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How Albert Nussbaum Went From Criminal To Crime Writer

The importance of one author's friendship.

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Albert Frederick Nussbaum lived the kind of life that you normally only see in the loglines of TV shows, going from the FBI’s Most Wanted List to… well, not quite the bestseller lists, but to frequent publications in prestigious magazines like Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Not to mention president of the Southern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America.

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Born in Buffalo, New York—a city that now proudly claims him as one of their famous former residents—Nussbaum first found himself behind bars as a young man. He was sent to the Federal Reformatory in Chillicothe, Ohio after being caught transporting a Thompson submachine gun across state lines. It was in Chillicothe that he met Bobby Randell “One Eye” Wilcoxson, the man who would become his partner in robbing eight banks—a crime spree that would propel them both to the ranks of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted fugitives.

When the two men got out of Chillicothe, they began to plan their robberies. This involved accumulating an arsenal of weapons, including revolvers, shotguns, Tommy guns, hand grenades, and even former military weapons that could shoot through pursuing police cars. They robbed their first bank together in December of 1960.

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By June of the following year, the pair had made their way to Washington, D.C. There, they posed as “mad bombers,” setting off two homemade pipe bomb explosives and making calls pretending to be southern white supremacists targeting the Capitol. Under cover of the confusion, they robbed a D.C. bank.

Nussbaum was the one who created the pipe bombs. A kind of polymath, Nussbaum was considered the “brains” of the two-man operation, while Wilcoxson provided the “brawn.” During his time in Chillicothe, Nussbaum had played chess by mail, and also studied everything from chemistry and locksmithing to welding, photography, and even airplane mechanics.

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It was the duo’s fifth bank robbery that ultimately landed them on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. During a robbery in Brooklyn—for which the duo had brought on a third team member—Wilcoxson slew a guard with four quick shots from a Tommy gun. A customer fleeing the bank alerted the police, and Wilcoxson was involved in a gun battle with an officer, though the three men ultimately still made off with the cash. Within a couple of months, Nussbaum and Wilcoxson’s temporary partner was in police custody, telling authorities everything he knew about the duo.

Now on the lam from the law, the two bandits were forced into hiding, using assumed names and wearing disguises. The FBI circulated more than a million wanted posters, declaring Wilcoxson “the most wanted man since Dillinger.” The posters designated the fugitives as armed and dangerous, warning that, “They will not hesitate to open fire.”

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It was during this time that the seeds of Nussbaum’s literary career were planted. Reasoning that he needed a cover story to hand to neighbors about why he didn’t go into work every day, Nussbaum bought a typewriter and claimed that he was an author, occasionally banging away at the keys to make his cover seem more plausible. When this became tiresome, he made a recording of himself typing, and then played that whenever he wanted the sounds of work to come from his apartment.

If he was going to pretend to be a professional writer, however, he figured he needed to be able to talk the talk. Already an avid reader, he called the agent of pulp writer Dan J. Marlowe, pretending to be an aspiring writer by the name of Carl Fischer. Nussbaum had read Marlowe’s The Name of the Game is Death, about an unrepentant hood named Earl Drake. Nussbaum, himself a professional criminal by that time, found Marlowe’s description of the criminal life unusually vivid and accurate, and told him so, omitting the part about how he knew just how accurate it was.

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The two struck up a relationship that ultimately lasted beyond Nussbaum’s capture, parole, and release. At the time, Marlowe knew his new acquaintance only as Carl Fischer, and when the FBI came knocking on his door months later, demanding an explanation for the extensive phone calls he'd been on with Albert Nussbaum, he didn’t know who they were talking about.

By then, Nussbaum was behind bars. He was arrested in November of 1962, just a few weeks shy of two years after his first bank robbery. By that time, Nussbaum and Wilcoxson had knocked over some eight banks, raking in $250,000 dollars; which amounts to a little over $2 million in today’s money. Nussbaum was visiting his wife and infant daughter at a hotel when FBI agents—alerted by his mother-in-law—sprang a trap.

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After a high-speed car chase, some thirty FBI agents ultimately brought Nussbaum in, with a similar number capturing Wilcoxson and his young “paramour” Jacqueline Ruth Rose in Baltimore, Maryland just a few days later. It was then that the FBI searched Nussbaum’s phone records and contacted Marlowe.

Marlowe and Nussbaum continued to correspond while the latter was in prison, serving a sentence of 40 years, with eligibility for parole in 1971. While he was behind bars, Marlowe encouraged Nussbaum to start writing for real, providing the crook with mentoring and, eventually, passing Nussbaum’s completed stories on to venues like Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

During this time, Nussbaum was also a contributor to a Montreal-based film magazine called Take One, which wasn’t shy about playing up his outlaw image. In 1976, he was featured in a full-page ad for the publication titled, “The Pros and Con of Take One.” Nussbaum wasn’t one to play coy about his felonious past, either. According to legendary crime writer Lawrence Block, Nussbaum’s homebrew business cards featured reproductions of his wanted poster from his time on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

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By the time Nussbaum was up for parole, he already had several publications under his belt, not to mention recommendations from Marlowe and from editors who had bought his work. The friendship between Marlowe and Nussbaum was far from one-sided. Even while behind bars, Nussbaum provided Marlowe with an insider’s view of criminal life, and after his release, he became Marlowe’s caretaker when the writer suffered a stroke that left him with “a severe form of amnesia of the sort rarely encountered outside the world of soap opera.” (Block, again.)

For the remainder of his life, Nussbaum helped Marlowe to navigate a world he could no longer remember, while still doing his own crime writing on the side, including penning teleplays for the CBS crime series Switch, and writing several novels for young adults. He also became active in the mystery writing community, attending conventions, putting on writing workshops at the University of Southern California, and even being elected president of the SoCal chapter of the Mystery Writers of America.

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Nussbaum’s former partner in crime fared less well. Sentenced to life in prison, Wilcoxson was paroled in 1982, but didn’t last long on the outside. Within a year, he was back in jail, convicted of the murder-for-hire killing of a man he worked with—by shoving ten inches of mop handle down his throat—and sentenced to death in the electric chair. His death sentence was eventually reversed, but he nonetheless died in prison of natural causes.

According to Lawrence Block, Nussbaum came out as gay sometime before the untimely end of his life in 1996 at the age of 61, sharing a room at a convention with fellow crime writer Chris Steinbrenner, most famously co-author of The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection. Today, Nussbaum’s work has been largely forgotten, and most of his stories are out-of-print, save for the occasional appearance in reprint anthologies. But his larger-than-life personal story seems one that’s ripe for remembrance.