Rocambole Gang: A tour of Athens during the time of the Greek Bonnie and Clyde

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The notorious Rocambole Gang (Rokamvol/Ροκαμβόλ in Greek) operated in Athens in the late 1920s and caused fear among the city’s residents and upset law enforcement authorities. The gang consisted of brothers Andreas and Koula Christofileas (Ανδρέας και Κούλα Χριστοφιλέα) as well as other casual members. The way they acted and the time coincidence with the famous criminal couple of America, resulted in them becoming known in the criminological history of Greece as the Greek “Bonnie and Clyde”.

In this article, we combine the narration of the events from the gang’s story with a travel tour of the parts of the city where it took place. In our narrative, we follow the chronological order of the events but at the end of the article, you will also find a tour suggestion based on the locations of the events. At the same time, through archive photographs, we try to represent Athens of that time.

Christofileas Brothers and Thanasis Ntounis
christofileas brothers

Andreas was born in Mani (in Peloponnese) in 1904 and Koula in 1912 in Athens. Their father Nikos was a well-known criminal of the time and owned the infamous tavern Drosia on the outskirts of Athens. After the death of their mother, the father abandoned the two brothers, and Andreas grew up in the house of a family friend, Stella Dimitriou, while Koula until her adolescence lived as an intern in various houses and sometimes with her older sister. Andreas studied dentistry and for some time lived in Trikala and Chalkida. Koula learned dressmaking and worked in various tailors. After the death of her sister, Koula moved to a room in Drosia where she lived with her father’s mistress Paraskevi Masouridou (Παρασκευή Μασουρίδου).

Cover of the reprint of Rocambole (1908-1910) & Napoleon III of France novel series portrayed as Rocambole (1867)
Rocambole

In 1926, Andreas returned to Athens to Dimitriou’s house and, influenced by the writers of detective novels and police films, as he later testified in court, began his criminal activity by sending blackmail letters signed with the name “Rokamvol” to various recipients demanding from them money. Rocambole was the protagonist of the French adventure novel by French writer Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail, which was especially popular in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The series presents Rocambole as an extremely imaginative teenager, an orphan who was adopted by the cunning Maman Fipart in order to use him in his illegal activities. For the same reason, Andreas dressed quite sophisticated for his age and always wore collars, which during that time were called “kollarines” (κολλαρίνες).

τηε blackmails
Hotel AMERIKANIKO on Zinonos Street – (20th Century Archive / Photographic Archive www.elia.org.gr)
Zinonos Street

Zinonos Street / Agios Konstantinos Church: Stella Dimitriou’s house, where Andreas grew up, was located at number 22 on Zinonos Street (οδός Ζήνωνος) in the centre of Athens. It was a big house with many rooms which Dimitriou rented. In 1926 Andreas returned to the house at Zinonos and chose as target three of the tenants. Specifically, he sent a letter to MP Panagiotis Floros (whom had also robbed in his room wearing a mask) and Panagiotis Skampis or Skoumbourdis and Pan. Stavropoulos. Christophileas ordered Floros to send 15 thousand drachmas under threat of murder. The other two, he ordered them to send money and give alms to all the beggars they met on the street and also to donate to the neighbouring church of Agios Konstantinos (Άγιος Κωνσταντινός) a significant sum for the poor. Finally, he sent a letter to the director of the 3rd Police Department, located on Menandrou Street, to inform him of his intentions to help the poor.

The church of Agios Konstantinos after the Asia Minor catastrophe (1922 –
Tsakirakis, Vasilis & Alexandros
/ Photographic Archive www.elia.org.gr
)
The church of Agios Konstantinos

The three men handed over the letters to the Police, but despite the preliminary investigation, the sender could not be located. Andreas, learning that they went to the authorities, threw stones at their windows every night to intimidate them. One night he decided to take revenge on them and set a fire outside their rooms while pretending to be asleep. During the fire, he ran to help the firefighters but aroused the suspicions of the Police, who finally arrested him. Although the Police found that the graphic character in the letters was his, he denied his guilt and only after a long interrogation did he confess. He was eventually imprisoned, but after a month he was released on bail as a minor.

