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Examination Photo ii | by A.Davey
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Examination Photo ii

When Knowles emerged from the woods, he headed back to Boston. There, to lend credibility to his account of successfully living on his own in the wild, he was examined by a doctor and photographed at a gymnasium at Harvard University. There, he was declared to have passed his endurance test in perfect health.



The Columbia Pacific Historical Society in Ilwaco, Washington, has mounted an exhibit of the art of Joe Knowles.


Knowles, a skilled artist and relentless self-promoter moved to Seaview, Washington, after a notorious scandal on the East Coast.


He's been called one of early start of reality performance. Before looking at his art, it's worth exploring the chapter in his life that led him to pull up stakes back East and move to an isolated village on Washington's Long Beach Peninsula.


Here's the story. I'll post photos of some of his art later today.



[In 1913], Joe Knowles stripped down to his jockstrap, said goodbye to civilization, and marched off into the woods to prove his survival skills. He was the reality star of his day. For eight weeks, rapt readers followed his adventures in the Boston Post. He returned home to a hero’s welcome. That’s when things got interesting.


The expedition began on a drizzly August morning, in a sort of no-man’s land outside tiny Eustis, Maine. The spot was some 30 miles removed from the nearest rail line, just north of Rangeley Lake, and east of the Quebec border. Knowles showed up at his starting point, the head of the Spencer Trail, wearing a brown suit and a necktie. A gaggle of reporters and hunting guides circled him.


Knowles stripped to his jockstrap. Someone handed him a smoke, cracking, “Here’s your last cigarette.” Knowles savored a few meditative drags. Then he tossed the butt on the ground, cried, “See you later, boys!,” and set off over a small hill named Bear Mountain, moving toward Spencer Lake, 3 or 4 miles away. As soon as he lost sight of his public, he lofted the jockstrap into the brush—so that he could enjoy, as he would later put it in one of his birch-bark dispatches, “the full freedom of the life I was to lead.”


If Knowles made himself sound like Tarzan, it was perhaps intentional. One of the most popular stories in Knowles’s day was Tarzan of the Apes, an Edgar Rice Burroughs novella. Published in 1912 in the pulp magazine All-Story, it starred a wild boy who goes “swinging naked through primeval forests.” The story was such a hit that in 1914 it was bound into book form.


Pulp magazines (so named because they were published on cheap wood-pulp paper) represented a new literary form, born in 1896. They offered working-class Americans an escape into rousing tales of life in the wilderness. Bearing titles like Argosy, Cavalier, and the Thrill Book, they took cues from Jack London, whose bestselling novels, among them The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906), saw burly men testing their mettle in the wild. They were also influenced by Teddy Roosevelt, who insisted that modern man needed to avoid “over-sentimentality” and “over-softness” while living in cities. “Unless we keep the barbarian virtue,” Roosevelt argued, “gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail.”


On the morning of October 5, the Post’s front page blared, “KNOWLES, CLAD IN SKINS, COMES OUT OF THE FOREST.” A subhead continued, “Boston Artist, Two Months a ‘Primitive Man,’ Steps into the Twentieth Century near Megantic, Province of Québec.” Subsequent copy read, “Tanned like an Indian, almost black from exposure to the sun…. Scratched and bruised from head to foot by briars and underbrush…. Upper garment sleeveless. Had no underwear.”


Picked up nationwide, the Post’s piece explained that Knowles had just traversed the most inhospitable portion of the Maine woods, after which, when he had emerged on the outskirts of Megantic, he had made his first human contact—a young girl he had found standing by the railroad track. “And the child of 14, wild-eyed, stared at him,” the story said, “and into her mind came the memory of a picture of a man of the Stone Age in a history book.”


Not everyone believed the story. In late October, after he had returned to civilization, an editorial in the Hartford Courant wondered whether “the biggest fake of the century has been palmed off on a credulous public.” Meanwhile, a reporter from the rival Boston American had begun working on a long story about Knowles. The paper specialized in blockbuster exposés, and its investigative bloodhound, Bert Ford, had spent seven weeks combing the woods around Spencer Lake, aided in his research by a man he would call “one of the ablest trappers in Maine or Canada,” Henry E. Redmond.


On December 2, in a front-page article, Ford went public with the explosive allegation that Knowles was a liar. He zeroed in on Knowles’s alleged bear killing, noting that the Nature Man’s bear pit was but 4 feet wide and 3 feet deep. In boldface, the story asserted, “It would have been physically impossible to trap a bear of any age or size in it.” Knowles’s club was likewise damning evidence. Found leaning against a tree, it was a rotting stub of moosewood that Ford easily chipped with his fingernails.


According to the Boston American, Knowles had a manager in the Maine woods, and also a guide who bought the bearskin from a trapper for 12 dollars. The bear had not been mauled, but rather shot. “I found four holes in the bear skin,” Ford averred after meeting Knowles and studying the very coat he was wearing. “Experts say these were bullet holes.”


Ford argued that Knowles’s Maine adventure was in fact an “aboriginal layoff.” He wasn’t gutting fish and weaving bark shoes, as the Post’s dispatches suggested. Rather, he was lounging about in a log cabin at the foot of Spencer Lake and also occasionally entertaining a lady friend at a nearby cabin.


No matter; Knowles had gained the notoriety he needed to launch a national tour of speaking engagements, publish a book, and sell his artwork.


Prior to his notoriety for adventure, Knowles was an illustrator whose work graced the cover of numerous periodicals. The “Golden Age” of illustration was in full swing and Knowles’ artwork fit right in. By the early 1920s Knowles had settled in Seaview, Washington where he made his living from his paintings, prints and commissioned works.


This exhibition will focus on Joe Knowles as an artist. His paintings, prints and drawings were widely collected and played an important role in this community where he spent the final decades of his career. “By placing his work in the context of early 20th century American art and illustration we hope that viewers will gain a better understanding of Joe Knowles as a creative and accomplished artist,” said CPHM Director and Curator, Betsy Millard.

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Taken on August 31, 2019