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 Outlaws as Folk heroes

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PostSubject: Outlaws as Folk heroes   Fri 03 May 2013, 15:57

The BBC will be producing a drama to be shown in August to mark the 50th anniversary of the Great Train Robbery. Not the first film to be based on this event, and probably not the last, thinking primarily of the Phil Collins film Buster which was criticised when it was released for glamourising villainy.

But this would not be the first time this has happened. Ainsworth's Rookwood had a hero in Dick Turpin and Scott's Rob Roy are obvious examples. Others from the Anglosphere are Robin Hood [the original villain into hero?], Jesse James from America and Australian bushrangers like Ben Hall and Ned Kelly.

The question is why does this happen when some of the recorded acts of these individuals were brutal in the extreme [ DT "tell us where the money is or I'll roast your arse on the fire", this to a woman btw]

NK fights the forces of law and order/oppression,depending on viewpoint;



Any others I have missed please add, or if you have favourites of your own tell us about them
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PostSubject: Re: Outlaws as Folk heroes   Fri 03 May 2013, 16:29

A little bit more about the Kelly Gang;

http://www.nedkellysworld.com.au/history/history.htm
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PostSubject: Re: Outlaws as Folk heroes   Fri 03 May 2013, 22:47

These people only become folk heroes if they have evaded arrest for quite a length of time - there becomes an element of admiration for their adroitness at keeping one step ahead of authorities and cocking a snook at them, as everyone would rather like to do. People who are caught immediately after a crime never (I think) get this sort of folk heroism attached to them. Although some of these people don't go far back into the past, I do think our present-day mindset, which seems more punitive and less forgiving - perhaps the result of a middle-class community not able to put themselves so much into the shoes of their less well-off companions, would be less inclined to put these people on a pedestal in that way. But maybe not.

In my lifetime there was a man who escaped three times from NZ prisons and was on the loose for quite a time. George Wilder escaped from New PLymouth prison by scaling its walls and was free for 65 days, living by burglary for which he left notes of thanks and apology. Caught, he escaped again from Mt Eden and was on the run for 172 days. NZ History site says newspapers provided regular updates on his progress and a folk song was released called George the Wilder Colonial Boy. His third escape involved the use of a brandished sawn-off shotgun and the kidnapping of a warden, but this time he was only out for a short time. His crimes did not actually involve much violence.

But in earlier times a man Stanley Graham who had gone paranoid in an isolated rural area (near where I used to live) shot dead several police and neighbours and fled to the bush. Even then, there was an element of sympathy for him. This was in 1943 and a joke went round that Hitler had sent a telegram saying "You hold the South Island; I'll take the North."

I think the Great Train Robbery is slightly different from these other examples and it is the hugeness of the enterprise that has excited attention and (some) admiration. Though even here I wonder if it would have kept its interest without Ronnie Biggs keeping his distance from Britain. (He is still alive, isn't he, after a few years back home?)
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PostSubject: Re: Outlaws as Folk heroes   Sat 04 May 2013, 09:09

Good points, Caro. I'd add that the extraordinary punishments imposed for seemingly petty offences (and still imposed in some societies) also played a part in eliciting sympathy for, or at least empathy with, the "villain" (who after all was merely a "villager" in its original meaning in English and French). This especially applied to anyone who cocked a snoot at the aristocracy and their jealously guarded assets, including game, and the poacher still enjoys some vestige of that communal respect - or at least understanding - from others of his general social class. Even when the punishment was generally reduced from execution or maiming it remained for many generations a life-destroying experience, not just for the convicted felon who might be deported (equivalent to his death for those around him) but for all who had depended on his presence prior to being caught. We tend to underestimate just how closely integrated and interdependent the vast majority of people were in society right up to the Industrial Revolution ushering in the era of "nuclear" subdivision of societies into increasingly independent and very much smaller economic units. The ease with which one could be declared "outlaw" was something that applied to a huge majority of the population and, in a sense no longer generally applicable, a real risk run by all. The outlaw who got away with it, either spectacularly or over a long time, garnered quite a bit of automatic respect on that basis alone - regardless often of the heinousness of his crime.

