Frank Abagnale Jr. was in Mont Pellier, France, when the authorities finally came for him. A girl he’d dated in the past — now a flight attended for Air France — had identified him at the airport. Though in French custody, 12 other countries fought for his extradition: officials across the planet wanted him to pay.
Today, tracing the crime spree that spanned so many countries is easy: Frank Abagnale Jr. wrote an autobiography, and the 2002 crime film Catch Me If You Can brought that story to the big screen. But even for Hollywood, the story felt impossible — how did a 22-year-old kid really prove himself the most notorious con artist of all time?
But it would be over 60 years before Frank Abagnale Jr. stood on the red carpet with Leonardo DiCaprio, the megastar set to portray him in Steven Spielberg’s latest project. He started out far, far away from the spotlight.
Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc
On April 27, 1948, in Bronxville, New York, Frank Abagnale Jr. was born. He was the third of four children for Paulette Abagnale and Frank Abagnale Sr. The parents met in Algiers, Algeria, amidst the Second World War, when Frank was stationed in Oran, below.
The two were only teens when they wed. And when the war was finally over, they moved to New York, where Frank Sr. decided to start a business for himself. Life was good for the Abagnales.
Frank Jr., right, was close with Frank Sr. The older Frank traveled extensively because of his dedication to the Republican party. Unfortunately, these absences weighed on the family, and Paulette filed for divorce.
Abagnale & Associates
This was the moment when Frank’s life changed. His family life became chaotic and unstable. His father wanted to work things out, though Paulette was done trying. The entire family was shifting into a new phase of life.
Frank Jr. moved in with his divorcee father and came along with him while he maintained the family business. This is where young Frank began to understand white-collar transactions — not all of them squeaky clean.
Library of Congress
As Frank grew up, he began to shoplift and commit other smaller crimes. Quickly, he mastered this craft and decided to move on to bigger and better burglaries. Here we go. Get ready for things to take off.
Frank decided to steal his dad’s gas credit card for his first big scam. He went to gas station workers and convinced them to give him some of his sale in cash and in return they’d get to keep a piece of it too.
Once Frank Sr. got his credit card bill, the scam fell apart. Frank Jr. had spent thousands of dollars in a short period of time. Unfortunately, he had no idea his dad was in deep debt, and this weighed heavily on him.
Paulette punished Frank Jr. by sending him to a school for troubled boys. At 16, the tension became too much, so Frank Jr. left home. He had very little money to his name and no education. He didn’t have many options.
To get a better job, Frank changed the age on his driver’s license. And in interviews he lied about his education level, so he could earn more money working. Still, he was barely making anything.
Eventually, he realized that writing bad checks would get him much more funds. He quickly wrote hundreds of bad checks and overdrew his bank account by thousands. The cops were on to him, so Frank decided to hide.
Frank still needed money, so he started making up even more wild stories to tell bank workers. He thought a pilot would be a great cover for him. They have a professional appearance, which people trust, and Frank knew he could exploit.
First, Frank got a pilot’s uniform by calling Pan American Airlines’ headquarters and explaining he’d lost his uniform. Then he picked up a “new” one and created a fake employee I.D.
Next, Frank took the time to learn about flying. He pretended to be a student writing a story about Pan Am, which gave him even more information about impersonating a pilot. Things were taking off — literally.
Frank used his disguise to ride on planes all over the world, but, once again, was quickly found out by Pan Am. To escape their scrutiny, Frank masqueraded as a doctor in Georgia. Once again, Frank became another person.
A visiting doctor invited Frank to come with him to the hospital and reportedly, Frank was hired there. He worked at the hospital for a short period of time, before leaving for his next location.
For two years, Frank flitted from one job to the next, eventually settling in Montpelier, France. He wanted to give up crime and be a white-collar businessperson, but an ex-girlfriend turned him in to the police.
Frank spent time in a French, Swedish, and finally an American prison. The FBI made a deal with Frank Jr. — to earn his freedom, he had to work with the organization to teach them about his fraudulent methods.
In the end, Frank worked with the government for more than 30 years and eventually started his own company, Abagnale & Associates. They specialize in educating the public on fraud. How ironic.
Still, most of the information about Frank’s life is from his autobiography, Catch Me If You Can. He later clarified that some of the details in the book were enhanced to create a stronger story. He may have conflated his story with another of history’s greatest con men.
Victor Lustig was born on January 4, 1890 in a little town called Hostinné, in what later became the Czech Republic. He grew up poor, though he claimed his parents were descended from aristocracy — just the start of his career of deception.
