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Folk Heroes and Folk Devils: The Janus Face of the Robber in Popular Culture

Summary and Keywords

In this study of how the street robber has been positioned in popular culture, two starkly opposite views are presented on how this figure has been represented: namely, as folk devil and as folk hero. This relatively low-level criminal is involved in criminal activity that delivers low rewards and that is largely inflicted on other poor people. As a result, this robber is on the one hand represented as evil incarnate, a folk devil imagined as posing an existential threat to society and its values. On the other hand, the robber can be positioned as an audacious folk hero, a champion of the downtrodden. This positioning is explored by tracing the changing characterization of the robber over time: notably, the heroic representation of the outlaw in medieval culture, the myths that surrounded the highwaymen of the 18th century, and a more demonic representation by the 19th century, a representation that continues to the present day. While it is no longer possible to conceive of robbers today as folk heroes, many attributes of the heroic robber are still celebrated in popular culture in detective fiction and in RAP music.

Keywords: robbery, outlaws, moral panics, folk devils, folk heroes


Over time and in most societies, robbers1 of various kinds have plied their trade. The business in which they trade, predominantly robbery, is violent and in a sense mundane and banal (Blok, 2001). Its modus operandi does not change significantly over time (even if the name of the bandit does). Usually, a victim’s possessions are removed through the threat or application of violence in a street context (Hallsworth, 2005). Victims come from all walks of life, and the proceeds of this crime are minimal when compared to more sophisticated and lucrative forms of crime. Given that the offenses robbers commit rarely extend beyond removing wallets from their victims, street crime does not appear at first sight to be the kind of offense that might justify constructing the robber as a “folk devil” functioning as a key public enemy. Yet, periodically, the robber has found himself positioned as such. Given that street crime at face value lacks anything that appears remotely romantic or praiseworthy, it is difficult to imagine how robbers could ever be constructed as folk heroes. Paradoxically, however, they have been considered in this light as well and in many societies. Indeed, the very folk myths out of which law and order societies like the United Kingdom or the United States are founded abound with romantic stories of robbers and their deeds.

This strange paradox about robbers and robbery may be investigated by attending to its Janus face. On one hand, low-level predatory criminals can find themselves elevated to the status of what, following Cohen, might be termed “folk devils”—that is, evil outsiders posing an existential threat to society (Cohen, 1980). On the other hand, the self-same public enemies can also be reconstructed as folk heroes.

To dissect the strange and ambivalent relationship between robbers and the citizens they prey upon, however, requires recognizing very clearly and from the outset that what robbers do and the way they are discursively represented in popular culture are two very different things. It also entails understanding why unwanted and predatory acts such as robbery perpetrated by predatory beings like robbers can be read in diametrically opposing terms. In both cases, the robber and the act of robbery can be constructed in ways that exaggerate certain qualities of both the person and the act, while simultaneously avoiding or negating other traits. The robber positioned as villain incarnate can be made to epitomize everything that is wrong with the society they prey upon; at the same time, the robber can be periodically elevated as hero embodying the very qualities a society values.

On Robbery

It is important first to reflect on what it is that robbers actually do. As an offense, robbery involves the forcible acquisition of goods from victims in a public setting. Perpetrators either individually—but often in groups—use violence or the threat of violence to separate victims from their possessions (Deakin et al., 2007; Hallsworth, 2005; Wright et al., 2006). They may verbally threaten their victims, outnumber the victims, and may often be armed. It is the threat of overwhelming force that invariably leaves most victims with little option but to hand over their goods. That said, other tactics can also on occasion be deployed. Pickpockets remove goods from victims without the victims recognizing they have been robbed, while other robbers may snatch goods from victims and run off. Traditionally, robbers would steal - money, but other possessions such as clothes and shoes could also be taken. Today, mobile phones are often the object of choice for many street robbers.

In many respects, street robbery falls into the category of primitive accumulation because that defines the type of crime it is. It does not require elaborate skills to threaten someone or to run off with their goods, though pickpocketing does require a modicum of ability. The returns are not significant when compared, for example, with various forms of fraud or white-collar crime. True enough, it is not a risk-free act, and you have to demonstrate a certain degree of courage to undertake it successfully. And to succeed, it is not just enough to be able to simply threaten someone with overwhelming force; you have to demonstrate an ability to use force if it is so required. Societies like the United Kingdom, the United States, and most other societies take a pretty dim view of robbery and the robbers who perpetrate it, and the punishments meted out to them can be severe.

Although victims might include the population of the rich, the glamorous, and the well to do, the truth of the matter is that most victims will almost certainly belong to the same social class as the perpetrators. In robbery, poor people overwhelmingly victimize other poor working-class people. As Jock Young notes:

Street crime is the only form of serious crime where the victim is in the same social category as the offender. It is lower working class against lower working class, black against black and neighbour against neighbour. Much of it represents the ultimate in anti-social behaviour and unites all sections of the population against a common enemy.

(Young, 1979, p. 21)

It is worth noting the phenomenological aspects of robbery as well before examining how and why this act, and those who perpetrate it, can be elevated to become something more heroic than they arguably are. Its impact on a victim can be traumatic. It is not only about having your goods stolen; it is an act based on a profound violation of the self. If violence is mobilized, serious injuries can be caused. Robbery, however, also leaves its victims frightened and anxious. In addition, the effects last for a long time after the event.

