The Outlaw as American Folk Hero

Driving along Route 66 we often seem to come upon places that boast of association with one or another infamous American outlaw. Stories about Jesse James or Bonnie and Clyde get told and re-told, and it makes one wonder why so many of the folk heroes out here were outlaws.

Americans love the “ordinary guy” who stands up against injustice and does what’s right — particularly when the injustice is associated with big business or the government. People feel an affinity with “the little guy” because everyone feels powerless against something and can relate to the desire to overcome it. The outlaw hero is simply someone like themselves who was pushed beyond endurance and decided to fight back. In this idealized romantic view, a basically decent man is persecuted by corrupt politicians or financiers or lawmen, and after unimaginable provocation, he makes revenge his reason for being. Despite his crimes, he remains a humane character.

Maybe the American fascination with these outlaw heroes is the inverse of the “American Dream,” reflecting a belief that those somehow disenfranchised by society have a right to “rob from the rich” when it is the only alternative to a grim life of hopeless despair and poverty. Still, the stories all end the same way, the “outlaw hero” eventually meets his untimely demise at the wrong end of a gun.

Over a two-year period from 1932-34, during the height of the great Depression in America, Bonnie and Clyde evolved from petty thieves to nationally known bank robbers and murderers. Their crime spree through a rural America ravaged by farm foreclosures and bankruptcies was romanticized in the popular press of the day.

Clyde Barrow came from a very poor sharecropper family that moved to Dallas in 1921 when they could no longer eke a living from their farm. They initially lived in a tent under a bridge in a free campground in West Dallas. Clyde started out with petty crimes, probably in an attempt to help his family financially.

Bonnie Parker was already married at age 16, and she met Clyde while her husband was doing time in prison. When Clyde was jailed too, Bonnie helped break him out, but he was soon re-captured and sent to the Eastham Prison Farm near Huntsville, with a 14-year sentence. The brutality he experienced at this notorious prison changed him from a petty-criminal to a murderer.

Eastham Prison Farm was known for guards who would routinely whip, shoot or beat prisoners. In addition to suffering the brutality of the guards, inmates also faced abuse by fellow prisoners. While at Eastham, accourding to some accounts, Clyde was the victim of repeated sexual assaults. Eventually he beat his rapist to death with a steel pipe. Another inmate took responsibility for the attack and Clyde was paroled in 1932, a hardened man. Vowing never to return to prison, he was determined to shoot his way out of any encounter with the law rather than surrender.

Clyde recruited several of his prison associates and West Dallas friends to form the Barrow Gang with the goal of staging a raid on the despised Eastham Prison Farm. The gang set out on a string of robberies attributed to “Bonnie and Clyde.” Perhaps it was the unusual presence of a woman as part of the “gang,” or the “love story” aspect of the couple’s relationship, but the media picked up on them, spinning their exploits into a mythology fuelled by hearsay and gossip. The popular press initially positioned them as modern-day Robin Hoods.

In 1933, Bonnie and Clyde set up house in Joplin, Missouri (The house that Bonnie and Clyde lived in there still stands and is now a Bed and Breakfast. For reservations or more information, go to the Joplin Hideout). They continued robbing banks and stores in the surrounding area, until the police caught up with them. In the resulting shoot-out, Clyde killed one lawman and fatally injured another.

A year later, the gang went ahead with their plan to raid Eastham Prison Farm. During the siege, a guard was killed and some of Clyde’s friends were freed.

Bonnie and Clyde’s success at evading the law was due, in large measure, to the gang’s use of fast cars and big guns. As the Barrow gang began their crime spree, Ford had just unveiled the V-8 engine. The gang would search out Fords with the V-8 for use as a getaway car. The V-8’s power made it easy for them to outrun slower police vehicles. And if law enforcement did catch up, Bonnie and Clyde could out shoot them. The gang used machine guns, while most policemen carried simple handguns which could barely fire a single shot in response to the rapid hail of bullets from the Thompson submachine guns.

The law finally caught up with Bonnie and Clyde on May 23, 1934, in Louisiana. This time the police were prepared with their own Ford V-8 and military assault weapons. The couple drove down a dusty road outside of Gibsland right into a police ambush. A volley of gun fire aimed at the car ripped Bonnie and Clyde to pieces. At the time of their death, their gang was believed responsible for at least 13 murders, including 2 policemen, in addition to the string of robberies, kidnappings and lesser offences.

