If he was real at all, or even if he wasn’t, Antonio Mamerto Gil Nunez was an freelance ranchhand gaucho who ditched his conscription into the Argentine Civil Wars for life as an outlaw — flourishing in the classic social bandit guise as a friend to the put-upon peasantry with beneficence extending all the way to saintly healing powers.
Ambushed and captured at last, Gil’s last charity was reserved for the policeman who decided to have him summarily executed — whom Gil warned was about to receive an en-route pardon. The cop didn’t buy this obvious dilatory gambit and slit the bandit’s throat, only to return and find the promised clemency riding on up. As Gil had also prophesied, the policeman’s son had fallen quite ill and now he prayed to the brigand he had just put to death, who posthumously secured the boy a miraculous recovery.
The reports of the duly impressed executioner proliferated and soon fathered a flourishing popular veneration. Although Gauchito Gil is of course entirely unrecognized by the institutional Catholic Church, many devout pilgrims visit his site to pray for, or to offer thanks for, a favorable intercession in life.
On this date in 1781, the Spanish social bandit Diego Corrientes Mateos was hanged and quartered in Seville.
A robber who plied the roads from Portugal to his native Seville, Corrientes (English Wikpedia entry | Spanish) was said to be of farmworker stock himself. His consequent good treatment of the rural common folk enabled him to operate with great freedom and situated him as a Robin Hood character; folklore has consequently inflated the valor of his exploits and the bile of Sheriff of Nottinghamesque pursuers like the lieutenant governor of Seville. For example, surprising his adversary on one occasion, Corrientes is supposed to have remarked, “I have learned that you boast you will be able to capture me.”
“Yes, and hang you,” shot back Francisco de Bruna.
“Then I must spare your life so you can fulfill your promise,” the sporting Corrietes allowed. (The reader will discern that Francisco de Bruna soon made good his threat.)
The French robber Gaspard de Besse was broken on the wheel in Aix-en-Provence on this date in 1781.
From a cave in the Esterel Mountains looming over the French Riviera, Gaspard raided the ample traffic wealthy merchants sent to and from the Mediterranean and Italy. He established a Robin Hood-esque “social bandit” profile by dint of his targets and populist provocations like, “the two scourges of Provence are the mistral and the parliament!”
Legend holds that he was unfailingly courteous in his raids and never killed those he preyed upon.
No surprise, he did not enjoy a like deference once one of his gang betrayed him. Hopefully amid the limb-shattering blows of the executioner he could console himself with the prospect of posterity’s renown.
On this date in 1771, the German outlaw Matthias Klostermayr was broken on the wheel in Dillingen.
The “Bavarian Robin Hood” (English Wikipedia entry | German) led a band of poachers (their merriness or lack thereof is unrecorded) who in the 1760s did a famous business, exploiting the jigsaw of tiny statelets in the region to keep the heat off by ducking across a border every few weeks.
Their exploits zestily raiding the hated private hunting preserves of haughty lords elevated them in the popular imagination to social bandits. They’re really said to have distributed a portion of their booty to the poor. They were slated with nine homicides during their run, of game wardens or soldiers whom they did not hesitate to handle much less generously. The gang’s long run proliferated legends multiplying their prowess, even crediting them with supernatural powers like invulnerability to bullets.
Klostermayr was the subject of folk songs even in his lifetime, and that exposure meant that he eventually became the subject of multilateral coordination among the principalities whose limited jurisdictions he so expertly exploited. A 1769 mutual-assistance arrangement permitted authorities to cross the border in hot pursuit; by the end of 1770, an outright military expedition with 300 troops had been arranged. They took Klostermayr by storm on January 14, 1771 in the town of Osterzell; the theater and the shooting club still carry Klostermayr’s name in Osterzell, a small testament to the robber’s enduring popularity two and a half centuries on from his death.
That death was bound to be a demonstrative one, revenging all the offenses Klostermayr had done to his superiors.