One obvious conclusion that can be drawn from this brief interrogation into the reality of street robbery is that it is not a glamorous act or one that possesses any romantic elements at all. Indeed, it is an act that appears to be nothing but a violent exercise in predatory machismo perpetrated by very unpleasant people.

Construed this way, it might appear obvious why good citizens might well experience a longstanding, deep-seated revulsion toward robbers. The reality of robbery might well explain at least one side of the Janus face of the bandit positioned, in Cohen’s terms, as a “folk devil” or, in Nils Christie’s terms, as “a suitable enemy,” an enemy whose construction no reasonable person could disagree with (Christie, 2001). Even in this respect, however, things are by no means as clear cut as they might otherwise appear to be. The fears and anxieties street robbers induce are not simply mirror images of a mundane, if brutal, street reality reproduced in street settings. Public fears about robbers, as will shortly be established, can at times exceed the threats bandits realistically pose. To understand why, however, the focus should be moved away from street realities toward how robbers become discursively reconstructed as folk devils.

The Robber as Folk Devil

There are good empirical reasons why robbers might be feared by the public. In areas where street crime is high, it is also evident why the activities of robbers might provoke significant police and media attention. At times, however, the social response to robbery is not a direct reflection of the reality of the crime but takes on a far more disproportionate response. In such cases, the robber can be said to possess a range of monstrous qualities in which the threats they pose are amplified and they take on the trappings of a folk devil positioned as an existential threat to the well-being of society itself.

Viewing the historical record and using England as a case study reveal a society in which the robber in his (and very rarely her) various incarnations always posed a perennial threat to honest citizens. During the medieval period, “outlaws” (as they were then known) preyed upon those who traveled between the medieval towns (Seal, 1996; Spraggs, 2001). Indeed, Chaucer’s medieval pilgrims banded together and armed themselves because of real threats they faced on the road (Chaucer, 1997). William Harisson, a commentator on travel in early-16th-century England, describes the extensive preparations that the traveling public had to take during this period to avoid robbery.

[T]he honest traveller is now inforced to ride with a case of dags at his sadle bow, or with some pretie short snapper, whereby he may deale with them further off in his owne defense, before he come within the danger of these weapons. Finallie, no man trauelleth by the waie without his sword, or some such weapon, with us except the minister, who commonlie weareth none at all, vnlesse it be a dagger or hanger at his side.

(Harrison quoted in Spraggs, 2001)

By the 18th century, the roads linking the developing industrial cities had become more peaceful (Porter, 1982). The growth of the urban industrial city with its squalor and concentrated poverty, however, provided new opportunities for new classes of urban robbers. And if England always had an ambivalent relationship with its robbers, it is really from the 19th century onward that the robber began to take on the trappings of a fully fledged folk devil—a monster devoid of any quality that the public could identify with and associated with qualities every right-thinking person should fear.

The figure of Bill Sykes in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist created the mold for depicting the robber as inhuman villain (Dickens, 1994). In this novel, Dickens presents Sykes in such a way as not to allow any room for empathy. He is simply a vicious, violent, predatory man utterly devoid of morality. This is what separates Sykes from, for example, the Artful Dodger, who in his own way exemplifies many of the traits of robber as hero. Dickens was of course writing at a time of profound industrial change. The London he describes in the novel was a deeply segregated city. And poverty within it was concentrated into “no go” zones, or “rookeries” as they were then popularly known. In his description of life in St. Giles, Edward Walton, a contemporary commentator, accurately captures the fear that such areas induced in the mind of the bourgeoisie: “None else have any business here and if they had they would find it to their interest to get out of it as soon as possible” (Walton, quoted in Ackroyd, 2001, p. 213). This is a sentiment that would be widely reported by a growing army of urban missionaries who, by the Victorian age, found themselves simultaneously drawn toward and repelled by the squalor of life in London’s poorest areas.

Although the brutal reality of street crime in the industrial city was a powerful motive that can help explain the demonization of the robber, the way the figure of the robber began to be mediated in the wider mass media by a growing army of domestic missionaries also worked to amplify these fears. Representations of the industrial city produced during this period suggest that, as far as the bourgeoisie were concerned, dark satanic forces were at play in urban development. This perception was articulated in various evocations of the metropolis as a space of corruption in which crime and vice in all its forms would thrive. Henry Fielding, for example, believed that the urban fabric itself was in some ominous respect deeply criminogenic.

Who so ever indeed considers the cities of London and Westminster, with the late vast Addition of their suburbs, the great Irregularity of their Buildings, the immense number of Lanes, Alleys, Courts, and Bye-places must think that, had they been intended for the very Purpose of Concealment, they could scarce have been better contrived. Upon such a View, the whole appears as a vast Wood or Forest, in which a Thief may harbour with as great Security, as Wild Beasts do in the Deserts of Africa or Arabia.

(Fielding, 1988)

Not only could the evolving metropolis be considered a jungle in which dark forces could gather and disappear with ease, it was also a space in which the possibility of redemption was subverted by the ease with which evil habits could be so readily disseminated among the “undeserving” and feckless poor. Urban commentators found themselves staring into the very abyss of human nature:

There is a youthful population in the Metropolis devoted to crime, trained to it from infancy, adhering to it from Education and Circumstances, whose connections prevent the possibility of reformation, and whom no Punishment can deter; a race “sui generis,” different from the rest of Society, not only in thoughts, habits and manners, but even in appearance.

