The Stamford Wild Man: A Berkshire Scare of 1861
This has the appearance of being a candid look at what started out as a journalistic hoax about a Wildman. In a classic case of ostension, the wildman suddenly sprang from legend into vivid real-life accounts. (Or was it a local conspiracy of pranksters?) A plausible explanation is then given, long after the fact, which does not quite explain all sightings of the creature. It must also be noted that this alleged history of the Wildman was printed 50 years after the original “scare.” Does anyone know of documents/articles from the 1860s about the Wildman, or do we reluctantly conclude that this is another item created “due to a scarcity of local news on one rainy day” in 1913? If you know, Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail DOT com.
THE STAMFORD WILD MAN
A BERKSHIRE SCARE OF 1861
THE MYSTERY STILL UNSOLVED
Though a Principal in Its Exploitation Here Gives Some Explanation.
[Written by William H. Phillips for The Sunday Republican.]
There are yet living in North Adams and in the northern towns of Berkshire County and in the extreme southern tier of towns of Vermont a few persons who have a memory of what was known in the summer of 1861 as the “Stamford wild man.” It is now over 50 years since this mysterious character, whose real personality will ever remain a myth, threw the citizens of all this region into genuine paroxysms of fright, from which it took several months to recover.
The public origin of the Stamford wild man, whatever might have been his personal right to existence, was due to a scarcity of local news on one rainy day in 1861, just after the first northern Berkshire troops had gone to the front in the civil war. The North Adams Transcript, after having just been combined with the Hoosac Valley News by W.H. Phillips, was printed in the North Adams house block, now the site of the Wilson house. Its editor, note-book in hand, had just canvassed the then village for a customary weekly batch of items, and found its places of business and citizens full of gloom and inactivity over the perilous slate of affairs in the nation, with more than a Sunday stillness pervading every locality. Sitting down in his sanctum, he ran his hands wildly through his hair and tried to think up some subject for an editorial, or for local mention, but in vain, when suddenly a scrap of loose paper on which was pencilled that “a queer old chap, clothed in rags, with long hair and unkempt beard had been recently seen in Stamford.” This was enough; something must be had to fill the columns of the paper, and some great excitement was needed to break up the general gloom and monotony which had spread over the locality like a pall of darkness, and this was the opportunity. Then the editor, with this slight building material in hand, and a heavy draft upon his imagination, proceeded to paint a picture of what he called the “wild man of Stamford” which was fairly terrifying. Such was the depressed state of the public mind over national events and prostrated business that the majority of the editor’s readers swallowed the temptingly baited announcement with greedy avidity, but a very few wiseacres feebly protested if at all.
The article, which came like a clap of thunder out of a clear sky, was extensively copied and credited to the Transcript by the daily and weekly newspapers in the northern states, the only doubt as to its veracity being courteously made by the Troy Daily Times, which placed a pound of interrogation points (which no one but editors understood), and the end of an item referring to this wild man, while Editor Ben Cook of the Bennington Banner advised the Transcript editor “to throw aside the pen and types and take up the profession of a portrait painter.” This accouchement of the Stamford wild man was the first and last imaginative pen work of this editor, the eyes and imagination of the public doing all the work for him afterward, while he jovially acted as its amanuensis. Before his next week’s issue, July 25, 1861, Stephen B. Willard and several prominent gentlemen from Stamford called at the Transcript office and reported that they had had a glimpse of this mysterious creature, while it was reported that Burlingame & Ray of North Adams were entirely out of locks, padlocks and window fasteners, this dearth having been caused by the citizens of Stamford, who previous to this time in their peaceful security had never thought to flocking up their houses either by day or night. Besides, in this issue of the Transcript appeared this article, the facts therein being communicated by the parties mentioned therein: Last week, while Curtis Wilbor of Stamford was hunting on the mountains east of Wilmarth’s tavern, he came upon what he supposed was a large animal digging roots. He took aim and shot, but his gun hanging fire, thereupon said animal straightened up to the size and stature of a seven-foot man, covered with hair from head to foot, and with an unearthly yell, started off into the dense woods with the fleetness of a deer, while Wilbor, overcome by this strange appearance, made his feet fly as fast as possible in the direction of home. A body of armed citizens at once urged Wilbor to retrace his steps in the attempt to capture this creature, but such was his fear that he could not be persuaded to visit the scene of his encounter. This inflamed the citizens to a high pitch of excitement, several of them affirming that they had heard the cries of this strange being in the nighttime. The next day a pursuing party discovered the footprints, or resemblance to feet of a monster human being, by the side of the mountain road, which Wilbor insisted the strange being crossed, and halloing loudly, they affirmed that the creature answered back with prolonged howls.