As a youngster, Lustig was exceedingly smart in school. While studying in Paris, he became fluent in Italian, Czech, German, and English and learned to observe people and disarm them with his beguiling charm. As intelligent as he was, his studies couldn’t keep him entertained for long.
Flickr / LovedayLemon
Lustig got bored with school, and while looking for a challenge to occupy his mind, he took up mischief. He roamed the local streets, learning to panhandle, hustle, and pickpocket with ease. While fellow university students focused on class, Lustig learned to gamble.
At age 19, he left university and realized Paris was getting too small for him. It was the roaring twenties, and across the sea, America lay dazzling with opportunity. Lustig saw the perfect chance to nab money from rich travelers aboard the ocean liners sailing to New York.
William van der Wayde
He bought his first ticket and set out on a ship from France. During the journey, Lustig practiced his first scam, convincing wealthy passengers that he was a Broadway producer, seeking investments in a nonexistent musical. Not only did this work, but it emboldened him for his next move.
Wikimedia Commons / Cunard Cruise Line
In the United States, Lustig took his moneymaking enterprise to a new level. He created a steamer trunk-sized device, known as the Rumanian box, and began peddling it as a machine that would successfully duplicate real U.S. currency, at the rate of one bill printed every six hours.
The device’s premise sounded fishy, but Lustig filled the box itself with complex gears and machinery, as well as a few authentic bills, to convince would-be buyers. He sold each one for $30,000, and by the time victims realized they’d been scammed, Lustig had vanished.
Evening Public Ledger – Philadelphia
Lustig turned a fantastic profit selling his boxes, but before long, suspicion arose around his name, and the Secret Service began tracking him. With options narrowing, he set sail once more for France — and stumbled across the con that would make him infamous.
Smithsonian Magazine / Jeff Maysh
When he landed in Paris, Lustig read a news story: the Eiffel Tower was falling apart and badly in need of maintenance, which the French government couldn’t afford. The newspaper hypothesized that the tower might be removed altogether, which gave Lustig an idea.
He hired a forger to print him a fake ID and fake government stationery, got the details of his plan sorted out, and selected five key Parisian scrap metal dealers for a secret rendezvous at the stately Crillon Hotel.
Wikimedia Commons / Moonik
Once Lustig got all five dealers in the room, he introduced himself as an official from the department of public buildings, and carefully and thoroughly outlined what he said was a controversial, and discreet, government decision: the Eiffel Tower would have to be sold for scrap.
Several of the dealers were wary, but one of them, André Poisson, was less-experienced and anxious for a chance to establish himself. Lustig saw the perfect target, and selected Poisson as the man for the deal.
Smithsonian Magazine / Jeff Maysh
Lustig arranged to meet Poisson privately the next day to talk over the details — but this time, Poisson confessed he, too, was doubtful. Ever the resourceful con artist, Lustig put his charm to work.
Lustig confided in Poisson that he was just an overworked, underpaid government guy whose paycheck couldn’t support his party lifestyle. He didn’t really care who got the tower, he just needed to make some cash on the deal — suggesting that Poisson grease his palms a bit.
New York World-Telegram / Alan Fisher
Poisson couldn’t resist a chance for great business. He took the bait, and paid Lustig both the bribe and the price for the tower. Lustig closed the deal, congratulated Poisson, and hightailed it to Vienna.
New York World-Telegram and the Sun / Alan Fisher
Meanwhile, back in Paris, days passed and Poisson began to inquire about the date when the tower would be dismantled. When the few people he asked ridiculed him, he discovered he’d been had. However, he was too ashamed to alert the police.
Flickr / manhhai
Having carefully scrutinized Poisson’s personality, Lustig had been banking on this embarrassment, and was delighted that no news of the scam came to light. He got back on the train to Paris, assembled a fresh group of metal dealers, and began the selling process again.
Wikimedia Commons / Alfred Pearson
This time, though, Lustig’s victim had more wits about him. Soon after they closed the supposed sale, the second dealer checked into the offer a little more and uncovered the truth. But Lustig got wind of this, and by the time police came, he was hiding out in America.
Flickr / manhhai
In the United States, Lustig continued selling his Rumanian box money-printing machines, and partnered with two other con artists to begin a counterfeiting business that grew so large it threatened the economy. But as slick as Lustig was, he didn’t know how to quit while he was ahead.
