Tales of brave men and women rising up to combat their perceived oppressors exist in countries around the world, but there are none so captivating as the tale of Robin Hood, who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Oftentimes these rebels are reconstructed as legendary heroes after their deaths, becoming symbols of justice and hope for a better future or societal change. Feared by some as evil outlaws and beloved by others as national heroes, these six real-life Robin Hoods have become immortalized over time.

Juraj Janosik

Wood engraving of Juraj Janosik. (Credit: Public Domain)
Wood engraving of Juraj Janosik. (Credit: Public Domain)

Juraj Janosik’s career as a brigand was relatively short-lived (between 1711-1713), but his exploits continue to capture the hearts and imaginations of Central Europeans through the numerous poems, novels, ballads, folk songs, tales and movies that have been written about him. Born in 1688 in present-day Slovakia, Janosik fought with the Kuruc rebels at the age of 15, but he later joined the imperial army. While serving as a prison guard, Janosik met the inmate Tomas Uhorcik and decided to join his group of bandits. Shortly thereafter, Janosik assumed leadership of the group, roaming the mountains and valleys of Slovakia, Poland and Moravia while robbing aristocrats and rich merchants and sharing their loot with the poor. He was known for his chivalrous tactics, ensuring that no one was killed or hurt during the robberies. On March 17, 1713, Janosik was sentenced to death—ostensibly carried out by piercing a hook through his side and leaving him to dangle until his death.

Nakamura Jirokichi

Nakamura Jirokichi. (Credit: Public Domain)
Nakamura Jirokichi. (Credit: Public Domain)

Nicknamed Nezumi Kozo (“rat boy”), Nakamura Jirokichi led a double life as a laborer and firefighter during the day and nimble thief by night during Japan’s Tokugawa (or Edo) period. By the time of his arrest on August 8, 1831, Jirokichi confessed to stealing over 30,000 ryo (an immense sum at that time) from the samurai estates of at least 100 feudal lords. Since none of the money could be recovered, legend took root that he had distributed it among the poor. A large source of embarrassment to the daimyo, Jirokichi was paraded in front of the public while tied to a horse and then beheaded. His severed head was placed on a stake and left as a warning to anyone else who might consider following in his footsteps. Luckily for his wives, Jirokichi had the foresight to deliver divorce papers prior to his arrest in order to prevent them from sharing the same fate—as the law then required.

Scotty Smith

George St Leger Gordon Lennox also known as Scotty Smith. (Credit: Public Domain)
George St Leger Gordon Lennox also known as Scotty Smith. (Credit: Public Domain)

Scotty Smith, who claimed to have been born in Perth, Scotland, in 1845 as George St. Leger Gordon Lennox, gained notoriety for his escapades as a horse thief and cattle rustler in South Africa. Although his claim to kinship with the well-known Gordon Lennox family has been difficult to verify, he always maintained that he was the eldest son of the wealthy Perthshire landowner. Smith arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in 1877 as a member of the Frontier Armed and Mounted Police, but deserted his post and subsequently began his illustrious career as an outlaw, robbing from the rich and aiding those who were struggling financially. Smith apparently had a particular soft spot for poor widows and defenseless women who offered their hospitality to him (without knowing of his true identity). Numerous stories persist of Smith providing funds to women to pay off debts or bonds on their properties after they had previously given him shelter. But women were not the only benefactors of his good deeds; he provided medical care for a man dying of tuberculosis and took care of his funeral expenses. He was also revered for repeatedly managing to outwit the police—by eluding capture or escaping from prison. According to one account, he even offered to turn himself over to the police so that his friend could collect the reward money, only to escape after the payment had been made.

Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa
Born Doroteo Arango on June 5, 1878, Pancho Villa was a notorious bandit and Mexican revolutionary who fought against the repressive regimes of both Porfirio Díaz and Victoriano Huerta. He purportedly began his outlaw career after shooting a man who assaulted his sister, and has alternately been described as both as a bloodthirsty, ruthless killer who tortured his victims and as a generous man of the people who donated to children’s charities and orphanages. According to journalist John Reed, who spent four months with Villa’s army in 1913-14, numerous ballads were shared among locals describing how Villa and his gang would steal from rich haciendas to give to the poor, distributing cattle and corn that had been confiscated during his many raids. Villa also served as governor of the state of Chihuahua, establishing policies to protect and defend the lower classes and improving the state’s basic infrastructure. In July 1923, Villa was assassinated by gunfire while driving his car in Perral.

Salvatore Guiliano

Salvatore Giuliano. (Credit: ullstein bild/Getty Images)
Salvatore Giuliano. (Credit: ullstein bild/Getty Images)

Salvatore Guiliano was born in the small and impoverished town of Montelepre, Sicily, in 1922. During the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, in which the majority of food was supplied through the black market, Giuliano was caught attempting to smuggle sacks of grain and wound up killing a policeman while resisting arrest. As a fugitive on the run, Giuliano turned to banditry, assembling a gang of about 50 men in the Sagana Mountains who robbed the wealthy for food and weapons. Because he paid local peasants considerably more than the market rate for supplies in exchange for information about law enforcement activity; stole and then distributed food to hungry villagers; and purportedly gave away money to sick and elderly women, Giuliano was viewed and respected as a sort of Robin Hood. But he was equally feared; informants and enemies were routinely killed—brutally and without remorse. He eventually became a colonel in the separatist campaign for an independent Sicily and even wrote to President Harry S. Truman to request that the United States consider annexing Sicily as its 51st state. His popularity among the peasants was destroyed, however, when a band of his outlaws massacred 11 peasants who had participated in the May Day procession to Portella della Ginestra in 1947 to celebrate promised land reform. Although blame was attributed to the Sicilian Mafia for using Giuliano as a pawn to combat a peasant rebellion, the damage to Giuliano’s reputation among the poor had already been done.

Phoolan Devi

Phoolan Devi in India.  (Credit: Jean-Luc MANAUD/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images)
Phoolan Devi in India. (Credit: Jean-Luc MANAUD/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images)

Although she stood less than five feet tall, this Indian “Bandit Queen” garnered quite an imposing reputation. Born into a poor low-caste family in 1963, Phoolan Devi was married when she was only 11 years old to a man three times her own age who brutally beat her. She escaped his abuse only to be imprisoned for a crime she did not commit when she returned to her home village. Ostracized by her community, she fell under control of a band of dacoits (organized criminals) and, later, was brutally gang-raped for weeks by a rival gang of upper-caste Thakurs. She soon assumed leadership of her own gang, which carried out a series of robberies and kidnappings of upper-caste villagers, and on Valentine’s Day in 1981, Devi ordered the execution of 22 upper-caste Hindu men to avenge her abuse and degradation in what became known as the Behmai massacre. Although Indian authorities dispute as myth the notion that Phoolan Devi robbed from the rich to give to the poor, her actions were widely perceived to be justified by the poor and downtrodden, who heralded her as a hero (some even believed her to be an incarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga). In 1983, she surrendered to authorities and spent 11 years in jail. Two years after her release, she was elected to the Indian Parliament, vowing to “protect the weaker sections” of society and promising to provide drinking water, electricity, schools and hospitals to the poor while fighting for women’s equal rights. She was gunned down outside her home in Delhi in 2001.