They say you can run but you can’t hide – but that old adage certainly hasn’t stopped some notorious fugitives from trying. Fugitives can range from bank robbers and racketeers to murderers and rapists, some of whom have previously been arrested and imprisoned but subsequently escaped. It is not uncommon to come across fugitives in the media or in popular culture thanks to their peculiar cultish appeal. But what makes these people so interesting?
We’ve all heard of Bonnie and Clyde, the two American outlaws from the Great Depression era of the 1930s, which was itself a primetime of sorts for public enemies in the US. Their story has been told many times in the form of Broadway musicals, films and television documentaries, cementing them as two of the most notorious fugitives of the twentieth century. Their appearances in popular culture since their death have depicted them as two wild young criminals who were supposedly engaging in a sexual relationship while fighting against the poverty they had been born into.
It is possible that one of the reasons for the fascination with this unlawful partnership is the reputation they earned during their lifetimes. Over the course of two years, Bonnie and Clyde together took part in one hundred or more crimes. Contemporary newspapers and newsreels portrayed Bonnie as a gun-wielding murderer in her early twenties, at a time when most women her age were expected to marry and start a family.
Although it has since been considered likely that their contemporary portrayals in newspapers were inaccurate, particularly in the case of Bonnie, their reputation grew into a cultish celebrity legend. The historian Jeff Guinn has stated that this was influenced in part by the infamous group of photos found by police at one of their abandoned hideouts in Joplin, Missouri. The photos in question depicted the pair in playful poses while carrying pistols and rifles and ensured their notoriety across the country. Guinn also suggests that their ‘illicit sex’ was the trademark that led to their enduring legend.
Bonnie and Clyde were killed in an ambush in Louisiana on 23rd May, 1934 having evaded the law for approximately two years. Interestingly, the infamous bank robber John Dillinger was killed in Illinois two months after Bonnie and Clyde following a yearlong chase by police. Dillinger has been considered the most notorious outlaw of the Great Depression era and has remained in popular culture in recent years, the most notable example being the 2009 film Public Enemies in which Dillinger, the lead character, is portrayed by Johnny Depp.
Dillinger’s influence on American law is apparent in that bank robbery was not considered a federal crime at the time that Dillinger and his gang were operating and only became so in the year that Dillinger was killed. This allowed them to escape across state lines without police officers being able to follow them. It is notable that the FBI, then named the ‘Division’, was able to identify all of the suspects using fingerprint matching technology and subsequently issued nationwide bulletins to aid in their search.
His enduring cult popularity may be attributed to the fact that Dillinger was able to rob banks of tens of thousands of dollars and subsequently escape with the money despite several close run-ins with the police. As well as this, a similarity between both Dillinger’s case and the case of Bonnie in Clyde is the way they were ultimately dealt with. In both cases the suspects were ambushed and gunned down, and this may have led to sympathetic accounts, especially as both sets of criminals were operating at a time when it would have been immensely difficult to find employment. Their crimes have been said by some to have resonated with poorer members of society in that they could somewhat understand the motives behind the crimes.
Nowadays the issue of fugitives is still prevalent, as the FBI’s Most Wanted List, established in 1950, can illustrate. Looking at the list reveals that armed robbery is still a significant problem; the longest occupant of the list, Víctor Manuel Gerena, is wanted in association with the armed robbery of approximately $7 million, in a crime somewhat reminiscent of John Dillinger’s exploits. Individuals are usually only removed from the list if the fugitive is captured, dies, or the charges against them are dropped. It is clear that fugitives have endured throughout history; June 17th 2013 saw the list reach the milestone of having listed 500 fugitives over the years, and it is clearly still a very real problem.