(Miles, 1839; cited in Shore, 1999a, p. 46

Thomas Begg expressed a similar sentiment. Writing in 1849, Begg found himself observing a race of people who were in every shape and form made essentially different by virtue of the depraved conditions in which they lived.

A large part of the population were found to be grovelling in the veriest debasement, yielding obedience only to the animal instincts; brooding in spiritual darkness in a day of gospel light, and much shut off from participation in the blessings of Christian privilege as if they had been the inhabitants of another hemisphere.

(Beggs, 1849, cited in Shore, 1999a, p. 56)

The positivism of academics such as Lombroso, whose inquiries led him to conclude that the criminal was simply an atavistic throwback to a pre-evolutionary period, dignified these widely distributed gothic fantasies about subhumans existing in the dark heart of the industrial metropolis with the gloss of scientific respectability (Horn, 2003; Knepper & Ystehede, 2012). What these representations accomplished, particularly when mediated by an expanding popular press, was a representation of the robber as the faceless product of a depraved class of subhuman individuals, devoid of morality, untouched by civilization, and driven to crime by primitive instincts. From this representation of the robber, it would take little to persuade the Victorian audience that the bandits in their midst posed a real and developing threat to public order. Davis explored this phenomenon in her examination of what she identified as a moral panic that surfaced in the 1840s to 1860s in London in response to a perceived epidemic of ‘garotting’ (Davis, 1980).

“Garotting” was a mode of attack perpetrated by certain “Rampsmen.” It involved literally grabbing a victim by the neck prior to separating him from his goods. By the 1840s, in the face of sustained media coverage, the public was introduced to a representation of a new form of crime that was quite literally running out of control. In the Cornhill Magazine in 1863, an editorial read: “Once more the streets of London are unsafe by day or by night. The public dread has become almost a panic.” In the ensuing crackdown, those found guilty were either flogged or hung.2

In many respects, the Victorian demonization of the robber would establish the template by and through which robbers would continue to be mediated in popular culture through the 20th century: namely, as a faceless predator, devoid of moral sentiment, an enemy of the people.

Like the portrayals of other folk devils, the depiction of the robber in relation to the public has moved through a number of phases. For the most part, robbery continues as a taken-for-granted but unremarked phenomenon, rarely reported in the mass media. In effect, the robber is a perennial reality in poor areas. Periodically, however, as with the case of garotting in Victorian England, robbery is rediscovered, and the perpetrators can find themselves elevated to the status of a public enemy. During such periods, the robber comes to embody and personify, quite literally, an existential threat to the well-being of society.

Policing the Crisis, Mugging, the State, Law and Order, written by Stuart Hall, Charles Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, and Brian Roberts of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, provides the single most detailed account exemplifying this threat. Their analysis centered on the social reaction to what the media were describing as an escalating street crime pandemic in England during the period 1970–1972 (Hall et al., 1978).

Hall et al. begin with an examination and then a critical demolition of the evidential basis that the media used to justify the selective and sensational attention they gave to street crime during this period. The newsworthiness of street crime, they argued, could not be explained in terms of a sharp and unexpected rise in this category of crime because the empirical evidence simply did not support this interpretation. Street crime, they argued, was an old offense whose rate and incidence had not changed significantly over time during the 20th century. Nor could media and political interest in street crime be explained in terms of an old crime now being perpetrated in new ways. The expression “mugging,” which the media quickly adopted to describe street crime during this period, was not, Hall et al. contended, a statutory offense. Far from describing a new offense or offender, the term appeared simply to be a new label imposed to classify an existing array of offenses. As a consequence, the public and, in particular, the media’s response to street crime did not appear to be warranted by the reality.

In their attempt to make sense of the sensational reporting street robbery received in the media, Hall et al. drew upon a concept first developed by Stan Cohen in his influential study of the social response to Mods and Rockers in the 1960s (Cohen, 1980). What the media had generated, they argued, was a “moral panic.”

When the official reaction to a person, groups of persons, or series of events is out of all proportion to the actual threat offered, when “experts” in the form of police chiefs, the judiciary, politicians, and editors perceive the threat in all but identical terms and appear to talk with one voice of rates, diagnosis, prognosis, and solutions, when the media representations universally stress “sudden and dramatic” increases (in numbers involved or events) and “novelty” above and beyond what a sober, realistic appraisal could sustain, then it is appropriate to speak of the beginnings of a moral panic (Hall et al., 1978, p. 16).

What Hall et al. then sought to explain was how and why this moral panic centering on “mugging” had appeared when the facts about “mugging” did not by “sober realistic appraisal” justify the attention it had received. As empirical facts about street robbery could not provide them with an answer to this question, their focus shifted toward accounting for the social response itself. Instead of looking at the deviant act—the conventional focus of criminological inquiry—they instead zeroed in on studying “the relation between the deviant act and the reaction of the public and control agencies to the act” (Hall et al., 1978, p. 16).

