Jan 26, 2023 I Nick Redfern

Possibly One of the Strangest Stories of World War 2: A Wild, Hairy Man on the Rampage

From Jonathan Downes, the director of the U.K.-based center for Fortean Zoology, comes what is surely one of the strangest tales of the Second World War. Since the story is a lengthy and complex one that is full of an absolute multitude of twists and turns – not to mention deep conspiracy and Second World War-era secrecy and subterfuge - the most profitable approach is to allow Downes to relate the extraordinary findings for himself and in his own fashion. They are findings that relate to a turbulent, terrible, and ultimately tragic, story told to Downes back in the early 1980s, when he was still in his early twenties and working as a psychiatric nurse at Starcross Hospital, Devon, England – Starcross being a small village which can be found on the west bank of the River Exe, Teignbridge. With that said, let us take a close and careful look at this emotion-filled tale of people long gone, shadowy secrets, deep stigma, and a war-torn era immersed in carnage and conflict. According to the British Government’s National Archive at Kew, England: “Originally known as the Western Counties Idiot Asylum [Nick’s note: I kid you not at all on that far less than subtle name] this institution opened in 1864 in a house and two acres of land at Starcross, rented from W.R. Courtenay, 11th Earl of Devon. A committee appointed to collect donations and subscriptions, and to accept patients into the asylum, was chaired by the 11th Earl who was also its first president, positions he held until 1904.”

Kew’s history of the hospital continues, as the government notes: “By 1870 the building housed 40 residents, and an appeal for funds to build larger premises was launched. A new building, surrounded by 7 acres of grounds, was opened in June 1877. This was able to house 60 boys and 40 girls. Further additions were built between 1886 and 1909, and by 1913 a total of 1,451 patients had been admitted to the institution. In 1914, the asylum was incorporated under the Companies Act. It then became known as the Western Counties Institution, Starcross, and was certified as ‘a residential special school for mental defectives.’ Residents were trained in carving, weaving, basketry, lace-making and carpentry, and worked on the institution's agricultural holdings. “In the 1930s, properties at Dix’s Field, Exeter and Steepway, Paignton were purchased for use as domestic training hostels for young women. A farm hostel was founded on Langton Farm at Dawlish and a seaside holiday home was opened. In 1948, the institution was transferred to the National Health Service, and became merged into the Royal Western Counties Institution Hospital Group, which coordinated all the residential mental deficiency services. The institution came under the control of Devon Area Health Authority from 1974 and of Exeter Health Authority from 1982. In 1986, in keeping with a national policy of transferring the majority of mentally handicapped people back into the community, the Royal Western Counties Hospital was marked for closure.”

(Nick Redfern) A wild, hairy creature on the rampage? That's the legend.

With that background on Starcross Hospital / “idiot asylum” revealed, let us now focus on Jonathan Downes, who begins the remarkable tale as follows: “A story, which, I am sure, was told me in good faith, and which even now I do not know whether to believe, apparently took place during the Second World War. There had, apparently, been a number of occasions when captured German aircrew and pilots who had been shot down over South Devon or the English Channel were kept, temporarily, in a remote wing of Starcross Hospital – which is roughly ten miles from the city of Exeter - until they could be transferred to the prisoner-of-war camp high above Starcross on the Haldon Hills.” On one particular occasion, says Downes, the military had been searching for a fugitive German airman in the woods surrounding Powderham Castle, which is about half a mile away from the old hospital, and which was constructed between 1390 and 1420 by Sir Philip Courtenay. They had ventured into the deepest parts of the woods in search of their quarry when, suddenly, the small band of elderly men and boys who were too young to join the regular Army – but who were assigned to what was known as the Home Guard - saw what they believed was the fugitive airmen running through the woods in front of them. The leader shouted at him to stop, but it was all to no avail, as Downes reveals:

