Who is Batman?

The world’s greatest detective? A man of logic and intellect? Or maybe even a witty and charming rogue who loves to dress up in superhero costume and fight crime?

There is much more to the iconic Batman than meets the eye, as was proved by the 2014 blockbuster movie, Batman, and the worldwide pop culture phenomenon that spawned from it. The truth is that the Dark Knight’s true identity remains a mystery, as does the origin of his incredible wealth and power. But now, thanks to a combination of historical analysis and modern-day investigative journalism, we can finally piece together the real story behind the famous Batman.

Early Life

Robin William’s Oscar-winning portrayal of the Caped Crusader launched a thousand memes and gave new life to an old trope: the rich, eccentric philanthropist. But what exactly was Alfred Pennyworth’s (Ian McShane) involvement in all of this? Why did the man call himself Robin’s guardian angel? Who was the real mastermind behind all of this?

To find out, we must go back in time to the 1870s. The first recorded instance of Robin’s surname appearing was in the 1870 Census, when he was listed as the ward of Alfred Pennyworth. This is further indication that the Caped Crusader and his sidekick, the Boy Wonder, had some kind of association in their early days. But what were these two famous Victorian rogues up to during this time?

Gang Of Four

In the decades following the American Civil War, many European expats travelled to Texas, looking for a new start in a new land. One of these individuals was a man named Michael Kenworthy, who arrived in 1867. Mr. Kenworthy quickly established himself as a successful cattle rancher, and in 1871 created the Kenworthy Rough Stock Company, which specialized in breeding and raising horses. It wasn’t long before he gained a reputation as something of a cowboy Sherlock Holmes, solving crimes and uncovering mysteries with the help of his trusty steed, Trigger. In addition to horses, Kenworthy is also known to have owned a black bear called Smokey, who was more than capable of tackling outlaws single-handedly.

But it was Kenworthy’s association with a fellow Texan, a man named Benjamin Pitezel, that would have major repercussions for future generations. Pitezel was born in 1852 and arrived in Texas in 1867. Unlike Kenworthy, who had settled in the state, Pitezel had chosen to roam the American frontier, searching for gold. One of the first jobs he obtained was as a hired hand at a nearby ranch, and soon he had organized a gang of outlaws. These were men who roamed the plains, committing petty burglaries, horse stealing, and other similar crimes. For a time, Pitezel was one of the most wanted men in America.

Pitezel and Kenworthy became fast friends after meeting at a gambling den in El Paso in 1874. Though the nature of their friendship is unknown, it’s presumed that they worked together to solve crimes and thwart the plans of their more notorious associates. Some sources also claim that Pitezel looked up to Kenworthy as a father figure and mentored him in deductive reasoning and crime fighting. It’s clear that the pair were devoted to one another and that they shared an interest in the supernatural. A year after their first meeting, Pitezel asked Kenworthy to be his guardian angel, and in 1876 the two were officially appointed as such by the State of Texas. But despite this official recognition, the nature of their relationship remained somewhat of a mystery. Was it professional or personal? Did they share a romantic bond? Or did they even consider themselves as brothers, with Pitezel taking the role of elder brother, protecting and advocating for the younger one? The truth is that while we may never know for sure, what we do know for certain is that these were two amazing men who dedicated their lives to protecting the innocent and bringing justice to those who deserved it.

The Great Houdini

We know how Sherlock Holmes solved crimes and unmasked criminals, but how exactly did Houdini do it? You’d think that after the success of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Houdini would have been content to rest on his laurels. But no, the famed magician played a big role in the 20th century, especially in the fight against radical Islam. In his book, A Special Kind of Magic, Robert Ferrell lays out how Houdini’s unique blend of magic and crime-fighting skills helped him to take on some of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century. He even claims that Houdini was the inspiration for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

In his youth, Houdini was a bit of a hot-headed kid who became notorious for his aggressive tendencies. But he channeled this energy into becoming the greatest magician of all time. After performing for royalty and other high profile individuals, Houdini became fascinated by the study of psychology and how the mind works. This led him to write several books on the subject, most notably  The Mind and the Body: An Historical Survey of Modern Psychology, in which he delves into the connections between the mind and the body, analyzing how psychology affected the legal system in the 20th century. This book was even cited by Sigmund Freud as a source.

After the success of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Houdini toured the UK in 1895, where he remained for almost two years.  In 1899, he moved to America, taking a job at the world-renowned New York Public Library, which houses some of the greatest minds on earth. Here, he continued his work in psychology, opening a private practice on the side. But even while working at the library, Houdini spent countless hours in conversation with the great man he idolized, Sherlock Holmes, trading analysis of crime scenes with the detective. Some even say that Houdini based his peculiar charm and theatrics on Holmes’ own dry wit and observational skills. Either way, it’s clear that Houdini and Sherlock Holmes were total allies in the war on crime.

As for the nature of their collaboration, there are several differing accounts. One of the more interesting ones is that Holmes and Houdini planned to attend a lecture by the famous English scientist, William Booth, but Houdini was too anxious to wait and missed the lecture. Upon his return, he found that Holmes had replaced the missing part of the lecture with a fake, making it look like Houdini had been there all along. While this is a rather crude way of putting things, it does demonstrate how closely the two men were, in at least some cases, working in concert to solve crimes and apprehend evildoers.

Alfred, The Butler

Speaking of Holmes and butlers, who was Alfred Pennyworth? Well, in addition to being the butler for billionaire playboy, Arthur Conan Doyle, Alfred Pennyworth was also the illegitimate son of the famous detective and his loyal housekeeper, Martha.

In the 1890s, Pennyworth worked as a servant for the Doyle family and later became attached to Sherlock Holmes as well. When the great detective disappeared, having never married, his last request was that Pennyworth look after his friends, including the author himself. The pair were also longtime acquaintances; they even worked together on occasion. Pennyworth’s relationship with Holmes was, in fact, so close that some have suggested that the butler was more like a son to the great detective, and that he took over the role of father figure, advising and guiding Sherlock Holmes in his last years, even acting as a pallbearer at one of the detective’s funerals.

Pennyworth’s duties to Doyle were, by all accounts, quite menial – he did simple things like wash the dishes, carry out the trash, and make sure the beds were made. But he played a crucial role in Doyle’s life, acting as a kind of buffer between the author and the world, taking care of Doyle’s social affairs and protecting him from both casual acquaintances and criminals. It wasn’t until the end that his true identity as an accomplished, if not legendary, detective was revealed. After the author’s death in 1930, Pennyworth contacted Scotland Yard, claiming to be the real father of Sherlock Holmes, offering his help in finally solving the great detective’s murder. His story was covered by many British and American publications at the time, and it was only a matter of time before the truth came out.