Brazil is no different to other countries and its folk heroes. They had an outlaw, Lampião, who has been compared to Robin Hood and was known as notorious bandit. Lampião confronted state armies on more than equal terms and cowed political bosses, virtually dominating large sections of his native northeastern backlands during the 1920s and 1930s. Regarded by some as brutal,ruthless and a vicious, merciless, psychopathic thug, his occasional acts of compassion, together with his exploits, have made him a folk figure in Brazil. .
Lampião (1898-1938) originally, Virgulino Ferreira da Silva was born in his father's ranch called "Passagem das Pedras" in the sertão (semi-arid backlands) of the state of Pernambuco, Brazil on 7th June 1897.
Traditionally it had been one of the most backward areas of the country, but Virgulino was literate and used reading glasses, an unusual features for the rough and poor region where he was from. Lampião was a leather craft artisan, who lived with his family until he was 21.
Virgulino and his brothers Antônio and Levino started gaining reputations as troublemakers, and when his father was killed in a confrontation with the police. He vowed revenge on the police and he became an outlaw, a cangaceiro and formed a gang called the cangaceiros (men of the cangaço, or badlands) which was endemic in the north-east hinterlands in the first half of the 20th century.
The bandits operated either on horseback or on foot. They were usually heavily armed, and wore leather outfits, which included: hats, jackets, sandals, ammunition belts, and trousers, to protect them from the thorns of the caatinga, the dry shrub and brushwood typical of the dry hinterland of Brazil's Northeast. The firearms and ammunition of the cangaceiros were mostly stolen, or acquired by bribery, from the police and paramilitary units.
A strange and contradictory piety ran through Lampião's psyche: while robbing and killing people, he also prayed regularly and reverenced the Church and priests. He wore many religious symbols on himself; presumably, he invested them with talismanic qualities.
Lampião was noted for his loyalty to those he befriended or to whom he owed a debt of gratitude. He generously rewarded his followers and those of the population who shielded or materially helped him (coiteros), and he was entirely reliable if he gave his word of honour. Lampião was capable of acts of mercy and even charity, however, he systematically used terror to achieve his own survival.
He called himself Lampião, which meant “lantern,” as he carried a lantern during his nighttime raids. Allegedly it was also because he could fire a lever-action rifle so fast, that at night it looked as though he was holding a lamp.There is also another version which says that his name refers to “lightning,” because of the lightning quick speed in which the raids he made on small cities and farms across the North East were made.
Maria Gomes de Oliveira known as Maria Bonita joined Lampião in 1930 as his girlfriend, aged in her early twenties. It was love at first sight and they clearly shared more than just romance. The cangaceiros had ridden into her town on the first day they met, and she walked up to him, pointed to a man and said “That is my husband shoot him.” Lampião drew his pistol and shot the man in cold blood. When the cangaceiros rode out of town, Maria Bonita was at Lampião’s side and remained there until their violent deaths together. Together they shared a daughter, named Expedita. She was raised by her uncle, João Ferreira, Lampião's brother, the only one who did not become an outlaw in his family.
In July of 1938, Lampião and his band were betrayed by one of his supporters, Joca Bernardes, and were ambushed in one of his hideouts in the state of Sergipe by police armed with machine guns at daybreak. In the brief battle Lampião, Maria Bonita and nine of his troops were killed, their heads were cut off and first brought to Recife as proof they were actually dead. One account has the police officer who killed Lampião showing the heads he was carrying in a suitcase to a fellow travelers while riding the train to Recife. Eventually, the heads were taken to Salvador, the capital of Bahia for examination by specialists at the State Forensic Institute. Later they were put on public exhibition in the city of Piranhas, where they were on display for many years, until the families of Lampião and Maria Bonita were able to reclaim the preserved heads to finally bury them.
Despite his history of brutal acts and savagery, he became a hero to the common people (for his Robin Hood-esque antics) and fabled figure in the Brazilian Northeast in general, representing their courage, hard lives, and tenacity. One of the more dispassionate analyses of Lampião concluded that, if he was a hero, he was an anarchist hero who forged a prominent place for himself in a society and political environment where people put their own interests above all other considerations. Like many legendary figure, Lampião is a mixture of fact and fiction, but there is no denying that he was one of the most notorious bandits in Northeastern Brazil.
Capoeira culture honors his folk hero status in a verse of the quadra (call and response style song), 'Sim, Sim, Sim, Não, Não, Não'.