Imagem card

Lampião (Virgulino Ferreira da Silva)

Date Born.:


Lampião (Virgulino Ferreira da Silva)

Article available in: PT-BR

Last update: 15/02/2017

By: Semira Adler Vainsencher - N/I

Known as the ‘King of Cangaço’ [banditry] and ‘Governor of the Sertão’ [semi-arid region], Virgulino Ferreira da Silva was born on 7 July 1897 on the Ingazeira Farm, located in the municipality of Vila Bela (today Serra Talhada), in the Pernambuco semi-arid region. He was the second son of José Ferreira da Silva and Maria Selena da Purificação. His birth, however, was recorded only on 7 August 1900. His siblings were: Antônio, João, Levino, Ezequiel, Angélica, Virtuosa, Maria and Amália. Everyone grew up listening to and/or witnessing stories of cangaceiros [bandits], and Antonio Silvino serves as the greatest example.

At that time, the sertão had practically no schools and roads; travel was on foot, on horseback, on donkey and ass. The so-called colonels (the landowners) ruled with impunity as the true political leaders, without ever suffering reprisals because the force of the state was always on their side. In this sense, it was they who made the final decisions, that is, they elected, deposed, persecuted, condemned, acquitted, tortured and killed.

In times of economic crisis, the colonels received help from the government. This was a reward, a benefit received, for the voters they controlled through “halter votes” – those votes given to a candidate and guaranteed by the command of the powerful, who imposed nominations and ensured the hegemony of the local political class, regardless of the professional competence of nominees.

Although very intelligent, Virgulino left school to help the family in planting their field and raising their cattle. He became famous in vaquejadas [rodeos]. He liked to dance, to play accordion, to write verses and loved the rifle. He knew how to sew very well in cloth and leather and made his own clothes.

He was 19 when he entered cangaço. They say that everything began through disputes with José Saturnino, a member of the Nogueira family and neighbour. Fighting against this family for many years, Virgulino and his brothers were already behaving like future cangaceiros, and it wasn’t long until they were fighting the police. But the decision to live and die as a bandit was only taken when the police killed José Ferreira da Silva – the patriarch of the family – while he was thrashing corn.

In one of the band’s first fights, in the darkness of the night, Antônio (one of the Ferreira brothers), was amazed by the firepower of Virgulino’s rifle, which shot out bullets non-stop and seemed more like a lit torch, and shouted the following: Look, Levino! Virgulino’s rifle has turned into a lantern! From that day, the nickname of the famous cangaceiro became Lampião – the Portuguese word for ‘lantern’.

Virgulino managed to realise his greatest dream, with the intervention of Fr Cícero Romão Batista: to acquire the rank of captain in the Patriotic Battalion of Representative Floro Bartholomeu, the battalion of legal forces. In addition to feeding his personal vanity, the rank would function as a sort of free pass, allowing his band to pass through the borders of the Northeast states.

Taking advantage of that opportunity, Virgulino also requested the ranks of 1st and 2nd lieutenant for his companions Antônio Ferreira and Sabino Barbosa de Melo. After the request, members of the gang abandoned their usual clothes, wore soldier’s uniforms, and as constituted authorities had the duty – however ironic it may sound – to defend the law and protect the Northeast people.

All this was written by Fr Cícero and signed at his request on 12 April 1926 by the engineer-agronomist of the Ministry of Agriculture, Dr Pedro de Albuquerque Uchoa. Happy with life at age 28, the young Captain Virgulino gathered his family to take photographs.

Officially, he received a mission to fight the Prestes Column – a group of communists led by Luis Carlos Prestes – which had been roaming the country during the government of President Artur Bernardes. However, after travelling about 6 kilometres from Juazeiro, Lampião decided to go into the caatinga in search of more lucrative battles, leaving behind his promise to Father Cicero and his responsibilities to the State. Government soldiers were known as “monkeys” because they jumped when they saw cangaceiros.

In Lampião’s band were individuals of all kinds: fat, thin, redheads, blonds, dark, tall, short, black and mixed-race. Some of them were very young: Volta Seca (11 years old), Criança (15 years old), Oliveira (16 years old). The oldest was Pai Velho, at the age of 71.

