The truth about the Winsted Wild Man
by Brandon T. Bisceglia January 11, 2010
In 1895, Winsted, Connecticut, became famous for its stories of a “Wildman” who roamed the town-side, terrorizing people and animals.
The story first broke on August 21 of that year, when the Winsted Herald reported that Selectman Riley Smith had seen the creature while picking berries with his dog in a field. The dog became frightened; “A second afterward a large man, stark naked, and covered with hair all over his body, ran out of a clump of bushes at lightning speed, where he soon disappeared.”
Into the autumn, reports appeared in the Herald and the Winsted Evening Citizen that described other sightings of the Wildman. Fear grew in the town as attention turned around the country. Reporters came in from New York, Boston, and surrounding areas to find out what was happening. Residents called for the monster to be tracked down and killed. A hunting party was formed, but after a few days of searching, the only thing they managed to catch was a local farmer’s stray jackass.
For almost 80 years, the Wildman was not heard of again. Then, in 1972 and 1974, two new sightings were reported by the Hartford Courant.
Both stories involved teenagers. In the first, Wayne Hall and David Chapman were “sitting up and talking” when they saw the creature from a window. According to Hall, “From what we could see, it was about eight feet tall and covered with hair. We could just see arms and legs and the head.” They watched the figure for about 45 minutes as it came out of the woods, crossed Winchester Road, lurked in the shadows near a barn, and then returned from where it had come.
Two years later, the Courant reported that Patrolman George Corso had been flagged down by two terrified young men (not named) who claimed to have been frightened while out with their girlfriends by a “’Dark-colored, hair-like’ creature at the edge of Rugg Brook Reservoir.” Corso was led to the area by one of the men. While there, the man shouted, “There it is now, don’t stop.” Corso checked with his spotlight, but saw nothing. The next morning, he returned to the spot with a reporter, but found no traces of anything like the Wildman.
So what’s the most likely explanation for the tales of the Wildman? Is there a Bigfoot relative stalking Winsted? A closer look reveals little evidence to support this theory.
The two reports from the 1970’s were both written by Joseph A. O’Brien. Although often cited as one of the key cases, the 1974 report never mentions the Wildman by name. The report is second-hand; two police officers, but none of the witnesses, were interviewed.
Although the headline from the 1972 article reads, “The ‘Wild Man’ May Be Back Again,” the connection is made by the O’Brien, not Hall or Chapman. Hall is the only witness quoted; Chapman couldn’t be reached.
Could these people have seen a bear? The hypothesis makes sense, given the timing of the cases. Native black bear populations had been eradicated from Connecticut around the mid-1800’s, according to a 2009 report issued by the Connecticut Office of Legislative Research, but occasionally roamed from neighboring areas, especially in the Northwest region of the State – right where Winsted is located. Then, around the 1980’s, bears began taking permanent residence in Connecticut once again.
Black bears are relatively small. Though some males can max out at over 400 pounds, most are closer in size to a large human, and females can weigh as little as 110 pounds. In the 70’s, it would have been an unusual – and probably frightening – sight, but entirely within the range of possibility.
In both cases, the “creature” was seen at night, in bad lighting. The 1972 sighting had the additional problem of being relatively far away. Although Hall said that what he saw “was no bear,” he also admitted that he never saw its face. In the 1974 article, desk Sgt David Gomez guessed that the couples could have seen a black bear, based on the report.
In any case, there’s no reason to believe that the witnesses thought they saw the Wildman, come back to life after nearly a century. That was an association drawn by journalists, and later, bloggers.
What about the events of 1895, though? Again, we find a journalist at the center of the story: a man named Louis Timothy Stone, who made Winsted famous with fanciful tales of strange occurrences. Many featured animals, such as a chicken who laid red, white, and blue eggs every Independence Day, and a cow that produced ice cream for two weeks after being locked in an ice house.
In an article published by the Washington Post in 1916, Stone admitted his stories weren’t completely true. “’You might say they’re not faked, though,’” he said. “’They are all based on fact. The only thing I do is embellish the fact a little bit.’”
According to an obituary published by the Fresno Bee on Stone’s death in April 1933, the Wildman story was “one of his earliest fakes. He wired the story to metropolitan editors because he needed some money.”
Given Stone’s record and his responsibility for the Wildman stories, the credibility of these reports – especially the ones that came after panic set in - is highly suspect.
There remains the question of Selectman Smith, however. Even if Stone “embellished” the details of what Smith and his dog saw in that field, Smith corroborated the story. Would he have reason to lie?
It is possible. It must be remembered that newspapers in those days were largely partisan institutions, funded and maintained by party affiliates. In fact, the idea of “objective journalism” would not appear on the scene until the following year, when Adolph Ochs would use a less biased approach to increase readership for the New York Times. It would not have been unlikely for Stone and Smith to have known one another, perhaps even to have colluded.
Even if Smith didn’t plan the story with Stone, he would have recognized the potential exposure for himself and his town. Almost everyone in Winsted understood that the attention Smith’s myths garnered was good for everyone. They rewarded him for it: he became general manager of the Citizen, and in 1936 (three years after he died), a new bridge over Sucker Brook was named in his honor.
Smith could have been entirely innocent in the matter, as well. He may have had one of the rare black bear sightings of the time, not quite realized what he was looking at, and confused his own memories with the made-up bits of the story. It is easy to distort memories, which are not simple play-backs of events.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that people do lie. Not all of these cases may be schemes or pranks. But with such inflated reporting, and without a single iota of physical evidence, the chance that the Winsted Wildman was anything more than a fantasy is practically zero.
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