The Mysterious Sofia–Book Trailer

The book trailer for The Mysterious Sofia has dropped.

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Zorro’s Masked History of Rape

As Zorro turns 100, a look at the Portland, Oregon years of Johnston McCulley, Alias Convicted Rapist.

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Johnston McCulley (1883–1958), right. Writer and creator of the pop culture icon known as Zorro.

There are many legends behind the mask of Zorro. There are also real flesh-and-blood men and women. It was my intention in writing a book about Zorro to discover the Latinx origins to the character. I wanted to expose how Hollywood and pop culture at large whitewashed Zorro, making him palatable to a dominant white, middle class audience. I discovered that story and describe it in detail in the forthcoming book: Zorro’s Ghost: How a Mexican Legend Became America’s First Superhero.

It’s important. In an era when Latinx people are being vilified, othered, and generally talked about as not part of the history of the United States, Zorro’s clear Latinx origins tell a different story. Namely, that Latinx people are part of the history and culture of the United States, from Zorro to the superheroes. And that’s just one example. Zorro turns 100 years old on August 9. He first appeared in the pulp story The Curse of Capistrano in the magazine All-Story Weekly in 1919. I wanted the anniversary to be a feel-good moment. Zorro is proof, in other words, that Latinx history and experience is as plain and permanent as Zorro’s trademark letter “Z.” And while that’s all true…

I discovered something about Zorro’s creator — Johnston McCulley. If Zorro has ghosts, and he most certainly does — a history of racial violence in the West, being just one — some of those ghosts are supplied by the writer behind the mask. In 1909, ten years before that first Zorro story appeared, Johnston McCulley was convicted of raping a fifteen year-old girl named Lena Boyd. It’s all right there in a series of newspaper articles and in the court records of Multnomah County in Portland, Oregon.

A History of Violence

McCulley was born in Ottawa, Illinois. He married young, a woman named Zylpha. He moved with his wife out to Portland in the early 1900s. He got a job as a crime reporter for The Oregonian and as drama critic for the The Oregon Journal. He and Zylpha had domestic problems. Zylpha sued McCulley for divorce in 1909, after a scandal caused by McCulley running off with a cloak model.

Things got worse. On August 7, 1909, McCulley along with an usher from the Lyric Theater, sexual assaulted fifteen year-old Lena Boyd. McCulley knew the usher, William Churchill, because McCulley had produced a play at the Lyric Theater in Portland. Consider the following news reports from the time:


The Oregonian reports on the crime.

The Oregonian, September 25, 1909: “Johnston McCulley, a magazine writer, was arraigned under the name John Doe McLaren, and charged with a statutory offense involving Lena Boyd.”

The Oregonian, September 30, 1909: “Johnston McCully [sic], who is held in the County Jail on $5000 bail for a statutory offense against Lena Boyd, pleaded not guilty yesterday afternoon, as did William Churchill, accused of a similar offense.”

According to an October 2, 1909 article in The Oregonian, “William Churchill is accused of a similar offense against the same girl at the same time.”

That phrase “at the same time” rang in my ears. It only increased my dread about what I had found. What if Johnston McCulley, the creator of Zorro, was also a rapist? Smoke poured from the oven that is mind.

But, who was Lena Boyd? And did statutory offense mean rape?

I needed to find some non-newspaper sources to corroborate the charges. I found them in the Multnomah County Circuit Court archives, which holds inconsistent records for a case that happened one hundred years ago, but the court proceedings and the ruling of the judge were there: “Judgment №41497, In the Circuit Court of the State of Oregon for Multnomah County, Nov. Term, 1909…The State of Oregon vs. John Doe McLaren or Johnston McCulley.”

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Excerpt of the Indictment by Grand Jury against McCulley for “rape.”

New details emerged in a mixture of handwritten notes and type-written bureaucratic procedures. I learned that the assault had taken place on August 7, 1909; that Lena Boyd and her mother, Isabelle J. Boyd, had been the two witnesses who testified before the Grand Jury; that the Grand Jury found sufficient evidence to indict Johnston McCulley “of the crime of rape,” and that McCulley, according to the indictment, “did then and there unlawfully and feloniously carnally know one Lena Boyd, a female child under the age of sixteen years.” The charge “statutory offense” was no longer vague. The charge was rape. I tried and failed to get access to the records of the Grand Jury investigation. Even one hundred years later, Grand Jury records remain sealed to the public.

The full account of what took place on August 7 remains blurry, but what I’d found was enough to put a rough sketch together. After the indictment, a warrant was signed and Johnston McCulley was arrested. He first gave his name as John Doe McLaren, likely to keep his name out of the papers. William Churchill was also arrested at that time. The Judge, Earl C. Bronaugh, ruled that McCulley had to give his real name. He said it was John McCulley. He entered a plea of not guilty, as did Churchill. While McCulley sat in jail trying to raise bail, the divorce proceeding issued by his then-wife, Zylpha McCulley, was finalized. Zylpha was allowed to resume her maiden name, as the marriage had produced no offspring. McCulley told reporters that there were at least a half-dozen individuals he was pursuing to help him pay the $5000 bond. The judge lowered it to $2000 and so, whoever agreed to help him with the money did so, and McCulley left county lockup.

A trial was set for November. Yet, when November rolled around, the trial was put in continuance since, all of a sudden, no one could find Lena Boyd, the Deputy District Attorney’s main witness. “Where is Lena Boyd?” the Oregonian asked on November 12. “The District Attorney’s office,” reported the paper, “received information that the girl had left the city a week before. This was supplemented with the report that she and her mother, Mrs. Isabella Boyd [sic], had gone to Indiana, their former home.” The Deputy District Attorney told the Oregonian he feared she had been intimidated, or that someone had tried to pay her off to leave the state. It was his belief, he told reporters, that “someone has induced the girl to leave the state.” One article reported that “the girl and her mother agreed to leave Portland any time they were given $200.” Was this hush money? Did McCulley, or one of his friends, or his lawyer, interfere? Was there intimidation?

We don’t know.

Whether Lena Boyd returned and, why she apparently left, is unclear in the record. But we do know that, by the end of November, both McCulley and Churchill changed their pleas from not-guilty to guilty — “of the crime of rape as charged in the indictment filed herein.” The case didn’t go to trial.

Did Lena Boyd and her mother show up after all? Perhaps the threat of Lena Boyd showing up to testify influenced the decision of McCulley and Churchill to change their plea. It’s quite likely both were told if they pled guilty they’d probably get a more lenient verdict. And that’s what happened: “It is therefore considered and ordered by the Court,” reads the verdict, “that the defendant John McCulley, be imprisoned in the Oregon State penitentiary for a period of four (4) years, and it appearing to the Court that the defendant has not previously been convicted of a crime, and if he be permitted to go at large, he will not again violate the law. It is therefore ordered that the judgment of imprisonment in the cause be, and the same is hereby suspended, and the defendant is allowed to go on parole, on condition.” Johnston McCulley, as well as William Churchill, got off on parole and probation. They served no further jail time.