Lampião easily arranged arms and ammunition, but how he did was a secret he would not tell anyone. Some automatic weapons were acquired through Representative Floro Bartholomeu and Father Cicero to combat the Prestes Column. The band’s other armaments were obtained through the help of friends.

An accident caused by the tip of a stick blinded the right eye of Captain Virgulino, an organ that had previously been problematic due to the presence of glaucoma. Seeing with only with one eye, Lampião found himself needing to keep wiping tears from the leaky eye with a handkerchief. In spite of this deficiency, he never ceased to be an excellent strategist.

It is said that it was a bad joke from the Ferreira family (cutting the tails off some animals) that was the last straw that unleashed an irreparable affront with the farmer José Saturnino, owner of the neighbouring lands and member of the Nogueira family. Being more numerous and having the government’s support, the family ended up kicking the Ferreiras off their lands.

From 1917, Virgulino and his family began to live with intense gun fights and ambushes. Not being able to live in a specific place, they were forced to wander the sertão and lead a life of nomads.

In the midst of the fights and escapes, Dona Maria Selena passed away at Engenho Velho. Then at the beginning of August 1920, the family patriarch José Ferreira was shot by Sergeant Jose Lucena’s volante [paramilitary police] while he thrashed corn. That very day, the Ferreiras swore an oath: their mourning, until death, would be with rifles, cartridges and gun fights.

When he heard about a perverse colonel, Lampião did not miss the opportunity to burn his farms and kill his cattle. In raids on towns and villages, the band sacked, decimated, and killed. The acts of violence committed by the band were immeasurable: branding, cutting ears or tongues, castration, rape, slow death and others. Many inhabitants permanently abandoned their properties, making the caatinga deserted, since they had been overrun by soldiers and cangaceiros.

Virgulino Ferreira was quite impulsive. Sometimes months passed without him being heard of, with people even thinking that he had died. But suddenly he came out of nowhere with his band like a tremendous hurricane, fighting the volantes, burning farms, stealing and killing with the utmost ease. Sometimes his gestures were generous: he fraternised with people, organised parties, distributed money and bought drinks for everyone.

At one of his stops to rest, near the Paulo Afonso Waterfall, he met Maria Déia, the daughter of a farmer from Jeremoabo, in Bahia. Five years before, she had married José de Neném – a local merchant – but she had a platonic passion for Lampião, even though she had never met him.

Some claim that it was Maria Déia’s own mother who whispered to Lampião about this passion. Others say that it was Luis Pedro – a member of the gang – who insisted that the king of the cangaço meet her. The fact is that Virgulino fell in love at the first sight of her, and impressed by her beauty, he went on to call her Maria Bonita [Beautiful Maria].

Instead of three days, he stayed ten at Fazenda Malhada da Caiçara. With her parents’ consent, who supported their daughter’s desire, Maria Déia put her clothes into two bindles, combed her hair, said goodbye to her husband forever, and left with Lampião for the caatinga. It was 1931 and she was 20 years old.

Shortly thereafter, Maria Bonita became pregnant and suffered a miscarriage. But in 1932, the cangaceiro couple had a daughter, whom they call Expedita. Maria Bonita gave birth in the middle of the caatinga, in the shade of an umbuzeiro tree, in Porto de Folha, Sergipe. Lampião delivered the baby himself.

As it was a period of intense persecution and confrontation and life was very uncertain, the parents could not raise her within cangaço. The facts that happened are controversial, because some said that Expedita was delivered to her uncle João, Lampião’s brother who was never part of cangaço, and others testified that the child was left in the house of the cowboy Manuel Severo, on Jaçoba Farm.

Captain Virgulino loved being photographed and filmed. In this sense, he allowed a Lebanese photographer named Benjamim Abraão to live for months with his band and gather a lot of material on cangaço. The photographer was, however, murdered by a colonel, and much of his collection was destroyed.

