In August 1913 Joseph Knowles, a 45 year old former hunting guide, went alone, nearly naked, and without tools or supplies, into the woods of northern Maine. He emerged 61 days later, leaner and fitter, clad in a bearskin.
The expedition was sponsored by the Boston Globe. Knowles wrote accounts of his stay on birchbark, and left them in caches for a reporter. The stories proved very popular, the circulation of the Globe reportedly rose by 30,000, and a massive crowd greeted Knowles on his return to Boston. He later published a full account of his adventure Alone in the wilderness – which was a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. He also featured in two motion pictures, which sadly don’t seem to have survived.
The book is a curious mixture of action and reflection. There are detailed descriptions of him trapping and killing animals with his bare hands, and also long passages on the joys of outdoor living, and the mental agonies that he suffered during his stay.
There is a good deal in the book about the government’s attitude to the wilderness, particularly the game laws. The State authorities had refused to issue him with a hunting permit for the expedition, and fined him $205 on his return for taking game out of season.
Knowles was given a full medical before and after his expedition, and the results are shown below, comparing him to the famous strongman Eugen Sandow, who was featured in this blog last year. Knowles lost 11 pounds (about 5 kilos) in weight, and increased his lung capacity by almost 20%. According to his doctor, although he could not match Sandow’s strength, he “had the staying powers of three Sandows”.
As with modern survival experts, there were many anxious to prove that Knowles was a fraud. A rival newspaper, the Boston American, owned by William Randolph Hearst, claimed that he had access to a cabin and was provided with food and clothing. Knowles naturally denied the allegations, and proposed a second trip, where he would allow a dozen “representative men” to accompany and observe him. He also proposed the establishment of a colony of men and women interested in the outdoor movement. The colony would acquire thousands of acres of land, and open a College of Nature to provide training in woodcraft.
Was Knowles a fake? Some of the events in the book are not entirely convincing, but there is no doubt that many were inspired by his actions, and became interested in the outdoor life.
A modern reprint of Alone in the wilderness is available from all good booksellers, as is a recent biography of Knowles, Naked in the woods : Joseph Knowles and the legacy of frontier fakery by Jim Motavalli.