Whether you admire outlaws or not you have to admit that they stir up a little drama in a dusty world.
I grew up loving the idea of Robin Hood: a man who was saintly and earthy at the same time. His halo glinted with grand ideas like freedom and generosity but it also had a snag of wilderness that must have caught onto a rough edge as he made some expeditious escape.
I attended a Catholic elementary school and when my class reached the age for confirmation of our faith we were asked to choose the name of a saint to guide our life. I chose Maid Marian as being a kind of female equivalent to Robin Hood. That pagan idea was vetoed – naturally – by my teacher but my heart has always known the truth. When I first spoke that name as a possibility it became a kind of compass for the good life.
I never did run off to Sherwood Forest. In fact, fate took me in a completely different direction. Beyond my wildest imaginings I find myself in a sprawl of concrete way the hell out in Texas. About the only things this city has in common with Sherwood Forest is a tradition of outlaws and a love of trees.
Wikipedia tells me that an outlaw is a person outside the protection of the law. As with many ongoing disagreements, it seems to me there are two parties involved. Why does the law shun the outlaw? Because the outlaw is no respecter of the law. I see ‘the law’ and ‘the outlaw’ as people trapped in a bad marriage where for either reason or insanity both willingly exacerbate and continue the drama. Let’s leave them in the corner to bicker amongst themselves for now.
An outlaw closer in time, space and maybe reality than Robin Hood is Butch Cassidy. He was born in Utah in 1866, the eldest of thirteen kids in those pre-birth control days. His heroic mother somehow kept them all alive despite the law swindling the family out of their ranch. She made sure they had food, clothes and a home. She even managed to teach them to read and write. Something else rather magical happened. Cassidy grew up understanding that he was a person and that human life was sacred.
Does that seem obvious to you? Apparently this is still a difficult concept for some people since even in 2011 a Supreme Court judge could argue that American women, for example, do not actually enjoy legal protection as ‘persons.’
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — too?
The fine print written in invisible ink in the covenants of the United States makes most of us outlaw — outside the protection of the law. This fact is clear for any woman experiencing domestic violence or coping with the trauma of rape. All undocumented people have known the fear of officials in one way or another. Aboriginal people have known this ever since the first invasions. And every African America male imprisoned or threatened by white guys (perhaps especially in Florida) are keen examples that not everyone actually shares the privilege to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Opportunities for a person or a nobody to live a free life were pretty much closing up during Cassidy’s lifetime. Capitalism already dominated the human and natural world. The vast majority of people in cities lived in Dickensian poverty. People fought – sometimes desperately and to the death – for the mildest of reforms such as an eight hour work day, child labor regulations or the opportunity to be paid in money instead of script for company stores. Whole families working 15 hour days could barely scrape together the resources necessary to live in crowded one room apartments lacking even simple public health necessities such as sewage or garbage disposal.
In the west, farmers and ranchers were running out of space and beginning to plow into marginal areas which would eventually lead to the great environmental disaster of the dust bowl. Only wealthy conglomerates could afford to buy ‘valuable’ land since it was bundled into large and prohibitively expensive parcels. Asian immigrants were slaving on the railways and in mines. In 1889 alone 22,000 railroad workers were killed or injured. Aboriginal people were involved in guerrilla actions or just trying to survive the relentless invasions.
The south? Two words: Jim Crow.
Where could a decent human being go in such a landscape? No matter what direction you faced it seemed like you couldn’t find a single spot where human life was respected. And the law offered no respite for ordinary people. Not only had the law taken away their family’s ranch in a dispute with a wealthy land holder but it had also persecuted his faith. Some say Cassidy was a member of the Mormon underground, a group that got organized to help polygamous families facing prosecution escape to Mexico. If so, it would explain the genesis of some of his skills in organized civil disobedience such as knowing how to safely navigate the back country trails and having a ready made string of contacts experienced in operating safe houses.
Among other odd jobs, Cassidy spent some time as a cowboy. That word ‘cowboy’ conjures up the Madison Avenue image of the lone guy up on a magnificent horse. The dust swirls at his feet. He is perched up on a colorful rock formation looking down on a valley. At first glance you might think he is admiring the scenery. Maybe –he — is the scenery. (Wolf whistle) I think I will tear that two dimensional picture out of the magazine, remember he thought of himself as a person and let him move around a bit. Maybe he is really looking at his world and watching as more and more trains slice through the land hauling loads of people in and taking loads of natural resources away. Maybe in his mind’s eye he sees those trains transforming into something resembling a cattle drive. Like cattle, the trains were alien to the land and altering it beyond recognition but like cattle they were also a potential source of plenty. A cow carries meat, a hide and milk. The trains held unguarded carriages of money. They were a bit like calves straying too far from the protection of the herd. Prey.