Many See the Wild Man.
By this time quite a crowd of reliable men in Stamford and Clarksburg, had reported that they had caught a glimpse of what they termed a “wild man,” or had heard his shrieks in the forests adjoining their farm-houses and nearly all the population of North Adams as well, believed that some lunatic, entirely destitute of clothing, was wandering about in the woods, and there was a loud call for a formidable posse of citizens having firearms, to turn out and hunt him down. Besides, it was in the height of the berry-picking season, and the women and children having entirely deserted their usual harvest fields, the price of all small wild fruits were quadrupled and the general scarceness seemed to inaugurate a berry famine. Besides there was no need of a curfew bell; as children as well as men and women were very careful to hide beneath the family roof-tree for the night, as soon as the sun dropped behind the western mountains. Then, too, the evidence had become so strong that some wild and mysterious wanderer was skulking among the foothills of the Green and Hoosac Mountain fastnesses, clothed only in garments alone provided by the invisible looms and shuttles of Nature, that hardly a single doubting Thomas remained in the field.
Described by the Pierce Boys.
Then this item appeared in the columns of the Transcript, under the date of August 1, 1861:
Two brothers named Pierce of Stamford, having been attracted by the noise of strange howlings in the woods near their homes, courageously concluded to hunt out the object of these outcries. Placing double charges in their guns, they cautiously ascended the East mountain side, when they suddenly came in sight of a creature, which they describe as being six feet in hight [sic] bearing great resemblance to the human form, the body being covered with long, coarse, black hair, with a luxuriant mass of the same crowning the head and face. With a fierce howl the creature rushed upon the Pierce boys, one of whom levelled his gun and fired upon it, but was so frightened that he missed his aim and his bullet fell far wide of its mark. Dropping his powder flask in his terror, both he and his brother came tearing down the steep mountain side at a breakneck speed, and the mystery still remaining unsolved, the community was thrown into a still greater panic than ever, and no one in the town pretended to step out beyond the threshold of the house after nightfall.
Then came a perfect whirlwind of reports of the appearance and pranks of this mysterious creature, who seems to have been left to amuse himself as full master of the situation. A man named Sitterly of Stamford was awakened at midnight by loud thumpings on the door and sides of his house. Crawling out of bed, he went to a window and caught sight of the creature and called out to know what was wanted, when, with an unearthly shriek it fled from the yard.
A party who were picking berries just north of the Beaver mill suddenly sighted this strange creature, who approached them with swinging arms and uttering a wild gibberish, which drove them from the field in reckless haste, leaving their pails and baskets behind them. One of this party was certain that the creature bore resemblance to a chimpanzee or African baboon, which gave rise to a report that it was an animal that had escaped from some traveling menagerie. Quite a number of farmers were also certain that it had killed and eaten sheep in their mountain pasture, while some asserted that I had milked their cows in their yards after nightfall. Another report that gained much credence was that a small cave had been discovered in Stamford, which was evidently one of the creature’s retreats and bones found at its mouth were said to have seen to Amherst and Williams College authorities for examination.
The Flames Fanned Again.