At the sentencing, Judge Bronaugh sermonized to the two defendants. The judge “said he had investigated the case carefully and was satisfied that the girl in the case was not above reproach.” In slapping the wrists of the two convicted rapists, he also threw aspersions on the virtue of young Lena Boyd. She was somehow to blame, according to the judge. I imagine Judge Bronaugh, with furrowed brow and a grave countenance, looking at McCulley from his seat on the court bench, offering his lecture in misogynist morality: “The fact that a girl has started on the wrong path does not excuse a man. Especially when the girl is lacking in years of discretion.” The judge proceeded to render his final pronouncement. “I am extending the parole,” he said to the court, “in the hope that the young men will avail themselves of the leniency of the court, conduct themselves as men should, and respect womanhood, whether that womanhood is worthy of respect or not.” In other words, according to the Judge, Lena Boyd was not worthy of respect but, as manly men, they shouldn’t have raped her because they needed to respect the Office of Womanhood.

Zorro’s #MeToo Moment

Who is Lena Boyd? That was the question asked by the Oregonian, and it’s a question I kept coming back to. The newspapers called her a fifteen, and sometimes, a sixteen-year-old girl. According to Judge Bronaugh, she “was not above reproach,” meaning she shared in the blame for the rape — a not uncommon, although wrong, assertion in rape cases, then as now. She was supposedly a girl that had started down the wrong path and, although she lacked years of discretion, she was not considered a woman worthy of respect. The newspapers and the judge are talking about Lena Boyd. We never get to hear from Lena Boyd. We don’t hear her voice. But there are clues as to what her voice sounded like.


From Matt Wagner’s Zorro: Tales of the Fox.

We learn, for instance, that Lena Boyd accused McCulley and Churchill of the crime. The two men knew each other through the Lyric theater — McCulley was a press agent and playwright, Churchill, an usher. It’s unclear what happened and how it happened. I first thought that the August 7 incident may have happened at the Lyric theater — a young, overawed Lena Boyd was seduced and, then raped, by McCulley or Churchill after a production at the theater. I discovered that that probably wasn’t the case. The Lyric theater was closed on the night of August 7, a Saturday, and didn’t reopen for the next season until the following weekend. I checked the Portland City Directory from 1909. It turns out that McCulley’s apartment was less than a mile from where Lena Boyd boarded at a rooming house with her mother.

There may have been a chance meeting or, perhaps, an acquaintance made first at the Lyric, and then later renewed in a subsequent engagement, which ended in the traumatic rape by both McCulley and Churchill “at the same time.” However it happened — the introductions, the interactions, the rape — Lena Boyd, with her mother, reported it to the police. Lena Boyd testified before the Grand Jury. Lena Boyd had a voice. Although it hasn’t been preserved in its entirety, and not in quotable words, her voice is there in her decision to come forward in a day and time when, in the end, she was made to share the blame for the incident. But it was her reputation that was ultimately ruined.

Lena Boyd was a ghost after appearing in just a pair of newspaper articles and in the court documents from 1909. I scoured the newspapers of the era for any information on her. Genealogical websites provided listings for “Lena Boyd” in a variety of states — in Illinois, California, Indiana, and others. The Indiana listing peeked my interest. One newspaper article reported she and her mother went back to Indiana, their former home. The “Lena Boyd” there was a teacher and seemed to live a full life. Maybe, I thought, she was able to pick up the pieces and move on with her life? But no deal. The Indiana “Lena Boyd,” although of a similar age, didn’t have a mother named Isabelle like the Portland “Lena Boyd.”

Finally, I found a match. A woman on a genealogical site posted a brief life story of a “Lena Opel Boyd.” Her mother was Isabelle. The dates matched up — Lena O. Boyd was born in Indiana, but lived in Portland at the time of the McCulley assault. And Lena O. Boyd matched the siblings in a 1910 census. The woman who posted it, Janet Boyd, is the granddaughter of one of Lena Boyd’s brothers. That makes her a grandniece of Lena Boyd. Janet Boyd told me what she knew of her great aunt. “When Lena Opel Boyd was born in September 1893,” she wrote me, “in Adams, Indiana, her father, William, was 40, and her mother Isabelle, was 33. [Lena] had four brothers and one sister. Isabelle was pregnant with baby #6 when her husband Wm. Boyd died. [Lena] died in Hillsboro, Oregon, at the age of 33.”

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Lena Opal Hill, nee Boyd. Buried in Hillsboro, Oregon.

Janet Boyd’s intimate family memories are only partial. “I wish now I had talked more about family with my grandparents,” she wrote me. Though partial, her memories fill in some gaps, both factual and emotional. Isabelle, a widow with six children, moved to Oregon for new opportunities after the death of her husband. The 1900 and 1910 censuses list her as boarding in a rooming house. Lena O. Boyd is there, too. It seems they struggled to make ends meet. Isabelle was listed as a domestic maid; Lena, as a clerk in one document, and a “feeder” in another, which meant she worked for a printing company “feeding” paper into a press. Somehow Lena Boyd’s path crossed with McCulley and Churchill. It needn’t have been connected with the Lyric Theater, but that’s a possibility. When the rape happened it probably took place in a familiar location. Why? One newspaper report said that “there were a young married woman and her husband concerned in the case.” That report is both illuminating and vexing. Was it a case of mutual acquaintance in a familiar apartment? Were there flirtations between Lena and McCulley or Churchill? Was there some sort of romantic potential in the meeting? Or, was it an incident without preliminaries?

Even in our own day we seem at a loss to understand a full accounting of how and why rape occurs. The data, however, show that in a majority of cases women who are raped know their assailants. That probably held true in Lena Boyd’s experience. Men and women had tighter strictures on male-female interactions in 1909 than today. Perhaps the anonymous young married woman and her husband were two of the intermediaries introducing the parties involved. Whatever the exact details, we need to listen to and believe Lena Boyd.

She went to the police. She testified. And, although one newspaper reported that “the girl and her mother agreed to leave Portland any time they were given $200,” the statement reveals more about the state of Lena and her mother’s desperation — a survival strategy, perhaps — than evidence that Lena Boyd was somehow lying about the rape. In 1909, in an era when women were victim-shamed constantly, Lena Boyd had everything to lose by pushing the legal issue, by reporting it, by testifying before the Grand Jury. However desperate Lena Boyd was for money, it’s highly unlikely she’d risk ruining her reputation for a measly $200, even in 1909 dollars. She had really only to gain the truth in telling her story.