The agonizing public shattering of his bones on the breaking wheel, preserved for us in graphic drawings, did no disfavors to the bandit’s fame. Buttressed by his thinly-veiled appearance a few years later as the protagonist of Schiller‘s first play, The Robbers, Klostermayr’s renown persists in Germanophone Europe right down to the present day.
Detail view (click for a larger image) of the terrifying device on which Bavarian outlaw Matthias Klostermayr was stretched out to have his limbs crushed with a breaking-wheel on September 6, 1772.
Detail view (click for a larger image) of Matthias Klostermayr being broken on the wheel.
On this date in 1784, Italian bandit-hero Angelo Duca was hanged at Salerno.
“Angiolillo” haunted the Basilicata region, which surmounts the arch between the “toe” and the “heel” of southern Italy’s boot.
His biography, hopelessly intertwined with folklore, holds that he abandoned farming over the oppression of the overweening Duke of Martina — just like any self-respecting social bandit.
Soon a gang of about 20 Italic outlaws had flown to his camp and naturally they “gave alms, bought grain, endowed the dowries of poor girls,” and generally forcibly redistributed some small portion of the rentier class’s gorgings to the poor whose care ought to have been a noble lord’s concern.
As the 18th century came to a close, revolutionaries with steel souls and guillotines would come to dominate the narrative of resistance. But they never completely usurped the romance of the road, especially in rural parts like Angiolillo’s. Eric Hobsbawm informs us that “in the Capitanata under Joachim Murat there were something like seventy [robber] bands, in the Basilicata of the early [eighteen] sixties thirty-nine, in Apulia some thirty.”
Primitive Rebels is the title of the volume we’re quoting here, an antecedent to Hobsbawm’s classic Bandits. In Primitive Rebels the late godfather of the social bandit concept situates these bands and their susceptibility to popular mythologizing as “an endemic peasant protest against oppression and poverty: a cry for vengeance on the rich and the oppressors, a vague dream of some curb upon them, a righting of individual wrongs.”
The eternally seductive dream of righting the injuries of an unjust world by the manly exertions of gold-hearted thieves and knights of the road unfortunately for our principal (and no small number of his fellows) arrives with its own fatal paradox. Social bandits want a better king, not a headlessking, but in this they also concede the crown the powers its malice abuses. A king will get the best of a desperado sooner or later.
Upon his own capture, Duca was hauled directly to the Bourbon rulerKing Ferdinand. Ferdinand did not experience a cathartic reawakening on account of his prisoner’s implied critique; instead, he simply ordered the nettlesome brigand’s immediate beheading, sans judicial procedure, after which the corpse was torn limb from limb for public exhibition.
On this date (most likely) in 1713, Slovakian “Robin Hood” figure Juraj Janosik was hung on a hook in Liptov County for his outlawry.
Janosik was a flesh-and-blood man, but much of what is known or believed about him lies squarely in the realm of folklore.
He hailed from the village of Terchova. You’ll find Terchova today just on the Slovakian side of the Polish border; in Janosik’s time, this was the Habsburg Kingdom of Hungary.
In Janosik’s native Terchova, a walking path leads to a monumental statue of the famed outlaw. (cc) image from Andre Skibinski.
Janosik is said to have fought with the anti-Habsburg Kuruc guerrillas in his youth, then joined the imperial army when that rebellion fizzled, then found his short life’s calling when detailed to guard a brigand named Tomáš Uhorcík. The two went into (Uhorcík’s) business together in about 1711, and Janosik’s natural aptitude soon made him the leader of their robber band.
From pine-forest lairs the merry bandits preyed on aristocrats and rich merchants throughout their mountainous home territories and into Moravia, Silesia, and Slovakia and are supposed to have taken chivalrous care not to injure their prey other than financially. They’re inevitably also credited with sharing the fruits of their heists with the poor.
When Janosik became celebrated in later centuries his virtues both moral and martial would multiply by each astonishing retelling. In this Polish verse, for example, Janosik is less Robin Hood and more Terminator as he boldly presents himself at a royal tourney and avenges the honor of Slovakian maids raped by some of the contending knights.
“O king, an accusation I bring thee!” he proclaimed.
