The “Wild Man” of the Woods
By Luke Manget
In 1877, a party of gold miners traveling through the Globe Valley in Caldwell County, North Carolina encountered what they described as a “Wild Man”. Although they only got within 40 yards of the man, one miner claimed that this “peculiar specimen of humanity” appeared to be a “giant”—six-foot, five inches—with a funnel-shaped head and two-inch- long dark hair covering his body. When he spotted the miners, he pounded on his chest before turning and bounding off into the woods with the speed of a deer. The party tracked him with guns drawn to a cave deep in the mountains, where they found bones of many animals scattered about, indicating that he had been living there a while.
The most amazing thing about this story is how similar it was to hundreds of other sightings, encounters, and confrontations that supposedly took place across the United States beginning after the Civil War. Newspapers carried their stories, reprinting those from far away corners of the nation. They were very strange reports. A group of hikers found a wild man living in “wildness and savagery” in a crude structure on top of one of Pennsylvania’s most remote mountains. When they attempted to communicate with the man, he could only grunt and wave his hands. One white man hauled into a New Jersey town by a hunting party swung through the trees like a monkey with a “wild expression in his eyes,” but he could only utter the phrase, “give me some grass.” Most newspapers described the wild men in similar terms. They were covered in hair, as fast as a deer, unusually large, and hideous. They were not Indians. They were not African Americans. They were often described as white, if they were described at all, but they did not appear to be human, and if they were, they were a degraded form of humanity.
The people that encountered wild men responded with, at best, curiosity and, at worst, vile contempt. They almost always tried to capture him, and occasionally, they killed him. The so-called “Wild Man of Camas” was killed by an axe by a group of emigrants through Idaho in 1883. After having caught wind of the presence of a wild man in northwestern Nevada, a group of citizens led a posse into his camp. Upon seeing the posse, the “infuriated demon” (a 40-year-old white man) took off running toward the horses, but members of the posse opened fire, chasing him back into the forest.
Stories like these abounded.
What can explain this flurry of sightings of putative wild men in American woods at the close of the nineteenth century? The answer, of course, is complicated, but in short, it spoke to some deep-seated cultural needs of contemporary Americans. The label “wild man” was heavy with meaning. People could find specimens of them in countless circuses and traveling freak shows. P.T. Barnum popularized the “Wild Man from Borneo,” who had a thick coat of fur and was touted as the missing link between Orangutans and humans. Wild men were the subject of popular novels and countless fireside stories. It was truly a national obsession. The label “wild man,” then, carried with it a set of expectations grounded in a popular culture peculiar to the late nineteenth-century. When a person encountered a figure in the woods that could not be readily explained, his/her imagination filled in the missing details using this cultural reference point.
Although it has taken different forms through the last four centuries, the wild man myth has remained remarkably durable in the Western mind. He has been cast in dozens of roles, beginning with the descendants of Cain and Ishmael. The Romantic Movement transformed him from despised antagonist to a sympathetic, and even admired, creature. In this form, he played Rousseau’s “natural man,” George Catlin’s “noble savage,” Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan, and Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgley. These writers used the wild man to promote a type of masculinity that was raw, virile, and unspoiled by the negative effects of civilization, whether it was materialism, moral depravity, or effeminacy. In short, they were commentaries on the state of culture during an economically and politically transitional time for men.
Our Wild Man of the Woods did not elicit sympathy from those who recorded his deeds in pages of newsprint. Nineteenth-century Americans insisted on seeing the North American wild man of the woods as a great oddity, beastlike, unintelligent, and ignoble. It wasn’t enough for them to say that he lived uninfluenced by civilization. They claimed that he was physically abhorrent, that living in the forest had changed his appearance, that evolution, in effect, had reversed itself.
Unlike these famous wild men, the common wild man of the American woods was not born in a state of wildness. He was quite often believed to be a former member of a civilized (white) community who had either gone insane or was fleeing some conflict involving humanity. In 1871, a wild man was rounded up by a squad of citizens near Morgantown, West Virginia. Described as “half man and half beast,” covered in rags “with long brushy hair, giving him the appearance of a gorilla more than a human being,” the putative wild man said his name was Thomas Foley, a native of Ireland. Foley had lived in Connecticut for some years before fleeing for the wilds of West Virginia, where he had been for only two years. After one of the squad-leaders brought him home and dressed him in nice clothes, he took an opportunity to escape and bolted for the mountains, tearing off his clothes as he ran.
The wild man who supposedly captured five members of Braxton Bragg’s Confederate army in Tennessee was reported to be one Bill Patton, who refused the join the Confederate army and took to the hills to flee the home guard. The Wild Man of Shattesack Mountain, Vermont, was found to be Thomas Ourman, a Prussian immigrant who had been living off of wild berries, apples, and woodchucks for five months. In northeastern Ohio, a wild man who was captured after drifting into town one day looking ragged, tan, and hairy was one John Kinney, “once an intelligent and highly educated man.” He had been living in the woods “for several weeks” and was now, according to the Hopkinsville Kentuckian, “violently insane.” Tarzan was orphaned as a youth in Africa after his British parents died and raised by apes, but these men had chosen, as adults, to leave society behind and return to the wild. The difference is significant. It would shape their public image.
By describing men who lived in the woods as hideous monsters, the popularizers of the wild men were reaffirming their commitment to civilization and the expectations of middle-class white masculinity. I think people were intrigued by wild men because, deep down, they had a wild streak in them. But the dictates of an increasingly complex civilization forced them to suppress that streak. According to the emerging cultural norm, middle-class men were supposed to embrace the “strenuous life” of politics, tedious and unenjoyable work, and civic engagement, while maintaining masculine virility through outdoor recreation, boxing, sports, and the like. They could also choose the “simple life,” as championed by Charles Wagner, but even that route involved farming a piece of land, not living off the woods. There was no place for wild men in this national culture.
That men were known to have withdrawn from society for a life in the forest was nothing new in the 1870s, but it somewhat abruptly became unacceptable. Cultural leaders not only frowned upon men who abandoned civilization; they did not allow them to do it. When they discovered a wild man’s presence in nearby forests, they sought to physically return him to society. They expected all men to participate in the coalescing national economic and social institutions, whether as a laborer, a farmer, or an inmate. By searching for and capturing wild men in the forest, joining the gawkers at circuses, or simply gossiping about the latest captured specimen, middle-class Americans could reinforce their commitment to an emerging national consciousness and set expectations for how people should interact with each other and with nature. The subliminal lesson conveyed by this wild man myth, therefore, is that if a man abandoned his role in society, lived off the bounty of nature and chose not to “improve” the land, he would literally devolve into an ape-like creature.
That’s just my take. How would you explain this phenomenon?
For more reading, see:
Peter L. Thorslev, Jr., “Wild Man’s Revenge,” in The Wild Man Within: an Image in Western Thought from the Renaissance to Romanticism, Edward Dudley and Maximilian Lovak, eds. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972), 281.
Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: a Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).