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What is an Outlaw?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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An outlaw is an individual who lives outside the law. Typically, he or she is wanted for outstanding crimes, and the decision to live as an outlaw rather than submitting to judgment and sentencing may mean that the outlaw can be denied certain legal rights. In many cultures, a mythical tradition surrounds outlaws, and in some cases these criminals may even become populist heroes who are celebrated in legend and stories.

The origins of the word “outlaw” lie in an Old Norse word which means “banished.” Historically, someone could be condemned with a “Writ of Outlawry” in English common law, which meant that the outlaw forfeited his or her property to the Crown as a result of criminal activity. Furthermore, the Writ allowed people to pursue and kill the outlaw without the potential for legal repercussions, acting as a form of death sentence.

Populist figures like Robin Hood arose in the medieval period because many people were opposed to the sometimes brutal nature of common law. These folk heroes who stole from the wealthy and landed members of society were celebrated even if they didn't redistribute to the poor, and the Crown tended to treat them very harshly if they were caught, to set an example to would-be followers. The Writ of Outlaw no longer exists today, but it has clearly left a legacy behind, as evidenced by the esteemed status of many real and fictional outlaws.

Today, the term “outlaw” is used in several different ways. In the first case, it may refer to someone who is a fugitive from justice for a single crime, such as a bank robbery or murder. In other instances, it refers to habitual offenders who have managed to evade justice despite committing a string of crimes. The term is also used to discuss individuals who have violated the law in a way which supporters deem just and appropriate, such as someone who engages in civil disobedience.

Legal protections for outlaws may be limited, depending on which legal system the outlaw has violated. In many nations, outlaws can be pursued by bounty hunters who capture criminals in an exchange for financial compensation, and while the bounty hunters are obliged to stay within the law, they may go to great lengths to acquire their targets. Once apprehended, an outlaw may be denied bail and other privileges, under the argument that the individual poses a flight risk.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

By Nepal2016 — On Jul 06, 2011

If you guys want to see a show where most of the outlaws have pretty much no redeeming qualities whatsoever, try Deadwood. They are portrayed as a bunch of ruthless, nasty, opportunistic predators with no conscience.

This seems to me like what a real-life outlaw would be more like, just a sociopath moving through life trying to get what they think they have coming to them.

By parkthekarma — On Jul 05, 2011

@w00dchuck41 - You're definitely right about that. The "famous" outlaws in America's past have definitely been romanticized to the point of ridiculousness. Some of them were downright evil.

And, you have TV shows and movies where the bad guy is really cast as the hero, even though they do horrible things. I think Tony Soprano is a really good example of this. He is portrayed as a very sympathetic character much of the time, while he wantonly steals, kills, beats people up, cheats on his wife, and anything else he can think of that is antisocial.

Maybe it is just escapism for the viewer. You know you would never want to be around someone like this in real life, but it's kind of like riding a roller coaster. You know you aren't going to fall off the thing, the designers would never make it like that, but for a minute it feels like you are going to fall off. And we like that.

By BigManCar — On Jul 04, 2011

@Crispety - Of course, old Whitey had have of Boston's law enforcement on the payroll, at all levels. And he was an FBI informant himself for years, so he was protected from capture by them.

Still, he did quite a job of hiding for so many years. But they finally caught him, like they usually do.

By Crispety — On Jul 04, 2011

I remember not too long ago they finally apprehended Whitey Bulger who was mobster that allegedly killed over twenty people and was also tied to some bank robberies. It took sixteen years to finally catch him.

I was reading in the paper that he lived in Santa Monica in a rent controlled apartment, but authorities were able to seize about $800,000 in cash from his apartment. I just can’t believe that he was walking around the streets of Los Angeles and he was not caught until now. His neighbors were even shocked when they found out about his past.

By aishia — On Jul 04, 2011

@gimbell - I think fictional outlaws and real life outlaws have had the line between them blurred over time as people lose touch with what actual Wild West outlaws were. Let's face it, real outlaws were nasty people -- they liked to rob people, kill whole wagon loads of travelers, shoot men and do worse to the women, and they had bounties on their heads because violence was part of life back then even for the "good guys".

Real-life outlaws by classic definition have been replaced by more intelligent, methodical criminals. Cowboy outlaws died with the Old West, and the closest things we can find to biker gangs are typically a bunch of bikers in a club being perfectly peaceful and law-abiding (well, maybe a bit of speeding) while cruising around looking tough in their outlaw leather vests.

Not that I'm complaining -- less violence and less outlaws is good for everybody. I think the romanticized outlaws that people love are actually just antiheroes, because every time an outlaw character becomes popular it is because he is fighting against government injustice for the good of the average people -- so many Robin Hoods.

By hanley79 — On Jul 04, 2011

@w00dchuck41 - I agree, real-life outlaws were usually just low-lifes. I've only seen a few episodes of Brisco County, Jr. (Westerns have never really been my thing, even though I'm a fan of Bruce Campbell), but from what I saw I understand what you're referring to.

