Outlaws as Folk Heroes

Nineteen-year-old Colton Harris-Moore was arrested in the Bahamas Sunday after a two-year run from the police. The "Barefoot Bandit" is accused of a string of robberies, including the theft of up to five airplanes.  Along the way, he picked up 83,000 fans on his Facebook fan page and spawned a fan club. Harris-Moore's mother defends his actions, and has reportedly sold the rights to his story to 20th Century Fox.

What makes an outlaw into a hero, or at least a pop culture figure? Those individuals who achieve such status have a few things in common that tweak the interest and sympathy of the public.

1. The outlaw is a victim of injustice from authorities, and is paying back the favor.
2. The outlaw helps common people.
3. The outlaw is sacrificing his life for a political stance.
4. The outlaw does things the average Joe would love to try, if he had the courage.
5. The outlaw's outlandish adventures provide entertainment in the manner of a long-running serial.

One factor can make an outlaw into a folk hero; but many figures from history had more than one factor going for them. The Colton Harris-Moore story certainly has factors four and five.

Bernhard Goetz

Bernie Goetz became known as "the subway vigilante" when he shot four young men in a New York subway in 1984. Goetz had been mugged twice before, and felt threatened when four teenagers approached him and asked for money. At the second demand for money, Goetz pulled out a revolver and shot all four youths, paralyzing one of them for life (the other three recovered). Goetz fled the scene, but surrendered nine days later. He became a hero to many, a symbol of the danger and frustration New Yorkers felt when using the subway. Goetz was seen as a victim of both street criminals and a police system that failed to protect honest citizens (factor 1). Others saw him as a racist, as Goetz was white and the four teenagers, armed with only a screwdriver, were black. Still others were afraid of lionizing a vigilante and the precedence set by Goetz' actions (factor 4). Goetz admitted the shooting, but was acquitted of attempted murder and assault. He was convicted only of illegal firearm possession. Witnesses and jury members, both black and white, knew the terror of riding the city subways at the time. All of the teenagers had criminal records, and three saw legal trouble after the 1984 shooting. Since the Goetz incident, New York City has increased its police presence on the street and the crime rate has plummeted.

Robin Hood

The legendary figure Robin Hood is thought to be based on true stories, possibly of more than one outlaw who gained followers by causing grief to those in authority over the oppressed commoners of 13th century England. Many of the details of his story were added much later, so separating fact from fiction is a guessing game. The tales have a few things in common in that Robin Hood was aided and protected by citizens who sympathized with his persecution (factor 1), benefited from his generosity (factor 2), and enjoyed the trouble he caused corrupt government officials, such as the Sheriff of Nottingham (factor 5). Another Robin Hood-type figure was the Japanese hero Ishikawa Goemon. The outlaw Twm Sion Cati is referred to as the "Welsh Robin Hood", although better documented and not as well known outside his country.

Pancho Villa

Francisco "Pancho" Villa was a criminal who in 1910 became a revolutionary and a hero to Mexican citizens oppressed by the regime of president Porfirio Díaz. Villa took control of the state of Chihuahua, where he commandeered land and supplies from the government and wealthy landowners and distributed what his revolutionaries didn't use to the widows and orphans of men who fought with Villa (factor 2). His battles against the existing regime made him into a folk hero in both Mexico and the US (factor 3), but his reputation among yanquis plummeted when the US began supporting Venustiano Carranza over Villa's bid for power in Mexico. In retaliation, Villa conducted raids into US territory. After the revolution was over in 1920, the new Mexican government gave Villa a house in gratitude for his service. Villa was assassinated in 1923 by a group of men hired by a larger group of conspirators who were Villa's political and personal enemies.

Other outlaws who became political heroes include Koose Muniswamy Veerappan, a poacher and kidnapper who became a symbol of land reform in south India, and Salvatore Giuliano, a black marketeer and smuggler who fought for Sicily's independence from Italy.

Phoolan Devi

Phoolan Devi was a victim who became a bandit, a folk hero, a political crusader, and finally a legislator. She came from a poor, lower-caste Indian family and was married off at the age of eleven. By age thirteen, she was divorced and considered a disgrace to the family. A cousin arranged for Devi to be arrested for theft, and she was repeatedly raped in jail. She was then kidnapped by an outlaw band which she joined, as the brutal outlaw life was better than what she had at home. Devi eventually broke away and formed her own gang in response to further rape and the murder of her outlaw husband. She developed a hatred of all males as oppressors (factor 1). In the village of Behmai, all the men of a certain caste were lined up and shot during a raid by Devi's gang. She later denied personally killing any of them. During her four-year run as a fugitive from the law, Devi gained a reputation as a Robin Hood character who gave looted goods to the poor (factor 2), although the accuracy of such reports is disputed. She also became a symbol of women's oppression (factor 3). In 1983 she surrendered under condition of leniency, but was jailed awaiting trial until 1994. In 1996, Devi was elected to public office, where she advocated for the rights of women and lower-caste people. She was assassinated in 2001 by several perpetrators, one who confessed that the shooting was in retaliation for the massacre at Behmai.

Jesse James

Jesse James was only a teenager when he joined the cause of the Confederacy as a guerrilla fighter. He attempted to surrender to Union authorities after a murderous raid, but was shot while approaching with a white flag (factor 1). From then on, he lived on the wrong side of the law. Over 15 years, the James/Younger gang robbed banks and then trains, leaving behind dead robbery victims, lawmen, and innocent bystanders. The long string of crimes were reported by newspaper journalists and eventually by novelists (factor 5), both sensationalizing the facts and embellishing the stories with reports of the James brothers (Jesse and Frank) sharing their loot with the poor (factor 2). There is no evidence that the gang ever distributed their ill-gotten gains to anyone out of altruism or politics. However, many sympathizers helped the gang to evade capture, both out of respect for their reputation and fear for their own lives. The Younger brothers were captured in 1876. Jesse James was shot and killed in 1882 by a fellow outlaw, Bob Ford, who was secretly working with authorities to bring James to justice. Ford was convicted of murder and immediately pardoned by the governor, leading many to guess at the collusion. This perceived injustice raised Jesse James' stature as a hero even further among those who followed his story.

In 20th-century Brazil, outlaw bandit Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, known as Lampião, became famous for eluding police for twenty years before being killed along with his family and gang members in 1938. His legend as a Robin Hood-type benefactor of the common people grew after his death.

Ned Kelly

The story of the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly combines almost all the elements that make a fugitive from the law into a folk hero. Kelly was a troublemaker from an early age. He was in and out of jail many times for offenses such as drunkenness, assault, receiving stolen goods, and most often livestock theft. Many of these charges were dismissed for lack of evidence, which led some to believe that the local authorities were harassing the Kelly family (factor 1). In 1878, a drunken police officer named Fitzpatrick was injured in the Kelly home, and swore that Ned had shot him in the wrist. Fitzpatrick's story was the only evidence, and Kelly was convicted of attempted murder. Certain that he would not receive fair treatment, Ned Kelly had already gone into hiding with his brother and two friends. A search party encountered the gang in the woods and a firefight left two police officers dead. The Kelly gang survived as fugitives by robbing banks. They were kind to their hostages during the robberies, and generous with the proceeds, especially to friends and anyone who helped the gang hide from the authorities. The police, meanwhile, arrested Kelly sympathizers and held them without charge, a move that only confirmed Kelly as a victim of a police vendetta. At a bank in Jerilderie, Kelly's gang burned all the townspeople's mortgages (factor 2).

While in hiding, Ned Kelly dictated a 7,391 word letter outlining his grievances with the government and describing how the police had treated him and his family. The letter also protested the unjust treatment of Irish Catholics by Australian authorities (factor 3). The letter was suppressed until 1930. On June 28, 1880, after two years on the run (factor 5), the Kelly gang had their final showdown with local police at a hotel in Glenrowan, Victoria. The four outlaws wore suits of homemade armor weighing 90 pounds each. One was shot and killed, two supposedly committed suicide (although there was scant evidence as the bodies were burned in the hotel), and Ned Kelly was seriously wounded and arrested. Two hostages at the inn were also killed. Kelly was convicted of murder and hanged, despite a petition of 32,000 signatures demanding his execution be stopped, and thousands of supporters protesting outside the prison.

In comparison with these epic outlaws, the story of Colton Harris-Moore starts to look a bit shallow. This overview barely scratches the surface of these fascinating stories. You should follow the highlighted links to learn more about these and other outlaw folk heroes.

