Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

August 1994


Published in Great Plains Research 4:2 (August 1994). Copyright © 1994 The Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Used by permission.


Outlaws are mythic figures in American culture. They appear in many guises: gunman, desperado, rebel, fugitive, gangster, moll, highwayman, pirate, bandit, bugheway. As metaphor, they represent loss of innocence, resistance to oppressive authority and injustice, fearlessness, independence. In fact they are far less sympathetic characters. Outlaws are classic narcissists who have laid waste and ruined lives in pursuit of no higher goal than self-benefit. Even so, they remain romantic actors in our collective imagination. Instead of bank robbers and murderers, Bonnie and Clyde become Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, beautiful people whom ill fate has placed beyond the law.

Frank Richard Prassel, whose earlier work, The Western Peace Officer (1972), helped to demythologize the outlaw's chief adversary, takes a similar tack in this book. He traces the concept of outlawry to pre-Norman England through the highwaymen and pirates of early Modern Europe to the legendary lawbreakers of nineteenth- and twentieth-century America. It is a selective but carefully mapped tour, with separate chapters detailing an outlaw typology that incorporates change over time. For example, Prassel first discusses the bandit, which he sees as the earliest form of outlaw, before moving to the pirate, the dominant characterization of outlaws during the age of discovery. Some scholars will find the typology too simplistic and the chronological divisions too neat, yet they help frame Prassel's argument that the concept of outlawry varies in relation to shifting social and cultural norms.