Finn J.D. John

Offbeat Oregon History

On the morning of Tuesday, July 21, 1914, deep in the heart of the wilderness of the Siskiyous near the little hamlet of Holland, a naked man was soberly shaking the hand of an official-looking gentleman as several others looked on.

Then the naked man turned and padded away into the woods — barefoot.

Mr. Birthday Suit’s name was Joe Knowles. He was, in essence, the Bear Grylls of the 1910s — an expert woodsman and wilderness-survivalist getting ready to demonstrate his skills for a nationwide audience. Like Bear Grylls, he was the real thing — but he’d been caught cutting some corners on his last show. This was the beginning of the demonstration that he hoped would prove once and for all that he could do it. At the same time, he hoped it would be an answer to a question that was much on Americans’ minds back then, in the twilight years of the “long nineteenth century” — “Is civilization making us soft and degenerate?”

Joe hoped to prove that it was not, at least not yet, and that a healthy American man, equipped only with what the good Lord had given him, could step out into a howling wilderness and carve out of its natural bounty a comfortable life for himself.

But Joe’s other motivation for his Oregon demonstration — the real reason, most likely — wasn’t one he alluded to in the newspapers. The other reason Joe wanted to prove himself in Oregon was to redeem his reputation.

That reputation — for good and for ill — had been forged the previous year when he had plunged naked into the wilderness of northern Maine.

At the time, he was living in Boston. For years he’d been getting by as a wilderness guide, and he was augmenting his income by working part-time for the Boston Post as a commercial artist.

The plan for the “Nature Man” stunt was developed with a friend and co-worker at the Post named Michael McKeough. It was worked out in great detail, pitched and sold to the Post, and put into practice in the summer of 1913: Joe would plunge into the wildest wilderness, stark naked but for a loincloth, and prove that he could wrest a living from Nature’s reluctant hands. Each week, Joe would drop off a stack of correspondence — drawings done on birchbark with a charred twig from his fire, and letters written the same way — in a designated location under a stump. McKeough, who had rented a cabin near the stump to serve as a sort of Joe Knowles bureau office and was enjoying a sort of paid working vacation in the woods, would retrieve the birchbarks, type them up, and convey them to the Boston Post, which would publish them.

Two months later, a scruffy, thickly bearded Knowles emerged from the woods wearing sandals he’d woven from tree bark, a bearskin taken from a bear that he had trapped in a pit and clubbed to death, and other garments made from the hide of a deer that he’d caught and killed with his bare hands.

At that point, the Boston Post was likely very glad it had worked with Knowles, because the whole thing was playing very well with the American public. The drama and romance quickly captured the imagination of an America that still hadn’t quite gotten used to not being a frontier country any more.

And there was another thing. The average American liked his/her modern comforts — streetcars, steam heat, indoor plumbing — but according to the recently popularized theories of eugenics, the gene stock of a “race” of people was only kept strong through adversity and struggle. Would a soft modern life cause Americans to inevitably degenerate into a soft, decadent bunch of immoral pleasure-seekers and drug addicts?

But now, here came Joe Knowles, the “American Adam,” to prove that if degeneracy were indeed the destiny of “the race,” it hadn’t happened yet — and a naked American man could still take on a howling wilderness and thrive there, just as well as his ancestors could. And when he did, the whole country cheered and celebrated.

Well, not the whole country. The Boston Post’s rival newspaper, the Boston American, was extremely skeptical — and envious. It promptly published an article presenting a strong argument — backed by some circumstantial evidence — that Joe hadn’t spent the entire two months in the wilderness. It pointed out that McKeough had had a very handy cabin, well stocked with Joe’s favorite brand of beer; and it claimed that his animal skins had been tanned by a commercial process, and had bullet holes in them. He had, the American claimed, simply stayed in the cabin with McKeough for two months, working on his tan and growing his beard and sketching scenes he made up in his head.

This claim was shortly thereafter piled onto, with devastating effect, by McKeough. Joe’s friendship with him did not survive the summer. The two men were bitter enemies almost immediately after Joe’s return to civilization. That may have something to do with the fact that Joe, upon his return, quit the Boston Post and went to work for his erstwhile nemesis, the Boston American — and its owner, William Randolph Hearst.

It is very difficult to suss out the truth from the conflicting accounts of Joe’s two-month wilderness sojourn. The picture that the bitter McKeough painted of his ex-friend was so unflattering and vicious, and claimed him to be so incompetent and thick-witted, that it’s really not credible.

But neither is Joe’s “official” account. Now as then, it seems very likely that Joe cheated, at least a little and probably a lot. If nothing else, the allegations that the animal skins were commercially tanned could be tested by having a neutral third party examine them; the fact that this was not done, so far as I’ve been able to learn, is particularly damning.

