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7 Fugitives who Became Folk Heroes

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Last week, in the wake of the arrest of Colton Harris-Moore and his surprising internet fandom, we took a look at what made some criminals into folk heroes in the manner of the legendary Robin Hood. Five factors stood out in case after case:

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 like a long-running serial.

Let's see how these factors contributed to the celebrity status of a few more outstanding cases. One thing that immediately arises is that factor one, paying back "the man" for unfair treatment, can be experienced vicariously. If the police or the victims of crime can be seen as oppressors to the masses or just having an unfair edge, then it doesn't matter whether the criminal himself experienced a particular injustice.

1. Attila Ambrus

After some notice as a hockey player, Attila Ambrus committed 29 robberies of banks, post offices, and travel agencies in Hungary between 1993 and 1999. Millions cheered on his crime spree, as they saw him as the "Hungarian Robin Hood" and his robberies as a redistribution of wealth (vicarious factor one) from corrupt authorities to the everyday man. Banks were state owned until 1989, after which some fell into the hands of corrupt entrepreneurs. Ambrus never killed anyone, but he never gave away any of his ill-gotten gains, either. He was dubbed the "Whiskey Robber" because he had a shot at a nearby bar before his robberies, and the "Gentleman Bandit" because he treated bank tellers politely, even flirting with them. Ambrus' sports background, good looks, and popularity among women fed his reputation (factor four). After he was arrested in 1999, he escaped from prison by tying bed sheets together. Ambrus committed a few more robberies and fed his public relations machine, which gathered fans on an internet site and started negotiations for the movie rights to this story (factor five). He was rearrested and is in prison in the Satoraljaujhely maximum security prison.

2. John Dillinger

John Dillinger got himself into plenty of trouble with the law early in his life, but didn't rob his first bank until 1933, at the height of the Depression. His spectacularly daring prison escape afterward made a great story for the newspapers and radio. From then on, he was destined to become a legend. In 1933-34, most ordinary citizens were hurting for cash, and the banks were seen as one of the causes of their misery (vicarious factor one). The police were also seen as oppressors, especially after the experience of Prohibition just a few years before. Dillinger and his gang were blamed for (or credited with) more bank robberies than they could have possibly committed. Dillinger's status as Public Enemy #1 only elevated his stardom among ordinary citizens. It's true that Dillinger was generous with his proceeds (factor two), but it wasn't an altruistic campaign -a tiny sliver of bank robbery proceeds went a long way in convincing everyday people to protect the gang. Dillinger was living a 1930s version of the American Dream, as honest work didn't pay off nearly as well as theft (factor four). A newsreel about the case was shown in theaters, and federal authorities were outraged at the public's reaction.

Movie audiences across America cheered when Dillinger's picture appeared on the screen. They hissed at pictures of D.O.I. special agents. When he heard the news, D.O.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover was outraged . He put the town of Mooresville under surveillance, and threatened to prosecute the Dillinger family unless they cooperated with the D.O.I.

Dillinger's very public death at the hands of federal agents in front of the Biograph Theater in Chicago made a fitting climax to the epic story (factor five) of a man who dared to stick it to authorities (factor one).

3. Bucky Phillips

Ralph James "Bucky" Phillips escaped from prison in April of 2006, only a week short of completing his sentence for parole violation. Police suspected he was behind the shooting of three police officers in two separate incidents while he was on the run. One New York state trooper died from his injuries. One day after Phillips was put on the FBI's Most Wanted List, he was captured on September 8, 2006. A couple of months later, he pleaded guilty to murder and attempted murder, and was sentenced to 40 years to life. During the months Phillips was on the run, he became somewhat of a folk hero not for anything he did personally, but for the way police pursued him (vicarious factor one). New York residents were annoyed at the intrusive nature of the investigation. Phillip's family was harassed. State troopers stopped a couple of men in the woods, ex-Marines Bradley Horton on an ATV and Peter Krupa on a dirt bike. The two men rode off, and police opened fire, shooting Horton in the back five times. Horton died later that night. Police denied the shooting was related to the search for Phillips, but other reports contradict that stance. While Phillips was at large, t-shirts were being sold that said "Run, Bucky Run!" and his supporters set up the Bucky Phillips Defense Fund. The site lists many irregularities in the case, although it does not proclaim his innocence.

