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Karl May: From Con Man to Successful Author

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Almost unknown outside Germany, Karl May's (pronounced “My”) novels have sold more than 200 million copies. His books about the Wild West have created a sub-culture of fascination with the cowboys-and-Indians era of American history.

His Beginnings as a Crook

Karl May began his professional career by training as a teacher, but then there was the unfortunate business of a roommate’s missing watch. This meant that May had to find another line of work. He chose the burgeoning field of confidence tricks.

He impersonated a police officer, a physician, and an American ambassador, and stole numerous items including a fur coat and 500 billiard balls. In 1870, he began a four-year prison sentence. Behind bars, he devoured every book he could find.

As fate would have it, May's time incarcerated would serve as the preparation for his writing career that was to follow. His many cons demonstrated that he had a talent for spinning a yarn that was not always restricted to his fictional characters.

Winnetou and Old Shatterhand

Cutting his literary teeth in pulp fiction and magazines, Karl May hit his full stride as a novelist in 1875. His adventure stories took his heroic characters to the Middle East and the Wild West.

Two of the favourite characters among his readers appeared in 15 of his 80-plus works. Winnetou was a wise Apache chief and Old Shatterhand was his German sidekick and friend. The latter was surveying illegally on Apache land when the Indians captured him. He was almost put to death but was saved by Winnetou and the two men become “blood brothers.” They spent their time together doing heroic deeds and righting wrongs.

Shatterhand got his name from his ability to knock out adversaries with a single blow to the head. He was reluctant to kill and, if shooting started, he aimed for his opponent’s legs or hands. Of course, he rarely missed. His faithful mount was Hatatitla (Lightning), while Winnetou rode aboard Iltschi (Wind).

Karl May strikes a heroic pose; or is it Old Shatterhand? Hard to tell. The highly polished footwear is an unlikely piece of kit in the frontier.

Karl May strikes a heroic pose; or is it Old Shatterhand? Hard to tell. The highly polished footwear is an unlikely piece of kit in the frontier.

His Errors

Old Shatterhand was clearly Karl May as he wished himself to be. He claimed that all the adventures experienced by his alter ego were actually experienced by himself. The slight inconvenience in this narrative is that May never actually visited the places in which the acts of derring-do occurred.

In addition to his Wild West books, he presented himself as an experienced travel writer. Susanne Spröer in Deutsche Welle comments that this “explained his temporary absences, which were in fact prison stays, not exotic journeys.”

Having never been to the locations he described, his prose contained mistakes. May set his books against an historical background, so his vast audience of German readers have absorbed a distorted view of the Wild West.

Winnetou makes it onto a German postage stamp.

Winnetou makes it onto a German postage stamp.

Winnetou was the personification of the romanticized noble Indian, but he’s geographically misplaced. May’s stories are set in the Great Plains, but the Apache lived mostly in the southwest. He makes reference to Indian Wars battles that are decades adrift from when they really happened. But, the errors didn’t hurt his sales; after all, very few of his readers would have visited the West either. And anyway, it’s fiction, so why quibble?

The Karl May Industry

The London Times notes that “Nowhere in the Western world, outside of America itself, is the cult of the cowboy so firmly entrenched as it is in Germany.” And, it’s the works of Karl May that have created a sub-culture of enthusiasts.

There’s the Munich Cowboy Club where members can saddle up and shoot bows and arrows. There are camping and canoe trips, shoot outs, and well-loved time spent in the saloon. The wearing of fringed jackets and Stetsons is de rigueur.

The cowboy club Old Texas in Berlin is just one of a dozen or so Wild West-themed hobbyist groups in Germany. The club has a town of 21 buildings erected by members.

Then there are the Karl May festivals held in several German and Austrian communities. The biggest of them all takes place in Bad Segeberg, a town of 16,000 situated 50 km northeast of Hamburg. Every year, upwards of 300,000 Wild West fans flock to the town to enjoy all things cowboy and Indian. The festival runs from late June to early September.

The centrepiece is a series of plays based on Winnetou and Old Shatterhand adventures that are enacted in a natural amphitheatre. The shows feature pyrotechnic activity, galloping horses, and gun battles. There’s an “authentic” Indian village and lots for the kiddies. And naturally, there’s merchandise to be scored. Of course, what visitors are experiencing is Karl May’s imaginary version of the Old West, which has little resemblance to the real thing.

Bonus Factoids

  • Adolf Hitler and several of his henchmen were avid readers of Karl May’s books. The Nazis were so enamoured with Native Americans that they made the Lakota-Sioux honourary Aryans. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports that today, neo-fascists “adopt Indigenous ways as a ritual to reinforce their own crude belief in racial purity and the need to keep the ‘other’ from destroying the tribe.”
  • During the 1960s, many of Karl May’s Wild West stories were made into movies. Rivka Galchen in The New Yorker writes that the films “were so successful that they are said, with only some exaggeration, to have saved the West German film industry.”
  • Karl May wrote under numerous pseudonyms with such exotic names as Capitan Ramon Diaz de la Escosura, Ernst von Linden, and Prinz Muhamel Lautréamont. He did this so he could sell the same story to several different publications. This worked well in a world that was more than a century away from plagiarism software.
  • May’s father, a poverty-stricken weaver, came into a little money that he put towards his ambition to become a pigeon breeder. As befits the father of a con man, Papa May bought some costly “blue-striped” pigeons whose feathers had been attached by glue. His second purchase was a bird that turned out to be blind.
Karl May Novels

Karl May Novels

Sources

  • “Wild West Germany.” Rivka Galchen, The New Yorker, April 2, 2012.
  • “Who Was Karl May? Facts and Myths Surrounding the Creator of Winnetou.” Susanne Spröer, Deutsche Welle, February 24, 2017.
  • “Karl May.” Eugene Stelzig, Harvard Magazine, March-April 2020.
  • “On Truth, on Reality, and on Karl May.” Gerold Wallner, Versopolis, September 2, 2019.
  • “The Germans’ Infatuation with Cowboys and Indians.” Allan Hall, London Times, July 30, 2004.
  • “Why Are Germans So Obsessed With the American Wild West?” Joel Stonington, Vocativ, March 4, 2014.
  • “Teepees, Powwows and ‘Indianer’ Camps: Germany’s Long Fascination with Indigenous Culture.” CBC, undated.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor