November 29, 2018

Wild Men Invaded Connecticut in 1888

Things always feel a little weird when the days grow short. The circle of civilization contracts and the wilderness encroaches with the growing darkness. Who knows what might be lurking out there in the gloom? Wild animals, criminals, ghosts... or maybe even wild men. We don't hear too much about wild men these days, but they were a popular topic in the 19th century press.

For example, the January 4, 1888 issue of The Boston Daily Globe, ran this shocking headline:

Lonely Regions Infested by Wild Men Who Terrorize All.

Connecticut Now Overrun with These Weird Creatures, Who Scare Children, Fight Men and Scream All Night. 

Cow Hill Forests and the Man with the Bearskin

Mr. Dunham's Midnight Fight by the Light of A Lantern

That's a really long headline, but I would say an effective one, since it certainly drew me in. Tell me more, Boston Daily Globe!

The article describes a variety of "wild men" who were causing trouble in Connecticut. For example, in Willimantic, a "well-dressed, wild-man who was about 40 years old" ran down the street screaming "Chloroform!" After several citizens tackled him he said his name was John Mullin, that he had deserted from the Italian Navy, and that government officials were pursuing him with the intent of chloroforming him. He ultimately escaped his captors, screaming "Chloroform!" as he ran off.

Someone dressed as Bigfoot during a 2015 snowstorm in Boston. Photo from the New York Times. 
Much creepier was the wild man who terrorized women in Spofford, Connecticut. This particular wild man, who was was "very tall, garbed in funereal black," would silently sneak up on women, grope them, and then disappear into the darkness. This wild man stopped his molestations after one of his victims, a Mrs. William Brown, emitted an ear-piercing shriek and collapsed onto the ground in terror.

One of the wild men was not a man at all, but was actually a young girl who leapt out of the bushes at some hunters in a swamp near Madison. She laughed hysterically at them and the hunters fled in fear.

The fourth wild man the Globe mentions seems like the wildest, and by wildest I mean least connected to civilization.
At Cow hill, near Mystic, there is a wild man of the woods. He wears a big black bearskin, and he looks hideous. His other clothes are not worth much. He says not a word, but he glares with a wild, determined stare. He advances on a man who approaches his lair in the forest of Cow hill, glares straight in the man's eyes once and then runs...
A man named George Dunham encountered this wild man while chopping wood and struck him on the head three times with his axe handle. The wild man ran off into the woods.

Meanwhile, outside of Norwich, a brawny man with a red face would appear in the woods at night. Carrying a lantern, he would shout "Murder!" and then dig a hole in the ground with a shovel. When confronted by a group of locals he disappeared into the dark forest.

A similar wild man haunted Monet's Valley on Rhode Island's Block Island that winter. He too would dig a hole late at night accompanied by a lantern, and when people went to investigate he would vanish with his light, leaving only a hole behind. Block Islanders were of mixed opinion about their wild man, with some thinking he was just a treasure hunter and others that he was a ghost from either the shipwrecked Palatine or Captain Kidd's pirate crew.

Wow! There's a lot to digest in that article, starting with the concept of the wild man. Although wild men appear frequently in 19th century American newspapers, the wild man is a cultural archetype who has been with us since the beginning of Western civilization. In the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic a hairy wild man named Enkidu dwells outside the city walls and frees prey from hunters' traps. Ancient Greeks and Romans thought the woods were filled with half-human satyrs and fauns, while art from Medieval Europe depicts hairy, club-carrying men lurking in the forests. When you leave the boundaries of civilization you enter the wild man's domain.

It's interesting to see how broadly this Globe article applies the term wild man. The bearskin clad man and the young girl seem the most archetypal, the first wearing an animal skin and the second scaring hunters from their prey. They also both seem to live outside of any town in the woods and swamps. But some of the wild men discussed just behave outside cultural norms and don't actually live in the wilderness. The "chloroform!" man (who sounds mentally ill) and the sexual predator who wore black fit in that category. We would use other terms to describe them today, but in 1888 they fit in the catch-all category of wild man. 

I'm not sure what to make of the two nocturnal hole-diggers, and it sounds like people in 1888 weren't either. Heck, one of them might have been a pirate's ghost, but I suppose they were also living outside cultural norms. The Norwich digger was described as "brawny," and this is a description often applied to other wild men of the time. An 1879 wild man spotted in Truro, Massachusetts was powerfully built and shirtless, while Connecticut's Winsted wild man was large, muscular and capable of breaking iron chains. I guess all the fresh air is good for your health.

An image from the 1974 TV show Korg: 70,000 BC.
Our own modern version of the wild man is Bigfoot. He's large, he's hairy, he lives in the woods, and like the 1888 Connecticut wild men is very elusive. Some wild men described in 19th century newspapers are described as ape-like and actually sound similar to Bigfoot. For example, the Winsted wild man was described by some witnesses as looking like a gorilla, and many cryptozoologists consider this an early Bigfoot sighting.

Is the wild man human, or is he a monster? Were early reports really Bigfoot sightings, or were they some kind of hoax? It's hard to say, and personally I don't think the wild man can be pinned down so easily. It just goes against his wild nature. He'll continue to elude capture and haunt the spaces outside the boundaries of civilization. Just be careful when you go out walking in the woods at night!


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