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The “Nature Man” of 1913

In 1913, Joseph Knowles boasted that he could survive in the wilderness alone with no tools or weapons. He was willing to demonstrate that by staying in Maine’s Dead River Wilderness for 60 days alone, naked, without equipment or supplies. He bid goodbye to a crowd of journalists and onlookers, wearing only a jockstrap -and that was just because there were photographers. The stunt was catnip to newspapers of the time. Knowles was a middle-aged middle-class man who wasn’t in particularly good physical shape, but had a background of world travel in his youth and convinced everyone he had picked up amazing survival skills. He assured the crowd that he would have plenty to eat, and clothing of animal skins before he returned.   

The reporters returned to Boston, where over the next eight weeks they faithfully recorded the saga of the “Nature Man.” Scribbling on a piece of birch bark with a piece of charcoal and depositing the messages in an agreed-upon location, Knowles relayed news of each new trial and triumph: of surviving his first two nights out in the cold; of felling partridges and deer and with a handmade bow and arrow; of catching trout with his bare hands; of building a lean-to; of weaving a pair of sandals out of cedar bark; of painting a picture using only natural dyes; and, most sensationally, of trapping, clubbing, and skinning a black bear.

In Boston, the newspaper stories were a smash. The Post’s moribund circulation soon doubled. Knowles’ stunt ended with a thrilling chase, as game wardens—miffed that Knowles had been hunting out of season—reportedly chased him to the border of Canada. He emerged, looking bedraggled and 30 pounds lighter, near the town of Megantic, Quebec. From there, he caught a train south, wearing his stinking bearskin and waving to crowds of onlookers at each stop. Back in Boston, a throng of 200,000 people—nearly a third of the city’s population—poured out onto the streets to welcome him home.

Knowles became famous nationwide for his stunt. At the time, both Teddy Roosevelt and Tarzan were popular images of men conquering the forces of nature, and Knowles joined them in the mind of the public. But soon rumors of fakery began to circulate about Knowles. In order to prove his skills, he had to repeat his stunt. Read the story of Joseph Knowles, also known as “Nature Man,” at Atlas Obscura.

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