By Terry Jones
For whatever reason, reports of feral humans were somewhat common in the 19th century. Last month’s column focused on the Wild Girl of Catahoula, but it turns out that she was not the only mysterious person roaming through the woods at the time.
In 1860, the Bedford (Pa.) Gazette reported that a “wild man of the woods” had been captured hiding in bushes on a plantation thirteen miles below New Orleans. The man spoke French “in a manner not at all wild” and was armed with a pistol with which “he popped at every passenger along the road. Having frightened an entire parish out of its wits, a strong force was mustered to capture him. . . . Nobody knows him, nor will he give an account of himself.”
Another so-called “wild man” terrorized Winn Parish at the same time the Wild Girl of Catahoula was being spotted in nearby parishes. According to the Richland Beacon, a Mr. Fletcher came to Winnfield to report a wild man in the woods of Ward 2.
Fletcher claimed that Bettie McCrew and her little brother were walking on the road when they saw a nude man standing nearby. The wild man screamed when he spotted the siblings and ran into the woods. Later in the day another man spotted him again on the same road and gave chase but lost him in the woods. Apparently, the stranger was never seen again, and the newspaper reported, “Whether the man is a lunatic, or some wild human being, no one knows.”
The “Wild Man of Terrebonne” was the most famous of such people, although he might be better described as a hermit than feral. Jean Baptiste Dugas was born in 1812 and became a successful Terrebonne Parish planter who reportedly went insane, supposedly because his true love left him for another man. On her wedding day, Dugas vowed he would no longer be part of this cruel world and retired to a hut he built on his land. There he remained for fifty years while administrators cared for his considerable property.
Even though he had a trunk full of clothes, Dugas simply wore a blanket and slept on a pile of moss. Initially, he lived on snakes, rats, and wild hogs, but his administrators finally began bringing him food, which he shared with the insects that inhabited his hut. It was said that Dugas even fed the ants by pouring syrup in oyster shells. When the hut burned in 1890, the local men built him another. Dugas was described as being a gentle man who avoided people, although he did interact with children who sometimes visited. He was not considered dangerous unless provoked and then was best left alone because he always kept a knife handy.
The only time Dugas was known to have left his property was to attend court in Houma after being charged with destroying the local Catholic Church. Dugas had donated the property for the church but became upset when dancing was allowed at a fund raising fair. The Houma Courier reported that Dugas was caught red handed trying to tear down the unfinished structure. During his trial, he claimed in defense that “the place was intended for a house of worship, and not for the purpose of amusements.” The jury acquitted him.
Dugas died in 1891 at the age of 79.
The following year, a wild man wearing nothing but a hat and shoes was captured at the residence of one John Falson thirty miles northeast of Rayne. Without giving details, the Crowley Signal reported that he had to be lassoed to be apprehended. “He had been roaming at large for some time and created quite an excitement among the farmers in that neighborhood. It was impossible to have him identified.”One of the oddest sightings of a feral human also occurred in 1892 in nearby Arkansas. A North Carolina newspaper reported that a Benton man saw a “strange-looking animal” running with three wolves. Curious, he followed them and was shocked to see a teenage boy running with the pack on all fours. When the wolves stopped, he would stand up to look around but then drop back to the ground to run. The witness claimed the naked boy “was able to get over the ground as rapidly as the wolves” and showed no sign of human intelligence.
The man recalled that wolves had carried off a baby about fifteen years earlier and speculated that they had raised him as part of the pack.