In an episode of his life that rivals "reality TV," Joseph Knowles, famous in his time but now largely forgotten, lived naked in the woods with a lovely young starlet, an Eve to his Adam. Never mind that Knowles was hardly a sex god at the time, considerably older than the nubile publicity seeker Elaine Hammerstein. It still sold newspapers, and that was the name of the media game in era of the silent film and the uncontrolled flim-flam.
By 1916, when the proposal to share the woods with Hammerstein was bruited, Knowles had twice been the star of his own dramatic wilderness escapades. In Maine in 1913, he stepped off into the forest wearing only an athletic supporter for modesty's sake. He later dropped the single garment in favor of clothing he claimed to have manufactured himself – leggings of grass and the pelts of animals for his body. His progress was followed as well as could be by the
Boston Post, which naturally had reason to glorify the woodsman's deeds. Knowles, in his forties, was in fact a skilled hunter and outdoorsman who revered the lore of the American Indian. Some of what transpired in the Maine woods was factual, but it's unlikely that Knowles lived completely without the resources of other human beings (or his own pre-arranged resources). Could he have killed a deer with his bare hands, as he recounted? His accomplishments, however, are laudable. He fashioned shoes from rushes, and made several serviceable lean-to houses, and left messages and drawings, written with a burnt stick, on such diverse materials as bark strips and a large mushroom.
Knowles was something of a humbug, so the precise truth about this remarkable man has been pieced together from the copious publicity he sparked and from speculation from those who knew him. Born in Maine, his father a disabled veteran of the Civil War, Knowles early on took it on himself to supplement his family's meager provisions by hunting. He showed early promise as an artist and raconteur, often making himself the butt of amusing stories. He began to leave home as a teen and may have joined the Navy (the Navy has no record of his service, but he came home in uniform). He worked as a wilderness guide and later taught his skills such as fire-making to Boy Scouts. His lifelong weakness for the limelight led him to the experiments in naked survival, and the newspapers, hungry for any sensational tales, ate it up. His foray into the Maine woods was followed by a more closely monitored excursion in California. He took his act on the road to a tremendous popular response, and a few times shared the stage with Ishi, the California native famously referred to as "the last wild Indian." Knowles, who claimed to have been mentored by the Sioux and other tribes, was condescending about Ishi, declaring himself to be a better outdoorsman than his Indian rival for public acclaim.
His sojourn in the Adirondacks with Ms. Hammerstein, aka Dawn Woman, was a ho-hum. Knowles may have been jealous of her hogging the reporters' attentions, and factually, the two probably rarely saw each other in the few weeks that she lived outdoors. She was city-girl tough and had an eye to the main chance, but when she realized that living in the forest would require the killing of animals, she balked and packed up.
Knowles passed through his "Nature Man" phase and lived to seek legitimate recognition as an artist, in which he had some success, probably with the help of one of the women in his life who undoubtedly helped execute his larger commissions. His simple depictions of outdoor life, animals, natural settings and not a few of himself in mountain-man garb, have become serious collectibles. One story about him recounted by Joe Motavalli, the author of Naked in the Woods and obvious fan of the enigmatic Knowles, tells of the artist trying to cash a $1,000 commission check: "There was a problem because Knowles had no identification with him, but he got a spark of recognition when he said he'd been the Nature Man. The clerk had seen his vaudeville act. Knowles sealed the deal by making fire right there in the bank lobby. The clerk cashed the check."
Motavalli has infused the story of Joseph Knowles with new life, including in it many of the headlines of the day to illustrate how Knowles' factual and fictitious exploits mirrored the aspirations of the times. People relied almost completely on the press for entertaining stories, often in serial form, about daring deeds and scandalous events. The accusations that Knowles was a fake were rife but made as good a story as his actual adventures. At one point, it was said, Knowles met with a group of tourists and was shamed into retreating back into the woods to acquire a decent tan. Motavalli sagely opines that "the idea of a naked man in the woods fit right into a series of increasingly bizarre promotional schemes it [the
Boston Post] had undertaken in order to stay ahead. This one wasn't likely to cost much; and if Knowles died out there, well, that made good copy, too."