There was, however, one other thing that even Joe Knowles had to admit. As a longtime trapper and wilderness guide in the north Maine woods, Joe knew the country. Even if he had played the whole thing straight, was it really a fair test for him to plunge into a woodland whose every plant and shrub he knew, the poisonous from the nutritious; and the habits of whose animals he was intimately familiar with?

Arguably, no.

But America wouldn’t have to just wonder about this. Because now that Joe’s experiment in the Maine woods was over, William Randolph Hearst, his new employer, was ready to sponsor a second experiment. Joe would plunge naked into a wilderness a continent away from his friends and their suspicious stocks of beer. There would be third-party observers in the form of well known university professors. Joe would prove his bonafides once and for all, and silence the critics.

Hearst’s entire newspaper empire was at the ready. “WILD BEASTS ROAR INVITATION TO JOE KNOWLES,” howled a banner headline in the San Francisco Examiner. Other newspapers — such as the Portland Morning Oregonian — carried the news on their front pages under more conventional headlines: “NATURE MAN STARTS TUESDAY,” for instance.

Into the woods went Joe, and immediately made the single biggest mistake of his career as a public woodsman.

“Joe Knowles’ first action in going to the woods is to pick up a sharp stone,” explained Prof. T.T. Waterman of the University of California, one of the professors who was monitoring the experiment. “The second is to hack through the bark of a white cedar, pull loose a long strip of bark and extract the fiber. As he presses forward into the forests he twists this fiber into string as he walks. Before he has gone five miles he will have this fiber twisted into sandals.”

The problem was, by the time Joe had walked five miles, it would be too late to put on sandals. Because throughout this little barefoot meander, Joe was apparently making his way through fields of small woody plants with glossy oak-shaped leaves clustered in groups of three. He didn’t recognize them; why should he? Poison Oak doesn’t grow in the north Maine woods.

Now, a really bad case of poison oak is bad enough. But when it’s all over the feet, that’s quite a bit worse. A miner who came across him halfway through his month told reporters he couldn’t believe Joe hadn’t contracted blood poisoning from it.

Joe had hoped to emerge from the woods on this attempt wearing another bearskin, or even — his fondest hope — leading a bear cub that he’d befriended. With his feet in the condition they were in, though, he quickly found himself subsisting on fish and huckleberries. These got the job done, but not much more than that.

Then, a little over a week into the ordeal, a second blow fell, and it would be this one that would essentially end Joe’s bid for enduring national fame:

Half a world away, the particularly arrogant and thick-headed hereditary ruler of Germany sent his army over the border into Belgium on an ill-fated quest to take France by surprise. The First World War was under way.

With a story like that unfolding in real time, there was no room on the front pages of America’s newspapers for the woodland adventures of some naked guy beating through the bushes of Southern Oregon.

The Morning Oregonian kept a steady flow of news coverage going, but it was no longer on the front page. And when the 30th day came along, and Joe had completed what he’d committed to, he abandoned his plan to extend his sojourn, and came in.

Other than the Portland and San Francisco papers, hardly anyone noticed. Joe Knowles was just no longer news.

With Hearst’s help, Knowles tried again in 1916, in the Adirondacks of upstate New York; this time, he served as a wilderness-survival trainer for two “Dawn Girls” who were going to plunge into the wilderness naked (under the supervision of a chaperon, of course); at the same time, several miles away, Knowles would be making a third demonstration of his own. But one of the Dawn Girls dropped the project before it even started, and the other lasted only a week or two before throwing in the towel — she couldn’t stand the mosquitoes. And when she quit, so did almost all of the media coverage.

For several years after this last stunt, Joe made regular personal appearances at talks and lectures as “The Famous Nature Man” at theaters and halls. But when Stewart Holbrook found him, a couple decades after his woodcraft demonstrations, he was living with his wife on the coast of Washington just north of Cape Disappointment, in a funny little cabin built with driftwood and bits of wrecked ships, and working as a freelance commercial artist, specializing in wildlife and Western art.

To the end of his days, he maintained that his demonstration of woodsmanship in Maine was the real thing. And he told Holbrook that he had just two regrets: First, that he didn’t manage to befriend a bear cub; and second — that stupid war.

(Sources: Wildmen, Wobblies and Whistle Punks, a book by Stewart Holbrook, published in 1992 by Oregon State University Press; Alone in the Wilderness, a book by Joseph Knowles, published in 1913 by Small, Maynard & Co. of Boston; Boyer, Richard O. “Where Are They Now? Nature Man,” an article published in the June 18, 1938, issue of The New Yorker; Portland Morning Oregonian archives: June–September 1914; July 1916; June 1917.)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. For details, see http://finnjohn.com. To contact him or suggest a topic: finn2@offbeatoregon.com or 541-357-2222.

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