We call people who habitually break the law “career criminals.” They are not seen as heroes or the stuff of folk tales and legends. Such was not always the case. Houston Public Radio’s Rod Rice reports that back when America was younger and the gap between the rich and the poor was wider, we didn’t have criminals, we had “outlaws.”
And outlaws were seen in many cases as being characters. I mean, Robin Hood was an outlaw and everybody but the Sheriff of Nottingham liked Robin Hood. So, why the different view on law breakers? To find out I spoke with Dan Anderson the author of the just published “100 Oklahoma Outlaws, Gangsters and Lawmen 1839-1939.” He says the era of the pop culture outlaw ended in the 1930s as events changed the country.
“That was a time, particularly in 1939, when Hitler had declared war on most of Europe that the mindset of America was changing and I think that everybody was becoming gelled as one solid thinking populace and one singularly motivated country. I think prior to that it was a bunch of all for one and one for all type of a mindset.”
Anderson says in the 19th century, in the Oklahoma Territory and in Texas and other mid-west and western states, taking what you needed was considered a right.
“They felt that not only did they have the right but possibly the moral obligation and they thought what they were doing and the way they made a living was just as righteous and upstanding and straight forward as you and I.”
Anderson says some helped along their own legends, for example, Texan Kathryn Throne married George Barnes, better known as “Machine Gun Kelly” and among her roles was that of his publicist.
To be sure some of the thugs in Anderson’s book were vile and vicious people and are not the stuff of legends, but others, even wanton killers like Bonnie and Clyde were. Some though, like the Newton Brothers from Uvalde, forged criminal careers literally made for TV. Joe Newton lived to be 89 and died not long after appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
“He was a completely reformed man but he was never sorry for what he did. These guys were the most safety conscious outlaws of any era. They didn’t want to kill anybody, in fact one of the Newton’s said we didn’t want to be like Bonnie and Clyde, we didn’t want to kill anybody. But they had no remorse for what they did because they said we were bank robbers, that was our business, like you’re a doctor, you’re a banker, we were bank robbers, that was our business.”
Dan Anderson says the bottom line is that in the days when the west was less developed there was a more general feeling that you could deal with the coming capitalists the same way they dealt with you.
“They all saw themselves as taking away from corporate, taking away from the big guy, the big rail roads, the big banks, the big real estate conglomerates and investors. These folks who had settled there by hook or by crook, thought that this was intrinsically their territory, and if somebody was going to take advantage of or profit from, also by hook or by crook, then by golly they were going to do the same thing.”
Dan Anderson’s book is “100 Oklahoma Outlaws, Gangsters and Lawmen 1839-1939.”