“The old man who told me the story was actually one of the Home Guards, and he told me that one of the party had been a teacher in Germany before the war and could speak the language. He ordered the man to stop, but the fugitive ignored him. In 1942, the war was not going well - at least as far as the British were concerned - and Home Guard units, especially in rural areas, were desperately under-equipped. Most of the patrol was only armed with pitchforks, although one had a dilapidated shotgun and the captain - who led the unit - had his old First World War service revolver. If it had been a normal patrol there would only have been about half-a-dozen of them, but large parts of Exeter had been levelled by successive waves of German bombers, and the opportunity for a population of a tiny village like Starcross to actually face the enemy on equal terms was an irresistible lure. According to my informant, the Home Guard patrol had been augmented by a gang of villagers baying for blood and desperate for revenge. The captain was an educated man, and had no intention of using force to capture the fugitive unless it was absolutely necessary. The man with a shotgun - a local farmer, who had lost two of his sons in the desperate weeks leading up to Dunkirk - had no such compunction. He was also drunk. Shouting, ‘I'll get you, you bastard!’ He raised his weapon and fired. The dark figure ahead of them let out a grunt of agony and fell to the ground. The captain was furious. He immediately put the drunken farmer under arrest and confiscated his shotgun.”

It was at this point, Downes demonstrates, that the group came to a shocking realization. The man who had just been felled by the irate farmer was far stranger than anything that could have come out of Nazi Germany: “The party then ran on towards what they thought was an injured German airman, but they found, to their horror, that it was nothing of the sort. Instead of a proud member of the Luftwaffe, they found a naked man in his early twenties covered in hair and plastered in mud.” Even forty years after the event, says Downes, it was obvious that his informant had been badly shaken by this highly unnerving experience. He was now an elderly retired nursing officer in his early seventies who, spared military service because of his profession, had eagerly embraced the Home Guard as his opportunity to fight the Germans, and it was equally obvious that that these years had been the happiest of his life. The rest of his professional career had been spent at the hospital, and he intimated to Downes that he had found the increasing struggle with a moribund bureaucracy exponentially tedious. So, when he was offered early retirement, he was quite happy to spend the rest of his days fishing, and propping up of the corner of the bar in the pub. You may very well ask: What happened to the hairy man who was supposedly felled all those years ago? Of his source and his strange and sensational story, Downes states:    

 (Nick Redfern) Jon Downes, the man who told the Second World War story.

“Apparently, he told me, the badly injured wild man was taken to Starcross Hospital in the middle of the night, and all efforts were made to make him comfortable. Then, in the early hours of the morning, apparently an unmarked black van had arrived, and two men in uniform and another wearing a long white coat, manhandled the mysterious victim on to a stretcher, loaded him into the back of the van, and took him to an unknown destination. My informant never heard anything about the case again. He did hint, however, that the authorities warned everybody involved to say nothing. And, in the prevailing culture of careless talk costing lives, they had all concurred. I was, apparently, the first person that he had ever talked to about the incident. And that was only because he had recently found out that sixty years of smoking had taken their toll and that he was doomed to die of lung cancer within the next eighteen months.” As Downes’ following words make abundantly clear, the revelations of his Deep Throat-like source had a profound and lasting effect upon the young and eager monster hunter:  “I sat back on the bar-stool in the pub we were frequenting at the time, and gulped at my pint. This was possibly the most bizarre thing that I had ever heard - in a life that had already seen several bizarre and inexplicable incidents. I had heard of Bigfoot - indeed, I had even been on a hunt for it whilst living in Canada - but I had never heard of such things in the United Kingdom. Could it be? I thought: surely not.

“But my informant seemed genuine enough. He sat in the corner of the bar puffing away on a cigarette and wheezing gently like a dilapidated steam-engine. His face had the unmistakable translucent aura of somebody struck down by incurable cancer, and he sat telling me of these extraordinary events in a matter-of-fact tone, as if he was recounting the previous weekend’s football results. Did he remember the exact location? If so, would he be prepared to take me there? I asked these questions diffidently, and to my delight he agreed. There was no time at the present, he told me; and, so, finishing our beers, we went outside and walked towards the castle grounds.”Matters were about to be taken to a whole new level. Once again, I turn the story over to Downes. It is, after all, his tale to tell: “If you’re travelling towards Exeter from Dawlish, go through Starcross village and when you pass the Atmospheric Railway pub, go on past the large car park on the right-hand side of road, but instead of following the main road round to the left towards Exeter, take the right-hand fork which is sign-posted to Powderham. Carry on down this little road for about half a mile. On the left-hand side you will see an expanse of deer-park, which is bordered by a wide ditch full of brackish water that acts as a moat. Just before you come to a railway bridge, the moat peters out. And although it may not be there now, back in 1982 when I conducted the interview, there was a convenient gap in the fence. This was apparently well known to the local poaching community in the village, and formed their main entry point to the woods where Lord Courtenay and his family raised their pheasants. We wriggled through the gap in the fence to find ourselves blissfully trespassing in the forbidden grounds of the castle.”