The "super outlaw" (like Robin Hood) exists, with wildly varying degrees of myth, in every society thus arranged. Sometimes he (or indeed she) has been sanitised to conform to prevailing moral principles, but this is not in any sense a pre-requisite for lasting fame or notoriety. It is enough, as you said, for the figure - mythical or real - to have caused acknowledged tremors in the certainties and rule of the tiny minority of people who hold all of society's assets and who make the rules by which everyone else is just one small mistake, one bit of bad luck or a small misdemeanour away from catastrophe all the time.
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PostSubject: Re: Outlaws as Folk heroes   Sat 04 May 2013, 10:06

Yes, it is always the perceived underdog who battles the establishment that garners the most sympathy.

And there were just as many (if not more) crooks amongst the ruling elite but they rarely, if ever, won the support of the people. Possibly because their shenanigans were usually at the expense of the rest of society.
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PostSubject: Re: Outlaws as Folk heroes   Sat 04 May 2013, 10:42

Quote :
And there were just as many (if not more) crooks amongst the ruling elite but they rarely, if ever, won the support of the people.

Not quite true in England where Robin Hood in myth is exactly what you describe - an upper class man disenfranchised first by his own class and who then throws his lot in with those beneath him socially. This mirrors actual events, most notoriously the the 14th century "Coterel Gang" (interestingly the Sheriff of Nottingham was their ally), the Lovelle brothers and a Robert de Vere, who all have in common that they had appreciative ballads, poems and tales composed and weaved around their exploits. There were many more - often younger sons with no other route to ready wealth and who realised that targeting tax-collectors, monks and other gatherers of wealth denied to the "common man" increased their stock amongst that class. This often was accompanied by vague political demands for egalitarianism, such as those from "Lionel, King of the Rout of the Raveners" which included demands to sheriffs to be merciful in their assessment of tax liability and even a demand which survives today in letter form that Richard de Snaweshill in Huntingdon in Yorkshire desist from promoting relatives to local positions of power in the clergy and start appointing those already decided by the Abbot of St Mary's. These were really specific attempts at influencing society from without the law and would have been generally appreciated by the bulk of the population. Such demands were most typically made by outlaws of aristocratic birth, probably because they were in fact those most familiar with the mechanics of that ruling class and how best to exploit them, including with the use of threat.

So, when assessing outlaws' "shenanigans" with respect to their being at society's expense, one is forced to conclude that this could be ascribed to all such activity but if it was ever ameliorated by attempts at establishing increased fairness then this was probably more so in the case of the upper class outlaws - who after all understood the judicial system at its formative level and stood to benefit often hugely from its reform.
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PostSubject: Re: Outlaws as Folk heroes   Sat 04 May 2013, 12:13

Another variant is the outlaw who is not himself a disenfranchised aristocrat but is the descendant (or claims to be a descendant) of such. This is quite often the case among the criminal underclass where a hereditary criminal lifestyle is justified on these grounds.

A 20th Century example would be that of Man Singh or 'Thakur Man Singh' who operated in Madhya Pradesh in India in the middle decades of the last century before being shot dead by Gurkhas in 1955. Singh is claimed to have been a descendant of Rajput rulers and the Chambal district of Madhya Pradesh where he lived has been famous for outlaws since at least the 13th Century. It's a sort of Indian Sherwood Forest.

As a 'dacoit' (armed robber) Singh belongs to a long list of Indian outlaws whose public image ranges from that of Robin Hood to Dick Turpin to Bonnie & Clyde etc. A more recent (and perhaps even more famous) example would be that of Phulan Devi who operated as the 'Bandit Queen' of Uttar Pradesh in the 1980s before fleeing to neighbouring Madhya Pradesh where she was arrested in the exact location (Bhind in Chambal) where Man Singh had met his end. Devi later turned politician being elected to the Indian Parliament in the 1990s and achieved world-wide celebrity. Her past, however, came back to haunt her when in 2001 she was shot dead in a revenge attack by the relative of one of her former victims.
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PostSubject: Re: Outlaws as Folk heroes   Sun 05 May 2013, 10:37

It seems to me that what constitutes an "outlaw" is important here too. In its original meaning it referred to people who were, quite literally, outside of the law - and though this could be the result of having committed crime by the rules and standards of the day it was not always quite so clear cut (a concept preserved in the Robin of Loxley portion of the Robin Hood narrative). Once deemed outside of the law however, for whatever reason, then the person concerned lost all legal status and rights - in effect everything they did was technically a "crime" since they had lost such basic rights as purchasing food to eat, housing themselves, even in some cases talking to others. To kill, torture or maim such a person was not a crime. And probably most importantly of all in medieval justice systems, they lost even the right to sanctuary - though this was rarely tested in cases where they claimed it that we know of. But it does help define just how outcast an outlaw was - they no longer had the right to sustain their body or even their soul.

