Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


Butch Cassidy, a famous outlaw
An outlaw, a person living the lifestyle of outlawry, is most familiar to contemporary readers as a stock character in Western movies. The Western outlaw is typically a criminal who operates from a base in the wilderness, and makes periodic raids on civilized settlements. The stereotype owes a great deal to English folklore precedents, in the tales of Robin Hood and of gallant highwaymen. But outlawry was once a term of art in the law, and one of the harshest judgments that could be pronounced on anyone's head.

In common law, an outlaw was a person who had defied the laws of the realm, by such acts as ignoring a summons to court, or fleeing instead of appearing to plead when charged with a crime. In the earlier law of Anglo-Saxon England, outlawry was also declared when a person committed a homicide and could not pay the were, the blood-money, due to the victim's kin.

To be declared an outlaw was to suffer a form of civil death. The outlaw was debarred from all civilised society. No one was allowed to give him food, shelter, or any other sort of support; to do so was to commit the crime of couthutlaugh, and to be in danger of the ban yourself. A person who encountered an outlaw was allowed, and indeed encouraged, to kill them; to do so was no murder. Because the outlaw has defied civil society, that society was quit of any obligations to the outlaw; outlaws had no civil rights, could not sue in any court on any cause of action, though they were themselves personally liable.

In the context of criminal law, outlawry faded not so much by legal changes as by the greater population density of the country, which made it harder for wanted fugitives to evade capture; and by the international adoption of extradition pacts. In the civil context, outlawry became obsolescent in civil procedure by reforms that no longer required summoned defendants to appear and plead. Still, the possibility of being declared an outlaw for derelictions of civil duty continued to exist in English law until 1879.

The Outlaw is a 1943 Western movie about Billy the Kid that marked the début of Jane Russell; it was directed by Howard Hughes. The film also starred Walter Huston as Doc Holliday.

The film is remembered mostly because Hughes invented the push-up brassière for his new star Jane Russell to wear. The attention paid to her cleavage meant that the film had a running battle with censors in several states, as well as with the Hays Office.