We all know the tale of Robin Hood; the man who, with his gang of merry men, made a name for himself by stealing from the rich and giving to the needy. It’s a classic tale of anti-capitalism, with uplifting themes on how the underprivileged can be given a fighting chance if the right anti-hero lends them an altruistic hand.
Many among us have imagined ourselves as our own versions of Robin Hood, with our ninja-like stealth, overwhelming charisma and gang of loyal followers. We pictured the lower-class carrying us on our backs in a parade as we shower them with gold trinkets and jewels. These days, that kind of thing is best left in the realm of fantasy, what with the FBI and NSA having absolutely zero tolerance for Robin Hoodery of any kind. Sleep tight, rich readers, you’re more or less safe from altruistic vigilantism. Still, it’s a nice thing to dream about.
Whether an altruistic burglar named Robin Hood actually existed in history is inconclusive. Fact or fiction, historians do not know. What they do know is that there have been several cases of real people who lived their lives in the same way the Robin Hood of folklore lived his. Maybe the tale was inspired by one of these cases, maybe not. Maybe we’ll never find out. Regardless, the stories themselves stand alone as impressive, selfless and (sometimes) uplifting.
Physically stealing from the rich and giving to the needy isn’t the only way for one to be considered a symbol of Robin Hood. A Robin Hood in the 20th century can resort to something a little more abstract, like financial-aid fraud, for instance, in order to earn the title. Such is the case of Dr. Ozel Clifford Brazil, a Los Angeles resident native to Detroit. Brazil’s induction into the Robin Hood hall of fame is due to the tremendous financial aid he granted thousands of inner-city African American teens — at the expense of the U.S. government. Ozel acted as mentor to these teens — who otherwise would have had dim chances for further education — and aided their families in acquiring financial aid so that they would be able to attend college. Brazil put a dent in Big Money’s bank account so that a mass of underprivileged youth could be given a chance at making their dreams come true.
Basil the Blessed went by several names; Basil, Wonderworker of Moscow; Basil, fool for Christ; or Blessed Basil of Moscow, fool for Christ. He earned each of these monikers through his lifetime of good deeds mirroring the selflessness of Mr. Jesus Christ. Born to serfs in 1468 or 1469 near Moscow, Basil the Blessed was originally an apprentice shoemaker before becoming a renowned, charitable shoplifter. He would steal from the greedy shop owners and supply their products to the needy, which brought him great fame in the lower-class Moscow community. His great deeds eventually lead him to being considered a Russian Orthodox saint, for his altruistic accomplishments that were not conventionally Christian but still fundamentally human. As an interesting aside, Saint Basil was said to possess the power of seeing into the future, having predicted the Great Fire of Moscow in 1547, as well as his fair share of deaths.
Japanese folk hero Nakamura Jirokichi lived between 1797 and 1831 in Edo (present-day Tokyo). He was given the unfortunate nickname of Nezumi Kozō (meaning ‘rat boy’) due to his famed exploits as a sly thief. Jirokichi had two lives — he was a firefighter and laborer by day, and a thief by night. His cunning allowed him many nights of undisturbed robbery for a while, but he was eventually arrested on August 8. 1831, at which point he confessed to stealing over 30,000 ryo (a huge amount of money, inflation considered) from over 100 feudal lords. The authorities didn’t manage to recover any of the money, which rooted the legend that Jirokichi had given all of it out to the poor. He was executed, of course. So it goes. In a final act of humanity, however, Jirokichi had delivered divorce papers to his wives before being arrested, so that they would not join him in his execution — as was customary back then.
Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria was a notorious Colombian drug lord and trafficker. Born in Colombia in December 1, 1941 and dying famously in his home country on December 2, 1993, Escobar was the one man most responsible for implementing cocaine into the culture of the United States, supplying an estimated 80% of the cocaine smuggled into the U.S. at the height of his career. His legacy was built on a foundation of addiction as well as both direct and indirect death, and Escobar is and was considered by many to be an emissary of evil. However, during his peak years, Escobar was considered a hero to the poor of Medellin, Colombia. He consistently distributed money to the lower class through civic activities such as housing projects; he sponsored children’s football teams and was responsible for the construction of schools, churches and hospitals in western Colombia. Devil to the world, maybe, but in the town of Medellin, for a short period of time, Escobar was seen by many as more angel than devil.
