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  • Legendary Louisiana Outlaws: The Villains and Heroes of Folk Justice by Keagan LeJeune
  • James I. Deutsch
Legendary Louisiana Outlaws: The Villains and Heroes of Folk Justice. By Keagan LeJeune. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2016. Pp.[xiv], 251. $38.00, ISBN 978-0-8071-6257-6.)

Criminals are not the same as outlaws, observes Keagan LeJeune in this absorbing study of the latter. "A criminal is a person who commits a crime and remains within the system of law to be punished, but also within its protection"—that is, to be treated fairly, in a manner in which the punishment should fit the crime (p. 5). However, an outlaw is someone who "defies the system to such an extent that standard codes of justice no longer apply" and who thereby "forfeits the basic rights inherent in the community's official system of law and order" (p. 5). Because they remain outside the legal systems of justice, outlaws are the ultimate outsiders. But outlaws are also intimately connected with local communities that often create folklore to explain how these outlaws became lawless and were ultimately captured or killed.

The legends associated with a wide range of outlaws operating within the state of Louisiana provide LeJeune the opportunity not only to analyze some of the fascinating stories that have emerged, but also, and more important, to better understand the historical and cultural contexts that have surrounded these individuals. As a result, Legendary Louisiana Outlaws: The Villains and Heroes of Folk Justice should prove useful and relevant to scholars of southern history. According to LeJeune, a professor of English at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, each outlaw legend is "[c]onnected to a specific historical moment and a specific locale," thereby acting "as a monument to the past and as a representation of a people within a place" (p. 12). Folklore scholars such as LeJeune are very much aware that legends are typically grounded in historical fact and are believed by their tellers to be true.

In seven chapters arranged chronologically, LeJeune explores the legends and significance of Louisiana outlaws, both famous and obscure. Such figures include the early-nineteenth-century pirate and privateer Jean Laffite; John West, Dan Kimbrell, and others who robbed and murdered travelers passing by their farmland from the 1840s to the 1860s; Ozème Carrière, who robbed both civilians and soldiers during the Civil War; Eugene Bunch, who robbed trains during the Gilded Age at a time when the railroads were consolidating power; Charles "Leather Britches" Smith, who confronted the authority of lumber companies in the early twentieth century—and the subject of LeJeune's previous book, Always for the Underdog: Leather Britches Smith and the Grabow War (Denton, Tex., 2010); the brothers Dunn (Bob, Byron, and Eustice), who operated as bootleggers during Prohibition; and Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who committed robberies across the south-central United States before Texas lawmen ambushed and killed the outlaws in their car in rural Louisiana in 1934. [End Page 417]

Thanks to their prominence in popular culture, Bonnie and Clyde may be the best known of these outlaws, and LeJeune's analysis of their case seems particularly perceptive. He notes that the "dead bodies of Bonnie and Clyde riddled with bullet holes demonstrated the ultimate authority the law wielded," but that this authority was instantly undermined by the folk, who took both souvenirs and memories in order to assert "control of the outlaws and the perseverance of the legend" (pp. 196–97).

One of the book's great strengths is its synthesis of numerous primary and secondary sources, including materials from archives and special collections, newspapers and periodicals, personal interviews, and assorted ephemera. Randomly selecting some of those sources for fact checking, I found several incorrect bibliographical citations and instances where quotations were rendered incorrectly—either with some of the original words missing or with words changed, such as "you can't get something for nothing" rather than the original source's "you don't get something for nothing" (p. 40). This type of carelessness is annoying but appears relatively minor.

James I. Deutsch
Smithsonian Institution


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