A common misconception about folk heroes is that they have to be good people. Generally, you’ll see people questioning if we should call a criminal a folk hero at all. This is a misunderstanding. Modern folk heroes come in all packages, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Folk heroes are merely people who have tapped into the social consciousness, garnering newspaper headlines because of something they’ve done whether good or bad. Most of the time folk heroes are everyday people with little to no power but somehow upset the system or take matters into their own hands. Their actions only make us more curious about who they are. Want to see who made our list? Here are 25 Modern Day Folk Heroes We Want To Know.
Edith Macefield became an instant folk hero reminiscent of the Pixar film Up when she refused $1 million dollars to give up her house. Gentrification and developers were building all around her house and wanted her land to completed their dominance in the area, but Macefield refused to leave. Since they couldn’t force her out, they built around her house. Many cheered her on and her story spread through the news.
Australian bandit and folk hero Ned Kelly is perhaps one of the most famous next to Jesse James and, maybe, even Robin Hood. He stood as an example of poor Irish settlers in Australia who were oppressed and discriminated against by the government. After a violent shootout with police, Kelly was arrested. He wrote a long letter protesting the injustice against Irish settlers. Despite protests, Kelly and his letter were ignored by authorities. Before he was hanged, he said, “Such is life.”
During World War II, Herman Perry was one of many African American soldiers mistreated and sent to work on a futile road in China. 750 African Americans were sent to work on the grueling project while overseed by 50 white officers. The conditions were abysmal and Perry eventually snapped and killed a white officer. Perry evaded his prison and escaped into the Burmese jungle where he lived with the Naga people and even got married to one of their girls and had a child. However, the military caught wind of his whereabouts, and eventually, he was apprehended and executed.
Internet folk hero, hacker, and co-founder of Reddit, Aaron Swartz put on many hats, but of them, making the internet a more just, fair, and free place was at the very top. He championed Creative Commons and helped to make the internet an open ecosystem for knowledge. In 2011, however, Swartz had 13 felony charges against him for hacking into MIT’s archives and stealing 5 million articles. Before the trial, he committed suicide at the age of 26.
Billy the Kid
Orphaned as a teenager, Billy the Kid fell in with a bad crowd and turned to crime. He was arrested for stealing laundry but escaped the jail by shimmying up a chimney. Taking on his infamous nickname, he became a ranch hand, gambler, and gang member. Robbing banks wasn’t really his thing and instead, he became famous for his gunfighting. With an easy-going demeanor, The Kid killed many men in his short lifetime. He was killed at the age of 21 by Sheriff Pat Garrett. His legend spread with the rise of dime novels, television shows, and films.
A mountain man from Wyoming during the Great Depression, Earl Durand killed elk without a proper license and got in trouble with the authorities for it. The result was Durand hiding out in the Wyoming wilderness, killing several police officers and escalating a manhunt that included the FBI. To escape his pursuers, he carjacked a vehicle, drove it into Powell, and tried to rob a bank. He eventually shot himself in the neck and died.
In American folklore, Davy Crockett stands tall as one of the greatest folk heroes of all time. He made a name for himself in Tennessee as a frontiersman and congressman but also had a troubled, racist, and bigoted past as well. His time in politics was mostly a failure. Regardless, journalists and writers loved to publish works about his many exploits in the wilderness. He eventually gave up politics and moved to Texas to fight at the Alamo, where he died.
Leader of the Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, and Ho-Chunk peoples, Black Hawk protested the Treaty of St. Louis in 1804, which gave up 50 million acres of land to the United States. He helped the British during the War of 1812 and started the Black Hawk War of 1832 to reclaim stolen land. At first, he and his militia fared well against the U.S. Military but as resources and supplies waned, their efforts stalled and failed. Eventually, Black Hawk was captured, put in chains, and hauled off east to various prisons where he became a tourist attraction. He was eventually released and lived out the rest of his days in Iowa.
A former Playboy bunny, Laurie Bembenek became a Milwaukee police officer who married Detective Fred Schultz. Bembenek was charged with the murder of Christine Schultz (Fred’s ex-wife) after she was found bound, gagged, and shot to death. Though there was plenty of evidence and motive toward the killing, Bembenek always claimed her innocence and figured out a way to escape her prison by squeezing through a laundry room window. On the run, she gathered a following of people who believed in her and became a folk hero. They sold stickers and T-shirts that read, “Run Bambi, Run.” (Bambi was her nickname.) Eventually captured, she served her time, was put on parole, and continued to try to clear her name, persistently claiming she didn’t do it.
Wild Bill Hickok
Wild Bill Hickok was a famous Sheriff and folk hero before and after the Civil War. His ironhanded law enforcement style helped turn the lawless and dangerous Hays City and Abilene to peace in Kansas. Throughout his life, his legend only grew, spread by newspapers fascinated by his exploits and gunfights. Hickok retired from law enforcement and was shot in the back of the head by a drifter named Jack McCall. McCall evaded justice due to an invalid trial but was eventually tried legitimately and hanged.
