How The Mask of Zorro Revealed the Real History Behind the Legend

More than any film to date, The Mask of Zorro embraces and hints at the much darker Californian histories and legends that inspired the swashbuckler.

Antonio Banderas with sword in The Mask of Zorro
Photo: TriStar / Sony Pictures

There are few pulpy visualizations of revenge that play as satisfyingly as the climax of Martin Campbell’s The Mask of Zorro. Released 25 years ago, the still surprisingly lithe and surefooted swashbuckler culminates with a multigenerational crescendo of vengeance, which is served bloody and fierce. On one level of a crumbling Californian gold mine, the original Zorro is a now aged and dying Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins), and he grapples in his last breath with the man who stole his life and imprisoned him in hell for 20 years. Yet a literal platform below this Count of Monte Cristo passion play is something even bleaker and more vicious: the storm of swords unleashed by a younger Zorro (Antonio Banderas) and his own object of disdain: Capt. Harrison Love (Matt Letscher).

When Zorro carves an “M” across Capt. Love’s face, there is no wink or playful banter one might associate with Douglas Fairbanks or the 1950s Disney TV series. There is only rage as Zorro the Younger takes off his mask and reveals to Love the “M” is for Murrieta—as in Joaquin Murrieta, the brother of Banderas’ Alejandro Murrieta, whom Love beheaded and kept the remains of in a jar—alongside the severed hand of their appropriately named sidekick, Three-Fingered Jack (L.Q. Jones).

As a kid watching this movie, the sequence where Capt. Love reveals the floating head and hand in jars of alcohol left me unsettled. The depravity of these grisly images were not the stuff of other ‘90s adventure films like The Rocketeer or The Mummy. And yet the nastiness of Love’s tableau was as real as Zorro’s wrath; hence the desire not to mark a wall of the captain’s hacienda or shirt with a “Z,” but rather his actual face with an “M,” all before impaling Love with his own sword and leaving him to be buried under a literal mountain of gold and greed.

On a certain level, the revenge Zorro sought on a man named Love in The Mask of Zorro was the culmination of 150 years of legend, history, and horrific flights of fancy which percolated ever since a real-life Capt. Love rode into Sacramento on a summer morning in 1853, carrying with him a five-gallon jar of alcohol containing the head of the man historians would come to call Joaquin Murrieta: the figure who inspired Zorro.

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The Legend of Joaquin Murrieta, the Real-Life Zorro

The mythology of “Zorro”—the so-called cunning “Fox” and avenger of 19th century Latinx Californians (or Californios) oppressed under the yoke of Mexico or Spain, depending on the telling—began as a pulp novel by Johnston McCulley. Published in 1919, The Curse of Capistrano introduced most of the iconography we associate today with Zorro, or in fact many other superheroic figures, including Batman. However, the first Zorro story didn’t find national appeal until Douglas Fairbanks adapted it into his 1924 swashbuckler, The Mark of Zorro.

Yet while McCulley inspired the cinematic legend of Zorro, he was in turn inspired by another, far older tale; that of Joaquin Murrieta (also spelled “Murieta,” “Murrioto,” and “Muriatta,” including by the real-life Capt. Love in the latter’s case). Joaquin was a figure who dressed in all black, emerged from the darkness, and wreaked a terrible bloodletting on the white Anglo-Americans during the early years of the California gold rush in 1852 and 1853.

Or that’s at least what McCulley, Californians, and even local historians came to believe in the back half of the 19th century after the publication of The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta in 1854, one year after the alleged head of the real-life Murrieta was delivered to Sacramento. Written by John Rollin Ridge (who originally published it under his translated Cherokee name of “Yellow Bird”), The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Muríeta is a dime novel that established most of what we think we know about Joaquin, and why he was a Mexican bandit to some and a real-life Robin Hood to others.

Said to have been born in Sonora, Mexico during the early 19th century, Joaquin was described by Ridge and others as having a gentle disposition when he traveled to California in 1849. He was 18 and ready to join all the other ‘49ers newly arrived and in search of gold. Murrieta also came with his mistress or wife (depending on the telling), sharing dreams of becoming a rich couple. And for a time they did, with the pair mining gold that some folktales suggest was worth upwards of $300 a day.

That was a lot of money in 1850, especially to rival, jealous white prospectors who one night invaded Murrieta’s home. Initially, they told Murrieta Mexico lost the war, so the gold mine he laid claim to was forfeit. He disagreed, so they tied him to a chair, stole his deed and accrued wealth, and then brutally gang raped his wife (in Ridge’s original telling, she survived, in later versions she died in Murrieta’s arms).

Afterward, Murrieta attempted to put the pieces of his life back together, but two years later, his fine-looking horse was assumed to have been stolen by other jealous white men who then stole the steed from him, and sadistically flogged him as a horse thief when he defended his integrity. To further compound their cruelty, they later hunted down Joaquin’s brother and lynched him from a tree, also as a horse thief (in Ridge’s 1871 revision, the order is reversed for maximum impact, with the white men leaving Joaquin tied to a tree and for dead).