Smithsonian Magazine / Jeff Maysh
In May 1935, Lustig began cheating on his girlfriend. Angry, she phoned a tip about him to federal agents, who promptly arrested him for counterfeiting. Victor Lustig was sentenced to 20 years in Alcatraz. He’d heard the prison was impossible to escape from.
Smithsonian Magazine / Jeff Maysh
Nowadays, dozens of triathletes undertake a 1.5 mile swim from Alcatraz to the San Francisco Bay every summer. While this race is simply meant for sport, some use it as evidence supporting the most successful prison break in history.
Jim Heath / Triathlon World
There was some serious chatter in the Alcatraz prison yard during the early months of 1962. Most inmates were content to quietly pass the time until their release, but three prisoners were desperate to get out. Luckily, they had a plan.
The Malpaso Company
John Morris met brothers Clarence and John Anglin during a previous prison stint in Atlanta; it seemed like providence when the three bank robbers were assigned to adjacent cells on The Rock. They agreed to smuggle a few special items out of the mess hall.
Spoons. On their own, these utensils wouldn’t do much good for tunneling. But a bit of sharpening turned them into handy picks that could chip away at the concrete walls. The cons’ plan would be slow, though that’s just how they wanted it.
Michael Short / The San Francisco Chronicle
They heard about the so-called “Battle of Alcatraz” that erupted back in 1946, when a group of prisoners tried to take the jail by force. Once the guards overpowered them, this doomed attempt got everyone involved shot, executed, or locked up for life.
TrailersPlaygroundHD / YouTube
Morris and the Anglins agreed that a shootout would be a one-way ticket to the grave. If their schemes went off without a hitch, the trio would make it off the island before anybody realized they were gone.
Hunched under their cell sinks, the conspirators worked to widen ventilation ducts into tunnels. Prisoners were allowed to play music at certain hours of the day, so Morris blasted his accordion to cover up the excavation noise.
The dig was slow going, but it gave the trio time to perfect the other parts of their plan. They collected supplies from various blocks of the prison, including a bag of hair trimmings from the barber.
Bud Marshall / Pioneer Press
Each lock was a key ingredient for the most ingenious feature of their escape. Morris and the Anglins constructed papier-mâché models of their own heads, complete with real human hair. Hopefully, these sculptures would buy them a few more hours.
Liz Hafalia / The San Francisco Chronicle
On the night of June 11, the convicts made their move. They crawled through their tunnels, snuck through a little-used service corridor, and broke through a ventilation shaft in the roof. However, the metal grill made a loud clang when they pushed it aside.
U.S. Penitentiary Alcatraz
But the guards made nothing of it! All the prisoners appeared to be in their beds, thanks to the dummy heads that Morris and the Anglins had constructed! It wasn’t until the next morning that the guards discovered the ruse.
Alcatraz officials were in a frenzy as they retraced the escapees’ route. A prison who helped engineer the operation confessed that Morris and the Anglin brothers constructed a raft out of raincoats and were currently making their way to nearby Angel Island.
U.S. Penitentiary Alcatraz
A comprehensive search of the bay turned up a floating paddle, a tattered homemade life jacket, and fragments of the raft. Police deduced that the prison breakers must have drowned during the rough voyage. They assured the public not to worry.
Alcatraz, now a museum, continues to buy into that narrative. Tour guides retell the stages of the complex escape while maintaining that none of the three criminals ever made it back to the mainland. Not everyone is so sure, however.
John and Clarence Anglin’s family received a number of postcards over the years, purportedly from the fugitives. They could have been pranks, except the trend kept up. Their mother received an anonymous bouquet of flowers every Mother’s Day for the rest of her life!
Then there were the alleged sightings. An old pal of Morris claimed he encountered him in Maryland. Meanwhile, a family friend of the Anglins believed he spotted them during a vacation to Brazil. A photo of two men in South American resembling the brothers supported his story.
In fact, the FBI has followed these leads, investigating whether it was possible that the escape was successful. They’ve also released time-lapsed mugshots to the public to aid in their search, but to no avail. It seemed like a cold case until 2013.
A letter arrived at FBI headquarters, signed by one John Anglin. It spelled out the supposed truth of their post-prison lives, stating that all three fugitives lived until old age. John, real or fake, claimed to be the last living member, and he included a shocking request.
CBS San Francisco
He said that he had cancer and was willing to reenter the prison system for a year in exchange for medical treatment! FBI agents asked themselves if such a message was too good to be true.
Heidi de Marco / California Healthline
After handwriting analysts failed to establish a solid link between Anglin’s handwriting and this letter, the FBI concluded that the author was likely not authentic. On the other hand, they couldn’t disprove his identity outright.
