Doing an interview for radio (which is then made into a podcast) was an interesting experience. Luckily, it wasn’t live so there was still a possibility that my flubs could be edited out.
Here’s the link! Catholic Forum Podcast: Mysterious Sofia
Doing an interview for radio (which is then made into a podcast) was an interesting experience. Luckily, it wasn’t live so there was still a possibility that my flubs could be edited out.
Here’s the link! Catholic Forum Podcast: Mysterious Sofia
I had the privilege of speaking with the guys at the Latinx Conversations Podcast. We talked about my new book, The Mysterious Sofia, as well as culture, history, and representation. It was great fun. Check it out on Spotify, iTunes, etc.
Yesterday, I had the distinct pleasure of speaking via telephone with Bob Krebs. Bob is the host of the Catholic Forum radio show and podcast.
It was great fun.
Bob and I talked about my new book, The Mysterious Sofia: One Woman’s Mission to Save Catholicism in Twentieth-Century Mexico (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2019).
It’s always an interesting discussion when trying to talk to an English-speaking, mainly American audience, about Mexican history. There’s so much background we have to cover. But part of the thing I was trying to do in the book is to make Sofia’s story, and Mexican history, accessible to an American audience. Why? Because Sofia’s story is a human story. It’s not just about the history–it’s about the life of woman who lived through revolution, economic depression–a woman who had love and heartache and did some pretty amazing stuff. Hopefully that comes through in the interview.
Bob said the interview will be on the show, November 16, 2019. Shortly after it will be available as a podcast through iTunes, Spotify, and iHeartRadio.
The book trailer for The Mysterious Sofia has dropped.
University of Nebraska Press: Pre-order it today!
As Zorro turns 100, a look at the Portland, Oregon years of Johnston McCulley, Alias Convicted Rapist.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
The Mysterious Sofia: One Woman’s Mission to Save Catholicism in Twentieth-Century Mexico (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019).
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.