4. D.B. Cooper

A man calling himself Dan Cooper, later known as D.B. Cooper, held a planeload of passengers hostage with what appeared to be a homemade bomb in 1971. His goal wasn't an alternate destination or terrorism, but money. Cooper demanded $200,000 and two parachutes, which were delivered when the plane landed in Seattle. He allowed the passengers to leave the plane, then ordered the crew to fly at a low altitude to Mexico City. Over the Lewis River outside of Portland. Oregon, Cooper jumped out of the plane with one parachute and a briefcase full of cash. He was never seen again. Some of the money was found in 1980, 40 miles from the site of the search for Cooper, but it may have washed down the river. Meanwhile, the story of D.B. Cooper grew into legend. The mystery of the story gave rise to several possible endings (factor five), and many men claimed to be Cooper over the years. We can imagine that he was killed and his body scattered over the countryside, eaten by animals, or just dead but never found. We can also imagine him in some tropical country, enjoying margaritas and smiling to himself (factor four).

5. Gregorio Cortez

Gregorio Cortez was born in Mexico but grew up in south Texas. Two sheriffs were looking for a Mexican horse thief in 1901. During questioning at Cortez' home, the officers shot at Cortez and wounded his brother. Cortez shot back, killing one officer in what could be considered self-defense depending on your point of view, and ran away. Police arrested Cortez' family members. A posse found Cortez' hiding place, and a gunfight left two more lawmen dead. Cortez was only on the run for ten days, but became a polarizing force in south Texas, as one group wanted to lynch him and the another defended him, citing the unfair treatment Mexicans received from police (factor one). Cortez' supporters continued to fight for a pardon after he was convicted. Cortez was released after receiving a conditional pardon in 1913, joined the cause of the Mexican Revolution (factor three), and died of pneumonia in 1916. To this day, some say he was the original horse thief and others say he was purely a victim of racism.

6. Billy Miner

Ezra Allen Miner, who went by the name Bill, was nicknamed "the Gentleman Bandit" because he was polite and considerate as he held up stagecoaches and trains in the Old West in between adventures in other countries (factor four). He is credited with the origin of the familiar phrase, "Hands up!" Miner became a folk hero in Canada after he was arrested for the robbery of a Canadian Pacific Railway train in 1906. The company was very unpopular at the time (vicarious factor one), and Canadians lined the railway to cheer Miner on as authorities transferred him to prison. Miner never killed anyone, and he spent a large portion of his adult life in prison. He had a couple of wild escapes (factor five) under his belt before he died in the Georgia State Penitentiary in 1913.

7. Tampa Bay Mystery Monkey

A rhesus macaque dubbed the Tampa Bay Mystery Monkey has been on the loose in Florida for over a year. The monkey is not charged with any crime, but has been seen stealing food from homes and trash cans in the area around Tampa Bay. This monkey has become first a local, then a national legend as he evades capture time and time again. His Facebook page shows him to have over 80,000 fans! You can buy a Mystery Monkey t-shirt to  show your support. Although not technically a criminal, the monkey is a fugitive, and his folk hero status is due to factor five, because his escapes and antics have proven to be quite entertaining.

These stories have been drastically shortened for this article, you should follow the highlighted links to learn more about these and other outlaw folk heroes. Also see the previous article, Outlaws as Folk Heroes.

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Space
On This Day in 1962, NASA Launched and Destroyed Mariner 1
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NASA // Public Domain

On July 22, 1962, NASA launched the Mariner 1 probe, which was intended to fly by Venus and collect data on its temperature and atmosphere. It was intended to be the first interplanetary craft—the first time humans had sent a space probe to another world. Unfortunately, NASA aborted the mission 293 seconds after launch, destroying the probe in the Atlantic. What happened?

