Saturday, March 11, 2006

In Search of Grizzly Adams

The guide book described the headstone as "flamboyant," which it is not. Flamboyant is the Washington Monument, or the column commemorating the discovery of ether (click that just to enjoy a site called Aspirin Adventures). One hundred years after Adams' headstone was erected, the town of Charlton, MA had to erect a 2nd headstone to point visitors to the first one, which is not flamboyant at all, mostly weather-worn, but does contain a rendering of Adams with his bear called Ben.

Sources agree on the year he died and where he is buried, and after that, it all dissolves into legend.

If the TV Land people get wind of this under-visited location, Dan Haggarty will soon be unveiling his likeness in the town square, except the Charlton Town Square is hard to recognize if you don't live there. Past Town Hall on Rt 31, turn left at the stone wall and enter the Bay Path burial ground.

The tombstone reads John Adams. Except for the worn carving, which now looks like a boy with an English sheepdog (as it was likely carved by someone who had never seen a bear and couldn't imagine how large one was. click here to navigate to an image.) no mention of the "grizzly" part of his history is mentioned, no doubt necessitating the 2nd marker in 1976, just before the legend hit television.

The guide book also claims that P.T. Barnum paid for the original tombstone to be erected, which raised more questions than answers. There are never enough hyperlinks in 19th Century burial grounds.

According to the TV show fan site, "He was a gentle man who was forced to leave civilization behind ..." (incorrectly accused of murder, Fugitive style, in the acript), and claims, "...It’s one of the most unusual and heartwarming wildlife stories ever documented." Other sources record that his name was James and that what "forced" him to "leave civilization behind" was in fact the California Gold Rush, and that by Civilization, we mean his wife and children. Not so unusual a story, sad to say.

And yes he did live among the animals and raise the bear cub orphan Ben. Ben may have been orphaned by Adams himself, who collected animals for his Mountaineer Museum in San Francisco. Capitalism not being part of the civilization he abandoned, apparently.

He either took the show on tour with Barnum, or sold the show to him, the proceeds either going to Mrs. Adams back home... or he never saw her again.

Ben either died on tour, or in a zoo, "of an illness for which Adams could find no cure" (biologists now know it was ursine ennui). There is a quoted obituary for the bear from the San Franciso Evening Bulletin, which I would like to see for myself, but which no doubt conveniently burned in the earthquake. The best Grizzly Adams story I found was this one. It drops the Barnum angle, but provides a whopper of a demise for poor James.

I leave Charlton unsatisfied. Next time I will simply go to the Flea Market like everyone else.

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