The religious view at the time was that this attempt by the authorities to effectively excommunicate individuals was something of a secular trespass on church territory when it came to doctrine and theology, so there seems always to have co-existed a concept whereby individuals so defined were in fact automatically deserving of charity, and it is this that seems to lie at the heart of the contradictory viewpoint that held some of these individuals up both to be both enemies of the law and worthy of consideration and even respect at the same time. It is not impossible to understand how such people would engender amongst people holding such dual adherence to legal and church principles a fame exceeding mere notoriety even within their own lifetimes.

This appears to contrast with the more modern definitions of outlaw, in which the person who commits crime is never themselves outside of the law's constraints, and is subject to the same legal jurisdiction, jurisprudence and punishments as anyone else. They can achieve notoriety, even a form of celebrity within their lifetimes, but this does not immediately translate into a charitable view amongst the general public and it is therefore only after their death that the process of mythification can really begin. "Hero" status is therefore more likely to be deferred until such process can begin, if it ever begins at all. Working against mythification is the increased access by the public to factual information about the individuals concerned, so it is increasingly more difficult to formulate a universally accepted myth, just as it is for hero status to be conferred except factionally, unevenly and often in parallel with an equally strongly held conviction that the person was the opposite to a hero.

It makes me wonder just what the likelihood is any longer in creating truly universal "heroes" from dead criminals in our own "western" society, and if this therefore impedes on our understanding and appreciation of this process when it does take place in other societies where it is still quite possible, even with individuals still alive?
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PostSubject: Re: Outlaws as Folk heroes   Mon 06 May 2013, 10:34

Very interesting discussion so far and thanks to everyone for their contributions.

Caro's mention of George Wilder, reminds me of "Gentleman" Johnny Ramensky, who equally disapproved of violence, though in World War II, Ramensky joined the Commandos and his talents as a safecracker were put to use in the Allied cause.

Re the politicisation of outlaws, the McGregors [Jacobite] and the James's [Confederate] were both on the losing side in civil wars and may have seen banditry as a continuation of these wars.
In a similar vein Thomas Blood found himself out in the cold after the Restoration, though the sheer audacity of stealing the Crown Jewels and the subsequent Royal Pardon probably guaranteed he would be remembered.
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PostSubject: Re: Outlaws as Folk heroes   Mon 06 May 2013, 10:52

Blood was notorious, though his public fame rested as much in his gross stupidity as in his crimes, which were admittedly audacious but always executed with so much ineptitude that they were making ballads about them even before they had been executed in some cases. He was never really an "outlaw" either, even by modern definitions of the term, as throughout his disastrous career in crime he benefited hugely from pardon and patronage from his superiors, probably simply because they were loath to interrupt such brilliant comedy in its tracks. "Folk Hero" he most definitely wasn't. More like "Laughing Stock".

One lad who did achieve hero status in his own lifetime however was Jack Sheppard, the man who it seemed just couldn't be incarcerated and who managed to escape from seemingly impossibly difficult imprisonment time and time again. Daniel Defoe, never one to miss a trick when it came to regurgitating popular sensation as literature, was supposedly behind the "Narrative" autobiography published and sold to punters at Sheppard's eventual execution and which was a huge best-seller in its day. John Gay and others kept the hero worship going through incorporating Sheppard in popular plays of the time. It is ironic and a little unfair, I think, that several myths that grew up about Sheppard (who was genuinely popular) ended up woven into the general mythology surrounding Dick Turpin (who was never popular in his own time but who was recycled into a sort of anti-hero a hundred years after his demise).
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PostSubject: Re: Outlaws as Folk heroes   Mon 06 May 2013, 12:49

As with "outlaw" I notice that the definition of "folk hero" is also something that merits some clarification in the context of this thread. The Wikipedia article related to the topic quite rightly contains a warning that it has "multiple issues" wrong with it, not least being that it abjectly fails to describe what a folk hero might be at all. The OED has a better stab at it and points out that to be a hero, even a mythical folk hero has to engender some popular appeal and respect to fit the bill. However this still fails to distinguish the difference, however nuanced, between being a popular hero and a folk hero.