The Curse of Johnston McCulley

What do we do with the art of men who do monstrous things? It’s a serious question. Some of my students in the college course I taught on the history of Zorro didn’t want anything to do with Zorro after learning about Johnston McCulley’s rape conviction. Whether you, or I, choose to boycott Zorro because of the what Johnston McCulley did is a matter of personal choice. I get it. Who wants to venerate a character who was created by a guy like McCulley? We might ask a similar question of other well-known artists with their own unsavory histories— Wagner, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and the list goes on. My purpose in revealing this history, to my knowledge, never reported on before now, is to point out how important it is to dig into the illusions of our past. We can’t tell better stories until we’ve dealt with the old, often secret, histories of the past. Zorro’s ghosts can only be laid to rest when we’ve given a full account of trauma, acknowledged it, and remembered the victims. And, remembered forgotten heroes, like Lena Boyd, who spoke up about the violence done to her, even when she had everything to lose by doing so.

Happy Birthday, Zorro.

Stephen J.C. Andes is an associate professor of history. His book, Zorro’s Ghost: How a Mexican Legend Became America’s First Superhero will be published in 2020 by Chicago Review Press.

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50% Off Pre-Order Sale on The Mysterious Sofia


The University of Nebraska Press is offering a 50% off sale on my book! Click the cover image above and put the code 6SPLA in at checkout! Offer ends May 31, 2019.

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NBC’s Timeless Visits Joaquin Murrieta, Inspiration for Zorro.

In the Series Finale, the Time Team Meets the Gold Rush Bandit


The NBC show Timeless follows a group of time travelers who are desperately trying to stop a shadowy organization named Rittenhouse from changing history for the worse. In the series finale the Time Team visits the Old West, and there they encounter the Gold Rush Bandit known as Joaquin Murrieta.

Recently, a community of Timeless fans (#SaveTimeless) reached out to me to answer some historical questions that the show brought up. They asked about Joaquin Murrieta and the elements of his story that relate to the inspiration of Zorro. Here are the questions, and my answers, which were posted to Twitter.

-1. We saw a bit about Zorro in Timeless special, but how did it expand into the story/movie we know today? How much truth is in the myth?

Zorro, which means “fox” in Spanish, is a fictional character first created in 1919 by a pulp writer named Johnston McCulley (1883–1958). McCulley published the first Zorro novel in serial form in the All-Story Weekly magazine. Since that time, Zorro has appeared in dozens of novels, short stories, major motion pictures, a Disney TV series, cartoons, and comics. He’s become an iconic character. His black costume, hat, and duel identity — by day, the foppish Don Diego de la Vega, by night the masked crime fighter — set a blueprint for the modern American superhero genre. Batman, The Shadow, and scores of other comic book superheroes were influenced by Zorro. Thus, before Batman (1939), Superman (1938), and Wonder Woman (1941), there was Zorro (1919). In one sense, then, Zorro is purely a fictional character. However, there is reason to believe that McCulley drew on the history and legend surrounding Joaquín Murrieta (c. 1824–1853) as inspiration for the Zorro character.

McCulley never wrote explicitly that Zorro was based on Murrieta. Yet there are clues that tell us the Murrieta legend inspired McCulley. When McCulley wrote his first Zorro novel, the Murrieta legend was part of the California landscape. In one interview in 1923, McCulley said he read California history avidly. Among that history was the 1854 novel, Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta: Celebrated California Bandit by John Rollin Ridge. Ridge, a Cherokee Indian, crafted the first legendary portrait of Murrieta (notice the name change…Murrieta became Murieta, with one “r”). From Ridge’s novel the Robin Hood aspects to Joaquin Murrieta become more pronounced than they were in Murrieta’s actual lifetime. (Although, they were there, see below). Consider one passage from the Ridge novel: “As soon as their eyes met, the young fellow [Murrieta] drew the rim of his hat over his face, and, flinging his cloak a little back from his shoulder, dropped his arm down carelessly toward the butt of his pistol.” (Ridge 114) (Also of interest, John Rollin Ridge’s novel about Murrieta was the first published novel by a Native American). The legend of Murrieta grew over time. In a novel published by Carl Gray (pseudonym for Charles Caldwell Park) Joaquin Murrieta is even depicted as having both a Nobel Spanish father and an indigenous mother. So, for instance, McCulley drew less on the actual history of Murrieta than on the legend that had begun to grow around him. Murrieta was California’s first folkhero. He was an antihero, who embodied the hopes of an avenger against the wrong perpetrated by Anglos against Mexican settlers. Zorro is thus a whitewashed version of the Murrieta legend, set in Spanish California instead of Mexican California.

2. Is the idea of Joaquin Murrieta as a Robin Hood figure helping others just legend, or is there some truth to it?

Yes, there is some truth to it. Certainly, the Robin Hood aspects of Joaquin Murrieta (a “good thief”; robbing from the rich; avenger of the poor) increased over time and increased after Ridge published his novel about Murrieta in 1854. But, even in Murrieta’s lifetime newspaper accounts claimed Murrieta was discriminating in who he robbed. For example, The Placer Herald on May 21, 1853 wrote that “He speaks English fluently, and in his foraging expeditions, has always a fresh horse at hand. He was heard to say that he would never kill a Spaniard.” Here, we can see that Murrieta apparently had a mission, and he would not kill those of Latino descent.


-3. In the movie, we see Joaquin Murrieta say that the Sonorans found gold first, and that the Americans drove out the Sonorans after the war. Which war? What were the circumstances behind that?

The war that is being referred to is the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). Before that time California territory was part of Mexico. In the aftermath, Mexico ceded almost half of it’s territory to the United States. So, communities in Sonora could and did travel to the San Joaquin valley. But they were traveling within Mexico. Think about it this way. You live in one area of the United States and you’re accustomed to traveling to another area. You do this for resources, whether gold or horses, but then you travel back to your home. Then, a war intervenes. It means the area you used to travel to is now a part of an entirely different country. You’re considered a foreigner in that area now. Such was the experience of many native Californios of Mexican descent, as well as frequent migrants from Sonora. All of a sudden, you’re a “stranger in your own land.”

4. Was Murrieta attacked in his camp? Was his family harmed? Was he motivated to avenge this? And did he?

The discovery of gold, and the transition of California to the United States, brought hundreds and then thousands of new people. Anglo Americans, Mexicans, Indigenous people, and Chinese immigrants. All of them fighting for land and resources. Gold put a new negative incentive into all of this. Fights over resources quickly became fights about race. Consider another newspaper account from the time of Joaquin Murrieta. Again The Placer Herald on February 5, 1853 reported that “The entire Mexican population has been driven from San Andreas and the forks of the Calaveras. The greatest excitement prevails in every direction. If an American meets a Mexican, he takes his horse, his arms, and bids him to leave…We understand that a mass meeting was held at Double Springs on Wednesday morning, and resolutions passed approving of what had been done, and making it the duty of every American citizen at all events to exterminate the Mexican race from the country. The foreigners should first receive notice to leave, and if they refused they were to be shot down and their property confiscated.”

