10 Notorious Outlaws Who Became Folk Heroes

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How can convicted murderers, bandits, deserters, and animal thieves excite popular imagination to the point of acquiring the status of folk heroes? Even though modern mass media exposure can certainly help engrave an outlaw’s image in the collective consciousness, the phenomenon is far from new, and word-of-mouth has frequently served in the creation of local and national legends around such infamous “heroes”.

10. Louis-Dominique ‘Cartouche’ Garthausen (France)

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Born to a decent family of mediocre standing, Cartouche (1693 – 1721) soon proved to be the black sheep. Running away at the age of 11, he joined a band of gypsies, learned to fence, and rose to a level of notoriety as the leader of a gang. A short period of military service would make him even more efficient in his subsequent ‘career’, and he soon gained popular support when he saved a ruined merchant from suicide: Cartouche paid the guy’s creditors, only to rob the money back from them. Having become the nightmare of Parisian police and with a large sum pending on his head, Cartouche would be betrayed by a member of his own gang. After a failed attempt to escape, he was sentenced to death by the always unpleasant breaking wheel.

According to legend, during his detention he was tortured, but his interrogators weren’t able to extract any names. On the day of his execution, however, not one of his friends showed up to rescue him as was their sworn agreement – in retaliation, Cartouche broke his silence, revealing a few hundred accomplices in crime that would be arrested and executed during the following months.

The ‘king of thieves’, as he was dubbed, provided material for folk songs, like “The Lament of Cartouche”, inspired authors throughout the centuries, and was fodder for numerous studies, stage plays, and films. His embellished adventures would make the script for a 1962 French movie, highlighting his reputation as a lady-killer.

9. Matthias Klostermayr (Germany)

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Since, technically, Germany had not been created at the time, Matthias ‘Hiasl’ Klostermayr (1736 – 1771) is more accurately known as the Bavarian Robin Hood. Matthias and his gang of poachers had been harassing lords and big landowners by hunting on their grounds, thus obtaining a reputation of social bandits among the rural populations of Southern Bavaria. Robberies and plundering soon expanded the gang’s repertoire, and they were also responsible for the murders of nine men during their escapades.

Exploiting the fragmented jurisdictions of tiny German states, Klostermayr would pass from one territory to another in order to avoid his persecutors – the gang’s long run would even give rise to legends about supernatural powers. His growing fame would create a sort of alliance between separate states’ authorities and unleash a 300-strong military expedition that could operate across borders. Following a raid at Osterzell, he was finally captured and sentenced to death by breaking wheel.

Klostermayr, who’d been the subject of folk songs even in his lifetime, would hardly be forgotten two and a half centuries after his death. The Hiasl-Museum in Kissing, Bavaria displays an effigy of the bandit in 18th century costume, along with a replica of a breaking wheel and other items associated with his legend. The ‘Bavarian Hiasl’ has also fueled the creation of theatrical plays, musicals, popular songs, and a number of books devoted to him – the latest of which, written in German, was published as recently as 2012.

8. Chrístos “Davélis” Nátsios (Greece)

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The 19th century was a time of terror for the Greek countryside, which was ravaged by gangs of bandits or ‘leestès’. Bandits routinely resorted to livestock theft, robberies of individuals and families, lootings and burnings of entire villages, or abductions for ransom – and they didn’t hesitate to kill their hostages in particularly cruel ways when their demands were not met. Chrístos Davélis (circa 1832 – 1856) and his gang were notorious for their atrocities and feared both by peasants and by the official authorities who proved, on multiple occasions, unable to catch them.

The incident that turned around popular opinion was the abduction of a French officer at a time of joint English and French occupation of Athens and Piraeus under the pretext of ensuring Greek neutrality in the Crimean War. This was considered an act of resistance by exasperated Athenians, and Davélis became a sort of hero. However, he didn’t stop his raids; he even planned to abduct the Minister of Military, but failed and left the scene with a number of hostages. Legend has it that it was over the heart of a beautiful Italian countess that Davélis was killed by his blood-brother, who led a government posse against the gang. Another romantic story involves a French duchess residing at a mountain mansion, also alluding to a network of underground passages from a hideout cave to various locations, but the dates and facts indicate that it is pure fiction.

Davélis’ legend is still popular folklore and his name will be readily recognized by most Athenians of a certain age. A couple of mediocre movies were shot in the 1960s and 2010s, one of them commending the bandit as “the lion” of Mount Pendéli; the chief-bandit is also often mentioned in historical books and articles about the era.

7. Eugène François Vidocq (France)

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Petty thief, fencer, swindler, army deserter, womanizer, forger – and the “father of modern criminology” – Eugène Vidocq (1775 – 1857) was born in Arras, hometown of the fictional character d’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers. Vidocq served, in fact, as a model for another book by Alexandre Dumas, and was equally inspiring for famous authors such as Balzac, Victor Hugo, and a number of journalists and pamphleteers.