drosia tavern
Drosia tavern / Newspaper ΕΜPRΟS (1929) & Abandoned courtyard with perimeter rooms of the first decades of the 20th century in the area of Ellinoroson

Ellinoroson neighbourhood: After his release, Andreas and his sister lived in Drosia tavern, owned by their father, in the area of ​​the Ellinoroson (Ελληνορώσων), specifically between the former Gendarmerie School and Sotiria Hospital. It was a cavern where, according to the newspapers of the time, “thugs and women of the lower level” frequented. In addition to the tavern, various perimeter rooms housed extradited women. Nikos Christofileas was considered by the Police as the leader of the outlaws in the surrounding area (Goudi and Gyzi). Drosia became the base of the gang during their criminal activity.

In the time of the Christofileas brothers, the area of Ellinoroson was sparsely populated and outside the borders of the main urban area of the city. Most of the buildings were poorly constructed and there were several stables and dairies. Today there are few buildings in the area that have survived from that period but some of the few remnants give us a picture of the area in the late 1920s when the first Greek refugees from Russia settled.

Refugee houses in the area of Ellinoroson

From Drosia, Andreas made his plan together with his family friend Thanasis Dounis (Θανάσης Ντούνης), the second’s mistress Anna and his sister. According to the plan, Anna, Koula and Masouridou would appear as maids with fake names in various houses to steal them. However, this plan did not satisfy Andreas, who aimed to steal a car and kidnap Giannetsos, a wealthy businessman with cows in the area of Ampelokipoi, to ask for ransom from his wife.

THE ABDUCTION OF THE FIRST DRIVER
Stadiou Street (1926 – Public Domain photo / Courtesy of Martin Baldwin-Edwards)
Stadiou Street

Stadiou Street / Attikon Cinema: Implementing his plan, on the night of November 2, 1928, Christofileas and two of his friends boarded Sotiris Bournilakis’ taxi (Σωτήρης Μπουρνιλάκης) outside the popular Attikon Cinema (Κινηματογράφος Αττικόν) on Stadiou Street (οδός Σταδίου) and asked him to take them to Spata. Arriving a little outside the village with the threat of weapons, they ordered him to disembark and leave the car. Despite Bournilakis’ resistance, they removed his jacket containing 15 drachmas and took the car, promising to leave it intact at a specific point on Mesogeion Avenue for him to find it the next day. Bournilakis left with 150 drachmas in his pocket that were not stolen and the next day he found the car at the point indicated to him.

Stadiou Street existed during ancient times. The modern street was rebuilt for the first time in the early to the mid-19th century. Trams and trolleys were added in the 20th century and two- and three-storey neoclassical buildings were built. In the next decades, many buildings were demolished and eight- and ten-storey buildings replaced them but several neoclassical buildings have survived.

The now destroyed Attikon Cinema
THE MURDER OF tsagas
The intersection of Akadimia and Ippokratous streets (Photo from www.lesxi.uoa.gr)
The taxi rank behind the National Library at the intersection of Akadimias and Ippokratous streets

Intersection of Akadimias and Ippokratous streets: On the night of July 11, 1929, Andreas, Koula (wearing a red hat) and Fotis Anagnostopoulos (Φώτης Αναγνωστόπουλος), who was the latter’s lover, boarded the taxi of twenty-three-year-old Stamatis Tsagas (Σταμάτης Τσάγκας) to transport them to a tavern in the area of Voula. In the car, they boarded at the taxi rank that still exists today at the intersection of Akadimias and Ippokratous streets (Ακαδημίας και Ιπποκράτους), behind the building of the National Library.

