14 True Crime Songs About Murder and Mayhem

Bob Dylan performs a concert at the Warfield in San Francisco, California, in 1979.
Bob Dylan performs a concert at the Warfield in San Francisco, California, in 1979.
George Rose/Getty Images

The phrase “ripped from the headlines” doesn’t just apply to Law & Order episodes and Lifetime movies. Songwriters throughout the history of popular music have drawn inspiration from real-life tales of murder and mayhem to craft their tunes. From old-timey folk ballads to modern-day trap bangers, true crime songs shock and excite us while forcing us to consider the darkness lurking all around. Here are 14 of the best examples.

1. “Nebraska” // Bruce Springsteen

In January 1958, a 19-year-old Nebraska teenager named Charles Starkweather went on an interstate killing spree that left 11 people dead. Along for the ride was his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, whose role in the slayings remains a point of debate. On the title track of his 1982 album Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen sings from the perspective of Starkweather on the electric chair, offering a chilling explanation for his crimes: “Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”

2. “Georgia Lee” // Tom Waits

“Why wasn’t god watching?” asks Tom Waits in this 1999 ballad about Georgia Lee Moses, a 12-year-old black girl who was abducted and murdered in Petaluma, California, in 1997. Moses was a middle school dropout from a troubled home, and barely anyone noticed when she went missing. “Georgia Lee did not get any real attention,” Waits told LA Weekly in 1999. “And I wanted to write a song about it.”

3. “Annie Christian” // Prince

Over disorienting synths and a clipped beat, Prince references a handful of true crimes in this 1981 parable about evil in society, which was included on his Controversy album. The titular character—whose name is a play on “antichrist”—is apparently responsible for a string of child murders in Atlanta, the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, the killing of John Lennon, and even the high-level government corruption unearthed by the FBI’s Abscam investigation.

4. “Stagger Lee” // Lloyd Price

On December 25, 1895, William “Billy” Lyons and his buddy “Stack” Lee Sheldon were knocking back drinks in a St. Louis bar. They began arguing about politics, and Billy snatched the white Stetson off Stack’s head. When Billy refused to give the hat back, Stack shot him dead. The murder made Stack (alternately known as “Stagolee,” “Stack-O-Lee,” “Stack O’Lee,” and “Stagger Lee”) an American folk antihero. He’s been immortalized in hundreds of songs by artists ranging from Ma Rainey to Nick Cave. R&B singer Lloyd Price reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with 1959’s “Stagger Lee,” the most famous telling of this timeless story.

5. “1913 Massacre” // Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie penned this plaintive 1941 folk ballad about the “Italian Hall Disaster” of 1913, which took place at a Christmas party for striking miners and their families in Calumet, Michigan. Someone yelled “Fire!” in the crowded hall, and the resulting stampede killed 73 people, most of them children. It’s unknown who gave the false fire call, but many people—Guthrie included—believe it was an anti-union operative looking to spoil the party.

6. “Suffer Little Children” // The Smiths

Growing up in Manchester, England, in the ‘60s, Steven Patrick Morrissey was haunted by the “Moors Murders,” a gruesome series of child murders perpetrated by couple Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Morrissey name-checks three of the five victims in “Suffer Little Children,” a song about the case featured on the 1984 self-titled debut album by his band The Smiths. Morrissey’s lyrics created a great deal of controversy, but the singer claimed he meant no harm. He even became friendly with Ann West, mother of Lesley Ann Downey, one of the slain children.

7. “Darkness” // Eminem

Depending on your point of view, Eminem either denounces or glorifies gun violence on 2020’s instantly controversial “Darkness.” Eminem raps this novelistic song from the perspective of Stephen Paddock, the mass shooter who killed 58 people at the 2017 Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas, before reportedly turning the gun on himself. “You’ll never find a motive, truth is I have no idea,” Em raps. “I am just as stumped, no signs of mental illness.” The music video ends with a message urging fans to vote and help change America’s gun laws.

8. “Brenda’s Got a Baby” // 2Pac

2Pac was moved to write this harrowing 1991 hip-hop classic after reading a newspaper article about a 12-year-old Brooklyn girl who threw her newborn baby into a trash compactor. (Miraculously, the child survived.) In a 1997 interview with The New Yorker, Pac said he considered the song a political statement about poverty, child abuse, drugs, and other issues. “It talked about how the innocent are the ones that get hurt,” he said.

9. “Deep Red Bells” // Neko Case

“He led you to this hiding place,” sings Neko Case to open this 2002 country-noir stunner. The “you,” she explained to The New York Times Magazine in 2009, is one of the young women killed by Gary Ridgway, a.k.a. the “Green River Killer,” throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. Ridgway is said to have murdered at least 49 women, many of them prostitutes and runaways. Case—who grew up in Tacoma, Washington, before Ridgway was apprehended—carried a knife with her to school.

10. “Son of Sam” // Dead Boys

For a yearlong stretch beginning in July 1976, New Yorkers lived in fear of the "Son of Sam," a mysterious figure who murdered six people with a .44 caliber revolver and taunted police with handwritten letters. In August 1977, police apprehended the killer, David Berkowitz, who claimed he was given the murderous orders by his neighbor’s dog. (Berkowitz later admitted that story was bogus.) Cleveland-born, New York City-based punk rockers Dead Boys seem to accept Berkowitz's initial explanation for the slayings on their 1978 tune “Son of Sam,” painting the infamous serial killer as a helpless slave (in his own mind, anyway) to demonic forces.

11. “I Don’t Like Mondays” // The Boomtown Rats

On the morning of Monday, January 29, 1979, a 16-year-old San Diego girl named Brenda Ann Spencer opened fire on Grover Cleveland Elementary School, which was located right across the street from her house. She killed two people and injured nine others, eight of them children. Asked why she did it, Spencer told a reporter, “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.” Upon hearing this, The Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof—the Live Aid guy—dashed off “I Don’t Like Mondays,” a mournful response to the senselessness of it all. The song reached #1 on the U.K. charts.

12. “Wildside” // Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch

Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg followed his 1991 chart-topper “Good Vibrations” with “Wildside,” a series of musical vignettes about the sorry state of the nation. He references two real-life crimes that shook his hometown of Boston. First, the murder of a pregnant woman named Carol Stuart by her husband, Charles, who blamed the killing on a fictitious black man in hopes of pocketing the insurance money. Next, the tragic death of 12-year-old Tiffany Moore, who was gunned down in a drive-by shooting.

13. “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” // Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens’s 2005 concept album Illinoise references many famous figures from the Prairie State, including serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr., who murdered at least 33 boys and young men in the ‘70s. What’s interesting—and a little unsettling—is how tenderly Stevens sings of the man known as the “Killer Clown.” “I felt insurmountable empathy not with his behavior but with his nature, and there was nothing I could do to get around confessing that, however horrifying that sounds,” Stevens said in a 2005 interview.

14. “Hurricane” // Bob Dylan

In the court of public opinion, Bob Dylan’s epic 1975 song “Hurricane” went a long way toward clearing Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, an African American boxer convicted of killing three white people in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1966. Carter always maintained his innocence, and Dylan’s song blames the racist criminal justice system for jailing a man who “coulda been the champion of the world.” After being released in 1976 and then convicted again in a second trial, Carter was finally freed in 1985, when a federal judge ruled that the prosecution had based its case on “racism rather than reason and concealment rather than disclosure.”

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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25 Facts About John Lennon For His 80th Birthday

Before he was one of the world's most iconic musicians, John Lennon—who was born in Liverpool on October 9, 1940—was a choir boy and a Boy Scout. Let's take a look at some facts you might not have known about the leader and founding member of The Beatles.

1. John Lennon grew up near Strawberry Field.

By the time he was 5 years old, John Lennon had been all but abandoned by his parents, so instead went to live with Mimi and George Smith, his aunt and uncle, in Woolton, England. He lived near a local Salvation Army orphanage, and loved to explore its garden, which was known as Strawberry Fields. In Barry Miles’ book Many Years From Now, Paul McCartney recalled how it was "a secret garden. John's memory of it [was] … There was a wall you could bunk over and it was a rather wild garden, it wasn't manicured at all, so it was easy to hide in.”

2. John Lennon was a choir boy and a Boy Scout.

Yes, John Lennon—the great rock 'n' roll rebel and iconoclast—was once a choir boy and a Boy Scout. Lennon began his singing career as a choir boy at St. Peter's Church in Liverpool, England and was a member of the 3rd Allerton Boy Scout troop.

3. John Lennon’s first instrument was the banjo.

Getty Images

The first song John Lennon learned to play as a teenage rock ‘n’ roll fan was Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day.” But he didn’t master the tune on any instrument you might pose with in front of the mirror. “My mother Julia taught it to me on the banjo, sitting there with endless patience until I managed to work out all the chords,” Lennon once said. The infamous banjo went missing after Julia’s death in 1958 and became the subject of the 2012 novel Julia’s Banjo, which spawned the stage adaptation Lennon’s Banjo.

4. John Lennon hated his own voice.

Incredibly, one of the greatest singers in the history of rock music hated his own voice. Lennon did not like the sound of his voice and loved to double-track his records. He would often ask the band's producer, George Martin, to cover the sound of his voice: "Can't you smother it with tomato ketchup or something?"

