Half a century before a newspaperman in the Pacific Northwest coined the term “Bigfoot,” the Northeast had something much more frightening.
By Jim Knipfel
Americans aren’t nearly as rational and sophisticated as we’d like to believe. Whether confined to small rural communities or spread nationwide, delightfully stupid instances of mass hysteria and unfathomable conspiracy theories are sprinkled liberally throughout our history.
Orson Welles’ 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast was small potatoes compared to the dumbest of our media-fueled freak-outs—from the Great Airship of 1897, to the child-raping Satanic cult hysteria of the nineties, to the post-9/11 fear of, well, pretty much everything, to the QAnon-fed child-raping Satanic cult hysteria of the present. As Rod Serling pointed out in the 1960 episode of the Twilight Zone, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” Americans are ready to flap their arms and trample one another as soon as the lights blink.
It may seem that America today has reached a fever pitch of ugly, sloppy, roiling mass hysteria. Truth is, we’ve always been prone to irrational panics. In this new monthly column, we look back at notable instances in American history when serious, straight-thinking citizens were reduced to gibbering idiocy by some silly crap they read in the papers.
First up: the Winsted Wild Man.
On August 27, 1895, Lou Stone, the 20-year-old editor of Winsted, Connecticut’s Evening Citizen, ran a column in which he recounted the story shared with him the previous day by a local selectman named Riley Smith.
A few days earlier, Smith, accompanied by his bulldog, Ned, had been walking along Old Losow Road on his way to a business meeting in nearby Colebrook. The road snaked through dense woods, and upon reaching a small clearing, Smith paused to pick a few blackberries. As he did, Ned wandered off to investigate some bushes. A moment later, a shivering and whimpering Ned returned and cowered between Smith’s legs.
As Smith took a few steps forward to see what had so terrified his dog, a tall, naked man covered in long black hair exploded from the bushes, as Stone wrote, “leaping high in the air, emitting fearful cries, and suddenly he disappeared into the woods, the long black hair on his head streaming out behind him as he took flight.”
Stone noted that selectman Smith was an honest, plucky and serious man not given to flights of fancy. If he said he saw a naked crazy wild man in the local woods, you can believe he did.
The story was repeated the next day in The Winsted Herald, a weekly. From there, it went out on the wires.
As you might expect, once the account of The Winsted Wild Man hit the wires, newspapers from Hartford, Boston, New York and Chicago sent reporters to sleepy and rural Winsted to cover the story. Hordes of curious tourists began arriving as well. The number of sightings of the Wild Man quickly skyrocketed, with tourists and locals alike catching glimpses of the creature along quiet roads, near local lakes and even in their own backyards. As much as he could keep up, Lou Stone reported most of these terrifying encounters in the pages of the Evening Citizen. Those stories he couldn’t fit ended up in the Herald.
A panic quickly swept through the entire area, with any number of residents refusing to leave their homes out of fear they might run into the Wild Man. And it seems everyone who maintained the courage to step out their front doors did in fact run into him. Selectman Smith, in the meantime, offered a handsome reward to anyone who captured the Wild Man.
In his 1929 book about the case, Frank L. Wentworth described a few of the frightful encounters with the Wild Man as follows:
George Hoskins said he saw the Wild Man leaving his hen house with two hens under his arms. Jim Maddrah proclaimed he took a Kodak picture of a man with a mass of hair on his head, but none of his body. Jim explained this condition by stating his camera was so frightened it couldn’t see straight. Two ladies from New York, while in town, witnessed a large animal cross their path, turn, stand on its hind legs and stare at them. They were in belief that the Wild Man was an ape or baboon. The chief of police, Steve Wheeler, claimed he tracked a gorilla-man into a swamp before he lost the trail and scent. One taxpayer expressed the hope that it was really the Devil trying to scare Selectman Smith so he wouldn’t spend so much of the town’s money.
As lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek as Wentworth’s after-the-fact account could be, in the early autumn of 1895, few of the people around Winsted were laughing. When neither the police nor local politicians seemed capable of doing anything to rid the town of this relentless terror, the citizens decided to take matters into their own hands.
On a Sunday morning in mid-September, a group of close to 100 heavily armed locals gathered at the corner of Lake and Main Streets in hopes of hunting the Wild Man down once and for all. They divided into three groups, with each concentrating on an area where the sightings had been most prevalent — Cobble Hill, Losaw Road and Injun Meadow.
As the sun was going down, several members of the posse opened fire on what they believed to be the Wild Man. Upon closer inspection, however, the Wild Man turned out to be a mule unlucky enough to have wandered away from a nearby farm a week earlier. The mule was the only victim of the posse that day, meaning the Wild Man was still on the loose.
