Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Wild Men of Rockaway Beach

"Wild, Weird Man Scares Rockaway" trumpeted the November 29th, 1893 edition of the New York Herald, a suiting way to describe the uproar the community of Rockaway Beach experienced in the fall of that year. A strange wild man was stalking the town, attacking people in the neighborhood and breaking into homes to steal food. Mass panic seized Rockaway Beach, with rumors running wild that the beast was devouring children and fear among the residents due to the fierce nature of the wild man. The strange creature itself was described in the article as being "large of stature, weird in appearance, with fierce, bloodshot eyes, long, flowing, matted hair and a shaggy beard."


It was first seen a week prior to the article by two men, "Red" McDowell and George Farrell, who were in their boat near the Rockaway Inlet shore when the wild man appeared on the beach, yelling wildly and bearing an axe. The men rowed quickly away from the shore and watched as the beast entered the cabin of one Uncle Dicky, an old clamdigger who used the cabin as a summer home.


No mention is made of what happened after this, but the following evening John Louth witnessed the creature "skulking" in the trees while driving through Rockaway Park. The next day, while walking along the same road, his daughter Susie was attacked by what she described as a "ragged and tattered tramp", who knocked her down with a slap on the back and then ran away, issuing loud yells.


The wild man was not seen again until the Friday before the article's publication, when, in the author's own words, "he turned himself loose in dead earnest and nearly ran everybody out of the place". "Bill" Tweedle, a plumber by trade, was the first early on Friday morning, when he reported encountering the wild man, who grabbed his gun and knocked him to the ground, all while clutching a half eaten chicken. Later that morning, "Ned" Tracy also witnessed the beast on the beach, this time eating raw clams. The wild man again ran off, only to return that afternoon to attack John Corning, a house mover, and his assistant William McVay while both men were working near the beach. He descended upon them and hit them with his fists, forcing Corning to fight back and try to grapple with the crazied brute. The creature escaped with the aid of what the newspaper called an "oilskin coat" and dashed away towards Rockaway Point, escaping until that evening when it next attacked the wife of the Rockaway Chief of Police, Mrs. McArthur. She was grabbed from behind by the wild man and brutally choked until one "Fred" Sauer came to her rescue, beating the beast off.

The wild man reappeared the next day, on that Saturday night, when it smashed through the window of a saloon in Rockaway, interrupting a game of cards. This time, the creature held a large cavalry sabre, smashing all the bottles and glasses withing reach while screaming "like a demon" before dashing out the door, leaving his sabre behind. In a fascinating turn of events, two days later "Red" McDowell and a group of young men rowed down to Uncle Dicky's cabin on Rockaway Beach, only to met by the wild man waving a gun, from which he fired a round of buckshot. The group retreated, with Chief McArthur later organizing a group together to go back to the cabin and apprehend the wild man. The results of this expedition remain unknown, as do any follow up reports of the mysterious wild man, although interestingly enough a different version of the preceding events was reported in a later newspaper article. In this later article, the location and basic flow of events remains the same, but some of the names and details have been changed, with "Red" McDowell being changed to Read Rockaway and William McVay being changed to George McVeigh, and Uncle Dicky's cabin being changed in the later story to an abandoned oyster house. The existence of two different articles with slightly different details in both makes things very problematical, as will be discussed below.

Finally, who was this bizarre wild man and what should we make of this bizarre episode? One popular theory at the time was that the wild man was the first mate of the wrecked Maggie Devine (Medicine in the later version), which had ran aground a few weeks prior during a fierce storm with all hands saved, except for James Rush, the mate who was thought drowned. It was thought, however, that he apparently survived the crash and was driven insane by it, emerging a few weeks later to terrorize Rockaway's populace. While it remains impossible to verify this, the use of weapons and the wearing of clothing by the wild man display a level of humanity that makes the "insane sailor" story more plausible. It remains interesting to note that the wild man, according to the article, seemed to lurk on or around Rockaway Beach, more specifically near Uncle Dicky's cabin, as if he was guarding his territory. It is possible that, if the wild man was James Rush, in his insanity he claimed the beach as his territory and attacked those whom he viewed as intruders. Perhaps, even, the wild man was Uncle Dicky himself, since the creature was seen entering his cabin, suggesting a connection to the man that, if followed up upon, was not mentioned in the article. This connection, however, remains frustratingly out of reach, for it would be impossible to follow up on this lead after over a century.

There is of course, one more option: that one or both of the versions may have been newspaper hoaxes created to boost sales. Newspapers in the 19th century were notorious for creating fake stories and passing them off as real simply to make their papers more interesting, since back then there weren't the strict regulations for journalist integrity as there are in contemporary times. The existence of two versions of the story that contain the same basic framework but have some slightly different details between them makes this theory plausible, but at this point all we can do is simply speculate and wonder.


(With my next blog entry, I plan on wrapping up the "wild man" series by examining several reports of wild men that bore a closer resemblance to the beings we know as Bigfoot/Sasquatch than actual human beings. Stay tuned!)

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