Then there appeared in the Transcript’s issue of August 8, 1861, an article which again raised public curiosity to the highest pitch and which read as follows:
Dexter Smith and William Hoale of this village, while riding past a piece of woods north of the Noble Smith farm, in Stamford one day last week, observed a hideous-looking object, covered with rags and hair, with a long beard. As it suddenly emerged from the skirt of the woods, it uttered a shriek, making horrid grimaces at them, and repeatedly thrust out its tongue. They judged that the creature was about six feet in hight and declared that is appearance was enough to startle the nervous organization of anyone up to a high degree of tension. At any rate they vamoosed the locality as soon as possible. In the same issue was noted the fact that while two young men were blue-berrying on the Pine Cone to the north of Blackinton on the previous Monday, a creature answering most of the previous descriptions of the Stamford wild man made its appearance on the rocks at the summit of the pinnacle, and after a number of hideous contortions of body and face, with an unearthly yell made off into the woods. Whereupon the boys made the best of time in a flight homeward, where they arrived in a thoroughly frightened condition. A party of Blackinton hunters stated out at once in pursuit of the creature, but it successfully eluded them.
All through the month of August 1861, the wild man seemed to be fairly ubiquitous in the manner and places of his appearance. He was next seen in Florida, where several persons were badly frightened, and evidently descended the mountain from this locality into South Adams, where he put to panic flight a score of juveniles who were berrying in Bowen’s woods. A few days after he was seen in the woods in the same vicinity by a lad named Marsh and a colored boy, both of whom fled for home in great affright, leaving their berry baskets behind them; as also on the next day by a valiant crowd of women berry pickers, who then and there gave up that industry for the season. The next Sunday a grand hunt was instituted by the village hunters, who fell upon the trail of the creature, but which finally evaded them by lunging into a dense swamp, into which they dared not follow.
Williams Students Interested.
It was at this juncture that number of Williams College students thought to have a little fun over this wild man and the citizens of North Adams and Stamford who were on the keen lookout for him. Thereupon they made a huge scarecrow in the shape of half-man and half-beast, and hiring a shed of L. Jaquith on Holden Street set it up therein, a huge chain confining the image to a stout post. They then conveyed the image thereto under the cover of night and placarded the village with the announcement that the wild man of Stamford had been captured and confined, noting the place of his imprisonment, and stating that he could be seen free of charge. All one forenoon Holden Street was thronged with the curious from all the region roundabout to see this creature, and the memory of their being so grossly humbugged was never an enjoyable one.
The final appearance of the supposed Stamford wild man in that staid old Vermont town and near the villages in extreme northern Berkshire was so thoroughly convincing that this character was not a myth or a fable, that if anyone doubted if such a character really existed except in vivid imaginations, he kept it to himself, for fear of general ridicule. In the Transcript issue of September 1, 1861, appeared this article:
Daniel Workman, the veteran ambrotypist and photographist of this village, whose gallery is in the third story of the North Adams house, and directly above the office of the Transcript, relates to us a strange experience, which he passed through with a friend near the summit of the high mountain directly north of this village. Last Friday afternoon in company with his dear friend, Rev. Mr. Torrey, a noted New York Universalist minister, he ascended the North Mountain to avail himself of an outlook over northern Berkshire and southern Vermont, a beautiful scenic view of natural beauty and wildness only to be seen from this grand eminence. They had made no change in their costumes for this mountain ascension and therefore their garments were their Sunday best. They had spent a full hour on the lovely mountain top and side and feeling of thoroughly gratified sense and quiet had stolen over them, when out of the bushes jumped the Stamford wild man, at once recognized from the printed descriptions which had been previously given in the Transcript of this strange creature, and of whose real existence Workman confessed himself to have been sceptical, a state of mind which he said he no longer enjoyed. Covered with hair and tatterdemalion rags, with a huge pole or club in one of his hands, in the wink of an eye the creature planted himself directly in front of them. As every nerve in their bodies was trembling with fear, he wildly looked down upon them from his high raised head, being fully six feet in hight. Then, to their astonishment, he offered his hand as it were in friendship, whereupon, though being far from bold, but always being held to be polite, Workman shook hands with him with all the courage he could master, his friend being very pale and very much alarmed for fear he would do them bodily injury, as they were both unarmed even to a walking stick. Trying to appear careless, Workman asked the creature a few questions, and gained not a syllable in reply. Finally with a vacant stare the creature placed one hand upon his breast, and swinging his club in the other with strange murmurings made a few outlandish motions and disappeared into the bushes as suddenly as he had appeared. It was a fact that they descended the mountain without taking into account wood roads, paths or trails, their garments bearing distinct marks of their struggles through tickets and undergrowth, having seen enough of the untamed beauties and mysteries of Nature for a single day.