Prone to trouble since a most tender age, Eugène was jailed several times and escaped most of them; however, after twenty years of crime, he finally decided to regain peace with the law by becoming a prison informant for the police in 1809. His release a couple of years later was staged to look like an escape, so that he could continue to work as a secret agent for the Paris police. When criminals began to suspect him, he organized a plainclothes unit, the Security Brigade, personally training his agents and often, participating in investigations under disguise. Within a decade, crime in Paris was reduced thanks to Vidocq’s efforts, but political developments forced him to resign a few years later. In 1833 he opened an ‘Office of Information’ – the first known detective agency.

Literary critics will assure you that Vidocq was an inspiration for private eye Monsieur Lecoq (Mr. Rooster) – a French 19th century prototype that became, in turn, a major influence for the creation of Sherlock Holmes. A good number of books, stage plays, and movies were based on or inspired by Vidocq’s adventures, and the dubious character was portrayed by actors as well-known as Gérard Depardieu. He also popped up as a character in the video game Assassin’s Creed: Unity.

6. Ned Kelly (Australia)

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Starting as a response to the convict system in Australia in the late 18th century, the form of banditry called ‘bushranging’ quickly developed as a manifestation of the struggle between landowning gentry and impoverished small folk of the countryside. Edward (Ned) Kelly was born around 1855 to a poor family of Irish descent with a history of entanglements with the law: Ned’s father and his three sons had repeatedly served sentences for stock theft and other offenses.

In April of 1878, after being accused (perhaps wrongly) for shooting and wounding a police trooper, Ned fled and was soon joined by his brother and two friends. The ‘Kelly gang’ managed to stay free for about two years, largely thanks to the support from a diversity of nationalities who suffered under “Saxon yoke”, in Ned’s own words, excerpted from his famous ‘Jerilderie Letter’ – an 8,000-word manifesto where Kelly explained his actions, including a number of bank robberies, killings, and raids to police stations. Ned was finally captured in June of 1880 and, despite a petition to spare his life signed by over 30,000 people, he was executed by hanging.

Soon after his death, Ned Kelly became part of Australian folklore; today, the State Library of Victoria holds a rich collection of ‘Kelly material’ among which the armor (weighing more than 90 pounds) in which he made his last showdown at Glenrowan. His story was immortalized in several books and movies, including the world’s first feature-length film, released in 1906, and he’s been played on screen by the likes of Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger, while the Ned Kelly touring route attracts multitudes of visitors each year. Ned Kelly impersonators also paraded in the 2000 Sydney Olympics opening ceremony.

5. Gregorio Cortez Lira (Texas / Mexico)

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Gregorio Cortez Lira (1875-1916) is a famous symbol of Mexican resistance to the Texas take-over by the US during the early 1900s. Gregorio was a young farmer when, on one fine day of 1901, he was visited on his rented farm by sheriff W.T. Morris and a couple of deputies who wanted to talk to him about a horse theft. One deputy’s poor job of interpretation and the ensuing misunderstandings resulted in the wounding of Gregorio’s brother Romaldo and the killing of Sheriff Morris by Gregorio. Hundreds of men were set loose on Lira’s tract, including the Texas Rangers. Almost caught and with two more killings on his head, Lira showed remarkable skill at evading local law enforcers, as well as the posses that were after him. Many Tejanos, and even increasing numbers of Anglo-Texans, sympathized with him.

Ten days after the initiating incident, Gregorio Lira was caught, then tried and charged with a life sentence. Public initiatives, fundraising, and a series of appeals led to a pardon in 1913. Gregorio married three times; the second was in 1904, and his jailers reportedly offered him a jail story as a “honeymoon suite” for the occasion.

The ballad “El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez” appeared in many variants as early as 1901. It inspired a 1958 book (With his pistol in his hand: A Border Ballad and its Hero) that today counts as classic Texas Mexican literature. In following with a full-blown historical revisionist trend, the 1982 movie The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez brought forth the issue of marginalization of native populations under colonialist expansion.

4. Walter Earl Durand (USA)

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Loosely based on the story of W.E. Durand (1913-1939), John Wayne’s movie Wyoming Outlaw benefited from the notoriety generated by a nine-day manhunt that thrilled the state in the late 1930s. The ‘Tarzan of the Tetons’, as the youth was dubbed (even though he lived in Powell, some 150 miles away), was a lover of the outdoors and a great marksman who often shared his catches with Depression-hit neighbors.

Arrested for poaching elk, Earl escaped the local prison, shot a couple of police officers, and fled to the mountains, which he knew like the back of his hand. A large posse was immediately set up in order to track him down; this was no easy task and, when he was finally spotted, the ensuing gunfire exchange resulted in the killing of two more men. A couple days later, Durand went on to rob Powell’s First National Bank and, while still unnoticed by townsfolk, he opened fire for no apparent reason, thus giving himself away. Soon, armed citizens surrounded the bank and it was just a matter of time before he was killed while trying to escape, shielded by hostages.

