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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