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Yankee Tarzan

July 2024
11min read


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.

Post circulation zoomed as the world learned how Knowles had run down a deer and dispatched it with his bare hands, how he killed a black bear with a club in a bear pit of his own design and manufacture, and how he had found a new spiritual life among his furred and feathered neighbors.

Sunday after Sunday Knowles, who was growing a beard and acquiring a heavy, dark tan, shared his reverential thoughts with his readers as he got to know Mother Nature better. “Today is my birthday,” one birch-bark bulletin reported. “It is a holiday for me. I hear the voices of my woodland neighbors and feel the presence of my mother.” With proper piety, he called his wild haunts “the church of the forest.”

While the new Adam progressed from bark sandals to deer-hide moccasins, bear steaks, and a fur cloak, the other Boston papers were strangely silent on the subject of modern man’s triumphant conquest of the wilderness. But perhaps the lack of interest was not strange. Joe was, after all, the Post’s own private Thoreau. Yet everybody in the Boston area seemed to be following the story which showed, the Post pointed out, “the wonderful value of publicity in the Boston Post.”

Then trouble came to Arcadia...triple trouble. First, the Maine Fish and Game Commission began to take a professional interest in primitivism practiced on its feral wards without a hunting license. The game wardens were out in force, and Joe had to move. Furthermore, a reporter from William Randolph Hearst’s Boston American started digging into what Joe said and what he did based upon the premise that the fur-clad forest man was a fake. And finally a nosy trapper named Allie Deming appeared at the door of McKeogh’s cabin to ask abruptly, “Where’s Joe?” And to make his point absolutely clear, he added significantly, “I been watching around here for three days.” His vigil, he made clear, had yielded regular glimpses of Joe slipping into McKeogh’s cabin at mealtimes. Deming was quickly put on the payroll at $2.50 a day, and when he suggested that his services were worth twice that amount, he got his raise without difficulty. Meanwhile the regular guide was discharged. But he was able to put the matter of his former confidential relationship in such a light that his pay was continued although his duties ceased. This enabled him to retire to his home in Farmington, Maine. Normally loquacious, he maintained a no-comment posture when the topic of Knowles and his Superman exploits was introduced.

The original plan was for Knowles to emerge from the wilderness at the same point where he had entered, but, with Maine’s game wardens scouring the woods for him, it was decided that it would be more prudent for him to head for Canada, specifically the town of Megantic, Quebec. An Indian guide was hired to take him there. About ten miles from Megantic the guide dropped off, assuming that a woodsman who knew that the moss always grows most luxuriantly on the north side of a tree could cover the last few miles by himself. But no; Knowles struck the Canadian Pacific railroad tracks about fourteen miles south of Megantic, looking half-man, half-bear, with his matted hair, skin dark as an Indian’s, fur-lined chaps, and bearskin cloak. His first contact was with a little French girl at a small settlement along the tracks, and he must have given her a fright. But a friendly conductor whose train stopped at the settlement recognized him, welcomed him aboard, and paid his fare. Joe rode into Megantic on plush cushions.


Knowles was a man of shifting and uncertain moods. Sometimes he was up, sometimes down, sometimes so lethargic, so indifferent to the important things in life, such as money and the potential rewards of his cave-man stunt, that McKeogh was frequently almost out of his mind as he tried to buck Joe up and keep control of him. But at Megantic Joe’s spirits soared as he became reacquainted with beds, fried salt pork, potatoes, and mugs of hot tea. There, at the hotel, he enjoyed his first cigarette since plunging into the wilds, and there he learned that he would be meeting loving crowds on his trip home.

At Augusta, Maine’s capital, the Post paid Joe’s debt to the state for building fires in the forest and killing game animals out of season and without revenue for the Game Commission. Lewiston and Portland were next, with banquets and receptions. Schools had been dismissed so that the children might have a unique educational experience. Next, Saco and Biddeford. On October 9 eight to ten thousand people gathered at railroad stations along the route, giving voice to their enthusiasm as they gaped at the first “modern primitive man” they had ever seen or were likely ever to see again.

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.

Knowles did a vaudeveille turn for a few weeks and finished his book, which sold more than three hundred thousand copies. He received at least two cheers for it from the distinguished Nation magazine, which published a long review of Alone, calling the volume “vivid and detailed,” although the reviewer did point out that Knowles’s diction was “faulty” and his conclusions “fatuous.” The journal noted that the whole adventure was viewed with skepticism by “a small part of the public.” Meanwhile the Post blocked the publication of further damaging stories in the American by getting a court injunction. The Hearst paper dropped its projected exposé, not wishing to be the defendant in a libel suit that, whatever its merits, would only give Knowles more public exposure.

Other Hearst publishing properties, however, took a surprisingly supportive position on the social value of Joe’s sojourn in the wilds, having noted its exhilarating effect upon circulation. Hearst’s Magazine editorialized: “We thank Knowles for his experiment. It is a noble piece of poetry...more comforting to our proper human pride than the erection of a Woolworth building.” The Hearst newspaper flagship on the West Coast, the San Francisco Examiner, invited Knowles to repeat his woodsy adventure in July, 1914, in the untamed wilderness of the Siskiyou Mountains in California. There, it was planned, Joe once more would flourish and astonish by living for sixty days on nuts and berries, plus whatever animal protein he could obtain with his bare hands. There were cougars in this region, which inspired the Examiner’s banner announcement: WILD BEASTS ROAR INVITATION TO JOE KNOWLES. All went according to the scenario until the man versus nature story was blown off the front pages of the Examiner and all the lesser papers of the Coast region by the outbreak of World War I in Europe. This untimely event landed the Knowles plans back among the classifieds, where they quietly expired.

In 1916 the New York Journal teamed up with Knowles in another attempt to repeat the “nature-man-of-Maine” success, this time in the Adirondacks and with a new twist—the assistance of a lovely young woman of the theater (with chaperone), who was engaged to play Jane to Joe’s Tarzan. But the mosquitoes were too much for her. Even as the Journal spread the news DAWN GIRL SLIPS NAKED INTO DARK FOREST, the young lady had second thoughts and spoiled the story by slipping back to her Riverside Drive apartment and the stultifying life of tango teas and Broadway matinees which she had but lately scorned.

“She just couldn’t take it,” was Joe Knowles’s gloomy appraisal of this aborted experiment that promised so much of an educational nature.

Joe Knowles spent his last days in the state of Washington, living in a driftwood shack with a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. The Portland Oregonian looked him up in 1933, found a healthy, bronzed, fully clothed Knowles who was turning out enough calendar art to live on the quiet scale he preferred. He was his own man and remained so until his death on October 21, 1942. “...A man has his freedom here,” he told the Oregonian. When visitors dropped by to pay tribute to the man who had tackled nature in the raw, he spoke approvingly of the Boy Scout movement and somewhat sententiously of fresh air and “Mother Ocean,” which washed many interesting and useful articles up on his bit of beach. Knowles gave the impression of a man at peace with the world and himself. But he was reticent when tourists pressed him to talk about the return to the primitive which made him famous, except to say that he regretted not carrying out the “fine idea” of emerging from the woods leading a small, tamed bear cub on a leash of twisted willow withes.

Thus spake the dawn man. Ever the artist.

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