To accomplish this task, they began by assiduously studying the genesis of the moral panic, paying particular attention to the way in which the mugging label came into popular usage during this period. As their research demonstrated, prior to the 1970s, the term “mugging” had no history of use in the United Kingdom. It was, however, a term routinely deployed by commentators in the United States to describe street robbery. What the British media had done, Hall et al. argued, was to adopt this term and import it wholesale to describe what they then claimed was in the process of happening on Britain’s inner-city streets.

What was imported, however, was far more than a new description of an old offense. Being appropriated in this American import was a label to which an assemblage of already existing references and associations were attached. Thus, the mugging label already came contextualized and “racialized” when the British media began to apply it in a “scene setting” manner to help explain events in the British context. As Hall et al. note:

“Mugging” comes to Britain first as an American phenomenon, but fully thematised and contextualised. It is embedded in a number of linked frames: the race conflict, the urban crisis, rising crime, the breakdown of law and order; the liberal conspiracy and the white backlash. It is no mere fact about crime that is reported. It connotes a whole historical construction about the nature and dilemmas of American society.

(Hall et al., 1978, p. 26)

When the British media began to use the term “mugging” to define what they claimed was happening on the streets of Britain, they did so against a background characterized by economic decline, and not least the breakdown of the postwar welfare state settlement. It was at this moment that the black community, already one of the poorest and most economically marginalized populations in British society, found itself singled out for special treatment. This revealed itself, Hall et al. argued, in a movement that would see black communities in general and young black males in particular subject to an undeclared urban war by the police, the active agents of a deeply repressive and racist state.

By the time the moral panic over rising street crime had begun, Hall et al. maintained, this urban war was already well under way. Young black males were already finding themselves subjected to racialized targeting by the police; while the areas in which they lived were subject to highly intensive and coercive policing. It is in this context that an articulation between police activity, media coverage, and crime activity on the streets began to be forged. Robbers provided the facts; well-reported police arrests confirmed them; and both street crime and the response to it provided a context that the media then began to interpret by reference to the mugging label it had imported from the United States.

In this process of othering, the street robber came to connote something beyond itself. The robber moved from being considered a real and tangible threat to particular victims in a street context and became reconstructed instead as a malignant alien threat that jeopardized not only the innocent white society but the British way of life, a folk devil incarnate. In effect, a monster epitomizing everything the white victimized society lived in fear of: alien invasions, a deepening urban crisis, the decline of British civilization. The reality of street crime, and not least young black young men’s participation, confirmed the plausibility of this narrative. This reconstruction would also justify what would become a draconian judicial crackdown by the government and enforcement agencies that had been granted exceptional powers to suppress this violent assault on the good society.

The Robber as Folk Hero

Given that robbery is a violent predatory act and given that bandits of various forms can lend themselves well to become reconstructed as public enemies, at face value, it would appear odd to imagine that a hero could be constructed from such problematic material. But over time and in many societies, some robbers do indeed often appear as public heroes. Let us now consider how and why this transformation occurs.

Consider three contemporary societies: those of England, Australia, and the United States. Taken at face value, these societies define themselves by the fact that they are all freedom-loving societies in which the rule of law prevails. By and large, these societies also expend considerable resources on their enforcement agencies. Interestingly, however, the founding myths out of which all three are built are replete with heroic myths of bandits, however they are named: outlaws, robbers, or gangsters. This fascination with robbers has continued over centuries, and even today, the figure of the outlaw as hero remains a potent and powerful motif in popular culture. Before establishing why a predatory figure could paradoxically assume such heroic status, a brief look at the historical record is in order, beginning with England and then showing how the myth of the heroic robber migrated to societies such as Australia and the United States.

Everyone knows about Robin Hood, and most people will know something about his band of merry men and the heroic tales that surround them. Leaving aside the many books that have been written about Robin Hood, this particular myth in which a robber plays the role of folk hero has long provided a staple diet for Hollywood. What is known of Robin Hood begins in the romances of the 11th and 12th centuries where he appears as a heroic freeman whose status as hero was built around the audacious robberies that he allegedly committed. It wasn’t until the 15th century that he was appropriated by the aristocracy (historically, he was a yeoman); it was also during this period that he became celebrated for fighting injustice by robbing from the rich to give to the poor (Seal, 1996; Spraggs, 2001). Nor was his legend an altogether original one; for it actually appeared to draw for inspiration on a range of other myths about notorious robbers and bandits, including the Anglo-Norman romance of Fouke le Fitz Waryn and the Tale of Gamelyn.

England’s fascination with the heroic outlaw did not end with Robin Hood. By the 16th century, an entire genre of “cony catching” literature was being published, feeding off and playing to the public’s fascination with rogues, vagabonds, and other violent masterless men. In 1552, for example, Gilbert Walker wrote the pamphlet A Manifest Detection of Dice Play, and in 1561 John Audrey wrote The Fraternity of Vagabonds. This genre served up a representation of what was presented as an organized underworld populated by an exotic gallery of rogues whose lives the authors claimed to have some intimate knowledge and understanding of (Twyning, 2000). This popular literature continued in the 18th century in publications such as the Newgate Calendar (Birkett, 1992), along with a range of other pamphlets produced and circulated about notorious highwaymen in the 17th and 18th centuries. These works insured that, despite the real dangers they posed, they nevertheless retained a more heroic than demonic face.

By the 16th century, the term “outlaw” (meaning literally someone who lived beyond the reach of the law) may well have fallen into disuse, but public fascination with the robber would continue in a range of myths and legends that arose around the figure of the heroic highwayman.