See also: 7 Fugitives who Became Folk Heroes

Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Would You Be Able to Pass a World War I Military Literacy Test?
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain

Though reading and writing might not come to mind as the first requirement for trench warfare, during the early 20th century, the U.S. Army became increasingly concerned with whether or not its soldiers were literate. Thousands of World War I soldiers couldn't read printed directions on basic military tasks. The Army didn't implement its first major literacy program until the 1940s, but literacy tests were included in a battery of psychological evaluations World War I recruits went through to determine their mental fitness and intelligence, as the blog Futility Closet recently highlighted.

These unconventional literacy tests largely took the form of a yes or no questions with obvious answers, according to the 1921 report from the U.S. Surgeon General, Psychological Examining in the United States Army. Edited by pioneering intelligence-testing psychologist Robert Yerkes, who developed the military's first psychology exams for new recruits (and was also famous for his support for eugenics), the volume is a lengthy compilation of all of the methods the U.S. Army used to test the intelligence of its future soldiers. Many of these tests are now considered racist and culturally biased—some of the "intelligence" testing questions required recruits to know things like what products Velvet Joe (a figure used in tobacco campaigns) advertised—but some of the literacy questions, in particular, simply come off as weird in the modern era. Some are downright existential, in fact, while others—"Is a guitar a disease?"—come off as almost poetic.

A long questionnaire to test literacy, including questions like 'Is coal white?'
Psychological Examining in the United States Army, Google Books // Public Domain

One test, the Devens Literarcy Test, asked recruits questions like "Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?" and "Does success tend to bring pleasure?" Another section of the test asked "Do boys like to play?" and "Do clerks enjoy a vacation?"

Other questions seem like they're up for debate, like "Are painters ever artless individuals?" and "Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?" Surely the answers to questions like "Should criminals forfeit liberty?" and "Is misuse of money an evil?" depend on the opinions of the reader. The answer to "Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?" might be different depending on how the person feels about their Congressional representative, and could surely be the spark for an hour-long argument at most dinner parties.

Still others are tests of cultural knowledge, not reading skill—a major modern criticism of Yerkes's work. Despite being arguably a pretty literate person, I certainly don't know the answer to the question "Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?" A question like "Are 'diminutive' and 'Lilliputian' nearly identical?" isn't exactly a test of literacy, but a test of whether or not you've read Gulliver's Travels, which doesn't exactly seem like a necessity for military success.

Luckily, some of the questions are pretty obvious, like "Is coal white?" That one I can answer. The full list of questions used in the various versions of the Devens test is below for you to test your own Army-level literacy.

