The ‘Nature Man’

<p>CLOCKWISE?FROM?TOP?LEFT: Many of Knowles paintings depict the life of Plains Indians, Knowles in an advertisement for one of his lectures, “Naked Joe” poses for a college art class, an original mock-up of Knowles’ murals in Astoria’s Liberty Theatre, Knowles starred as a cowboy in a “B” movie, Knowles late in life, a 4-foot tall poster for a Knowles lecture.</p>

By the time “Nature Man” Joseph Knowles moved to the Long Beach Peninsula in 1917, he had already worked as a sailor, a trapper and hunting guide, a Vaudeville actor, a newspaperman, a Boy Scout guide and the star of low-budget movie.

Most notably, he’d gained fleeting notoriety as a born-again caveman, during a six-week-long publicity stunt in 1913 for a struggling Boston newspaper.

Ostensibly, the recently re-married Knowles had decided to settle in Seaview (near the drainage creek at the end of 30th Street) to enjoy a quieter life with his second wife, and concentrate on his art career.

But Knowles had always had a natural genius for attracting attention, and though he did live on a smaller scale in Washington, he never really gave up the limelight.

Historical documents and correspondence suggest that on the Peninsula Knowles continued to generate mystery, intrigue and scandal — especially where women were concerned.

In fact, one member of the unconventional Knowles household, Edyth Henry, who played a largely-unrecognized role in the success of his artistic career, would eventually disappear under mysterious circumstances, never to return again.

In the years following her disappearance, Knowles repeatedly expressed his conviction that she had been brainwashed by a roving band of occultists, as part of a plot to destroy him and his wife. Knowles spent the rest of his life trying unsuccessfully to learn what had become of her, and in the end, died on a date that had been “prophesied” by one of the occultists.

In the Buff and in the Wild

In August 1913, Joe Knowles, who had grown up in the leanest of circumstances in a small Maine town, set out to prove that he could do with even less.

Wearing only an athletic supporter (in deference to ladies and photographers) Knowles struck off into the Maine woods near the Canadian border to demonstrate that modern man could still live by his wits in an untamed wilderness.

For about six weeks, he scrawled accounts of his travails in charcoal on scraps of birch bark, which a willing friend collected and dispatched to the Boston Post.

The publicity stunt was a raging success — circulation numbers skyrocketed, and by the time Knowles re-emerged, (hairier, but as pale as flabby as he had been when he went into the woods by many accounts), he was a sensation.

In his book Wilderness and the American Mind, author Roderick Nash wrote, “A huge crowd jammed (Boston’s) North station to meet Knowles’ train and shouted itself hoarse when he appeared. Thousands more lined the streets through which his motorcade passed.”

A few days later, 400 coeds at a women’s physical fitness class in Cambridge, Mass., queued just for a chance to touch his weathered skin.

Out of the Woods and into the Frying Pan

In the years that followed, doubts about the authenticity of his stories surfaced. According to an August 2013 Boston Magazine story by Bill Donahue, witnesses claim to have seen him drinking and carousing in a cabin, and to have discovered bullet holes in the hide of a bear that he allegedly clubbed.

The Hartford Courant published an editorial, wondering if “the biggest fake of the century has been pawned off on a credulous public.” And in 1938, the New Yorker published a piece in which witnesses claimed Knowles had faked the whole thing with help from a Post reporter.

But just as with the “reality” shows of today, many of his fans didn’t want the facts to spoil a good story. Knowles went on to publish a memoir called “Alone in the Wilderness,” and secured a contract to perform on the Vaudeville circuit. He drifted west, made a couple of less successful attempts at re-creating the wilderness adventure, and appeared on stage in San Francisco with Ishi, a California native, who lived out the rest of his days as a living museum exhibition after the other members of his tribe were killed.

On stage, Joe Knowles wore a caveman get-up sewn from scraps of hide and fur. Ishi wore a three-piece cotton suit.

