Thomas James Holden, the First Fugitive on the FBI's Most Wanted List

FBI // Public Domain
FBI // Public Domain / FBI // Public Domain

The FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list has helped track down some of America’s most dangerous criminals since 1950. In the last 70 years, more than 500 fugitives have appeared on it. The first man whose name marked the list was Thomas James Holden.

Holden was no stranger to crime. From 1926, he was one half of the notorious Holden-Keating gang. Together, he and Francis Keating would hold up trucks, trains, and banks for cash. The duo got away with hundreds of thousands of dollars before they were apprehended in March 1928, when an accomplice confessed to their part in a train robbery in Evergreen Park, Illinois. Holden and Keating were found guilty and each sentenced to 25 years in prison.

After just two years at the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas, Holden and Keating used fake passes to make their escape. From there, the men fled to St. Paul, Minnesota, where they formed a new gang and resumed their spree of daylight robberies. They also smuggled guns and ammunition into Leavenworth. Their involvement helped seven other inmates escape.

Holden and Keating evaded capture until July 1931, when FBI agents found them and two other escapees playing on a Kansas golf course. Armed with only their clubs, the men had no choice but to give themselves up and were swiftly returned to prison. This time, Holden was sent to the infamous Alcatraz, where he served time alongside Al Capone. He carried out the rest of his original sentence and was paroled on November 28, 1947. He returned home to his native Chicago and to his wife, Lillian. But less than two years later, Holden yet again found himself in trouble with the law.

Early in the morning on June 5, 1949, police received a call reporting gunshots from a fourth-floor apartment on Chicago’s West Side. When they arrived, they found Lillian, her brother Ray Griffin, and her half-brother John Archer dead on the floor, a spent .38 revolver on a nearby dresser. Griffin’s wife Elva was also shot, but survived. She gave the police her account of the night.

According to Elva, the group had been out drinking at a saloon when Holden and his wife argued because she wanted to leave. When the group returned home, Holden began to beat Lillian. When the others came to her aid, Holden opened fire before fleeing the apartment.

Later that year, a newspaper published an article listing and describing the “toughest guys” the FBI was trying to find. The story was such a success that on March 14, 1950, the FBI published its “10 Most Wanted Fugitives” list, splashing the faces and details of those they considered to be the most dangerous criminals across newspapers and magazines throughout the U.S. Holden, because of his recent crime and past record, was the first person named on the list.

In 1951, Holden was finally captured in Beaverton, Oregon, after someone recognized his photo in the local paper. He had been working as a plasterer using the alias John Roger McCullough, and was arrested in front of his unsuspecting colleagues. Though he first tried to stick to his story, he eventually admitted the FBI had found the right man. At trial in November 1951, Holden was found guilty of murder and locked up once again—this time, for good. He died in prison at the age of 57.