An often ambiguous legendary figure whose actions, although outside of, or in opposition
to, an established power structure’s laws, are supported by an ardent constituency. The
designations “outlaw” and “criminal” are sometimes synonymous in common speech, but
not in American folklore. The Harpe brothers, who slaughtered settlers on the transAppalachian frontier; Indiana’s Belle Gunness, who murdered immigrant Norwegian
bachelors; North Carolinian Tom Dula, who killed his lover; and Milwaukee’s Jeffrey
Dahmer, who cannibalized his victims—all have been memorialized in folklore as
unequivocally bad. Invoked as threatening figures to control unruly children, or in bloody
legends, moralistic ballads, and dark humor, such people are presented, by virtue of their
evil or demented actions, as enemies of any social order and obvious criminals.
America’s most notable folk outlaws, however, are firmly rooted in, and advocates
for, communities with long-standing grievances against the prevailing government.
Reviled as criminals by the haves, they are just as forcefully celebrated as heroes by the
have nots. Their heroic characterizations often bend reality toward ancient and widely
dispersed folk-outlaw traditions.
Folk outlaws have flourished for centuries in stratified societies marked by injustice.
European Americans of peasant descent, for example, sustained songs and stories of such
Old World oudaws as Willie Brennan, Janosik, Marko Kraljevic, and Robin Hood. As
Eric Hobsbawm demonstrates, their composite legend is exemplified most fully by Robin
Hood, who is forced into outlawry by injustice, rights wrongs, takes from the rich to give
to the poor, kills only in self-defense or for just revenge, never leaves his community, is
admired and supported by his people, cannot be killed or captured by fair means, and is
not the enemy of just authorities, but of local oppressors (Hobsbawm 1969).
While Robin Hood championed 12th-century Saxon peasants against Norman nobles,
America’s Robin Hoods had other friends, other foes, other contexts. Jesse James
opposed banks and Yankee carpetbaggers in the name of Missouri hillfolk and exConfederates. Morris Slater (Railroad Bill) countered racist White bosses in
Reconstruction Alabama. Gregorio Cortez defied Texas Rangers against the backdrop of
early-20th-century Anglo-Mexican conflict. Pretty Boy Floyd sought vengeance against
the banks that foreclosed on “Okie” farmers beset by Dust Bowl and Depression. As
individual embodiments of collective resistance, these oudaws became the subjects of
folksongs and stories celebrating, and sometimes exaggerating, their courage,
marksmanship, humor, cleverness, and gallantry. Their initial local fame, earned at
significant historical moments, became amplified through the news media and an array of
The career of John F.Deitz, like those of better-known American outlaws, epitomizes
the combination of the Robin Hood pattern, a dramatic sociopolitical context, and the
embellishments of journalists and entrepreneurs. A family man and pioneer farmer in
northwestern Wisconsin, Deitz ran afoul of the law when he defied a large logging
corporation by refusing to allow the sluicing of timber through a dam on his property.
From 1906 through 1910, Deitz repeatedly foiled armed posses sent firom the county seat
by lumber barons and their corrupt local officials. He justified his actions through
speeches in nearby communities and letters to regional newspapers that combined fiery
rhetoric with earthy humor often cast in verse:
There is a place of great renown
That is known by the name of Hayward town,
Where an evil gang of whiskey bloats
Holds graft by buying Indian votes.
To show what regard they have for the laws,
‘Tis even claimed they vote the squaws;
And every squaw that they can hire
They dress her up in male attire.
Surrendering in 1910, after an attack on the farmstead endangered his family, Deitz was
sentenced to prison.
There was, however, a prolonged public outcry. Beyond his local following, Deitz
won wider attention by symbolizing the Progressive Era’s commonfolk sentiment against
the greed and might of “robber barons.” On Sunday, October 16, 1910, the New York
Times offered a lengthy illustrated story under the headline “Why Dietz, Oudaw, Defled a
State and an Armed Posse.” The Times’ dramatic juxtaposition of the “Lumber Trust”
and the “owner of a dam” was echoed in popular culture. Deitz’s wounded daughter
appeared at packed tent shows with lantern slides; a paperback, The Defender of the
Cameron Dam, went through several editions; and a melodrama of the same name was
“the most popular vehicle on the midwestern circuit.” Deitz was eventually pardoneti by
Although John F.Deitz is all but forgotten, folk outaws have hardly vanished from
American life. In the late 20th century, Leonard Peltier, an American Indian activist,
resides in prison decades after a reservation gun battle with federal agents. Besides a
compact disc of songs in his defense, Peltier is suggested by characters in Louise
Erdrich’s novel Love Medicine (1984) and in the film Thunderheart (1992). Vilified by
the powers-that-be, Peltier is proclaimed a hero by many native peoples and their
Coates, Robert M. 1930. The Outlaw Years. New York: Macaulay.
Hass, Paul H. 1974. The Suppression of John F.Deitz: An Episode of the Progressive Era in
Wisconsin. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
Hobsbawm, Eric J. 1969. Bandits. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Roberts, John W. 1989. From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Steckmesser, Kent L. 1968. The Western Hero in History and Legend. Norman: University of