The outlaws in the episodes that I saw were pretty much the image of backwater hicks that people stereotype nowadays -- greasy, uncoordinated, buck-toothed and potentially inbred. (No offense to any actual backwater hicks -- it's a stereotype those always like their extremes, right?)

I'll bet most outlaws in the actual Old West were either too stupid to do much else, or too violent not to kill people and end up on the run. There was a lot of mental instability back then, especially since towns were so far apart and people felt so isolated that they went stir-crazy. I wonder if there were higher instances of outlaws in more isolated places also because there were less Sheriffs?

By SkittisH — On Jul 03, 2011

@gimbell - You know, you've got a good point. In fiction, outlaws that you follow around in a story tend to be two things. They're either the really evil, ruthless bad guy (who in Westerns is often insane, too), or they're the anti-hero who is blamed for a crime he didn't actually commit, but who has such a bad reputation that everybody easily believes the charges.

How many stories have we seen that theme in? In Star Wars, Han Solo is a smuggler, but the "law" around there is the Empire, which are actually the bad guys, so we root for Han. In Robin Hood, Robin is an outlaw -- but he gives what he steals to the poor, and once again the authority figure is crooked and evil, so it's okay.

Another example I can think of is The Mariner in the movie Waterworld, who scares both the "good guys" and "bad guys" alike. The Mariner gets locked up by the "good guys", but he ends up saving everybody in the end.

Last but not least, we have the A-team. The A-team literally goes to jail for the crime they're blamed for, then breaks out, but they're the heroes since they're fighting for good causes despite their law-breaking and refusal to obey the government and police authorities.

By w00dchuck41 — On Jul 02, 2011

Outlaws have been romanticized so much that people barely know who real outlaws are, in my opinion. Outlaws weren't the swaggering gentlemen that Hollywood like to show in movies -- they were outlaw cowboys. Gunslingers, gamblers, cheaters and mercenaries. They did whatever the highest bidder asked them to.

I think one of the more accurate depictions of outlaws in Hollywood are in the old Bruce Campbell series "Brisco Country Junior." I know that Campbell makes some horrible movies, but that series actually made outlaws out to be what they were -- crooks that got a deal where ever them could.

By gimbell — On Jul 01, 2011

@hamje32 - I agree -- the Outlaw motif and popular image is still very much alive. Outlaw cowboys and outlaw bikers in pop culture always struck me as popular because they're fighting against something that the average person may also consider "out to get them" sometimes: the law.

Have you noticed that most outlaw cowboy and biker movies tend to portray the cops as crooked or misunderstanding the outlaw's reputation and thinking he committed a crime that he didn't actually commit?

The outlaw motif, in order to actually make the viewer or reader sympathetic to the protagonist and to make them relate to him, relies heavily on the theme of the underdog. Everything is against the outlaw -- the cops or sheriff think he's the bad guy, the real bad guys (or worse bad guys, as many outlaw characters are petty criminals) are out to get him, and nobody wants to trust him.

He's the underdog fighting the big, overwhelming enemy -- and when viewers see him come out on top and set his record straight, they feel for a moment like the world could right itself and justice is still out there. So, the outlaw makes people feel more like real justice can be served. ironic, huh?

By hamje32 — On Jul 01, 2011

@Charred - I think that the outlaw legend and motif lives on today, even if the original Western character no longer exists. You can see this today in so many commercial products that exploit the idea.

Where we live we even have a popular motorcycle club, Outlaws MC (Outlaw Motorcycle Club). It’s like a fraternity of motorcycle riders with a history going back to the time of World War II.

Every now and then I see them stream through our streets in bike motorcades, hulky men in leather jackets with outlaw tattoos and bikes that rumble loudly. Everyone needs a hobby I guess.

By Charred — On Jul 01, 2011

I think that in Western films the outlaw cowboy character is pretty much a staple, the bad guy in the film who robbed banks or trains just like they did in the old days. One of the most notable of these bad guys was Jesse James.

Jesse James earned his reputation during the time of the Civil War where he committed violent acts against Union soldiers. James robbed banks as well, committed murder and was leader of a vicious gang.

I’d like to point out a misconception about James however. In modern remakes the James outlaw character is portrayed as some kind of Robin Hood who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.

There is nothing in the historical record to back this up however. This guy was just mean through and through.

By nony — On Jun 30, 2011

I think one of the challenges in apprehending people who are outlaws – or fugitives nowadays – is if they flee to another country. They basically become subject to the laws of that country. It’s a bit easier I think if we have extradition treaties with the country that they escape to however.

For example, if they flee to someplace in Europe we can put out a call for their arrest and INTERPOL or some other international agency can serve a similar warrant, so that the suspect is not really safe in any European country.

Still, there are a few loops he can jump through to evade capture and ultimately he can just flee to some other nation where we don’t have an extradition treaty.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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