First off, a bit of history. Mariner 1 was based on the pre-existing Block 1 craft used in the Ranger program, which was aimed at gathering data on our moon. Those early Ranger probes didn't do so well—both Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 suffered early failures in orbit. Mariner 1 was a modified version of the Ranger design, intended for a much longer mission to another planet. It lacked a camera, but had various radiometers, a cosmic dust detector, and a plasma spectrometer—it would be capable of gathering data about Venus, but not pictures per se.

The two previous Ranger missions had used basically the same launch system, so it was reasonably well-tested. The Ranger probes had made it into orbit, but had been unable to stabilize themselves after that.

Mariner 1 launched on the evening of July 22, 1963. Its Atlas-Agena rocket was aided by two radar systems, designed to track data on velocity (the "Rate System") and distance/angle (the "Track System") and send it to ground-based computers. By combining that data, the computers at Cape Canaveral helped the rocket maintain a trajectory that, when separated, would lead Mariner 1 to Venus.

Part of the problem involved in handling two separate radars was that there was a slight delay—43 milliseconds—between the two radars' data reports. That wasn't a problem by itself. The Cape computer simply had to correct for that difference. But in that correction process, a problem was hiding—a problem that hadn't appeared in either of the previous Ranger launches.

To correct the timing of the data from the Rate System—the radar responsible for measuring velocity of the rocket—the ground computer ran data through a formula. Unfortunately, when that formula had been input into the computer, a crucial element called an overbar was omitted. The overbar indicated that several values in the formula belonged together; leaving it out meant that a slightly different calculation would be made. But that wasn't a problem by itself.

The fate of Mariner 1 was sealed when the Rate System hardware failed on launch. This should not have been a fatal blow, as the Track System was still working, and Ground Control should have been able to compensate. But because that overbar was missing, calculations on the incoming radar data went wonky. The computer incorrectly began compensating for normal movement of the spacecraft, using slightly incorrect math. The craft was moving as normal, but the formula for analyzing that data had a typo—so it began telling Mariner 1 to adjust its trajectory. It was fixing a problem that didn't exist, all because a few symbols in a formula weren't grouped together properly.

Mariner 1's rocket did as it was told, altering its trajectory based on faulty computer instructions. Looking on in horror, the Range Safety Officer at the Cape saw that the Atlas rocket was now headed for a crash-landing, potentially either in shipping lanes or inhabited areas of Earth. It was 293 seconds after launch, and the rocket was about to separate from the probe.

With just 6 seconds remaining before the Mariner 1 probe was scheduled to separate (and ground control would be lost), that officer made the right call—he sent the destruct command, ditching Mariner I in an unpopulated area of the Atlantic.

The incident was one of many early space launch failures, but what made it so notable was the frenzy of reporting about it, mostly centered on what writer Arthur C. Clarke called "the most expensive hyphen in history." The New York Times incorrectly reported that the overbar was a "hyphen" (a reasonable mistake, given that they are both printed horizontal lines) but correctly reported that this programming error, when coupled with the hardware failure of the Rate System, caused the failure. The bug was identified and fixed rapidly, though the failed launch cost $18,500,000 in 1962 dollars—north of $150 million today.

Fortunately for NASA, Mariner 2 was waiting in the wings. An identical craft, it launched just five weeks later on August 27, 1962. And, without the bug and the radar hardware failure, it worked as planned, reaching Venus and becoming the first interplanetary spacecraft in history. It returned valuable data about the temperature and atmosphere of Venus, as well as recording solar wind and interplanetary dust data along the way. There would be 10 Mariner missions in all [PDF], with Mariner 1, 3, and 8 suffering losses during launch.

For further reading, consult this Ars Technica discussion, which includes valuable quotes from Paul E. Ceruzzi's book Beyond The Limits—Flight Enters the Computer Age.

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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain
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This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

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