- Historic Sites
WHEN JOSEPH KNOWLES STRIPPED TO THE BUFF AND SLIPPED INTO THE MAINE WOODS IN 1913, HE HOPED TO LEAD THE NATION BACK TO NATURE.
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
Clad now in shirt and slacks, even underwear, Knowles dutifully responded to his new role as a public figure by putting on his bearskin costume for each stop, looking a bit like Hunding in the traditional staging of Wagner’s Die Walküre . He spoke when he had to but did not go into detail about his recent achievement. Yet he did give the crowds glimpses of his personal philosophy: “It was the survival of the fittest that gave us this great country of ours.” The employees of the United Shoe Machinery plant telegraphed ahead asking if the nature man would just wave to them as his train rolled through Beverly, Massachusetts, and heads filled the thousand windows of the factory as Joe obligingly saluted them from the platform of the rear car. And so, on to Salem, Lynn, and finally the climactic event—arrival at Boston.
When the Portland train chugged into North Station, a mighty roar of welcome went up from a crowd that filled the station and spilled over into Causeway Street and around the corner of Canal. The police almost lost control of the demonstration when the original nature man waved from his train drawing room, then stepped from the car door. Standing up in the “auto parade” and waving, Knowles moved slowly through dense throngs that wanted to shake hands or touch the wild skins of the “hero of the twentieth century,” and two or three women tried to climb into the car with the cave man. The procession moved toward Newspaper Row, the mass of humanity reaching from State to Milk streets, then up Washington to Boylston, down Boylston to Tremont and the Boston Common. There Knowles mounted the wooden grandstand built around the sides of the Parkman Memorial with, the Transcript wrote, “the quick, graceful movements of a tiger” and modestly thanked all “from the bottom of my heart.” Altogether about two hundred thousand people welcomed Joe Knowles home. Even the World Series had to take second place to the wilderness hero.
Dr. Sargent, over in Cambridge, again examined Knowles and pronounced him to be “in the pink of condition. ” The doctor persuaded Joe to pose and flex his muscles before the girls of the Sargent School and compared him favorably to Sandow, the highly publicized strong man. “This is perfect skin,” Sargent told his students, who sang a song especially composed for the gala occasion, honoring the man whose torso offered impressive evidence that modern man was up to coping with primeval conditions. In Harvard Square a spontaneous and hearty welcome was only a repeat of the ovations Joseph Knowles had already received. Students in the anthropology department were especially responsive, and Radcliffe girls clustered around to take a look at the man of the hour. A clergyman asserted the following Sunday that the lesson to be gleaned from what Joe had done was better than a sermon, and the head of the economics department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology drew a lesson from Joe s recent effort, pointing out that Knowles was well capitalized, not in the usual business sense, “but that this was the capital of the true cave man, consisting of a knowledge of woodcraft and a manual ability to make tools and clothing which then became his capital.”
There were official honors. The mayor of Boston and the governor of Massachusetts were pleased to receive Knowles at City Hall and the State-house, and Filene’s scored a coup in announcing that the nature man would arrive at the store in his woodland attire (second floor—escalator just off Washington Street). There, attended by onlookers and admirers, he would undergo barbering, manicuring, chiropody, and be outfitted in “fashionable clothes from our men’s shop.”
Continuing festivities included a banquet tendered Knowles by the sporting element at the Copley-Plaza Hotel. The newsreels followed Joe’s every move. Vaudeville booking agents dogged his steps with contracts at the ready. Meanwhile Knowles worked on a book entitled Alone in the Wilderness and kept up his Sunday installments for the Boston Post . He had every reason to feel happy, until December 2. On that date the Boston American said nastily and prominently that the celebrated bearskin had two bullet holes in it, that it had been bought for twelve dollars, which was five dollars above the going price for bearskins, and charged that it had been tanned by a professional. Joe’s bear pit, the American scoffed, wouldn’t have held even a cat. Knowles never gave a convincing answer to his tormentors. Americans of 1913, concluded a scholarly student of the cult of the primitive, simply wanted to believe in the authenticity of the nature man. For the majority Joe’s veracity was proved to their satisfaction by the fact that the bearskin smelled to high heaven.