Brief History: Fugitive Folk Heroes

  • Share
  • Read Later
Popperfoto / Getty Images

Bonnie and Clyde have been celebrated in both film and song

The July 11 arrest of Colton Harris-Moore, whose outlandish thefts and escapes from justice lasted more than two years, boosted the 19-year-old serial robber's already considerable viral legend. A vast Internet following backs the Barefoot Bandit, a sobriquet Harris-Moore assumed because of a habit of sneaking shoeless into the homes and aircraft he plundered. Commenters on a Facebook group of more than 80,000 "fans" have eulogized his exploits and demanded the release of the kid they hail as a "real-life 21st century outlaw."

Harris-Moore is no Robin Hood; his greatest act of charity during a spree of burglaries was to leave a $100 donation at a veterinary clinic. But his bravado struck an old chord with the U.S. public. With the help of a sensationalist media, daring gangsters and gunslingers have often found their way into American hearts, no matter how heinous their crimes. Depression-era outlaws like the Texan duo Bonnie and Clyde, Chicago bankrobber John Dillinger and the apple-cheeked "Pretty Boy" Floyd were murderers and thieves, but they've been memorialized as desperados struggling in an age of inequity and hardship. When Woody Guthrie famously sang "Some will rob you with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen," it was in an ode to Floyd. Tens of thousands attended Floyd's 1934 funeral in Oklahoma after he was gunned down by FBI agents.

There's also an allure to elusiveness. In 1971, a man known as D.B. Cooper hijacked a passenger airliner flying from Portland, Ore., to Seattle and extorted $200,000 in ransom before parachuting from the plane midflight. He vanished without a trace but remains lodged in popular lore--one town in Washington still celebrates Cooper Day. Frank Abagnale Jr., another teenage crook, evaded the law for five years, defrauding and disguising his way through 26 countries, before being arrested in 1969. His legend received the ultimate burnishing in 2002 with the release of Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can . As is often the case, it is Hollywood that sanctifies America's heroes, both good and bad.