  • Do dogs bark?
  • Is coal white?
  • Can you see?
  • Do men eat stones?
  • Do boys like to play?
  • Can a bed run?
  • Do books have hands?
  • Is ice hot?
  • Do winds blow?
  • Have all girls the same name?
  • Is warm clothing good for winter?
  • Is this page of paper white?
  • Are railroad tickets free?
  • Is every young woman a teacher?
  • Is it always perfect weather?
  • Is the heart within the body?
  • Do clerks enjoy a vacation?
  • Is the President a public official?
  • Would you enjoy losing a fortune?
  • Does an auto sometimes need repair?
  • Is it important to remember commands?
  • Are avenues usually paved with oxygen?
  • Do we desire serious trouble?
  • Is practical judgment valuable?
  • Ought a man's career to be ruined by accidents?
  • Do you cordially recommend forgery?
  • Does an emergency require immediate decision?
  • Should honesty bring misfortune to its possessor?
  • Are gradual improvements worth while?
  • Is a punctual person continually tardy?
  • Are instantaneous effects invariably rapid?
  • Should preliminary disappointment discourage you?
  • Is hearsay testimony trustworthy evidence?
  • Is wisdom characteristic of the best authorities?
  • Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?
  • Is incessant discussion usually boresome?
  • Are algebraic symbols ever found in manuals?
  • Are tentative regulations ever advantageous?
  • Are "diminutive" and "Lilliputian" nearly identical?
  • Is an infinitesimal titanic bulk possible?
  • Do all connubial unions eventuate felicitously?
  • Is a "gelatinous exaltation" ridiculous?
  • Are "sedate" and "hilarious" similar in meaning?
  • Is avarice sometimes exhibited by cameos?
  • Can a dog run?
  • Is water dry?
  • Can you read?
  • Do stones talk?
  • Do books eat?
  • Do cats go to school?
  • Are six more than two?
  • Is John a girl's name?
  • Are there letters in a word?
  • Is your nose on your face?
  • Can you carry water in a sieve?
  • Do soldiers wear uniforms?
  • Does it rain every morning?
  • Are newspapers made of iron?
  • Are "forward" and "backward" directions?
  • Do many people attend motion-picture theatres?
  • Do handkerchiefs frequently injure human beings?
  • Do magazines contain advertisements?
  • Are political questions often the subject of debates?
  • Are empires inclosed in envelopes?
  • Are members of the family usually regarded as guests?
  • Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?
  • Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?
  • May chimneys be snipped off with scissors?
  • Is moderation a desirable virtue?
  • Are apish manners desired by a hostess?
  • Do conscientious brunettes exist?
  • Do serpents make oblong echoes?
  • Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?
  • Is hypocrisy approved by honest men?
  • Is virile behavior effeminate?
  • Do alleged facts often require verification?
  • Do pestilences ordinarily bestow great benefit?
  • Are painters ever artless individuals?
  • Do the defenders of citadels sometimes capitulate?
  • Do physicians ameliorate pathological conditions?
  • Is embezzlement a serious misdemeanor?
  • Do vagrants commonly possess immaculate cravats?
  • Are "loquacious" and "voluble" opposite in meaning?
  • May heresies arise among the laity?
  • Are piscatorial activities necessarily lucrative?
  • Do tendrils terminate in cerebral hemorrhages?
  • Does a baby cry?
  • Can a hat speak?
  • Do hens lay eggs?
  • Is a stone soft?
  • Is one more than seven?
  • Do the land and sea look just alike?
  • Are some books black?
  • Does water run up hill?
  • Are stamps used on letters?
  • Do 100 cents make a dollar?
  • Are we sure what events will happen next year?
  • Do ships sail on railroads?
  • Do stones float in the air?
  • May meat be cut with a knife?
  • Are ledges common in mountain districts?
  • Does success tend to bring pleasure?
  • Are diamonds mined in mid-ocean?
  • Is misuse of money an evil?
  • Should criminals forfeit liberty?
  • Is special information usually a disadvantage?
  • Are attempted suicides always fatal?
  • Are exalted positions held by distinguished men?
  • Does confusion favor the establishment of order?
  • Is a civil answer contrary to law?
  • Is a dilapidated garment nevertheless clothing?
  • Are textile manufacturers valueless?
  • Do thieves commit depredations?
  • Does close inspection handicap accurate report?
  • Do transparent goggles transmit light?
  • Do illiterate men read romances?
  • Is irony connected with blast furnaces?
  • Do avalanches ever descend mountains?
  • Are scythes always swung by swarthy men?
  • Do pirates accumulate booty?
  • Are intervals of repose appreciated?
  • Are intermittent sounds discontinuous?
  • Is an avocational activity ordinarily pleasurable?
  • Are pernicious pedestrians translucent?
  • Are amicable relationships disrupted by increased congeniality?
  • Are many nocturnal raids surreptitiously planned
  • Are milksops likely to perpetrate violent offenses?
  • Are "precipitancy" and "procrastination" synonymous?
  • Is snow cold?
  • Can a dog read?
  • Do houses have doors?
  • Has a horse five legs?
  • Are three more than ten?
  • Do mice love cats?
  • Does a hat belong to you?
  • Do animals have glass eyes?
  • Should fathers provide clothing for children?
  • Is it true that lead is heavy
  • Do poor men have much money?
  • Is summer colder than winter?
  • Can a horse tell time by a watch?
  • Is a city larger than a country town?
  • Does Christmas ever fall on Tuesday?
  • Do Christians often overlook faults?
  • Are difficult problems easily solved?
  • Do convicts sometimes escape from prison?
  • Should the courts secure justice for everybody?
  • Are scoundrels always intoxicated?
  • Is a guitar a kind of disease?
  • Do jugglers furnish entertainment?
  • Should we build on insecure foundations?
  • Do annual conventions take place biweekly?
  • Does persistent effort favor ultimate success?
  • Is a shrewd man necessarily admired?
  • Is manual skill advantageous?
  • Are elaborate bonnets inexpensive?
  • Are petty annoyances irritating?
  • Are false arguments valid?
  • Do you approve of ruthless massacres?
  • Do blemishes occur in complexions?
  • Is air found in a complete vacuum?
  • Do robins migrate periodically?
  • Are weird tales sometimes gruesome?
  • Do felines possess locomotor appendages?
  • Do demented individuals frequently have hallucinations?
  • Are laconic messages sometimes verbose?
  • Are perfunctory endeavors usually efficacious?
  • Would a deluge extinguish a smouldering trellis?
  • Are devastated suburbs exhilarating vistas?
  • Are "contingent" and "independent" alike in meaning?