During the 1950s, Durand’s legend was still “prominent in the Wyoming psyche”, serving as excellent material for children play-acting “Earl Durand against the Posse”. 1967 saw the release of the Teton Tea Party with Charlie Brown, a folk music album including the ‘Ballad of Earl Durand’ – but when a 1974 movie romanticizing his legend was played in Powell, several members of the audience left the movie theater in protest of the distortion of truth. Books about Durand were published in our century too; namely, Eight Days of Infamy by Jack Babcock and The Last Eleven Days of Earl Durand by Jerred Metz.

3. Juan Bautista Bairoletto (Argentina)

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Once forming an active majority of the rural population, the gauchos were pushed into the fringes of Argentinian society by the mid-19th century. They quickly acquired a legendary status among common people as nationalistic symbols of resistance against state-induced oppression and the ruling-class’s corruption. J.B. Bairoletto (1894 – 1941) embodied the ‘ultimate romantic’ bandit whose reputation as a dispenser of robbed goods and gifts among poor folk (hence his nickname, ‘Robin Hood of the Pampas’) prodded people into helping him evade the law, even though he was wanted for a series of murders. Death befell him only after betrayal by a friend that led to a police raid at his hideout. His funeral was attended by thousands of people who believed his spirit could help them succeed in their enterprises, in love, and so forth.

Bairoletto is the central hero in the well-known ‘milonga’ (a sort of local ballad) ‘Bandidos Rurales’ sung by León Gieco – a.k.a. ‘the Argentine Bob Dylan’– as well as in a number of songs written by popular artists. His life was made into a 1985 movie starring Luisina Brando, a multi-awarded Argentine actress, as his wife Thelma Caballos – while Thelma herself wrote a stage play (Lo llaman Bairoletto) where she insisted that, when finally cornered, her husband preferred to commit suicide rather than get caught. Bairoletto’s story inspired writers of both fiction and non-fiction books, while theatrical re-interpretations of his legend are still being created and enacted well into the 21st century.

2. Herman Perry (USA / India)

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When the Japanese invaded Burma in 1942, cutting off the land supply route from India to China during WWII, the US military had to come up with an alternative. So, they set on constructing the Ledo Road. On the design table, this looked like a straightforward task. Only the Americans weren’t counting on the jungle. What they thought would be a five-month enterprise took three years to build, being reportedly “the toughest job ever given to US Army Engineers in wartime”.

A few decades before the Civil Rights Movement, African-American units received the jobs nobody else wanted to do; additionally, they worked under the supervision of white officers who had no scruples in treating them harshly. Having suffered from disease, exhaustion, and mistreatment, Herman Perry (1922-1945) finally snapped. He shot his commanding officer, who had ordered an inhumane incarceration, and hid in the jungle where he met and mixed with a native tribe, the Nagas, who were greatly feared as skilled headhunters. Perry quickly became sort of an icon for his native friends, who were happy to help him out, and his reputation skyrocketed when he married the 14-year-old daughter of a Naga chieftain.

Perry was eventually caught due to gossip spread by the natives, and was sentenced to death, but, as his execution became delayed, he managed to escape. He was again arrested a couple of months later and hanged within a few days. His final words, “Now, the Hell will start”, became the title of a 2008 book, the rights to which were subsequently acquired by Spike Lee for further development into a movie script.

1. Laurie Bembenek (USA)

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Young, pretty, intelligent, popular: Laurie Bembenek (1958 – 2010) had it all going for her, until life played some nasty tricks. Laurie was dismissed from Milwaukee Police Force for filing a false report on a friend and colleague’s arrest for marijuana use; she took on a number of part-time jobs and, in June of 1981, she was arrested and charged with the murder of her husband’s ex-wife. Except for a possible motive and the fact that she had access to the murder weapon, all other evidence was circumstantial, and Laurie insisted to the end that she was framed.

Her 1990 escape from the Taycheedah Correctional Institution brought national attention to the case and a wave of sympathy for the young woman. As reported, “half of Milwaukee” wanted her to remain free “and live happily ever after”. The cry ‘Run, Bambi, run’ became a slogan and was even printed on T-shirts – but, three months later, she was captured in Ontario, Canada. After spending seven months in solitary, Laurie agreed to a no-contest plea to second-degree murder in exchange for her release on parole in 1992. She spent the rest of her life working in programs aiding and orientating disadvantaged population groups, often with criminal records. In order to maintain her self-esteem as a creative person, she also devoted time to painting and writing poetry.

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In 1992, Lindsay Frost played the lead character in the docudrama Calendar Girl, Cop, Killer? – this was also the publication year for Laurie’s autobiography Woman on Trial. In 1993, Tatum O’Neal gave a great ‘Bambi’ performance in the movie Woman on the Run, based on Laurie Bembenek’s memoir.

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