Ballet Fantastique’s recent world premiere of the first ballet developed on the subject of the legend of Zorro – Zorro: The Ballet, with the permission and approval of the owners of the Zorro copyrights and rights – piqued an interest in the source(s) and history of the legend.
There’s a Eugene, Oregon connection to the Zorro legend, by one remove, or degree of separation. It goes like this:
Cincinnatus Hiner Miller was born on September 8, 1837. His parents were Quakers from Indiana. In 1852, they moved to Oregon, a “go west, young family” journey that took seven months. They settled a homestead and established a farm near Eugene, Oregon.
Joaquin Murieta was a horse thief, cattle thief, highwayman, brigand, gang leader, murderer, who apparently began his career focusing his targets on non-mexicans, but becoming less discriminating later in his career. In 1853, someone who might have been named Joaquin was shot, and then beheaded, as proof, said head was preserved in alcohol, and put on public display, even touring, eventually destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. “Three-fingered Jack”‘s hand was similarly cut off, and publicly displayed.
Murieta was glorified, and incidents to justify his rage were invented, beginning his transformation into a folk hero, in John Rollin Ridge’s novel (writing as “Yellow Bird”), The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta: The Celebrated California Bandit, published in 1854. The rape of his wife in his presence, the hanging of his brother in his presence, and a personal horsewhipping presumably racially motivated are supposed to have turned Murieta against all non-mexicans, but he was represented as kind, generous, and defensive of justice for his own people.
In 1863-64, Cicinnatus Miller edited The Eugene City Democratic Register, where he editorialized pacifist (“Quaker”) sentiments against the civil war. When he was interpreted as pro-Southern (i.e., pro-slavery) in sympathy and his editorials were suppressed, Miller sold out, moving briefly to Port Orford on Oregon’s southern coast. He crossed the Cascade Mountains driving a herd of cattle, planted the first orchard in Canyon City, and was a Grant County Judge until 1870.
Joaquin, et al. was published by Cincinnatus Hiner Miller in 1869, was received sceptically by literary critics who found it amateurish and affectedly epic. It introduced a new element to the public imagination, a deep-knife scar across Murieta’s forehead. The scar became an icon in the description of Murieta from people who claimed to have encountered him. He and his gang inhabited more caves in California than George Washington slept in beds in New England. By the 1880’s, this version had become popular on the east coast, and fertilized the pulp mill for new stories “celebrating” the career of the “Robin Hood of California.”
In 1870, Miller met California’s first Poet laureate and Oakland’s first librarian, Ina Coolbirth, who persuaded him to adopt the pen name of Joaquin Miller, by which he is now known to the world: Joaquin Miller, the Poet of the Sierras, Byron of the West, predominantly on the basis of his book of poetry, published in 1871, Songs of the Sierras.
Around 1905, The Scarlet Pimpernel was published by Baroness Emma Orczy, featuring a son of the noble class who seemed a dainty, pampered, but clever and witty fop by day, but who donned a costume by night, and engaged the ruling class in fights for justice for the downtrodden masses, in the milieu of the “The Terror” following the French Revolution, and had a love interest that despised him in his Clark Kent mode, but was infatuated and intrigued by the costumed hero that she did not know (at first) was the same man. The Baroness credits the “Pimpernel” as a divine inspiration that allowed her to live very comfortably off the proceeds of the first, and myriad sequels she wrote, chronicalling the adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Although Johnston McCulley was reticent to credit or acknowledge his sources, the parallels seem too obvious to analysts and critics, and there is a consensus of agreement that The Curse of Capistrano by McCulley, the first literary appearance of el Zorro, the “fox,” a pulp serial published in five installments in 1919 in All-Story Weekly (gathered into a single volume in 1924 which was republished as the Mark of Zorro, after Douglas Fairbanks’ silent movie treatment with that name became a commercial success – in 1920), is deeply indebted to a mash-up and interweaving of the plots and characters of the apotheosized Joaquin Murieta and the French “Robin Hood,” Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel, transplanting the French hero to the cultural setting of early 19th-century California.
So there you have it. Eugene, Oregon must share the honor, or guilt, (or both) of contributing to the formation of one of America’s enigmatic, charismatic, controversial and paradoxical characters, Joaquin Miller, who contributed to the threads of public fascination and sentiment that ultimately became the legend of Zorro.