From a certain slant, the character of Old Castro in HPL’s “The Call of Cthulhu” looks like it was named after an associate of Lovecraft’s whom he met during his stay in New York. I say that it looks that way but there’s a bunch of textual (and contextual) evidence that works against this idea which even HPL’s biographer L. Sprague de Camp overlooked. It’s likely – on balance - that Adolphe Danziger de Castro was not the inspiration behind the character (or, at least, its name), but from where, having eliminated this option, might it have sprung?
The name Castro is a very old one, originating in Spain. It literally means “castle” and was assigned in its early iterations to those who lived in, built or maintained such edifices. There are Italian, French and Portuguese versions of the name and variants in other associated dialects as well. Additionally, it’s one of the oldest Spanish immigrant names in mainland USA, being first recorded in Santa Barbara, California, in 1794. These days, genealogical sources for the history of the Castro clan are concentrated in Spain and along the Western seaboard of North America, Hawaii, and the Philippines. Of course, there are Castros all over the planet, and evidence of their multitudinous existences can be found alongside them; but evidential historical material for the various branches of the clan are singularly to be found in these areas. As Spanish names go, it’s probably not exactly the equivalent of “Smith” in English, in terms of being as common as muck, but it’s certainly close.
Lovecraft was probably looking for a fairly standard Spanish name for this fellow in his narrative; he was probably wanting to create a character who was an immigrant of some kind, an outsider from somewhere else, and the logical options for a place of origin were all the homes of Spanish-speaking communities – Mexico; Central or South America; the Caribbean, or Cuba. This last country might have been floating high in HPL’s thoughts.
Cuba was going through various ructions in the early part of last century. It went from being a protectorate of the US, to an independent state (with heavy US oversight), to a Republic, across the first 40 or so years of the Twentieth Century and there was a heavy cross-pollination of people and ideas between the two countries. Cuba was a key place for Americans to visit after the introduction of Prohibition, and the illicit importation of rum and other alcohol from Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean was a giant money-spinner for the US criminal community. After the stock-market crash in 1929, New York was reported to have been overrun with Cuban bartenders looking for work – obviously, these last events post-date Lovecraft’s crafting of his tale, but it shows the links that existed between the two countries at the time.
Fidel Castro and his socialist power-plays were decades away from Lovecraft in time when he was putting together this story; however, the name was common enough in the Spanish-speaking world that it would have made sense to him to use it for this particular character, underpinning his creation’s low social standing and status. As a name for a lowly commoner, a humble labourer or drifter, it’s more than suitable; but what inclined him towards the name as appropriate for someone steeped in illegality, or criminality? It’s clear from his correspondence that, for most of his life, HPL looked down upon anyone ‘foreign’ to US society, or existing outside of his own bubble of genteel, white, Anglo-Saxon refinement; so combining notions of the ‘commoner’ alongside those of the ‘criminal’ in the creation of Old Castro was probably just instinctual as far as he was concerned. However, there was a very famous Nineteenth Century criminal incident involving a person with the name “Castro” that might just have tipped the balance for Lovecraft as to whether or not to use the name in this instance.
We know, just to get this out of the way right from the start, that Lovecraft considered himself a ‘man out of time’; that he would have liked to have time-travelled back to the Nineteenth Century – or earlier – to an era when he felt his nature and capabilities were more suited to the life which he would liked to have led. It’s not unreasonable therefore, to infer that he would have read up on those periods where he felt himself to be more spiritually at ease. If he did – and most of us think he did - it’s highly likely that he would have stumbled across the kerfuffle that was the case of the Tichborne Claimant.
While few nowadays might have heard of this Nineteenth Century scandal, at the time it was a huge affair and its ramifications – both social and legal - were serious and wide-ranging. British society was sharply divided on the question and a small industry of publishing and other forms of income generation to fund legal challenges coloured society at all levels. It spawned fraternal organisations working both for and against the claims of those involved and influenced media and governmental discussions within England and throughout the Colonies. Essentially, it was the tale of an incidence of fraudulent impersonation.
In April of 1854, Roger Tichborne, heir to the ancient and highly lucrative Tichborne title and estates, went missing when the ship in which he was travelling was wrecked soon after leaving Valparaiso. His mother – French and living in Paris – was beside herself with grief, refused to acknowledge that her son had died, and sent out notices across the globe asking for information as to his whereabouts. Her prime motivation was that some of the people aboard the foundered ship were rescued by another passing vessel which later offloaded these survivors in Sydney. It was assumed that Roger Tichborne was one of these and, for reasons unknown, had decided to lie low and to not notify his relatives of his status. In the meantime, the title passed on to another Tichborne, who proceeded to drink himself into oblivion.
In Australia, eager opportunists were on the alert for anyone who might fit the description of the blue-eyed, slightly-built, dark-haired young man, and a reputable lawyer thought he’d found the fellow working as a butcher in Wagga Wagga. He wrote to the Dowager and told her of his discovery, keen for her to forward funds which would help her putative son pull himself together and get back home. Eventually, she agreed to do so and - after a wild period of partying in Sydney, funded by the promise of the soon-to-be-gained inheritance – the so-called "Tichborne Claimant" went to London, prior to journeying on to France, there to confront his mother and be accepted as the rightful heir. It couldn’t fail; after all there was little to differentiate the two men:
Some of you might have spotted the obvious error. Roger Tichborne had been a willowy, dewy-eyed sort of a lad, while the Claimant was 25-stone (160kgs) of work-hardened muscle, running swiftly to fat, with reddish hair and grey eyes. Roger had been raised in Paris and spoke French fluently (and spoke heavily French-accented English); the Claimant knew not a word of the language. Further, he could never remember the first name of his supposedly beloved mother. Incredibly though - and probably driven to do so through grief - at their first meeting, she claimed vehemently that he was her son, returned miraculously from the sea.
