When you think of a superhero, typically what comes to mind is a masked figure, maybe with a cape, usually muscular, and with at least some sort of superhuman ability. Take Superman, for example. Whereas he doesn’t wear a mask, he does sport a silly red cape, and has x-ray vision, super speed, and super strength. He is as super as a hero can get. But do all heroes have to wear an odd costume and possess cool powers to be considered super? What about the real superheroes who have led extraordinary lives throughout American history, staring hardship in the face, and rising above the rest to change the country for the better? These superheroes are the ones who have died leaving a legacy. They are household names even generations after their deaths and forever will be remembered for their accomplishments. So who was America’s first real superhero?
George Washington is perhaps the most obvious candidate for the title of America’s First Superhero. The man was, after all, the first president of the United States and is known today as the “Father of America.”
Born in 1732, George Washington was the son of a slave-owning tobacco planter and was the eldest child from his father Augustine Washington’s second marriage to Mary Ball Washington. As moderately prosperous members of Virginia’s “middling class,” Washington spent much of his youth on Ferry Farm on the Rappahannock River, opposite Fredericksburg, VA. Little is known about his childhood, other than the fable that he chopped down his father’s prized cherry tree and later confessed to the crime. He was homeschooled, but by his early teens, he had mastered growing tobacco, stock raising, and surveying. By age 20, he inherited one of Virginia’s most prominent estates, Mount Vernon. Washington was known for his strength and showed early signs of leadership, earning him the title of lieutenant colonel in 1754, fighting in what grew to be the French and Indian War. The following year, he was given the honorary rank of colonel and joined British General Edward Braddock’s army in Virginia. The British devised a plan for an assault on the French, but they were instead ambushed. Braddock was mortally wounded, but Washington escaped untouched, with the exception of 4 bullet holes in his coat and 2 horses shot out from under him. He then led the remaining army back to safety.
From 1759 to the outbreak of the American Revolution, Washington devoted himself to a happy life managing his lands around Mount Vernon with his wife Martha Dandridge Custis and serving in the British House of Burgesses. Although he was not happy with the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited settling west of the Appalachians, Washington did not take a leading role in the growing colonial resistance against the British until the Townshend Acts of 1767. He introduced a resolution to the House of Burgesses, calling to boycott British goods until the acts were repealed. After the Intolerable Acts in 1774, he chaired a meeting calling for the convening of the Continental Congress and the use of armed resistance as a last resort. He was appointed as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in March 1775.
When the Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia in May, Washington was elected commander in chief of the Continental Army because of his prestige, military experience, and charisma. The road to victory wasn’t easy and he wasn’t exactly qualified to wage war on the world’s most powerful nation, but because of his courage, determination, and ability to always stay one step ahead of the enemy, he led the nation to independence. Washington defeated General Cornwallis and his troops at Yorktown in October 1781, and the last major battle of the Revolutionary War was won.
Upon his voluntary resignation as commander in chief of the Continental Army in 1783, some wanted to make Washington king of the new nation, but he refused because he wanted a free, democratic, and united country. He was unanimously elected the first president of the United States in 1787. During his presidency, he unified the states and helped establish the federal government. Although Washington did not have superpowers, he may very well be America’s first superhero, as the efforts of his life are still felt today.
The next candidate for America’s first superhero is none other than Abraham Lincoln. Besides the fact that his character has appeared in countless comics and popular culture as an actual superhero, like George Washington, his legacy lives on through his accomplishments as the 16th president of the United States. While researching Lincoln’s life for his book Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Seth Grahame-Smith noticed that the famous president had a typical hero’s origin story. “Here was this guy who came from absolutely nothing—no connections, no money, no education—and through the power of his sheer intellect and determination, achieved the highest office in the land and then saved that land,” Grahame-Smith says. “He is as close to an actual superhero as this country has ever seen.”