Dick Turpin remains far and away the most famous of the highwaymen of the 18th century, but his fame was largely derived from the exploits of memorable highwaymen who preceded him and who engaged in the very acts for which he would subsequently be remembered. This cast of rogues would include Gamaliel Ratsey, Captain James Hind, and Claude De Vall (Seal, 1996).

The highwayman did not, of course, suddenly appear out of nowhere, perpetrating new crimes or old crimes in new ways. The term simply marks a semantic change: an attempt to rethink an old villain in a way that would appeal to whoever the contemporary audience happened to be. The term was also only one among many others that could also be observed in popular parlance between the 16th and the 18th centuries. In this sense, the highwayman could also appear as a “High Toby” or a “Knight of the Road.” The term “highwayman” was cemented into historical consciousness because it was an expression that became synonymous with the activities of a procession of famous robbers whose notoriety derived both from their exploits and from the way these exploits were subsequently mediated in literary form.

While it is difficult to identify any one person responsible for setting in motion the cult of the highwayman, it is with Gamaliel Ratsey, a gentleman soldier of the early 17th century and Captain James Hind, that the myths of the highwayman began to assume the form that would persist for the next 200 years (Spraggs, 2001).

Ratsey was hanged in 1605, having committed a number of notorious robberies, after which his life became the subject of a number of popular stories. These stories, as Spraggs observes, would ultimately assume the status of models around which later stories, subsequently attributed to other highwaymen, would coalesce.

When these highwayman narratives are considered in the round, they appear to condense around a few common themes, which also helps explain why the robber could also be construed in a more heroic light. In the first instance, these narratives converge on the figure of a man (and very occasionally a woman) who is forced to make a living by robbery, often as a consequence of a personal injustice. Having taken to a life of robbery, however, the highwayman undertakes the trade with honor, decency, and, not least, a sense of good humor. Though capable of using violence, the highwayman generally seeks to avoid using it; indeed, his repugnance at using violence unnecessarily renders him as both folk hero and gentleman. While many of the highwayman’s victims are indeed innocent, some are not, and by virtue of this fact their victimization is implicitly justified. Highwaymen are invariably generous to the poor and chivalrous to women. What gives their stories a sense of pathos is that a tragic moral destiny invariably awaits them. They can avoid the forces of law and order for a time (and their notorious capacity to avoid capture remains a core feature of the highwayman legend), but the law cannot be circumvented forever. The king’s justice will be done and, importantly, must be seen to be done. Inevitably, the hero is caught, found guilty, and sentenced to death. The myths invariably conclude with the hero facing execution with equanimity and dignity, leaving his mortal coil well respected and loved by all (Hallsworth, 2005).

The life of Claude Duval, a French highwayman who plied his trade in England during the 17th century, well exemplifies the narrative (Sugden and Philip, 2015; Sugden, 2017). Duval’s most famous exploit, immortalized by Walter Pope in 1670, centered on an occasion when he was alleged to have held up a coach containing a nobleman and his lady. Knowing that escape was impossible but not wishing to appear frightened, the lady began to play upon a flageolet. According to legend, Duval took out his own and began to accompany her. Having concluded their duet, Duval is then said to have complemented the nobleman on his wife’s ability and then observed that he suspected she could no doubt dance as well as she played. Having danced with her on the heath, Duval then escorted her back to the carriage where he then remarked to the noble that he had failed to pay for his entertainment. In recompense the highwayman stole 400 pounds.

While the story is perhaps unlikely, what we do know about Duval is that when he was eventually caught and tried at Newgate. King Charles II attempted to save him but to no avail. He was executed at Tyburn on June 21, 1670, in front of a sympathetic crowd. He was subsequently buried at St. Giles, where his epitaph reads as follows.

  • Here lies Du Vall, Reader, if male thou art,
  • Look to thy purse. If female, to thy heart.
  • Much havoc has he made of both; for all
  • Men he made to stand, and women he made to fall

In his study of the historical role of the robber/bandit, Eric Hobsbawn drew attention to the quasi-political role the robber played in premodern societies (Hobsbawn, 2000; see also Linebaugh, 2006). In such societies, poverty was the lived reality for the overwhelming majority of the people. Class divisions were sharply exposed, exploitation and injustice were clearly evident, and the rule of law was applied savagely in the interests of the ruling class. The figure of the robber as hero, Hobsbawn argued, grew from the fact that he not only took on the forces of law and order which he would heroically outwit, but in so doing he also challenged the manifest injustice of the societies in which he operated. In effect, robbery perpetrated against the wealthy was part of class warfare and was recognized as such by the poor. This constituted the robber/bandit’s political role, and it was one with which the wider public could empathize. With the coming of the modern industrial age, Hobsbawn argued that this perception changed. With the formation of an urban proletariat and, not least, working-class political parties and unions, the historic and quasi-political role the bandit had played as hero would end. Increasingly, the bandit would be construed as predatory enemy—in effect an enemy of his class of origin.

