It was raining hard on August 4, 1913, when Joseph Knowles, a part-time portrait painter, tattooed former Navy man, big-beaked friend of the Sioux and Chippewa Indians and onetime hunting guide, stepped off into the northeastern woods of Maine near the present-day Sugarloaf ski area. His intention was a two-month sojourn in the woods, taking nothing in with him--not even clothes!
The story of Joseph Knowles--what happened to him on this and two subsequent trips into the woods (one of them with a female Eve to his Adam)--is told in my new book Naked in the Woods: Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery (Da Capo).
The whole story is in the book, but the editors here were wondering how our modern, iPod-carrying, indoors-loving Americans would fare in the woods. So that's why we're launching a unique, E Magazine contest! Yes, the two best short essays (500 words or less) entitled "What I Would Do If I Found Myself Naked in the Woods" will receive free copies of the book! Be creative. We want to know what you'd do for food and shelter, and how you'd make clothes from nature's materials. Please email your entries to email@example.com no later than Monday, March 3.
Knowles at that time was not exactly the picture of idealized manhood. He was five feet nine but weighed a hefty 200 pounds. He discarded a last cigarette before he strode into the forest primeval. Knowles was going off to live in the wilderness for two months, but he was hardly leaving unnoticed. A large crowd had gathered to see him off, alerted to the stunt by the Boston Post newspaper, then locked in a circulation war with the rival (and Hearst-owned) Boston American. Some 30 onlookers signed a statement that Knowles had submitted to their examination "to see that he concealed no material of any kind" and that he was going into the woods "alone, empty-handed and without clothing."
And so began one of the most successful circulation-building serials in the notably yellow and highly competitive newspaper wars of the period.
Joseph Knowles was a huge hit in the woods, by the way. Not only did the newspaper's circulation grow by more than 30,000 daily copies (with readers drawn by lurid headlines such as "NAKED HE PLUNGES INTO MAINE WOODS TO LIVE ALONE TWO MONTHS"), but what had been a modest inside story soon became front-page news. Knowles--who had vowed to make no contact with the outside world during his sojourn--sent out...