I'd guess myself that a "folk hero" has the added quality of very often not being a subject whose high esteem is encouraged by officialdom but who is nevertheless held in such high regard - as much because of this fact as despite it. There is a machinery of promotion at work that owes little or nothing to the normal channels through which public adulation or respect are nornally encouraged to flow. There is, in other words, a ready-made element within the concept that the subject "belongs" to the people, and it is this that can also be so effective a political weapon at times when the hero thus adopted represents the antithesis to the state's aims. Being an outlaw therefore is not quite enough to tick all the boxes, even a notorious or locally popular one. Ned Kelly appears to be on his way to true folk heroic status, though I doubt that Al Capone, Charlie Peace, Jesse James, Bonny and Clyde or many others who enjoyed some spectacular publicity and public interest in their time will ever automatically follow suit. The general public require more than just to have adopted an interest in the protagonists who qualify, however intense. They must have actually adopted the protagonists themselves - a whole other thing.
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PostSubject: Re: Outlaws as Folk heroes   Thu 09 May 2013, 16:10

I think it would be safe to say that William Tell, would be considered a folk hero despite the fact that there is no evidence he actually existed. The first written mention of the tale is in the late 15th century at the time of the Burgundian Wars, no doubt the threat of Charles the Bold's Army prompted the need for a Swiss hero as an inspiration.
The story about shooting the apple of his son's head appears elsewhere, the Danish story of Palnatoki and the same feat is credited to William of Cloudesley in an old Northumbrian ballad.
So this looks like a case of, as Temp puts it in the Princes thread, an invented man.

The statue of Tell in Altdorf;

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PostSubject: Re: Outlaws as Folk heroes   Thu 09 May 2013, 23:08

Nationalism produces a particular type of mythical hero, of which William Tell is a prime example though by no means unique. The hero associated with such aspirations rarely has even a trace of the anti-hero about him. In fact it is the huge emphasis placed on his virtues and especially his courage, exaggerated to a point often well beyond what would be considered a reasonable amount for any genuine hero in reality, which is also often the strongest clue to the exact method employed whereby he became mythical - whether based on a real person or not. In particular, it is also often what indicates a measure of wilful manipulation by certain parties in the mythification process, sometimes to the extent that you could almost call such people "folk heroes thrust upon the folk" - not truly wrought from within traditional folklore, however much they may subsequently be adopted as bona fide heroes by people afterwards.

If you compare Tell with Bruder Klaus, another folk hero who has been subsumed into the legends surrounding Swiss independence, you can see the difference between the two processes. It is the absence of detail concerning Klaus's character in the legend (beyond his wisdom) - and even concerning the deed for which he is famous - that marks him out as based on a real person whose contemporary popularity kick started his transformation to later mythical status.

Both Tell and Bruder Klaus are essential ingredients in the cycle of legends concerning the establishment of a Swiss identity, and it is the same with almost all other countries who for similar reasons have assembled such cycles themselves. The pantheon invariably contains characters representing both parts of the process - that which originates with and is largely steered by common perceptions of what the aspiration for a unique national identity means, and that which grafts onto the myth cycle personalities with no foundation in real people necessarily but who are considered suitable vehicles for expressing the noblest ideals behind that common aspiration - crucially by people who themselves are engineering the same aspiration for specific political ends. Both personalities end up as heroes, even genuine folk heroes, but as a result of two very different mythification techniques.
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PostSubject: Re: Outlaws as Folk heroes   Sun 12 May 2013, 19:51

We must not forget the female outlaws, and there were a few of them. Lady Catherine Ferrers, "The Wicked Lady" as she was known, had married an elderly aristocrat and bored with her lifestyle sought exitement as a highwaywomen in Hertfordshire in the seventeenth century. In 1944, Magdalen King-Hall wrote a novel based on Catherine`s legend called "The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton."

The following year the book formed the basis of of the movie "The Wicked Lady" featuring Margaret Lockwood. The film became controversial because of the amount of cleavage shown by the actress. Despite this, or perhaps in part because of it, the movie became commercially successful. The movie was remade in, I believe the 1980s, this time featuring Faye Dunaway. This film also exited controversy owing to a bare-breasted whip fight.
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PostSubject: Re: Outlaws as Folk heroes   Mon 13 May 2013, 09:22

Your comment raises a very interesting aspect to the creation of folk heroes, Aelfwine, namely the dearth of folk heroines who, although they match their male counterparts in almost all of the criteria which normally apply in the elevation of an outlaw through rogue status up into actual heroic status, fall at that last hurdle and remain - at best - lovable (even inspirational) rogues. Catherine Ferrers fits the category, and there are scores of others too who one could lump in with her. Heroes they may be and have been to several people, but "folk heroes" they are not.

