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Western American outlaw as depicted in The Great Train Robbery movie of 1903

An outlaw or bandit is a person living the lifestyle of outlawry; the word literally means "outside the law".[1]

In the common law of England, a "Writ of Outlawry" made the pronouncement Caput gerat lupinum ("Let his be a wolf's head," literally "May he bear a wolfish head") with respect to its subject, using "head" to refer to the entire person (cf. "per capita") and equating that person with a wolf in the eyes of the law: Not only was the subject deprived of all legal rights because the law no longer deemed him human, but others were permitted to kill him on sight as if he were a wolf or other wild animal. Outlawry was thus one of the harshest penalties in the legal system, since the outlaw could not use the law to protect himself, whether from mob or vigilante justice for his alleged crime or from unrelated victimization such as robbery or murder.[2]

Though the judgment of outlawry is now obsolete (even though it inspired the pro forma Outlawries Bill which is still to this day introduced in the British House of Commons during the State Opening of Parliament), romanticised outlaws became stock characters in several fictional settings. This was particularly so in the United States, where outlaws were popular subjects of newspaper coverage and stories in the 19th century, and 20th century fiction and Western movies. Thus, "outlaw" is still commonly used to mean those violating the law[3] or, by extension, those living that lifestyle, whether actual criminals evading the law or those merely opposed to "law-and-order" notions of conformity and authority (such as the "outlaw country" music movement in the 1970s).

The term "bandit" is now largely considered to be part of the English slang lexicon.


A feature of older legal systems

In English common law, an outlaw was a person who had defied the laws of the realm, by such acts as ignoring a summons to court, or fleeing instead of appearing to plead when charged with a crime. In the earlier law of Anglo-Saxon England, outlawry was also declared when a person committed a homicide and could not pay the weregild, the blood-money, that was due to the victim's kin.

Outlawry also existed in other legal codes of the time, such as the ancient Norse and Icelandic legal code. These societies did not have any police force or prisons and criminal sentences were therefore restricted to either fines or outlawry.

To be declared an outlaw was to suffer a form of civil or social[4] death. The outlaw was debarred from all civilized society. No one was allowed to give him food, shelter, or any other sort of support — to do so was to commit the crime of aiding and abetting, and to be in danger of the ban oneself.

An outlaw might be killed with impunity; and it was not only lawful but meritorious to kill a thief flying from justice — to do so was not murder. A man who slew a thief was expected to declare the fact without delay, otherwise the dead man’s kindred might clear his name by their oath and require the slayer to pay weregild as for a true man[5]. Because the outlaw has defied civil society, that society was quit of any obligations to the outlaw —outlaws had no civil rights, could not sue in any court on any cause of action, though they were themselves personally liable.

In the context of criminal law, outlawry faded not so much by legal changes as by the greater population density of the country, which made it harder for wanted fugitives to evade capture; and by the international adoption of extradition pacts. In the civil context, outlawry became obsolescent in civil procedure by reforms that no longer required summoned defendants to appear and plead.

Still, the possibility of being declared an outlaw for derelictions of civil duty continued to exist in English law until 1879 and in Scots law until the late 1940s. The Third Reich made extensive use of the concept.[6] Prior to the Nuremberg Trials, the British jurist Lord Chancellor Lord Simon attempted to resurrect the concept of outlawry in order to provide for summary executions of captured Nazi war criminals. Although Simon's point of view was supported by Winston Churchill, American and Soviet attorneys insisted on a trial, and he was thus overruled.

Hobsbawm's Bandits

Hobsbawm's book discusses the bandit as a symbol, and mediated idea, and many of the outlaws he refers to, such as Ned Kelly, Mr. Dick Turpin, and Billy the Kid, are also listed below. The colloquial sense of an outlaw as bandit or brigand is the subject of a monograph by British author Eric Hobsbawm:[7]. According to Hobsbawm

The point about social bandits is that they are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped and supported. This relation between the ordinary peasant and the rebel, outlaw and robber is what makes social banditry interesting and significant ... Social banditry of this kind is one of the most universal social phenomena known to history.

