It was raining hard on August 4, 1913, when Joseph Knowles, a part-time portrait painter, tattooed former Navy man, big-beaked friend of the Sioux and Chippewa Indians and onetime hunting guide, stepped off into the northeastern woods of Maine near the present-day Sugarloaf ski area. His intention was a two-month sojourn in the woods, taking nothing in with him—not even clothes!
The story of Joseph Knowles—what happened to him on this and two subsequent trips into the woods (one of them with a female Eve to his Adam)—is told in my new book Naked in the Woods: Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery (Da Capo).
The whole story is in the book, but the editors here were wondering how our modern, iPod-carrying, indoors-loving Americans would fare in the woods. So that’s why we’re launching a unique, E Magazine contest! Yes, the two best short essays (500 words or less) entitled "What I Would Do If I Found Myself Naked in the Woods" will receive free copies of the book! Be creative. We want to know what you’d do for food and shelter, and how you’d make clothes from nature’s materials. Please email your entries to email@example.com no later than Monday, March 3.
Knowles at that time was not exactly the picture of idealized manhood. He was five feet nine but weighed a hefty 200 pounds. He discarded a last cigarette before he strode into the forest primeval. Knowles was going off to live in the wilderness for two months, but he was hardly leaving unnoticed. A large crowd had gathered to see him off, alerted to the stunt by the Boston Post newspaper, then locked in a circulation war with the rival (and Hearst-owned) Boston American. Some 30 onlookers signed a statement that Knowles had submitted to their examination "to see that he concealed no material of any kind" and that he was going into the woods "alone, empty-handed and without clothing."
And so began one of the most successful circulation-building serials in the notably yellow and highly competitive newspaper wars of the period.
Joseph Knowles was a huge hit in the woods, by the way. Not only did the newspaper’s circulation grow by more than 30,000 daily copies (with readers drawn by lurid headlines such as "NAKED HE PLUNGES INTO MAINE WOODS TO LIVE ALONE TWO MONTHS"), but what had been a modest inside story soon became front-page news. Knowles—who had vowed to make no contact with the outside world during his sojourn—sent out regular dispatches written on bark with charcoal from the fires he made by rubbing sticks together.
The reports from the interior were highly charged. By the time Knowles claimed to have wrestled a deer to the ground with his bare hands and killed a bear with a club (thus finally earning himself substantial clothing) the whole country was following Joe Knowles" story through syndication. It didn’t hurt that Joe’s undeniably skillful drawings—also executed in charcoal—accompanied the diary entries. Soon the newspaper was featuring Knowles" visions of Maine wildlife (including a bear family and a moose) as full-page, color illustrations suitable for framing and display in proper Bostonian living rooms.
Knowles became so popular that imitators arose. One New Hampshire drug store soda jerk Benjamin J. Pickering claimed, "Knowles has nothing on me." He’d been going off naked into the woods for years. As the Post wrote, "Every little while Pickering takes off his apron, says goodbye and plunges into forest," emerging after several days to go back to the fountain and sling milkshakes.
The plot thickened near the end of the sylvan sojourn when game agents took a dim view of Knowles" killing animals out of season. "Can the reader imagine how I would have felt, after having lived two months in the woods as I have lived, to have come forth from the forest to meet my friends and have half a dozen game wardens step up and place me under arrest, and take my skins away from me?" he asks in Alone in the Wilderness, his best-selling autobiography (released later that year in 1913, it went on to sell an astonishing 300,000 copies.) A dramatic race for the nearby Canadian border followed, with our erstwhile Daniel Boone one step ahead of the law.
Knowles eventually came out of the woods on October 4 near Megantic, Quebec after a 70-mile overland journey. As American Heritage described it, he "looked half-man, half-bear, with his matted hair, skin dark as an Indian"s, fur-lined chaps and bearskin cloak." This vision from another time encountered a 14-year-old girl who accosted him in a "torrent of French." Joe Knowles was back in civilization. "She was the first human being I had spoken to in two months," Knowles wrote.
He arrived back in Boston to a tumultuous welcome from more than 100,000 well-wishers. Editorials praised Knowles as "a naked man against the tooth and claw of nature," and proclaimed him "a noble piece of poetry." He was even compared to John the Baptist.
Long before Tiny Tim, Knowles exploited his white-hot fame by getting married on stage, though in both cases the nuptials were short-lived. His whiskers were shorn and his bearskin shed for a fashionable suit before a crowd at the famous Filene"s. All was well until November 30, when Hearst’s Boston American, smarting at the Post’s circulation increase and kicking itself over the fact that it had earlier turned Knowles story down, published a blistering exposé.
According to the American‘s Bert Ford, Knowles actually spent most of his time in a comfortable cabin complete with regular supply drops, a typewriter for Michael McKeogh (the Nature Man’s ghostwriter), and comfortable blankets from Bangor. His celebrated bear was actually shot by a trapper, who sold the skin (complete with four bullet holes) to Allie Deming, one of Knowles" minions, for $12 ($7 more than its market value). The pit that Knowles supposedly used to catch the bear was so shallow that "a cat could have hopped out of it with ease."
There was a lot more, including the fact that the weekly dispatches to the Post, supposedly written on hacked-off birch bark in charcoal from Knowles" fires, had apparently been cut with a sharp blade and displayed distinct graphite traces from pencil lead.
Knowles" story proves that bad publicity can be nearly as much of an elixir as good. Like Paris Hilton, our man of the woods used lurid headlines to his advantage. In fact, far from slinking away in defeat, he repeated his stunt in the wilderness two more times to continued dramatic effect, once in the mountains of Oregon (1914, an expedition interrupted by the outbreak of World War I) and once in the Adirondacks (1916). The sponsor for these expeditions, having evidently buried the hatchet, was the same Hearst chain that had exposed Knowles in 1913.
On the third voyage Knowles had company. He was the naked Dawn Man to the also nude Dawn Woman of Elaine Hammerstein, a noted theater and silent film star of her day (44 comedies and melodramas, some of them lost). Hammerstein, plucked from among three-dozen contenders for the Dawn Woman title, was the beautiful daughter of Broadway producer Arthur Hammerstein (son
of theatrical entrepreneur Oscar Hammerstein and uncle of legendary composer Oscar Hammerstein II).
By this point there was something distinctly comic about the whole affair, and if sex didn’t play a huge role in the first two Knowles adventures, it certainly took center stage for the third. The press downplayed Elaine Hammerstein as serious nature pioneer and instead cast her as a trembling unclad maiden, at risk from wild creatures of the forest. It was just as well, because the urbane Hammerstein was no frontier woman. Despite training in woods lore by Knowles himself, and despite looking fetching in grass skirts, she proved hopelessly incapable. She quit after a week, but not before Hearst’s New York Journal had gotten a lot of mileage out of her.
Knowles completed a tour on the vaudeville circuit (where she possible encountered Hammerstein’s uncle Willie). When it was all over, Knowles retired to a crooked cabin made of driftwood on the shores of the Pacific. Home became Ilwaco, Washington, the end point of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and about as far from Maine as he could get. It’s peaceful here," he told a reporter from the Portland Oregonian who looked him up in 1933. Knowles painted on commission and cemented a reputation as a local character. He lived with three women, one of whom was actually his wife. He had only a few regrets. "I"m still sorry I didn’t manage to catch a bear cub, up there in Maine," he said to a reporter from the American Mercury in 1936 (six years before he died). "It would have been a knockout—parading out of that timber a-leading a bear like a Scottie."
Remember, send your entries in the "What I Would Do If I Found Myself Naked in the Woods" to Jim Motavalli at firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to send any graphics or photos you might have, too.