Nature Man in Love

In middle age, Knowles was known for being a drinker, and a depressive, and he was not especially handsome. In fact, despite his reputation as a master outdoorsman, Knowles had the physique and complexion of an office clerk

But still, he was possessed of a magnetism and mystique that seemed to fascinate women.

Young ladies wrote to him, expressing their undying admiration, asking for autographs, and even offering to accompany him into the woods.

“I have always loved the Nature, and if you decide to continue your experiment, you will find me your obedient servant,” a New York City girl name Elsie Frick wrote to Knowles in an undated letter.

Around 1914, Knowles married for the second time, to a blue-blooded Massachusetts native named Marion Louise Humphreys. Like Knowles, Humphreys had worked as a commercial illustrator, painting fashion plates for advertisements, before moving west.

There is little hope of ever sorting out the true nature and extent of Knowles’ romantic attachments, because he wrote very little in his memoirs about his personal relationships, and was far more reluctant than his female admirers to put his feelings on paper.

But there are some indications that his dalliances may have continued even after he was married, perhaps while he was touring in California.

In a brief series of letters that were most likely written in 1915 or 1916, a lovesick woman named Florence mooned over Knowles from a San Francisco hotel room, in a tone that suggested that Knowles had already moved on.

“My heart drags anchor. I can only say, the happiness of the past month is worth the pain of the present. … Take good care of yourself, and don’t forget me,” Florence wrote. In a subsequent letter a few days later, she seemed resigned to the idea that Knowles would never return her affections in equal measure, quoting a popular song about the end of an affair, and writing, “I will endeavor to never ask for more than you feel inclined to give.”

A Brooklyn teacher named Katherine Baker typed captivating literary missals in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s that fondly recalled a summer visit the Knowles’ home in Seaview, and hinted at a deeper connection between the two.

“There are three men, of the many I have known, who will always have a place in my heart: You are one, one is now in Bulgaria, the third is with me in the picture,” Baker wrote, in a September 1931 letter.

His Reputation, Her Art

If Knowles was inclined to have affairs, they must surely have been more difficult to carry on after he moved to Seaview, where he lived with three women, including his wife.

Not long after moving into the flood-prone driftwood shack, Marion Knowles’ best friend, an unmarried and childless woman named Nell Carney came to live with them.

By 1930, a third woman, the Pierce County daughter of a Scottish immigrant named Edyth Henry had also joined the household, as Knowles’ art student.

This highly unconventional arrangement, along with the steady flow of colorful artists and theater-types who visited the house, generated plenty of gossip and speculation amongst the more conservative members of the Peninsula community.

“The locals saw him as this retired famous guy who was always being visited by other famous people. He used to get drunk with his neighbor all the time, and he’d drive on the beach and crash his car. …He was blue-collar type,” explained Aaron Webster, an interpretive specialist at Cape Disappointment State Park. Webster is one of several Peninsula residents who continue to research Knowles’ life, and seek out his work

“It must have been talked about — in the 1920s, (middle-aged) men didn’t live with three different women, one of whom was about half his age,” Webster said.

Together, Henry and Marion Knowles, each artists in their own rights, helped turn the art studio into a viable business.

While it was Joe Knowles’ reputation that brought business to the door, it was likely Henry’s efforts to steadily produce prints for sale to tourists that actually kept the door open, and helped Knowles win contracts to paint murals in Longview’s Monticello Hotel, and Astoria’s Liberty Theater.

In an early October visit to the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum, collections manager Barbara Minard pulled pieces from the museum’s collection produced by each woman that clearly demonstrate her unique style, then pulled unmistakably similar pieces out that were signed by Knowles.

By placing his high-profile signature on the two womens’ work, Knowles was able to increase the monetary value of the art, and keep the household afloat, Minard explained.

At Land’s End and Wit’s End

The exact nature of the relationship between Henry and Knowles is unknown. But whether it was because he loved her, because his financial success depended on her, or because he had given her half of the deed to his property in the midst of a legal dispute, Knowles was devastated when Henry suddenly departed in September 1936.

