The Incredibly Crazy Novels Of Karl May

“Not all Europeans have read the Bible, but we have all read Karl May.” —Vanja Aljinovic, Croatian Karl May fan

In A Nutshell

Karl May was the J.K. Rowling of his era. This 19th-century author penned over 80 novels, many of them Westerns, which still capture the imagination of German readers to this day. He was also a thief, a liar, and a conman of Catch Me If You Can proportions who convinced an entire nation that his books were actually autobiographies.

The Whole Bushel

Clint Eastwood once said that Westerns and jazz are the only two American art forms. That’s especially true for the Western. After all, the genre is almost exclusively set in the plains and deserts of North America. And just try listing off a few Western authors. Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour might come to mind, as well as more recent writers like Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy . . . all Americans.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Take Karl May, for example. Before his death in 1912, this German author wrote 82 novels of adventure and intrigue. While his tales of the Orient were wildly popular in their time, he’s best remembered for his Westerns, especially the ones featuring Winnetou, a noble Apache chief who rights wrongdoings with his German sidekick, Old Shatterhand. But despite his fame as a Western novelist, May never visited the US until the last few years of his life. That would have been fine—plenty of authors haven’t visited the settings of their stories—if May hadn’t told everyone the Winnetou novels were true stories, and that he was actually Old Shatterhand.

May’s life of deception began when he was a 20-year-old teacher. After stealing a friend’s pocket watch, he was thrown in jail and stripped of his teaching license. After he was released a few weeks later, he decided to become a full-fledged confidence man, convincing everyone he was a professional eye doctor. His plan was to confiscate “counterfeit” cash from a local shop, but after the real cops showed up, May found himself back behind bars.

After four years and one month in prison, May returned to the real world, determined to start a new life as a writer. Soon he was churning out everything from love stories to lurid penny dreadfuls, all under a pseudonym, but he eventually decided to publish a novel with his own name. The title was In the Distant West, and it introduced Germany to the characters of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand (named for his punching power). Only instead of telling his publisher the book was fictional, he implied it was a true travelogue, an actual story of his adventures in the American West.

Well, the German public ate it up. They couldn’t get enough of Winnetou or May’s other big character/alter ego, Orient explorer Kara Ben Nemsi. And as May’s fame grew, so did his lies. All his tales were written in the first person, implying he was really an international explorer. When he went on book tours, he would give lectures on his travels while wearing a buckskin jacket, gaudy spurs, and a Mexican sombrero. He’d even occasionally chant in Apache. After all, he’d earned a doctorate and could speak 40 languages.

Things got even crazier when he bought a home near Dresden, a house he affectionately referred to as “The Casa Shatterhand.” May filled his new villa full of cowboy gear, rifles, and old bones, claiming they were treasures he’d found on his journeys. There were also quite a few stuffed animals—including a lion—which he’d purportedly shot on his adventures. But nothing quite compared to the log cabin he built in his backyard and filled with Native American artifacts. According to May, this was Winnetou’s getaway for whenever the Apache chief felt like dropping by.

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While most everyone fell for his game, there were a few reporters who didn’t buy his story. And after they discovered May was divorced, they tracked down his first wife and learned the author was a top-level trickster with a criminal record. Suddenly, national newspapers were attacking May as a fraud and a cheat. Things got even worse when one of his early publishers printed his penny dreadfuls with May’s real name on the cover. Outraged citizens deemed May a “corrupter of youth” and accused him of pornography. May was even facing serious jail time for claiming he had a PhD.

While the scandal hurt sales for a little while, readers eventually forgot about May’s transgressions and kept on buying his books. After all, they were darn entertaining. But May’s life didn’t really get any better. Angry at being exposed, he sued the journalists who’d “smeared” his name and even went after the publisher who taken advantage of him. The court battles lasted nearly a decade, and by the time they were done, May was a sick, weary man.

His life took an even sadder turn when he actually left Germany and started exploring the world for real. In 1899, he traveled across East Africa and was shocked to see the places were radically different than he’d imagined. In fact, he was so stunned that he suffered from two nervous breakdowns. His 1908 trip to America didn’t go much better. Once he arrived in New York, he made the mistake of dropping by the American Museum of Natural History. When he stepped inside, he was stunned to learn everything he’d written was wrong. Apaches didn’t live in pueblos, they didn’t have totem poles, and the deserts of Texas didn’t look at all like the Sahara. May was so depressed that he never traveled further west than New York.

While the last few years of his life were disappointing, Karl May’s legend still lives on today. There are over 200 million copies of his novels in print, and his books were enjoyed by the likes of Albert Einstein and Albert Schweitzer. Winnetou showed up in six German movies which are some of the most popular films in Germany, there’s a two-day Karl May Festival, and die-hard German fans often dress up in traditional garb and spend their weekends acting like Native Americans. In other words, you could say that Karl May was really the most successful conman of all time.

Show Me The Proof

Native Fantasy: Germany’s Indian Heroes (video)
Scams!, by Andreas Schroeder
SpiegelGermany’s Best-Loved Cowboy: The Fantastical World of Cult Novelist Karl May
Cowboys & Indians: The Strange Life and Legacy of Karl May
Clint Eastwood: Interviews, Revised and Updated, edited by Robert E. Kapsis and Kathie Coblentz