Lampião was born Virgulino Ferreira da Silva in 1897 in the northeastern state of Pernambuco. As Virgulino grew up, he and his family got involved in local feuding and they ended up on the wrong side of the law. Virgulino’s father was killed in a police raid on his home, turning Virgulino, only 25 years old, into a bandit gang leader and a deadly threat to the local establishment for the next fifteen years. The Robin Hood of Brazil image he cultivated belies the reality of a complex, vain and brutal man. It is perhaps his boldness that made him stand out, often fighting battles when his gang was outnumbered more than three to one.
The law finally caught up with Lampião in 1938. The police detachment that shot him, his wife, Maria Bonita, and his closest lieutenants preserved their heads in alcohol so that they could be shown in market towns in the interior, the only way to convince people he really had been killed – even today, the Brazilian media occasionally publish pictures of an old man who died in 1996 and bears a striking resemblance to Lampião.