MOUNT VERNON — Delaware County Sheriff T. B. Williams crept through the woods in the falling light, his deputies moving near him quietly in a line. Following the reports of local residents, the lawmen were gathered in Scioto Township, just past the transfer station that powered the interurban train line.
They moved slowly through the woods, down toward the banks of the Scioto River with their weapons drawn.
The sheriff had received reports of a “wild man” living in the woods who would flee when anyone approached. Arriving on the scene, the sheriff and his deputies were pointed to a wisp of smoke wafting through the trees near the river.
Moving through the gathering dusk of the fall evening, soon the lawmen were close enough to hear the crackling of a small camp fire. They slowed their movements and attempted to make little or no sound, knowing the wild man would flee unless they could surprise him.
Sheriff Williams got to edge of a small clearing, close enough to smell the smoke of the campfire. He could see a man lying on the ground, a man with no jacket against the growing chill, with the sleeves of his ragged shirt torn off.
The sheriff stepped into the clearing. The “wild” man was asleep. The sheriff waved his deputies in, surrounding the man to prevent escape. Then the sheriff woke up the sleeping man.
Immediately seeing no way to run away, the man offered no resistance. He began to talk with the sheriff, identifying himself and describing his intentional isolation in the woods. The problem is that the story gets fuzzy from here.
This opening description of the sheriff’s search is my best attempt at reconstructing what happened that evening of October 16, 1912, based on rather sparse and conflicting newspaper reports of the period.
What we know for sure was that Delaware County authorities received resident complaints of a wild man in the woods of Scioto Township where he had been observed for a week or more. Residents were concerned for the scantily clad man as the October evenings were beginning to turn cold, but he ran away when anyone tried to offer help.
But who was he?
The answer remains elusive. Newspaper reports give his name alternately as James B. Black or Jason C. Black or some other combination thereof. Newspaper articles say that the man identified himself as being the son of a Knox County farmer, and that his family lived near Fredericktown.
He was also said to have been a former Kenyon College student, with one report stating that Black was a graduate of said institution. Genealogical searches, alas, turn up no strong candidate for such a person.
Could he have been confused and/or delusional? It’s very much a possibility. The anonymous newspaper reporter for the Delaware Gazette says that “the man seems irrational only in regard to some things, but at times his conversation indicates that he is a man of some training.”
Black, if that was his name, expressed himself in a rather interesting way. When asked why he had taken to living outdoors, he thought for a moment and gave his answer.
“I like to assimilate the air and the ozone of the timber,” Black said.
The reporter said that Black’s hair and beard showed the appearance of not having been trimmed in many months, which certainly would have given a very wild appearance in 1912, when neatly trimmed hair and beards were all the rage.
The Greenville Journal ran an Associated Press wire report of unknown origin that described Black as wearing only trousers and a slouch hat when he was arrested. This report described the wild man’s hair as almost reaching his shoulders, which would be unusually long for the period.
The report also stated that Black had survived in the woods by eating roots, walnuts, herbs, and grain.
Wild man stories are among the oldest tropes of folklore, stories of an individual who flees the strictures of society in order to pursue his own vision. Such figures are legion throughout the history of humankind.
There is the ancient prophet Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, later written about by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his book “Thus Spake Zarathustra.”
He’s the fellow who lived in a cave for 10 years until one morning, watching the sunrise, he received both literal and spiritual enlightenment. That scene inspired the opening of composer Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” which then served as the unforgettable soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” as the fanfare with pounding timpani that accompanies the discovery of tools by primitive ape-men.
Moses was a wild man, wandering in the desert. Any number of prophets and saints fall into the category of hermit.
An important wild man of the early medieval period was Myrddin Wyllt, a bard and/or warrior who suffered a mental breakdown during the Battle of Arderydd in northern Britain and fled into the Caledonian Woods where he became known as a seer. He was apparently the main source of the legend of Merlin within the legendary tales of King Arthur and his court.
In more recent centuries, Henry David Thoreau fell at least a bit into the category when he spent a contemplative year on the shores of Walden Pond in Massachusetts and subsequently writing about it.
