Germany’s Best-Loved Cowboy

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Jan Fleischhauer, March 30, 2012:

Only once did he actually visit those wild, faraway countries where he had so fearlessly traveled from the safety of his desk. In April 1899, Karl May took a ship from Genoa to Port Said in Egypt, aiming to finally see the Orient. He had 50,000 marks, a tremendous amount of money at the time, to spend on lodgings for himself and his valet. He was 57, one of Germany’s most famous authors and a rich man. 

The trip was a disaster. May couldn’t tolerate the foreign food, and he was distressed by the stench, the noise and ubiquitous filth. Everything went straight to his stomach and his head. And then there were the tourists combing the sights of Cairo with their Baedeker travel books, “tightly clutching the red guide,” as the author grumbled.

But he stuck it out, traveling from Egypt to Ceylon and Sumatra, as if to retroactively walk in the steps of someone he had only pretended to be in the past: an adventurer and globetrotter. When May returned to his native Saxony, after 16 months and two nervous breakdowns, he vowed not to embark on another adventure anytime soon. America, the other land of adventure he portrayed in his books, would have to wait … //

… A Criminal Record:

It was clear early on that Karl was talented, and the family pinned its hopes on him. After school, he was forced to spend hours copying text from the encyclopedias, prayer books and stories about nature that his father had gathered from the neighborhood. If young Karl failed to complete his allotted work in time, he could expect a whipping with a birch switch.

The boy was stuffed with facts in a completely unsystematic way, in keeping with his father’s confused ideas about education. Looking back on his childhood, May likened it to being “fed and stuffed beyond compare.” Nevertheless, a layer of knowledge developed over time that would later prove useful to him.

Prison was his second significant source of education. May was 20 when he stood before a judge for the first time. He had earned a diploma as a teacher’s assistant, which promised a meager but steady income. And he did try to earn a living as a teacher, but there was a part of him that refused to accept the limitations of his circumstances.

He seemed to have inherited a certain swagger. When he was a young student, his file described him as “extremely deceitful.” May would later describe the dark aspects of his personality that controlled him: “There were all kinds of characters inside me, and they all wanted to be part of my worries, my work, my creativity, my writing and my composing.”

What began harmlessly enough soon became more serious. May posed as an eye doctor, “Dr. Heilig,” and even wrote prescriptions. According to a police profile, he wore glasses and had a “friendly, suave and mellifluous demeanor.” Then he rented a room in the city of Chemnitz as the “seminary teacher Lohse,” ordered two muskrat coats from a furrier and disappeared out the back door with his loot.

He was arrested near Leipzig in March 1865, and the verdict was quickly passed down: four years and one month in the workhouse. It was harsh, but not excessive for the time. May had already attracted the attention of the authorities before: a few stolen candles at boarding school and a watch he had neglected to return. They were trifles, but now they were contributing to a picture of a crook and petty criminal who would be better off behind bars.

Serial Novel Success: … (full text).


Berlin’s Forgotten Half: Excavations Shed Light on History of Cölln, on Spiegel Online International, by Frank Thadeusz, March 30, 2012, it’s Photogallery;

Is the Lion Man a Woman? Solving the Mystery of a 35,000-Year-Old Statue, on Spiegel Online International, by Matthias Schulz, Dezember 9, 2011, it’s Photogallery.

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