One hundred years ago, Joe Knowles stripped down to his jockstrap, said goodbye to civilization, and marched off into the woods to prove his survival skills. He was the reality star of his day. For eight weeks, rapt readers followed his adventures in the Boston Post. He returned home to a hero’s welcome. That’s when things got interesting.
Readers did not hear from Knowles again until August 24, when, on page one, the Post ran a Knowles sketch of a wildcat, along with an alarming headline: “Knowles Catches Bear in Pit and Kills It with Club.” The bear was a yearling. It wasn’t bear-hunting season in Maine yet, so the Post now had license to tantalize readers with the prospect of their hero’s arrest. One story read, “The wardens are mustering the courage to tackle the Forest Man in his lair and drag him out.”
Did Knowles apprehend his legal danger? Did he flee to Quebec? For an October 5 story, an anonymous reporter made a “long, hard tramp” of two days into Knowles’s camp to answer these questions. He came away stumped and shivering, so he dwelled theatrically on the primitive trappings of Knowles’s solitary existence: bits of bark chopped with blunt instruments, broken branches marking a crude trail, and a small lean-to. “Here was the scene of a great struggle,” the story read in a crescendo worthy of Jack London himself, “not the marks of a physical battle, but the deeper, more impressive signs of a mental battle. For it was here a human being lived the strange life of self-imposed loneliness after he had fought and won his battle with nature. It was here he gathered crude comforts that would enable him to conform the civilized mind to primitive conditions.”
The Post’s dispatch noted that black bristles from the vanquished bear were “found on many projecting points and on the upturned roots near the camp. On a rock was more hair, where evidently the forest man had been doing his tailoring.” But Knowles’s bedclothes were absent, according to the story, and the bearskin was nowhere to be found.
Why? Because Knowles had taken it west. On the morning of October 5, the Post’s front page blared, “KNOWLES, CLAD IN SKINS, COMES OUT OF THE FOREST.” A subhead continued, “Boston Artist, Two Months a ‘Primitive Man,’ Steps into the Twentieth Century near Megantic, Province of Québec.” Subsequent copy read, “Tanned like an Indian, almost black from exposure to the sun…. Scratched and bruised from head to foot by briars and underbrush…. Upper garment sleeveless. Had no underwear.”
Picked up nationwide, the Post’s piece explained that Knowles had just traversed the most inhospitable portion of the Maine woods, after which, when he had emerged on the outskirts of Megantic, he had made his first human contact—a young girl he had found standing by the railroad track. “And the child of 14, wild-eyed, stared at him,” the story said, “and into her mind came the memory of a picture of a man of the Stone Age in a history book.”
“Something within him rose,” the story continued, “and forced a cry from his throat, and kindly tears into his eyes. He smiled, and the girl saw the gold in his teeth flash. ‘He is a real man,’ she said to herself.”
Not everyone believed the story. In late October, after he had returned to civilization, an editorial in the Hartford Courant wondered whether “the biggest fake of the century has been palmed off on a credulous public.” Meanwhile, a reporter from the rival Boston American had begun working on a long story about Knowles. The paper specialized in blockbuster exposés, and its investigative bloodhound, Bert Ford, had spent seven weeks combing the woods around Spencer Lake, aided in his research by a man he would call “one of the ablest trappers in Maine or Canada,” Henry E. Redmond.
On December 2, in a front-page article, Ford went public with the explosive allegation that Knowles was a liar. He zeroed in on Knowles’s alleged bear killing, noting that the Nature Man’s bear pit was but 4 feet wide and 3 feet deep. In boldface, the story asserted, “It would have been physically impossible to trap a bear of any age or size in it.” Knowles’s club was likewise damning evidence. Found leaning against a tree, it was a rotting stub of moosewood that Ford easily chipped with his fingernails.
According to the Boston American, Knowles had a manager in the Maine woods, and also a guide who bought the bearskin from a trapper for 12 dollars. The bear had not been mauled, but rather shot. “I found four holes in the bear skin,” Ford averred after meeting Knowles and studying the very coat he was wearing. “Experts say these were bullet holes.”
Ford argued that Knowles’s Maine adventure was in fact an “aboriginal layoff.” He wasn’t gutting fish and weaving bark shoes, as the Post’s dispatches suggested. Rather, he was lounging about in a log cabin at the foot of Spencer Lake and also occasionally entertaining a lady friend at a nearby cabin.
Knowles responded to Ford’s story by filing a $50,000 libel lawsuit. In December he returned to his bear pit in Maine, this time with a small captive black bear. Then, watched by both reporters and Maine locals, he clubbed the poor animal to death and began picking at its skin with a sharp piece of shale. “In less than ten minutes, he had the hide off one of the bear’s legs,” Helon Taylor, a 15-year-old witness, would marvel late in life. “We were all impressed.”
But it was a sham. The bear was ready to hibernate, and so sluggish that Knowles had to prod it with a stick to make it put up a fight. Later, as Knowles and the spectators hiked out of the woods, Taylor spied a “nice, tight little log cabin,” so new that “the peeled logs hadn’t even started to change color.” Out behind the cabin, there was a pile of beer bottles and tin cans 4 feet high. Taylor suspected that Knowles had stayed there for the whole of his adventure, never once camping out.
A quarter-century later, in 1938, the New Yorker would corroborate Taylor’s hunch—and would also allow Knowles’s ghostwriting “manager” to reveal himself. He was none other than Michael McKeogh, the tavern habitué who’d dreamed up Knowles’s wilderness stunt in the first place. McKeogh described Knowles as a melancholic louse. The Nature Man, he said, showed up at the cabin just hours after leaving his sendoff party at the foot of Spencer Trail.
According to the New Yorker story, Knowles entered wearing his jockstrap, sat down, and said nothing. He stayed for weeks. He was so morose and lethargic that when Maine’s game wardens came looking for him in late September, following the Post’s report about the vanquished bear, he shrugged off McKeogh’s entreaties that he run. McKeogh cried, “You’ll be put in prison, Joe, you’ll be put in prison!” But Knowles moved only when he heard footsteps. And he only began his march toward Quebec after McKeogh hired an Indian guide to lead him through the forests that he had supposedly conquered.