Tall Tales of the West: The Stories of Karl May


Born into poverty in Ernstthal, Germany, in 1842, Karl May (pronounced “my”) became a teacher, receiving his license from a Saxony Normal School and finding jobs at company schools and as a private tutor. After several brushes with the law – for theft, fraud, and impersonating medical doctors, lawyers, and police officers – and time served in prisons, his teaching license was revoked. Finally at age 32, he turned to writing. He began publishing serial versions of his Western Americana and Arabian stories in magazines like Der Deutsche Hausschatz (The German Treasure Trove). His novel Winnetou, published in 1893, gained him fame and financial success. Many of his novels were driven by themes of peace for humankind, Germanic superiority, and Christian morality.

The kinds of impersonations that had once landed him in jail led him to adopt Winnetou’s and Old Shatterhand’s Western escapades as his own. He did the same with Kara Ben Nemisis’ Arabian adventures. To assert expertise and authority, he printed business cards with “Dr. Karl May” and claimed knowledge in several European, Arabic, and Native American languages. None of it was true. On his only visit to the United States in 1908, he traveled only as far west as Buffalo, New York. On March 30, 1912, May died of a heart attack in Radebeul.

Karl May's calling card.



May’s 1887 narrative, Der Sohn des Bärenjägers (Son of the Bear Hunter), contained the first mention of the Silberbüchse (silver rifle). The weapon continued to play its role--trusted, sure-shot, never missing the target--in all subsequent stories in which Winnetou appeared. Over the years, May had his audience believe that he rescued the rifle from Winnetou’s grave in Wyoming. As he told the story, May went to visit Winnetou's grave, where he surprised a group of Sioux digging it up. He and his friends chased them away. Reasoning that disturbances on Winnetou's grave would continue so long as the rifle was there, May seized the Silberbüchse and took it to the safety of his Villa Shatterhand in Radebeul. It has been on display ever since.

In truth, the rifle was made in Radebeul, had no firing mechanism and, until now, has never seen the American West. In the 1920s, the rifle was restored and a duplicate was fabricated. Parts from the original Silberbüchse were removed and used on the duplicate.

Winnetou’s “original” Silberbüchse produced by Oskar Max Fuchs, 1896. Courtesy Karl-May-Museum, Radebeul, Germany.