The Wild Man of Idaho
Updated: Oct 19, 2022
The two cowboys were working their way through the lava crags looking for cattle lost after a storm when something startled them. They had no idea what it was, but the thing looked like a man and acted like an animal. The two men gave chase on foot, dismounting their horses on the rough terrain. As they did, they pulled their revolvers from their belts, ready to use them against the creature if needed. The two men ran as long as they could, but after an hour, they found themselves too tired to keep up. When they stopped to rest, the object of the chase also stopped and watched the cowboys long enough for them to get a good look at it.
According to the Wood River Times on October 10, 1882, the creature, “...was over six feet in hight (sic), with great, muscular arms which reached to his knees. The muscles stood out in great knots, and his chest was as broad as that of a bear… All parts of his body to be seen were covered by long, black hair, while from his head the hair flowed over his shoulders in coarse tangled rolls, and mixed with a heavy beard. His face was dark and swarthy, and his eyes shone brightly, while two tusks protruded from his mouth. His fingers were the shape of claws, with long, sharp nails…”
As the creature observed its pursuers, the cowboys considered shooting it, but deemed the act as “unjustifiable”. Even though the brute that they happened upon had an animalistic quality to it, the cowboys could tell that it was still more man than beast. Animal skins were wrapped around its feet, serving as makeshift shoes and a wolf skin was tied around its waist, surely to protect his modesty. The cowboys started to holler and make noise to scare it off, but he just moved his head from side to side and moaned, as if trying to, but unable to speak to them. When the cowboys grew weary of the thing, they fired their guns. This startled the creature, which “turned a double somersault and jumped 15 feet to a low bench and disappeared, growling terribly as he went.”
The cowboys got back to camp and reported the strange sighting, which in turn made it to Theophile Picotte, editor of the Wood River Times. Picotte wrote it up, dubbing the creature “The Camas Wild Man”, and newspapers reprinted the story all across the country. Yep, Idaho made national news in 1882. The story was picked up by the Police Illustrated News, a magazine out of Boston that normally published detailed sketches of shocking crimes. The Police Illustrated News came up with this wonderful illustration of the event, captioning it, “The Wild Man of Idaho- A Determined but Unsuccessful Effort to Capture Him by Two Horsemen, Near Snake River”. (For another Idaho story found in the pages of this magazine, see our book, Murder and Mayhem in Boise)
Illustration: Illustrated Police Weekly Magazine (Boston), December 2, 1882
As the nation’s attention was turned to the Wood River Valley, parties were assembled to hunt the Wild Man, but none were successful in this venture. In February 1883 however, the Bellevue Sun, a rival newspaper to the Times, reported that the Wild Man had been killed by a group of duck hunters east of the town of Bellevue. One of the hunters, named only Mickelhaney, spotted the Wild Man and discharged both barrels of his shotgun into it. Micklehaney approached the fallen Wild Man, but the creature started to get up. The hunter put his foot on the Wild Man’s neck and asked his friends for an ax, just as the Wild Man was able to stand up and began running. As the creature looked back, the ax was thrown, and the blade hit him right between the eyes, killing him dead. The body was examined, revealing many of the same descriptors as reported by the Times. The only additional details were that his animal skin garments were hand-sewn together with sinew.
When Picotte read the report in the Sun, he was incensed. His Wild Man, which he foresaw being a great draw to curiosity seekers with deep pockets to the Wood River Valley, was no more.
Now here is the thing about the Wild Man of Idaho. Picotte probably made up the whole story, as he was, as some would say, full of…malarkey. The newspapers of the Wood River Valley - the Wood River Times, Bellevue Sun, and Ketchum Keystone were in a three-way rivalry and sometimes printed ridiculous news items to gain an advantage. The month after the Wild Man story ran in the Times, the Keystone followed up with its own fantastical tale of a group of men who found a cave in the Sawtooth Mountains. This cavern was supposedly filled with hieroglyphics, large pieces of silver, bones of salmon, and the skeleton of a man 9 feet tall holding a crossbow and a tomahawk. The Idaho Weekly World from Idaho City summed it up best by printing, “...the Wood River papers are peculiar”.
Theophile E. Picotte in his G.A.R. Unifrom. Picotte was a veteran of the Union Army.-Ketchum Community Library via The Times-News, Twin Falls
Perhaps though, Picotte's story wasn't completely bunk. Wild Man (and Wild Woman) stories show up in the folklore of many cultures throughout the world. In Europe, creatures of the forest called Woodwoses, or Wood-Men are super common all the way back to the 6th century. Woodwoses are often depicted in Medieval artwork as being man-like, but covered in thick dark hair, much like the Wild Man of Idaho. The Basque people have the Basajuan or Lord of the Forest. The Chinese have reported seeing Yeren, hairy ape-men all the way back to around 340 BCE. Wild Men throughout the world share common features; they are usually covered in hair, use rudimentary tools, and live on the fringes of society.
Left to Right-Yeren, Basajuan, Woodose or European Wild Woman riding a Unicorn
Wild Man lore can be classified in three categories. The first is mythological, often having some supernatural connection with the woods. The second is the person who just wants to get away from society, for whatever reason. Finally, the mentally ill Wild Man stories are quite common in the United States.
