Busy days here with illustrations and proofs and promotional brochures for The Victorian Book of the Dead, so here is a brief story of an Ohio wild woman from 1895.
WITHOUT A RAG
She Roams the Woods
A Wild Woman at Large in Mercer County.
All Attempts To Capture Her Without Avail.
The People Stirred and Small Boys in a State of Abject Terror.
Special Dispatch to the Enquirer
Celina, Ohio, July 15. Every county in this section of the country has had its people greatly excited by the appearance of a wild man or wild woman, an escaped lion, tiger or leopard or some other wild animal from a passing show. Heretofore Mercer County has been singularly free from any such visitation. This county now comes to the front with
A WILD WOMAN.
Near Coldwater, a small village southwest of this city, is where this mysterious creature was first discovered, and the inhabitants of that unusually quiet little place are now worked up to a fever heat of excitement and consternation. Since the discovery of this wild creature small children are afraid to venture out on the streets even in the day time.
NOBODY GOES TO THE WOODS
Unless it is an absolute necessity, for fear of meeting this creature. Strong and robust men are afraid to encounter her single handed. The discovery that a wild woman was running at large, and might at any moment be seen at your door, has spread a gloom of fear and anxiety over Coldwater. The “wild woman” is the sole topic of conversation in and around Coldwater.
The Enquirer correspondent visited the little village this morning, and learned the following facts: Friday afternoon, as Henry Wapelhorst was returning from the country on his wheel, and when passing the old Lennartz farm, about three miles west of Coldwater, he suddenly
CAME UPON A WOMAN
Sitting on the end of a culvert. When within about 15 feet of Mr. Wapelhorst she turned, and, seeing him, sprang down into the ditch and through a flood gate, from which she had torn two or three palings.
Mr. Wapelhorst immediately sprang from his wheel and followed this strange creature down through a large field of growing corn, and lost her in a large woods containing about 200 acres. Wapelhorst then returned to Coldwater and gave the alarm, and immediately gathered a posse of about 100 men, who
STARTED IN PURSUIT,
And continued the search all day Saturday and Sunday, but without result, although evidence of her having been in these woods was frequently discovered. At one place she was tracked to a ditch, and the impressions of her hands and knees in the soft mud, where she had stooped to get a drink of water, were plainly evident.
In this vicinity her tracks were measured, and are about eight inches long. Mr. Wapelhorst and Henry Hemmelghern [probably Himmelgarn], both of whom have seen this crazy creature, describe her as being a woman about 35 years old, tall and muscular, with heavy black hair hanging about her shoulders, and as free from the habiliments of woman as was Eve when she first wandered into the Garden of Eden. She is fleet-footed and evidently a powerful woman. Some of the jumps she made while being pursued down through the cornfield by Mr. Wapelhorst measure over eight feet. Her body is dirty and badly tanned from exposure.
Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 16 July 1895: p. 9
The mention of other counties being troubled by wild men and escapees from circuses is amply borne out by the Ohio newspapers in stories of mystery cats, “gorillas,” giant snakes, and “wild men,” most of whom seem to be mentally ill, or possibly Civil War veterans gone back to nature–there was a big spike of wild man stories in the 1870s.
The newspapers were even more fascinated by the rarer tales of feral females, probably because convention dictated that wild women run about either totally naked or scantily clad. In 1856 there was a sensational case dealing with “the wild woman of the Wachita Mountain” heard in Cincinnati. A (probably) mentally ill woman had been exhibited in that city as a western “wild woman,” by one Capt. Northcote. He created an impressive back story about how he captured her and hired a woman to “civilize” her. The testimony was long and detailed and tended to linger overmuch on details like the “wild woman’s” bathing habits and her lack of modesty. Eventually the “wild woman” was sent to the Lunatic Asylum at Dayton, Ohio. Northcote, his humbug exposed, skipped town. I wonder if the Cincinnati journalist who wrote this item so much later, knew of the case?
Our modern sensibilities might think that Henry Wapelhorst and Henry Hemmelghern are comic, stage-Dutchmen names–joke witnesses to a hoax story. However, a Henry Wapelhorst of the correct date range died in 1936 and is buried in St. Elizabeth’s Cemetery in Mercer County. Hemmelghern’s name is likely to be a misspelling of Himmelgarn, a popular name in Mercer County. The county was also crawling with Lennartz family members (‘the old Lennartz farm.”) So the cast of characters isn’t completely implausible.
Trouble is, this is a single source story. It was reprinted in a couple of papers and condensed in several others. I’ve found no follow-up. And, frankly, a posse of 100 men seems overkill. The story has the standard Wild Woman descriptors of 1) naked, 2) fleet of foot, and 3) tanned and tangle-haired. These constants seem as though they might have originally arisen from sightings of runaway enslaved persons or indentured servants or Native American captives. They are certainly a logical description of how someone might look after living rough in the woods for a while. But they seem to have segued into a newspaper cliche. Does that mean that this is simply a wild woman tall tale?
If anyone has a report of “Wild Woman Captured at Coldwater” or “Skeletal Remains of Wild Woman Discovered in Culvert,” I’d be pleased to hear about it. Chase me down, please, at chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
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.