The representation of the Tsagas murder on the beach of Kavouri / Newspaper ΕMPROS (1929)
The beach of Kavouri near the church of Agios Nikolaos

Kavouri Beach / Church of Agios Nikolaos: The gang members asked Tsagas to take them to the beach tavern of Panagia and wait for them to eat. When they finished, they continued by taxi to Vouliagmeni. On the way and as they were moving on the dirt road parallel to the sea on the beach of Kavouri (παραλία Καβουριού), Andreas ordered the driver to leave the car and go away. Tsagas, however, reacted and took out a small revolver that he had hidden, but Andreas shot him first and killed him. Then, after taking Tsagas’ gun and the 17,000 drachmas he had on him, they left his corpse on the swampy beach near the church of Agios Nikolaos (Άγιος Νικόλαος). The beach today is nothing like the deserted location of 1929, as it is one of the most cosmopolitan spots in the coastal zone of the modern city with hotels and restaurants. The members of the gang then left the area by car and after driving on the outskirts of the city, they finally headed to Harvati (today’s Pallini) but were forced to leave the car on the side of the road because they ran out of gas. Hitchhiking to a passing car, they manage to return to Agia Paraskevi and from there on foot to Drosia.

After the Bournilakis’ case and the murder of Tsagas, the newspapers began to write every day about the gang, while the police had launched an extensive investigation to arrest them, bringing in dozens of suspects. In the newspaper articles, the leading role is played by Koula, who was described as “the young woman in a red hat who kills” while Andreas as “the young man with the collars”.

THE ATTEMPT AGAINST nikitaras
Panepistimiou Street (1930 – Public Domain photo / Courtesy of Martin Baldwin-Edwards)
Panepistimiou Street (Photo by Lapost from Wikimedia Commons)

Panepistimiou Street: Three months later the gang will make its last attempt to steal a car. Specifically, on the afternoon of October 20, Andreas, Koula and Dounis boarded Konstantinos Nikitaras’s (Κωνσταντίνος Νικηταράς) taxi from a rank on Panepistimiou Street (οδός Πανεπιστημίου), which then as now was one of the main roads in the city. They told Nikitaras to take them to the area of ​​Agios Andreas, and on approaching their destination, Dounis hit the driver on the head with a crowbar. He lost consciousness and the car veered off course and hit a tree. From the jolt, Nikitaras came together and saw Kula aiming at him with a gun. Koula pressed the trigger several times but the gun did not fire, so Nikitaras found the opportunity to escape. Arriving in Agios Andreas, covered in blood, he asked for help and returned to the car with two other people, but gang mambers had disappeared from the spot.

THE ROBBERY AT THE CONSUL’S HOUSE
Patision Street (1920 – Public Domain photo / Courtesy of Martin Baldwin-Edwards)
Patision Street near Plateia Amerikis

LefkosiasStreet / Patision Street: During the same period as the kidnappings of the drivers, Andreas and Koula appeared at the house of the general consul Stefanakos (Στεφανάκος), which was located in the area of ​Plateia Amerikis and specifically at the junction of Lefkosias Street (οδός Λευκωσίας) with Kyprou Street. The consul had placed an ad for a maid, and Andreas took the opportunity to present himself as an engineer and Koula as his cousin and candidate maid using the name Eleni Kioureli. Kula won the trust of the family and so on the night of Tuesday to Wednesday, October 29, 1929, she found the opportunity to rob various things worth 80,000 drachmas and two dresses of Stefanakos’s daughter. That same night she left the house without notifying her brother. The next morning Andreas unsuspectingly went to the consul’s house to meet Koula. Stefanakos’ son tried to arrest him, but Andreas pulled out a gun and fired six shots at him without success. In this way, he managed to escape and reach Patision Street (οδός Πατησίων), where he hid among passers-by.

The intersection of Lefkosias and Kyprou Streets

Today’s Plateia Amerikis bears no resemblance to its glorious urban past. In the 1920s and 1930s, it had mainly detached houses of urban well-to-do families and its development continued in the 1950s and 1960s, when remarkable high-rise and high-quality apartment buildings were built in the area. It was one of the most aristocratic districts of Athens. Today few houses of the first half of the 20th century are preserved but can give us a picture of the aristocratic past of the district.

