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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

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History
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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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