Lincoln was born in 1809 in Hardin County, KY to parents both of undistinguished families. His father was a frontiersman and his mother died when he was just 10 years old. He attained his knowledge through books while working on a farm, splitting rails for fences, and keeping up a general store in New Salem, IL. During a cargo trip to New Orleans while working for a businessman, he witnessed the horrors of slavery for the first time. This trip came to be the catalyst that formed his opinions on slavery.
In 1858, Lincoln ran against Stephen Douglas for senator, but lost the election. He measured an impressive 6 feet 4 inches and was massively strong. During his first debate, Lincoln saw one of his supporters in the crowd being attacked, and he effortlessly picked up the attacker and hurled him away. Lincoln gained a national reputation during the debates with Douglas and won the Republican nomination for president in 1860. During his presidency, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed 3 million of the 4 million slaves in the US at the time. Abraham Lincoln thus became a symbol of the fight for equality. He fought to preserve the union and fulfilled the promise of the Constitution.
Straying away from US presidents, Harry Houdini is also among those considered as America’s first superhero. Born Ehrich Weisz in Budapest, Hungary in 1874, he was one of 6 children and the son of a rabbi. He immigrated to Wisconsin with his family in 1878, and moved to Milwaukee when he was 8 years old. Ehrich was forced to work at an early age selling newspapers and shining shoes to help make ends meet for his family. He first appeared on stage was when he was 9 years old, performing a trapeze act and dubbing himself, “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air.” In 1887, Ehrich moved to New York with his father, where they lived in a boarding house and found work where they could. When he wasn’t working, Ehrich made use of his natural athletic ability by swimming, boxing, and running.
He joined a circus, and in 1893, Houdini married fellow performer Wilhemina Beatrice Rahner, who would become his lifelong stage assistant. It’s during this time that Ehrich would rediscover his childhood love for magic, and he launched his career as a professional magician in 1894 when he was 20 years old. He gave himself the stage name Harry Houdini. The first name is an Americanized version of his childhood nickname “Ehrie” and the last name was homage to his idol, French magician Robert Houdin. His magic at first met with little success, but he gained commercial fame through his acts when he repeatedly escaped from police handcuffs and jails. He began touring Europe, where he expanded on his act by escaping from straitjackets and coffins. His acts were such a sensation that he was hailed around the world as a real-life superman.
Not only was Houdini a renowned escape artist, but one book claims that he was even an international spy. Authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman write in The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero that intelligence agencies in both America and Europe employed Houdini. The book notes that the magician cancelled profitable contracts and abruptly traveled to Europe in 1900, and claims that he might have been spying in Germany, providing information to the Scotland Yard superintendent, William Melville. The book also claims that Houdini assisted German police with intel about wanted criminals, monitored anarchists in Russia, and engaged in anti-counterfeiting activities for the Secret Service. Whether these claims are true or not, Houdini certainly provided law enforcement assistance by showing them that their restraints had limitations and could be overcome.
George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Harry Houdini were all superheroes in their own right, and their incredible lives are forever preserved in history. Who do you think was truly the first American superhero?
- Abraham Lincoln. The White House website. http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/abrahamlincoln.
- Farnsworth C. Abraham Lincoln, America’s first superhero? Los Angeles Times website. February 18, 2012. http://herocomplex.latimes.com/movies/abraham-lincoln-americas-first-super-hero/#/0.
- George Washington. The White House website. http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/georgewashington.
- George Washington biography. Biography website. http://www.biography.com/people/george-washington-9524786#awesm=~oHmDSQCXuxb9eZ.
- The Great Harry Houdini. The Great Harry Houdini website. http://www.thegreatharryhoudini.com.
- Harry Houdini biography. Biography website. http://www.biography.com/people/harry-houdini-40056#awesm=~oHnUAwratyDpLb.
- Shapiro G. Houdini was a covert agent, new book claims. New York Sun website. August 28, 2006. http://www.nysun.com/foreign/houdini-was-a-covert-agent-new-book-claims/38654.