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Chillicothe renews its love for Zorro, and his controversial creator

Tim Alexander

The case can be made, according to Chillicothe Historical Society President Gary Fyke, that Zorro, the fictional swordsman made famous by former town resident and author-playwright William Johnston McCulley, was the early prototype for the modern-day superhero of pulp fiction, television and Hollywood Blockbuster fame.

After all, it was McCulley who developed the lone avenger, dual-identity character of Zorro that has been emulated by the superhero genre (i.e. Lone Ranger, Batman, Spiderman and even Wonder Dog) ever since the author first introduced the swashbuckling swordsman-- who was known “by day” as Diego Vega-- in his 1919 five-part magazine serial The Curse of Capistrano.

This and other issues of interest relating to Zorro and McCulley, who spent his formative years growing up in Chillicothe, were up for discussion during a recent 140th birthday celebration-- complete with cake-- for the late author held at the Chillicothe Public Library.

“We are beating the drum that Zorro was the first superhero,” said Fyke. “The ‘McCully Model’ is to have only one (hero), a daytime-meek kind of guy-- which I always thought was amazingly funny because McCulley himself was small-built-- who was supported by his rich dad. Late at night he would become a masked person who went out and fought for the downtrodden and oppressed. (Super heroes) all have their dual identities but (McCulley) set the model that the others followed.”

Portrait of the author as a young Chillicothean

“Throughout these parts William Johnston McCulley was known as Willie, and his grandmother called him Little Willie because of his small stature,” noted Dianne Colwell, a local historian and longtime member of the Chillicothe Historical Society. “McCulley was raised by his grandparents (in Chillicothe) since his parents passed away during his childhood. Their main interest was in their grocery business downtown.

“Between 1883 when he was born, and 1901 when he graduated from Chillicothe High School, Chillicothe was a busy place downtown with the Illinois River traffic and the many steamers, paddle wheelers and fishermen here in town. The Rock Island Railroad leased the only railroad track running south and north through town that offered Western Union services. The McCulley family lived within two blocks of and probably watched the construction of our depot, now a museum, which was built in 1899 to replace the original depot lost to fire,” Colwell added.

 The Chillicothe Historical Society's Gary Fyke speaks, with a cardboard cutout of Zorro looking on in the background.
Tim Alexander
The Chillicothe Historical Society's Gary Fyke speaks, with a cardboard cutout of Zorro looking on in the background.

McCulley’s grandfather, John Wesley McCulley, was 24 years old when he opened the family’s grocery store near 2nd and Cedar streets in 1859, according to historical records. A move occurred just two years later that placed the grocery just north of City Hall, near 2nd and Walnut. John Wesley and Emily Thompson McCulley’s son, Rolla, married Clara Belle Raley and the couple gave birth to William Johnston McCulley in their new home, Ottawa. Sadly, infant Willie would lose his mother at the age of 16 months.

A tragic end was also in store for Rolla, a carpenter who died following a scaffolding accident at the Marshall County courthouse in Lacon that initially left him paralyzed. In 1884 at age 11, “Little Willie” was orphaned and returned to Chillicothe, where he would spend his formative years and receive his education under the watchful eyes of his loving grandparents.

McCulley’s entry into the literary arts came as a high schooler in Chillicothe when he won a state-required essay contest as a senior. The young author was rewarded with a trip to Champaign, where his essay, whose content is apparently lost to time, was recognized as fifth-best in the state.

McCulley left his mark in Peoria

At around the age of 18, McCulley had found his destiny in writing and set off to the big city of Peoria, home to several newspapers at the turn of the 20th century, to fulfill it.

“He had it in his head he was going to become a newspaper reporter, and some of the more veteran reporters looked down on him as a ‘newbie,’” Fyke said. “In order to make a living, he also hired on with an insurance company on Hamilton Street. He met a young woman who was a stenographer there, from Washburn, named Zelda Harper. They became an item and eventually married. McCulley eventually got his foot in the door with some newspaper editors and became an experienced serial story writer.”

McCulley’s destiny was not to remain in Peoria or central Illinois, however. By 1903 he had moved to Portland, where the young writer supplemented his income reporting for The Oregonian with his first forays into pulp fiction, or “dime novel” writing. In 1906, McCulley wrote his first screenplay.

