Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Bandit King

He was born in 1897, in the interior of the northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco. It is harsh country with little water and much cactus, brilliantly described by the great Brazilian writer, Euclydes da Cunha, in his classic work Os Sertoes (The Backlands).
It was a time and a place of nicknames. Almost everyone had one. His was Lampião ( lampost) probably because he was so tall and thin. It was sometimes spelled Lampeão. The members of his gang called him Captain Virgulino; his proper name was Virgulino Ferreira da Silva.
Lampião began his life as a leather worker. Somehow, at the age of twenty-five, he got in trouble with the law. The police raided his home. In the scuffle, his father was shot to death. It was an act Lampião vowed to make the lawmen regret. And many did. From then until the end of his life, Lampião murdered every policeman he came across.
But, having resolved to be a bandit, he didn’t target only policemen. He robbed old women in their beds. He participated in mass rapes. He cut out the tongue of a woman who’d informed on him. And he removed a man’s eyeballs with a knife just because it amused him to do so. He plundered, and terrorized, and tortured. He was a cold-blooded killer, and a high price was put on his head.
And yet, that’s not the way most young Brazilians see him. To them, he’s a Robin Hood figure, a guy who robbed the rich to help the poor. How did the transformation from repugnant thug to venerated folk hero come about? Partly, I think, because the region he operated in had long been ruled by a few powerful families. The popular psyche called out for an anti-establishment figure – and Lampião filled the bill. Partly, too, because his story contains a modicum of romance. He and his girlfriend robbed together, killed together, had a child together and died together. Here she is, the woman all Brazilians know as Maria Bonita (Pretty Mary).

 The couple’s reputation grew with a form of entertainment very popular at the time: “cord literature”, so-called because it was displayed hanging from cords stretched across the front of booths in street markets. The stories were illustrated with woodcuts. 

They were often written in rhyme, often set to music. 
 Later, those early stories gave rise to TV programs and feature films which took a sympathetic view of Lampião and his gang.

(And invariably infuriated my father-in-law, and dear friend, Joel de Britto, who knew, from personal experience, what kind of people Lampião and his girlfriend really were.)

The end for the couple came on a beautiful morning in July of 1938. Here’s the place where it happened, the Grota de Angico, a hideout which, until then, the bandits always considered to be their safest one of all.
Oriented by a greedy informer anxious to cash in on the reward, four dozen soldiers surrounded the camp. The two groups of adversaries were about evenly matched, but their pursuers had machine guns, and the gang did not. Some few escaped the slaughter, but those few didn’t include Lampião and his companion. They, and several other key members of the band, were decapitated on the spot.

The heads were displayed throughout the country before winding up at the Nina Rodrigues Museum in Salvador, Bahia, where they remained on display for almost thirty years.
 This last photo is of the youngest member of Lampião’s gang,  Antonio Alves de Souza, nicknamed Volta Seca (It means something like “the return of drought”). He was taken alive and sentenced to 145 years in prison, but pardoned after having served only twenty. He took a job as a railway brakeman (that’s the uniform he’s wearing in the photo) married, and had seven children.
There is a song associated with Lampião that almost every Brazilian knows. The gang used to sing it when they rode in to plunder a town. It’s called “Mulher Rendeira” (The Lacemaker) and, some years before his death, someone got Volta Seca to record it. You can listen to it here.
Today, it’s no more than a haunting melody. Back then, it struck terror into the hearts of many who heard it.

Leighton - Monday


  1. Leighton - This post has been haunting me since this morning. I hope I am not crossing the line by relating a personal experience.

    My first teaching job, forty years ago, was in an Italian-American neighborhood. I was four years older than the seniors so the kids used to tell me what was going on in their lives. One day, there was a lot of excited chatter before class. The two brothers of one of the girls had just been found not guilty of kicking to death a man they didn't think belonged in the neighborhood. The acquittal was based on the perjured testimony of some of these kids in front of me. They had supplied an alibi for two monsters and were bewildered by my horror. Family is family. They had followed the code.***

    Amorality was handed from one generation to another. Young Brazilians see the King of the Bandits as a hero, that moral strictures only apply to lesser people. I never watched "The Sopranos" because I knew some of those people. I found no entertainment value in glorifying a world view that demeans and destroys human life.