As the foregoing shows, throughout the ages, the robber has been constructed in very different ways. On one hand, there is the longstanding history of popular representations in which the robber appears as folk hero, a champion of the poor, and a figure whose audacious exploits become the stuff of legend. In the English case study presented here, this genealogy can be traced from the myths of Robin Hood through to the legends of the highwayman of the 18th century popularized in cony catching literature. Through imperialism, the myth of noble robber traveled from England’s green and pleasant land and became transplanted to places like the United States and Australia where it became part of the founding myths of these frontier and outback societies. This history would include the myths and legends that surrounded the Australian bushranger Ned Kelly, who together with his gang was eventually shot by the British colonialists in 1880 (Terry, 2012; Meredith & Scott, 1980; Molony, 2001); and the myths that surrounded outlaws such as Jesse James (Dyer, 1994; Koblas, 2001; Wellman, 1986) and Bonnie and Clyde in the United States, also executed (eventually) by American law enforcement agencies (Burrough, 2004; Knight & Davis, 2003).

All these cases once again feature people whose lives are typically nasty, brutish, and short but which are redeemed because they represent, or perhaps, more accurately, are represented in popular culture as embodying traits that allow for vicarious identification by a mass public. At the most general, the literary representations present outlaw figures with anti-establishment credentials, who kick back at the system that oppresses them and who live precarious lives on the edge. Like all heroic robbers, they are free, masterless men who live beyond the reach of the law until, that is, it finds them, where they end up paying the ultimate price.

Is it possible today, in the 21st century, to construct robbers as anything other than a faceless enemy? Or is Hobsbawn correct in arguing that the days of the heroic bandit robber have now passed?

Robbery and Popular Culture Today

In 2002, England found itself reeling from yet another installment of street robbery fever. The mugger during this period had returned (now renamed “Jacker”) and commanded headline news for a period of around two years. This had some trappings of a moral panic with the tropes of exaggeration and distortion that typically accompany them (see Goode, 2009) but attention was also high because street crime was indeed rising in the very period when many other forms of crime (like auto theft) were in decline (Hallsworth, 2005). Fueling this crime wave was an epidemic of thefts of mobile phones, which more and more young people began to carry during this period, thus creating a population of suitable victims on which a growing constituency of young disadvantaged young men began to prey. As with the moral panic of the 1970s, the mugger during this period was presented as a folk devil incarnate, an existential threat to the British way of life. By 2005, this folk devil had disappeared as an object of public interest. The press stopped talking about him, and street robbery slipped out of the issue attention cycle, even though quite a lot of it continued. As with the moral panic documented by Hall et al., during this period the robber was represented simply as a faceless menace, an enemy of society, shorn of anything that made him or his acts appear human, let alone justified.

When robbery next appeared on the British media spectrum, it was in 2011 following the worst outbreak of riots in postwar British history. Far from being seen as an act of resistance on the part of the excluded (which was the traditional left view; see Hobsbawn, 1959), these riots were understood and pretty much written off by the left (and everyone else) as events characterized by the mass looting that accompanied them (see Tredwell et al., 2012; Žižek, 2011). Looting was perpetrated by what the eminent sociologist Zygman Bauman would go on to identify as the “flawed consumers” of late modernity, a precariat totally colonized by the cult of compulsory consumption around which contemporary neoliberal capitalism is organized; a precariat whose complete immersion into this cultural imperative left them with nowhere else to take their grievances but to the shopping malls, which they then looted (Bauman, 2011).

As was true of the mugging fears of 2002, it would appear that in the face of such a negative reception there is little discursive space in popular culture for understanding robbery or robbers as anything other than the sad, miserable acts of predatory criminals or “flawed” consumers. All of this begs the question as to whether it is possible to imagine popular culture today positioning robbers in any other terms in late-modern 21st-century times?

It is rather difficult to imagine the act of robbery being presented in anything other than negative terms today. It remains predominantly perceived, and with good reason, as a predatory act perpetrated by a faceless underclass that cannot elicit sympathy but rather only unreserved condemnation. Yet, in many respects, the personality traits that would once have elevated the robber to heroic status arguably still hold appeal. The public likes and remains attracted to the outlaw. They like masterless men. They sympathize with people who “kick back” and who mobilize violence as a currency, just as they sympathize with those who bend rules and live life on the edge to get what they want.

Consider, for example, the wider public reception of American hip-hop and the pivotal role that the figure of the urban street gangster plays within it (Krims, 2001). This has become quite literally the outlaw culture par excellence of late modern times, with a worldwide reach. It is a figure perhaps best epitomized by Tupac, along with other rappers such as the Notorious B.I.G., Dr Dre, Snoop Dog, and Easy E. Like the highwayman of old, within the hip-hop tradition are lawless figures who in the bars they spit, the clothing they wear, and the violent aesthetics they adopt are perceived to kick back at the system that oppresses them.

At the same time and paradoxically, rappers like Tupac also embody traits widely celebrated in American society more generally (Price, 2003). These are sovereign individuals owned by no man who also make fortunes through what they do. Like the earlier myths that surrounded Jesse James and Billy the Kid, rappers like Tupac also embody the spirit of the frontier. These are men who live by their wits, operating at the edge of the law and at odds with it; who operate across a lawless and lethal territory in which life is cheap and survival is by no means certain.

The television series Breaking Bad, whose hero is a downtrodden school teacher who turns to producing and selling crystal meth, also trades unreservedly on the iconography associated with heroic robber. Rather like the highwayman of old, the hero Walter White fights the injustice of an American society that commits his family to penury, who lives by his wits outsmarting the ever encroaching forces of law and order. He might not give anything to the poor (except the drugs he sells), but he is a true family man who will dare everything for their well-being.

