A native of Wexford, a small but important fishing port in the southeast corner of Ireland, William Lamport (1615–1659) is recognised by many as one of the precursors of Mexican Independence. By the time he had celebrated his fifteenth birthday Lamport had already been charged in London with high treason, escaped and spent two years aboard a pirate vessel on which he helped to defeat the English navy at the siege of La Rochelle. By twenty-five he had travelled most of Europe, had been granted a scholarship to the Colegio Imperial in Madrid, and claimed proficiency in no less than fourteen languages. He may even have helped to alter the course of European history at the Battle of Nördlingen (1634).
Sent to Mexico as a spy following a scandalous affair with a young noblewoman at the court of Philip IV of Spain, he was arrested in October of 1642 for plotting a rebellion, the stated aims of which were to abolish slavery and establish an independent Mexican state. One of the documents seized during his arrest is said to be the first proclamation of independence ever to have been produced in the New World. Seemingly more afraid of his revolutionary philosophy than his ability to instigate a rebellion, he was arrested by the Inquisition on the realatively minor charge of having practicised judicial astrology. His imprisonment led to a power struggle between the King (who wanted him released) and the Inquisition (who did not). In the end the King backed down and the Inquisition got their way.
On the night of December 25th 1650 he broke out of prison in a manner so daring and brilliantly conceived that rumours began to circulate that he had been assisted by demons. That escape, and the pamphlets he posted throughout the city exposing the corruption of the Inquisition, made him something of a local legend. Following his re-capture, he spent the best part of the next nine years in solitary confinement, struggling to hang on to his sanity and to maintain a connection to his God by writing Latin psalms on his bedsheet with a chicken feather for a pen and ink manufactured from the smoke of candles collected in honeyed bread that was then diluted in water. By the time it was discovered, his 'psalter' contained no less than 917 'psalms'. He was finally burnt at the stake in 1659, despite the Mexican Inquisition having received orders to the contrary from Madrid.
Lamport's poetic tirades against slavery and corruption might well have remained amongst the minutiae of history had his story not been not been rescued from the teeth of eternal oblivion by the intervention, in 1872, of Vincente Riva Palacio. In Riva Palacio's Memoirs of an Impostor, Don Guillén Lombardo leads a double life as a poet and dandy by day and a swashbuckling swordsman with an eye for the ladies by night. The real Don Guillén, however, enjoyed no more a reputation as a swordsman than any other soldier of his day and only ever had confirmed relationships with two women – one of whom had seduced him. Riva Palacio's book, however, ensured that Lamport remained of interest to a small circle of Mexican intellectuals until 1901 when, with the centenary of the Independence struggle just nine years away and plans to erect a monument to the heroes of the Independence movement already well advanced, a pamphlet was published in Mexico City by one Don Alberto Lombardo. Entitled Historical Injustices – The forgotten man who was first to conceive of, and attempt to gain, independence for Mexico, Lombardo's pamphlet proposed erecting a statue to William Lamport as one of the precursors of Mexican Independence, a statue that sits today within the mausoleum that lies beneath Alciati's 'Angel of Independence', and alongside the remains of such iconic figures of the Independence movement as Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and José María Morelos y Pavón (the fathers of modern Mexico), and Ignacio María Allende y Unzaga (the idealistic instigator of the independence struggle of 1810). Here few see, and fewer recognise it.
As far as William Lamport himself goes, that should have been the end of the story. His name, however, began to re-surface in the popular media in 1999 following the assertion of an Italian academic (Fabio Troncarelli of Viterbo University) that the Irishman had been the primary inspiration for the creation of the comic book character of Zorro – at that time the subject of the TriStar/Amblin film, The Mask of Zorro, starring Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins. Troncarelli's theory was founded upon the premise that Zorro's creator, Irish-American journalist Johnston McCulley, had based his hero on Riva Palacio's Don Guillén Lombardo. In his book La Spada e la Croce (Rome, 1999), Troncarelli drew a direct line between McCulley and Riva Palacio on the basis that the nickname of 'el Zorro' had already appeared in another of Riva Palacio's novels, Martin Garatuza.
McCulley's and Riva Palacio's heroes, Troncarelli argued, share many similarities in that they both lead double lives, are both ladies' men and lovers of poetry, and are both leaders of a conspiracy of noblemen whose aims are the overthrow of tyranny; they even share ties to the Franciscans. The treatment of Troncarelli's theories in the popular press led to William Lamport becoming popularly known throughout the world as Paddy O'Zorro, Zorro the Irishman, The Irish Zorro etc.
In his review of McCulley in Twentieth Century Western Writers, however, Wade Austin had already noted an equally marked, if not greater, similarity between McCulley's Zorro and Baroness Emmuska Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel: a book first published when McCulley was twenty-one years of age and approaching the start of his publishing career. These similarities were further explored, one year prior to the publication of Troncarelli's book, by Sandra Curtis in her Zorro Unmasked – the Official History. Wife of John Gertz (son of the Mitchell Gertz to whom McCulley sold the rights to Zorro), Curtis allowed that the similarities were purely speculative and that the characters were differently motivated. She noted, nevertheless, that apart from their dual identities and their distinctive marks, more profound analogies exist between Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel: both are introduced at an inn on a rainy night; both are wealthy and handsome young men who dress well, own fine horses and are followed by a league of gentlemen; both possess irritating social quirks such as 'sleepy yawning behaviour'; and both inspire the devotion of 'the fairest of young women, neither of whom initially knows her man's secret identity':
Both Marguerite St Just, Sir Percy Blakeney's wife, and Lolita Pulido, Diego de la Vega's love, disdain their men for being either a 'laughing stock', according to Lolita, or an 'empty headed nincompoop' from Marguerite. Yet each praises the secret identity of her hero for the strength, bravery and loyalty they enjoy from the men who follow them. Each woman's suspicions regarding the true identity of her male companion is aroused after perusing her man's private quarters. Each woman stands by her man in his darkest hour, preferring death to betrayal.
As for the motif of the fox, this is widespread in popular literature as a metaphor for cunning. In fact in chapter twenty-nine of the Scarlet Pimpernel, Sir Percy Blakeney is even called 'a cunning fox' by his adversary, Chauvelin. It may well be that Johnston McCulley could read Spanish and had laid his hands on a little known and forty-seven-year-old work of romantic Mexican fiction. He may even have borrowed the title of Zorro from a fifty-one-year-old book by the same author. But even if this were the case, it would seem that they were not his only influences.