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The Strange Case of the Winsted Wild Man of Connecticut

The phenomenon of Bigfoot covers a far wider range than many might even be aware of. These creatures have been spotted in nearly every state of the Union, as well as countries all over the world, truly making it a widespread phenomenon traversing across cultures and geographical divides. One place in the United States that many may not immediately think of as a hotspot of Bigfoot phenomena is the state of Connecticut, yet even here there have long been stories such as these. One such case comes from the rural area of a place called Winsted, and concerns a spate of sightings of a hairy Wildman who would catapult the region into a panic, and spur on debate as to whether any of it really ever happened or not.

On Aug. 27, 1895, the local paper, the Winsted Evening Citizen, reported a very strange case from the wilds of Winsted, Connecticut. The report concerned a witness named Riley Smith, who had been out taking a hike with his bulldog picking berries when he saw “a large man, stark naked, and covered with hair all over his body, ran out of a clump of bushes.” At this time, his dog had cowered behind him, utterly terrified, and the strange hulking creature allegedly moved at “lightning speed” and could make great leaps. The report would spectacularly read in part:

Last Saturday Selectman Riley Smith went up to Colebrook on business. Mr. Smith, while there, went over into the fields and began picking and eating berries from the low bushes in the field. While he was stooping over picking berries, his bulldog, which is noted for its pluck, ran with a whine to him and stationed itself between his legs. 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. Selectman Smith is a powerful, wiry man and has a reputation for having lots of sand, and his bulldog is also noted for his pluck, but Riley admits that he was badly scared and his dog was fairly paralyzed with fear.

The witness was described by the writer of the report, Lou Stone, as being one who was known to be honest and not prone to spinning tall tales. This remarkable report was followed up on the following week by the Evening Citizen’s sister publication the Winsted Herald, which would add more to the report, and which read:

The story of the Wildman caused quite a little excitement about town. There is little to add to the story, except to say that Mr. Smith states that the man was within a small cleared space, which was surrounded by bushes. Mr. Smith did not see him until the dog whined and ran between his legs. Mr. Smith says the man’s hair was black and hung down long on his shoulders, and that his body was thickly covered with black hair. The man was remarkably agile, and to all appearance was a muscular, brawny man, a man against whom any ordinary man would stand little chance. It was leaping high in the air, emitting fearful cries, and suddenly he disappeared into the woods, the long black hair on his head streaming out behind him as he took flight. Mr. Smith is a man who talks but little, he is a man of undoubted pluck and nerve, and his word is first class. When Mr. Smith says he saw the man he did see him, and there can be no question about it. Quite a number of men in Winsted today stated to us that they were ready to go and hunt for the man. Well gentlemen, the way is open. If he is still there, he ought, for the sake of the isolated farmers there and the women folks, to be captured.

When these reports hit the news there were soon more such reports of people encountering what was being called the Winsted Wild Man, and as the news spread the region began to attract droves of reporters and curiosity seekers. People began seeing the menacing hairy man lurking about all over the place, not only in the woods, but sometimes in people’s own backyards, and soon it was causing a bit of a mass hysteria. One report would read:

George Hoskins said he saw the Wild Man leaving his hen house with two hens under his arms. Jim Maddrah proclaimed he took a Kodak picture of a man with a mass of hair on his head, but none of his body. Jim explained this condition by stating his camera was so frightened it couldn’t see straight. Two ladies from New York, while in town, witnessed a large animal cross their path, turn, stand on its hind legs and stare at them. They were in belief that the Wild Man was an ape or baboon. The chief of police, Steve Wheeler, claimed he tracked a gorilla-man into a swamp before he lost the trail and scent. One taxpayer expressed the hope that it was really the Devil trying to scare Selectman Smith so he wouldn’t spend so much of the town’s money.

Speculation at this time as to what the mysterious creature could be was running rampant. Some thought it was an escaped ape, while others said it was perhaps a deranged escaped mental patient from the nearby Litchfield Sanitarium, and the sightings kept coming in, with even Local chief of police Steve Wheeler claiming to have seen it and tracked it to a swamp. There was even one local even claiming to have photographed it. Descriptions of the monster seemed to vary from a man-like figure to something more brutishly ape-like, with some odd reports even adding flourishes that it sported formidable tusks. It got to the point that many residents of the area were afraid to leave their own homes, cowering within and certain that the hulking beast was running amok out in the night.

In the meantime, a reward for the creature had bands of armed individuals trouncing about looking to shoot at whatever moved, and it was quickly all getting out of control. One posse of up to 100 people armed to the teeth spread out in the Autumn of 1895 and some of the members fired on what they thought to be the beast, which turned out to have been just a mule, now peppered with bullets and very dead. Fortunately, no people seemed to have been harmed during the hysteria, but that is likely because most were hiding within the perceived safety of their own homes. A report in The Herald says of another such trigger-happy posse:

The Skaneateles Fusileers (100 strong), with two Gatling guns and a military balloon, together with the Chemung Calvary (50 men), will arrive at West Winsted on the Vestibule Limited Train (gilt edge) via the Reading R.R. on Saturday, to inaugurate a campaign against the ‘Jabberwock’ or ‘Wild Man.’ Please have a very strong cage built as we expect to get the above-mentioned individual and exhibit him in a dime museum.

It appears this particular report was a hoax, as this reported militia seems to have never arrived. The reports and hysteria would go on for several weeks, before slowly fading out of the news. Things calmed down, and although this rash of Wild Man reports have never been fully solved, it was almost certainly all started from the imagination of the journalist Stone, who published the first accounts, and indeed wrote most of the reports on the Winsted Wild Man. Stone would go on to become famous for his fanciful, bizarre stories, which helped to draw attention to Winsted, with him even once claiming that he had put Winsted on the map with his tales. Many of his “news reports” that he would write over the decades up to his death in 1933 featured things such as talking dogs, a river that ran uphill, a chicken that laid red, white and blue eggs on the Fourth of July, a cow that could produce ice cream if placed in a freezer, various mysterious creatures of the area, and countless other unbelievable tales like something one would find in a tabloid like the Weekly World News today. He would become notorious as a teller of ridiculous tall tales, and it is pretty much certain that the stories of the Winstead Wild Man, which was among his first work, were similarly a sham to pull people into the region and sell papers, and it certainly seemed to have worked.

Amazingly, people would continue to insist that they had seen the Wildman, and the creature would seemingly make another appearance in the region in 1972, when there was a report of a giant hairy man that was “about eight feet tall and covered with hair” and made a sound like “a frog mixed with a cat,” seen by two young men near Crystal Lake Reservoir. There would be another sighting in 1974 by two couples who had been parked at night by Rugg Brook Reservoir, but a police investigation turned up nothing. It is unknown what connection these later reports have to the original accounts published by Stone, but it all serves to make it a bit weirder. What are we looking at with the Wildman of Winstead? Did any of this happen at all, or is it all mass hysteria fueled by the fictional stories and imagination of a hoaxer? At the very least, it is all an intriguing historical oddity from a region many may not immediately relate with Bigfoot.