The story was kept hidden for decades.

Realizing that even on such a brightly moonlit night it would be pretty much impossible to venture any further into the thick and uninviting woodland, Downes and his aged informant decided to turn around and carefully retrace their steps back to Starcross village. Downes says that as he was working for the next three days, he made arrangements to meet his companion, once again, in the pub the following weekend. This time, however, the atmosphere was distinctly different and profoundly frosty, as Downes makes acutely clear. Commenting on his source, Downes recalls: “He came around, and I rushed down to the Atmospheric Railway to fulfill our tryst. Sure enough, my friend of a few evenings previously was there, puffing away on a cigarette and drinking his customary pint of light-and-bitter. However, something had changed: I tried to broach the subject of the mysterious wild-man, but he was unwilling to talk about it. ‘I should not have said anything the other night,’ he muttered, ‘but I’m an old man and I wanted to share it with you.’” Downes had more than a few thoughts and opinions on the matter of this distinct about-face: “Whether it was the intimation of his imminent demise, or just a memory of the promise that he had made back in the 1940s, I don’t know. But, in stark contrast to his verbosity of our previous meeting, on this occasion he was adamant that he didn’t want to talk about it. So, I bought him a beer, challenged him to a game of cribbage, and spent the rest of the evening doing the sort of things that blokes normally do in a pub.” Not surprisingly, however, for someone whose pursuit of the truth was growing by the day, Downes just could not let the beastly matter drop. In actuality, for a while it’s fair to say the whole thing became something of a definitive obsession for Britain’s most famous creature seeker: 

“The whole affair fascinated me. Over the next months I cautiously broached the subject  in Powderham woods with a number of the elderly men who drank in the pub, or who hung out in the hospital social club. None of them knew anything. Or, if they did, they weren’t saying.” And bad news was looming on the horizon too, as Downes sadly now recalls: “The months passed, and the old man who had told me of the events in Powderham woods during 1942 was admitted to the cancer ward at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital in Exeter. I visited him on a few occasions - the last, a couple of days before he died. I smuggled him in a bottle of Guinness, and sat at the end of his bed as he drank it with relish. However, in view of his condition - and because I truthfully didn’t think that I could get anything else out of him - I refrained from asking him any more about an incident which he obviously regretted having shared with me. I attended his funeral. I was one of the few people there. When his lonely black coffin trundled behind the curtain at the Exeter crematorium, I was convinced that the truth about this mystery would go up in smoke along with his elderly, cancer-riddled corpse. How utterly wrong I was.” 

Of the next chapter in this winding and weird story, Downes kicks off as follows: “Christmas came and went. In the early weeks of 1983, I found myself going through the voluminous filing cabinets that held over a century’s worth of patient records at Starcross. This was part of my training as a psychiatric nurse. And although I was supposed to be looking into the distribution of different syndromes of mental and physical handicap from which the patients at Starcross hospital suffered, much to my surprise I found what I strongly suspect to be the solution to my forty-year-old mystery.” And it was here that the tragic truth spilled out: “In among some of the older files, I found a number that referred to members of a very wealthy and noble local family. These were not the Earls of Devon; however, as the family is still very wealthy and extremely powerful, I do not feel comfortable with revealing their identity – at least not yet. It appeared that there was a strong vein of mental-illness in the family, and possibly more significantly, metabolic disorders running through the line. I discovered the details of some terrible human tragedies reaching back over a century. It turned out that an old lady, known affectionately to all the staff as Winnie – and who at the time I knew her, must have been in her early nineties - was a member of this noble family. She had committed the unpardonable sin of becoming pregnant at the age of thirteen, following her liaison with one of the stable-boys. This had happened way back before the First World War; and although history didn’t relate what had happened to her boyfriend, she had been forcibly given an abortion and incarcerated for the rest of her life in Starcross Hospital.”