Francisco “Pancho” Villa was born José Doroteo Arango Arámbula on 5 June, 1878 in Durango, Mexico. He was a key figure in the Mexican Revolution, being credited with important victories that lead to the defeat of Victoriano Huerta and Porfirio Diaz. It’s said that Villa’s career as an outlaw began after he shot a man who had attacked his sister. His reputation varies based on who tells the story; Villa has been described as a merciless murderer who made it a point to torture his victims, as well as a good man who had his heart out for the poor. Villa and his gang would purportedly steal money, corn and cattle from wealthy haciendas and distribute their winnings to the Mexican poor. He was also known to donate generously to orphanages and children’s charities. During his time as governor of the state of Chihuahua, Villa established and maintained policies specifically aiding the lower class. Bloodstained though his legacy is, Villa is marked down in history as a man who always had a place in his heart for the underprivileged.
Born January 1688 in Slovaka, Juraj Jánošík was a Slovak highwayman who would eventually become a folk hero of legend in East-Central Europe. Out of all the historical figures on this list, Jánošík perhaps resembled the character of Robin Hood the most, through his persona as well as his procedures. Shortly after being captured by the Hapsburg army, Jánošík was sent to prison, where he met a bandit named Tomáš Uhorčík. They escaped together, and went on to form a group of bandits comprised of over 30 men. Lead by Jánošík, the crew would ambush rich travellers along rural roads, take them for all they have, and share the bulk of the profits with the Slovakian poor. Jánošík made it a point to go about the robberies non-violently, and he enjoyed a brief few years of success before being captured and executed. He even had a catchphrase that spelled certain robbery for anyone who heard it: “Stop! Your soul belongs to God and your money belongs to me!”
Salvatore Giuliano was born on 16 November 1922 in Montelepre, Sicily. He achieved prominence in the cultural mess that followed the Allied invasion of Sicily in World War 2. Known in his time as a bandit in Italy and in the legends that followed as a flamboyant, charismatic criminal, Giuliano reportedly had 600 people under his command who stole from the rich and distributed their earnings among the poor. His persona is said to have inspired Mario Puzo’s character of Michael Corleone in The Godfather and The Sicilian, both film and book versions. His end came in 1950, when a 2,000-officer task force allegedly located the bandit and killed him. Allegedly, that is — many who know the story of Salvatore Giuliano say that the final shootout was an elaborate stage, and that Giuliano had his own death faked. Anyway, if that was indeed where Giuliano met his end, it would make him an obfuscated inductee of the 27 Club.
Leonarda Emilia (1842-1873) was a young woman from Mexico, based in the state of Querétaro. Her lover was a French soldier who was captured and sentenced to execution. Despite Emilia’s letters to the officials begging them to spare the soldier’s life, he was shot anyway. Big mistake, because this lead to one of the most remarkable revenge sprees in Mexican history. Emilia assumed a new identity, La Carambada, which means “The Amazing Lady.” She became a sort of vigilante of the era, leading an outlaw band that stole from rich travelers and shared the profits with the poor. Emilia also killed corrupt officials and government troops who stood in her way. So it goes. Hers is a tale of altruism as well as revenge, after all. Just to shove it in their face, Emilia loved flashing her breasts to her male victims after robbing them. In the hyper-manly Mexican culture of those days, that was a real kick in the cojones.
Kayamkulum Kochunni was a legendary bandit active in India in the early 19th century. A devout Muslim who visited his local mosque five times a day, Kochunni had a solemn view on the ‘legitimacy’ of the Indian money system, his poor upbringing leading him to develop a skeptical view on moneylenders, landlords and misers. So, in true bandit fashion, he took manners into his own hands, taking on a life of highway robbery in Central Travancore. Like the other Robin Hood kindred spirits on this list, Kochunni is said to have stolen from the wealthy and passed his profits on to the lower class. He was eventually arrested, after which point he died in jail. However, his exploits and passing lead to a great legacy for Kochunni, which includes several songs and films, as well as a shrine dedicated to his name, where locals leave humble offerings of candles, areca nut, tobacco and ganja.
Young prodigal indie folk singer Jake Bugg was born Jake Edwin Charles Kennedy Bugg in Nottingham, England, on 28 February, 1994. Notable for his musical accomplishments despite his young age, Bugg is also engaging in some Robin Hoodery of his own, albeit with a few shades more legitimacy. Through his aptly named Robin Hoody Foundation, Bugg provides aid to the musical programs in financially struggling schools by providing them musical instruments and paying for rehearsal space. He funds this endeavor by taking (we’ll use the term ‘take’ here, since it’s a semantic cousin of the term ‘steal,’ making Bugg at least mildly appropriate for this list) money from advertisers and reallocating it (with the advertiser’s consent) to the foundation. “So when we do an advert and they want to pay us,” Bugg says, “we ask if it would be possible to have some money for the Foundation. If they agree, it’s a real incentive to do the advert for them.”