    The song on YouTube was chilling. The King of the Bandits and Pretty Mary make evil look banal. They could be the perfectly normal couple who lives down the street. Using that lovely music to ennoble such people is obscene.

    ***The two young men who evaded justice in the legal system angered some important people. They had brought too much attention to the neighborhood. Within three years, both met untimely, and public, deaths.

  2. Beth,
    A quick word of reassurance:
    Hearing about people's personal experiences is one of kicks I get from this blog. Far from crossing a line, you have, as usual, enriched this space with your contribution.
    Joel, that father-in-law I mentioned, was one of the gentlist souls I've ever known.
    And was thoroughly in agreement when Brazil abolished the death penalty.
    But he confessed, once, that it pleased him when he heard that Lampião and his girlfriend had been shot to death.
    If he was alive today, I think he'd be applauding your post.
    I know I did.

  3. Hi Leighton,

    You can't compare the crimes committed by Lampia and his girlfriend with those of Bonnie and Clyde, they still remind me of each other.

    Looking at Lampiao's face I would have guessed he was an accountant or meek bank teller, not a cold hearted killer. His girlfriend doesn't look as innocent as he does to me.

    I wonder if we've ever had a couple that horrible in the states.

    How close was your father in-law to where Lampiao 'worked'?


  4. Hi Leighton,

    How awful. I have often wondered how it comes to be that history takes some horrible characters and glorifies their actions while others of the same ilk get rougher treatment. Probably boils down to politics and the winners writing history but in your case (and that of Bonnie and Clyde) it is the people themselves that make monsters into heroes. How desperate do you have to be for something like that to seem OK? What did these same people think of the paraded heads?

    You mention your father in law - were any of his relatives harmed by this gang?

    thanks for a great read as always

  5. Susie/Yrsa,

    Bonnie and Clyde did, indeed, come to mind when I was writing the article. How could they not?

    But I suspect (although I don't know for a fact) that the glorification of B&C began only after the "Hollywood treatment" and wasn't already full-blown in the forties and fifties, as was the case with L.&MB.

    I suspect, too, that it had more to do with the two people in the leading roles of the movie than anything else. I mean, what woman would sympathize with killing Warren Beatty (at least as he was then) and what man would sympathize with killing Faye Dunaway? (Although a lot of women may have wanted to.)

    In Brazil, of course, it was different. The continuing social disparity led to a yearning for anti-establishment figures.
    L.&M.B., no matter what they were in life, were cast into heroic roles in the cinema of the minds of the poor.

    My father-in-law's family hailed from Bahia - one of the places where Lampião did much of his "work".

    And, as what the Brazilians call "a family of four hundred years" (cloer to five hundred by now), which means early settlers with considerable land holdings, they were a principle target of the gang.

    They came through the terror unscathed because they took care to stay in a large town that Lampião and Maria would not have dared to attack. (Families that survive for almost half a millenium are good at that kind of stuff.)

    Their goods suffered, but they didn't.
    Some of their friends weren't so lucky.

    In the audio clip, the fellow who's talking before Volta Seca starts to sing refers to an attack on a certain town which was "unfortunately beaten off by the police and the populace."
    Give me a break!
    The people are trying to defend themselves.
    And the police are helping.
    And it's unfortunate?
    But it illustrates the adulation in which the couple continue to be held.

    As to the heads: In those days, in the immediate aftermath, everybody, rich and poor alike, knew what Lampião and his gang were really like. The heads were initially displayed to calm the populace, to prove that they had nothing more to fear.

    Later, of course, they became a macabre tourist attraction. The director of the museum fought like hell not to have them removed. The receipts of his establishment have been suffering ever since.

  6. In Brasil during the time of Lampiao the rich fazenda owners were like kings and they enslaved commom people, killed them at will and generally treated them like cattle. Lampiao fought against them and probably became as bad in that he treated the rich pretty much like the rich treated the poor. From what I can gather he was a hero to many but better not cross him. By the way, interesting point here, I talked to a 92 year old man from Pernambuco recently and he said the macacos poisoned the water supply that Lampiao and his band used and that they died because of that, not a pitched gun battle. The macacos were very afraid of Lampiao and did not think he could be killed with a bullet.

  7. Inaccurate reason they called him lampiao is because if you were to see him shooting at night it looked like he was holding a lantern.its lantern not lamppost.