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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Karl May's
Cactus Forest

by Clay Coppedge
Karl May is the best-selling author you've probably never heard of, even though his books have reportedly sold about 200 million copies over the years. May was a German writer of the late 19th century who set about twenty of his seventy or so books in Texas and the American West, including four set on the Llano Estacado, a land he described as "one of the most dangerous corners of the distant West," a place where the "vulture of death" circles endlessly overhead.

Together with Apache chief Winnetou, the German's blood-brother, Old Shatterhand embarked on a series of adventures across the broad expanses of the Llano Estacado, battling the elements, evil, injustice and the most dastardly of villains. He always won.

Old Shatterhand was, in the words of writer Ralph S. Walker "an illustrious German superman who could speak, read, and write forty languages, who roamed the world as a writer and archeologist, never made a mistake he couldn't rectify, smoked cigars, and worshipped the Protestant God. He was always keener-witted than the people around him, was a better shot than anyone had even seen before, was generous to a fault, and never killed man nor beast unless he needed to, but if forced did so without compunction or regret."


The real Karl May's resume was much more pedestrian, but so is everybody else's. He was born poor in the German town of Ernstthal. Though he found honest work as a teacher's assistant, young Karl wanted more than what his meager salary allowed so he started stealing some of the stuff he couldn't buy. He pilfered candles from a boarding school, neglected to return a watch he'd borrowed, and carried his impersonation of an eye doctor to the point of writing prescriptions for unwitting patients.

Later he passed himself off as a seminary student and ripped off a local furrier for two muskrat coats. The law caught up with him in Leipzig in 1865. A jury didn't take long to sentence him to four years and one month in the work house. He was sent to the reform prison Oberstein Castle near Zwickau and assigned to work in the library.

As a prisoner with access to thousands of books he learned to use atlases, encyclopedias, and geographical and ethnological studies to describe the countries he wrote about, though sometimes his imagination got the best of him, as in his description of a "cactus forest." He may have also "borrowed" passages and descriptions from other German writers like Mayne Reid, who once described the "snow-capped mountains" of Lubbock.

Not long after his release from Oberstein Castle he impersonated a police officer in order to confiscate "counterfeit money" from a grocer, swiped billiard balls from a tavern, and stole a horse. Old Shatterhand would been hanged, or at least banished to a cactus forest, for such deeds.

May was thirty-two when he walked out of Waldheim Prison in Germany a free man. He went to work as an editor at a publishing house, then began to write pulp fiction, humor, travel essays, and anything else he could dispense for dollars. He became rich and famous. Albert Einstein, Herman Hesse and Adolph Hitler were avid readers of Mays' books when they were boys.

But being a best-selling writer wasn't enough for Karl May. He wanted to transform his stories from fiction to memoir and reinvent Karl May as the real life Old Shatterhand. He hired a studio photographer in Linz to make portraits of him dressed as Old Shatterhand, cradling rifles custom made by a Dresden gunsmith. He displayed the guns in his house, which he called the "Villa Shatterhand." He liked to show off additional treasures from Asia that he claimed to have picked up while living the adventures he described in a series of books featuring world traveler Kara Ben Nemsi.

But as famous world travelers go, May didn't get out of the house very much. He visited Egypt and surrounding countries twice, complaining of the stench, the food, and the realization that the country harbored mass quantities of sand that sometimes blew in his face. May blamed his travels for two nervous breakdowns. There was probably more to it than that.

May later made it to the United States, land of his dreams, and visited New York, Boston and Niagara Falls from September to December of 1908. He bought souvenirs, sent postcards to Germany, and posed for pictures with an old Tuscarora chief wearing suspenders. By then, the unmasking of May's masquerade was well under way.

It began in May of 1899 with what's been described as "a strange alliance of the gutter press and Christian zealots." The press exposed May's verifiable past as a thief and jailbird. The zealots criticized his works as "deeply amoral." One critic even claimed he found "pornographic works of the worst kind" in May's writing.

May tried to destroy the Austrian studio photographer's plates of his sessions with May as Old Shatterhand, but the negatives had already spread all across the country. Even as he spent the last ten years fighting the charges, banished to his own metaphorical cactus forest, his books continued to sell in the many thousands.

The vulture of death descended on Karl May on March 30, 1912, but readers continued to suspend their disbelief and his books kept on selling. A series of 1960s films based on May's western novels inspired a Karl May Society along with "Wild West Clubs" and "Cowboy Clubs," including one called "Lubbock Town" outside of Cologne. Lubbock was even the site of a Karl May Conference in 2000, nearly eighty years after his death. His legacy survives today not as a writer of great novels, but as a writer whose greatest fiction was his own life.
Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" February 17, 2019 column

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

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    Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • Finders Weepers 1-10-20
  • The Walking Arsenal 12-13-19
  • The Invisible Track Highway 11-16-19
  • The Unflappable Flapper Bandit 10-19-19
  • Monroe Fisher's Higher Calling 9-23-19

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