In living memory, many have read the excellent Jon Krakauer book or saw the haunting Sean Penn film version of “Into the Wild,” which chronicles the true story of how a young man, Chris McCandless, retreated into the wilderness to find meaning, but ultimately died from eating an unsafe wild plant.
The wild man figure is important, because someone who steps outside of mainstream society is in a rare position of being able to observe society without being caught up in it. Such people can sometimes make very wise observations, the kind of insight needed to improve society.
These wild figures are the centers of stories running deep into human history, and may even have something to do with our cultural predisposition to occasionally sight wild, hairy, man-like creatures in the woods popularly known as Bigfoot.
I’d truly love to find out more about this wild man figure and how he interacted with central Ohio society.
Unfortunately, none of the given names is distinctive enough to turn up searches that solidly identify this troubled young man. There were a number of young men with the surname Black who lived in Knox County in the late 1800s, but none of them were named James of Jason.
But then, we only know that this young man’s father lived near Fredericktown around 1910. The only families with the surname Black that I identified for 1910 were in Jefferson and Union townships, not near Fredericktown. And neither of those families ever had a James or Jason.
Moreover, the names are garbled from report to report, and it seems the young man’s thoughts may have been a little garbled, too. Hence it’s hard to say what his real name may have been. The reference to Kenyon may be true, due to his evidently learned vocabulary.
Or, he may have been self-taught, with delusions of being a college graduate. But the reference to Fredericktown, Knox County, does seem oddly specific.
However, a follow-up report in the Democratic Banner notes that Knox County refused to claim Black, apparently denying that he was or had been a resident of the county. This news came along with the report that the man’s behavior had changed.
While half-starved, Black had reportedly been calm and cooperative at the Delaware County jail. After being fed a large meal where, according to a report in the Delaware Gazette, Black ate “everything in sight,” the man became belligerent, spitting all over the jail kitchen’s stove and attempting to set a hallway bookcase on fire.
“All night he was in a state of nervous excitement,” the report said, noting that the following day, Black was sent to Columbus.
By this, I presume they mean the Columbus State Hospital, or, in other words, the asylum.
Further information remains elusive. It is likely that the disturbed man’s name was either garbled or outright fictionalized, because no strong connection from this period emerges.
Since one article cited a possible relation to an earlier jailing in Mount Vernon, I searched far and wide for other possible figures. Only two mysterious hits emerged: One was a local eccentric in Mount Vernon, the other was a former mental patient with a similar behavior pattern.
The local eccentric was known as “Governor” Allen, and an August 1912 issue of the Democratic Banner tells the story of this local drunk and oddball one day weaving up to a painter’s platform on the side of a building in downtown Mount Vernon. The painter was off taking a break for a few minutes, so Allen decided to assist him. Though he was nearly falling- down drunk, Allen climbed up onto the platform, grabbed the black paint, and began painting everything black, including a window of the building.
The gawking crowd that gathered finally decided to get Allen down before he fell off the platform, and thus called the police. Allen sounds like a colorful character, to be sure, but then he sounds more like the town drunk than an unbalanced nature philosopher.
Unfortunately, the newspaper’s cute use of a nickname makes him almost unsearchable, as there actually was a governor in office in Virginia with the surname Allen at this time. As this was before the spread of national news by radio, national and state news dominated the local newspapers, making it virtually impossible to find out any further information about this local character.
But the other lead is more promising. According to a July 1912 news report, the sheriffs of Knox and Coshocton counties joined together to go in search of an Ike Stricker, who was said to have been in and out of the state asylum a number of times. At press time, Stricker was said to be living deep in the woods of Butler Township, and frightening off anyone who tried to approach.
This sounds very much like the Delaware County wild man, and gives a plausible Knox County connection.
But no further report follows this mention. And, unfortunately, “Ike” is also a nickname. No other newspaper reports by that name appear in the period, and no other Stricker is identified as being sent to the state hospital. The trail quickly goes cold.
Sitting in a small room on the edge of Ohio’s Mohican country, trying to do research with a weak satellite internet signal on a rainy night, I feel that perhaps I’ve become a bit too much of hermit myself. Y’all will have to be the judges of whether or not I’ve showed up any particular insights on the history of our corner of the world.
For now, the wild man remains a mystery.