When early immigrants settled in places like Idaho, they brought these stories of Wild Men with them, so it is no surprise that new Wild Man lore was created in these places. The first known mention of a Wild Man in Idaho is from 1867 and described the creature as Half Man and Half Bear (no half pig). Several “Wild Man of Idaho” stories would follow, and here is a selection of the more detailed tales.
In 1885, a Wild Man was captured in Alturas County. He was bathed, shaved, and given clothes. Someone recognized him as an old prospector named Riley, and he was taken before a judge and determined to be insane. They shipped him off to the Oregon Insane Asylum.
In 1892, Teddy Roosevelt published a book called “The Wilderness Hunter” in which he presents a Wild Man story that he seems to feel was credible. This Wild Man was spotted between the Salmon River in Idaho and the Wise River in Montana. Roosevelt’s Wild Man was aggressive and territorial, scaring two trappers, one of which was allegedly killed by this Wild Man.
George Pettingill was a Civil War veteran who came out west to mine after the war. He settled in Butte, Montana for a time before he just became sick of society and decided to live on his own in the wilderness. For more than 40 years, George survived by himself between Salmon, Idaho, and Butte. Before he died he made a few friends in Butte, and he was photographed for the local paper. You can imagine coming across a man like this in the wilderness and how one might mistake him for a Sasquatch or other cryptid. Pettingill might also be the Wild Man mentioned by Teddy Roosevelt. The time and the place were correct, although Pettingill was not known to be violent.
George Pettingill and Professor Knaub, who convinced Pettingill to reenter society just before his death. -Montana Standard September 7, 2004
In 1900, the Wild Man of Bruneau was captured and taken to Silver City. For six months or so, this Wild Man had been raiding ranches and farms in the Owyhees for supplies. The stockmen grew tired of losing their supplies to the Wild Man, so they implored law enforcement to do something. After Constable Portlock was able to capture the man in Bruneau Canyon, it was found out that his name was Gus Courtney, and that he was a native of Finland. Gus had a head injury that was treated, and he was shipped to the Idaho Insane Asylum at Blackfoot. After some time, he was released and was able to return to his wife and children in his home country, a happy ending for sure. The Wild Man of Bruneau is an interesting cautionary tale when researching these types of events. In 1948, almost half a century after the event, early pioneers, of the area recalled the Wild Man story. Among those who remembered this Wild Man, was Ada Tingley, the famous lady trapper. Except in the recollections, the Wild Man scampered about on all fours, had a dirty yellow canine companion, and was captured by a pair of brothers who lassoed the helpless hermit after killing the man’s dog. The brothers, bloody and bruised from the capture, triumphantly brought their prize into Silver City where he was judged insane and shipped off to Blackoot, only in the recollection, he died there instead of going home. These recollections contained many errors not found in the original reporting. This is a good example of why researchers need to look at primary sources on stories like this as much as possible.
One of the more recent Wild Men of Idaho was arrested in Blaine County in December of 1916. Eduard Knassovick, also known as Edward (or sometimes even Frank) Ness immigrated to the U.S. from Poland when he was a teenager. His prison file indicates that his legitimate occupation was “waiter”, but he spent most of his time in Idaho as a hermit, living in the wilds between Hailey and Idaho Falls, “clothing himself with skins and subsiding on the flesh of animals he killed with rude weapons…With unkempt hair and beard, he is said to have been one of the most grotesque characters…” In April of 1916, a young girl named Alice Empy went missing from her home. She was found dead a month later, brutally killed, and sexually assaulted. Ness became the prime suspect in the murder and was arrested, although he was never tried for the crime, likely because another man had admitted to it. However, Ness, who the newspapers dubbed, “The Wild Man of Idaho” was sent to prison for a different sexual assault. A photo of him, taken just after he was arrested shows him in his wild state, except for some clothing that he was probably given to wear. This photo, which was turned into a postcard, stands in stark contrast to the image of him taken at the Idaho Penitentiary, which shows Edward Ness clean-shaven and wearing a suit.
Edward Ness, Idaho inmate #2491-Idaho Old Penitentiary Records, 1882-1961 via Ancestry
A casual observer could be forgiven for mistaking The Wild Man of Idaho for something akin to a Sasquatch, Bigfoot, Rock Ape, or Yeti. Still, there are some distinctions between wild men and their cryptid cousins. Although there are a few cases of Sasquatches being observed using tools, it's not a standard part of the lore. They have also never been described wearing clothing, whereas wild men are almost always depicted in stories and artwork as having skins or bits of cloth to cover at least their naughty bits. However, it seems Wild Man and Sasquatch lore are intertwined with one easily mistaken for another. Perhaps many Sasquatch sightings were actually Wild Man, and it's even possible that a Wild Man or two were actually Bigfoot.
Three of Idaho's Wild Men at SquatchCon, August 7, 2021-Photo by Shania Lynch
Wild Man stories throughout history, and especially in early Idaho represent the conflict between primitive chaos and civilized order. As humans encroach into the wilderness, the wilderness encroaches back into humans. Even though the Wild Man of Idaho was likely an invention of the editor of the Wood River Times, he represents a hope that some bits of Idaho will always remain in their natural, wild state.
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