5. Songwriting was “torture” to John Lennon.

Lennon wrote some of the most indelible pop songs of the 20th century—and he apparently hated every minute of it. Speaking with Rolling Stone just days before his death, Lennon revealed that songwriting was “absolute torture” for him. “I always think there’s nothing there, it’s sh*t, it’s no good, it’s not coming out, this is garbage ... and even if it does come out, I think, 'What the hell is it anyway?'" he said. The only exceptions, he added, were the “10 or so songs the gods give you and that come out of nowhere.”

6. "Twist and Shout" was not kind to John Lennon's vocal cords.

On February 11, 1963, The Beatles spent one very long day recording 10 songs that would appear on their debut album, Please Please Me. At the end of the 12-hour session, they tackled “Twist and Shout,” a song that required Lennon—who was already hoarse—to shred what remained of his voice.

“The last song nearly killed me,” Lennon said of “Twist and Shout” in 1976. “My voice wasn’t the same for a long time after; every time I swallowed it was like sandpaper. I was always bitterly ashamed of it, because I could sing it better than that; but now it doesn’t bother me. You can hear that I’m just a frantic guy doing his best.”

7. John Lennon was dissatisfied with all of The Beatles' records.

While dining with his former producer, George Martin, one night years after the band had split up, Lennon revealed that he'd like to re-record every Beatles song. Completely amazed, Martin asked him, "Even 'Strawberry Fields'?" "Especially 'Strawberry Fields,'" answered Lennon.

8. John Lennon was the only Beatle who didn't become a full-time vegetarian.

George Harrison was the first Beatle to go vegetarian; according to most sources, he officially became a vegetarian in 1965. Paul McCartney joined the "veggie" ranks a few years later. Ringo became a vegetarian not so much for spiritual reasons, like Paul and George, but because of health problems. Lennon had toyed with vegetarianism in the 1960s, but he always ended up eating meat, one way or another.

9. John Lennon’s signature eyeglasses were far from trendy.

While filming the 1967 black comedy How I Won the War, John Lennon took a liking to the round spectacles that were part of his soldier character’s wardrobe. These weren’t designer glasses, but rather the utilitarian handiwork of the UK's National Health Service. Lennon loved the ugly “granny” frames so much that he made them his signature look for the rest of his life.

10. John Lennon loved to play Monopoly.

During his Beatles days, Lennon was a devout Monopoly player. He had his own Monopoly set and often played in his hotel room or on planes. He liked to stand up when he threw the dice, and he was crazy about the properties Boardwalk and Park Place. He didn't even care if he lost the game, as long as he had Boardwalk and Park Place in his possession.

11. John Lennon was the first Beatle to get married.

Lennon wed Cynthia Powell, whom he’d met in art school, on August 23, 1962. The reason for their union: Cynthia was pregnant, and on April 8, 1963, she gave birth to the couple’s only child, a son named Julian. Beatles manager Brian Epstein worked to keep John’s marriage a secret, but his efforts were futile. When the Fab Four performed on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, a caption reading “Sorry girls, he’s married” appeared on screen when Lennon got his closeup during “’Till There Was You.”

12. John Lennon was the last Beatle to learn how to drive.

John Lennon at a press conference on September 11, 1964.Vern Barchard, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Lennon got his driver's license at the age of 24 (on February 15, 1965). He was regarded as a terrible driver by all who knew him. He finally gave up driving after he totaled his Aston-Martin in 1969 on a trip to Scotland with his wife, Yoko Ono; his son, Julian; and Kyoko, Ono's daughter. Lennon needed 17 stitches after the accident.

When they returned to England, Lennon and Ono mounted the wrecked car on a pillar at their home. From then on, Lennon always used a chauffeur or driver.

13. There’s only one Beatles song featuring just John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

In 1969, while honeymooning in Paris with Yoko Ono, Lennon began writing a song about the controversy surrounding their recent marriage. When he got back to London, Lennon went over to McCartney’s house to finish the composition, which he had already titled “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” Lennon and McCartney then quickly booked a session at Abbey Road and recorded the song as a duo (Starr was filming The Magic Christian with Peter Sellers and Harrison was on vacation).

“John was in an impatient mood so I was happy to help,” McCartney said. “It’s quite a good song; it has always surprised me how with just the two of us on it, it ended up sounding like The Beatles."

14. John Lennon reportedly used to sleep in a coffin.

According to Allan Williams, an early manager for The Beatles, Lennon liked to sleep in an old coffin. Williams had an old, abandoned coffin on the premises of his coffee bar, The Jacaranda. As a gag, Lennon would sometimes nap in it.

