September 01, 2014

The Lingering Wolf: Israel Putnam's Acts of Heroism

Israel Putnam (1718 - 1790) is one of the great folk heroes of Connecticut. He had the type of crazy exploits that could only be had in our country's infancy.

For example, Putnam escaped British soldiers during the Revolution by leaping over a cliff with his horse. He challenged someone to a duel where they both sat on lit kegs of gun powder. He was even briefly the commander-in-chief of American forces during the Revolution. He is also rumored to have been the person who said, "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes" at the Battle of Bunker Hill. I don't anyone alive will ever be quite so heroic.

Before he became a war hero Putnam was a hard-working farmer in Pomfret, Connecticut. He had moved to the town in 1739 at the tender age of 21. But even as farmer Putnam demonstrated heroism.

Israel Putnam

Pomfret was a prosperous farming community, but it had one major problem. A she-wolf lived on the outskirts of town, and she and her pups frequently ravaged the town's livestock. The townspeople had been able to trap and kill all her children, but the she-wolf herself always escaped their snares. But not without damage - she had once lost two of her toes in a trap.

One winter day Israel Putnam went to check his livestock, and was horrified when he entered the barn to see that seventy of his sheep and goats had been slaughtered. Outside the barn he saw wolf prints in the snow leading into the woods. One of the paw prints only had three toes.

Putnam rounded up some neighbors, and along with one of his slaves and some hounds set off to track down the she-wolf. The animal's tracks led them through the woods and across the hills for miles, until they led at last into a cave only a few miles from the Putnam farm. Putnam laughed! He had the murderous wolf trapped.

He first sent one of his hounds into the cave. Putnam and his neighbors heard terrible growling and barking from inside the cave. The hound came running out, wounded and bloody and with its tail between its legs. Putnam thought, "Hmmm! Time for plan two."

Putnam turned to his slave and instructed him to enter the cave and kill the wolf. Having seen what happened to the wolf, the slave refused. Putnam thought for a moment and said, "Alright, then I'll do it myself."

Putnam asked his neighbors to tie a rope around his ankle and then crawled into the cave, which was long, low and narrow. As he reached the end of the cave he could see the wolf's eyes shining in the torchlight. It growled menacingly. Putnam realized he had left his rifle outside, so he pulled on the roped. His neighbors pulled him out as fast as they could, dragging him across the sharp stones and ripping his clothes.

Bloodied but still determined, he grabbed his rifle and crawled back into the cave. His neighbors heard a single gunshot, and felt a tug on the rope. They pulled Putnam out (more slowly this time), and when he emerged from the cave he had the wolf with him. It was dead.

An 1835 drawing of the wolf's den (Connecticut Historical Society)

The wolf was hung on a spike inside the local tavern, and all the local farmers came to celebrate. Israel Putnam was declared a hero, and this youthful act of heroism set the tone for the rest of his illustrious life. Would he ever have been a war hero if he hadn't first killed that wolf?

The wolf is certainly still closely associated with Israel Putnam. Wolf heads adorn his monument in Brooklyn, Connecticut, and when the Abington Social Library in Abington, Connecticut wanted to honor Putnam's memory they asked a sculptor to carve a wolf statue from wood.

Things didn't go too well for the library. The sculptor made them a statue, but it burned in a fire of unknown cause before he could deliver it. He carved a second one, but this too burned in a mysterious fire. I would have given up, but the sculptor must have really needed a paycheck, because he finally carved and delivered a third statue to the Abington Social Library.

The third statue didn't go up in flames, but something odd happened when it was delivered to the library. Everyone in the building heard the eerie howling of a wolf, which seemed to be coming from outside the building. The next day they saw wolf tracks surrounding the library in the snow. One of the paw prints only had three toes.

The wolf's den is located in Mashamoquet Brook State Park, only a short distance from the library, and a plaque next to the den recounts Putnam's slaying of the wolf. It was the last wolf ever seen in Connecticut, but it sounds like its ghost is still lurking around. Israel Putnam's ghost is also supposedly still lurking around the area, and is seen most frequently in the building where his funeral was held.

Maybe Putnam is waiting for another heroic opportunity, but it was a lot easier to be a hero in the 1700s. New England was much more agricultural then, and of course Israel Putnam had to kill the wolf. If he didn't, more people would lose livestock and possibly starve during the winter. But to a modern sensibility killing an animal doesn't seem quite so heroic. It's not like he killed it with his bare hands - he shot it when it was cornered. And he decided to go into the cave only after his slave refused. A wolf-shooting slave owner would go to prison in the 21st century.

I'm happy the wolf's ghost might still be around. It can keep Putnam's ghost company, and maybe the two of them can resolve some of the conflicting issues of guilt and heroism that this story creates.

I got the information for this week's post from David Philips's Legendary Connecticut: Traditional Tales from the Nutmeg State, and Donna Kent's Ghost Stories and Legends of Eastern Connecticut