Naked in the Woods

February 2009


On August 4, 1913, Joseph Knowles, aged 44, stepped into the Maine woods with the intent to spend two months alone, living off the land. He wanted to demonstrate that man could still live in total harmony with nature instead of in increasingly industrialized cities. Knowles did not need to bring any food, clothing, or equipment for his sojourn. His only accoutrement was an athletic supporter, kept on only until he was out of sight of the small group gathered at his departure. He promised to emerge in October well-fed, fully clothed, healthy, and happy.


Knowles was a rough and tough outspoken ex-Navy man who dabbled in painting and spent much time in the woods working as a hunting guide. The idea for the demonstration came to Knowles in a dream. His newspaper friend Michael McKeogh jumped at the idea when he realized how newspaper sales would explode by carrying the story. While in the woods, Knowles would write and illustrate his daily experiences using charcoal and birch bark and leave these missives at a set drop-off point for McKeogh to write up for the Boston Post. Knowles’ charcoal wildlife drawings enthralled the nation when they hit newspapers as far west as Kansas City.


Knowles did emerge in October as promised, dressed in sandals woven from cedar bark and a “suit” made from bearskin and deer hide. He was examined by a physician and was proclaimed in “the pink of condition.” Knowles’ demonstration was a success. He began a whirlwind tour of speaking engagements. Knowles simply appearing in his bearskin suit was enough to make the crowds go wild. Knowles wrote a full-length account of his experiences in his book Alone in the Wilderness. He cheerfully accepted an invitation to repeat the demonstration in northern California the following summer.


In December 1913, the Hearst-owned newspaper, the Boston Sunday American, printed an exposéproclaiming Knowles an outright fraud. The paper claimed that Knowles’ bearskin outfit had bullet holes and was purchased, that Knowles really lived in a comfortable cabin the whole time, that he had food and a woman companion delivered to him, and that Knowles and McKeogh were paying off confederates to keep the whole thing quiet. Jim Motavalli’s 2007 book, Naked in the Woods, explores the multifaceted Knowles history and lets the reader decide.


Joseph Knowles lived out his days in Washington State, in a driftwood shack overlooking the Pacific Ocean. His artwork generated an income, and his pieces can still be seen today. In 2007, the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum in Ilwaco, Washington, held an exhibit entitled “Joe Knowles: Artist and Legend” which featured more than 200 pieces of his work.