15. John Lennon recorded one of pop’s first diss tracks.

Everyone remembers Lennon’s 1971 album Imagine for the utopian title track. But the LP also features “How Do You Sleep,” a rather nasty attack on Paul McCartney. “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead,” Lennon sings in the opening verse, referencing the infamous “Paul Is Dead” myth. Lennon later sings, “The only thing you done was yesterday,” referring to the Paul-penned Beatle favorite “Yesterday.” In fairness, Lennon was responding to a handful of subtler lyrical jabs on McCartney’s 1971 album Ram.

16. The last time John Lennon saw Paul McCartney was on April 24, 1976.

William Lovelace, Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

McCartney was visiting Lennon at his New York apartment. They were watching Saturday Night Live together when producer Lorne Michaels, as a gag, offered the Beatles $3000 to come on the show. Lennon and McCartney almost took a cab to the show as a joke, but decided against it, as they were just too tired. (Too bad! It would have been one of the great moments in television history.)

17. John Lennon was supposed to sing lead on The Beatles' first single, 1962's "Love Me Do."

Lennon sang lead on a great majority of the early Beatles songs, but Paul McCartney took the lead on their very first one. The lead was originally supposed to be Lennon, but because he had to play the harmonica, the lead was given to McCartney instead.

18. John Lennon stole the harmonica heard on “Love Me Do.”

Lennon is known as the bad boy of The Beatles, and true to form, he added a bit of delinquency to the group’s 1962 debut single, “Love Me Do.” The song is notable for John’s use of harmonica, and he reportedly played the signature riff on a mouth organ he swiped from a music shop in Arnhem, The Netherlands, in 1960. In terms of musicianship, Lennon didn’t exactly commit thievery, but he based his harmonica lick on the one heard in Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby

19. "All You Need Is Love" was the best lyric John Lennon ever wrote.

A friend once asked Lennon what was the best lyric he ever wrote. "That's easy," replied Lennon, "All you need is love."

20. John Lennon wanted Jesus and Hitler for the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

After British pop artist Peter Blake came up with the cover concept for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band—the band surrounded by cardboard cutouts of famous figures from throughout history—he asked all four Beatles to make lists of people to include. One of Lennon’s picks was Jesus Christ, even though he’d recently gotten into a heap of trouble for saying The Beatles were “more popular” than the Christian messiah. Blake’s team never actually made up a Jesus cutout, but they did create one for another of John’s controversial selections: Adolf Hitler. The Führer apparently made the final cover, but he’s behind the band, so you can’t see him.

21. John Lennon was the final Beatle to have a #1 solo hit in America.

By the time John Lennon released 1974’s Walls and Bridges, Paul McCartney had topped the Billboard Hot 100 three times. George Harrison and Ringo Starr (yes, Ringo) had each reached the summit twice. Among ex-Beatles, only Lennon had yet to notch a #1 single. That finally changed with “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” a jaunty dance number featuring Elton John on piano and backup vocals. It reached #1 on November 16, 1974, giving Lennon his first—and only—U.S. chart-topper.

22. John Lennon had a deep and abiding love of cats.

Though Lennon did have a couple of dogs, he was absolutely crazy for cats. He had many of them over the years, each one holding a very special place in his heart. As a kid, he had a cat named Elvis—named after Elvis Presley—but discovered that Elvis was a female when she gave birth to a litter of kittens. Still, the name stuck. More than a dozen feline friends would follow over the years.

23. John Lennon made his final concert appearance after losing a bet.

After helping Lennon record “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” Elton John bet the former Beatle that the single would reach #1 in America. A doubtful Lennon took the wager, agreeing to perform with John at Madison Square Garden if he lost. Sure enough, the song topped the Hot 100 on November 16, 1974, and 12 days later—on Thanksgiving night—Lennon joined John for three songs, including the Beatles classics “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” It would be Lennon’s final proper concert appearance.

24. John Lennon was into new wave and punk.

John Lennon seen in 1966.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On December 6, 1980, two days before he was murdered, John Lennon sat for an interview with Andy Peebles of the BBC. During the chat, Lennon professed his admiration for punk provocateurs the Sex Pistols, English ska revivalists Madness, and American new-wave party-starters The B-52’s, among others. Lennon credited his assistant Fred Seaman with hipping him to these new artists, even though he was initially reluctant to listen.

25. The last photographer to snap John Lennon’s picture was Paul Goresh.

Ironically (and sadly), Lennon was signing an album for the person who was to assassinate him a few hours later when he was snapped by amateur photographer Paul Goresh on December 8, 1980.

Lennon obligingly signed a copy of his latest album, Double Fantasy, for Mark David Chapman. Later that same day, Lennon returned from the recording studio and was gunned down by Chapman, the same person for whom he had so kindly signed his autograph.

Morbidly, a photographer sneaked into the morgue and snapped a photo of Lennon's body before it was cremated the day after his assassination. Yoko Ono has never revealed the whereabouts of his ashes or what happened to them.

This post has been updated for 2020.