The CT Files: The Legend of the Winsted Wildman

 

The CT Files: The Legend of the Winsted Wildman

Greg Shea

It’s hard not to smile when you start writing about Bigfoot, the legendary ape-like creature that has supposedly stalked the forests of North America for centuries. The hairy (and conveniently reclusive) hominid is mostly associated with the remote wilds of the Pacific Northwest, but has allegedly been seen in every state in the nation—including Connecticut.

That’s right, over the past century or so, Sasquatch has been purportedly spotted more than a dozen times here, mostly in the woodsy northern reaches of Litchfield County, although there have been exceptions: one 1953 encounter with a 7-foot-tall creature covered in dark brown hair with a primate’s face and arms down its knees was reported in the White Hills region of Shelton. And in 2013, the inexplicably popular “Finding Bigfoot” TV crew came to Connecticut to investigate a sighting, although it was generally believed that it had only been a camera-shy black bear.

In that vein, our favorite unofficial Bigfoot-like legend is that of the Winsted Wildman, which “terrorized” the locals on two separate occasions, almost 80 years apart. (You know, if you believe the stories.)

The tale starts on Aug. 27, 1895, when the Winsted Evening Citizen ran a story—which also ran again the next day in its sister publication, the Winsted Herald—claiming that “a large man, stark naked, and covered with hair all over his body, ran out of a clump of bushes.”

It was witnessed by town selectman Riley Smith, who was out picking blueberries in the area of Colebrook with his faithful bulldog Ned when the encounter occurred. Something had spooked the hound, causing it to whimper and come crawling with its tail between its legs; moments later the “wild man” emerged, cried out and scrambled off at “lightning” speed. Both Smith and Ned were “paralyzed” with fear.

A week later, the Herald ran a follow-up story in which Smith—described as a man “who talks but little” and “of undoubted pluck and nerve” whose “word is first class”—provided more details about the Wildman, describing it as “a wild, hairy man of the woods, six foot in height.” He added, “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.”

Over the next few weeks, the Wildman apparently continued to run amok, generating sensational, paper-selling headlines in both the Herald and Citizen. A local man named George Hoskins reputedly saw the Wildman stealing two chickens from his hen house. Two women from New York claimed they saw a large strange animal standing on its hind legs—possibly, a gorilla escaped from some circus, they thought—during a visit. Local chief of police Steve Wheeler reported that he had sighted it and had given chase before losing the trail in a nearby swamp. 

And so the mania grew. One witness, Jim Maddrah, even boasted that he had snapped a picture of the mystery man-beast! Unfortunately, the photograph showed a normal man who, although having a prodigious shock of hair, was otherwise not particularly hirsute. When questioned, Maddrah explained that his camera had been so startled by the Wildman that “it couldn’t see straight.”

Word of the Wildman spread and soon reporters from across the region were descending upon Winsted in hope of getting a glimpse. Eventually, a reward was offered for the Wildman’s capture. A search party, more than 100 men strong and well-armed, was organized and dispatched. Despite a thorough search, the wily Wildman was apparently a step ahead, managing to elude capture.

At one point, the Hartford Sunday Globe speculated that the Wildman may have been an escaped mental patient named Arthur Beckwith. Beckwith had repeatedly freed himself from local asylums to wander the countryside au naturel and live off the land, never harming anyone but causing a bit of a ruckus. Like so much of the Wildman’s tale, this was never confirmed.

The sightings lessened over the ensuing weeks, reporters left and the Wildman buzz slowly fizzed. The story was chronicled in The Winsted Wildman and Other Tales, a 1929 tome by Frank L. Wentworth, but as the decades passed, so did the Wildman from the public consciousness . . . for a while, anyway.

In July 1972, the Wildman allegedly reappeared after nearly eight decades. The Hartford Courant reported that two young men observed “a strange, man-like creature” on Winchester Road, near Crystal Lake Reservoir. They claimed to have seen at a distance an upright hominid “about eight feet tall and covered with hair” that eventually disappeared into the woods. When it was suggested that they may have seen a large bear, they replied, “It was no bear.”

Two years later, in September 1974, the Wildman was seen again, this time by two couples parked at night by Rugg Brook Reservoir. They told police they were “terrified” by witnessing a “six-foot, 300-pound creature covered with dark-colored hair” in the moonlight, and had fled immediately. A subsequent search failed to turn up any evidence.

Since then, there have been no official sightings of the Winsted Wildman.

Of course, like all good legends, there doesn’t seem to be a preponderance of actual facts or evidence to bolster the Wildman’s existence. Many of those who have researched the story tend to think that original sighting by Riley Smith might have been greatly embellished—or flat-out manufactured—by the editor of the original Winsted newspapers to spur sales during a slow news cycle, and then was fanned to mythic proportions by public panic and subsequent misidentifications of bears and other more mundane woodland fauna.

In other words: No one let the truth get in the way of a good—and “wild”—story.

(This article was originally published on a different platform. Some formatting changes may have occurred.)