Maria Bonita always strongly insisted that Lampião take care of his leaky eye. Because of this insistence, he went to a hospital in the city of Laranjeiras, Sergipe, claiming to be a farmer from Pernambuco. Virgulino had his eye removed by Dr Braganza – an ophthalmologist well known all over the sertão – and he spent one month in hospital to recover. After paying all the expenses of his hospital stay, he left the hospital at dawn in hiding, but not without having left written in coal on the wall of his room:

Doctor, you did not operate on any farmer. The eye you took out was that of Captain Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, Lampião.

In addition to the ambushes that planned to kill him, it is worth noting that Lampião was able to survive poison and fire. The first he encountered in a small dose that only gave him an inconvenient intestinal discomfort; the second he managed to escape by jumping, although singed. But he was wounded by bullet several times.

Except for João, all the brothers of Virgulino died before him. In 1926, Antonio was killed in Serra Talhada, in a meeting with a Pernambuco volante. Another volante from the same state killed Levino Ferreira. The last to die was Ezequiel, seriously wounded by the Sergipe police. But when Lampião realised that his brother was dying and suffering, he took out his own revolver and fired a mercy shot right into his forehead.

In another fight against the Pernambuco volante in the village of Serrinha, near Garanhuns, Maria Bonita was shot. As she was losing a great deal of blood, Lampião gave the order to end the fight immediately: he took his beloved in his arms and headed towards the municipality of Buíque, where she was treated in the village of Guaribas.

It is worth mentioning that Lampião’s band resisted for almost 20 years, fighting with groups of civilians who persecuted him and with the police of 7 Northeast states. For all that time, he attacked the properties of large landowners, villages, towns and cities, stole, pillaged, tortured, and killed his adversaries.

Despite being shot nine times, Lampião survived all his injuries without any form of medical care. At that time, antibiotics and sulphates were unknown. To stop bleeding and heal wounds, they used mold, coffee powder and even cattle excrement, for example. Also used were medicinal herbs and prayers by healers, which did not always work as expected. An injury to his foot, in this sense, condemned Virgulino to limp for the rest of his life.

Extremely handy, besides being endowed with great capacity for improvisation, it was Captain Virgulino who made the bandages, set the broken legs and arms of the wounded and delivered the cangaceiro’s women’s babies. Superbly gifted with intelligence, he was a doctor, a pharmacist, a dentist, a cowboy, a poet, a strategist, a guerrilla, a craftsman. Suspicious, he would only ingest something after someone had tasted the food. On the other hand, he would only hand over the money after receiving the goods. But he could not shake the betrayal of false friends.

On 27 July 1938, as was customary for years, the band camped at the Angicos farm, located in the sertão of Sergipe, a hiding place considered by Lampião as the most secure. It was night, pouring with rain, and everyone was sleeping in their tents. At dawn on the 28th, the volante approached so softly that even the dogs did not sense it. When one of the cangaceiros sounded the alarm, it was too late.

It is not known who betrayed them. However, in what in Virgulino’s opinion was a very safe place, the band was caught totally unaware. When the police force of Lieutenant João Bezerra and Sergeant Aniceto Rodrigues da Silva opened fire with portable machine guns, the cangaceiros could not make any viable attempt at defence.

The attack lasted about twenty minutes and few managed to escape the siege and death. Of the 34 cangaceiros present, 11 died there. Lampião was among the first to die. Soon after, Maria Bonita was seriously injured. Some cangaceiros, upset by the unexpected death of their leader, managed to escape. Quite euphoric at the victory, the police looted and mutilated the dead. They stole all their money, gold, and jewels.

The volante quite inhumanely cut off Lampiao’s head. Maria Bonita was still alive, though severely wounded, when she was beheaded. The same happened with Quinta and Mergulhão: their heads were severed alive.

Having done this, they salted their victory trophies and put them in kerosene cans containing alcohol and lime. The mutilated and bloody bodies were left in the open to feed the vultures. Considering the scale, after practically a hundred and fifty years had passed since the French Revolution, the Brazilians retreated to the 18th century, cutting off heads as they did with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Travelling the Northeast states, Colonel Joao Bezerra displayed the heads – already in an advanced state of decomposition – wherever he passed, attracting a multitude of people. First, the trophies were in Maceió, and later they went to the south of Brazil.

