Was Zorro real or just a figment of Hollywood’s imagination

Time Before Now, November 1920 National prohibition went into effect in January with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, and didn’t end for another 13 years.  The National Negro Baseball League was organized in February and lasted until 1931.  It took another 14 years for Jackie Robinson to make it to the majors in 1947.  A bomb outside J.P. Morgan’s Wall Street offices killed 30 and injured 400.  Italian anarchists were believed to be responsible.  And the U.S. Postal Service prohibited the mailing of children, a practice that began with Parcel Post service in 1913.  

 November 27, 1920

On this day, matinée idol Douglas Fairbanks became the first celluloid superhero with the New York City opening of “The Mark of Zorro.”  The film inspired a dozen more movies over eight decades and fueled a quest to discover the real Robin Hood of the West.

The 90-minute silent film was based on the serial, “The Curse of Capistrano.” It originally appeared in the magazine “All-Story Weekly” written by pulp fiction author Johnston McCulley.  Originally a police reporter, McCulley wrote hundreds of stories and books,  most based on “Robin Hoodesque” characters, under a potpourri of pseudonyms,  But none ever equaled his success with Zorro.  The popularity of the Fairbanks movie vaulted the story into a full length book.   It begged the question, was Zorro real or imagined?  Eighty years later, there is still no answer to history’s satisfaction.

There are several serious  contenders, however, chief among them Joaquin Murrieta.  The real Murrieta (left) was believed to have been born in Mexico in 1829.  A romanticized semi-biographical novel “The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murrieta” was published in 1854.  Author John Rollin Ridge, writing as “Yellow Bird,” bested the McCulley tale to the public by more than six decades and was groundbreaking in its own right.   Ridge,   (right) a member of the Cherokee Nation, was the first Native American to publish a novel. 

Solomon Pico, an early California land owner, is also thought to have contributed to the Zorro legend.  It was another case of revenge when gold seekers flooded his ranch land and reportedly somehow contributed to the death of his wife, Juana.  

A Murrieta nephew named Procopio (left) is a third candidate.  An infamous California bandit, he reportedly witnessed the lynching of Murrieta’s brother in a dispute with rival Anglos over his gold claim.  

Most arm-chair historians think Murrieta has the inside track, a peaceful man forced to avenge crimes against his family.   In addition to his brother’s murder, his young wife was raped and Murrieta himself was savagely horsewhipped.

Turned avenger, Murrieta is alleged to have hunted down all the perpetrators of the original crimes.  Unfortunately, his violent rampage didn’t end there.  The  California legislature soon offered a $5,000 reward, as much as $100,000 today, for his capture dead or alive. 

And it didn’t end well for Murrieta.  To prove they had the right man, in 1853 California Rangers decapitated the bandit and preserved his head for identification in order to claim the reward.  It was later exhibited (right) across the state for a dollar admission.  

But the Santa Barbara Historical Society’s favorite nominee for Zorro is Solomon Pico. (Right)  From a distinguished land-owning family near Sutter’s Mill, Pico’s ranch was reportedly overrun with gold seekers.  Following the death of his wife, he became a cattle dealer, using his position to ferret out the itineraries of rich stockmen.  Pico’s band of merry bandits always knew exactly when to rob ranchers, flush with money from their cattle sales.  Arrested, tried and acquitted, Pico was, however, years later suspected in a string of mysterious disappearances when skeletal remains were discovered in the area. 

His story doesn’t end much better than Murrieta’s. He became a captain of the guard in Baja, Mexico, under Colonel José Castro.  At one point proving himself to be heroic, he faced down a lynch mob in a racially charged incident, saving the life of a captive American businessman. 

But when Castro was killed, his successor, Feliciano Ruiz de Esparza, decided to rid the region of bandits. The new commander rounded up and executed all the usual suspects, including Solomon Pico.

That leaves the Murrieta nephew, Procopio, the least likely to deserve the   Robin Hood mantel.  While the folk-lore version purports he was turned him stone-cold killer after witnessing the murder of his uncle, he was linked to Tiburcio Vasquez, (right) one of California’s most bloodthirsty bandits.  

No one is sure when or how died.  One version states he was executed by firing squad for the murder of a Frenchman. Another has it that as an unpopular resident of a small Mexican settlement he was dispatched by local ruales for bad behavior.  A third and final version simply states he died in Sonora, Mexico in 1882.  The end.

Johnson McCulley  apparently remained mute about his inspiration but Hollywood successfully shined up the stories for all the likely candidates.  From the 1920 Fairbanks film to the latest Zorro incarnation of 2005, the swashbuckling hero has been portrayed by heart throbs including Tyrone Power, (above) Guy Williams (right) and  Antonio Bendaras. (Below)  

The Zorro character is often cited as a prototype for the latter-day Batman movies and several of the new Zorro films have been popular money makers. 

Despite their box office success none have earned the critical acclaim of the original.  In 2015, the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, Highway 49, Coloma, California, preserves the spot that started the California Gold Rush and the genesis for the Zorro legend.  A visitor center and museum provide a comprehensive history of mining in the area and historic buildings recreate the Gold Rush era.  Gold panning is allowed during park hours and panning lessons are offered through the park’s “Eureka Experience” program. 

The  two and a half mile Monument Ridge Loop through natural areas connects the Marshall Monument with the opposite end at the park’s North Beach picnic area.  For hardier hikers, the Monument Loop is a challenging 1.5 mile route climbing 250 feet to founder James Marshall’s grave site. 

Day use fees are $10 per vehicle and $9 for seniors.  Hours for the park are 8 to 8 from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend, 8 to 6 from Labor Day through October and March 1 to Memorial Day.  Winter hours are 8 to 5 from November through February.  The museum is open daily 9 to 4 daily.  Visitor Center hours are 9 to 5 in summer and 9 to 4 during winter months.   For more information go to parks.ca.gov/marshallgold or write Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, Hwy. 49, Coloma Road at Bridge Street, PO Box 265, Coloma, CA.

Some COVID-19  restriction may apply.  Go to the park’s website for the latest information before planning to visit.

© Text Only – 2019 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.