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They made one mistake, however: They left Murrieta alive. Shortly thereafter, he would sneak into the murderous whites’ camps and quietly dismember one of their party in the dark, leaving their body parts strewn around the camp for the next morning’s discovery. One by one, and night after night, Murrieta affected this terrible vengeance, with his abusers only seeing their fate coming when the whites of Murrieta’s eyes approached from the dark.

After making bloody work of the offending party, Murrieta assembled a gang, including Three-Fingered Jack, who answered the calls of fellow Mexicans living in the newly christened state of California, as well as Califorinos themselves. Like Robin Hood, he would hear their tales of injustice and he would seek out the bigoted white men responsible, slaughtering them to a man. That is until the California legislature, under petition from white citizens, authorized Capt. Harry Love of the California Rangers to hunt Murrieta down in the spring of 1853.

In August, he appeared to make good on that commission, arriving in Sacramento with the head of Joaquin, as well as the hand of Three-Fingered Jack. After receiving his reward, Love then had these macabre trophies toured across the state from San Francisco to San Diego where for years gawkers could marvel at what was left of the fearsome bandits for a dollar a ticket.

But as Joaquin’s legend grew following the publication of Ridge’s book, and its many copycats which further blurred the fact and fiction of the man, the more this barbaric finale looked like a grave injustice: white villainy punishing the Mexican man who stood up to injustice and was then cut down for it. In this way, The Mask of Zorro’s fire comes from ultimately righting that wrong, with Zorro being revealed to be Joaquin’s brother, who in turn not only skewers Capt. Love, but buries him under the gold white men would happily steal from brown prospectors.

Thus, at last, the story that inspired Zorro achieved the ending it always needed… but what is the truth behind that legend?

The Real History of Joaquin Murrieta

Whether or not the injustices described in Ridge’s book ever came to pass, the actual history surrounding that era for California was just as desperate and grim as Murrieta’s legend would have you believe.

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According to Ridge, Joaquin arrived in California in 1849, which was just one year removed from the brutal whirlwind which made California seem a paradise for fortune-seekers across the United States and beyond. In February 1848, the Mexican-American War (and backdrop of The Mask of Zorro) came to an end with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. With the stroke of a pen, California had thus changed hands, transitioning from being the most remote province of Mexico into being new American territory, and the grand realization of Manifest Destiny.

For many Californios, this was initially a wary but perhaps hopeful tiding, as the region chafed under Mexican rule, preferring the more autonomous (and Catholic) years when it was a subject of the Spanish. Any optimism was short-lived, however, for in the same year as the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty, James Marshall announced from the Sierra foothills he found a metal that “looks like goald.”

While American history largely recalls the Gold Rush as beginning in 1849, which is the year so many white prospectors descended on the territory, local Californios saw a very profitable ’48. According to Thomas J. Gordon’s thesis, Joaquin Murieta: Fact, Fiction and Folklore, the average successful Californio miner that year was taking in as much as 52 pounds of gold from a single claim over eight days.

Yet as the boom of prospectors grew in 1849—and not only due to white Anglo-Americans, but also now newly defined Mexican “foreigners” coming from the south, as well as European Spainiards—that success became a cause of envy. Between 1848 and 1850, the white settler population grew from 15,000 to 93,000 people in California, and many of the new arrivals proved ill-equipped at mining the land when compared to the Californios who already lived there, not to mention prospectors from Mexico.

This led to rumors of “foreigners” siphoning off “American gold” from the Americans, as well as the first wave of murders and robberies like those alleged to have been endured by Joaquin Murrieta. And in 1850, the newly formed California state legislature passed the Foreign Mining Tax, which stated “foreigners” in the state would need to pay $20 a month for the privilege of mining for gold—an exorbitant sum that no impoverished miner could afford. Indeed, California eventually reduced the tax to only $3 a month for white European foreigners, but kept the $20 premium in place for everyone else (i.e. Mexican miners).

Suddenly, the influx of desperate Mexican residents who spent their life savings to come to California to get rich were now legally prohibited from doing exactly that. As a consequence, many saw little opportunity for anything else but what was then deemed as banditry—which might have seemed more agreeable if they or friends and family were robbed and/or killed by Anglo miners.

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As for Joaquin himself, the truth is we don’t even know if the supposed bandit Harry Love beheaded was really named Joaquin Murrieta—or, in fact, if he was the bandit Love was commissioned to hunt. To be sure, there were stories of a spree of crimes between 1851 and 1853, many attributed in Californian newspapers to a man named “Joaquin.” However, it is unclear if any of these were the same Joaquin, or rather if the newspapers considered one Mexican bandit as interchangeable with another, so the papers passed the name “Joaquin” around as a catch-all for crimes occurring hundreds of miles apart.