“Our women are dishonored, our village maidens shamed!
Twelve of our maidens ravished — on these twelve knights the guilt! —
Twelve of our village maidens! Let blood for blood be spilt!
“Twelve cottages dishonored — twelve homes lament today …
Sire, throned on gold, be gracious — give ear to me, I pray!
Blood must be shed, and bloody must be the foeman’s face;
I come, I come avenging our Slovak maids’ disgrace!”
Then all men stood astounded, and silent fell the ring.
“What word is this? How durst thou? Who art thou?” asked the king.
“A hill-born outlaw, hetman Janosik, that am I.”
Then marvelled all the courtiers, and king enthroned on high.
And the king’s visage slowly with rising wrath was lit,
And his moustache was bristling, his grizzled brows were knit.
Upon that band of Magyars, twelve gentlemen, he glowered.
Beneath the crested headgear twelve heads were earthward lowered.
“What, willest thou to fight them, all twelve, and brow to brow?”
— “With all, O king,” Janosik made answer; “all, and now!
O king, twelve fields of harvest a single gust will clear;
Thus let me, single-handed, meet these twelve warriors here.”
Then the king’s sceptre signalled; the trumpets gave one blast.
Janosik fixed his girdle, and off his mantle cast.
The king and all the courtiers, they marvelled to behold
The shirt that came from Juhasz, the trousers looped with gold.
There from his cap a bundle of discs, all golden, rayed,
And moved he ever so little, the cap a tinkling made.
A row upon his axe-haft of brazen rings he had;
At every step he swung it. His shoes in steel were clad.
His hand had gripped the hatchet, and there he took his stand.
Heralds struck up; then signalled the king, with sceptred hand;
Twelve lances, like a forest thick-timbered, took their aim,
And at Janosik’s bosom twelve lances flying came.
Hola! in golden Budzyn, hola! how went it, tell!
And in the king’s chief city what thing that day befell?
Upon that day what pastime might there the king await
In his dear daughter’s honor, by his town’s golden gate?
Now on the sand, all shattered, twelve lances fell and crashed,
And off the polished helmplates twelve glittering sabres flashed.
For see! up sprang Janosik, and raised his arm to strike,
Whistled the tune of Juhasz, and whirled around his pike.
How like a flame of lightning that hatchet circled round!
Erdoedy, count, with vizor hewn through, was on the ground;
Pallavicini, margrave, had rent his horse’s rein;
His riven skull was soiling the sand with bloody stain.
And now Prince Bathyani on his left side had dropt;
Right hand and sword were severed. Count Palffy’s brows were chopt.
And soon Prince Esterhazy upon the sand lay low,
Scrabbling the ground; and straightway his face was white as snow.
Not long did Count Festetics smile in the light of day,
But by the brothers Toskoel fell dead — and dead were they.
And then, before Janosik, the remnant lay in death.
When the twelfth corpse had fallen, he drew a mighty breath,
And leaned upon his weapon; like some rich beechtree then
He stood; there lay before him twelve haughty gentlemen;
Twelve golden suits of armor and twelve sharp sabres lay;
And dumbly gazed the people upon that mortal fray.
And no man spoke, and all men a tomblike silence kept.
To the king bowed Janosik, and low his cap he swept.
Then in their blood were carried twelve corpses from that place
And thus avenged Janosik those Slovak maids’ disgrace.
But the actual Janosik was quite vincible.
His career only really lasted a year or so; he was captured in 1712, escaped, and was soon re-taken. It seems that despite the marauders’ usual care for the safety of their victims, they managed to kill a Father Juraja Vertíka.
March 17, 1713 was the date of Juraj Janosik’s conviction and death sentence; though not explicitly recorded of Janosik, the usual practice would have been to carry out such a sentence without delay. Many of his comrades met similar fates: Uhorcík, for instance, was put to death a month after Janosik.
The bandit’s legend has survived and thrived after his death in literally hundreds (per Hobsbawm) of poems, legends, and folk ballads, like Jan Botto’s epic “The Death of Janosik”.
