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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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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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