The Wild Man of Oxford

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There is no doubt that, over the decades that North Grenville and its predecessors have been in existence, many fascinating and colourful figures have walked its roads and the streets of its hamlets. Even in our own lifetimes, we can remember one or two individuals who stand out from the rest due to their character, personality, and sometimes eccentric behaviour. Many of them were in politics and the newspaper business, in fact (possibly still are!).

But back in 1837, a truly unique individual briefly crossed the pages of our history, a flash of mystery before fading back into the wild lands that still surrounded the small settlements of the time. The incident is described in a book published in 1903 by the local newspaper of the day, The Telegram, and deserves to be reprinted in its entirety. So, here’s the short history of the Wild Man of Oxford Township. I’ve added some comments in brackets for clarification.

“Another incident which happened between 1837-38 and which is now spoken of by old residents was the capture of a wild man in the bush nearby [Kemptville]. He was entirely nude, having a considerable growth of hair over his body. He was unable to talk or even articulate distinctly or intelligently and except as to his anatomy seemed to have all the instincts of the beast rather than a man. He was brought before the magistrate, Squire Bottum, who held his court in Thomas Beckett’s hotel [on the corner of Clothier East and Sanders Streets], but he appeared to regard not the dignity of the court nor had he any respect whatever for the majesty of the law and he was found to be an imbecile. In those days the country provided no such institutions for the care of creatures of that kind as we now have and the court was at a loss to know what to do with the prisoner. To relieve itself of responsibility and escape an awkward situation it was thought best to allow him to go at large. When food was given him he ate ravenously, like an animal but otherwise appeared harmless. When given his liberty he again took to the woods, running like a deer, and was never afterwards heard of and the incident became “a nine days wonder”, and was entirely forgotten. There seems, however, to be no doubt about the truth of it, for it is remembered by two or three old citizens, among others James Lee of North Gower, who came to Kemptville in 1837 and was present at the Court and vouches for the fact.”

At the time, Kemptville was becoming the commercial and social centre of the surrounding countryside, as the account goes on to relate:

“At this time (1838) Kemptville was quite a hamlet and was the recognized marketing point for the residents of the townships of South Gower, Mountain, part of Matilda and Edwardsburg, Oxford, and even points further away. Several small industries were in operation and the place could also boast of several large stores for those days.”

When the wild man appeared in Kemptville, the wild lands were not far distant. In fact, the area around Prescott Street was known as “across the river”, and, where Asa Street joins Prescott Street today, cows were grazing and the narrow trail leading to the far-off town of Prescott disappeared into thick bush. The village stretched from the Methodist Church at Clothier and James, to the Anglican Church. North of Clothier, you could walk for three blocks before finding yourself back in the bush again, with just the new road lately cut through to the ferry at Beckett’s Landing. Oxford Mills did not exist yet, and the only possible rival to Kemptville was at Perkins Mills, just west of the village, where Hurd and Clothier Streets meet.

Given the unsettled nature of the township, perhaps it is not surprising to find someone like the Wild Man wandering through the bush. In fact, it is fascinating to wonder where his home was, whatever form it took, and where he originally came from. Did he have parents, or other family?

It was a strange time of transition for this area. On the one hand, you had political meetings being held in Kemptville with William Lyon Mackenzie speaking to the people from the top of a hay cart, preaching revolution and political reform to the residents. And, on the other hand, there was the Wild Man of Oxford wandering naked through the bush, living in a totally different world of his own. Strange days.

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