His newfound success out west had done nothing to endear McCulley to his former newspaper colleagues back home in Peoria, and when the aspiring screenwriter came back to town in 1906, allegedly flaunting a $300 paycheck he had received out west, they decided to take action. A questionable relationship with a young Bradley University student who worked in a dress shop was exploited by Peoria newspapermen, who speculated whether McCulley was guilty of an extramarital affair with a “cloak model,” a term which at the time was considered a euphemism for “prostitute.”

“These newspaper guys whom McCulley had smarted off to started badmouthing him after one of them saw him put a luggage crate on a train and then get on the train with (the student),” said Fyke. “It was all over the papers for about a month and a half.”

It didn’t help matters that McCulley then proceeded to “go missing” for a period of months without even a telegram to his wife Zelda, who had returned to Peoria just as her husband had left on the train. Eventually, a cousin of McCulley’s reached Zelda with news that her husband was safe and sound in Ohio.

Apparently unaware of the controversy he’d caused, McCulley vowed to return to Peoria to clear his name. Zelda, however, had already gone back to Oregon, where, despite unfounded rumors of divorce, McCulley would also eventually return.

But the damage to McCulley’s reputation had been done, thanks in part to the actions of the reporter’s former colleagues in Peoria. A felony rape charge filed against McCulley-- later negotiated to a suspended sentence with conditions-- cemented McCulley’s reputation in some circles of society.

“Johnston McCulley certainly had a checkered career,” said Fyke, “though we can’t be sure he was really a rapist.”

On to the world’s stage…and back home

History shows that McCulley survived the slanderous allegations originating from Peoria and subsequent rape charges to become one of the most prolific writers of his time. By 1910 he had published over 1,000 pieces, with his works translated into virtually every major world language. His Curse of Capistrano series was noticed by silent screen actor Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who went on to star in the 1920 movie The Mark of Zorro, for which McCulley was paid $50,000-- a record amount at the time-- to pen the screenplay.

McCulley would go on to author hundreds of novellas and stories, fifty novels and numerous screenplays, but none as famous as his Zorro series which spawned movies, books, comics, radio programs and mass merchandising in the decades to follow. But for all of his connection to Peoria and Chillicothe, none of McCulley’s Zorro works were actually composed in central Illinois. The early Zorro novellas from McCulley were written in Colorado Springs, Colorado and Tarzania, California, according to Fyke.

The small Peoria County town of Chillicothe still holds a flame for the controversial author, where McCulley spent the bulk of his formative years. In the early 2000s, late Chillicothe Times-Bulletin newspaper editor Marianne Gillespie, along with former Chillicothe Mayor Don White “rediscovered” McCulley’s connections to the town. The pair brought the connection to the attention of Colwell, who began to beat the drum to recognize McCulley as a native son of Chillicothe.

“We were struggling to find a way to create some sort of tourist attraction as a revenue source for the (historical) society, because we are just a non-profit volunteer group,” Fyke recalled. “Dianne studied what she could find out about McCulley, and the pieces fell into place from there.”

Fyke took time to explain how the community celebrates the prolific writer, who passed away in Los Angeles in 1958. “We have all of the Zorro memorabilia collection from (famed Marvel Comics illustrator) Peter Poplaski on semi-permanent display at the Chillicothe Historical Society. The majority of this is on consignment to us. From that we have developed a celebration of Zorro that included a Zorro Parade in 2013 and 2014, with a followup celebration each year,” said Fyke. “In 2020 we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the movie (The Mask of Zorro) and tonight (Feb. 2, 2023) is McCulley’s 140th birthday.”

In addition, the Chillicothe Historical Society has designated McCulley as “Chillicothe’s Storyteller” as a tribute to the famed, but controversial author who grew up and was educated on the banks of the Illinois River in Chillicothe.

For more information on the Chillicothe Historical Society, call (309) 274-9076, send an email to chillicothehistorical@gmail.com or visit www.chillicothehistorical.org. The Society also maintains a Facebook page. The museum featuring Poplaski’s Zorro memorabilia collection and other artifacts, located at 723 N. Fourth Street, is usually open on Sundays from 1-4 pm or by appointment.

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Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.