The story about Joaquin Murrieta, his wife raped, his brother whipped and killed — all of this gets its start with the John Rollin Ridge novel. It’s very hard to know if these events actually happened or if they were merely part of the legend about Murrieta. Yet, the Murrieta story became a symbol of racism and mistreatment of all Mexican people in California. Richard Rodriguez, a famous essayist, wrote this: “the Robin Hood part of the legend has persisted so long among Mexicans because Mexicans felt they had a share in Murrieta’s victimization…thus, perhaps, a share in Murrieta’s revenge.” There were 871 documented cases of Mexicans who were lynched in some 13 states in the American West after the Civil War. In proportion to their numbers, there were more Mexicans who died by lynching in the Old West than African Americans who were lynched in the American South. So, even if the accounts about Murrieta are not true, it is very true that similar abuses were experienced by many Mexicans in California. Murrieta became a symbol for that victimization. Finding the origins to Zorro is about dealing with the ghosts, uncovering the painful history of the Old West, which might allow us to see American culture as a product of Mexican and Latino contribution.


-5. Did Murrieta have a horse named Tornado? Where did that legend come from?

From the primary documents we have, Murrieta did not have a horse named Tornado. Even the original McCulley stories did not have a horse named Tornado. McCulley wrote about a “black horse,” with a lot of speed. The origins to Tornado are actually in the Disney TV series (1958–1959). That’s the first time Zorro’s horse gets a name.

However, in John Rollin Ridge’s novel, Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta (1854) there are several passages that seem “Tornado-esque.” For instance, in a description of Three-Fingered Jack (Murrieta’s famed bandit colleague) we read: “To see this man, with his large and rugged frame in which the strength of a dozen common men slumbered — his face and forehead scarred with bullets and grooved with the wrinkles of grim thoughts, and his intensely lighted eyes glaring maliciously, like caverned demons, under his shaggy brows — to see such a man mounted upon a raven-black horse whose nostrils drew air like a gust of wind into his broad chest, whose wrathful hoof pawed the ground as if the spirit of his rider inspired him, and whose wild orbs rolled from side to side in untamable fire — would aptly remind one of old Satan himself, mounted upon a hell-born beast, after he had been ‘let loose for a thousand years.’”

That seems pretty Tornado-like to me!

-6. I think Murrieta was one of a few sources for Zorro. Who were the others? What were their stories?

Yes, there is a debate about whether Murrieta is the only inspiration for Zorro. If we go even farther back, we find William Lamport (1611–1659) an Irish-born adventurer who entered the Spanish court and then traveled to Mexico. He was captured and imprisoned by the Mexican Inquisition for more than a decade for a plot to overthrow the Spanish Crown. He was burned at the stake. Some scholars have pointed out similarities in the life of Lamport and the fictional Zorro. Closer to California, two other bandits often are mentioned. The first is Salomon Pico (1821–1860), a bandit who had a wealthy background, which some have said seems more a match with the aristocratic heritage of the Zorro legend. The other is Tiburcio Vasquez (1835–1875), a bandit who was active in California slightly after Murrieta. Both Murrieta and Vasquez have natural parks and geographies named after them.

The Murrieta legend stuck because of the Ridge novel. Murrieta became a symbol for the wrongs done to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the years after the Mexican-American War. Pico and Vasquez also enjoyed fame, but Murrieta’s legend continues to grow and change. Even now, there is an annual Horse Ride and celebration of Murrieta in the Fresno area. There is an International Association of the Descendants of Joaquin Murrieta that promotes the memory of the folk hero. The enduring story about Murrieta makes it more likely that Johnston McCulley drew from the more well-known tales of Murrieta in crafting Zorro.

And there is a larger issue. Joaquin Murrieta’s head was supposedly cut off by California Rangers and put into a jar. For years after, the head was displayed for the morbidly curious to see. The legend has it that the head made it into San Francisco museum, but was lost after the 1906 earthquake. Murrieta symbolizes the racial violence that characterized the Old West, but also the way in which this violent history has been cut off from the broader stories we tell of American history. In the same way the history of Murrieta has been cut off from the history of Zorro and popular culture, the history of Mexican-Americans has been lopped off from the story of America. It’s time we tell better stories.


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The Mysterious Sofia is Available for Pre-Order!


The Mysterious Sofia: One Woman’s Mission to Save Catholicism in Twentieth-Century Mexico (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019).

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Who Was America’s First Superhero?

Before Superman, before Batman, before Wonder Woman there was Zorro. And Zorro was the product of Latinx culture.


Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in April 1938. Batman first started skulking around Gotham in 1939. Wonder Woman flew in from mythical Themyscira in 1941. But even before that, there were others. A decade before, in 1930, we can find The Shadow. Mandrake the Magician started mind control in 1934. And, of course, there’s even the very early comic strip from 1902–1903 with Hugo Hercules.

These, and others, certainly deserve their place as “America’s First Superheroes.”

But, we can point to other heroes, some even without superhuman abilities, as the true originators of the superheroic genre. We really have to look to the canon of romantic novels from the nineteenth century, as well as the huge volume of pulp literature from the early twentieth century for the origins of America’s superheroes.

-1. Alexandre Dumas — Father and Son.

In the 1800s, we find English and French novelists writing romantic tales with swashbuckling heroes; tales of cape and sword. We could list, among these authors, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. In France, we find Alexandre Dumas and his The Three Musketeers and the sequels. Also, Dumas’ own The Count of Monte Cristo provides an important prototype for a hero who has to masquerade as someone he’s not in order to exact revenge on his enemies. None of these characters have superhuman powers. But they do have extraordinary skills, often have to carry out their schemes for justice in secret, and there’s always an element of derring-do about them.

A recent book by Tom Reiss, The Black Count (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography), describes the real-life adventures of Alexandre Dumas, Sr. The father of the famous novelist, Dumas, Sr. was born in France’s Caribbean slave colonies and was the product of a White-planter father and a Black mother. Remarkably, Dumas, Sr. emigrated to France and rose in the French Revolutionary army. He was hailed for his remarkable sword skills, his intimidating physique, and his “superhuman” ability to lift a horse off its feet with just his powerful legs. Reiss argues, in the book, that Dumas, Sr. inspired his son’s most famous novels and provides the template for the Count of Monte Cristo. Napoleon, apparently, envied Dumas, Sr. and left him to rot in a dungeon in Italy after the Egyptian campaign — a plot that sounds a lot like the Monte Cristo novel written by Dumas, Jr.


Tom Reiss’ book describes the first “superman” as a biracial soldier from Revolutionary France.

Reiss writes: “In The Count of Monte Cristo, Dumas would give his betrayed protagonist not only the fate of his father’s final years but also a fictional taste of a dark sort of triumph. In the novel’s hero you can see the premise of every modern thriller from Batman comics to The Bourne Identity. No other adventure novel of the nineteenth century carries its resonance. After escaping the dungeon and securing the treasure of Monte Cristo, Dantes builds a luxurious subterranean hideout in the caves of the island. He becomes master of all styles of combat, though he mainly uses his mind to defeat his enemies, bending the law and other institutions to his superhuman will. Knowing that the world is violent and corrupt, the Count becomes master of violence and corruption — all with the goal of helping the weakest and most victimized people of all. The Count is the first fictional hero to announce himself as a “superman,” anticipating Nietzsche — not to mention the birth of comics — by many years.”

