series of criminal pranks that may have been the first instances of spam mail ever. You know the old trick of signing some jerk up for a bunch of “bill me later” magazine subscriptions? This is the vintage version: one morning, the Reverend Morgan Dix received mailings from companies across the United States. Soon he was receiving hundreds of them, in addition to people of practically every trade and tradition showing up at his door from dawn to dusk: locksmiths, physicians, horse salesmen, dance instructors, toupee makers, tattoo artists, pawnbrokers, divorce attorneys, girls’ school representatives… all carrying with them letters on the reverend’s stationery, asking for them to visit. Soon, other members of the clergy started receiving rude notes, also allegedly from the reverend, and eventually, the pastor's tormentor tried to extort him.

As they noted over at Strange Company, the endless pestering completely derailed the minister’s life. When they finally tracked down the man behind the madness, who had been calling himself “Gentleman Joe” in teasing letters he sent the minister, his motive was as opaque as the scheme had been elaborate: "I really do not know why I did it," he told a reporter from the New York Sun. "I have a soft spot in that direction. It's a mania. When I get a pen in my hand I have to write."

Flickr/Nathan Rupert

5. Gangster Keeps Lion in Club Basement

In the 1950s, a gangster called Crazy Joe Gallo kept a lion in the basement of a bar owned and run by Mondo, the mafia “midget” mascot. Yes. Joe was known for taking his lion on walks through the neighborhood, as part of a fairly effective intimidation practice. While he was guilty of plenty of other crimes (gambling, extortion, etc.) keeping a lion in his friend’s basement was the showiest illegal activity Joe ever engaged in.

Courtesy of Gladden Entertainment

6. Guys Play Weekend at Bernie’s With Friend’s Corpse for Cash

There are so many things that are just not cool to do with your friend’s recently deceased corpse. Like pretty much anything other than calling the coroner, really. Instead, a couple of Manhattanites decided it would be a better idea to wheel their dead friend through the streets of Hell’s Kitchen in a red office chair -- so they could cash his $355 Social Security check. Needless to say, this plan was not as fruitful as the departed’s friends had hoped.

7. Lovelorn iPhone Thief Caught in Honeypot

Nadav Nirenberg is one of the lucky few in NYC who’ve managed to recover their lost iPhones -- and his story beats yours. After accepting that his phone was lost and wasn’t likely to be returned, Nadav noticed something totally creepy and annoying -- the thief was sending women some super-sketchy messages from his OKCupid account (which should really just be a crime unto itself). So, instead of just confronting the thief directly, Nadav set up a totally brilliant little honeypot, because he is actually a world-class secret agent: he created a cute girl profile, reeled the thief in, and once the robber was hooked, showed up at his apartment. The hopeful robber was waiting, ready for his date, so Nadav got his phone back, and updated his profile with the best excuse for having sent gross messages via online dating ever.

Warren Price Photography/

8. Burglar Leaves Valuables, Purloins Grey Poupon

A Clinton Ave household found that they had been robbed, but their valuables were all in place. Instead of taking TVs or jewelry, the burglars had mostly stolen relatively high-end snacks: canned salmon, balsamic vinegar, and four jars of Grey Poupon, among other items, were the household items deemed suitable enough for the burglars’ palates. An advertising stunt was never ruled out.

Flickr/Larissa Brown

9. Post Office Employee Hoarded 40,000 Pieces of Undelivered Mail

Last year, postal carrier Joseph Brucato was caught hoarding 2,500lbs of mail in his firetrap of a Brooklyn apartment. Over a period of 10 years, Brucato kept everything from bills and birthday cards to scratch-off car dealership mailers and those little coupon booklets. Forty thousand individual pieces of mail is a whole lot; if those were mountain lions instead of letters, they would be about the total current number of mountain lions in the United States. Imagine all the mountain lions in the United States crammed into Joseph Brucato’s apartment, because we’ve had a solid big-cats-in-New-York theme going here. Anyway, it took five human individuals a total of five hours to remove the decade of hoarded mail. Mr. Brucato explained the incident was due to his depression and alcoholism, which sounds sensible. Of the reasons to stack 1.25 tons of mail in your apartment, car, and locker, depression and alcoholism seem like better reasons than, say, “acute sinusitis” or “for kicks.”

10. Three Idiots Pretend to Be Cops to Snag Early Copies of Grand Theft Auto

In 2013, three Staten Island gents posed as cops so that they could get early copies of a video game in which you pretend to be criminals, thus becoming actual criminals in the process. Something about art and life and imitation springs to mind, only replace “art” with “a video game in which the protagonist burns a house to the ground because feelings.” The kids -- all 19 and 20 -- were so excited about Grand Theft Auto V that they impersonated police officers in order to cut the line at their local GameStop. They were later pulled over for driving like they were playing the game, and charged with criminal impersonation. That’s gotta be like, at least 100 RP, right?

Courtesy of Unicode

11. Kid Arrested for Emoji Overusage

A 17-year-old Bushwick kid was charged with making terrorist threats, after endangering the life of a police officer with multiple firearms. This sounds pretty reasonable, in terms of terrorism charges. The kid had two guns and was waving them at a cop! Charge him! Except these were tiny, cutesy, Japanese cartoons of guns, and the cop wasn’t a real cop, but a little, blue-hatted emoji cop. Basically, someone found it troublesome that the teenager was posting the cop emoji next to two gun emojis on his Facebook wall, which "caused [the] informant and other New York City police officers to fear for their safety, for public safety, and to suffer alarm and annoyance.” So be careful with what you do with those fire and dragon emojis, Khaleesi. Apparently cartoon violence is real violence in NYC now.

Sign up here for our daily NYC email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun New York has to offer.

Jess Novak is bucking the trend and has started hoarding anteaters in her tiny Brooklyn apartment. Check out their progress on Twitter @jesstothenovak and Instagram @jtothenovak.