Did the New York Times publish proof of Wildman in Tennessee in 1889?

a clipping from the new york times overlaid on an image of a wild man by a campfire in the woods

In 1889, the New York Times printed a brief about wild men in Tennessee. But was the sighting real? Or just a promotional play. (Fair Use/Ai/SF Grayson)

Yes, the New York Times did print a story about a Wildman in Tennessee. But that’s where the truth begins and ends.

I’ve spent a good part of my life in and around the mountains. I grew up on the edge of the Smokies. Although I was aware that various cultures had stories about Wildmen, I was an adult before I heard rumors of Wildmen or feral people of the Smokies. In this article, we will discuss the rumors, myths and possibilities of wild people in the wilderness with sightings dating back to the 1800s. 

Have the Wildmen of Tennessee, aka feral humans, existed in the Smoky Mountains since the 1800s or is it all a farce? The vast forests of the Smoky Mountains can provide cover for many things. Some believe cougars still exist back in the woods, others think Bigfoot or Skunk Ape runs the ridges between North Carolina and Tennessee. But over generations persistent rumors and reports, including a sighting printed in the New York Times, have lingered of Wildmen living in the forest, snatching children and livestock and existing undercover.  

a wildman in the woods by a fire
The legend says that Wildmen are more humanoid Bigfoot creatures who even have families in the forests (original photo by SF Grayson/TheSmokies.com, enhanced using AI)

Wildman Rumors and Sightings

I certainly wasn’t raised to fear the woods at night. As a young man, I used to take a shortcut from the church graveyard to the house at night after youth events and such. And while my rational mind knew I was safe, I also battled the irrational fears that come with dancing shadows on a forest floor. I understand how an imagination can run wild. The big woods can play tricks on the mind, especially if you have an active imagination. 

But feral humans? Living in the Smokies and wreaking havoc and terror? Some would swear it’s true. For instance, a tribe of humans – cannibals – went into the woods long ago and never came out. People who live wild like animals. You tumble into a couple of rabbit holes on YouTube or Reddit and there are people convinced – or who want you to believe they’re convinced – that feral people live in the mountains.   

They will tell you their dad, uncle or grandfather participated in government-organized roundups. Going into the woods and hunting the feral people like foxes. They will spin yarns about massive cover-ups and also how it’s all kept secret to preserve the commerce of Smokies tourism. 

As if somewhere government bureaucrats are doing the calculus that a few kidnapped children are a small price to pay to keep Midwestern tourists from flocking to East Tennessee’s pancake palaces.   

What’s a Wildman?

It’s a more humanoid Bigfoot. Different from the feral people, over the years Wildman was thought to be a single creature. But more than 100 years in, conspiracy theorists acknowledge that there would have to be a Wildwoman and Wildchildren to make it plausible. 

If you read contemporaneous reports of the wild man of Tennessee, he sounds a lot like Disney’s version of the Beast. For example, Luke Magnet – writing for Southern Highlander – cites a Wildman encounter from 1877. Spotted from 40 yards away, he was 6-foot-5 and covered in dark hair. He ran at the speed of a deer and had a funnel-shaped head. 

Magnet notes he was not so different from The Wildman of Chilhowee. The Chilhowee version added talons and tusks to the equation and was reportedly captured near Cleveland, Tennessee in 1896. 

This mention of a Tennessee WildMan was printed in the New York Times in 1889
This mention of a Tennessee WildMan was printed in the New York Times in 1889 (Fair Use)

The New York Times Brief

More notably, there was also a mention of the Tennessee Wildman printed in the New York Times in 1889. A mention still hosted by the official New York Times archival section to this day. The brief reads:

“The citizens of Walker County, Ga, a few miles from this city, are very much excited over the existence of a genuine wild man who haunts the mountain region of the county. He is described as being of gigantic stature, covered with a thick growth of hair and carries in his hand a huge knotted stick. He looks as if he might be with the twin brother of Barnum’s wild man, and is fierce and untamable. This modern Orson has been seen by several parties. One gentleman, bolder than the ret, encountered the creature in a lonely part of the mountains one day not long since and at a safe distance endeavored to strike up a conversation. A perfect shower of stones greeted his first words, and, thinking discretion the better part of valor, he made tracks from the dangerous neighborhood.”

– The New York Times, Feb. 8,1889
Cave in the Forest
It would be nearly impossible to hide from others in the mountains without being detected at some point (photo by SF Grayson/TheSmokies.com)

Is It Real?

While the newspaper brief is real, the Wildman sighting is not. The mention of the name “Barnum” in the New York Times article is a dead giveaway.

If that name sounds familiar, you’ve likely heard it before. P.T. Barnum is the same Barnum from Barnum and Bailey’s Circus. Barnum was a showman who regularly used sensational forms of presentation, such as print publications. He was, essentially the original viral marketer. One could consider him the founding father of “clickbait” before computers were even a thing.

Could there be a hermit living up in the mountains who has rejected society and lives wildly? Sure, anything is possible. In fact, over the generations, it’s likely people who have done just that who inspired these types of stories in the first place.

But are there tribes of feral people kidnapping children and livestock? No. Are there Bigfoot-like creatures roaming the mountains and avoiding detection and capture? Again, no. Having lived in and around these mountains, I’ve spoken to the oldest of old-timers. They’ve shared stories about mountain life and living and every hardship they faced. Wild people have never come up. 

And I like to think they would, even if it’s just as a warning. “You know, I like you, John. So please stay away from the Cove after dark, there are wild people who will kidnap and eat you.” I’ve been warned about where I might see snakes or likely to run into a bear. Places where it’s easy to get lost. But wild people? They’re just leaving that one out?

I don’t think so. That doesn’t even consider modern technologies like cell phones and trail cameras. The deep, dark places in our world where wonders could hide are becoming fewer and farther between. 

Of course, there’s something in our nature that we like to believe in ghost stories. Humans like to think a mystery exists. From Loch Ness to Chupacabra to the Yeti, tales of fantastic beasts, of wild people exist in cultures across the globe. But there is no evidence, no indication that any of it is real, even if we’d like it to be.

Are there wild people in the Smokies? Not unless it’s on Rod Run weekend

PS: Are you planning a trip to the Smoky Mountains? Be sure to check out our coupons page for area promos.

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