[h/t Futility Closet]

10 Not-So-Small Facts About the Volkswagen Beetle

While Volkswagen has announced—for a second time—that it's going to cease production on the Beetle, people are still singing the praises of the quirky little car. Here are 10 not-so-small things you need to know about the German car that was once named one of the top four cars of the century.


Adolf Hitler checks out a VW Beetle
Getty Images

It’s long been said that Adolf Hitler was the man behind the Beetle, and that’s sort of true. The dictator wanted German families to be able to afford a car, so he enlisted automaker Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche) to make “the people’s car.” But the basis for the Beetle had been around since long before Hitler’s demand; the Bug was heavily influenced by Porsche's V series. Rumors that Hitler directly designed the car are probably false; though he was the one who reportedly said that the car should look like a beetle, because “You only have to observe nature to learn how best to achieve streamlining,” it’s likely that he was regurgitating something he had read in an automotive magazine. Still, one thing is for certain: Hitler himself placed the cornerstone for the Porsche factory in Wolfsburg, Germany.


Perhaps still wary of anything imported from Germany, Americans shunned the Beetle when it was introduced in the States in 1949: Only two were sold in the first year. But after that, sales grew quickly. By the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Bugs were sold every year, topping out at 570,000 in 1970.


A pink VW Beetle

We have the public to thank for the car’s distinctive nickname. Originally known as the Volkswagen Type 1, the car’s curves and rounded top led to its later, insect-like moniker. Volkswagen must have realized they had a good thing on their hands, because they started referring to the car as the VW Beetle in the late 1960s.


The UK and the U.S. aren’t the only countries that bestowed a new name on the Volkswagen Type 1. In France, it's called Coccinellewhich means ladybug. It's Maggiolino and Fusca in Italy and Brazil, respectively, both of which mean "beetle." Mexico calls it Vocho; it's Peta (turtle) in Bolivia; and Kodok (frog) in Indonesia. 


In 1999, Advertising Age declared the car's not-so-small ad campaign to be the best campaign of the last 100 years, besting Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Nike, and McDonald’s. The quirky concept and copy—which, according to Advertising Age, “Gave advertising permission to surprise, to defy and to engage the consumer without bludgeoning him about the face and body”—was a game-changer for the entire industry.

The "Think Small" line and accompanying self-deprecating copy was written by Julian Koenig, who was also responsible for naming Earth Day and coming up with Timex’s “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking” tagline. He’s also half-responsible for daughter Sarah Koenig, whom you may know from NPR’s This American Life and Serial.


Herbie the Love Bug

Because of their distinctive aesthetic, VW Bugs have been associated with everything from the Beatles to Transformers. A few highlights:

  • The Beetle with the license plate “LMW 28IF” on the cover of The Beatles' Abbey Road album was sold at an auction for $23,000 in 1986. It is now on display at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum at the company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany.
  • The Fremont Troll sculpture in Seattle, a huge statue lurking under the Aurora Bridge, clutches an actual VW Beetle. An in-progress picture shows that the car was once red. It also once contained a time capsule of Elvis memorabilia, which was stolen.
  • The Herbie the Love Bug series was a big hit for Disney in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the original Herbies sold for $126,500 at an auction in 2015.
  • In the original Transformers cartoon, Bumblebee transformed from a VW Bug. The car was changed to a Camaro for the live-action movies.


The so-called “blumenvasen,” a small vase that could be clipped to the dashboard, speaker grille, or windshield, was porcelain when it was originally offered. The nod to flower power became such a symbol of the car that it was incorporated into the 1998 redesign. Sadly, it didn’t make the cut for the most recent overhaul: The vase was eliminated in 2011 by marketing execs apparently seeking to make the car more male-friendly.


When the millionth VW Beetle rolled off the line in 1955, the company capped the achievement by plating the car in gold and giving it diamante accents. They also created a Bug with a wicker body in collaboration with master basket-maker Thomas Heinrich.


After WWII, the VW factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, was supposed to be handed over to the British. No British car manufacturer wanted to take responsibility for the company, though, saying that "the vehicle does not meet the fundamental technical requirement of a motor-car," "it is quite unattractive to the average buyer," and that "To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise." Whoops.


The last VW Bug
Getty Images

Beetle #21,529,464—the one celebrated by the mariachi band—is now at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum.


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