Oddly, Martin Votruba argues,** there is no indication that anyone in 1713 or the years following celebrated Janosik with anything like the fervor he eventually attained.
Janosik is all but invisible as a literary figure until the late 18th century, according to Votruba. Pesumably his name attached to miscellaneous anecdotes and exploits — enough to keep it in the conversation of bandits.
Around the turn to the 19th century Janosik’s person seems to have become gradually conjoined to stories and songs about other brigands, both real and fictional, just as these characters were booming in literary popularity. Juraj Janosik went from being just a guy who’d be mentioned in passing in a list of bandits, to the bandit. (Votruba guesses that the linguistic similarity our fellow’s surname had with with generic male name Jan, Janik, or Janko — variations on “John” that were commonly used for entirely legendary outlaws in folk songs — helped to form the connection)
Only in the 1830s and 1840s did the long-dead outlaw, who by then dominated lowbrow bandit-legend folklore, begin to take on the form familiar today — that of “a benevolent, rebellious, tragic, quasi-folkloric freedom-fighter” called “Janosik.” And “since this happened in a period of mounting ethnic activism in central Europe, Janosik could not become merely a romantic hero. The Slovak literary and social discourse highlighted his ethnicity, which then appeared in implicit contrast to the ethnicity of the now politically overpowering Hungarians.” The rich guys Janosik robbed — not ethnically specified in the earliest sources — now became oppressive foreign lords. Janosik’s growing corpus of attributed exploits now earned elite artistic attention.
A sort of social bandit for the Prohibition era, Birger was born Shachna Itzik Birger to a Russian Jewish family that immigrated to the U.S.
Birger was a young saloon-keeper on the make when the U.S. decided to make a go of its first foolish drug war, Prohibition. And in the immortal tradition of drug wars, it made the enterprising purveyor a whole lot richer, and a whole lot violent-er.
This cinematic affair of armored car shootouts, aerial bombings, and gangland assassinations comes off with verve in A Knight of Another Sort: Prohibition Days and Charlie Birger. The bon vivant Birger, bursting with charisma, entertains at his gin joint, aids the misfortunate, corrupts the police, and merrily mobs up Williamson County.
That story reached its conclusion when Birger was arrested for ordering the murder of Joe Adams, mayor of a nearby town who had taken the Shelton Gang’s armored “tank” car in for repairs.
Birger said he hadn’t actually done that, but he went to the gallows grinning, and humorously chatted up reporters before the big show — cementing his myth with that legend-quality indifference to death.
“I’ve played the game and lost, but I’ll lose like a man,” Birger philosophized. “I’m convicted of a crime I didn’t commit, but I’ve committed a lot of crimes. So I guess things are even. We got too strong against the law, and the law broke it all up.” (From the Chicago Tribune, April 20, 1928.)
Birger shakes hands with so-called “humanitarian hangman” Phil Hanna.
Birger insisted on hanging in a black, not a white, hood — owing to his hatred of the Ku Klux Klan.
Birger is still a legend in southern Illinois, and a live one at that: he’s been in the news lately due to a weird custody fight over the rope used to hang him.
This macabre historical memento also happens to be the last rope ever used for any public execution in Illinois.
On this date in 1907, Emile Dubois was shot in Valparaiso, Chile for murder.
The French-descended Dubois (English Wikipedia link | Spanish) was credited with a string of homicides in Valparaiso spanning 1905-1906. (Although the first murder attributed to him, and the only one he was formally convicted of, was that of an accountant in Santiago.)
The official version of our man’s career is roughly this: in September 1905, he killed a merchant named Reinaldo Tillmanns; in October, he killed another one named Gustavo Titius — robbing both.
The following April, he stabbed the French trader Isodoro Challe, although he did not rob him. In June, he attacked an American dentist in his office, although the dentist fought him off and the assailant fled.
All this was rolled up into the indictment when “Emile Dubois” was finally captured that summer. This was the name he gave, but his Colombian documents were sketchy; his real name might have been Luis Amadeo Brihier Lacroix, or heaven knows what else.
The crime spree alone would be interesting enough for this site, but it’s really the least interesting thing about this unusual man.
