The Winnetou novels were best sellers and earned May (pronounced “My”) nationwide recognition and truckloads of money. When he published his first Winnetou tale, In the Distant West, May implied it was a true story. He also implied that he himself was Old Shatterhand, Winnetou’s right-hand man.
In truth, he’d never set foot outside of Germany. May was actually an ex-teacher and part-time thief who’d served time for stealing furs. But the public didn’t know any better, and they devoured May’s fantasies, thinking them travelogues.
As May gained fame, his claims grew wilder. Whenever May went on tour, he sported a buckskin jacket and a crazy sombrero. He would chant in Apache and claim to speak a multitude of languages. He bought a fancy house, dubbed it “Casa Shatterhand,” and filled it full of mementoes he’d supposedly collected on his travels. May even built a cabin for Winnetou in the backyard, in case the Apache chief decided to drop by for a visit.
When real Native Americans toured Germany in Wild West shows (and didn’t act anything like the Native Americans in his books), he claimed they were liars, outcasts from their tribes. May even claimed the legendary Buffalo Bill Cody caused the death of a couple of his friends. The lies were spinning out of control, and everything came crashing down on May when reporters discovered the truth about his past.
Despite the bad press, May’s novels kept on selling. They were beloved by everyone from Albert Einstein to Adolf Hitler. They spawned a series of popular German movies and even inspired an annual Winnetou festival, though the books were all wildly inaccurate.
When May finally came to America in 1908, just a few years before he died, he visited the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan and was absolutely devastated. He learned Apaches didn’t actually live in pueblos. Nor did they build totem poles. Texas deserts weren’t at all like sandy Arabian wastelands, and all those battles he’d set in the 1860s actually occurred in the 1810s. May was so distraught that he ventured no further west than New York.
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