May, Karl (1842–1912)

By: Christopher Long

Type: Biography

Published: May 1, 1995

Updated: December 8, 2020

Karl May, a German writer whose popular western novels helped to form the image of Texas and the American West in the minds of many Europeans, was born on February 25, 1842, in Ernstthal (now Hohenstein-Ernstthal), Saxony, the fifth of fourteen children of Heinrich August and Christiane Wilhelmine (Weise) May. Shortly after his birth he lost his sight, probably from malnutrition, but regained it at the age of five. In 1857 he entered a teachers' training college, where he passed final examinations in 1861. The following year he was convicted of stealing a watch and was imprisoned. The incident effectively barred him from continuing his career as a teacher, and after his release from prison May, now deeply disaffected, perpetrated a series of frauds and swindles hoping to revenge himself on society. In 1865 he was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison but was released in 1868. He was convicted once more in 1870 and spent four further years in prison.

After his release in 1874 May began to work as an editor for a publisher of adventure books and popular magazines. Later, as a free-lance writer, he turned out an enormous quantity of novels, humorous sketches, short stories, and other writings, which eventually filled more than seventy volumes. Of these, probably the best known was a series of some twenty adventure novels set in the American West of the mid-nineteenth century, including Winnetou (4 vols., 1893–1910), Der Schatz im Silbersee (The Treasure in Silverlake) (1894), and Old Surehand (3 vols., 1894–96). The hero of many of these works was Old Shatterhand, a German immigrant, who along with other German Westmänner ("westmen") such as Old Surehand, Old Firehand, and Old Wabble, traveled the West seeking to bring Christianity and justice while fighting unscrupulous White men and renegade Indians. Old Shatterhand, as Ralph S. Walker has described him, was "an illustrious German superman who could speak, read, and write forty languages, who roamed the world as a writer and archeologist, never made a mistake he couldn't rectify, smoked cigars, and worshipped the Protestant God. He was always keener-witted than the people around him, was a better shot than anyone had even seen before, was generous to a fault, and never killed man nor beast unless he needed to, but if forced did so without compunction or regret." During his wanderings, Old Shatterhand frequently encountered the Apache chief Winnetou, who became the German's blood-brother, and together they experienced a series of adventures.

Although May never set foot in the American West (during his only trip to the United States in 1908 he spent a few weeks in the Northeast), he managed with the aid of atlases, encyclopedias, and geographical and ethnological studies, to recreate a convincing vision of the vast region west of the Mississippi, erring egregiously only perhaps in his description of great, impenetrable "cactus forests." Despite, or perhaps because of, his rather romanticized view of the culture and landscape of the West, May's novels became enormously popular in Germany, particularly with younger readers. For many Germans and other Europeans, Texas and the American West became synonymous with the world of May's works, and the May cult has helped to inspire various "Wild West Clubs" and "Cowboy Clubs." May often took liberties with history and chronology. Yet, whatever their lack of scholarly merits, May's books acquired a huge following, and such diverse figures as Albert Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, Hermann Hesse, and Adolf Hitler were among his avid readers. Since their publication, more than sixty million copies of his books have been sold in Germany, and his works have been translated into thirty languages. A number of them have also been made into movies.

By the 1890s May was a wealthy man, living in a large house in Radebeul, near Dresden, which he called "Villa Shatterhand." Flushed with his success, he began claiming that he had experienced everything that he had described in his novels. He sent out photographs of himself dressed as Old Shatterhand or Kara Ben Nemsi (hero of a series of novels set in the Near East), and in 1899 he toured the Orient for eighteen months, allegedly to visit "old friends" there. When journalists and others began to dig into his past, however, they discovered a different story. In 1904 his criminal record was revealed. May instituted a series of suits alleging defamation of character, but was never able to repair the damage to his reputation. He married Emma Lina Pollmer on August 17, 1880. After their divorce in 1903 he married Klara Bleibler Plöhn. He died in Radebeul, Germany, on March 30, 1912, and was buried in the Radebeuler Friedhof.

Christian Hermann, Der Mann, der Old Shatterhand War: Eine Karl-May-Biographie (Berlin: Verlag der Nation, 1988). Julian Crandall Hollick, "The American West in European Imagination," Montana: The Magazine of Western History 42 (Spring 1992). Howard R. Lamar, ed., The Reader's Encyclopedia of the American West (New York: Crowell, 1977). Meyers Enzyklopädisches Lexikon, Vol. 15 (Mannheim, Vienna, and Zürich: Biographisches Institut, 1975). Gerald D. Nash, "European Images of America: The West in Historical Perspective," Montana: The Magazine of Western History 42 (Spring 1992).


  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Literature
  • Dramatists and Novelists
  • Fiction
  • Peoples
  • Germans
  • Authors and Writers
  • Memoirs, Diaries, Letters, and Travel
  • Publications, Journals, and Magazines

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Christopher Long, “May, Karl,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 28, 2021,

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May 1, 1995
December 8, 2020