Wanted poster

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Wanted poster for John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln

A wanted poster (or wanted sign) is a poster distributed to let the public know of a person whom authorities wish to apprehend. They generally include a picture of the person, either a photograph when one is available or of a facial composite image produced by the police.


An 1824 wanted poster issued by the Spanish Empire and offering a gold and silver bounty for the capture of pirate captain Roberto Cofresí.
The boys pictured from the front and side with descriptions in text
A wanted poster for escaped boys at Plainfield's Indiana Boys School, 1917

The poster will usually include a description of the wanted person(s) and the crime(s) for which they are sought. There is typically a set monetary reward offered to whoever catches the wanted criminal that is advertised on the poster. Wanted posters are commonly produced by a police department or other public government bureaus intended for public display such as on a physical bulletin board or in the lobby of a post office. Today many wanted posters are displayed on the Internet. However, wanted posters have also been produced by vigilante groups, railway security, private agencies such as Pinkerton, or by express companies that have sustained a robbery. Wanted posters also might include rewards for providing aid in the capture of the wanted person, usually in the form of money. These types of posters were also referred to as reward posters.

Electronic billboards[edit]

In 2007, the FBI began posting wanted posters on electronic billboards starting with 23 cities, and have been working to expand this system in other states.[1] This allows them to instantly post a wanted notice in public view across the US. In 2014, the FBI claimed that at least 53 cases had been solved as a direct result of digital billboard publicity, and many others had been solved through the Bureau's overall publicity efforts that included the billboards. The FBI now claims to have access to over 5,200 billboards nationwide.[2][3]


Wanted posters for particularly notorious fugitives frequently offer a bounty for the capture of the person, or for a person who can provide information leading to such capture. Bounties provided an incentive for citizens to aid law enforcement, either by providing information, or by catching the criminal themselves. More modern wanted posters may also include images of the fugitive's fingerprints. People who, as a profession, chase wanted individuals with the intent to collect their bounties are referred to as bounty hunters.


Composite images for use in wanted posters can be created with various methods, including:

  • E-FIT: Electronic Facial Identification Technique via computer
  • Identikit
  • PhotoFIT: Photographic Facial Identification Technique

Dead or alive[edit]

Historically, some wanted posters offering a reward contained the phrase "dead or alive". Thus one would get a reward for either bringing the person or their corpse to the authorities. This could indicate that the person was an outlaw, and that it was permissible to kill him. Alternatively, the phrase might mean that it was permissible to kill them if they resisted arrest. While most issuers of wanted posters instead preferred the target to be taken alive in order to stand trial, some private organizations were willing to go to these extreme measures to protect their interests.[4][5]

Wanted posters in the media[edit]

Wanted posters have been used by media sources to cast prominent figures as wild west criminals. Popular examples of this include the September 4, 1939 Edition of the British newspaper the Daily Mirror, which cast Adolf Hitler as a "reckless criminal" "wanted dead or alive".[6] This idea was also used by The New York Post in their global search for Osama Bin Laden in 2001, shortly after President George W. Bush made the reference, "And there's an old poster out West, that I recall, that said, 'Wanted: Dead or Alive'."[7]

Famous wanted posters[edit]

Wanted poster of Dan Breen during the Irish War of Independence

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Opening a Clear Channel The FBI on Digital Billboards". Federal Bureau of Investigation.
  2. ^ "Catching Fugitives in the Information Age". Federal Bureau of Investigation, 24 Dec. 2014. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.
  3. ^ Ferranti, Seth (2016-12-14). "The History of the Most Wanted Poster". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2018-08-20.
  4. ^ [dead link]Hanes, Elizabeth (June 20, 2012). "Jesse James Wanted Poster Goes Up for Auction". History. Retrieved 8 May 2018.
  5. ^ Trimble, Marshall (April 2006). "I read somewhere that no legal agency ever put out wanted posters that stated, 'Dead or Alive.' What's the truth?". True West. Archived from the original on 2017-03-06. Retrieved 8 May 2018.
  6. ^ "Wanted Poster for Hitler". The British Library.
  7. ^ "Wanted by the FBI: Usama Bin Laden". Federal Bureau of Investigation. Archived from the original on 2011-02-23.

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