Jesse and Frank James, from Missouri, were perhaps the most famous outlaws of the American west. Their story is intricately intertwined with the aftermath of the American Civil War. Missouri was a border state, sharing characteristics of both North and South, but a large part of the state’s population had migrated from the South.

During the Civil War, Missouri was embattled, with political and military control of the state hotly contested between Unionists and increasingly pro-secessionist forces. In 1861, open warfare erupted, as pro-confederacy guerrilla groups began attacking Unionist troops throughout the state. The most notorious of the pro-confederate guerrilla forces was led by William Clarke Quantrill. Known as Quantrill’s Raiders, the small band of about a dozen men terrorized Unionist soldiers and civilians alike. The Raiders ambushed Union patrols and supply convoys, seized the mail, and occasionally struck towns on either side of the Kansas-Missouri border, targeting pro-Union civilians in an attempt to drive them from the territory. Quantrill perfected guerrilla tactics such as coordinated and synchronized attacks, dispersal after an attack using pre-planned routes and relays of horses, and the use of long-barreled revolvers (which that later became the preferred firearm of western lawmen and outlaws alike).

The James brothers were sympathetic to the Southern cause and Frank joined “Quantrill’s Raiders,” then in 1864, both he and Jesse took up with “Bloody Bill” Anderson’s Rebels. As a result of the James brothers’ activities, the Union military authorities made their family leave Missouri, ordering them to move South beyond Union lines. In the summer of 1864 Jesse was seriously wounded by Union troops.

By the time the Civil War ended, Missouri’s population had divided into three bitterly opposed factions: anti-slavery Unionists, segregationist conservative Unionists, and pro-slavery, ex-Confederate secessionists. A new state constitution freed the slaves and temporarily excluded former Confederates from voting, serving on juries, becoming corporate officers, or preaching from church pulpits. Armed clashes between partisans of the various factions continued.

Jesse was recovering from his chest wound at his uncle’s Missouri boardinghouse, when he and his brother committed the first daylight armed bank robbery in the United States during peacetime. The James brothers robbed the Clay County Savings Bank in Liberty, Missouri, on February 13, 1866. The bank’s owner had been an officer in one of the Unionist militias, and was locally active in the politics of “Reconstruction.” An innocent bystander was killed on the street, as the robbers made their escape.

Soon Cole Younger, Frank’s friend from Quantrill’s Raiders, joined the brothers in a string of bank robberies from Iowa to Alabama and Texas. The “James Gang” started using the tactics they learned during the war for their new endeavors, robbing trains, stagecoaches, stores and even individuals.

Jesse became the subject of writers’ imaginations and was portrayed by the media as a folk hero who attacked Union institutions like banks and railroads which were victimizing small farmers. The press coverage garnered Jesse growing public support in Missouri and Kansas. Many law-abiding citizens took secret satisfaction with the outlaw’s attacks on “the rich.” With banks the object of great popular discontent, some folks believed the James Gangs’ actions were justified. Confederate sympathizers felt displaced by Reconstruction, and viewed the gang’s exploits as standing up against the system in their defense. For them, Jesse James was a noble Confederate outlaw set upon by pernicious Yankees.

Missouri’s southern sympathizers often sheltered the gang from the law. But eventually, on the morning of April 3, 1882, while Jesse stood on a chair straightening a picture on the wall of his home, he was shot in the back of the head by fellow gang-member Bob Ford, who supposedly did it for the $10,000 bounty.

3 Responses to “The Outlaw as American Folk Hero”

  1. CactusKiller says:

    Ah Sale Coyote ! on apprend toujours quelque chose en te lisant ! Bel article, bien fouille et je reconnais tes causes de predilection !

  2. Blue Coyote says:

    just had to research these characters because we kept hearing reference to them while travelling!

  3. Mike says:

    I liked the Bonnie and Clyde article. However the Barrow gang did not at any time use the Thompson sub machine gun. The only automatic weapon that was used was the 1918 BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) It could be fired as a semi-auto or full auto demending on the user. The BAR was a 30-06 with a 20 Round mag. The BAR was a far superior weapon comapaired to the Thompson as far as stopping power. The Thompson had a lagrer round capacity in the mag but that is about it. The Thompson was in limited production during that peroid but was not pressed into military service until 1938. That was four years after the ambush of Bonnie and Clyde.

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