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True Crime

A guide to researching crime and the criminal justice system in the Chicago area, with an eye toward the true crime genre.

Content Warning

Historical material often contains violent acts, offensive language or negative stereotypes reflecting the culture and language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record. The Chicago History Museum has an institution-wide initiative to critically consider the language used to describe people and materials, and we invite you to read more about our related projects here

When researching crime and violent historical events, it's crucial to remember that these stories involve real people. True Crime has been criticized for exploiting and sensationalizing violence. But it has also shed light on the American criminal justice system and the inequities within. Proceed with respect and empathy for the individuals affected and their loved ones.

Some of the content in this research guide discusses heinous acts of violence and sexual assault, which may be distressing or triggering. Please prioritize your well-being while engaging with this topic. If you wish to avoid this language, skip over the section labeled Specific Cases. 

Getting Started

No exploration of Chicago's history would be complete without delving into the fascinating subject of its notorious criminal past. While the city's association with organized crime during the Prohibition era is widely known, it merely scratches the surface. From its earliest days as a frontier town, Chicago has been steeped in a reputation for crime and immorality, leaving an indelible mark on its public perception. The Encyclopedia of Chicago provides many broad overviews of the history of crime in this city, including Crime and Chicago's Image, Organized Crime in 1920s Chicago and overviews of the Chicago Crime Commission and Police in the city. 

When delving into the genre of True Crime, which includes media like books, documentaries and podcasts focusing on real-life cases, you may want to get started with some lesser known crimes and criminals. To uncover such hidden gems, consider scouring historical newspapers that offer detailed accounts of specific cases. Refine your search by narrowing down criteria such as neighborhood, time period, or the type of crime that intrigues you. You can search the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Defender, and the Chicago Sun-Times Historical Archive while onsite in the research center. Once you've narrowed in on your topic, a search in our online library catalog, ARCHIE, as well as our finding aids in CARLI Digital Collections, which search across many of our archival collections, are good places to get started. 

Another way to approach the genre of True Crime is through the lens of criminal justice and reform. True crime media has helped shed light on cases of injustice and become a platform for advocacy and activism. It has raised awareness about wrongful convictions, inadequate legal representation, or systemic issues within the criminal justice system, leading to movements seeking reform and improved safeguards. Looking to more general archival collections about criminal justice is a good place to start and the section of this guide on Archives and Manuscripts will point you toward collections which focus on the criminal justice system more generally.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

In ARCHIE, researchers can search by "Subject” or by “Keyword in Subject headings.” Like many research libraries and archives in the United States, CHM relies on subject headings authorized by the Library of Congress (LCSH) to organize its catalog records. CHM recognizes the limitations of these subject headings, noting that many are inaccurate or insufficiently descriptive. As a part of our critical cataloging efforts, we are continuing to evaluate terminology that may be harmful or misrepresentative and are changing LCSH to local headings when deemed necessary or appropriate.   Items marked with an * have been changed to a local CHM term from a Library of Congress term. 

Since this is a guide about crime, its worth noting that CHM has not yet chosen to update LCSH terms like "criminals" or "juvenile delinquents." There continues to be discussion within the library community and elsewhere about how terms like this dehumanize people accused of or convicted of a crime. The Marshall Project, for example, is one organization working to combat harmful language surrounding criminal justice ( We continue to monitor these discussions as we develop our own internal policies and procedures surrounding our language choices. You can see more about our critical cataloging initiative here: 

Some general subject headings found in ARCHIE include:

(Note: Broad terms, these may be geographically subdivided to include only Chicago by adding "Illinois--Chicago" to the end of the search term)

Assault and battery
Brigands and robbers
Crime and criminals
Crime scenes
Criminals--Case studies
Criminals (Juvenile)
Fear of crime
Gambling and crime
Gang members

Imprisoned people*

Juvenile delinquents
Missing persons
Organized crime
Serial murderers
Victims of crimes
Women murderers


Other Search Terms

In addition to Library of Congress subject headings and local headings, searching ARCHIE through the general keyword or the advanced search function is useful when seeking to narrow a search. Keep in mind the language and sensationalized terms commonly used during the relevant time period to your search. These kinds of keywords may also be helpful when searching newspaper databases. Some examples include: 

  • attacker/attacked
  • assaulted
  • bloody
  • gangland
  • killer/killed
  • mob/mob boss/mobsters
  • outlaws
  • robbers/robbery
  • slain