Chillicothe's Master Storyteller

by Gary Fyke

The “mark of Zorro” can be traced all the way back to central Illinois.

When 11-year-old William Johnston McCulley heard his mother call him “Little Willie,” he probably didn’t like it—even though he was little. But what could a boy say to his mother, who’d been calling him “Little Willie” all his life? What must have been worse for William was the teasing he surely took from schoolmates when they saw the “Locals” section of the October 17, 1894 issue of the Chillicothe Bulletin, which quoted his mother saying she was taking “Little Willie” to visit their relatives in Missouri and Texas.

She was quite proud of her grandson. How’s that, you say? No, it wasn’t a situation of embarrassing family relationships; there is a totally legitimate explanation of how she became his mother, after she was his grandmother.

Early Chillicothe Roots
It all began when Emily, a young girl from Chillicothe, married John Wesley McCulley in 1858. Four years earlier, when he was 19, John had opened a grocery store in Chillicothe on what is now the 1000 Block of North Second Street. By the time he turned 23 and married 17-year-old Emily, John was a well-established businessman. It didn’t take long for the newlyweds to be in a “family way,” and their first son, Rolla Andrew McCulley, was born on August 8, 1859. The young grocer and his new family lived just two-and-a-half blocks from the store, which is now identified as 1234 N. Second Street.

In July of 1861, John left Chillicothe, Emily and Rolla to seek adventure and fortune. At the time, many men had been doing the same thing, most signing up to serve in the military forces of the Union or Confederate armies—but not John Wesley McCulley. He went west to Sonoma County, California, where he purchased a 50-acre parcel of land and planted tobacco and fruit crops, hoping to make large sums of money. There’s no way of knowing whether he and Emily knew they were again in a “family way” when he set out for California, but their second son, John J., arrived in February of 1862. Township records show that he and Emily kept the house in Chillicothe, apparently with the help of John Wesley’s brother, Jackson, and their mother was able to keep Emily and the two boys at home. After two years in the plantation business, John disposed of his California property and moved to Idaho to work in the gold mines. By 1865, John Wesley returned to Chillicothe with $3,000 in gold he claimed to have gleaned.

Once home again, John resumed running the grocery store and began purchasing land in and around Chillicothe. He also took up farming at the age of 35, but records show he didn’t become heavily involved in the venture, as he sold most of his land in a very short time, generally for the same amount of money he paid for it. In 1881, John made his last land purchase, buying a lot on the northwest corner of Truitt Avenue and Fourth Street for $1,500. He held that property until 1891, when he sold all but one parcel of the lot, where their home was located, for a profit. Today, the parcel he kept is identified as 409 West Truitt Avenue.

Tragedy Stalks the McCulleys
John and Emily raised their oldest son, Rolla, in Chillicothe, where he most likely worked in the family’s store from an early age before becoming a farmer. In 1881, Rolla married Clara Belle Raley in Chillicothe, and by 1883, the young couple had moved north near Ottawa, where the Raley family held land. On February 2, 1883, Rolla and Clara Belle became the parents of a son, William Johnston McCulley, but the joy of becoming new parents was tragically wiped away when Clara Belle died unexpectedly the following June. Undoubtedly, Rolla, now a 24-year-old widower with a toddler to care for, did as most people would do and turned to family for help in meeting this challenge.

There was no question as to who would replace Clara Belle in young William’s life: Grandma McCulley. Whatever plans were considered can only be a guess, but a permanent solution was found by October of 1884, when Emily and John Wesley adopted their grandson. With Emily and John caring for William, Rolla was able to continue his life, and not long after, he met a woman from Marshall County named Harriet “Hattie” Ball. The couple married in 1887 in Henry, Illinois, but soon left for Missouri. Rolla and Hattie had one daughter, Vida E. McCulley, born in 1891.

The next year, Rolla and his second family returned to Illinois, but tragedy struck again when a scaffold accident left Rolla paralyzed. His health deteriorated in the ten months following his injury before he died in April of 1894. He was buried in the Chillicothe Cemetery. Hattie and Vida moved to Henry to live with Hattie’s parents, but tragedy, yet again, stalked the McCulleys, and Vida died at the age of 13 in 1904.

Seeds of the Future
Though emotionally tumultuous, William J. McCulley’s early years in Chillicothe may well have been the element that prepared him for the future. He was the pride of his grandparents, and almost surely worked in the McCulley grocery, exposing him to many people’s lives. Though Chillicothe was a small town, it was a vibrant one; the second-largest city in Peoria County was comprised of many diverse qualities from which William collected life experiences he could build upon. It had a bustling business community, fed by two major railroads, healthy farming activities, and the influence of commerce and leisure activities of steamboats on the river, as well as a school system that was well established by the time William began his education.

The first public notice of “Little Willie’s” academic talent came in 1901, his senior year at Chillicothe High School. At the time, the state education system required senior students to compete in an essay competition. Faculty from each school would declare a winner, and then enter the paper in a countywide competition; the winner of that would compete in an oratory competition in nearby Champaign. William was the winning author for Chillicothe High School and made it to Champaign, where he placed fifth. That was the beginning of William McCulley’s entry into the literary arts.

After he graduated, William went to Peoria seeking a job as a newspaper reporter, but earned his keep working in a real estate office, where a young woman named Zylpha Harper also worked as a stenographer. Apparently, romance flourished at a fevered pace between the two, because by October of 1902 they were married. While working in the real estate office, William became a freelance reporter with the Peoria Star, and also began writing short fiction stories, which he submitted to various magazines.

Zorro and Beyond
Though McCulley’s subject matter varied widely, he tended to write action stories. In 1903, his grandparents moved to the Portland, Oregon area, and William and Zylpha went with them. There, William obtained work in his desired field when he was hired by The Oregonian in 1904. All the while, he continued writing magazine stories and submitting them to publishers, hoping to sell them.

Before William achieved his goal of having one of his stories published in a magazine, his literary and storytelling ability burst upon the public stage in Portland’s Empire Theater on July 9, 1905. While working as a copy editor at The Oregonian, his romantic drama The Heir Apparent was presented as the Sunday matinee. McCulley was just 22 years old when he experienced his first major writing success—not as a reporter, but as a playwright. But this was just the beginning for Emily McCulley’s grandson and son, her beloved “Little Willie.”

Sadly, Emily and John Wesley McCulley did not live to see their grandson’s most successful and enduring work. John died in 1910, and Emily passed away in 1918, a year before William’s greatest literary accomplishment, The Curse of Capistrano, was purchased by Douglas Fairbanks Sr., then Hollywood’s most popular actor. Fairbanks hired William, who had started using his middle name, Johnston, as a pen name, to write the screenplay for the silent movie The Mark of Zorro, which was released in 1920.

More than 90 years later, McCulley’s “Zorro” character still lives today all across the world. Though Zorro is unquestionably McCulley’s most famous written work, it is only one of hundreds of stories he penned, not to mention the many other dual-identity superheroes he created besides Zorro. The impact and influence of Johnston McCulley upon many aspects of the motion picture industry and subsequent action-hero genre cannot be denied. William Johnston McCulley may have been a small man in stature, but he was a tall man in his talent. iBi

Visit zorro.com for more information on Zorro, "the fox," and the many appearances of this character in popular culture.

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