I wonder if the gangs of robbers felt like wolves loping along the wild edges of the west. Maybe they felt they were beyond good and evil. Uncivilized. People liked to call Cassidy’s gang, “The Wild Bunch.”
Wild or not, they weren’t out of control. Cassidy’s train robberies were carefully planned so nobody would get harmed. “I never killed a man,” he once said.
People like the idea of a force of nature on their side and so they continue to share stories of how Cassidy would not abide a bully. They sound a bit like Coyote stories to me. Cassidy was walking along … and one day he decided to save a small farmer facing foreclosure. He paid the man’s mortgage and hand delivered the deed. But he just couldn’t let the bank win so the very next day he walked into that bank and robbed it of exactly the same sum.
In another story a young man of 16 named Harry Ogden worked and scrimped to finally buy a fine horse only to have it horse-jacked by some bandit. Cassidy made the bandit face his victim and return the boy’s hard earned horse. Cassidy then suggested the bandit leave the area with extreme haste as there was no room round about for any man who would harm a young boy.
I don’t know if those tales are true. Hope so but if not at least we have the stories. I think that Cassidy stories reflect the soul’s yearning for freedom and dignity. I recently watched one of those terrible TV documentaries about Cassidy and as I was watching I was less interested in the content than in the talking heads of the show. As they spoke about Cassidy they lit up with joy. Fanaticism? Admiration? The sparks I saw looked like more than mere fan-boy mania. It was like there was an element of the sacred here. And then I understood something: Cassidy’s story is a myth. I think what has happened is that he has become an emblem for freedom in a world where that reality is long gone. A Narnia,
a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.
Civilizations have a lot of trouble co-existing with wildness. Even a plant can get labeled as a weed and become outlaw – outside the protection of the law. An animal’s ordinary act of predation can lead to a species wide extirpation. And inside the walls the tyrant fears even the wild act of hope. If Butch Cassidy still inspires hope in wild west fan-boys imagine what the people of the day felt. And so the industrialists and financiers of that time simply could not abide even the presence of an outlaw.
That they even saw this small gang as a threat is a testament to their all consuming greed. This was the time of the Gilded Age when a very few men accumulated riches beyond imagining. More than riches, they accumulated lasting power. Today’s economy would not exist without the continuing support of these names familiar to anyone who watches PBS:
Morgan, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Armour, Gould, Mellon, Vanderbilt, etc etc
The thugs that helped these families hold onto their wealth and maintain their power worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.
The Pinkerton group was a kind of a national secrecy/security service that combined a JSOC / Blackwater ethos with an intelligence power rivaling today’s NSA. The original “track ’em & wack ’em” model of problem solving where a person’s death is no more significant than ‘bug splat.’ At its height Pinkerton had more operatives than the nation’s standing army. Their mission was to suppress any form of uprising (union formation, strikes and apparently train robbers) in order to maintain national stability and the elite’s power.
Pinkerton was brought in to break up 70 major labor disputes in the 1880s. They were ruthless. It is said they ignited the bomb that led to the Haymarket Riot in Chicago. And like today’s drones they seemed to have trouble recognizing civilians from ‘combatants.’ When they were hunting Jessie James they used explosives to blow off his mother’s arm and kill an 11 year old child – Jessie’s brother. Jesse wasn’t even home.
Seeing which way the wind blew, Cassidy fled to South America. Even so, the Pinkerton group continued their hunt for him. At this point the story becomes a choose your own adventure tale where there are two possible endings. One ending says he was killed in Bolivia along with his friend the Sundance Kid. The other ending says he escaped to Europe where a surgeon changed his appearance allowing him to eventually return to America where he settled in the Pacific Northwest.
And so passes Robert Leroy Parker.
That was the name he was given when he was born.
When I look around the landscape I live in I don’t see any outlaws I admire. I think there is a world of difference between someone like Cassidy and today’s gangsters who rip off even their own associates. Happily, even gangsters seem to be withering away. I hear that property crimes are declining all over the world and homicide by ordinary citizens is also a fading fad.
But, outlaws remain and the idea of ‘the outlaw’ has metastasized into something truly horrific. Outlaws today aren’t outside the ‘protection’ of the law; they are outside the ‘prosecution’ of the law. Outlaws like Trayvon Martin‘s murderer and bigger fish like Wallstreet executives, the petrochemical industry, the GMO industry, George Bush and Barack Obama all spring to mind. We are all witness to America’s wild and out of control policy rides making the United States not only a rogue super-state but the prime danger to peace and even the continuation of life itself on our planet.