The Wild Man Of The Woods

Jul 8, 2020

Social deviance describes an action or behavior that violates societal norms. Deviant behavior that violates established codes of conduct often lands the offender in trouble, as happened with one Northwoods transient. Historian Gary Entz has the story.

History is replete with stories of individuals who, for one reason or another, chose to retreat from society and live alone in the wilderness. People often view such deviance as mentally disturbed behavior, and in previous generations such individuals were openly called “crazy.” The Northwoods had its own social deviant in the past, and during his time he was known locally as the “Wild Man of the Woods.”

In late spring and early summer of 1937 residents in the eastern part of Oneida County between Gagen and Three Lakes began calling County Sheriff Hans Rodd with reports of a strange man wandering about in the woods. Few people ever got a clear look at him, but he was shabbily dressed, evasive of anyone who tried to get close, and was prone to shouting strange noises at all hours.

One person who did get close was Leon Lawrence of Rhinelander. In early July Lawrence participated in a meeting of the Knights of Columbus at a cabin near Moen Lake. After the meeting, Lawrence, who was expecting friends to pick him up, stayed behind to clean up. After midnight, when his friends failed to appear, Lawrence began walking toward Moen’s Park Resort to call for a ride. On the dark road, he was accosted by the wild man, who wielded a knife and demanded money. After a scuffle in which his clothing was slashed, Lawrence escaped. When the sheriff arrived, Lawrence described a man of about five feet nine inches tall, somewhere over 30 years old, about 150 pounds, dressed in brown clothes, and smelling to high heaven. The sheriff formed a posse, but they could not find the wild man.

Then in late July, Mike Schmidt, a transient who was picking blueberries near the Chicago and Northwestern Railway tracks, saw a body floating in Little Mud Lake near Lake George. Schmidt walked to Rhinelander and informed the sheriff. No one recognized the body when it was pulled from the lake, but he had two identification cards on him. A U.S. Employment Service card identified him as lumberjack John Wosco while a United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners Union card identified him as John Rushton.

Within a day, residents at Camp Hayward recognized him as a transient worker who mysteriously disappeared from the camp several months earlier. This was the same time as reports of the wild man first started. They confirmed that he used both names as aliases. The man had no known relatives and no one knew where he came from, so he was buried in a potter’s field and largely forgotten. A police report was circulated, and in 1938 a family from Wautoma thought he might be a missing family member, but dental records proved he was not.

So, was John Wosco alias John Rushton the Wild Man of the Woods? The sheriff was absolutely convinced that he was and closed the case. We will never know for certain, but the fact that sightings of the wild man ended at the same time supports this conclusion as well.