So, any discussion of America’s first superhero should take into account the Count of Monte Cristo, by Alex Dumas — and based on the real-life adventures and tragedies of the novelist’s father. And note: the first character to describe himself as a “superman” was created by a writer of mixed heritage; one who had to constantly battle racist reviews because of his background.

-2. Penny Dreadfuls and the Scarlet Pimpernel

Moving forward in time, we find two important precursors to the modern American superhero.

The first was birthed in Penny Dreadful publications in England. The character Spring-Heeled Jack appeared in 1837. He was an urban legend, a frightful character described as diabolical, with clawed hands, with eyes of burning fire. He was known for his extraordinary leaps and ability to jump — from which came the “spring-heeled” sobriquet. But he could also appear as a gentlemen, alluding to the importance of disguise. But Jack was a villain, a terror. He wasn’t known for “Robin Hood” style adventures.

He looks a lot like Batman, really.


Issue 2 cover of 1904 Aldine Spring Heeled Jack Library

The next precursor is The Scarlet Pimpernel, first a stage play and then a novel, by Baroness Emmuska Orsczy (1905). The novel’s protagonist is Sir Percy Blanckney, a foppish British aristocrat who uses various disguises to save French aristocrats from the guillotine in the era of the French Revolution. With Blanckney we get the first millionaire-by-day and hero-by-night sort of character.

Orczy’s protagonist helped start the “fop” trope.

Masquerading as the Scarlet Pimpernel, a name that comes from a particular flower left as his calling card, Blanckney disguises himself as an old woman, as well as a Merchant of Venice-style Shylock in order to throw off the trail of the cunning French Inspector. (Note the heavy antisemitic theme in Orczy’s story). The Scarlet Pimpernel uses his wits, not any cunning swordplay to beat his enemies. The novel is told from the perspective of Blanckney’s French wife, who believes her husband is a huge wimp. Eventually, the Scarlet Pimpernel saves his wife and her brother from arrest and the guillotine and the world is put to rights.

-3. Zorro

In 1919, Johnston McCulley wrote the first serialized novel with the character Zorro — the “fox.” McCulley’s Zorro pulled from Dumas’s and Orczy’s creations — the larger-than-life hero, the disguise — but McCulley’s Zorro did something different, something new, which arguably set the blueprint for the superhero genre.

First, Zorro had an identifiable disguise that he always wore. The mask, the cape, the black outfit, the hat, the sword, the whip. He rode a black horse called Tornado, which is basically the model for Batman’s black Batmobile.

Second, Zorro had a manservant, Bernardo, who knew of Zorro’s identity and aided him in his adventures. Bernardo becomes the first “dymanic duo” as well as a literary device where the hero is able to narrate his thoughts to the reader through exposition to his sidekick.

Third, Zorro’s alter-ego as Don Diego de la Vega provides a more thoroughly dual identity. The Scarlet Pimpernel masquerades as that identity through the disguises of others — an old woman, for example. But Zorro has a costume! He’s Zorro when he puts on a certain outfit.

Fourth, Zorro exists in the geography of the New World, in California of the Spanish era, and sometimes in the era of Mexican California (c. 1805–1846). He’s the first hero, with a mask and a dual identity, who does his adventures in “America.”

Fifth, Zorro’s influence can be seen in later comics characters: The Shadow, Batman, etc. Bob Kane’s testimony, of course suspect as recent research has uncovered the many ways Kane didn’t credit his collaborators, articulates that Zorro played a large role in his ideas about Batman.

Yet, the interesting thing about Zorro, is that the character got his life in the pulps and then in film and only later, in the 1940s, became a proper comic book hero.

Black rider charges in Toth

From Alex Toth’s Zorro comics, late 1950s and early 1960s.

Zorro should be considered America’s First Superhero. He laid an important blueprint for later comic book heroes, and he was uniquely “American” in his origin.

Zorro, the product of Mexican-American culture, is a fundamental part of the creation of the American superhero genre.

Think of that: Latinx culture is as fundamental to American culture as the superhero.

Stephen Andes is writing a history of Zorro. You can follow his quest at and on Twitter.

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Zorro Slays the Myth of Forced Diversity.

Zorro: Swords of Hell, Part II offers a realistic portrait of Zorro’s World — All while battling undead Zombies!


Main Cover Art: Roy Allan Martinez and Gwenaelle Daligault. Published by American Mythology Productions.

A horde of the undead is not the only enemy Zorro faces in a new comic, issue #2 of American Mythology Production’s Zorro: Swords of Hell four-part series. (A review of Issue #1 is here).

The myth of forced diversity — it’s the other important, and perhaps even more insidious, villain Zorro battles in the new issue. It’s also an important enemy for the book’s writer, David Avallone.

“There is no such thing as forced diversity,” Avallone told me in a recent phone interview. “There’s only forced lack of diversity. Any all-white, all-male state has been created artificially by white males.”

Forced diversity is the derisive criticism of historical or fictional renderings of the past wherein the writer supposedly “forces diversity” by creating the presence of so-called non-normative peoples.

In other words: gay people, people of color, people of diverse sizes, or abilities. All these people weren’t really part of the past, so this theory goes, because “that’s not how it was THEN.” White people, especially white men, were those who held power, those who made history. And if we’re saddened and shocked by that, well, that’s because that was REALITY then. We shouldn’t, according to critics of diversifying the past, simply create diversity in the past that wasn’t there, all because we, in today’s world, value diversity.

Take, for instance, criticisms of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton or snipes at the film The Greatest Showman. Or, perhaps even, the lesbian relationship presented in the Netflix series Anne With an E, the reimagining of the classic Anne of Green Gables novels.

Forced diversity! cry critics of writing these and other characters into history or art of the past.

They might say the same of Zorro: Swords of Hell. (We’re still leaving aside the hordes of undead, by the way).

Zorro, as written by David Avallone, is a mestizo. He’s a product of mixed origin. His mother was of the Tongva tribe. His grandmother, a curandera, or spiritual healer. Avallone began to write Zorro this way before he realized that novelist Isabel Allende had done similarly in her 2005 take on the masked avenger.

In the conventional story, started by Johnston McCulley 100 years ago, picked up in countless iterations and films, Zorro always had a Spanish, or pure, “blue blood,” heritage, unsullied by admixture.

No Indians or Mexicans in his blood, in other words.

In Isabel Allende’s rendering of the story, said David Avallone in our recent interview, “Diego is mestizo, making him an appropriate protector of Southern California, you know, by representing all of the people. But also that, canonically, his grandmother was a curandera. Better to use grandma than random witchdoctor!”

