Karl May is the most famous writer you’ve probably never heard of unless you live in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic or a nearby European country. If you don’t know who May is, you won’t know that there are a dozen festivals celebrating his legacy. Some draw nearly 1/2 million attendees every year.
Karl Friedrich May isn’t someone that you’d ever have expected to be famous.
Born in Hohenstein-Ernstthal Germany, May was one of 14 children, nine of whom died. His father was a weaver, his mother a housewife. May became a teacher but was fired after minor thefts and lost his teaching license.
So, he embarked on a new career – con artist. Unfortunately, the new career didn’t go well either, and May was sent to prison several times, the last for four years. Luckily, the prison had a library. And with time on his hands May read and wrote. By the time May got out he was able to get a job as a journalist. Next on the agenda was marriage in 1880. His writing started making money. The job ended. The marriage ended in 1893. By then May had published 70 books. He married a widow 20 years younger.
Part of the reason for his success was that May was a meticulous researcher. And his books were about exotic places and the American wild west. Winnetou, his most successful trilogy was as popular as Harry Potter. The two protagonists were Winnetou, an Apache Indian Chieftain and Old Shatterhand, an American pioneer of German descent. Their friendship was a romping bromance in which the pair went on adventures in the old American west, foiling evildoers along the way.
In 1895 May bought and moved into a mansion which he renamed Villa Shatterhand in Alt-Radebeul. In 1899, he traveled to Egypt then Sumatra with his servant, Sejd Hassan. He claimed to have been to America. But the truth is that he didn’t make the trip until he was 66 when he visited an Indian reservation near Niagara Falls.
Still a con-man and a diligent self-promotor, May inflated his credentials giving himself a doctorate while touring regularly to promote his books.
Ever the showman, he died in 1912 on his way— against his doctor’s orders—to give a speech.
But his work has since been adapted for film, theatre, audio dramas and even comics. In 1964 French actor Pierre Brice starred as Winnetou while American actor Lex Barker played Old Shatterhand. The Karl May yearly festivals resemble Disneyland’s Frontierland. There are live reenactments of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand’s adventures with horseback riding and shoot-‘em-up action.