Yankee Tarzan


It was raining. A forty-four-year-old man named Joseph Knowles gingerly entered an old logging road in the Dead River country of Maine. He was nearly naked and carried no tools, weapons, or equipment of any sort, not even a bottle of mosquito repellent.

The time was August, 1913, the exploit designed to demonstrate that modern man could make out as well in the wilds as our primitive ancestors. Joe Knowles vowed that he would return to civilization in a couple of months healthy, happy, well nourished, and clothed in a bearskin. The idea was inspired by daydreams Knowles had had, or if one accepts a more down-to-earth account, it developed in a Boston saloon between Knowles, a part-time artist who was somewhat vain about his musculature and woodsmanship, and Michael McKeogh, a freelance newspaperman. McKeogh had read Robinson Crusoe and suddenly, possibly recalling Crusoe’s man, Friday, began to think enthusiastically about such matters as “Tuesday: kills bear” and money.

Earlier generations of Americans had hated and feared the wilderness as hostile; in the seventeenth century the forested East was known as a “howling” wilderness, filled with strange menace. But in the early twentieth century the back-to-nature movement was coming on strong. There was a feeling in urban America that the world was too much with us, and many voices were being raised in support of the romantic vision of rugged landscapes and the joys of communing with nature. A related branch of the cult of the primitive stemmed from Charles Wagner, a French popular thinker from Alsace, who had published an inspirational book entitled The Simple Life. President Theodore Roosevelt gave it a ringing endorsement and thus added the term “the Simple Life” to the American vocabulary.

Writers turned to the woods for new material. City dwellers, who saw the natural world as a kind of scenic backdrop, envied those who lived among the peaceful clucking of chickens or enjoyed easy access to forest and stream bank. It is significant that escape literature of this genre soon would be enriched by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ubiquitous Tarzan of the Apes, which first appeared in 1914.


This trend provided background for the proposal Knowles and McKeogh made to the Boston Post that the paper should send Joe Knowles into northeastern Maine naked as a snake, to live as Adam lived. The Post, which was having circulation trouble, agreed that its readers would like to follow Joe’s messages from the wild, which were to be scratched on birch-bark with charcoal and left each week on a certain stump. A licensed guide would cook for McKeogh and retrieve the necessarily brief communiques. McKeogh, who would not be far away with his trusty typewriter, would blow them up into stories of suitable length for Sunday features, supplying the fascinating details that Joe would have given himself if he had had an infinite amount of free time, charcoal, and birch-bark.

Bidding farewell on August 4 to some curious sportsmen, to a Post photographer who got a discreet shot of the naked cave man waving good-bye to civilization, and to a cluster of reporters, Knowles found the trail slippery and the downpour chilly. But he gamely sent back a bulletin in time for the Sunday Post, expressing his sense of traveling light, as indeed he was, and the release he felt in contemplating “the full freedom of the life I was to lead.”

“I shall be entirely independent of the rest of humanity,” Knowles declared. “When I emerge in October I shall be sufficiently clothed to walk the city streets” and “willing the doctor shall submit me to any tests.” He asked to be left absolutely alone in the forest for the sake of the authenticity of the scientific experiment he was making and to satisfy skeptics that he could clothe himself in the skins of animals and, with a varied diet of berries, roots, wild onion, fish, and venison, “live in primitive luxury.” After the first week, when he would be pretty busy getting settled, Joe anticipated enlarging his menu with other dainties—wild duck and wild goose, to be spitted over the fire while his smoked trout cured alongside. He also explained how he would make a fire by rubbing two sticks rapidly together, the way the aborigines did long ago.


Knowles had been pronounced fit for the task he set himself by Dr. Dudley Alien Sargent, physical education director of Harvard University, and his early reports recounted successes in fashioning baskets for transporting berries, the capture of small trout in a shallow pool, and fire making by friction. Newspapers as far away as Kansas City printed the Knowles saga.

“It was Steve Brodie, Nellie Bly, and Stanley-and-Livingston all rolled into one great juicy series,” according to the late student of American journalism, Stewart Holbrook.