All that is to say that a Zorro of mixed heritage actually better represents the REALITY of the diversity that was actually part of Southern California’s history. And, also, Avallone uses the Tongva tribe as the indigenous people who inhabited the geography that would become present day Los Angeles. And it’s the Tongva tribe, Avallone told me, who hold the key to Zorro’s victory over the undead hordes.

“When they said make it supernatural, I was actually relieved,” Avallone told me. “That I haven’t seen before. That’s a fun way to go with Zorro. You have to give Zorro a challenge he can’t just swing a blade at. He has to draw on other resources, or ways of approaching the world. I have his grandmother saying, ‘you can’t just stab it to death.’”


Lolita and Zorro’s mother are feminist heroes. Zorro’s mother and grandmother are warriors of the Tongva tribe.

David Avallone has written a story that makes sense. “What would the Tongva have called a witchdoctor?” he told me. “So, that’s where you get the Jaguar Brujo in the story. And that’s where you get the curandera.” The underworld, he tells me, is connected to the La Brea tarpits, where he recalled reading Allende’s novel and a comment made by characters that it was a place of spirits.

Diversity, in other words, is not forced in the new take on Zorro. If you take seriously the social context, the ethnic makeup of Southern California at the time, and the ways in which spiritual worldviews mixed and overlapped, then Zorro: Swords of Hell becomes, ironically, is a more accurate representation of the time than the strictly white, aristocratic, Spanish fantasy heritage of many traditional renderings of the Zorro story.

“I will say this one thing,” David Avallone told me in our interview, “which is not an excuse but an explanation, that a lot sexism and racism in art is a lack of imagination if nothing else. I think if you’re a writer sitting at a keyboard and you’re writing a scene and the scene calls for a doctor to walk into the room and you’re a white middle-aged guy. You go, well a white middle-aged guy walks into the room. In the twenty-first century you have to be really squintin’ hard…I mean, I haven’t had a white middle-aged doctor in thirty years.”


Bernardo, Zorro’s friend and fellow member of the Tongva, gives Zorro a few lessons in fighting the undead.

So, the idea of “forced diversity” is perhaps more fantastical than Zorro fighting the undead, which Zorro does actually do in Issue #2.

But, he has help.

David Avallone was at first reticent to write Bernardo, Zorro’s mute manservant, into his new comic series. He always seemed too much like the stereotypical Tonto character from the Lone Ranger. But, here again, Avallone saw Bernardo as an important link to the Tongva tribe and the key to Zorro’s salvation.

The incredibly sad part, Avallone told me, is that the Tongva have all but disappeared. There is really no thorough description of their spiritual words. Was the underworld a place of pleasure or of torment? Was the underworld goddess a crone or a beauty? These are issues David Avallone will tackle in issue #3 and #4. But, what is certain, is that there is no failure of imagination in Avallone’s rendering of Zorro and his worlds.

A Full transcript of the interview with David Avallone is coming soon…

Stephen Andes is writing a book, Zorro’s Ghost: How a Mexican Legend Became America’s First Superhero. 

You can follow the search on Twitter and at

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Django and Zorro Fight Together!

The Graphic Novel Crossover by Quentin Tarantino and Matt Wagner.


What happens when you team up an African American avenger with a Latino vigilante?

Justice, my friends.

Or, at least, Spaghetti Western justice.

The Django/Zorro seven-issue crossover graphic novel is the first and, at this point, the only official sequel to a Quentin Tarantino film.

The art, by Esteve Polls, is magnificent. Iconic. Just putting Zorro and Django side-by-side looks, well, really cool.

The colors, by Brennan Wagner, are mood-driven and help the reader navigate flashbacks, cuts, and they help us feel filmic emotions.

The story is by Quentin Tarantino and by Zorro-writing veteran Matt Wagner (The Mage Trilogy, among many others). Wagner wrote the Zorro trilogy published by Dynamite (2008) and based on the novel, Zorro, by Isabel Allende (2005). So, Django/Zorro is a sequel both to Django Unchained (2012) and the Zorro storyline by Wagner.

And that teaming shows. Tarantino invited Wagner to his Los Angeles home and the two spent a few days brainstorming on the story. They watched old Zorro movies in Tarantino’s home theater. They became buds, in other words.

What we get with Django/Zorro is a tension between, perhaps, competing visions. On the one hand, we see Django continue as an ex-slave ready and willing to kill anyone who stands in the way of freedom. And, in Django Unchained, Django Freeman is the ONLY one who is fighting for freedom, it seems. Everyone else is simply subservient, or too oppressed, or in the case of Stephen the House Slave (Samuel L. Jackson), too drunk with the power that collaboration has given him.

On the other hand, we meet Don Diego de la Vega, in his hoighty-toighty carriage, playing the fop. He just-so-happens to cross paths with Django. (This is an element taken from the Django Unchained film where he crosses paths with Dr. King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz). Don Diego is old. It’s the late 1850s, and so we catch up with Zorro in the winter of his life. Yet, he’s still trying to protect the oppressed. He’s traveled to Arizona — where the action begins — to deal with the so-called Archduke Gurko Langdon who has forged his wife’s lineage and propped himself up as ruler in an alternate history of pre-US Arizona.

And here’s the tension: Django exists as a one-man riff on a false mythology of American slavery. That, for instance, slaves didn’t fight back. That they were all more like Stephen the House Slave than like Django Freeman. Django, in Tarantino’s film and graphic novel incarnations, says that there are n-words who are black, who are white, and who are red. Anyone who doesn’t fight back, essentially. Yet, the reality is that enslaved people did fight back. They ran away. They resisted— for instance, Frederick Douglas claimed he gained his freedom when he hit an overseer who wanted to whip him, not when he later escaped. Slave owners lived in constant fear of uprisings and rebellions. Django might inspire cheers as he kills racists and slave owners. But he wasn’t the only one who fought back.

Zorro, in contrast, becomes another mentor for Django. He hires Django, but really intends to enlist him in his cause to bring down the Archduke of Arizona. There is growth for the Django character. He understands that perhaps there are others ready to stand up to injustice, like he is. But, where the tension lies is in the ends that both characters seek. Django seems intent on blowing everything to hell, whereas Zorro has a more subtle, Chess-like approach. He intends to bring down the Archduke, help the Indians, but leave the social order as it is.

What is justice? in other words. That’s the subtle conflict at the heart of the Django/Zorro graphic novel that’s never really settled by the end. Sure, the Archduke is taken out, but so are others.

I won’t spoil it. Go read it.

Both Django and Zorro are encumbered by a weight of history. The history of slavery. The history of Spanish, Mexican, and American outrages in the West. Perhaps, when viewed within each of their respective stories, justice is done according to each. But, when placed together, one wonders what justice looks like now that Django and Zorro inhabit the same universe.

Stephen Andes is writing a book called Zorro’s Ghost: How a Mexican Legend Became America’s First Superhero.

You can follow him on Twitter and at

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Johnston McCulley, the creator of Zorro, on a 1950s Gameshow.

