Meet the Real Man Who Inspired Disney’s Tarzan

Tarzan: the man, the myth, the legend. Turns out the emphasis should have been on the first designation as the boy who was raised by apes, the subject of an extremely successful series of novels, a TV show, countless films including a 1999 Disney cartoon and a 2016 Alexander Skarsgard and Margot Robbie drama, comic strips, and even a few dirty adult parodies, was likely inspired by a real person. Not that creator/author Edgar Rice Burroughs ever admitted it.

The books that started it all

Published originally in a pulp magazine called All-Story in 1912, Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs was the first novel about a white child who was raised by primates after his parents died. He grew up to usurp the alpha male ape as king of the jungle after learning their ways. He swung from vines, had a trademark call of the wild, was eventually introduced to a bunch of abhorrent humans and the less abhorrent Jane, the love of his life, and finds out he is the heir to a title and a fortune. The series was an immediate massive hit and Burroughs capitalized on that popularity by writing two dozen sequels.

Hollywood came calling

Not counting the adult films, there have been at least 45 movies starting with 1918’s silent Tarzan of the Apes and including a bunch of cheesy adventures in the 1930s and 1940s with Johnny Weissmuller and a softcore romp with Bo Derek in 1981 that featured the characters from Burroughs’ books. There was also a 1966-68 NBC television series starring Ron Ely as the savage swinger and an animated children’s program in the 1970s. The most well-know adaptation is likely the Disney animated movie made in 1999, which like many other Disney films and Disney rides, feature real-life places.

Tarzan’s image, according to the Los Angeles Times, has been used to sell everything from T-shirts to vitamins and chest wigs. In Japan, a fitness magazine was even named after him. The Southern Californian community, Tarzana—where Burroughs built his office in 1926 and was buried—is also named after the lord of the jungle. There is no denying that Tarzan is one of the most beloved and enduring characters in the whole of literature.

Edgar Rice BurroughsEverett Collection/Shutterstock

Burroughs’ inspirations

The author who originally wrote under a pseudonym because “he thought writing was a lark” and a “silly profession for a big vigorous outdoorsman, as he fancied himself to be,” according to a Los Angeles Times interview with Scott Tracy Griffin, who wrote Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration, a scholarly coffee-table book published when the first novel turned 100 in 2012. Griffin says Burroughs was always “canny about his inspirations.” He “was a very well-read man” who “studied Greek and Latin through his school years, did research in the Chicago Public Library” and “had a very firm grounding in the classics.”

Burroughs usually claimed Tarzan was based on classic tales and mythology, often citing the story of Romulus and Remus. According to Britannica.com, they were the twin grandsons of King Numitor, who was deposed by his brother, and fathered by the war god Mars. They were sentenced to death by drowning as infants so as not to leave any rightful claimants to the throne. But they wound up floating down the Tiber River to the site where they would later found Rome, only surviving by being suckled and fed by a she-wolf and a woodpecker.

Many believe Burroughs was so specific and canny about the origins of his idea because he was plagued by accusations of copying Rudyard Kipling, whose Jungle Book was published many years earlier in 1894 and featured Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves, befriended by other animals, and eventually faced with both internal and external human dilemmas. (Coincidentally, it was also turned into a Disney cartoon and a live-action film.) Kipling himself once accused Burroughs of jazzing up the Mowgli plot in order to make Tarzan a hit, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Possible real-life Tarzan

But like a good book, the plot thickens. It turns out Kipling might have been wrong, at least partially, and Burroughs might have hidden his actual inspiration for the hero. It wouldn’t be the first incidence of a writer basing an iconic character on a real person.

Enter the 14th Earl of Streatham, William Charles Mildin. According to a 1959 article by journalist Thomas Llewellyn Jones in Man’s Adventure magazine, Mildin’s shocking tale of survival and primates sounds pretty familiar.

To recap, Tarzan aka John Clayton was the child of aristocrats. The family was marooned in Africa and, after both of his parents perished, he was left to fend for himself in the jungle. He learns survival skills from a family of apes who call him Tarzan, meaning “white of skin.” He eventually tangles with a bunch of other humans including his shady family members and his beloved Jane and learns about his moneyed heritage.

Both came from English nobility

A Telegraph article explains that the earl’s story surfaced when family documents were released after his son died in 1937. Lord Mildin left 1,500 handwritten pages of memoirs. Tarzan’s real identity was Lord Greystroke. (Lord Greystroke is, however, a made-up name.)

Both were shipwrecked in Africa

The Earl also spent more than a decade, 15 years to be exact, in the wilds of Africa after a job on a boat went terribly wrong. His papers begin: “I was only 11 when, in a boyish fit of anger and pique, I ran away from home and obtained a berth as cabin boy aboard the four-masted sailing vessel, Antilla, bound for African ports-of-call and the Cape of Good Hope …”

His ship was destroyed during a three-day storm and he claimed he survived by clinging to a “piece of the wreckage.” He washed ashore somewhere between Pointe Noire and Libreville in French Equatorial Africa, according to The Telegraph. The original Man’s Adventure article said official insurance documents proved the Antilla had been totaled in 1868.

