The Romance of the Outlaw

“John Wesley Harding
Was a friend to the poor
He trav’led with a gun in ev’ry hand
All along this countryside
He opened a many a door
But he was never known
To hurt a honest man.”

“John Wesley Harding” by Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is a decorated Grammy, Golden Globe and Academy Award winner. He has been honored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But despite the likely unintentional misspelling, his song was intended to be a tribute to the Texas outlaw John Wesley Hardin. Throughout history, the outlaw has long been celebrated in literature, including the altruistic tales of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, the romantic accounts of the pirates who roamed the high seas and the tales of the outlaws of the American West such as Hardin. In contrast, a lawman like Sheriff Pat Garrett is often depicted as somewhat of a villain compared to the popular gunman he pursued, Billy the Kid.

Although the western genre has declined in popularity in recent years, just look at this partial listing of Hollywood films with “outlaw” in the title.

Outlaw (1908)
The Outlaw (1943)
The Outlaw and His Wife (1917)
The Outlaw and the Lady (1917)
Outlaw Blues (1977)
Outlaw Brand (1948)
The Outlaw Breaker (1926)
Outlaw Brother (1951)
Outlaw Country (1949)
The Outlaw Deputy (1935)
The Outlaw Dog (1927)
Outlaw Express (1938)
Outlaw Fury (1950)
Outlaw Gang (1949)
Outlaw Gold (1950)
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
Outlaw Justice (1998)
The Outlaw of Red River (1966)
Outlaw of the Plains (1946)
Outlaw Riders (1972)
Outlaw Roundup (1944)
Outlaw Rule (1936)
The Outlaw Stallion (1954)
The Outlaw Tamer (1934)
Outlaw Territory (1953)
Outlaw Trail (1944)
Outlaw Women (1952)
The Outlaw’s Bride (1915)
The Outlaw’s Daughter (1954)
Outlaw’s Highway (1934)
Outlaw’s Paradise (1939)
Outlaw’s Son (1957)
Outlawed Guns (1935)
The Outlaws (1984)
The Outlaws Is Coming (1965)
Outlaws of Sonora (1938)
Outlaws of Texas (1950)

This is not to mention the countless films with individual outlaws, real and fictional, named in their titles. There were of course many films with cowboy heroes, lawmen and singing cowboys, but the legendary outlaws will always be part of the myth of the American West.

The western outlaws would soon be followed in real life by Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who committed many crimes across the south, and gangsters like John Dillinger and Al Capone. Despite the fact that they were law breakers, the public followed their every move and anticipated their exploits. These accounts sold many newspapers, film tickets, songs and books.

The outlaws we have read about doubtless weren’t all bad, just as the lawmen were not all virtuous, rather they were complex individuals as we all are. We’ll try to give a balanced account of their lives in these pages.

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