WATERVILLE — In the same month the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in New York in 1886, a handful of newspapers in New England published stories about a deadly encounter in the Maine woods involving what today likely would be termed “Bigfoot” or “Sasquatch.”
The story of the 10-foot-tall “wild man” with 7-foot-long arms and hair growing all over his face and body was reported in broadsheets of the time after first gracing the pages of the Waterville Sentinel, a weekly paper that no longer exists. The Waterville Morning Sentinel was established 18 years later in 1904.
Tales of these seldom-seen, mysterious apelike beasts are found in Maine folklore, according to experts, but they are more prevalent in California, Washington and Oregon tales. Online searches yield hundreds of similar stories from around the globe.
The Maine story starts in early October 1886 when “an affrighted Frenchman from over the line” arrived in the Elm City to weave a frightening tale of woe, according to an excerpt from the Sentinel published in at least two other papers of the era, the Wilton Record and The Industrial Journal of Bangor.
“The Frenchman’s story, which is implicitly believed, is that three men were camping out in the woods about a hundred miles north of Moosehead Lake,” the 127-year-old newspaper articles state. “Two of the campers were away from the camp for a week and came back to find the dead body of their companion.”
The unnamed storyteller, possibly a Canadian, “had his fellows in town all by the ears” with the story about the giant wild man he encountered in the dense woods above Moosehead, according to the papers.
When he and the other camper discovered their friend was dead, they searched out others to form a posse to find his killer.
“They went for help and reinforced by a dozen others searched the woods for the unknown murderer,” the stories read. “It proved to be a terrible wild man, ten feet tall, with arms seven feet in length, covered with long, brown hair. The party fired several shots at him and finally succeeded in reaching a fatal spot, laying the monster low.”
Newspapers of this era used few images, and none of the articles had accompanying sketches of the “wild man.”
The Sentinel story was picked up by the Wilton Record and ran in the Franklin County town’s newspaper on Oct. 6, 1886, under “Items of Interest.” Two days later, the same article appeared in The Industrial Journal, a weekly newspaper based in Bangor, that was “devoted to the manufacturing, commercial, agricultural, railway & Steamship, hotel & summer resort and fish and game interest of the northeast.”
The 5-cent newspaper’s headline for the Friday, Oct. 8, 1886, story read, “A new kind of game.”
The story spread. The St. Albans Daily Messenger of Vermont listed the story under “Odd Gleanings” in its Oct. 12, 1886, edition.
There is no mention of the events in the Bangor Whig and Courier, the Bangor Commercial, Piscataquis Observer, the Aroostook Times or Houlton Pioneer Times, according to a quick review of the newspapers that have survived on microfilm.
The Vermont newspaper started its story, “The wild man is coming to the front this fall.”
“A Maine newspaper of repute says that one ten feet high was recently killed 100 miles north of Moosehead Lake. He had previously killed one of three hunters, and the other two got re-inforcements and slew the giant.”
The 1886 story is one of many “Bigfoot” accounts in Maine, according to Michelle Souliere, a Portland blogger who writes the “Strange Maine” Web journal about mysteries, legends and cryptozoology in the state.
“In Maine especially, there is quite a lot,” she said Friday. “It’s a little scattered over the years, but there is actually a lot of wild man, Bigfoot folklore around.”
The “Strange Maine” author is also working on a book with well-known cryptozoologist Loren Coleman, owner of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, about Bigfoot in Maine. She said the 1886 “wild man” is already part of the book.
“Bigfoot” sightings in Maine date to the mid-1850s and include stories of an Indian “devil” the local natives called “Pomoola,” who reportedly lived around Mount Katahdin, Souliere said in one blog about “Bigfoot.”
New England folklorist Peter Muise, based in Boston, said Bigfoot stories abound in the region but can be found all over the world under different names.
“Bigfoot came from California, and Sasquatch came from British Columbia, and they eventually merged,” he said. “Yeti came from Tibet, Nepal and the Himalayas.”
Muise said he’s not sure he believes the tales, “but I do know it’s a good story.”
The fact that newspapers of that era shared their stories always amazes Souliere.
“A lot of the stories I’ve found are from other states,” she said. “On slow news days, really hairy men were good press across the county.”
Pauleena MacDougall, Maine Folklife Center director, said a quick search of the University of Maine archives turned up three “primate” sightings in New Brunswick, two that were at least 10 feet tall.
A 10-year-old boy reported in May 1961 that he spotted an 11-foot man with 5½-foot arms and covered with hair. In the fall of 1986, a man driving along a rural highway said he came across a 10-foot hairy man who weighed about 1,000 pounds and had reddish-brown hair.
“The ape walked in an upright manner and was agile and quick,” he reported, and the folklife center archives show.
The 1886 story does not say what happened to the body of the “wild man,” it only says news of his existence was spreading like wildfire in Waterville, the Sentinel article states.
The abundance of stories involving a Bigfoot-type creature leads Souliere to believe in the mysterious. That is one reason she started her blog in 2005.
“I am never going to run out of material,” Souliere said. “There are all these strange little things tucked in the corners of the state. You never know what is lurking in the dense woods of Maine.”