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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

War blasted Nature Man’s quest to prove he wasn’t a fraud.

Hounded by skeptics who thought he spent his "wilderness survival" time drinking beer at a friend's house, Joe Knowles planned to do it again under closer supervision, but the Great War broke out and the public lost interest.

Joe Knowles prepares to plunge into the wilderness. Photo from Jim Motavalli's blog at www.thedailygreen.com
An almost-naked Joe Knowles, Nature Man, prepares to plunge into
the Maine wilderness to prove he can survive with nothing. Photo is
from Jim Motavalli's blog entry on www.thedailygreen.com; for more
details of Joe's Maine trip, and some amusing parallels between his
adventures and those of Bear Grylls of Discovery Channel's
"Man Vs. Wild," check out his article here.

In July of 1914, when World War I’s “guns of August” started to speak,one of their first casualties happened half a world away in the forest of southern Oregon.

But it wasn’t a physical casualty. No, the outbreak of the war destroyed the last real opportunity for a man named Joe Knowles to prove he wasn’t a fraud.

As a result, most people have never heard of Joe, and those who have think of him as just another in a long line of armchair woodsmen and backwoods charlatans.

And maybe they’re right. But thanks to those crazy European warlords, we’ll never really know if that's the case, or if Joe was the real thing — a genuine marvel whose reputation was ruined by a vicious proxy fight between a pair of rival rag-sheet newspapers.

Plunging naked into the wilderness

The reason Joe needed to prove himself in Oregon was, he had made a national name for himself several years before when he plunged naked (or nearly so) into the wilderness of northern Maine. Three months later, a scruffy and bearded Knowles emerged from the woods clad in a bearskin taken from a beast that he had reportedly trapped in a pit and clubbed to death, wearing other garments made from the hide of a deer caught and killed with his bare hands. He had prepared regular messages written on birch-bark with charcoal, and these had been used to faithfully document his adventures in the Boston Post. It also helped that he was a skilled artist, and used charcoal to sketch scenes to go with his messages.

The whole thing had captured the imagination of an America that still hadn’t quite gotten used to not being a frontier country any more. Mountain men were already a distant memory; cowboys were a dying breed; and Indians were a tiny and demoralized remnant of a once proud and powerful presence in the land. But here, now, was Joe Knowles, the “American Adam,” to prove that a naked American could still take on a howling wilderness and thrive.

Trouble comes from a rival newspaper

But the Post’s rival newspaper, the Boston American, was skeptical – and envious. It published an article presenting a strong argument, backed by some circumstantial evidence, that Joe hadn’t spent the entire three months in the wilderness. His good friend, who was receiving and transmitting his birch-bark messages, had a cozy cabin in the area, reportedly well stocked with Joe’s favorite brand of beer. And there were rumors that his animal skins had been tanned by a commercial process and sported bullet holes.

Now as then, it seems likely that Joe cheated at least a little on his wilderness regimen. It also seems the allegations could easily have been tested by a careful examination of the animal pelts, and the fact that that was not done (so far as I have been able to learn) is particularly damning.

So the question remained: Did he really do it? And if not, well – was it because he actually couldn’t?

Joe's second chance

Luckily for Joe, William Randolph Hearst — owner of his erstwhile nemesis, the Boston American — was willing to finance a second demonstration. This time, there would be third-party observers in the form of well known university professors in the woods with him, making sure everything he said was true. And it would take place in the Siskiyou Mountains near Ashland, a continent away from Joe’s friends and their suspicious stocks of beer.

Hearst’s entire edgy newspaper empire was at the ready. “WILD BEASTS ROAR INVITATION TO JOE KNOWLES,” one banner headline — in the San Francisco Examiner — screeched. Others, while perhaps a bit less poetic, were similar.

Joe once again stripped off his clothes and dove into the woods. And by all accounts, he was doing pretty well there when, a week later, his story was suddenly shoved off the front pages and the entire nation lost interest, all at once. Blood – kiloliters of blood – was pouring every day into the soils of Belgium and northern France. Americans who’d recently immigrated from Germany, Austria, Russia, Britain and France wondered if some of it was spilled from their own relatives and loved ones from the Old Country. The triumphant flower of “civilization,” held up for a century as a shining example for the developing world, was busy committing suicide. Who cared now about some naked guy beating through the bushes of Southern Oregon?

Nation forgets about Nature Man

Joe’s exercise was called off. He had another chance, in 1916 after Americans had tired of war news, but this time Hearst sent a mostly-naked “dawn girl” into the woods at the same time (a different part of the woods — they were never together) and when, a week later, she gave up, so did most of the media coverage.

Joe ended up living on the coast of Washington in a funny little cabin built with driftwood and bits of wrecked ships. To the end of his days, he maintained that his demonstration of woodsmanship was the real thing. He told Stewart Holbrook he had just two regrets: First, that he didn’t manage to befriend a bear cub to lead out of the Maine woods, and second — that stupid war.

(Sources: Holbrook, Stewart (ed. Booth, Brian). Wildmen, Wobblies and Whistle Punks ….Corvallis, Ore.: Oregon State University Press, 1992; Francis, Charles. “Wilton’s Joe Knowles: Real-life Tarzan or north woods fraud?” Discover Maine Magazine, www.discovermainemagazine.com; Leslie, Edward E. Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls …. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998; Knowles, Joseph. Alone in the Wilderness. Boston: Small, Maynard & al, 1913)