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Outlaws as Folk Heroes

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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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This Newspaper Article Was Hyping the 2017 Eclipse All the Way Back in 1932
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If you’ve turned on a news station or browsed the internet recently, you’ve likely learned of the total solar eclipse set to pass over the U.S. on Monday, August 21. Many outlets (Mental Floss included) have been talking up the event for months, but the earliest instance of hype surrounding the 2017 eclipse may have come from The New York Times.

Meteorologist Joe Rao presented this news clip at a recent panel on the solar eclipse at the American Museum of Natural History, and fuel analyst Patrick DeHaan shared the image on Twitter earlier this year. It shows a New York Times article from August 1932, selling that year’s eclipse by saying it will be the "best until Aug. 21, 2017."

The total solar eclipse on August 21 won’t be the first to fall over U.S. soil in 85 years. The next one to follow the 1932 eclipse came in 1970, but an author at the time apparently predicted that "poor skies" would be likely for that date. That early forecast turned out to be correct: There were clouds over much of the path of totality in the southeastern U.S. The next total eclipse visible from America, which the article doesn’t mention, happened in 1979. Overcast skies were a problem for at least some of the people trying to view it that time around as well.

The upcoming total eclipse will hopefully be worth the decades of hype. Unlike the previous three, which only skimmed small sections of the lower 48 states, this next eclipse will be visible throughout day as it travels from coast to coast. Check out our field guide for preparing for the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.

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10 of the Worst Jobs in the Victorian Era
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Next time you complain about your boring desk job, think back to Victorian times—an era before the concept of occupational health and safety rules—and count yourself lucky. Back then, people were forced to think of some imaginative ways to earn a living, from seeking out treasure in the sewers to literally selling excrement.

1. LEECH COLLECTOR

Leeches were once a useful commodity, with both doctors and quacks using the blood-sucking creatures to treat a number of ailments, ranging from headaches to "hysteria." But pity the poor leech collector who had to use themselves as a human trap. The job usually fell to poor country women, who would wade into dirty ponds in the hope of attracting a host of leeches. Once the critters attached to the leech collectors’ legs, the individual would prise them off and collect them in a box or pot. Leeches can survive for up to a year with no food, so they could be stored at the pharmacy to be dished out as required. Unsurprisingly, leech collectors were in danger of suffering from excess blood loss and infectious diseases.

2. PURE FINDER

Despite the clean-sounding name, this job actually involved collecting dog feces from the streets of London to sell to tanners, who used it in the leather-making process. Dog poop was known as "pure" because it was used to purify the leather and make it more flexible [PDF]. Leather was in great demand in Victorian times, as it was used not only as tack for horses but for shoes, boots, bags, and in bookbinding. Pure collectors haunted the streets where stray dogs amassed, scooping up the poop and keeping it in a covered bucket before selling it on to the tanners. Some collectors wore a black glove to protect their scooping hand, but others considered it harder to keep a glove clean than a hand and eschewed the protection altogether.

3. TOSHER

A Victorian illustration of a tosher, or sewer collector
An 1851 illustration of a sewer-hunter or "tosher."
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Victorian London had a huge network of over-worked sewers under the city, washing away the effluence of the crowded metropolis. Toshers made their living down in the dark sewers, sifting through raw sewage to find any valuables that had fallen down the drain. It was extremely dangerous work: noxious fumes formed deadly pockets, the tunnels frequently crumbled, there were swarms of rats, and at any moment the sluices might be opened and a tide of filthy water might wash the toshers away. As a result of these dangers, toshers generally worked in groups, instantly recognizable in their canvas trousers, aprons with many large pockets (in which to stash their booty), and lanterns strapped to their chests. Most toshers also carried a long pole with a hoe at the end to investigate piles of human waste for dropped treasures, or with which to steady themselves if they stumbled in the gloom. After 1840 it became illegal to enter the sewers without permission and so toshers began working late at night or early in the morning to avoid detection. Despite the stinking and dangerous conditions, it was a lucrative business for the working classes, with many a coin or silver spoon sloshing about in the quagmire.

4. MATCHSTICK MAKERS

Matchsticks are made by cutting wood into thin sticks and then dipping the ends into white phosphorus—a highly toxic chemical. In the Victorian era, this work was mainly performed by teenage girls who worked in terrible conditions, often for between 12 and 16 hours a day with few breaks. The girls were forced to eat at their work stations, meaning the toxic phosphorus got into their food, leading to some developing the dreadful condition known as “phossy jaw”—whereby the jawbone becomes infected, leading to severe disfigurement.

