When Public Enemies was making the rounds in theaters across America last summer, doing nearly $100 million of business domestically, I was reminded that we Americans love our outlaws—not our criminals, mind you, but our outlaws.  It is a distinction with a difference.  Criminals prey on the weak and vulnerable, mug old men and snatch women’s purses, commit despicable acts such as rape, and cower when brought to bay by lawmen.  Outlaws target wealthy and powerful institutions, make daring escapes, and boldly take on all comers, be they the county sheriff and his deputies, metropolitan police, or J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI special agents.  Criminals are regarded as scum.  Outlaws are celebrated in song and story.

We have been guilty of romanticizing and even mythologizing outlaws, in part because of the violent birth of our nation.  Our American rebels won; the law-abiding loyalists lost.  But our love for outlaws goes back much further than that.  A good number of colonists came from Britain’s Celtic fringe—Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, and especially Ireland—where outlaw traditions ran deep.  An outlaw there wasn’t taking from his fellow Celts but from a brutal occupier and the occupier’s quislings.  Even the English had their Robin Hood, a Saxon contesting with the Norman rulers.  Then, too, there is something in human nature that simply loves the underdog taking on the establishment with nothing on his side but courage, intelligence, ingenuity, and spirit.

The American outlaw had his greatest days in the post-Civil War American West.  Jesse James, Cole Younger, Black Bart, Sam Bass, Billy the Kid, Grat Dalton, Bill Doolin, Butch Cassidy, and dozens more became household names for their daring exploits.  They robbed and they stole, but the money was from the bank, mining conglomerate, railroad, or express company.  Since most Westerners had real or imagined grievances against such institutions, they rooted for the outlaws.  By the time dime novelists and writers for Eastern magazines got through with the outlaws, they were romantic heroes of legendary proportions.  More than one teenage boy living in the East was inspired by these stories to leave home for the frontier West.  Born in Mont Clare, a small village immediately northeast of Valley Forge in Pennsylvania, Harry Longabaugh was a voracious reader of outlaw tales.  By the time he was 15 he had left home for Colorado.  He found work there as a ranch hand but was soon in Wyoming, earning the nickname “Sundance Kid” and beginning a long outlaw career that eventually led him to Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch.

The Wild Bunch was the last of the famous outlaw gangs of the Old West.  When Butch and Sundance left America for Argentina in 1901, the days of train robberies and long-distance horseback getaways and pursuits were over—at least in reality.  With the departure of the real-life outlaws and the vanishing of the Old West came the reenactment of Western themes in a new form of entertainment: movies.  The first Western—The Great Train Robbery, a 12-minute thriller directed by Edwin Porter—arrived on the silver screen in 1903.  Audiences loved it and demanded more.

Silent Westerns were cranked out by the dozen, enabling viewers to time travel to the Old West and enjoy the derring-do of outlaws and lawmen.  Outlaws were often portrayed in a sympathetic light, having gone to the wrong side because of some grave injustice suffered by them or their family.  Many were shown foiling the evil plans of government officials and robber barons, taking from their ill-gotten wealth, and giving to the oppressed and exploited folk of the countryside.  A common plot had the outlaw stopping at a farm to ask for a meal.  With little enough herself, a widow provides him with a meal she hasn’t dared to enjoy since better times.  As the outlaw is paying for the fine repast he notices a tear on the widow’s cheek and learns that the banker is on his way to foreclose on the farm.  The outlaw provides the widow with the money required to pay the mortgage and departs in a whirl.  The banker arrives, greedily surveying the property he is about to take title to.  He is stunned to have the widow hand over the cash to pay off the mortgage.  While driving his buggy back to town, the banker is waylaid by the outlaw and relieved of his lucre.  The Great American Outlaw rocks!

While such a deed was attributed to several of the outlaws of the Old West, Jesse James was portrayed most often as our American Robin Hood.  The first movie about him, Jesse James Under the Black Flag, was released in 1921.  More ambitious was the 1927 big-budget Paramount picture Jesse James.  Coinciding with the release of the movie was the announcement by Kansas City lawyer John Newman that a monument would be erected in Jesse’s honor.  There were those who voiced opposition, but as one supporter put it, “The crimes with which he was charged, even if all true, are pale in comparison with those which society and posterity committed against him.”  Fred Thompson, the star of Jesse James, called Jesse

a strong, fearless man, without the trace of a mean trait.  By the injustices that he suffered at the hands of his fellowmen he was driven from his hearth and home to become a hunted object outside the law—a hunted animal forced to prey upon others for his daily bread. . . . It was always the bullion hoarded by some carpetbagger that he and his boys were after.  Never did they rob the poor and needy.

