Moment of Indiana History

Tarzan’s Hoosier Connection

When Burroughs' first Tarzan novel was adapted for the screen, Hoosier-born Elmo Lincoln debuted in the title role.

One of the best-recognized literary and cinematic icons of the twentieth century was brought to life by three Hoosiers. Edward Rice Burroughs’ 1914 novel Tarzan of the Apes told the story of John Clayton, Lord Greystoke. The infant son of British nobility–marooned on the coast of Africa –the character that would come to be known as Tarzan was raised by apes after being orphaned. His adventures in and out of the jungle and with his consort Jane were chronicled over the course of 24 books. When Burroughs’ first novel was adapted for the screen, Hoosier-born Elmo Lincoln debuted in the title role. Born in Rochester, Indiana in 1889, Otto Elmo Linkenhelt was a big kid known as a prankster, who moved to California at 18. While working as a longshoreman, he was spotted by film-maker D.W. Griffith and cast in three of his films, including the infamous Birth of a Nation. Though it strayed wildly from Burroughs’ original text, the first Tarzan movie turned great profits at the box office and made a heartthrob of its 52-inch chested star, Elmo Lincoln, who also starred in a less well-received sequel.

Toward the twilight of the silent era, the sixth Tarzan picture was released. Tarzan and the Golden Lion starred James Hubert “Babe” Pierce, a native of Freedom, Indiana and an all-American football star at Indiana University. Though his role in this now lost film would be prove to be his largest on the screen, the 6-foot-4 Pierce went on to play a permanent role in the Tarzan story off-camera. Tarzan creator Burroughs, who had himself cast Pierce in the film, thought well enough of his ideal ape-man to introduce him to his daughter, whom Pierce subsequently wed. James and Joan Burroughs Pierce went on to play Tarzan and Jane in 364 radio programs.

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