Another constituency that has come to embody the heroic traits once associated with the heroic robber is the category of detectives who confront them—at least as these appear in fictive form. From the world of Clint Eastwood’s hard-bitten detective Dirty Harry in the 1970s to contemporary series such as True Detective, heroes emerge who are at the same time outsiders; who struggle with unjust regimes that they heroically outwit (the criminal justice system, corrupt politicians), while not being adverse to a bit of ultraviolence along the way. If the days of the heroic robber are dead, the spirit of the heroic robber still lives on, a timeless archetype whose appeal never fades.


The crimes that robbers typically perpetrate are relatively mundane and banal. As noted earlier, their craft rarely extends further than separating a victim from his or her possessions through the use or threat of force. Despite the fact that there is little that is remotely heroic about this way of living, once mediated through the prism of popular culture (as this is constituted in any age), the robber can find his or her exploits celebrated for their daring and audacity and the robber can be made to embody heroic traits: a masterless man who kicks back against injustice. Despite the banal nature of their crimes, robbers can find themselves represented as a public enemy incarnate, a folk devil positioned as posing an existential threat to society itself. While the robber as folk devil remains perhaps the most powerful representation found in popular culture today, it is nevertheless the case that many of the virtues once associated with the heroic outlaw robber are still celebrated, even if not necessarily associated with the figure of the robber.

Further Reading

There is considerable historical and criminological literature on bandits and highwayman throughout history. Good introductions include:

Briggs, J. (1996). Crime and punishment in England. London: UCL Press.Find this resource:

    Hobsbawn, E. (2000). Bandits. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.Find this resource:

      Seal, G. (1996). The outlaw legend: A cultural tradition in Britain, America and Australia. New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

        Sharpe, J. (2005). Dick Turpin: The myth of the English highwayman. London: Profile.Find this resource:

          Spraggs, G. (2001). Outlaws and highwaymen: The cult of the robber in England from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. London: Pimlico.Find this resource:

            For the literature on moral panics, see:

            Cohen, S. (1980). Folk devils and moral panics. London: Martin Robinson.Find this resource:

              Critcher, C. (2008). Moral panic analysis: Past, present and future. Sociology Compass, 2(4), 1127.Find this resource:

                Goode, E., & Ben-Yehuda, N. (2009). Moral panics: The social construction of deviance (2d ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

                  Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J., & Roberts, B. (1978). Policing the crisis, mugging, the state and law and order. London: Macmillan.Find this resource:

                    Pearce, J. M., & Charman, E. (2011). A social psychological approach to understanding moral panic. Crime, Media, Culture, 7(3), 293.Find this resource:

                      Young, J. (2009). Moral panic: Its origins in resistance, ressentiment and the translation of fantasy into reality. British Journal of Criminology, 49, 4–16.Find this resource:

                        For studies of street robbery see:

                        Hallsworth, S. (2005). Street crime. Collumpton, U.K.: Willan.Find this resource:

                          Pearson, G. (1983). Hooligan: A history of respectable fears. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

                            Wright, R., Brookman, F., & Bennett, T. (2006). The foreground dynamics of street robbery in Britain. British Journal of Criminology, 46, 1–15.Find this resource:


                              Ackroyd, P. (2001). London: The biography. London: Vintage.Find this resource:

                                Bauman, Z. (August 9, 2011). The London riots—On consumerism coming home to roost. Social Europe Journal.Find this resource:

                                  Beggs, T. (1849). Inquiry into the extent and causes of juvenile Depravity. Report for the Secretary of Healthy Towns Association.Find this resource:

                                    Birkett, N. (1992). The Newgate calendar, Vol. 1. London: Folio Society.Find this resource:

                                      Blok, A. (2001). Honour and violence. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.Find this resource:

                                        Breaking Bad. (2008–2013). Produced by Vince Gilligan. AMG Network.Find this resource:

                                          Briggs, J. (1996). Crime and punishment in England. London: UCL Press.Find this resource:

                                            Burrough, B. (2004). Public enemies. New York: Penguin.Find this resource:

                                              Chaucer, G. (1997). The Canterbury tales (Ed. G. McCaughreen). London: Puffin Classics.Find this resource:

                                                Christie, N. (2001). Det idealiska offret (The ideal victim). Det motspanstiga offret (The Defiant Victim) (pp. 46–60). Eds. M. Akerstrom and I. Sahlin. Lund: Studentlitteratur.Find this resource:

                                                  Cohen, S. (1980). Folk devils and moral panics. London: Martin Robinson.Find this resource:

                                                    Davis, J. (1980). The London garotting panic of 1862 and the creation of a criminal class in Victorian England. In V. Gatrell (Ed.), Crime and the law: The social history of crime in western Europe since 1500 (pp. 190–213). London: Europa.Find this resource:

                                                      Deakin, J., Smithson, H., & Spencer, J. (2007). Taxing on the streets: Understanding the methods and process of street robbery. Crime Prevention and Community Safety: An International Journal, 9, 52–67.Find this resource:

                                                        Dickens, C. (1994). Oliver Twist. London: Penguin. Originally published in 1837.Find this resource:

