The Real Zorro?

The following article is from the book Uncle John’s True Crime: A Classic Collection of Crooks, Cops, and Capers.

Every cultural legend has to start someplace, even if it’s from just a kernel of truth, expanded and embellished until it bears no resemblance to the original. Here’s the possible origin of Zorro, the “bold renegade” who “carved a Z with his blade.”

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Pulp fiction writer Johnston McCulley created the swashbuckling character Zorro for a tale called “The Curse of Capistrano” that appeared in All-Story Weekly magazine in 1919. Literary historians believe McCulley based him on a number of characters, most of them fictional… and at least one real human being. It turns out that the story of the real man’s life was just as unusual—and probably every bit as embellished—as Zorro’s.


Not long after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California in 1848, a young Mexican man named Joaquin Murrieta came to California with his wife, Rosa Feliz, and her brothers Claudio, Reyes, and Jesus. They hoped to strike it rich in the gold fields, but none of them did; the closest any of them got was when Claudio was arrested for stealing another miner’s gold.

In 1850 Claudio escaped from jail and led his brothers and Murrieta in what became one of the most violent bandit gangs ever to terrorize the California gold country. The group was known to raid isolated ranches, but they preferred to rob lone travelers and Chinese miners (they thought the Chinese were less likely to be armed than whites or Mexicans). The gang murdered most of its victims after robbing them, to ensure that there were no witnesses.

The law began to catch up with the gang in September 1851, when Claudio was killed in a shootout following a robbery in Monterey County. Murrieta happened to be in Los Angeles at the time, and when Claudio died he assumed control of the gang. Not long afterward the bandits made the mistake of killing Joshua Bean, a major general in the militia. Murrieta then compounded the error by abandoning Reyes to his fate—Reyes was arrested for Bean’s murder and hanged.


Jesus, the youngest of the Feliz brothers, apparently never forgave Murrieta for Reyes’s death, because when the posse of state rangers caught up with him he willingly gave them the location of Murrieta’s hideout. On July 25, 1853, Murrieta died in a gun battle not far from where Interstate 5 now intersects Highway 33 outside of Coalinga, California. After Murrieta died, Jesus gave up his life of crime, moved to Bakersfield, and started a family. He lived to a ripe old age and died in 1910.

Murrieta was not as lucky. After he died in the shootout, the posse cut off his head and preserved it in a giant glass jar filled with brandy—there was a bounty on his head (so to speak), and in the days before fingerprinting and DNA evidence, posses had to be a little more creative in documenting that they’d gotten their man.

Murrieta’s brandied head made the rounds of the “$1-a-peek, crime-doesn’t-pay” lecture circuit for a few years; then it ended up as a feature attraction behind the bar of San Francisco’s Golden Nugget Saloon, where for the price of a drink you could sit at the bar and stare at the head for as long as you could stand the sight of it staring back at you. The head was still floating there in its jar on the morning of April 18, 1906, when it, the jar, and the saloon were all destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and fire.


By then Murrieta’s image had already been completely remade into a Robin Hood-like figure who robbed from the rich, killed them, and gave to the poor. (His infamy as a killer was so well-established that a complete whitewash would not have been believable.) The makeover had begun less than a year after his death, when a newspaperman named John Rollin Ridge wrote The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murrieta, the Celebrated California Bandit. Ridge himself was on the lam for a murder he’d committed in Arkansas, which must have given him sympathy for his subject. He painted a picture of Murrieta as a good man at heart who embarked on his life of crime only after seeing his brother lynched and his wife gang-raped by a band of vicious gringos. Murrieta then got his revenge by killing every white man he met until he was finally hunted down and killed by a drunken, sadistic ranger who was only in it for a $5,000 bounty.

Ridge’s book sold so well that five years later the California Police Gazette published an even more exaggerated version of the tale. That in turn led to new versions being published in France, Spain, and Chile, where a statue was erected in honor of Murrieta, who—in that version of the story, at least—was a native of Chile. These fictionalized accounts of Murrieta’s life gained even more credibility when a historian named Herbert Howe Bancroft fell for them and passed them along uncritically in one of his volumes on the American West. Now that a prominent historian had signed off on them as true, the tales were accepted as unvarnished fact by just about everyone. Joaquin Murrieta became a folk hero, one whose fame continues to this day. He has been the subject of a play by the Nobel Prize-winning author Pablo Neruda, and in 1976 he even became the inspiration for the Soviet Union’s first-ever rock opera, The Star and Death of Joaquin Murietta, a Chilean Bandit Foully Murdered in California on 25 July 1853.


So was Joaquin Murrieta ever really captured and killed? Was that really his head floating in the jar behind the bar in the Golden Nugget Saloon? Even that detail has been called into question. According to one version of the story, the posse on Murrieta’s trail had only 90 days to catch the bandit and collect the reward. When the time was nearly up and they still hadn’t captured their man, the party murdered the first Mexican they came upon and put his head in the jar so that they could claim the reward. “It is well known that Joaquin Murrieta was not the person killed,” the editor of the San Francisco newspaper Alta wrote in August 1853. “The head recently exhibited in Stockton bears no resemblance to that individual, and this is positively asserted by those who have seen the real Murrieta and the spurious head.”


Seventy-five years after Murietta’s death, writer Johnston McCulley was working as a crime reporter for the Police Gazette. After World War I, he switched to pulp-fiction writing. An amateur history buff, he based many of his stories in old California, and was undoubtedly familiar with the legend of Murrieta. But in addition to Joaquin Murrieta, McCulley is believed to have drawn inspiration from The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas (1844–45), and The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy (1905), both of which feature wealthy gentlemen who don disguises to fight evil.

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McCulley created dozens of characters over the course of his career, and as was the case with so many of the others it is doubtful that he intended for Zorro to be more than a just one-story character. That all changed when United Artists, the film studio founded by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith, decided to base their first film, The Mark of Zorro (1920), on “The Curse of Capistrano.” Why mess with success? McCulley happily went on to write more than 60 stories featuring Zorro, the most popular character he’d ever create. Zorro, in turn, was one of the major inspirations for another character: Batman, who appeared in comics beginning in 1939. In the original version of the Batman story, Bruce Wayne’s parents are murdered after leaving a movie theater. The movie they’d just seen: The Mark of Zorro.


The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s True Crime: A Classic Collection of Crooks, Cops, and Capers.

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