He’s portrayed by Hollywood as a muscle-bound superhero and idolised by millions of fans worldwide, but we can reveal the original Batman was a fat old bloke with a bushy beard.
Until now it was assumed Batman was a fictional creation for DC Comics in 1939 who went on to star in a 1960s television series before launching the cult film franchise in 1989.
But a Suffolk Gazette investigation has discovered the inspiration for the character was the true story of Bill Smith, who moved from Suffolk in England to America in 1870 and settled in New York where he worked in a butcher’s shop.
We researched historical records in East Anglia and the US to piece together the remarkable story of how Mr Smith turned vigilante after his shop was repeatedly targeted by shoplifters.
Municipal archives show Mr Smith was first indicted in 1878 for catching and punching a thief who had run out of the shop with a leg of lamb over his shoulder.
Mr Smith, then aged 43, was set free by the sympathetic judge, who was no doubt fed up with the never-ending list of petty criminals being hauled up before him.
The episode inspired Mr Smith who, according to parish records, had left Dallinghoo in Suffolk where he worked as a farm labourer to board a liner from Liverpool to New York to seek a better life.
Spurred on by a one-paragraph report of his court appearance in the New-York Tribune, he went on to tackle more thieves and soon gained notoriety as a vigilante.
It took four more years for him to adopt his famous head mask – to make him look like a bat and to hide his real identity. He then patrolled his neighbourhood by night looking for baddies.
Extracts from a journal, written by an associate known only as Robin in 1892, included the exclusive photograph we are publishing above for the first time today.
The journal discloses: “Everyone locally has heard of this Batman. He walks the streets at night and the gangsters, the thieves, the drunkard vagrants all keep their distance.”
It adds: “He is the vengeance. He is the night. He is Batman.”
But that is where the original Batman trail goes cold, with the only remaining documents about Mr Smith being his death certificate. We pulled a copy from the central records office in New York, which states he died of hypothermia after being out alone on a freezing night in February 1896, aged 66.
It is now certain the creators of the Batman character for DC Comics – Rob Kane and Bill Finger – based him on the local legend of Mr Smith.
And so, as you watch yet another Batman movie with your family, you can now recount how Batman was, in fact, a farm labourer from Suffolk, England.
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