Clearly, if he was the prototype for Tarzan, this is where Burroughs took some liberties. Mildin was 11 and had run away from home; Tarzan was a small child who was stranded with his parents.

Both palled around with primates

The papers say he did not seek out natives as he “had always heard they were savages — headhunters and cannibals.” Mildin’s memoirs claim he took up with a group of apes after they provided him with food. According to a fanzine called ERBzine article, which reprinted Llewallan Jones’ 1959 article, the journals stated: “For some strange reason, I was not afraid of these strange creatures. They were hideous to look upon but seemed gentle and harmless.”

He writes that they gave him nuts, grubs, and roots. He was starving so he ate the castoffs, which apparently were rejected by his system at first. “I was terribly ill afterwards and the apes appeared to understand this. One ancient female hunched her way over to me and cradled me in her arms.”

He “gathered branches to make a crude treehouse.” He returned the favor to the family by making fire and stealing weapons from a native settlement: “I found new and easy ways to root under logs for grubs and dig for roots with a sharp-tipped stick. He talks about dressing their wounds with cool moss or wet mud.

Mildin brags that he was “unusually strong and agile for his age” but never claims he became the leader of the animals. “The brutes came to look upon me, not as a leader for I could not match their feats of strength and endurance, but as a mute well-intentioned and helpful counselor,” says an excerpt in the ERBzine piece.

Unlike Tarzan, he did not speak to the apes but did figure out some form of communication. Sounds wild, but scientific experiments and studies like the long-term one with Koko The Gorilla prove apes can be taught sign language. Once Mildin became a teen, he claims he left the beasts and moved in with a native tribe.

Both were swingers

Albeit different kinds, but Mildin was a bit of a player before he re-entered the realm of the white man. He alleges he married five local women and sired four children during his time in the village. His papers allege that the barren wife was speared to death in a ritual as it was the tribe’s custom to punish sterility.

When bad blood began to boil again with rival tribes, according to the ERBzine article, Mildin fought alongside his adopted people and taught them the art of “surprise attacks.” After he tired of war, he went full deadbeat dad, deserted them, and worked his way slowly up the coast until reaching a trading post some 250 miles away. Within months, he had returned to his homeland to claim his title, estate, and white male privilege. Warring tribes in that part of Western Africa at the time is a verifiable fact and according to the ERBzine article, there was an 1884 report from Fort Lamy that confirms Mildin came through there to get home.

According to the Reporter-Herald, the story goes a little differently. They mention that Mildin returned to London 15 years later but it was after being captured by adventurers and returned to civilization. If you remember, Tarzan also spends time in civilization, eventually learns of his nobility, and was often hunted by other humans.

Either way, Mildin made it home to his family fortune and title. He married again and had one son, Edwin George, in 1889. He died in 1919 and his son died in 1937 never having married.

No proof

Given that most of the players in this scenario died before this theory could be proven, there’s no way to 100 percent know that Mildin’s story helped in at least part to spark Tarzan’s creation. Mildin’s detailed papers were only released, per his will, when his last legitimate heir had passed away. However, the broad details of his marooning in Africa and his return, a few decades before Burroughs wrote the book, were covered in several articles in The London Times and romanticized in English illustrated papers and magazines, according to ERBzine. We’ve already established that experts believe Burroughs was a very well-read man who did lots of research. And if he did reach out to Mildin, it is entirely possible that Burroughs agreed to keep it a secret because Mildin knew the details of his papers, largely admitting the existence of his illegitimate African-based children, would complicate his will.

Jane of the Jungle

Tarzan and His Mate, 1934Universal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock

Pretty sure this tale has you wondering about Jane. But sadly for fans of Tarzan’s lady friend who first appeared in Tarzan of the Apes — A Romance of the Jungle in 1912 in All-Story, she does appear to be a pure figment of Burroughs’ imagination. Jane’s introduction was such a hit that it spurred Burroughs to write a bunch of tales about the pair’s life together in the jungle. Perhaps best of all, she inspired one real-life Jane, Jane Goodall, to live among the apes in Africa. “Silly man,” Goodall is reported as saying by the Jane Goodall Institue. “He married the wrong Jane.”  We guess we can add Tarzan and Mildin to the list of classic cartoons and their real-life inspirations.

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Carrie Bell
Carrie Bell is a Los Angeles-based writer who has been covering travel, entertainment, food, and other culture/lifestyle topics for nearly two decades. Her work has appeared in Reader’s Digest, People, Yahoo, Cosmopolitan, Fodor’s, and Bridal Guide and she is Southern California specialist for TripSavvy. She earned a BA in journalism at Humboldt State University in only three years and co-authored The Bathtub Reader: An Amusing Miscellany for the Discerning Mademoiselle.