                                                          Dyer, R. (1994). Jesse James and the Civil War in Missouri. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press.Find this resource:

                                                            Fielding, H. (1988). An enquiry into the causes of the late increases of robbers, & with some proposals for remedying this growing evil (Ed. M. Zirkir). Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. Originally published in 1751.Find this resource:

                                                              Goode, E., & Ben-Yehuda, N. (2009). Moral panics: The social construction of deviance (2d ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

                                                                Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J., & Roberts, B. (1978). Policing the crisis, mugging, the state and law and order. London: Macmillan.Find this resource:

                                                                  Hallsworth, S., (2005). Street crime. Collumpton, U.K.: Willan.Find this resource:

                                                                    Hobsbawn, E. (2000). Bandits. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.Find this resource:

                                                                      Hobsbawn, E. J. (1959). Primitive rebels: Studies in archaic forms of social movement in the 19th and 20th centuries. New York: W. W. Norton.Find this resource:

                                                                        Horn, D. (2003). The criminal body: Lombroso and the anatomy of deviance. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                                                          King, P. (1987). Newspaper reporting, prosecution practice and perceptions of urban crime: The Colchester crime wave of 1765. Continuity and Change, 2, 423–454.Find this resource:

                                                                            Knepper, P., & Ystehede, P. J. (2012). The Cesare Lombroso handbook. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                                                              Knight, J., & Davis, J. (2003). Bonnie and Clyde: A twenty-first-century update. Austin, TX: Eakin Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                Koblas, J. (2001). Faithful Unto Death. Northfield, MN: Northfield Historical Society Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                  Krims, A. (2001). Rap music and the poetics of identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                    Linebaugh, P. (2006). The London hanged: Crime and civil society in the eighteenth century. London: Verso.Find this resource:

                                                                                      Meredith, J., & Scott, B. (1980). Ned Kelly: After a Century of Acrimony. Sydney: Lansdowne.Find this resource:

                                                                                        Molony, J. (2001). Ned Kelly. Carlton: Melbourne University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                          Miles, W. A. (Ed.). (1839). Poverty, mendacity and crime. London: Shaw.Find this resource:

                                                                                            Pearson, G. (1983). Hooligan: A history of respectable fears. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                                                                              Price, E. (2003). From thug life to legend: Realization of a black folk hero. Presentation given at Harvard University.Find this resource:

                                                                                                Porter, R. (1982). English society in the eighteenth century. Pelican Social History of Britain. New York: Penguin.Find this resource:

                                                                                                  Seal, G. (1996). The outlaw legend: A cultural tradition in Britain, America and Australia. New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                    Sharpe, J. (2005). Dick Turpin: The myth of the English highwayman. London: Profile.Find this resource:

                                                                                                      Shore, H. (1999a). Artful dodgers: Youth and crime in early nineteenth-century London. London: Boydell Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                        Shore, H. (1999b). Cross coves, buzzers and general sorts of prigs: Juvenile crime and the criminal ‘underworld’ in the early nineteenth century. British Journal of Criminology, 39, 10–24.Find this resource:

                                                                                                          Spraggs, G. (2001). Outlaws and highwaymen: The cult of the robber in England from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. London: Pimlico.Find this resource:

                                                                                                            Sugden, J. (2017). The merry dance of the highwayman. History Today, 67(3), 48–52.Find this resource:

                                                                                                              Sugden, J., & Philip, S. (2015). The thief of hearts: Claude Duval and the gentleman highwayman in fact and fiction. Arnside, Cumbria, U.K.: Forty Steps.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                Terry, P. (2012). The True Story of Ned Kelly’s Last Stand. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                  Treadwell, J., Briggs, D., Winlow, S., & Hall, S. (2012). Shopocalypse now: Consumer culture and the English riots of 2011. British Journal of Criminology, 53(1), 1–17.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                    True Detective, written and produced by Nic Pizalatto, HBO.

                                                                                                                    Twyning, J. (2000). Metropolitan literature; A companion to English and Renaissance literature (Ed. M. Hatheway). London: Blackwell.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                      Wellman, P. (1986). A Dynasty of Western Outlaws. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                        Wright, R., Brookman, F., & Bennett, T. (2006). The foreground dynamics of street robbery in Britain. British Journal of Criminology, 46, 1–15.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                          Young, J. (1979). Left idealism, reformism and beyond. In R. K. B. Fine, J. Lea, S. Picciotto, & J. Young, Capitalism and the rule of law (pp. 11–28). London: Hutchinson.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                            Žižek, S. (August 19, 2011). Shoplifters of the world unite. London Review of Books.Find this resource:


                                                                                                                              (1.) The generic term robber is used here but with the recognition that the term bandit or outlaw could just as well have been chosen. Bandits/robbers have also amassed a considerable number of other names over the centuries and in different societies. In the United Kingdom, they have also been known as outlaws, highwaymen, rampsmen, muggers, and, most recently, jackers.

                                                                                                                              (2.) For an examination of other Victorian moral panics around street crime, see G. Pearson (1983). Hooligan: A history of respectable fears (London: Routledge). For a consideration of an 18th-century predecessor in Chelsmford, see P. King (1987). Newspaper reporting, prosecution practice, and perceptions of urban crime: The Colchester crime wave of 1765. Continuity and Change, 2, 423–454.