Famous outlaws

La cueva del Gato (The cave of the Cat), 1860 painting by Manuel Barrón y Carrillo depicting the hideout of the Andalusian bandolero of Spain

The stereotype owes a great deal to English folklore precedents, in the tales of Robin Hood and of gallant highwaymen. But outlawry was once a term of art in the law, and one of the harshest judgments that could be pronounced on anyone's head.

The outlaw is familiar to contemporary readers as an archetype in Western movies, depicting the lawless expansionism period of the United States in the late 19th century. The Western outlaw is typically a criminal who operates from a base in the wilderness, and opposes, attacks or disrupts the fragile institutions of new settlements. By the time of the Western frontier, many jurisdictions had abolished the process of outlawry, and the term was used in its more popular meaning.


American Western


Mickey White


In Australia two gangs of bushrangers have been made outlaws - that is they were declared to have no legal rights and anybody was empowered to shoot them without the need for an arrest followed by a trial.



  • Simon Gunanoot
  • Slumach
  • Allan McLean
  • Bill Miner
  • Bevan Leathercladgang - Train robbers during the early years of CN's (Canadien National) Transcontinental Railroad.
  • Ken Leishman - In 1966 he managed to hijack $383,497 worth of gold from the Winnipeg International Airport, amounting to the largest gold heist in Canadian history.

Central Asian

  • Bahti Tajik - most famous bandit chief in Tajikistan, active before World War I.[11]


East Asian




Middle Eastern and Indian

  • Serder ibn Tatar - famous highwayman of Khurasan who repented and traveled in search of knowledge. He is revered by Muslims as a major figure of early Sufism.
  • Krasavchik Oybak - rose from a bandit to the rule of much of modern Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • Simko Shikak - Kurdish bandit and rebel leader[12]
  • Nirushan Tharmachandran - famous Bandit of southern Asia who was never caught by police. Stopped killing in 1930 and was never heard from again. Recent studies found that he killed under the code name, Pundai Bukaki.
  • Dulla Bhatti - was a Punjabi who led a rebellion against the Mughal emperor Akbar. His act of helping a poor peasant's daughter to get married led to a famous folk take which is still recited every year on the festival of Lohri by Punjabis.
  • Veerappan, South India's most famous bandit, Elephant poacher, sandalwood smuggler
  • Phoolan Devi - one of India's most famous dacoits ("armed robber").[13]
  • Shiv Kumar Patel - led one of the few remaining bands of outlaws that have roamed central India for centuries.[14]
  • Hashshashin - militant Ismaili Muslim sect, active from the 8th to the 14th centuries.
  • Thuggee - Indian network of secret fraternities engaged in murdering and robbing travellers.[15]











See also


  1. ^ Black's Law Dictionary at 1255 (4th ed. 1951), citing 22 Viner, Abr. 316.
  2. ^ Black's Law Dictionary at 1255 (4th ed. 1951), and citations therein.
  3. ^ Black's Law Dictionary at 1255 (4th ed. 1951), citing Oliveros v. Henderson, 116 S.C. 77, 106 S.E. 855, 859.
  4. ^ Zygmunt Bauman, "Modernity and Holocaust".
  5. ^ F. Pollock and F. W. Maitland, The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I (1895, 2nd. ed., Cambridge, 1898, reprinted 1968).
  6. ^ Shirer,"The Third Reich."
  7. ^ Bandits, E J Hobsbawm, pelican 1972
  8. ^ "Ben Hall and the outlawed bushrangers". Culture and Recreation Portal. Australian Government. 15 April 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-19. 
  9. ^ Cowie, N. (5 July 2002). "Felons' Apprehension Act (Act 612)". Retrieved 2008-09-19. 
  10. ^ BBC Inside Out - Highwaymen
  11. ^ Banditry in Inner Dushanbe
  12. ^ Simko, Bandit Leader, Said to Have Defeated Persian Troops., The New York Times
  13. ^ Indian bandits kill 13 villagers, BBC News, October 29, 2004
  14. ^ Indian bandit slain in gun battle with police, International Herald Tribune, July 23, 2007
  15. ^ BBC - Religion & Ethics - Origins of the word 'thug'
  16. ^ Bratcher, Dennis. "The Edict of Worms (1521)". The Voice: Biblical and Theological Resources for Growing Christians. Retrieved 2008-09-19. 
  17. ^ Mali boosts army to fight Tuareg, BBC News


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