Lew Wallace is best known today for having written the book Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, one of the best-selling books of the 19th century, which has been filmed three times, most famously the 1959 version by director/producer William Wyler, with Charlton Heston in the title role. Wallace's own life might have made a good movie -- several films, in fact -- except that no one would believe that one man could do all that he did in a lifetime, including a career that brought him into direct contact with three United States presidents, the outlaw Billy the Kid, and the ruling sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Wallace was a military hero, a diplomat, and a statesman, renowned many times over in each of those fields, and authored seven books as well as numerous articles and poems; he was a successful inventor as well. Lew Wallace was born on April 10, 1827, in Brookville, IN. His father later served as governor of the state, and Wallace spent most of his childhood in Indianapolis. He was commissioned a first lieutenant in the Mexican War, but never saw battle, and became a lawyer at the end of the 1840s, joining the bar in 1849. He was elected to the State Senate seven years later, which marked the beginning of his career in public life. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Wallace was appointed Indiana's State Adjutant General, a position from which he organized the first volunteer regiments sent from the state to join the Union Army forces. In April of 1861, he was commissioned a colonel in the 11th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, and later received a commission as brigadier general of U.S. Volunteers. He got his major general's star after the capture of Fort Donelson, in which he played a role, and Wallace also served in the battle of Shiloh. Finally, in 1864, Wallace was given command of the Middle Department of the Union Eighth Army Corps by President Lincoln, and on July 9, 1864, four months later, he was one of the generals in command of troops in the Battle of Monocacy, slowing Confederate General Early's attack on Washington, D.C., until Union forces could secure the city's defensive perimeter. Wallace spent much of early 1865 on assignment to the United States Secret Service in Mexico, but he was recalled to Washington to serve on the commission that tried the conspirators in the assassination of President Lincoln, and was president of the court martial board that tried Henry Wirz, the commander of the notorious Andersonville prison camp.
In 1873, he published his first book, The Fair God, about the conquest of Mexico, and began attracting notice as a writer, but it was seven years later that he wrote his most enduring work, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Written in the second half of the 1870s, the book coincided with a time in which Wallace re-entered government service, accepting an appointment from President Rutherford B. Hayes as Governor of the New Mexico Territory -- during this period, he crossed paths with one William Bonney (aka Billy the Kid), the notorious outlaw, whom he persuaded to serve as a witness for the prosecution in the trial of alleged killers in the Lincoln County Wars. In 1881, President Garfield appointed Wallace the United States Resident to the Ottoman Empire; by then, Wallace was a literary celebrity as a result of Ben-Hur, whose fans included the President himself -- it was already on its way to becoming one of the most popular books ever published in America. Wallace's tenure as the American diplomatic representative to Turkey was notably successful, for he won over the ruling Sultan Abdul Hamid II almost immediately, and he quickly rose to the top rank of the diplomatic corps. He held the post for four years, at the end of which the Sultan requested that Wallace consider joining his government, which he declined politely.
Wallace spent the next few years writing books, including a biography of President Benjamin Harrison and an account of the boyhood of Jesus. Ben-Hur continued to hold its audience and win new readers. Wallace's articles and poems were widely read, and the books of his wife, Susan, soon began joining his on readers' shelves. Wallace was also a fairly prolific inventor, and during the 1890s and early 20th century he registered patents on new devices designed to improve the function of everything from railroad ties to fishing poles. He lived long enough to see Ben-Hur become a huge stage hit, which, in turn, transformed actor William S. Hart (who originated the role of Messala) into one of the top stars on Broadway.
Wallace died in 1905 at the age of 77, but the influence of the book only grew in the years after -- in 1907, a film company released the first of three film versions of Ben-Hur, this one without the permission of Wallace's estate or his publisher, leading to a landmark United States Supreme Court case that determined for the first time that copyright protection on a literary property extended to screen adaptations. In the 1920s, MGM made Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the first authorized screen version of the story, which was the most expensive production of the studio during the silent era and became one of the most successful movies in the studio's early history. At the end of the 1950s, William Wyler brought Wallace's book to the screen once more, in its definitive 1959 version. Thanks to that movie, Wallace's creation and characters have remained so familiar to audiences some 70 years after his death that SCTV was able to satirize the plot ("'Curly' Heston in Ben-Hur") without any need of explanation or risk that the jokes would be lost on the audience.