And there was far more misfortune to come: “It turned out that, before the Mental Health Act of 1959 was passed, there were three criteria under which a person could be admitted to hospital without any real recourse of Appeal. These people were labelled as ‘idiots’ (nowadays known as people with moderate learning difficulties), ‘imbeciles’ (individuals with severe learning difficulties), and moral defectives. I looked at Winnie with new respect from then on, and, whenever I had the chance, I would give her a packet of cigarettes or some chocolate.” Now, Downes comes to the heart of the tale, and of the origin of the hairy wild man of Starcross Hospital: “The files also contained details of a number of her relatives. Several of them suffered from congenital generalised hypertrichosis, commonly known as Wolf-Man Syndrome. In extreme cases, this disease not only causes bizarre behaviour and radical mood swings, but the body of the victim becomes excessively hairy. “Although several people from Winnie’s family had been diagnosed as suffering from this syndrome, there were no hospital records absolutely proving that they had been resident at a hospital after the First World War. What I did find out, however, was that the bloodline definitely had not died out. The family was still very important in the Devon area. They were notable benefactors to local charities; and at one time, at least, members of the family had been on the governing board of Starcross hospital itself.”

As the condition is an inherited one, it seemed quite probable to Downes that the strain of congenital, generalised, hypertrichosis had not died out in the early years of the 20th Century. Rather, a more enlightened generation of the family had decided to treat these poor unfortunates at home, rather than subject them to the rigours of an institutionalized life. Maybe this, Downes mused, was the truth behind the story of the hairy man of Powderham. He adds today: “I thought it was quite likely that the unruly rabble that had accompanied the Home Guard on that fateful night in 1942 had actually shot a member of the local ruling family - in the mistaken belief that he was a German airman. This would explain everything. It would explain why the whole affair had been shrouded in secrecy. In those days, the part of the landowner and the patrician establishment was far greater than it is today. “There is still a stigma surrounding mental illness, mental handicap, and disability. This poor man, covered in hair, was still a member of the family who, after all, still paid the wages of most of the members of the posse that had hunted him down. Especially at a time when the nation was facing the deadly peril of the Nazi hordes, the powers-that-be would not have wanted the populace at large to be aware that one of their own was an unstable, dangerous, hair-covered lunatic who had escaped from his care and was wandering, naked and belligerent, across the countryside.”

Thus ends the sad, enigmatic, and conspiracy-filled saga of the Starcross wild man, the decades-old secrets of a powerful family, official cover-ups, frightened figures, a shadowy informant who had hidden the truth for decades, and a young man – Jon Downes – who, nearly forty years ago, found himself so graphically exposed to the whole story (or, at least, considerable parts of it) in all its hideous and weird glory. Actually, the story is not quite over. The noted and late British naturalist Trevor Beer had an equally provocative account to relate that may, very possibly, be of some significant relevance to the tale described above. It concerned an event that reportedly occurred in the late 1950s, and that came from a man out walking his dog at the time of its occurrence. Although the year is different to that in the story told to Jon Downes, and the incident reportedly involved nothing less than a full-blown werewolf, rather than a wild man (although, to the untrained, terrified eye, is there really that much of a difference?), the location - Devon - was the same. Also the same are two further matters of significance: in the story told to Beer, (A) the hairy man-thing was shot; and (B) it was found to be a member of a well-known family in the area.

(Nick Redfern) Was there a werewolf in the area?

Beer described the story of the witness in these particular words: “Climbing a hedge he stumbled upon an animal ravaging a flock of sheep and taking careful aim he shot it; the beast reared onto its hind legs to run off into the woods. The dog followed the animal into the trees where there was much hideous snarling unlike any creature he had ever heard before. Suddenly the dog came dashing out of the woods and bolted past its master who, firing a second shot into the trees, also ran for home in great fear.” Beer added that the man “…went on to explain his later studies of matters concerning the occult and his realization that the animal he had shot was a werewolf and a member of a well- known local family. [He] further states that he knows the family involved and that they called in help from the church over a decade ago but that they had to withdraw because of the terrible phenomena beyond their comprehension. Now the problem is at a stalemate, the family being aware of the nature of his character and chaining him and locking him behind barred doors every night.”

Are the similarities between this case and the one described to Jon Downes actually evidence of a single story that, over time, became somewhat distorted into two separate ones? Or, incredibly, could it be that the case Trevor Beer described involved yet another member of the affected and afflicted family to which Downes referred? Maybe, one day, we will know the full and unexpurgated truth of this intriguing and conspiratorial, cover-up-laden affair. Or, perhaps, like so many tales of deep cover-up, it will forever languish in mystery, intrigue and a closely guarded, locked filing cabinet marked Top Secret.

Nick Redfern

Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.

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