Inevitably, the matter went before the courts. Both sides in the debate plundered the list of Roger Tichborne’s known associates looking for those who were prepared to sign affidavits as to the true identity of the Claimant (and paying exorbitant bribes to get the right responses). Meanwhile, the Claimant’s movements and activities in Australia were examined with a fine tooth-comb and it swiftly turned out that he’d shot himself in the foot almost before the swindle had even begun: upon arriving back in London, the first thing he did after disembarking was to contact his old family, the Ortons, and he was eventually unmasked as Arthur Orton, butcher, from a long line of English butchers. The trial lasted two years from 1873 to 1874 and the jurors found against Orton, who was sentenced to seven years in gaol for fraud, concurrent with a seven year sentence for perjury (he had, during the trial, defamed Lady Radcliffe, Roger’s ex-fiancée by claiming to have slept with her; turns out, Roger had an unfortunate deformation of his penis which meant that this was highly unlikely). Orton saw out his sentence, then wrote a book explaining why he’d done what he did. This led to a career on vaudeville stages in England and the US where, after getting up and telling everyone who he was, the audience was invited to pelt him with rotten fruit. He died in 1898.
So, what does this have to do with HPL and his character from “The Call of Cthulhu”? Interestingly, after Orton first fled England, he tried to lay low in various occupations, all of which failed, including a stint as a sheep rustler. Because of this last career choice, he had to keep a low profile, moving to the (then) remote town of Wagga Wagga and changing his name to “Thomas Castro”. Until presented with the temptation to ride the Claimant ticket as far as it would take him, he was content with this assumed name and, even after his association with the Ortons was revealed during the trial, tried reverting to this assumed identity rather than be exposed as a member of his own opportunistic clan (it was his own brother who shopped him to the Tichbornes for a large pay-day).
Despite the outcome of the trial, the case resonated long afterwards through British society. In legal circles, the matter of his sentencing was considered contentious, the concurrent sentences being seen as a watering-down of the Might of the Law and the arguments about whether or not it was appropriate went on interminably. Tichborne Claimant memorabilia had been selling like hotcakes and, even today, fetches good money (a Tichborne Claimant legal defense bond sells for about $150 these days, and his cartes-de-visite are to be found everywhere). The idea of a lower class man risking everything on the throw of a dice just to blacken the eye of the nobility stoked a fire throughout working class England and cries of “Justice” for the "deprived" Claimant were heard right through to the next century. For the Tichbornes, it was a hollow victory, as all of their cash had been squandered to pay for bribes and legal costs.
I’m not certain as to which side of the debate Lovecraft would have weighed in on, but I’m fairly sure – as conservative as he was – that he would have deplored the actions of "Castro". For HPL, social class was a fait accompli, and someone trying to better themselves through the tawdry involvement of the courts and an assumed persona would have been something that would not have sat right with him. Noble bloodlines, familial inheritance and long genealogies are things that Lovecraft would have championed; not for him the “rags-to-riches” Hollywood happy ending of a Preston Sturges melodrama. Further, this was a tale of attempted corruption, of an assault upon the pure lineage of a genteel line of descent. The whole issue smacks of the type of hated miscegenation which, before New York, would have made Lovecraft’s blood boil. And it would have informed the character of “Old Castro” to a tee.
Did HPL know about the Tichborne Claimant affair? We’ll probably never know (although I’m sure someone out there with an intimate knowledge of his correspondence will tell me!). However, the scandal was huge and occupied almost sixty years’ worth of broadside real estate, even following "Castro’s" death, after he returned, broken and humiliated, from his tours of America. But there’s another reason why the matter might have leapt on to Lovecraft’s radar: the Tichborne family line was haunted:
In the Thirteenth Century, Lady Mabella Tichborne lay dying. As her time drew near, she implored her husband to instigate a tradition whereby, each Lady Day (March 25th), loaves of bread would be given freely to whomsoever showed up to the estate to claim them. This would come to be called the “Tichborne Dole”. Lord Tichborne, grumpy old bugger that he was, said that he would allocate grain for this purpose from as many fields as she could walk around carrying a burning torch. She managed to drag herself off her deathbed and crawl around a 23-acre field north of Tichborne Park which, to this day, is still known as “The Crawls”. Afterwards, she cursed the family line before dying, saying that, if the Dole were ever discontinued, thereafter the family would produce seven sons who would themselves only produce daughters, thus destroying the clear line of familial descent. The Dole was interrupted in 1821, supposedly activating the curse, which led directly, some say, to the ruination of the family that took place thereafter. You don’t have to have read “The Rats in the Walls” to know that this sort of thing was grist for Lovecraft’s mill and that, if he’d caught wind of it, he would have followed it up.
This is all just supposition because, as I’ve already said, there’s no way to prove any of it. Most likely, HPL picked the name 'Castro' randomly from the ‘phone book and just liked the sound of it. It just seems odd to me that the character has a name at all, when the story would have sailed on equally as well if he’d been nameless. I like to think that Lovecraft was a little less arbitrary than that. This is a writer, remember, who took the time to research what publications were being printed in Sydney in 1925 (The Bulletin wasn’t quite the sort of journal that HPL thought it was but, whatever) and where the Australian Museum was located in the same city while putting together the exact same story. He named this guy for a reason; we might never know what that reason was, but we can still speculate.
All we do know is that it wasn’t – apparently – Danziger.