Known as the “Gentleman Bandit” because of his good manners during train robberies, Billy Miner would hold up the train conductor, unhook the train cars that held the gold, and use dynamite to blow the heavily fortified doors to the safe. He was the first train robber in Canada and eventually made his way down to the United States. He became a folk hero for his frequent robberies of the very unpopular Canadian Pacific Railway.
Nelson Mandela spent most of his life fighting the apartheid in South Africa. Imprisoned for 27 years, Mandela was finally released and went on to become South Africa’s President, ending apartheid. He was devoted to democracy, equality, and learning.
Part of the “Great Train Robbery” in 1963, Ronnie Biggs became a notorious criminal and folk hero who escaped capture and went on the run in Brazil and Australia. While he only played a small role in the heist which led to his gang stealing $7 million, he capitalized on the fame and gave interviews in Brazil. Evading three attempts to bring him back to England, he finally came back voluntarily. He had been on the run for 13,068 days.
Another notorious outlaw and folk hero, Jesse James and his gang grew to legendary status after robbing several trains and banks up and down the Midwest. While he was considered a good father and family man, James never gave up his life of crime. Stories about his adventures spread and blew up his notoriety.
Known as India’s “Bandit Queen,” Phoolan Devi was married off at the age of 11 and brutalized by her husband. She tried to go home but was disgraced by her family. After joining a gang, she was frequently raped by upper-caste landowners. In an act of retribution, she murdered twenty of them for gang raping her. She went to prison for 11 years and upon her release, used her folk hero status to become a member of parliament. She used her power to help lower-caste people, but tragically, she was assassinated outside her home.
Simo "Simuna" Häyhä
During World War II, Simo “Simuna” Häyhä was an exceptionally talented Finnish sharpshooter said to have killed 505 Soviets. Many of the Finnish tactics, as well as Simuna’s shooting helped them fend off much larger Soviet numbers. At the Battle of Raate Road, for instance, they killed 9,000 Soviets and only lost 400 of their own men. Because Simuna was so successful in avoiding capture and killing Soviets, the Soviets gave him the name “The White Death.”
As a staunch Abolitionist, John Brown fervently believed in the end of slavery and fought to end the entire system. Gathering together a small army, Brown tried to create a rebellion among the slaves. His reputation grew and he became a legend among the Northern Abolitionist movements. During a raid to gather supplies and arm slaves, he was captured and hanged but his status as a folk hero only grew.
Bonnie and Clyde
Of the folk hero couples in modern times, Bonnie and Clyde have to be the most famous. There’s nothing particularly honorable about them, of course. They were criminals through and through, but their many exploits, crime sprees, and the FBI manhunt that followed them garnered enough publicity to launch them into folk hero status.
Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani female who, in 2012, was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman. She survived and went on to push for female education in Pakistan. Becoming a greatly hailed folk hero for her humanitarian work, she also was the youngest person to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Anna Chapman became an instant Russian folk hero after being outed as a Russian spy in the United States. After being arrested, she plead guilty and was deported back to Russia. Instead of getting a new identity, Chapman rather wanted to expand on the persona and became a model and television host.
After the housing crisis in 2008, many people were very frustrated with banks and their housing situations. Foreclosures abounded. Terry Hoskins was one of those people, dealing with foreclosure from his bank and owing $160,000. When the bank said they were going to take his home, Hoskins literally tore the whole thing down with a bulldozer. His story spread across the country and he quickly became a small time folk hero.
A Colorado construction worker with no formal training in hunting down terrorists decided to take up arms, head over to Pakistan, and hunt down Osama Bin Laden. His name is Gary Faulkner. He traveled to Pakistan six times but always came up empty. However, his brother claims Faulkner got very close to capturing Osama Bin Laden. Once his story broke out on the news, many considered him a folk hero. He was eventually arrested by Pakistani authorities and sent back home.
Committing his first crime at the age of 12, Colton Harris-Moore grew in notoriety for breaking into banks and houses and stealing things while avoiding capture from the police. He gained the folk hero nickname “The Barefoot Bandit” because he stole things shoeless and left behind chalk prints at one of his burglaries. He frequently stole airplanes and tried to fly them, crash landing each one. He crash-landed his last plane in the Bahamas, trying to escape the police and was apprehended. He went to prison for six and a half years.
When Edward Snowden released top secret documents to The Guardian, revealing information about the NSA’s scary spying program on U.S. citizens, many hailed him as a folk hero and whistleblower. Others, however, called him a traitor. He currently has taken up asylum in Russia and continues to speak out on the internet about privacy abuses.
Of the many modern-day folk heroes, D.B. Cooper must be the most notorious and mysterious of all of them. In 1971, he stepped on a plane and told the flight attendant he had a bomb in his briefcase. He told her to tell the captain he wanted $200,000 in dollar bills and a parachute. The plane landed in Seattle, the many passengers left, and then it took off again with just Cooper and the crew members, heading for Mexico City. While the plane was in the air, Cooper jumped out during a storm and no one saw him again. Many questions have risen about the identity of the man and his motivations. His mystery is still unsolved, though many have provided theories.
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