What is known is that in 1852, at least one bandit began targeting almost exclusively white Americans and Chinese immigrants, killing and robbing Americans alone on the road and slaughtering Chinese immigrants in their camps at night. In January 1853, for example, the San Joaquin Republican, reported “a band of Mexican marauders have infested Calaveras County, and weekly we receive the details of dreadful murders and outrages… the band is led by a robber, named Joaquin, a very desperate man.”

By April 1853, a petition from white American citizens demanded the legislature authorize Harry S. Love to pursue and presumably terminate “a band of robbers under the command of the Bandit Joaquin or some other equally desperate outlaw.” A month later, the legislature acquiesced and authorized Love to hunt down five Joaquins, including “Muraiti,” “Ocomorenia,” “Valenzuela,” “Botellier,” and “Carillo.”

The commissioned California Rangers traveled the state until alleging they came upon a group of Mexican bandits in Cantua Canyon in August where a gun battle ensued. In the aftermath, the Rangers killed at least four Mexican men and took another two prisoners. As proof of their deeds, they severed two heads and a three-fingered hand that matched the description of another storied bandit in the newspapers. Yet on the long ride to Sacramento, they accidentally drowned their prisoners while crossing a river (they were tied to the bottom of horses), and one of the heads decomposed beyond the point of recognition. Love subsequently found a doctor who supplied the tins of alcohol to preserve the other trophies.

By the time they reached Sacramento, Love was down to a head and a hand, but he swore the biggest prize was the head of “Joaquin Muriatta,” and was paid accordingly. Even so, a woman who claimed to be the sister of the infamous Bandit Joaquin proclaimed after seeing the head on display that it was not the face of her brother.

These are the details that caught the attention of John Rollin Ridge, a one-time aspiring miner who, like the Joaquin of his book, came to California for gold in ‘49 but instead had to settle for a life of words and letters. A year later, he wrote his dime novel which was so endearing that no less than 19th century historian Hubert Howe Bancroft wound up including a lengthy footnote about the plight of Joaquin Murrieta in his History of California in an 1888 volume. And with each passing version, Murrieta became more heroic and better humored, saving damsels in distress and giving wealth to the poor.

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However, the actual roots in the most gruesome parts of Murrieta’s adventures may not lie in the history of a Mexican highwayman, but rather the biography of a Native American author…

John Rollin Ridge’s Real-Life Thirst for Revenge

When The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta was first published in 1854, Ridge used the English translation of his Cherokee name, Yellow Bird, but changed that in subsequent editions. This perhaps reflects the author’s complicated feelings about his Cherokee Nation roots.

Born in 1827, Ridge was among the last generation of Cherokee who knew a life before his people were condemned to the Trail of Tears, the name for the arduous and lethal atrocity in which Indigenous people were forced to march west into what is modern day Oklahoma. This gruesome chapter of American history was brought about by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and the presidency of Andrew Jackson. However, the American government insisted on forcing some semblance of legal tidiness atop its cruelties. Hence it looked to get someone, anyone, from each Indigenous tribe or nation to sign a treaty.

In the case of the Cherokee, a vocal minority considered the removal an inevitability and signed the treaty in an attempt to move their community onward as painlessly as possible. They did not speak for the whole Cherokee Nation, but the U.S. government did not care. Amongst those signatories was John Ridge, the father of John Rollin Ridge. His action engendered consequences not only from the white government, but from the Cherokee who intended never to sign.

On a dark evening in 1839, about 35 Cherokee men surrounded the Ridge home, entered the cabin, and at last dragged John Ridge into the yard where he was stabbed upward of 20 times. From his childhood window, a 12-year-old Yellow Bird watched. He’d soon learn that his uncle and cousin met the same fate that night.

A decade later, John Rollin Ridge was forced to flee the Cherokee Nation after he killed a Cherokee judge named David Kell, who had been an ardent supporter of the men who murdered Ridge’s father. While Ridge was able to incredulously argue the murder had been in self-defense in court, after his exoneration he fled Indian Territory and headed west to California—the same year that he claimed Joaquin Murrieta came to Los Angeles. In the ensuing years, Ridge was said to admit from time to time, while he was in his cups, that he’d like to earn enough money in California to afford a return to the Cherokee Nation where he’d wreak revenge on the men who killed his father. Ridge even once wrote to his cousin that he holds “a deep seated principle of Revenge.”

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Did Ridge use the story of an alleged beheaded Mexican bandit to enact his own fantasies of furious vengeance on those who killed his father? And did a writer whose own formative horrors at the hands of disingenuous white men and their government inform a legend that lives on to this day in every story of a masked do-gooder in a black cape meting out his own personal brand of justice? Perhaps. But he also created a folk hero to a real-life people who were experiencing depredations and oppressions, and in so doing lit a spark that still burns bright in the fictions we tell now.