Dubois exerted a curious magnetism. He was handsome, certainly, but more than that: he was gracious, impossibly serene in the face of the dangerous charges against him, and his adherence to his innocence was calm and unshakable. Dubois’s intelligence was impossible to miss; he spoke ironically with inspectors, like their fellow-man instead of their prey. “He had ideas above those of a common criminal,” wrote one biographer. (Spanish link)
His long time loose on his crime spree — if indeed the attributed crimes were really all his — had served to direct popular scorn at the police who were unable to locate the criminal. At the same time, the victims in these cases were wealthy foreign merchants, and these “usurers” would have limited purchase on public sympathy as Argentina’s oligarchy faced an unfolding social crisis. (And Valparaiso endured a natural disaster.) Meanwhile, in the courtroom itself, Judge Santa Cruz was so convinced of Dubois’s guilt that he cut a vindictive Javert-like figure hounding the accused to his death.*
Guilty or innocent, the wry and gentlemanly Dubois compared very favorably to the other characters in his drama.
Dubois played the part unerringly to the last, when he declined a blindfold and unpertubedly puffed a cigar as he faced his four-man firing detail with open eyes and the command “¡Ejecutad!”
Dubois’s last statement reasserted his innocence without vitriol or bitterness. “It was necessary that someone be held responsible for these crimes, and that someone was me,” he said. (More Spanish)
Then he died.
And after that Christ-like exit, he lived.
Dubois, who was obviously an utter obscurity prior to his arrest, went on to a surprising posthumous life as a popular folk saint. His brightly-painted grave in Valparaiso is a pilgrimage shrine forever crowded with votive offerings from followers convinced of Dubois’s powers of divine intercession (and, accordingly, his innocence).
* Dubois to the priest sent to confess him before execution: “”You should be taking the judge’s confession, not mine. The judge who ordered my murder. Go inspire his repentance.” (Source)
Caruga soon deserted the front lines on a false pass — but his unauthorized leave became permanent when he came across a Hungarian soldier paying court to the innkeeper’s daughter whom Caruga, too, desired. Caruga shot him dead.
He did a short turn in prison but escaped in 1919 and shortly thereafter established himself the captain of a posse of brigands styled the “Mountain Birds”. From roosts in the Papul and Krndija mountains they preyed on the nearby Slavonian plains — ducking away freely when needed to Dalmatia or Bosnia in what was now the independent (and quite unsettled) Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. (This polity would become Yugoslavia four years after Caruga’s execution.)
Caruga et al obtained a reputation as a Robin Hood-esque character who revenged himself on the rich. He was a late throwback to the classical hajduk character, a complex thief-with-the-heart-of-gold archetype who straddled the line between freebooting highwayman and rebel partisan during the era of Ottoman ascendancy in the Balkans. (The term’s roots trace to a caste of independent Hungarian footsoldiers in the 1600s.)
While the Turks were out of the picture at this point, the romance of the road and the social resentments rife in the fractious young kingdom were still sufficient to support a legendary bandit. Sentiment and fair fortune only turned against him after a botched raid on the estate of one Count Eltz of Vukovar, which resulted in an armed standoff with the local gendarmerie and the death of an innocent forester caught in the crossfire. Caruga was taken with some of his gang not long after.
Caruga is the subject of the so-called “last Yugoslavian film” before that country split apart. The movie Caruga stars the Croatian actor Ivo Gregurevic in what could arguably read as an allegory for the banditry of the outgoing communist years.
Most information about this date’s subject is in Serbo-Croatian; see for instance this .doc file.
* A number of present-day sports clubs in the former Yugoslavia use the name “Hajduk”, not unlike the way “Spartak” (Spartacus) brands Bulgarian and former-USSR teams. For instance, HNK Hajduk Split in Croatia, and FK Hajduk Kula in Serbia.
At 12:09 a.m. this date in 1934, Harry Pierpont — a partner of notorious gangster John Dillinger — was electrocuted at the Columbus, Ohio penitentiary.