I realise the rules are different in different cultures, but if one restricts oneself to Britain then the disparity is very stark indeed. Britain has in fact produced very few female "folk heroes" at all, at least to the extent that they could be said to occupy the top rank in the heroic pantheon within British culture. Boudicca and Queen Elizabeth the First could be said to have crossed the heroic threshold in popular culture to some degree, but both have their mythical point of origin in their contemporary high status as queens (from admittedly very different eras and backgrounds). Grace Darling and Flora McDonald (and possibly Florence Nightingale) also at times assumed heroic proportions in the general public's minds. However these too owe their mythification to their conformity to the roles to which their sex was assigned - virtuousness, unselfishness and essentially being there to facilitate men's needs at crucial moments. The important point of course is that none of these represent people whose reputation was originally rooted in criminality.

Negative female characters abound in British folklore - some with remarkable duration throughout the generations, another quite essential ingredient for true folk-heroic status. But unlike with the men they have signally failed as a rule to make that cross-over from being despised or even appreciated for their "criminality" to universal adoration as folk-heroes. Which is a real shame - there are so many great characters on that list who would have added much more than just colour to the culture's folklore had they gained the same mythical status, popularity and recognition as the men.
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PostSubject: Re: Outlaws as Folk heroes   Tue 14 May 2013, 08:00

How universal do you have to be to be a folk hero? I can think of a couple from my province, but they may not be well known outside it. One was a woman, in fact perhaps two. Percy Redmond arrived in a very small town quarter of an hour's drive from where I live, and courted a respectable young woman and seemed to have perfect credentials and money and possessions expected to arrive any day. The wedding day came and it was a special social occasion. The bridegroom and bride slept apart that night, and it was a surprise when the best man realised the groom was female, the infamous Amy Bock. It is over 100 years ago now but her escapade is still remembered and its 100th anniversary was celebrated in style with a mock wedding. The real bride didn't seem to suffer unduly from this embarrassment. Amy went on to plenty of other conwoman tricks and it's a debatable point whether she was mad, bad or just a trickster. And if she may have been a lesbian. Much of her life was spent behind bars.

And Minnie Dean was a real character from my youth, and used as a bogeyman. She is the only woman executed in NZ, and mythology has generally held a stronger hold than truth regarding her. She was executed as a baby farmer who killed her charges. She came from Scotland with ideas above her station (which was fairly lowly) and things got out of hand, trying to keep her head above water. In the end she couldn't manage to keep her head on at all. (That won't be true - I am sure she was hanged.) Folklore says she killed the babies with a hatpin, but that isn't right. She did roam round the country in a train with one in a suitcase, which is how her crime was discovered. But was it murder or manslaughter or just natural death being covered up?

The other local hero was Mackenzie and his dog. He was convicted of sheep stealing and I am not quite sure why he achieved heroic status - he didn't speak English, just Gaelic, so his trial was difficult. There is a large tract of land now just known as the Mackenzie country. It includes Aoraki-Mount Cook. The teara.govt.nz site has the following (he obviously fitted their criteria of folk hero though some modern revisionist writings just consider him a petty thief:

Folk hero


The area is named after James Mackenzie, a shepherd and would-be farmer. He was captured for allegedly stealing sheep from a large sheep run, but claimed innocence and escaped. He was recaptured and sentenced to five years’ hard labour, but escaped twice more. Later, his trial was found to be flawed, and he was pardoned. Said to be immensely strong, he was admired as a rebel who challenged the powerful and wealthy.


Last edited by Caro on Tue 14 May 2013, 09:25; edited 1 time in total
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PostSubject: Re: Outlaws as Folk heroes   Tue 14 May 2013, 08:39

To my mind how you define "folk hero" depends on what you understand by "folk" as a prefix to any term. Within an entire culture then "folk" would, at least by normal definitions, apply in its broadest sense. Once you get local about it then of course the number of folk heroes grows exponentially since it takes a lesser amount of folk to understand and agree on the definition for it to apply to any character.

Mackenzie and his dog fit the latter criteria. Robin Hood on the other hand is recognised and understood by a hell of a lot more folk in the world. So Mackenzie's status as "folk hero" should always be explained as a "New Zealand folk hero" (to explain to anyone else just what on earth is being discussed and why he merits discussion at all), whereas Robin Hood, for example, requires no such qualification in the slightest.
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