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Derring-do and Dirty Deeds

The term derring-do isn't used much these days. It refers to heroic acts of daring; and doubtless applies to many who are still living. What interested me, though, were the historical legends of yesteryear - the famous heroes of times gone by; along with a few infamous villains. I thought I knew their stories quite well, until I began my research; which led to the realisation that not all were the romantic good guys depicted in movies and books.

Robin Hood is arguably one of the most well-known. He was thought to be of noble birth, or was at least from the Yeoman class, placing him a cut above the grubby peasants. The majority of historians seem to agree that he was outlawed, and reputedly robbed from the rich to give to the poor. The tales of his exploits, the source of details being chiefly crooned in ballads, may or may not have related some semblance of truth; but when it is considered that the name "Robin Hood" is suggested by some as being used by other outlaws to hide their own identities, any good deeds he might have done could have been over-played by someone perpetrating dirty ones in Robin's name. Then again, he could actually have been a crook in his own right; and the poor he gave to were himself and his Merry Men. After all, the hoodies they wore are often associated with present-day crims. If you don't believe me, check out the CCTV footage on the 6 o'clock news - Robin's the bloke in Lincoln green.

Still in the UK, one miscreant born around the beginning of the eighteenth century, started his criminal career in the early 1730s as part of a gang thieving deer. An oft-repeated story about Dick Turpin's 200 mile overnight ride from London to York on his horse Black Bess, fictional nonetheless, cast him as something of a dashing romantic hero. Maybe this enhanced his standing in the public eye; and reported antics of his success as a daring highwayman clearly gained him popularity as a salt-of-the-earth type who, like Robin Hood, simply robbed from those who had money and could afford a coach ride. Anyway, wasn't Dick only occasionally just a wee bit naughty and no real harm to anyone who didn't deserve it? Actually, he was far from likeable. Assaults on people in their homes labeled him as a butcher, the trade he may have followed before he took to a life of crime. Dick certainly left none of his victims in doubt that he could be barbarous, brutal, and took great delight in torture. As for killing, it was obviously in the job description. For my money, the best thing he ever did in his life was getting caught so that he could be hanged in 1739.

A bit earlier than Turpin's era, but not much, one Englishman set sail for foreign climes to become the scourge of the West Indies and a regular pain along the east coast of the Americas. Edward Teach, better known as the pirate Blackbeard, was clearly a formidable character. Tall and broad shouldered, he sported a thick black beard and was said to have tied lit fuses (the bits of treated rope used to fire cannons) under his hat to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies. If that wasn't enough, he wore dark clothing, plus a sling over his shoulders holding three pistols - if one didn't get you, the other two surely would. Despite his contrived appearance, and his projected reputation as a blood-thirsty pirate, Ted Teach was documented as a smart leader who wasn't keen to use force, relying on psychology and strategy to outwit the opposition. As for murder on the high seas, there are no reports of his ever having harmed ordinary folk who fell foul of his professional attention.

The Wild West of the eighteen hundreds gave rise to heroes and villains alike. Hollywood probably wouldn't have survived if it weren't for tales of gunfighters, train robbers and the Indian conflicts. One of America's favourite sons earned a reputation as cavalry scout and marksman. Buffalo Bill Cody honed his riding skills as a mounted messenger, and became a well-known horse wrangler, hunter and Indian fighter. Between 1866 and 67, he worked as a civilian scout and dispatch rider for the U.S. Army; but it was the 67 to 68 period that secured his place in the annals of history. Employed to supply food for crews building the Union Pacific Railroad, in a mere eight months he shot 4,280 buffalo. This and other stories published in dime novels popularised his larger-than-life accomplishments; so when he produced his first Wild West exhibition in 1883, it was probably a sell-out. Buffalo Bill's extravaganzas even delighted audiences overseas, but due to mismanagement, he eventually lost his fortune. Bill Cody died in Denver Colorado at the age of 70.

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