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There has been a surprising ambivalence in the response to the capture of James (Whitey) Bulger, who was arrested last Wednesday in his Santa Monica hideout after 16 years on the lam.

Reading the police indictment of the Boston mobster, as well as the comprehensive press accounts of his career, it's hard to think of him as anything other than a thug: He has served time for bank robbery, his mob made money from loansharking and he has been linked to at least 19 murders in the Boston area as well as killings in Florida and Oklahoma.

More gruesome still are the particular details of the killings Mr. Bulger allegedly participated in, such as the 1985 death of Deborah Hussey, a 26-year-old who was sexually abused by one of Mr. Bulger's gang members. Court documents allege that the gang "murdered her in much the same way they murdered their other victims, by luring her into a house and strangling her. Here again, Bulger grabbed Deborah Hussey from behind and scissored her neck between his forearms to crush her windpipe."

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Despite being accused of such horrid acts, Mr. Bulger actually has admirers. In the South Boston neighbourhood where he came up, he is still regarded by some residents as a folkloric hero. According to Mary Child, a Southie native quoted by The New York Times, "He was a legend. A lot of people say he was like Robin Hood."

It might seem incongruous to see a mobster as a benevolent hero, but he isn't the first criminal who has been transformed in the popular imagination into a romantic outlaw. The popular regard for Mr. Bulger is part of a long tradition that includes lawbreakers such as Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde and Pretty Boy Floyd.

Why are some evildoers transformed into mythical figures and not others? There are certain common traits: a sense of class or regional grievance, with the bandit serving as an avenger for a social problem, and a sense that those who uphold the law are somehow illegitimate. Finally, the romantic outlaw is almost always a trickster, an escape artist who stays free by outwitting the authorities.

The archetype, of course, is Robin Hood: Stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, he arched his bow at a time when the king (John) was illegitimate because the rightful ruler (Richard II) was away on the Crusades, and he was always slipping through the fingers of the sheriff of Nottingham.

Jesse James's career was a byproduct of the economic and social upheavals of the Civil War. His family fought with the Confederate army and, like many Southern whites, resented the postwar "oppression" of the federal government (most of all, Reconstruction efforts to secure civil rights for ex-slaves). And the James gang became especially notorious because they eluded the law for more than a decade.

Frank William Abagnale Jr., a con artist, forger and skilled imposter who dodged the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the 1960s, was given the Hollywood treatment by Steven Spielberg in the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can, which was recently adapted into a Broadway musical.

And Canadian bank robber Ty Conn won the hearts of many after he escaped from Kingston Penitentiary in 1999, only to die rather than surrender. (Bank robbers are often folk heroes, since almost everyone loves to hate the banks.)

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Whitey Bulger follows all the archetypical tropes: As a product of the Irish-American slums of South Boston, he serves as an avatar of class rage. He flourished partly because the authorities in Massachusetts were distrusted - a popular suspicion paradoxically furthered by the fact that Mr. Bulger worked for many years as a police informer, protected by the FBI. He evaded arrest 16 years ago because he was tipped off by a retired federal agent.

Finally there was his long period of living in hiding. Since he was on the FBI's most-wanted list for years, the story of his moxie had time to simmer and grow.

Criminals like Mr. Bulger have multiple lives: There is the actual criminal, a very unappetizing figure, but there is also the outlaw of our imaginations, who appeals to our fantasies of a less tame brand of justice.



Jeet Heer is a writer based in Regina and Toronto.

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