Detached house of the first half of the 20th century near the junction of Lefkosias and Kyprou streets
THE ARREST OF THE GANG members
Aiolou Street
Aiolou Street

Aiolou Street / Notos Galleries Department Store: The arrest of the gang came nevertheless by accident. In the early hours of October 23, 1929, Christofileas’ roommate in Drosia, Masouridou, heard Koula talking in her sleep and when she woke up, asked her what was going on. Koula revealed her Tsagas murder and that she was the girl in the red hat that the newspapers were writing about. Masouridou was afraid that knowing the truth, her life was in danger and so she went to the Police to report them. The Police immediately moved to arrest them, but Koula and Andreas had managed to escape. Finally, the Police, after an extensive investigation and information that they had, located and arrested Koula at the Acropolis Hotel on Aiolou Street (οδός Αιόλου). The hotel, located at the junction of Aiolου and Lykourgou Streets, was one of the most central hotels in Athens until 1936 when the company Lambropoulos Bros bought it to build the emblematic department store of the same name, which was later named Notos Galleries.

The Notos Galleries department store on Aiolou Street
Gendarmerie Grove

Gendarmerie Grove (Alsos Chorofilakis): Koula confessed to her involvement in the Tsagas murder and the attempt against Nikitaras, naming her brother and Dounis as accomplices. The police raided Drosia and located Dounis there, who initially escaped, but the police arrested him after a chase in the Gendarmerie Grove / Alsos Chorofilakis (Άλσος Χωροφυλακής). The grove exists until today, as well as the adjacent building of the Gendarmerie School, and is an interesting promenade near the city centre.

The number 22 of Zinonos Street where the old house no longer exists

The arrest of Andreas was more episodic. Christofileas took refuge in the house at 22 Zinonos Street and intended to dye his hair and escape to the countryside hidden in a trunk. The police, from the information they had, went to the house and when he realized that the police had entered the building, he hung himself from the window so that they would not see him, but without success.

THE REVELATIONS

Following their arrest, the revelation of aspects of the Rocambole Gang (or “Gang with 25 Pistols” as it is called in some articles) monopolised the front pages of the newspapers and caused an uproar in Athenian public opinion that had not been confronted with another similar case. In fact, the information about their illegitimate father, which was accompanied by rumours that the brothers had been sexually abused by him in the past, brought the public opinion faced with issues that did not easily find the light of day at that time. Also in many articles, the two brothers are presented as lovers and Koula as “Lucretia Borgia”.

Representation of the crimes of the gang in an article in newspaper EMPROS (1929)

At the same time, the two brothers, through the many interviews they gave in the newspapers, seem to enjoy their fame and the public interest in them. Andreas even revealed in the newspapers his grandiose plan to kidnap Dionysis Loverdos, manager of Laiki Bank, but this is probably a story he invented after his arrest. Finally, during the preliminary investigation, Andreas referred to Rocambole as the moral perpetrator of his actions and stated: “this hero […] was not in my childhood the perception and conscience of a criminal. He was a hero, a superhuman that I wanted to imitate”.

The building of Laiki Bank on Panepistimiou Street
the conviction and the end of the gang

In the trial that took place in May 1931, the brothers and Dounis were sentenced to two life sentences, while Anagnostopoulos was not arrested and was never convicted. The brothers managed to escape the death penalty by accusing Anagnostopoulos of being Tsagas’ murderer. According to newspaper reports, Koula was released from Averoff Prison in August 1941, while there is no clear information about Andreas’ fate, although he allegedly escaped from Chania prison during the Battle of Crete.

The case of the Christofileas brothers had an impact on the society of the time. On the one hand, it gave arguments to those who believed that popular literature and cinema give young people the wrong standards and corrupt them. On the other hand, the image of the fatal Koula inspired the folk musicians of the time, and at least two songs were written about her history (the second one, released in 1933, was sung by the famous singer of the time, Rosa Eskenazi). Finally, for many years, mainly due to the time coincidence of their actions, the Christofileas brothers were characterised as the Greeks “Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow”.

This was the story of the infamous Rocambole Gang, which although forgotten today, almost a hundred years later, in its time had signficant impact and became object of study.

The area at the junction of Mesogeion Avenue with Katehaki Avenue today is nothing like the illegal area where the Christofileas family lived, but reading this article maybe the next time you pass by this site you will recall their unique story.


Sources:

*[At the top: Photo from Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

*[The names of the gang members, the victims and important locations are written also in Greek]


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