The next appearance of this creature was a week later in North Pownal, where it put to flight a bevy of berry pickers in a high pasture fronted by a precipice. A few days later, bearing the same description as first given of it in Stamford, it followed a school-teacher in Pownal with maniacal gestures, contortions of countenance and screams until she was nearly frightened out of her senses. Soon after an armed party of 16 men got on its track and pursued it. One of these is said to have overtaken it and was so overcome by its appearance that he dared not [illegible] or lay hands on it. It was thus that the Stamford wild man passed out of range of the Transcript’s correspondents, but it was soon heard of in another field, while its pranks and sudden appearances were carefully chronicled for several weeks by Editor Ben Cook of the Bennington Banner, who even up to the appearance of the creature in Pownal had had the temerity to doubt that there was such a character. Thus the Banner authenticated the creature’s appearance in Woodford, North Bennington and on the old Bennington battlefield in a number of its weekly editions, his pen portraits being about the same as those which had been given in the Transcript.
Then this mysterious creature suddenly disappeared from Vermont, upon which the editor of the Banner facetiously asked the editor of the Transcript in his local columns what had become of the “Stamford wild man,” to which the editor of the Transcript as facetiously replied “that the last that he knew of the Stamford wild man was that he was publishing a newspaper called the Bennington Banner.”
A half-dozen copies of the Transcript were mailed to subscribers in Bennington every week, and a few lovers of humor, who had their place of gathering in a store in the old Adams block tin that town, gathered together the copies containing this laughable retort on the home editor, and organized a squad to take a copy one by one up three flights of stairs in that building and point out the squib to the editor and to inquire “if he had seen it.” These jokers so wrought upon the somewhat hot temper of the editor that before the newspapers were all worn out by rough handling he himself was fairly wild. Finally this sport was brought to an abrupt termination by the jokers persuading an innocent old farmer named Page, who was going up to the editorial sanctum to pay his subscription, to hand the editor the Transcript and ask him the regular stereotyped question “if he had seen it.”
This harmless old agriculturalist trudged into the sanctum with the paper in his hand, and so angered became the editor at the oft-repeated and exasperating sight that he snatched up he first thing which came to his hand, which proved to be his well-filled inkstand, and hurled it at Page, with the result that both men were terribly bespattered, as well as was the sanctum itself. Just as the irate old farmer was about to administer a well-merited pummelling to the irate scribe, the latter bust out in a loud laugh, realizing that a gang of village jokers ad made their scheme a howling success, and explaining the situation to Farmer Page, calmed him down by presenting him with a $5 old Stark bank bill and a receipt for the Banner for one year, at the same time making him take an oath to keep the affair secret. Then he piloted him down the rear stairs, that he might escape the notice of Steve Bingham and his fun-loving crowd. But hey had their eyes too keenly fixed on the situation, and before the old gentleman had gone a block away overhauled him and secured a full account of the escapade, in which they were abetted by Mrs. Page, who demanded of him the cause of his bespattered garments, looking, as she said, as though he had “been bathing in the Black Sea, or sleeping on the top of Stephen Evans’s huge grapevine arbor.”
