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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July 13, 2010 - 5:50am
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