The failure of the hunters did nothing to stem the tide of growing panic, though a few quiet voices did begin to wonder aloud how many sightings of the Wild Man might be attributed to that poor lost mule.
Even more heavily armed militias from around Connecticut and other nearby states offered to come to Winsted and track the monster down properly. One postcard, delivered to a town official and reprinted in the Herald, read:
The Skaneateles Fusileers (100 strong), with two Gatling guns and a military balloon, together with the Chemung Calvary (50 men), will arrive at West Winsted on the Vestibule Limited Train (gilt edge) via the Reading R.R. on Saturday, to inaugurate a campaign against the ‘Jabberwock’ or ‘Wild Man.
Please have a very strong cage built as we expect to get the above-mentioned individual and exhibit him in a dime museum.
(Some believe the postcard was a prank, others that the town council politely asked the militias to keep their distance. Whatever the case, no men with Gatling guns and a military balloon arrived at the train station that Saturday.)
As the number of sightings continued to grow, the descriptions of the beast changed, evolving from a hairy naked man into an eight-foot-tall heavily muscled apelike creature with long arms that nearly reached the ground. One eyewitness even claimed the monstrous creature had tusks.
Along with the changing descriptions came the theories and counter theories about what the Wild Man really was. Some claimed it was an ape, others a missing link, still others a supernatural creature. The Hartford Sunday Globe suggested the Wild Man in question might in fact be Arthur Beckwith, an insane painter who had recently escaped from an asylum in Litchfield. Accompanying the story was an artist’s rendering of Beckwith, heavily influenced by eyewitness descriptions of the Wild Man, which only helped lend more credence to that particular theory.
The panic churned on, fueled by Stone’s ongoing stories in the Evening Citizen as well as breathless, hair-raising headlines in dozens of other local papers, for nearly two months. Finally, a few days before Thanksgiving, Stone, deciding he’d pushed things about as far as they could be pushed, confessed he’d just made the whole thing up, that the tale about Riley Smith’s encounter with a crazy, hairy, naked man in the woods was nothing but a hoax.
Things began to calm down after that. For the most part, anyway.
Later historians would note that while Stone may have got the ball rolling with that initial column, the real Wild Man hysteria did not begin until after the town was flooded with big city reporters and tourists, all of them asking the locals about this terrifying “Apeman on the Loose.” Winsted residents, eager to help out, fed the reporters increasingly outlandish stories, which were then fed back to them in shrill, exaggerated tabloid form. That’s when people started to take it seriously — and when they started to panic.
Stone was not forced from his post and run out of town for the simple prank gone bad, and in fact during a career as a Winsted journalist that would roll on another three decades, he would continue to publish stories of local interest, like the one about the talking dog, the tree that grew baked apples, and the chicken that laid red, white and blue eggs on the Fourth of July. Among the locals, Stone, with no little affection, came to be dubbed The Winsted Liar.
Despite his public confession, and despite his reputation in later years as a genial spinner of tall tales, sightings of the Wild Man around Winsted would continue to pop up sporadically over the next 80 years.
On the morning of July 24, 1972, two Winsted boys in their late teens reported that an eight-foot-tall apelike creature covered in black hair emerged from the woods near Crystal Lake and wandered in and around a neighbor’s horse barn for about 45 minutes before disappearing back into the woods. One of them claimed the creature made a sound like “a frog mixed with a cat.”
Two years later, the most recent serious sighting I’m aware of, two teenage couples parked on a lonely country road on a moonlit night told a passing police officer they had seen a hairy, eight-foot-tall bipedal hominid lurking about the woods. They seemed pretty freaked out, according to the officer, though the next morning no evidence of any such beast could be found. (The early-1970s also corresponded with a nationwide fascination with Bigfoot who, thanks to a flood of media attention, was being spotted in one incarnation or another in nearly every state in the union.)
Among cases of American mass hysteria, the Winsted Wild Man remains not only a personal favorite, but an inspiration as well.
After his death in 1933, the residents of Winsted decided to name a bridge after Lou Stone. The small bridge spans — what else? — a body of water called Suckers Creek.
Jim Knipfel is the author of three memoirs, five novels, a short story collection and a volume of pop cultural sociology. His most recent book is Residue (Red Hen Press). He lives in Brooklyn.
Production DetailsV. 1.1.0 Last edited: April 30, 2019 Author: Jim Knipfel Editors: Alexander Zaitchik, Jeff Koyen Artwork: The Museum of Hoaxes