Graphology Consulting Group
That letter could be the last possible piece of evidence in the famed escape case. We may never truly know if the convicts made it off of Alcatraz alive. The alleged Anglin letter, however, did eerily foreshadow a sinister bargain that many sick people are taking around the world.
Toshio Takata struggled to make ends meet. After moving into a halfway house, it got to the point where the 62-year-old had trouble buying supplies for his beloved art projects. This old dog would have to learn some new tricks if he wanted to survive.
Traditionally speaking, the Japanese treat their elders quite well. Old-fashioned standards oblige younger people to not only care for their parents and grandparents, but to treat them with the utmost respect.
In the modern age, however, more and more senior citizens like Toshio are feeling left behind. His family has more or less dissolved, and he’s grown estranged from his brothers, two ex-wives, and three children. Toshio only has himself.
Across the country, older Japanese citizens are unable to find a support system. There’s just so many of them. Over a third of the national population is now 60 or older, and the senior citizens have outnumbered the children for years.
With the number of seniors only increasing, Toshio saw some of his contemporaries lose just about everything. Even with pensions and benefits, they couldn’t afford food and housing. Some were even put out on the street. But Toshio found a solution.
Nowadays, Toshio lives comfortably. He’s got three square meals a day, plenty of staff on hand to provide for his every need, and plenty of similarly aged friends to spend time with. It all started with a bicycle.
This bicycle didn’t belong to him. Toshio found it parked on a street corner in Hiroshima, and he just rode off with it. But this was no mere joy ride; Toshio knew exactly where he was headed.
Flickr / Nicolas Raddatz
He rode to the nearest police station. Approaching the front desk, the old man calmly informed the authorities that he stole the bicycle. With no other choice, the police cuffed the seemingly harmless senior and brought him in.
The court sentenced him to one year in prison for petty theft. Did Toshio have an uncharacteristic lapse in judgment? Had he been hit with a wave of remorse once he hopped on the bike?
Nope. The theft, the arrest, the sentence — it had all been part of his plan. With no criminal history, in the Japanese prison system, he enjoyed the stability behind bars.
Kiyoshi Ota / Bloomberg
So he served his year worry free for the most part. Then, once he got out, something peculiar happened: Toshio threatened women in the park with a knife.
He now claims that he didn’t mean any harm, he simply wanted the police to lock him up once again — this time for a longer period of time. A single year wouldn’t cut it anymore.
Now 69-years-old, Toshio wakes up in a cell every morning, but he does so with a purpose. He has a place where he belongs and all the time in the world to work on his art. Strangely enough, he’s not the only one to enjoy life behind bars.
In a trend that no social scientist saw coming, one in five Japanese inmates is 60 years or older. And these aren’t hardened criminals either.
The police nab nearly all these gray-haired cons for minor offenses. Many shoplift from stores, either as a means to feed themselves for free or to get caught on purpose. With Japan’s relatively severe penalties for theft, they all end up incarcerated.
This is no short-term solution for seniors, either. Roughly a quarter of them commit another offense soon after their release, leading to an even longer sentence. But why is prison such an attractive place for them to spend their golden years?
Like Toshio, most older inmates will claim economic reasons. Besides living for free behind bars, they can still continue to collect their pensions. They’ll have some nice savings once free. However, this may not tell the whole story.
According to Kanichi Yamada, director of a rehabilitation center, elderly inmates’ real motivation may be loneliness. He theorizes that they usually have lost their loved ones and fail to rediscover their places in mainstream society.
Regardless of why Japanese seniors are seeking out cells, jails have drastically evolved to accommodate them. Facilities and events have become more accessible to older demographics, and specialized guards have joined to help care for these prisoners.
For now, prison life remains more comfortable than freedom for Toshio and his ilk. They feel certain that there’s nothing for them outside the jail walls. However, a large segment of senior inmates do have one key difference from Toshio.
Bloomberg / Shiho Fukada
An increasing number of them are women! Although women across the board are statistically less likely to commit a crime than men, female seniors who live alone are particularly affected by poverty and isolation.
The Seattle Times
Prison offers struggling women a way to escape their burdens and anxiety, though none of them process their strange path the same way. While some freed inmates admit they feel guilty, others look back on their incarceration with nostalgia.
With the population of senior citizens on the rise, Japan will have to find a more efficient way to care for them. If they do not enact radical reforms, the Japanese will find themselves in a prison of their own making. Unfortunately, loneliness and isolation drives seniors to act out all over the globe.
