In a previous article, the reader may have met Theophile E. Picotte, the outspoken and frequently assaulted publisher and editor of the Wood River Times, in the early years of Hailey. It seems — as we shall see — that he knew how to liven up a slow news day just as well as he knew how to handle those who tried to horsewhip him.
To set the stage for a sensational story he had in mind Picotte reported in the Times of Sept. 7, 1882, that little jets of flame and smoky columns of sulfurous vapors had been escaping for a week from clefts in the lava fields near the line of the railroad, and that these columns could be seen for miles around.
Then, on Oct. 11, Picotte told his readers about a long-time resident of this flaming and smoky area, whom he called the “Wild Man of Camas.” For years, Picotte wrote, cattlemen, prospectors and others crossing Camas Prairie had told stories about occasionally seeing this strange being, hopping about from crag to crag of lava.
When the Shoshone and Bannock Indians still occupied the region, this creature had been spotted quite frequently, but in recent years, with large numbers of whites invading the area, sightings had so diminished that reports heard about him were being discredited.
However, Picotte said, two cowboys had just come in from the prairie, having had an experience which was sure to rejuvenate the wild man’s tradition.
On Oct. 1, while searching for cattle lost in a storm, the cowboys were startled to suddenly see amongst the lava crags the form so often described to them. The two sat on their horses looking at it in dread. In a moment, they mustered the courage to dismount, draw their revolvers and give chase, but the strange being skipped from crag to crag as nimbly as a mountain goat.
After an hour’s chase they were worn out. Seeing the cowboys lie down, the wild man gradually approached them and stopped on the opposite side of a gorge in the lava, whence he regarded the cowboys intently.
He stood over six feet high, with great muscular arms which reached to his knees. Muscles stood out in huge knots and his chest was as broad as that of a bear. Skins were twisted about his feet and ankles and a wolf skin hung around his waist. All parts of his body to be seen were covered by long, black hair, while from his head the hair flowed over his shoulders in coarse tangled rolls, and mixed with a heavy beard.
His face was dark and swarthy and his eyes shone brightly while two tusks protruded from his mouth. His fingers were in the shape of claws with long sharp nails and he acted very much as a wild animal would which is unaccustomed to seeing a man. The cowboys made all kinds of noises, at the sound of which he twisted his head from side to side and moaned — apparently he could not give them any “backtalk” so, weary of seeing him, the wranglers fired their revolvers ,whereupon the wild man turned a double somersault and jumped 15 feet to a low bench and disappeared, growling terribly as he went.
Picotte was certain that this was the same creature as had been seen so often before, and who lived on Camas roots and stolen livestock.
Not to be outdone by Picotte, Charles Foster of the Ketchum Keystone printed in his Nov. 10 edition a purported letter to the editor from a certain “X. X.” It told of a man from Sawtooth City going grouse hunting a few days earlier on snowshoes.He went up nearby Beaver Gulch, and climbed
the peak opposite the Pilgrim mine.
Near the summit the hunter found a cave. He made a torch from pitch pine slivers and went through a long, narrow passage that ended in a large chamber which was “brilliantly lighted by a flame in the center.” The hunter cautiously went toward it and found that the flame was coming from the mouth of an image of a man, made of silver. This figure wore a helmet of a peculiar pattern, in which were three imitation feathers made of gold or copper. “X.X” thought that some prehistoric, intelligent race had made the image after discovering the gas jet that came through the rocks from an immense body of coal oil under the mountain.
On the walls were some undecipherable hieroglyphics. In one corner sat a human skeleton — at least 9 feet high, and by it a stone tomahawk and a large cross bow. Salmon bones were scattered around on he floor, as well as arrowheads, a petrified human hand and some large pieces of silver.
“X.X” said a party would be organized to explore the cave fully.
In his next edition, a week later, the Keystone editor said he wanted it understood that “X.X” was solely responsible for the description of that mysterious Sawtooth cave and that, while writing it, the author was probably subsisting on a diet of “printer’s lye and “roller composition.“
Meanwhile, Picotte’s Wild Man story had been published, word for word, on December 2 by the
Illustrated Police News, a sensationalistic New York City publication
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Some months later the Bellevue Sun — struggling to stay in business -entered the “Wild Story” competition. On April 1, 1883 it reported that the celebrated “Hairy maniac of the Camas Prairie ” had been killed the previous day by a man named Mickelhenny, one of a group traveling across the prairie.
Mickelhenny had just left camp to hunt ducks, when the Wild Man jumped up from a hiding place, and after running away a short distance stopped and looked at Mickelhenny for a moment, then, with a shriek, the beast made for Mickelhenny so fiercely that the duck hunter fired both barrels of
his gun into him, and he fell, apparently dead. Mickelhenny went to have a look just as the Wild Man was trying to get up. He put his foot on the creature’s neck and called to his comrades to bring an axe, which they hurriedly did. The Wild Man escaped just as they arrived, and, with a groan, regained his feet and started to run. The axe was thrown at him, and as he turned his head to look back, it struck him in the center of the forehead, and he dropped lifeless to the ground.
On examination he was found to be tall, with full, clear eyes and an extraordinary large head covered with wavy black hair of great length. His bushy beard was about two and a half feet long and the whole body was also covered with a thick growth of fine, black hair about two inches in length.
The fingernails and toenails were two inches long, and resembled claws more than nails. He was wrapped in a long robe made of rabbit skins.
Thus, said the Sun writer, the Wild Man of Camas, who has been dreaded by the lonely traveler and prospector, since first seen in 1873, is now dead.
T. E. Picotte of the Times was furious, complaining that the wild man had been ruthlessly killed by the“Noodle of the Sun.” This “smart aleck” editor had thus “idiotically robbed the press” of Wood River “a prolific source of items.” The Hailey News-Miner suggested that the Sun man now ought to
go to Sawtooth and dig up the Keystone’s wonderful cave.“
Picotte’s wild man was likely the inspiration for the hundreds of reported sightings of similar apelike creatures, over the years, none of which has
ever been captured. The first may have been the Wild Man of Rockaway Beach, Long Island, New York, in 1885.
In the 1960s and 70s there was a veritable flood of alleged sightings — the Abominable Snowman (Yeti) of the Himalayan mountains of
Asia, and Bigfoot (Sasquatch) of our Pacific Northwest. These creatures were usually described as having the same general
characteristics as the huge Wild Men of the Wood River papers.
In 1967 a rancher took a short movie of what he thought was a female Sasquatch in northern California. It and other photos usually depicted
ill-defined shapes that could have been anything, but they were used, nonetheless, in a documentary film shown in theaters. A Big Foot-
Sasquatch Exhibition and Information Center was established at The Dalles, Ore., and several extensive search expeditions were made without result. As recently as 2005 there existed a Texas Big Foot Research Center, holding annual conferences on the subject.
James Varley is a Twin Falls freelance writer.