Illustration by Burton Durand
My mother’s family had an outlaw. Stories about him varied depending on who was telling them and how intent that person was on preserving our collective respectability, but they all agreed on two points: he had actually escaped from prison using a file baked into a cake, and he had a perfectly good reason for his crimes. He was not a criminal, he was an outlaw. This distinction is an important one, and one of the most thought-provoking points raised in Keagan LeJeune’s collection of historical case studies, Legendary Louisiana Outlaws.
LeJeune, a professor at McNeese State University, has been collecting stories about outlaws and their exploits for over fifteen years. He argues that outlaws are born when a conflict arises between official laws and folk laws—folk laws being, essentially, the body of behavior that’s not legally codified but which the majority of a social or cultural group agrees is How Things Are. The problem, of course, is that official law and folk law do not always coincide. It is technically legal, if appalling, not to write thank-you notes. It is not legal to shoot someone “because he deserved it,” but a murdered serial killer certainly won’t raise much ire. Choosing folk law over official law is one route to outlawry.
LeJeune further differentiates between two kinds of outlaw: the outlaw who just acts outside the official law, and the outlaw-hero who acts outside the official law in the interests of the poor, is good to the poor or innocent when he encounters them, or is in some other way following folk law even as he ignores official law. Anyone can rob and shoot, but when Jesse James (or Pretty Boy Floyd, or Billy the Kid, or whoever the story is about in the current telling) repays one night of an old widow’s hospitality with the then-princely sum of $50, they become elevated. The extenuating logic seems to be “no one who’s kind to old ladies can be all bad.”
To LeJeune’s points, I would add that being bad is just plain interesting. We admire saints more when they start as sinners. Most of us never transgress the law in a big way, and there’s a terrifying but seductive grandeur in just not giving a damn. Someone with my nerves and eyesight couldn’t rob a stagecoach even if he wanted to and they still existed, but the mere fact that someone, somewhere, is tearing up the rulebook gives us a little freedom to think we might do the same … even though we won’t.
Though most of these outlaws (or hero-outlaws) were real people with real criminal careers, LeJeune argues that the stories that emerge around outlaws reveal a second layer of meaning. Each of the seven case studies he presents explain not only the facts (inasmuch as the facts can be teased apart from the legend) of an outlaw’s career, but also what those acts and their accompanying legends reveal about societal mores and historical circumstances.
The West-Kimbrell group of thieves and murderers, disguised as pillars of the Winn Parish communities in which they lived, were able to thrive because they lived in a still-remote place in a country struggling to recentralize authority after the Civil War. Stories about them spread partly because of the lurid image of matriarch Polly Kimbrell cutting throats in her garden so the blood would soak undetected into the earth, but also because the Civil War and the gradual filling-in of the frontier meant that people were confronting authority and coming away with complex feelings. The wonderfully named Leather Britches Smith, an outlaw who became involved in a management-vs-union shootout at a mill town called Grabow, can be a hero-outlaw or a criminal based on the sympathies of the teller. And of course, the Dunn brothers, whose bootleg operation supplied thirsty residents of Lake Charles, were always going to have their supporters—from a modern standpoint, it’s hard to imagine Louisiana bootleggers having opponents.
Legendary Louisiana Outlaws does contain fun, sharp-shooting, blood-and-guts stories of outlaws, but what I found myself enjoying most was the context LeJeune provides. His thesis, that these outlaw tales reflect their times, necessitates a description of those times; and I learned more juicy tidbits of Louisiana history than I expected. It’s an academic work—don’t think you’re going to escape into a Western—but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good ride.