Like the story of “The Maine Giantess,” Sylvia Hardy, the narrative of Joseph “Joe” Knowles, better known during his flirt with fame and notoriety, as “Naked Joe Knowles,” is also intriguing.
Knowles was born in Wilton, in 1867. His story goes something like this:
One hundred years ago, Joe Knowles clad merely in a jockstrap, said “goodbye” to civilization, and marched into the woods near Eustis to demonstrate his survival skills. As a number of publications note, Knowles was “the reality star of his day.”
His story has been detailed in a number of places, including Boston magazine. Bill Green did a feature on Knowles on Bill Green’s Maine in 2013, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Knowles’ adventure in the Maine woods.
For 60 days he remained in the wilderness, relying on his knowledge of wild, along with the skills required to find food, clothing, and shelter from the elements. Meanwhile, readers followed his adventures in the Boston Post, as Knowles, a journalist and reporter, filed stories on birch bark. When he finally emerged, he received a hero’s welcome.
Later, William Randolph Hearst, America’s father of yellow journalism, tried to prove that Knowles’ stunt was a hoax, and discredit him.
Like countless other Maine boys before and after—Knowles, bursting with the spirit of wanderlust driving him—set off to find something that his small town was lacking. For him, the place would eventually be Boston.
Piecing together a snapshot of his youth, Knowles grew up poor. Later, after his time in the wilderness granted him celebrity status, he told reporters how he was often the subject of ridicule as a youth due to having to wear “homespuns” to school, with the other kids tearing the patches off his clothes and stealing his lunch. Kids will be kids.
A newspaper account from 1985, noted that Knowles was gifted artistically. In the house where he grew up, near Hill’s Pond on the road to Weld, Joe would sketch animals on the walls of the house.
His father, a Civil War veteran often bullied young Joe. After one particularly harsh beating, Joe ran away at the age of 13 and ended up working on a cargo ship, after lying about his age. This allowed Joe to travel the world.
By 17, he had enlisted in the Navy. The world had changed Joe and opened up a new realm of possibilities and experiences. When he made it home for a visit after his Navy stint, he was sporting a tattoo of a young woman twirling a snake and a pocket full of cash, and a gift of whiskey for his father.
Knowles landed in Boston, working as a reporter, and also as a painter. Life in the city agreed with Knowles and he enjoyed the perks that came with the urban lifestyle that Wilton could never match. You could say that Joe Knowles had the spirit of a “hustler,” which is what it took (and takes) to make it big in America.
The first few decades of the 20th century became the golden age of publicity stunts. Prior to Knowles disappearing into the Maine woods, Annie Taylor went over Niagara Falls in a barrel. In 1911 Ralph “Pappy” Hankinson, a Ford dealer in Topeka, Kansas, invented the sport of auto polo to sell Model T cars. After Knowles’ adventure, Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly would sit atop a high pole outside a Los Angeles theater for 13 hours and 13 minutes, launching the short-lived American craze of pole-sitting. And on and on it went. Eventually we’d arrive at Survivor and American Gladiators.
In that context, it’s not surprising that Knowles, after his 60 days in the wilderness, would come back to civilization and Boston by train, and be greeted by throngs of people numbering 200,000.
Joe Knowles died in 1942. In 2014, all of the people who gathered at North Station to greet him are now dead. What remains is Knowles’ story, kept alive by word of mouth, local historians, a biography written by Jim Motavalli, Naked in the Woods, and a few newspaper and magazine accounts, but by-and-large, the big stories of the early 20th century are forgotten, like yesterday’s news.
[Note: Once a month, I’ll be traveling to a town in Maine and searching for stories, talking with locals, and uncovering features of the people and place. My Explore columns will appear in Sunday’s b-section. I also plan on posting bonus content here on my blog. Special thanks to Pam Brown, at Wilton’s wonderful Farm and Home Museum-jb(e)]