Unmasking the Real Zorro
Through the years there have been many people to have claimed the title ” Zorro “, meaning fox, but who was the real man? The first to hold the name Zorro ( but that is disputed ), was William Lamport ( 1611-1659 ) or Don Guillén de Lampart (or Lombardo) y Guzmán, who was an Irishman living in Mexico trying to incite the crowds to fight for their freedom. The next man was Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla ( 1753-1810 ), a priest who was able to get crowds to follow him by the thousands, and was the first to be publicly called Zorro, but died by firing squad a few years later. But our story has a California connection and neither of these men do, theirs was a fight in Mexico. in 1919 Johnston McCulley wrote a story called “The Curse of Capistrano “, and six years later Douglas Fairbanks was playing him on screen. Johnston supposedly received his inspiration from a 1854 book entitled ” The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murrieta, The Celebrated California Bandit ” by John Rollin Ridge ( Yellowbird ). John heard about a Mexican miner who had turned to banditry and was intrigued by the story, but who was the real man?
Joaquin Murrieta was born in Sonora Mexico in 1830 to Joaquin and Rosalia Murrieta, but his mother was previously married to a man named Carrillo, a name he would use later in life. By 1850 he was married to Rosa Feliz, and working in the rich gold country of California along with Rosa’s three brothers. Claudio Feliz, Rosa’s brother headed to Sonora California while Joaquin and Rosa were off to Niles Canyon in Contra Costa County. But things quickly turned sour, remember, California was bought from Mexico in 1848 and just a year later gold was discovered and Rosa and Joaquin were right in the heart of the gold country. According to legend, Joaquin was doing well, but nearby Anglo miners were not. So one night they tied Joaquin to a tree and brutally raped his wife for hours, she would later die of the wounds and hung his brother. So Joaquin turned to a life of crime in order to revenge their deaths.
The truth is Claudio was arrested for stealing another man’s gold, but was able to escape the Stockton jail. He was a ruthless killer, on one of his earliest robbing murdering spree, he and his gang ended up at the Digby Smith ranch and supposedly crushed Digby’s skull, split another with an axe and severed a cook’s head, then burned the place to the ground. In 1851 Claudio robbed a Californio and made the mistake of not killing him. Once the news reached the local Hispanic Californio’s, they choose not protect him anymore and he was quickly found and killed. This made Joaquin the leader of the gang.
Claudio’s brother Reyes joined Joaquin in Los Angeles, and they were quickly implicated in the death of General Joshua Bean, the Major General of the state militia, he was also the brother of famed judge Roy Bean. Reyes was convicted of the murder and hung just outside Fort Moore. By January 1853 our ” hero ” was hellbent on continuing the carnage of his brothers in law. They killed 22 men in just TWO months, mostly docile Celestial’s ( people of Asian decent ) and most of the time these people were killed for entertainment only… By March, Joaquin was too well known for the area, so he left for the San Joaquin Valley. Meanwhile the state of California had enough and on May 14th 1853 the state senate passed a bill authorizing “Captain Harry Love to raise a company of mounted rangers, to pursue and capture ” Joaquin ” the bandit.” On July 25th of the same year Captain Love captured Joaquin’s gang and fatally shot their leader in a running gun battle.
To prove that he had finally got his man, he severed Joaquin’s head and placed in a saddlebag to taken back. End of the story…. Or is it? Love only had a small window of time in order to catch Joaquin, and time was running out. He was looking at a $5000 paycheck if he could get his man, so it appears that he had ” a man “…. There have been discrepancies since day one, that the man he beheaded was not Joaquin. Newspaper accounts of the day state both ways, it was and it was not Joaquin, depending on who you want to believe. Earlier we stated that Joaquin sometimes used the name Carrillo, he also used Valenzuela, and others, this led to the rise of the five Joaquin’s. It seems that nearly every robbery or murder in the state was attributed to Joaquin and his gang. But it would make for a very smart tactic, have five gangs roaming the state and bringing back the plunder to the real Joaquin. Then after one is killed, quietly move back to Mexico, retire, and live a good life…
So if Johnson McCulley actually did use Joaquin as a inspiration for Zorro, I’m not sure if it was well deserved. The legend is a great story, but the harsh reality of the atrocities he and his gang committed, are eminence.