The Elusive Pulp Writer Rarely Spoke About His Most Famous Creation.


Johnston McCulley with Guy Williams in Disney TV Promo.

Johnston McCulley created one of the most enduring and iconic pop culture characters of the 20th Century.

I speak, of course, of Zorro.

The guy was incredibly prolific. He wrote almost 1,000 stories for the pulps. His career stretched almost 50 years (b. 1883; died 1958). His first stories began getting space in magazines like All-Story and the Railroad Men’s Magazine in 1906 to 1907. He read voraciously, claiming to go through a dozen books a week; in addition, he read the magazines to keep up on writing trends. He worked hard; really hard.

“The beginner,” McCulley said in one interview, “is going to have many of his manuscripts returned, but that is no reason why he should quit.” McCulley learned to write for his audience. “The novice can gain much by reading much. He must get some idea of how others do it — don’t copy them, but get into the swing of telling a story the way the public likes it to be told. This swing can best be understood from reading popular stories or books, that have met with instant favor by the public. The story itself of course is the big feature, but the way it is told is ninety per cent of the success of the writer.”

McCulley always loved giving writerly advice. Most of his interviews, few as they were, always focused on craft. He did one interview with Writer’s Digest, about how the new Western couldn’t be told with the old tropes. Zorro was just different enough as a “Western story” to appeal to public taste.

Zorro wasn’t his first, or only, character with a dual-identity. One of his early characters was Madame Madcap, a mask-wearing bon vivant who actually was bent on revenge against naughty, abusive men. It was called The Masked Woman, and it was published in 1920. But there were others. McCulley created pulp stories with characters such as The Green Ghost, The Black Star, The Thunderbolt, The Bat, The Mongoose, the Man in Purple, The Spider, and even the Crimson Clown. The guy loved animal alter-egos.

Zorro, in other words, was just one of many. It’s as if McCulley played with the alter-ego/mask idea and finally had huge success with Zorro. “Love, hate, greed, revenge, self-sacrifice,” he said in one 1923 interview, “have a million angles each. Combine two or three, mix with a few characters and you have a plot.” The kind of story easiest for him was of the Zorro variety, he said. “Swift-moving romance is the easiest, particularly of olden times.”


Johnston McCulley appeared on the gameshow, To Tell the Truth near the end of his life. (The McCulley segment begins at 17:00 minutes). The panel is supposed to guess who the real personality is; in this case, three guys come out in police lineup style and say they are “Johnston McCulley — the creator of Zorro.” The panelists — which include an eerily young Dick Clark — ask the three guys questions in order to figure out who the real McCulley is.

At one point, one of the panelists asks McCulley about his inspiration for Zorro. When I first saw this clip I literally held my breath…


“Oh, yes, how ridiculous to ask where he got his idea,” the male panelist guffaws. Dang it.

Watch the video.

Feel my pain.

Trying to find Zorro’s origins is partly a story about Johnston McCulley — a man who took Mexican legends and crafted his most famous creation.

Stephen Andes is writing a book, Zorro’s Ghost: How a Mexican Legend Became America’s First Superhero.

You can follow his research on Twitter and at

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Zorro’s Origins and The Head of Joaquin Murrieta

A New Documentary Narrates One Man’s Journey to Find the Decapitated Head of a California Bandit who inspired the Creation of Zorro.


Was Zorro, the masked man who left his trademark “Z” on evildoers, inspired by a real-life person from history?

I get asked this quite often, actually. I’m writing a new book on the caped avenger: Zorro’s Ghost: How a Mexican Legend became America’s First Superhero. So, answer: Yes, I do think there are several historical figures who helped inspire the Zorro legend. But, no, there was no historical guy named Don Diego de la Vega who put on a mask, or was a bandit, in Old Spanish California.

The Zorro character is fiction. But there’s a real history behind the mask! (Oh, the proverbial “behind-the-mask” turn of phrase! You knew it was coming…)

Zorro’s origins are both simple and complicated. Let me explain.

The simple part: Basically a pulp fiction writer named Johnston McCulley (1883–1958) wrote the first Zorro novella in 1919. That’s one hundred years ago. It came out in serial form, five installments, in a pulp mag published by the Frank A. Munsey company. It pulp was called All-Story Weekly. McCulley titled the story The Curse of Capistrano. It had most of the story elements we’ve come to attribute to Zorro. It had the double, secret identity thing — by day Don Diego the rich heir to a California fortune; by night, the masked man who was amazing with swords and whips and had a keen sense of justice.

McCulley set his stories, there would be 65 of them in print by the time he died in 1958, in a kind of fantasy Spanish California. The friars of the missions were good and cared for the Indians. The Indians were happy. Women really loved brave, heroic caballeros, which, incidentally, allowed Don Diego to almost never be suspected as masquerading as a vigilante at night. Although this California didn’t exist in history — missions often sucked; the friars could be both corrupt and good depending; and California’s native peoples suffered tremendously from successive waves of Spanish, then Mexican, then American pillage — McCulley’s Zorro was useful to building California in the early 20th century. The idyllic Zorro was good for Hollywood, in other words.

And that’s when Hollywood came calling. In 1920, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., the first action star of the silver screen, picked up McCulley’s Zorro and they made a movie. It was a silent film, of course. And so Fairbanks as Zorro did all these acrobatics and became even more the Zorro we’ve come to know.


That’s the simple answer to Zorro’s origins. Now, the complicated story. Or, at least a tidbit. Or, at least the head…

There was a Wild West at one time. Sure, it didn’t look like John Wayne or like the legends we’ve seen on the screen. But, there was a Wild West. Read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and you come closer to the core of that Wild West. Or, read the book by Brian DeLay, War of a Thousand Deserts, and you begin to understand the real Wild West.

It was bloody, dirty, and violent. And also mostly boring for a lot of folks. Working. Farming. Mining. Water. Food. Water. Food. Sleep. Repeat.

That Old West was also full of some pretty racist violence. Consider the history of Joaquin Murrieta, whose head wound up in a jar of pickling brine and was preserved for decades in a museum in San Francisco.


Trailer for the Documentary.

Murrieta allegedly came from Sonora in Mexico. Sonora is now Northwest Mexico, but at one time it was just Mexico — like middle-ish Mexico. Northern Mexico was Alta California back then and had small little towns we now call Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Francisco. Then war came. The United States fought with Mexico (1846–1848). Mexico lost and also lost half its territory to the expanding United States.

That was in the 1840s. Sonoran people, Joaquin Murrieta and his wife — so the story goes — traveled back and forth from Sonora to the California valleys. Remember, it was all Mexico at that time. They weren’t crossing national borders. It was like traveling from New Orleans to Chicago. But then, the war. The territory transferred from Mexico to the US. California now belonged to the Untied States. The Mexicans who lived there, or migrated there, were now, all of a sudden, in a different country. And seen as foreigners.

