Throughout the 1930s, the headlines screamed: THE COPPERHEAD STRIKES! ORGANIZED CRIME REELING FROM ATTACKS BY MASKED VIGILANTE! FIFTH COLUMN TAKEN DOWN BY COPPERHEAD! COPPERHEAD DELIVERS GANGSTERS TO COPS’ DOORSTEP! COPPERHEAD DISMANTLES TERROR PLOT! THE COPPERHEAD STILL AT LARGE!
And one persistent question across years of headlines: WHO IS THE COPPERHEAD? I was the only person who ever learned the answer to that.
I remember one blustery winter evening in 1939. A new war raged in Europe, its menace poised to threaten our own sovereign shores before too long. Snow fell heavily on an American city, a white blanket that covered all without concealing the grit and grime beneath it. As even the snow itself was engulfed by the dark shadows of metropolitan twilight, the city’s denizens of night came out to play...and to prey.
At the docks—never the safest part of town—the evening shroud of darkness further emboldened its scavengers, its predators: the lawless, amoral element who broke the law and victimized the weak, the good, and the innocent impartially. Criminals. They thought themselves fierce and mighty, fearless, beyond the reach of the law.
But there was one that even they feared.
On this evening, a family from out of town—from some faraway place that was safer, saner—found itself separated from its tour group. The man, the woman, and their young son, all of them so far removed from any familiar surrounding, blundered into the wrong place at the wrong time, the worst time. Already nervous, scared, they were surrounded without warning. The chill air of the docks was nothing compared to the cold dread that gripped them as a gang of five thugs circled them, demanding money, demanding tribute, demanding blind terror, laughing and scowling at this poor family’s plight. The mother clutched her son. The father did his best to shield his loved ones from harm, and to surrender his wallet to these assailants, but knowing with sick certainty that would not be enough to satisfy these four evil men.
Wait. Four evil men? Hadn’t there just been five of them?
With a gurgled scream, that fifth attacker crumpled to the pavement, bruised and beaten, entering a long, painful slumber that could not be described as the sleep of the just. His four companions exchanged a miserable glance through the glittering, grimy snow—they knew. They’d lived in this city long enough to know, and to abandon hope. They would resist. They would fight. But their battle was already lost.
A phantom of black and copper, topped by an incongruous flash of long red hair, moved among them, striking too quickly to be real. It was a woman, her face concealed by a dark mask. Even these dull-witted devils understood their misplaced machismo would be no match for her. Her copper whip coiled and bit like a venomous snake. Two more fell to the ground, their weapons scattered, their bodies wracked with pain. Another tried to run, but stopped short as a black-gloved hand reached out from nowhere and gripped his throat like a vise. Then the toxic sting of her whip sent him into unconsciousness as well.
Only one of the thugs remained. Still armed with a knife, buoyed by the false bravado of his own desperation, the criminal lurched toward the boy and his mother, seeking hostages. It was the stupidest thing he had ever done in his misspent life. For now, he had drawn the ire, the anger, of this relentless wraith of vengeance.
His weapon was gone before he knew it. His intended victims were beyond his reach. He stood alone, face to terrible masked face, with the cold fury of...
The last thug fainted. It was a mercy he did not deserve.
With the brief battle over, The Copperhead’s grim stance shifted, softened. She turned her attention to the family she’d rescued. No longer a figure of swift and merciless justice, The Copperhead transformed into an angel of mercy, tending to this family, making sure they were unharmed, unafraid. As help arrived, The Copperhead faded into the shadows once again.
The Copperhead knew the awful cost criminals could inflict upon a family, the ache of innocence lost. Innocence, and the innocent, must be protected. Her father had been a gunslinger in the Old West. His family suffered loss, but always fought for what was right. He passed his own sense of justice on to his daughter, The Copperhead.
And The Copperhead passed that on to the next generation.
The Copperhead didn’t know I was there on that long- ago winter evening, watching her deliver both justice and mercy where they were needed most. Maybe she did know, and just never let on. I was ten years old, but I could see through her mask and her Halloween garb. I scurried back home, stopping just long enough to chase away some bullies pestering some little kids. Always protect the innocent. I still made it home just before The Copperhead arrived. She was no longer masked, no longer an avenger. No longer The Copperhead.
“Cody,” she said to me. “Did you get your homework done, or did you just listen to the radio and read your story magazines all evening?”
“Don’t worry. I did what needed to be done. Just like you taught me.”
She kissed me goodnight. And she returned to her room to plan the next step in her war on injustice. There were criminals to catch, Nazis to punch, rights to wrong. People to inspire. Innocents to protect. A family legacy to uphold.
I grew up to be a crimefighter myself, a secret agent, Codename: Copperhead. I have a license to kill. I have never used it; I find another way, like I was taught. I remember the lessons I learned: Fight. Be fair. Punish the guilty. But above all else: Protect the innocent. That’s what The Copperhead taught me. And every day I thank her for the example she set. Thank you, Copperhead. I love you, Mom.