At the Institute of Legal Medicine in Maceió, the heads were measured, weighed and examined because criminologists thought that a good man would not become a cangaceiro: they should have unique characteristics. Contrary to what some thought, the heads did not show any signs of physical degeneration, anomalies or dysplasia, and were simply classified as normal.

From the south of the country, although they were in poor condition, the heads went to Salvador, where they remained for six years in the Faculty of Dentistry of the Federal University of Bahia. There, they were again measured, weighed and studied, in an attempt to discover some pathology. Subsequently, the remains were exhibited at the Nina Rodrigues Museum in Salvador for more than three decades.

For a long time, the families of Lampião, Corisco and Maria Bonita fought to give a dignified burial to their relatives. In particular, economist Silvio Bulhões, the son of Corisco and Dadá, made great efforts to bury the remains of the cangaceiros and to stop, once and for all, this macabre public exhibition. According to the economist’s testimony, ten days after his father’s funeral they violated the grave, exhumed the body and then cut off his head and left arm, displaying them at the Nina Rodrigues Museum.

The burial of the remains of the cangaceiros only happened after Bill No.2867 on 24 May 1965. This project originated in the university circles of Brasília (in particular, at the conferences of the poet Euclides Formiga), and pressures from the Brazilian people and the clergy reinforced it. The heads of Lampião and Maria Bonita were buried on 6 February 1969. The rest of the band were buried a week later.

Virgulino died at 41 years of age. However, taking into account the risks faced during 20 years of cangaço, uncertain diet, ambushes, injuries, lack of medical assistance and others, it can be said that the king of cangaço really lived a long time. On the other hand, it is worth noting that Lampião and Maria Bonita have close relatives in Aracaju: their daughter Expedita married Manuel Messias Neto and had four children (Djair, Gleuse, Isa and Cristina).

Finally, the great intelligence of Virgulino Ferreira da Silva as well as his value as a strategist are worth pointing out. More than sixty years after his death, he continues to be remembered in music, fashion, cordel literature, theatre, cinema, schools, museums, conferences and debates. The feared cangaceiro, undoubtedly the most important and charismatic of all, has recorded a piece of the history of Northeast Brazil in the semi-arid caatinga.


Recife, 24 July 2003.
(Updated on 19 March 2008).
Translated by Peter Leamy, December 2016. Recife, 24 de julho de 2003.

sources consulted

CARVALHO, Rodrigues de. Lampião e a sociologia do cangaço. Rio de Janeiro: Gráfica Editora do Livro, 1977.

CHANDLER, Billy Jaynes. Lampião, o rei dos cangaceiros. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1981.

FACÓ, Rui. Cangaceiros e fanáticos: gênese e lutas. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1963.

LAMPIÃO [Foto neste texto]. Disponível em: <>.Acesso em: 15 fev. 2017.

LIMA, Valdemar de Souza. O cangaceiro Lampião e o IV mandamento. Maceió: Serviços Gráficos de Alagoas, 1979.

LUNA, Luiz. Lampião e seus cabras. Rio de Janeiro: Ed. Leitura, 1963.

MACHADO, Maria Christina Russi da Matta. Aspectos do fenômeno do cangaço no Nordeste brasileiro.São Paulo: [s. n.], 1974. (Coleção da Revista de História sob a direção do Professor Eurípedes Simões de Paulo).

MACIEL, Frederico Bezerra. Lampião, seu tempo e seu reinado. Petrópolis: Vozes, 1987.

MELLO, Frederico Pernambucano de. Quem foi Lampião. Recife/Zurich: Stahli, 1993.

OLIVEIRA, Aglae Lima de. Lampião, cangaço e Nordeste. Recife: Edições O Cruzeiro, 1970.

SILVA, Manuel Bezerra e. Lampeão e suas façanhas. Recife: Companhia Editora Nacional, [1966].

how to quote this text

Fonte: VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Lampião (Virgulino Ferreira da Silva). Pesquisa Escolar Online, Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: dia mês ano. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.