By Klint Finley
Every night dozens of people around the world don masks and costumes and venture into the streets to fight crime.
Phoenix Jones and Master Legend are perhaps the most famous, but there are hundreds of costumed would-be crime fighters and their activities range from attempting to apprehend criminals to watching over the homeless while they sleep to make sure their positions aren’t stolen.
These caped crusaders aren’t mutants, aliens or cyborgs — they’re just concerned citizens. They have no superhuman powers. But with advances in technology — such as exoskeletons and bionic limbs — you might think it’s only a matter of time until we see the first grinder superhero.
Actually, we’ve had him for quite some time.
The first real-life superhero may have been J. J. Armes, a private detective who has been active in El Paso since 1958. His super power? A gun implanted in one of his prosthetic hook that he could fire with his biceps — without using his other hook.
Armes lives in a mansion, surrounded by lions and tigers. He always wears three piece suits, and travels by limo driven by his body guard cum chauffeur. It’s no wonder Ideal Toy Company manufactured a line of action figures based on his likeness, and comic book mogul Stan Lee wants to make a movie based on his life.
Armes lost both his hands at the age of 12, he told People in 1975. A friend brought over a box that, unknown to Armes, contained railroad dynamite charges. When Armes opened it, his hands were blown off at the wrist. His friend was unharmed.
His hands were replaced with hooks, but he kept playing sports. He even taught himself how to write with the hooks. His life changed again at the age of 15 when he was recruited to appear in the film Am I Handicapped?, he told Texas Monthly in 1976. He quit high school, moved to Hollywood, and went on to appear in 13 feature length films.
But eventually he decided to turn his attention to crime fighting. He moved to New York City to study psychology and criminology and graduated with honors by the age of 19. He then returned home to El Paso and started his private investigation service, eventually becoming better known to the children of the city than the president of the United States.
Well, that’s the story that Armes wanted people to believe back in 1976, anyway. Texas Monthly writer Gary Cartwright did some digging that year and found that Armes story didn’t add up.
Armes’ real name is Julian Armas. He was born in 1939 to Mexican immigrants, not Italian immigrants as he claimed. His friend didn’t find the dynamite that blew off his hands next to a railroad track. They broke into a rail house and stole it.
The Academy of Motion Pictures had no record of Am I Handicapped?. NYU had no record of Armas, or Armes, ever attending the school, let alone graduating. Nor was there any record of his mentor Max Falen having taught there.
“Old friends recalled when he returned from California. Julian, or Jay J. Armes as he now called himself, drove an old, raggedy- topped Cadillac with a live lion in the back and a dummy telephone mounted to the dash-board,” Cartwright wrote. “He would pull up beside the girls at the drive-in and pretend to be talking to some secret agent in some foreign land.”
There was also no indication that he really had a vast network of PIs at his disposal.
He does own a big house, but it was it was located in a poor part of town and was only worth about $50,000 in 1975. The helicopter certainly wouldn’t have been able to fly. What money he had likely didn’t come from his PI work, Cartwright wrote, but from lucrative real estate deals facilitated by his wealthy friend Thomas Fortune Ryan.
It’s apparently true that he brought Brando’s son back from Mexico, but other PIs are dubious about his methods. “They didn’t believe the part about the three-day helicopter search in which Jay Armes survived on water, chewing gum, and guts, but they all know the trick of grabbing a kid,” Carwright wrote. “You hired a couple of federales or gunsels. The problem wasn’t finding the kid, it was getting him out of the country.”
Armes came mostly clean in his autobiography, published later in 1976. He admitted his real name is Julian Armas. He didn’t admit to having broken into the railhouse himself, but didn’t claim that the other boy had found the dynamite charges either. Rather than claiming that a Hollywood director came showed up in El Paso and recruited him, Armes admitted that he went to California after high school. He wrote that he appeared in several films, but only in bit roles. He didn’t repeat the story about a mentor at NYU, and claimed only to have gotten a degree in criminology in California before returning to El Paso to become a private investigator.
Better Than Fiction
And not everything about Armes was a lie.
“It is true that Jay J. Armes drives around El Paso in the damnedest black limo you ever saw, armed to the teeth,” Cartwright wrote. “That pistol in his hook is the real McCoy; I watched him fire it.” And he really does have a fleet of vehicles, a flock of wild animals roaming the premises and a closet full of three-piece suits.
Even if you strip away the fabrications and exaggerations you’re left with an astounding tale. As Carwright wrote: “The real story is of a Mexican-American kid from one of the most impoverished settlements in the United States, how he extracted himself from the wreckage of a crippling childhood accident and through the exercise of tenacity, courage, and wits became a moderately successful private investigator. There is more sympathy, drama, and human intrigue in that accomplishment than you’re likely to find in any two or three normal studies of the human condition.”
Why then has his story largely been forgotten by the national media? Maybe it’s because of the tall tales in the beginning. Or maybe it’s because the media has little time for aging, disabled minorities.
Either way, J.J. Armes is a name worth remembering.