CHILLICOTHE, Ill. (WMBD) — No one has seen his face, but everyone knows his mark. Zorro, a character created in 1919, stems from an author who was raised in Chillicothe.
“His writing history began probably in high school at the Chillicothe Township High School,” said Gary Fyke, a member of the board of directors for the Chillicothe Historical Society.
Graduating from high school in 1901, author Johnston McCulley worked as a journalist in Peoria and in real estate off of Jefferson Street.
Years later in 1919, McCulley wrote The Curse of Capistrano. It was a five-part serial that turned into the Mark of Zorro, which was a silent movie written by McCulley and directed by Douglas Fairbanks and Eugene Miller.
The movie had two large changes that differed from the serial: The name, which resembled the final scene of the serial, and the mask. In The Curse of Capistrano, McCulley wrote Zorro’s mask to cover his whole face and neck, but Douglas Fairbanks, who played Zorro in the Mark of Zorro, was known for his white, shiny teeth. Fairbanks made the decision to change the full face mask to an eye mask, instead.
“He created characters of his own who are all masked and secret guys that always were fighting for the good,” said Fyke.
The popularity of the character led to three novels appearing in a magazine called Argosy: The Further Adventures of Zorro (1922), Zorro Rides Again (1931), and The Sign of Zorro (1941).
In 1940, there was a Mark of Zorro remake starring Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell. This made the character much more widely known to the public, and McCulley decided to bring Zorro back with new stories.
McCulley ended up writing 53 more short stories after he made an arrangement with the pulp West Magazine to produce a brand new Zorro short story for every issue. These stories appeared between July 1944 and July 1951.
Now, all of McCulley’s history lies in the Chillicothe Area History Museum. In 2013, when the museum’s board of directors found out McCulley was from Chillicothe, they got to work.
“Once we found out about it, I just knew something needed to be done someday,” said Diane Colwell, director of the Chillicothe Historical Society.
Through the years, the museum has received multiple pieces of McCulley history which have even made a name for themselves.
Colwell said, “We’ve had visits from the Smithsonian, that was a thrill.”
In the 21st century, people may even recognize McCulley’s mold in almost every superhero comic and film.
“Guy working alone to fight for the champion of good against evil. That model, all the modern-day superheroes and all this kind of stuff that we see on there that jump from century to century, all of that stuff follows the mold that Johnston McCulley set,” said Fyke.
To set an example to the children who come to the museum, Colwell said she likes to tell them, “Just think, this man had an idea, he wrote it down and developed it, and look at all the things we have because of that. So if you’ve got a good idea, you don’t know where it’s going to go, but see what you can do.”