As he walked across the Redding, California, soil for the first time, Kevin Burns’ heart filled with anticipation. He thought about new friends, career prospects, romantic possibilities. But it was his elderly neighbor that won most of his attention.
YouTube / KBurns
Though her house seemed like it could hold a full family, 68-year-old Ruth Ratliff lived next to Kevin all by herself. Odder still, she seemed to never spend any time inside the house. She was always in her parked car, eating.
YouTube / KBurns
It didn’t take long for Kevin to puzzle out the reason why: Ruth lived inside her car. She stocked up on all the necessary supplies and set up a bed of sorts in the backseat. She even kept her small dog in there with her.
YouTube / KBurns
But at the same time, Ruth’s car was totally broken down. Not only could she not drive anywhere, but she also couldn’t even turn on the heat during cold nights. Concerned, Kevin felt obliged to step in. Why didn’t she just move back into her house?
YouTube / KBurns
For a long time, Ruth remained coy about why she avoided her home like the plague. Kevin’s repeated questioning eventually brought the truth to light: “My home has become a dump,” Ruth admitted, “because my best friend died, and I lost my mind.”
YouTube / KBurns
Ruth then made a request of Kevin: could she go inside her home and find a misplaced photo of her parents? She feared she would forget what they looked like. Kevin accepted the quest. opened the house’s, front door, and…walked into an absolute nightmare.
YouTube / KBurns
“My home has become a dump” didn’t do justice to the abysmal state of Ruth’s house. While it clearly was a nice residence years ago, it was now unlivable. A rancid odor made it hard to breathe, and trash and human waste covered the floor of every room.
It became evident that Ruth was a hoarder, incapable of parting with any kind of object. Without some outside help, Kevin realized that Ruth could never return to a normal life. Just as he was about to give up and duck out for fresh air, a strange detail caught his eye.
A makeshift shelf leaned against one wall, and it looked like there was an entire room behind it. Was there a chance that this hidden room escaped the noxious effects of Ruth’s hoarding? Kevin slid the shelf over and entered the black space.
Curiously, as Kevin’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw what looked like a child’s bedroom. He peered at some old photographs taped to the wall. There was no sign of Ruth’s parents, but he did see a photo of some kids that looked like Ruth.
Kevin was about to give up when he spotted the corner of a photo sticking out from the cabinet — it was just the one Ruth asked for! He headed for the door to share the good news until he came across the biggest problem of all.
Gazing up at the ceiling, Kevin noticed many of the rooms were overrun with black mold. While trash could be cleaned up, this poisonous fungus made the house uninhabitable. There was so much of it, Kevin wondered if it could spread to other houses.
Ruth was heartbroken to hear about the decay of her once-beloved home, though she at least agreed to call the fire department. They soon arrived with a truckload of equipment. As it turns out, however, they were not aiming to save the house.
The fire chief explained that the black mold presented a toxic risk that they needed to wipe out immediately. As they set up a perimeter of flames around the condemned house, Kevin held Ruth’s hand and laid out a plan for the future.
Together, the neighbors watched Ruth’s house go up in flames. Although he knew it was for the best, Kevin felt her pain at all the memories burning inside of it. All the evidence of Ruth’s past was gone. Only the woman herself could reveal the truth now — if she wanted to.
Before he could delve into the mysteries of the strange photographs and the hidden room, however, Kevin needed to make accommodations for his aggrieved neighbor. He lacked the money to put her up in his own place, and so he set up a GoFundMe page.
YouTube / KBurns
Amazingly, the community rallied around Ruth, and a local non-profit reached out to Kevin. They ran a nursing home for the elderly, where Ruth could have a real roof over her head for the first time in years. Unfortunately, they couldn’t take in Ruth’s chihuahua.
But Kevin took care of that. He adopted the small dog, and the two of them visited Ruth each week. Over time, Ruth settled back into a regular enough life to regain her mental stability. She began to share the secrets that she was so desperate to hide from the world.
Over a cup of coffee, Kevin finally learned the truth behind the secret bedroom: It didn’t belong to a son or daughter, as Ruth never had kids. It was her own childhood bedroom! After her parents and husband passed away, leaving Ruth alone, she sealed it up. She couldn’t bear to face all the memories and dreams it represented.
Ruth could never go back to her old life; that much was clear. But in her new home, she rediscovered comforts and friendships that she would have forsaken if she stayed alone in her car. Thanks to Kevin’s foray into her house, Ruth’s hopes for the future are burning bright.