5. MUDLARK

Like the toshers, these workers made their meagre money from dredging through the gloop looking for items of value to sell, although in this case they were plying their messy trade on the shores of the Thames instead of mostly in the sewers. Seen as a step down from a tosher, the mudlarks were usually children, who collected anything that could be sold, including rags (for making paper), driftwood (dried out for firewood) and any coins or treasure that might find its way into the river. Not only was it a filthy job, but it was also very dangerous, since the tidal nature of the Thames meant it was easy for children to be washed away or become stuck in the soft mud.

6. CHIMNEY SWEEP

A photograph of a very happy chimney sweep
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Tiny children as young as four years old were employed as chimney sweeps, their small stature making them the perfect size to scale up the brick chimneys. All the climbing in the claustrophobic space of a chimney meant many sweeps’ elbows and knees were scraped raw, until repeated climbing covered them with calluses. Inhaling the dust and smoke from chimneys meant many chimney sweeps suffered irreversible lung damage. Smaller sweeps were the most sought-after, so many were deliberately underfed to stunt their growth and most had outgrown the profession by the age of 10. Some poor children became stuck in the chimneys or were unwilling to make the climb, and anecdotal evidence suggests their bosses might light a fire underneath to inspire the poor mite to find their way out at the top of the chimney. Fortunately, an 1840 law made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to climb and clean a chimney, though some unscrupulous fellows still continued the practice.

7. FUNERAL MUTE

Anyone familiar with Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist will remember that one of the orphan’s hated early jobs was as a mute for undertaker Mr. Sowerberry. A component of the extremely complex (and lucrative) Victorian funeral practices, mutes were required to dress all in black with a sash (usually also black, but white for children), while carrying a long cloth-covered stick and standing mournfully and silently at the door of the deceased’s house before leading the coffin on its processional route to the graveyard.

8. RAT CATCHER

An illustration of a group of Victorian men watching rat-baiting.
Getty Images/Rischgitz

Rat catchers usually employed a small dog or ferret to search out the rats that infested the streets and houses of Victorian Britain. They frequently caught the rats alive, as they could sell the animal to “ratters,” who put the rats into a pit and set a terrier loose upon them while onlookers made bets about how long it would take for the dog to kill them all. Catching rats was a dangerous business—not only did the vermin harbor disease, but their bites could cause terrible infections. One of the most famous Victorian rat catchers was Jack Black, who worked for Queen Victoria herself. Black was interviewed for Henry Mayhew’s seminal tome on Britain’s working classes, London Labour and the London Poor (1851) in which he revealed that he used a cage which could store up to 1000 live rats at a time. The rats could be stored like this for days as long as Black fed them—if he forgot the rats would begin fighting and eating each other, ruining his spoils.

9. CROSSING SWEEPER

The “job” of crossing sweeper reveals the entrepreneurial spirit of the Victorian poor. These children would claim an area of the street as their patch, and when a rich man or woman wished to exit their carriage and walk across the filth-strewn street, the sweeper would walk before them clearing the detritus from their path, ensuring their patron’s clothes and shoes stayed clean. Crossing sweepers were regarded as just a step up from beggars, and worked in the hopes of receiving a tip. Their services were no doubt sometimes appreciated: The streets during this period were mud-soaked and piled with horse manure. The poor sweepers not only had to endure the dismal conditions whatever the weather, but were also constantly dodging speeding horse-drawn cabs and omnibuses.

10. RESURRECTIONISTS

An 1840 drawing of a group of resurrectionists at work
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In the early 19th century the only cadavers available to medical schools and anatomists were those of criminals who had been sentenced to death, leading to a severe shortage of bodies to dissect. Medical schools paid a handsome fee to those delivering a body in good condition, and as a result many wily Victorians saw an opportunity to make some money by robbing recently dug graves. The problem became so severe that family members took to guarding the graves of the recently deceased to prevent the resurrectionists sneaking in and unearthing their dearly departed.

The "profession" was taken to an extreme by William Burke and William Hare who were thought to have murdered 16 unfortunates between 1827 and 1828. The pair enticed victims to their boarding house, plied them with alcohol and then suffocated them, ensuring the body stayed in good enough condition to earn the fee paid by Edinburgh University medical school for corpses. After the crimes of Burke and Hare were discovered, the Anatomy Act of 1832 finally helped bring an end to the grisly resurrectionist trade by giving doctors and anatomists greater access to cadavers and allowing people to leave their body to medical science.

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