That sucks, right? I mean, think about that. What if I’ve been traveling to Chicago for the last several decades — my family has — and now when I go to Chicago everyone sees me as a foreign invader. That’s super weird.

And so it was with Joaquin Murrieta.

To make matters worse, gold had been found in California. Competition for gold became racialized. Mexicans and Chinese were marked as alien not only because they weren’t white, but because by excluding them, Anglo miners had a better chance at their gold claims. The tale goes that Murrieta was attacked and his wife raped. It’s a classic set up for a revenge film. Murrieta, according to the tale, goes into a life of banditry. In 1853, the governor raises a posse of California Rangers to bring back Murrieta dead or alive. The trouble is no one really knows what Murrieta looks like. There’s no photos. And, the newspaper accounts — mostly sensationalized — put Murrieta in every new case of desperado robbery or horse-thieving in the state, even if they happened miles apart. There are five “Joaquins” , in fact, each with different surnames that the press talks about in the era.

It also sounds like a setup for a racial lynching.

The California Rangers just-so-happen to happen upon a gang of Mexicans and just-so-happen to kill four of them in the Arroyo Cantua. They claim one was Murrieta and another was the so-called Three-Fingered Jack, the nom-de-guerre of another notorious bandit. The Rangers, led by Captain Harry Love — does it get any weirder that the guy’s name was Love? — decapitates the head of one of the dead and cuts off the hand of another. They put them in alcohol barrels to preserve them. They brought them back to the governor’s men and collected $5,000, the bounty placed on Murrieta.

End of story.

Accept it wasn’t. The next year, in 1854, a Cherokee Indian author named John Rollin Ridge wrote a romanticized tale about Murrieta. It was called Life and Adventures of of Joaquin Murieta: The Celebrated California Bandit. (Notice the spelling change for Murrieta. There was like ten different variations!). It had the distinction of being the first novel published by a Native American and the first novel of California. And it was with Ridge’s Murrieta that we begin to see the first shades of Zorro. He was a Robin Hood. He was a code switcher, meaning he could speak and talk like a Gringo, but then reveal himself suddenly as the real “Murrieta out for revenge.”


The new edition of the 1854 novel by Ridge.


In later tellings, Mexican-Americans passed down the tale to their children and grandchildren. The novelist Richard Rodriguez writes that grandmother’s would say things like:

“Yes, he became a robber, but not a bad man maybe. He gave what he stole to poor people…He kept the blackest horse for himself. They said his heart was as black as his chin. He wore a black hat with a black feather, and a big black cape. And you could only see his eyes.”

The legend increasingly took on elements — the black hat; you could only see his eyes (a mask?); his black horse; giving to the poor — that would lay a foundation from which McCulley drew upon in creating Zorro.

McCulley wrote that Zorro, for him, symbolized “the spirit of the caballero of the times.” He said he was influenced by California history; that he read tons of books on the area. Ridge’s novel Life and Adventures was an important book in the canon of 19th century California. Murrieta was the first folk hero of the state. McCulley combined elements of Murrieta with other pulp genre tropes and 19th century romantic adventure novels. He added the Scarlet Pimpernel for good measure— disguises, rich guy coming to the aide of others — but Murrieta was still an important base in crafting the Zorro legend.

Murrieta was white-washed as Zorro. Zorro was an aristocrat, he was Spanish, and he represented the fantasy heritage McCulley and others wanted to believe about the California past. The fantasy heritage that everyone coming to California wanted to believe. It was built into their Spanish stucco rooves. It fit their laid back Spanish hacienda lifestyle. It felt good, in other words. But, of course, in touting Zorro as the symbol of the Old California, McCulley rewrote the history of actual Mexican people living there.

That’s the complicated answer. But, what about the head?


The head traveled for profit.


The head of Murrieta was kept in a glass jar after the bounty was collected. Captain Harry Love — again, crazy name for a dude that is famous for decapitating someone — traveled around California to brothels, mining camps, and saloons with the floating head pickle. They sold admission for a dollar. Eventually, the head — or was it another head, who knows? — wound up in San Francisco at Dr. Jordan’s Pacific Museum of Science and Anatomy. A three-legged chicken and the so-called Amazing Cyclops Child floated in their own jars next to the floating hair, like sea grass, of the head of Joaquin Murrieta.

But, wait. Remember that we don’t even know if it was actually the head of Joaquin Murrieta. If it was Murrieta’s head, that’s bad enough, right? But, consider: It could’ve been the head of some hapless Mexican kid who happened to be a convenient person to kill and claim as Murrieta. I’d like to remind you that there are documented 871 lynchings of Mexicans in 13 states in the American west after the Civil War.

The Head of Murrieta floating in a jar is important for us today. It symbolizes the racial violence that characterized the Old West, but also the way in which this history has been cut off from the broader stories we tell of American history. In the same way the history of Murrieta has been cut off from the history of Zorro and popular culture, the history of Mexican-Americans has been lopped off from the story of America.


John Valadez buries the head in his new documentary.


John J. Valadez is a Chicano filmmaker who has done the unthinkable. He, too, was captivated by the whole Murrieta legend. He even went to California to try and find the purported head that was said to be kept by one Walter Johnson of Santa Rosa, CA. Valadez offered the Johnson family $1,000 for the head. The family said it didn’t have the thing. They had gotten rid of it.

End of story.

Until, that is, John Valadez received a package in the mail! Yup. The head. Or, some other head — maybe it was fake? Valadez says he doesn’t know. I called him up and interviewed him about the whole thing.

“I know it’s weird, it’s quirky,” John says to me over the phone. “I’m telling the truth except for the parts that aren’t true.” He laughs.

“I decided to do what any respectable Chicano would do,” he says. A pause. “Go on a road trip!” He laughs again, this infectious hearty chuckle.

John Valadez tells me he shot the film as a journey. He visited the places in Texas and California where Mexican-Americans died in racial violence. He travels back to the Arroyo Cantua, the place where the original crime was committed, and buries the head.

And we actually see that head at the end of the film. It looks fake. But, then again, a decapitated head in a jar always probably seems mostly surreal.

“The story of Murrieta has haunted America. It’s like the Donner Party,” John tells me during our phone conversation.

As I say goodbye to John, I think about what Richard Rodriguez wrote regarding Joaquin Murrieta. “We are all bandits,” he writes. “We’ve stolen California from the Mexicans. And they stole it from the Spaniards. And they stole it from the Indians. We can deal with the guilt history places on us only when we free ourselves from the ghosts.”

Finding the origins to Zorro is about dealing with those ghosts, uncovering the painful history of the Old West, and perhaps allowing us to see American culture as a product of Mexican and Latino contribution. Zorro is often seen as America’s first blueprint for the modern superhero. It’s time to reclaim Zorro’s lost head and tell better stories.

Stephen Andes is writing Zorro’s Ghost: How a Mexican Legend Became America’s First Superhero. 

You can follow the search on Twitter and at

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