Several more movies about Jesse were to follow, including Twentieth Century-Fox’s 1939 Jesse James, starring Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as Frank.  In the meantime, though, the Great Depression was in full swing, and Americans had taken to the outlaw trail—for real—once again.  For Wall Street the Depression began with the crash in the fall of 1929.  But for those Americans on the farm and in small towns, especially in the Midwest and Southwest, the Depression began much earlier in the 20’s, when prices for crops and livestock began a precipitous fall after the boom during World War I.  Foreclosures became common in every agricultural and ranching region and put thousands on the road to California or to the big city.  Farms were abandoned, and many a small town lost half or more of its population—all while the financial titans of New York, the major banks, and the industrialists seemed to be thriving.  The environment was ripe for a reemergence of the Great American Outlaw.  He now made his escapes in a V-8 Ford rather than on a horse, but he was back.

Just as Public Enemies focuses principally on John Dillinger, so did the public’s attention in the early to mid 30’s.  Dillinger wasn’t exactly a good boy gone bad, but he had suffered certain injustices.  Born in Indianapolis in 1903, he was not quite four years old when his mother died.  The loss left him hurt and bewildered.  He grew up rebellious and quit school at 13 to work in a machine shop.  He worked hard at his job during the day but caroused at night, frequently ending the evening drunk and fighting.  After a brief stint in the Navy and a marriage to 16-year-old Beryl Hovius, he and an older friend, whose influence he had fallen under, robbed a grocery store.  They were arrested the next day.  Dillinger’s father convinced his son to come clean and plead guilty.  Dillinger dutifully confessed but nonetheless received a sentence of 10-20 years in prison.  His father was stunned and pleaded with the judge to reduce the time.  No luck.  Once in prison Dillinger declared, “I will be the meanest bastard you ever saw when I get out of here.”

After serving nearly nine years, Dillinger was paroled in 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression.  That mattered little.  He had already determined that he would strike back at society for the perceived wrongs he had suffered.  His first move was smuggling guns to the friends he had made in prison.  Thus armed, they effected an escape.  In the meantime, Dillinger robbed a bank but was tracked down and jailed in Lima, Ohio.  Now his friends came to his rescue.  Uniformed and impersonating Indiana State Police officers, three of them walked into the jail at Lima, saying that they had extradition papers for one John Dillinger.  Overpowering the sheriff and a deputy, they freed the man who would become their leader.  The prison- and jailbreaks seemed like something from the pen of a Hollywood writer.  The making of a legend had begun.

Dillinger led his band of desperadoes in a series of daring and well-executed bank robberies that earned him and his confederates more than $300,000, the equivalent of some $5 million in today’s money, and made Dillinger Public Enemy No. 1.  Between bank robberies he knocked over two state-police arsenals, acquiring automatic weapons, revolvers, thousands of rounds of ammunition, and bullet-proof vests.  A freak circumstance allowed for Dillinger’s capture in Tucson, and he was transferred to the Crown Point county jail in Indiana to await trial.  County officials boasted that the jail was “escape proof.”  The ingenious Dillinger carved a gun out of a block of wood, blacked it with shoe polish, and pulled it on a guard.  Thinking he would be shot, the astonished guard opened the cell door.  Dillinger fled in the county sheriff’s new Ford.  Nothing like adding insult to injury.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, Dillinger rendezvoused with an old partner in crime, Red Hamilton, and began the formation of a new gang that would include Baby Face Nelson and Homer Van Meter.  Several bank robberies and shoot-outs with police and FBI agents followed, resulting in wounded and dead men on both sides.  Dillinger himself was shot more than once.  To resupply the gang Dillinger and Van Meter walked boldly into a police station in Warsaw, Indiana, and held it up, taking guns, ammunition, and bulletproof vests.

For rest and recreation Dillinger preferred northern Wisconsin.  April 22, 1934, found him and his gang members, with wives and girlfriends, resting at the Little Bohemia Lodge near Mercer.  Acting on a tip, 20 FBI agents, led by Melvin Purvis and Hugh Clegg, descended on the lodge that night.  The agents mistakenly opened fire on a local resident and two Civilian Conservation Corps workers as they climbed into a car.  All three were hit, and one died of his wounds.  The gunfire alerted Dillinger and his boys, who engaged the agents in a brief firefight, killing one agent, and then escaped out the back of the lodge and into the darkness.  Evidently none the wiser, the FBI agents continued firing into the lodge until the next morning, when a group of women emerged with their hands raised.

An apoplectic J. Edgar Hoover organized a special team to do nothing but track Dillinger.  Nonetheless, it was not the work of the special team but a tip by a woman that caused agents to lie in wait for Dillinger outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago on July 22, 1934.  When Dillinger emerged, he sensed something was amiss and dashed for an alley.  Several agents opened fire.  Riddled with bullets, Dillinger died without saying a word.  Bystanders dipped their handkerchiefs or the hems of their skirts in the pools of his blood on the pavement.

Like the outlaws of the Old West, Dillinger was brought back to life on the silver screen.  Lawrence Tierney played him in Dillinger (1945), Warren Oates in Dillinger (1973), Robert Conrad in The Lady in Red (1979), Mark Harmon in Dillinger (1991), and now Johnny Depp in Public Enemies.  The legend lives because, for good or ill, misguided or not, we Americans love our outlaws.