Leaving only a brief note saying she was too sad to explain, Henry abruptly left with the Knowles’ destitute elderly neighbors, George and Hattie Harmon.

In a heartfelt letter, Knowles explained the circumstances of her departure to Henry’s relative in Seattle.

Her relationship with the Harmons had started out innocently enough. But soon, they had “led (Edyth’s) mind into the clouds,” drawing her into a world of “occult fakery.”

According to the letter, “They held séances and communicated with an imaginary spirit world till Edyth actually became a confirmed fatalist. She believed her destiny was spiritually decreed. And a short while before leaving here, she confided in a friend that she was expecting a message that could change her entire life.”

In the weeks before her disappearance, the Knowles’ relationship with “Sis,” as they called Henry, became increasingly fraught.

Henry became withdrawn, and began to lose weight.

Marion Knowles fell ill after accepting a “treatment” from the Harmons. Joe Knowles, sensing a threat to the harmony of the group, (and perhaps their business) grew increasingly suspicious and resentful of the Harmons. He urged Henry to cut ties with them.

In a draft of one letter from this period, Knowles wrote that Hattie Harmon had predicted the date of his demise, and offered to treat his gall bladder ailment.

“I was supposed to die on the 22nd of October. At the time, I attached no significance to the old woman’s offer to treat me…” Knowles wrote.

After Henry disappeared, he called Hattie Harmon an “old witch” and a “vampire” in his correspondence, and became “absolutely positive” that both Marion’s illness, and the offer to treat his illness had been “a deliberate attempt to get rid of us both.” He speculated that it was part of a plot to secure Henry’s deed to his house.

In the end, Hattie Harmon was at least partially right – Knowles died on October 22, 1942.

Knowles continued to search for Henry until his death, writing letters to anyone who knew her in hopes that they might reach her, and seeking help from the Pacific County Sheriff’s office, the Washington Department of Licensing, and a state senator.

At one point, he even offered a $25 reward for information leading to her whereabouts, describing Hattie Harmon as having “a single prominent front tooth,” and a “head-kerchief, gipsy-fashion — Profession: Fortune-teller, spiritualist, self-styled magnetic healer, fluent talker.”

Periodically, Henry’s loved ones reported to Knowles that she was working as a laborer in California, that she’d married an acquaintance of the Harmons named Charles Gattis, and even that she’d gotten pregnant — although she would have been in her mid-50s at the time.

But she never returned to the Northwest, and Knowles never let it go.

On scraps of sketch paper and the backs of old envelopes, he scrawled drafts of letters and notes to himself — perhaps with a bottle by his side, judging from the diminishing quality of the handwriting.

“You have sacrificed your soul, deserted your friends, and followed a will-o-the-whisp [sic] into oblivion. God help you little girl, and guide you back into the hearts of your friends,” he wrote in one letter.

At Peace in the Wilderness

In the last years before his death, Knowles seemed to have at last settled into an authentically harmonious relationship with both his natural surroundings and his personal affairs.

In a May 1941 letter to a relative, Knowles wrote, “… Only in the past few years have I really learned how to live. Our life here is very simple. We are square with the world. …The ocean is at our front door, the forest and mountains at our back door. No near neighbors to quarrel with. We are on friendly terms with the natives.”

After years of adventure, scandal, and financial and personal entanglements, Knowles had found the kind of peace and self-reliance he had touted, perhaps fraudulently, for so long.

“Things certainly do grow out here. Nobody would ever starve with all the sea food and the fruit and the berries,” Knowles wrote.

Interpretive specialist Aaron Webster’s opinion, the Joe Knowles message of self-sufficiency, simplicity and deeper connection with nature is as important as ever, even if the particulars of his story are dubious.

“Like all of us, he stretched the truth and got details mixed up, and might have accepted help at one point or another. But I think the basics of what he did are plausible, Webster said. “Whether or not he really did it, I think he had a lot to say about why other people should do what he claims to have done.”

Special thanks to Brenda Hill at The Trading Post in Klipsan and the staff at the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum for providing research materials and assistance.

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