This Indiana-born criminal helped Dillinger transition from local malcontent to FBI’s Most Wanted* in prison in Michigan City, Indiana. Pierpont was a professional armed robber and the leader of a gang that knocked over several Indiana banks in the mid-1920s before his capture.
That was right about the time that fellow Hoosier Dillinger was catching an absurdly harsh 10-to-20-year sentence for robbing a local grocer in Mooresville — a sentence Dillinger helped bring on himself when he took his father’s advice to plead guilty and take responsibility and blah blah blah.
The court threw the book at him.
“I will be the meanest bastard you ever saw when I get out of here,” 21-year-old Dillinger is supposed to have said. He’d prove infamously true to his word … with the help of Harry Pierpont.
The two crossed paths in the penitentiary system in 1925. Pierpont was only eight months older, but was a much more seasoned criminal and mentored the young Dillinger in the arts of bank robbery. Both also cribbed from two former associates of the German robber Hermann Lamm, who broke new ground in the larceny game with his disciplined, systematic approach to the job: casing the bank, organizing the crime, plotting and practicing the getaway route.
Dillinger finally made parole after nine long years in the stir on May 22, 1933. The years-long show of rehabilitation that won him his liberty immediately proved to have been a facade: in a pre-arranged plan, Dillinger committed several bank robberies that summer to raise funds to orchestrate a prison break for Pierpont et al.
Pierpont and seven others, who would form the first Dillinger gang (Pierpont reportedly encouraged the branding fronting his charismatic former apprentice), and their escape conveniently occurred just after Dillinger himself had been arrested. His once-and-future associates returned the favor by liberating Dillinger from the Lima, Ohio jail — gunning down Sheriff Jess Sarber in the process.
Dillinger would be dead within the year and Pierpont not much outlive him. But in those months pillaging banks (wildly unpopular at this moment, the very pits of the Great Depression) from the open-road freedom of zooming Terraplanes that could outrace police cars, wielding spectacular Tommy guns that could outgun police, the Dillinger gang staked its social bandit bona fides.**
They robbed several more banks with the discipline and precision that would make them famous; notably, Dillinger and company rarely drank and never when planning heists, evaluating targets with all the businesslike sobriety of corporate raiders.
They weren’t caught in the act, but while trying to lay low in Arizona.
Dillinger and had one more escape in his bag, and that a spectacular one: brandishing a fake wooden “gun”,† Dillinger busted out of the allegedly “escape-proof” Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Ind. and joined up with another gangster.
Dillinger had four months and change yet to go, a cavalcade of Midwestern robberies, an alleged appearance-altering plastic surgery, and a running battle with the young HerbertJ. Edgar Hoover and his star agent Melvin Purvis. Dillinger was finally shot dead in Chicago that summer of 1934. His robbery spree had lasted only 15 months, but it made him a worldwide celebrity.
Three others arrested with Dillinger in Arizona, however, were not with Dillinger when he escaped Crown Point.
Instead, they were destined for Ohio to answer for that sheriff they’d murdered freeing Dillinger the year before. Harry Pierpont and a fellow gang member, Charles Makley, caught capital sentences.
It’s more than likely that they were anticipating another rescue from their famous confederate, but Dillinger’s end in Chicago sealed Pierpont’s and Makley’s fate, too.
On September 22, with death dates looming, those two attempted to replicate Dillinger’s “fake gun” escape gambit with bars of soap carved like pistols and painted with bootblack. (Woody Allen paid it homage.) It was a desperate try, and it ended in a fusillade from an un-bluffed squad of prison guards as Pierpont and Makley tried to spring the gate to their prison block.
Makley, perhaps the luckier of the two, died of his injuries. The hobbled Pierpont lived long enough to make it to the electric chair.
A few books about John Dillinger
* Dillinger was the first person designated as the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Most Wanted.
** Anecdote: the Dillinger gang wouldn’t steal from bank customers, telling them “we only want the bank’s money.”
† Or maybe a real gun subsequently replaced with a fake gun, maybe with the connivance of bribed guards or the like … there’s a good deal of unresolved speculation about this escape.