Infamous American thug John Herbert Dillinger was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on June 22, 1903. Infamous for his extensive banditry and his two significant escape missions from prison, Dillinger is renowned by many as one of American history’s greatest criminals, and by some as a Robin Hood of his era. Although his intentions weren’t entirely charitable (records indicate he was intent on maintaining a positive image and receiving support from his community), Dillinger distributed a portion of his proceedings to the lower-class. This occurred during the American Depression, when times were at their roughest, so the aid was certainly welcome by those who received it. Actor Johnny Depp, who played Dillinger in the 2009 film Public Enemies, had this to say about the bandit: "Some people might disagree, but I think he was a real-life Robin Hood. I mean, the guy wasn’t completely altruistic, but he went out of his way not to kill anybody. He definitely gave a lot of that money away. I love the guy.”
One of the more recent Robin Hoods on this list, a man known to his friends and associates as “Boss Yu” was a celebrated philanthropist who was not seen as malicious by the public eye until he was arrested on burglary charges in December, 2014. Yu was known to donate to charity organizations and local welfare houses, all the while maintaining a lavish lifestyle for himself. Following his arrest, it was concluded that Yu had stolen over $80,000 worth of property (including items such as rings, tablet computers, bracelets and gold necklaces) from residents of high-rise buildings. It was also discovered that Yu had treated himself to five-star hotels while he went about his business of high time thievery. His altruistic deeds are enough for us to give him a pass for that, even though a shallow, luxurious lifestyle is no way to remain incognito while you’re trying to be a modern day Robin Hood.
Born on March 10, 1787, Ustym Karmaliuk is a folk hero who is commonly known as the “Ukrainian Robin Hood.” Unlike others on this list, Karmaliuk had a bigger political picture in mind, and was more of a revolutionary than a thief. Rather than simply hand the lower-class money and goods, Karmaliuk organized a peasant rebellion that grew steadily between 1814 and 1835, eventually numbering over 20,000 peasants. The peasants and rebel bands he organized targeted wealthy landowners and merchants specifically, and they stole from these upper-class people both as sustenance and as revenge for exploiting them. During his time as revolutionary leader, Karmaliuk organized over 1000 raids on the wealthy estates of the region, and all profits were distributed among the poor. If that’s not Robin Hood on an exaggerated scale, we don’t know what is. After evading escape several times, he was finally killed by a nobleman during an ambush in 1835.
The mysterious Twm Siôn Cati is a prominent character in Welsh folklore who is popularly described as the Welsh Wizard. Not much is known of his background, but he is thought to have been born around Tregaron, Wales, around 1530. In the folk tales, Twm is a remarkably cunning con man who did indeed rob from the rich, but only seemed to give to the poor when he found some sort of entertainment in it. In one tale, a poor man asked Twm to help him steal a pitcher. Twm agreed, and together they found the merchant they would con the pitcher from. With the poor man unseen behind the merchant’s back, Twn distracted the merchant by saying one of the pitchers had a hole in it. The man denied this, so Twm put his hand inside the pitcher to prove his point. The merchant was still unconvinced, so Twm said, “How, if there was no hole, could I have put my hand inside?” Presumably the merchant began cursing Twm for being an ironic bastard, but by this time the poor man had escaped with his pitcher of choice.
Ned Kelly is regarded by many to be Australia’s truest version of Robin Hood, and regarded by others to be a bloodthirsty villain. Regardless, he has earned his status as folk legend, which most of us aren’t able to say of ourselves. Born of Irish descent in Victoria, Australia in December, 1854, the visual of Kelly in an armoured suit is a staple of Australian folklore, and the story of his last shootout is legendary. As it goes, Kelly and his gang were fighting a losing battle inside the Glenrowan Hotel. In a last-ditch attempt, Kelly donned a suit of armour and charged at the cops (who severely outnumbered him), shouting, “Fire away, you bastards! You can’t hurt me.” The charge seemed like it was going to work, but unfortunately Kelly was shot in an exposed part of his leg and went down, at which point the officers came upon him. He was subsequently put to trial, was found guilty and was hung. So it goes.