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Friday, November 04, 2005

When Wild Men Roamed the Woods

In the news-speak of earlier days, the term "wild man" was used fairly frequently, and often quite vaguely. I come across it regularly in my perusal of American newspapers from the 18th and 19th centuries, and I have been surprised and perplexed by the variety of categories it is used to cover.

In earlier and less sensitive eras, the term was used more or less interchangeably to refer to any two-legged being that presented any connotation of mystery to the average citizen. On some occasions, the "wild man" label is applied to sightings of hairy, ape-like forest denizens - such as one reported near Williamstown in 1879 - who sound suspiciously like what we now think of collectively as "Bigfoot." Sometimes it was simply an ethnocentric way of referring to anyone of Native American origin. It was also used as a blanket brand applied to any kind of hermit or forest-dwelling man about whom little was known. It is on cases of this final type that I will focus my attention this week.

This type of "wild man" included men from a variety of different backgrounds. Some were destitute and unable to find work, mentally ill, heartbroken or criminals on the lamb. Some were simply taciturn old men who preferred the seclusion of caves and wooded hill-country to the company of others and the trappings of society. All were wanderers and loners who lived outside both the tangible and abstract boundaries of civilization, and as such they were figures of mystery and intrigue.

The first recorded "wild man" in this area of which I am aware is a curious character who roamed the woods around Bennington, Vt., in the spring of 1867. For several weeks he was reported seen often around the outskirts of town, usually up to no good. It was said that during the day he holed up in a lair he had staked out in the forest, roaming around only at night. He had a nasty habit of following women walking around town, and of peeking in the windows of houses. He had also, it was rumored, exposed himself on the few occasions when someone accidentally came across his wooded hiding place. It was thought that he was some kind of escaped lunatic, and the entire town appeared to be terrified of him. The wild man kept three pistols in his belt and carried with him a menacing looking dagger, and he was described as being very ugly to look at. The Bennington Banner spoke of the situation in a very dramatic way, saying that "a reign of terror has been inaugurated among our female population," and that "authorities should at once take measures to hunt out the fellow." Hunt him out they did. A posse confronted him at his "lair," and sent him packing.

If an old article in the Fitchburg Daily Sentinel is to be believed, an even stranger character took up residence in the Berkshires in 1899. Squire N.L. Harris discovered the bizarre stranger living in a hillside cave at Mount Washington, after noticing smoke pouring out from it. The Sentinel called him "the strangest bit of humanity seen hereabouts," describing a withered man no more than 4 feet tall, covered in hair and dressed in rags. He had apparently been living on the flesh of birds, lizards and whatever else he could catch manually; the mouth of the cave was littered with small bones and feathers. When Harris finally confronted the man to find out who he was, it became apparent that the man spoke only in some unfamiliar language. Nonetheless, the Squire managed to deduce, by some means not explained, that the "cave man" hailed from somewhere in South America.

The most famous wild man to ever traverse the wilder portions of the Berkshires was the "Old Leather Man." Old Leather Man was a wandering recluse who for more than 20 years walked a circuitous route from western Connecticut to eastern New York with forays into Berkshire County, and possibly even as far north as Canada on occasion. A quiet man of obvious French origins, he wore an outfit comprised completely of roughly-sewn leather patches. In the first few years after he appeared in Connecticut in the early 1860s, he was an object of fear and suspicion. Mothers would even discipline their unruly children with the threat that "old Leathery" would come for them if they did not behave. As time passed, though, he became a celebrated eccentric. People would run to the road when he was making his way through town to get a glimpse of him, or to bring him food or tobacco. His passage and the mystery of his identity were subjects of intrigue and debate, and over the years he became a legend throughout the northeast, occasionally making headlines in newspapers as far away as California.

Some believe his name was Jules Bourglay, a Frenchman who came to the United States after losing his fortune in the leather business, and along with it his chances to marry the woman he loved. This back-story, however, has been exposed as a newspaper hoax. According to Connecticut historian and Leather Man researcher Dan W. Deluca, this fictional account of his origins was first presented in the Waterbury Daily American, a few years before his death. The story was later retracted, but by then the yarn had been picked up by so many other papers that it was difficult to dislodge. His true identity remains a mystery to this day. What is known for sure is that he passed away in Mount Pleasant, N.Y., in 1889, where his headstone bears the fictional moniker. His story - both the real and fictional parts - have inspired a number of depictions since, such as the song "Leatherman" by the rock band Pearl Jam.

The last reported "wild man" in these parts seems to have been in 1942, when Pittsfield residents began complaining of a strange man living in the woods near Pontoosuc Lake. Rumors of a man dressed only in a blanket and carrying a knife circulated throughout the fall. There were reports of houses broken into, and theft of food and various other items. The mystery was laid bare in late November when a state police officer spotted the man, and, after a brief scuffle, arrested him. Upon examination, it became clear that the "wild man" was a young Pittsfield man who had gone AWOL from the army base in Falmouth.

So ended the age of the "wild man," at least in this region. These men, and the reactions they drew from those living in the "civilized" world which they skirted, are an interesting slice of history. They were characters whose lives were shrouded in mystery; because of that, most elicited fear, especially in small communities where people knew a lot about their neighbors. Some, like Old Leather Man, became local legends. Today we would most likely say that such people had "slipped through the cracks" - and, while such cracks still exist, perhaps the fact that we at least acknowledge the presence of cracks in society is progress, of a sort.


Paul Abbott said...

I found your article on Leatherman to be very informative and entertaining. I have seen modern day folk like this along some of the Berkshire roads on occasion, so this now helps to imagine the past characters.

Paul Abbott said...

I found your article on Leatherman to be very informative and entertaining. I have seen modern day folk like this along some of the Berkshire roads on occasion, so this now helps to imagine the past characters.