Naturalist and Enviornmentalist: Joe Knowles Part 1

About the naturalist and enviornmentalist Joe Knowles who ventured out into the forest unaided to prove man could still survive in the wild.

JOE KNOWLES (18??-1942). Naturalist.

Unsuccessful as a portrait painter, Joe Knowles captured the imagination of the country when he ventured out into the forest undressed, unarmed, and unaided to demonstrate that civilized man had not grown too soft to cope with nature. Not much is known about Joe prior to 1913 when he confided one of his dreams to a newspaper reporter. "I dreamt I was lost in the woods, alone and naked, with no hope ever of getting out." Joe then transformed his dream into reality--with the help of the Hearst newspapers--and thereby created a front-page story that held the nation spellbound.

The Hearst papers actually passed up an opportunity to sponsor Joe's 1st sensational adventure. Knowles initially suggested his "Man Against Nature" experiment to Hearst's Boston American but was rejected; the reasons behind the rejection are still unclear. As a result, Knowles took his idea to the American's somewhat moribund competitor, the Boston Post. Seeking to reestablish its slumping circulation, the Post snatched the chance to launch what it called a test of 20th-century man's ability to combat nature in the raw.

On August 4, 1913, Joe Knowles--attired only in a breechclout--plunged into the wilderness of northern Maine, and for the next 61 days New England, New York, and every other area served by the Post's special syndication followed the exploits of this atavistic adventurer. Displaying a definite gift for showmanship, Joe left birchbark messages at intervals timed to keep readers fascinated.

The Post's circulation figures more than doubled as Joe's terse notes revealed that he lived on roots and berries and made sandals out of bark. Later he caught and cooked some trout, then killed a deer with his hands and made moccasins from the hide; he even snagged a bear in a crude pit he dug with his hands. City dwellers could barely wait for the next installment to read of Joe's exploits.

Knowles got word, however, that the game wardens were not as entranced with his activities as were the newspaper readers. Killing animals without a license was still against the law whether you did it with a gun or with your hands. Pursued by the wardens, Joe crossed into Canada, where he faced no further harassment. Again came the notes left in forked saplings for the reporters who were covering the story. Later on, Joe started leaving charcoal sketches and even a painting that he apparently did to fill idle hours.

On October 10, Joe Knowles came back to civilization looking healthy, tanned, and none the worse for his 2-month sojourn in the woods. He had seemingly surmounted all the rigors of nature; now, however, he would have to contend with the deceits of man.

The Boston American released a story--"complete expose" the paper called it--claiming that Joe Knowles was not the Nature Man he and the Boston Post had portrayed him to be. Instead, the whole adventure had been rigged, and Joe had spent 2 very comfortable months in an abandoned logging camp enjoying nearly all the comforts of home. Although the American killed the story when faced with a court injunction brought by the Post, an early edition carrying the expose reached well into New England. Charges and countercharges shook Boston and the countryside, and Joe Knowles's reputation as "a naked man against the tooth and claw of nature" was tainted with the scent of fraud.

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