However, much of the truth or private or public imagination, there might have been in the tales about the Stamford wild man and his exploits, it was always a subject of keen satisfaction to the editor of the Transcript that this character came to prominently to the front as thoroughly to absorb public attention at a time when the clouds of gloom caused by the outbreak of the civil war and the departure of the male members of so many families to the front in patriotic response to the call of Abraham Lincoln for troops to save the country, as for a time fairly to stagnate all channels of business and so completely to discourage all classes of the people as, it might be said, to render them incompetent to perform the duties due not only to themselves, but to those who had gone forth to do battle for the perpetuity of the republic At any rate, the pranks of the Stamford wild man so locally boke in upon this mental and physical torpor at this time that the curiosity and fright
Which they engendered for a short but trying period of time fairly drove our national troubles to the wall.
Amusement for the Campfire.
Besides this, quite a number of Transcripts were mailed each week to members of Co. B, 10th Massachusetts regiment in their camp at Fair Oaks, Va., and other localities in which the regiment was located in the early year of the war. It was afterward learned that the company faithfully watched for this appearance of the home paper, reading its every column, advertisements and all, with the greatest interest, discussing the local items appearing therein around the mess table and while lying or sitting around their campfires. When the Transcript first arrived those off duty after dark chose their best reader in the several tent groups, seated him on a barrel, with a torchbearer on each side, and silently listened to the good and bad news form Berkshire.
Returning members of Co. B. afterward affirmed that these Transcripts were then passed over to members of the other companies in the regiment, and in turn by them to the soldiers in other northern regiments for perusal until the sheets were worn to tatters. They also reported that the account of the pranks of the Stamford wild man afforded all one of the greatest treats they had in the first year of the war, and that on the receipt of the paper this news was the first that the “barrel-reader” was called upon to look up. The guessing as to what this creature might be, the character and eccentricities of those who were reported to have caught sight of it, and the history and appearance of the localities in which it presented itself were these of thrilling interest, and reclaimed many an hour on the part of these Western Massachusetts troops from sadness, homesickness and gloomy doubts and forebodings.
Still a Mystery.
In conclusion I can be stated that in 1866 a company of gentleman holding a session in the Transcript sanctum in the old North Adams house, on a certain evening, at which was present the editor, three prominent pastors of the then village, two members of the legal profession and physicians, were agreeably interrupted by the entrance of Daniel Workman, the veteran photographer. Much to the nervousness and chagrin of the editor, the physician began to question Mr. Workman in regard to the appearance of the wild man seen by Rev. Mr. Torrey and himself on the North Mountain in September, 1861. The general appearance of this character Mr. Workman faithfully described, it being about the same as already given in this article. But when he spoke of the stare the creature gave him and his strange mutterings as he swept off under cover of the bushes, the doctor exclaimed: “I thought it was a humbug invention of a mischievous editor from the first, for the creature you saw and which scared you out of your boots was no other than old Pollard’s idiot. I have long been the physician of the Pollard family, who live in a little clearing on the north side of that mountain. They have a grown-up son who is a hopeless idiot, who in the warmer month they allow to roam at will into the North Mountain woods, as he is perfectly harmless.” Much to the disquiet of the editor and of Mr. Workman, one of the mysterious later appearances of the supposed Stamford Wildman was thus thoroughly accounted for. Yet the mystery of the original Stamford wild man and his long list of appearances in Stamford and other localities has never been satisfactorily explained. He may have been a pioneer member of the great tramp family of today, a mischievous maniac, a veritable wild hermit of the woodlands, or a disguised mountain marauder subsisting on wild berries and on milk and meat supplies seized from hillside farms and homesteads. As the first general and unwelcome disturber of the peace and quiet of dwellers outside the village settlements in the vicinage [sic] of the Green and Hoosac mountains at any rate he was the first and last successful specimen of his kind known among the northern Berkshire and southern Vermont hills.
The Springfield [CT] Sunday Republican 9 November 1913: p. 16
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.