Image of Karl May


Lifetime: 1842 - 1912 Passed: ≈ 111 years ago


Writer, Author



Karl May

Karl Friedrich May was a German author. He is best known for his travel novels set on one hand in the American Old West with Winnetou and Old Shatterhand as main protagonists and on the other hand in the Orient and Middle East with Kara Ben Nemsi and Hadschi Halef Omar. May also wrote novels set in Latin America, China and Germany, poetry, a play, and composed music; he was a proficient player of several musical instruments. Many of his works were adapted for film, stage, audio dramas and comics. Later in his career, May turned to philosophical and spiritual genres. He is one of the best-selling German writers of all time, with about 200,000,000 copies worldwide.

May was the fifth child of a poor family of weavers in Ernstthal, Schönburgische Rezessherrschaften (then part of the Kingdom of Saxony). He had 13 siblings, of whom nine died in infancy. During his school years, he received instruction in music and composition. At 12, May was making money at a skittle alley, where he was exposed to rough language.

In 1856, May commenced teacher training in Waldenburg but in 1859 was expelled for stealing six candles. After an appeal, he was allowed to continue in Plauen. Shortly after graduation, when his roommate accused him of stealing a watch, May was jailed in Chemnitz for six weeks and his license to teach was permanently revoked. After this, May worked with little success as a private tutor, an author of tales, a composer and a public speaker. For four years, from 1865 to 1869, May was jailed in the workhouse at Osterstein Castle, Zwickau. With good behaviour, May became an administrator of the prison library which gave him the chance to read widely. He made a list of the works he planned to write.

After his release in May 1874, May returned to his parents' home in Ernstthal and began to write. In November 1874, Die Rose von Ernstthal ("The Rose from Ernstthal") was published. May then became an editor in the publishing house of Heinrich Gotthold Münchmeyer in Dresden. May managed entertainment papers such as Schacht und Hütte ("Mine and Mill") and continued to publish his own works such as Geographische Predigten ("Collected Travel Stories") (1876). May resigned in 1876 and was employed by Bruno Radelli of Dresden.

In 1878, May became a freelance writer. In 1880, he married Emma Pollmer. Once again, May was insolvent.

In 1899, May traveled to Egypt then Sumatra with his servant, Sejd Hassan. In 1900, he was joined by Klara and Richard Plöhn. The group returned to Radebeul in July 1900. May demonstrated some emotional instability during his travels.

May died one week later in his own Villa Shatterhand on 30 March 1912. According to the register of deaths, the cause was cardiac arrest, acute bronchitis and asthma, but according to Ralf Harder from the Karl-May-Stiftung, May's death certificate does not include the cause of death. Scientists examining the remains of May in 2014 found excessive quantities of lead and other heavy metals, and concluded that his death was probably due to a long-time exposure to lead in water as well as tobacco. May was buried in Radebeul East. His tomb was inspired by the Temple of Athena Nike.

Books by Karl May

Winnetou I Cover image

Winnetou I

Adventure Action Fiction
Western fiction Juvenile fiction Wild West Red Indians

Winnetou is a fictional Native American hero of several novels written in German by Karl May (1842–1912), one of the best-selling German writers of all time with about 200 million copies worldwide, including the Winnetou-trilogy. The character made h...

Winnetou III Cover image

Winnetou III

Adventure Novel
Friend Battle Travels Challenges Struggle America Peace United States Wild West

It follows the adventures of the German protagonist, Old Shatterhand, as he travels across the frontier with his friend and ally, Winnetou. In this third and final book of the trilogy, Old Shatterhand and Winnetou face their toughest challenge yet a...

Winnetou IV Cover image

Winnetou IV

Action Novel
Heroic Tolerance Adventure Loyalty Exploration Justice Friendship Cultural Traditions Classic Literature German Literature

Der Roman "Winnetou IV" von Karl May entführt die Leser in eine Welt voller Abenteuer und Spannung. In diesem packenden Buch werden die Geschichten des legendären Apachen-Häuptlings Winnetou und seines treuen Freundes Old Shatterhand weitererzählt. "...