Thursday, February 7, 2013

Whatever Happened to Joe Root?

Joseph Root's death certificate.

Legendary Joe Root...Erie's 'Henry Thoreau'

by John Kupetz
Originally published in the Erie Press, July 17, 1971

"A lot of people think that Joe Root could have claimed Presque Isle Peninsula for his own. But---even if he had known about 'squatter's rights'---the legendary hermit would never have used his privilege because he believed that nature was free. During the late 19th century, Joe became famous as the 'King of the Peninsula' when he made his home in a dirt-floor shack near what is now Water Works Park.

Feasting on a diet of roots, berries, and raw fish, he claimed that he never went hungry because---when the raw fish ran out---he would eat fried mosquitos. Since man does not live on mosquitos alone, he would often visit the city where---for the price of a beer---he would delight the patrons of Sullivan's Tavern with one of his wild schemes.

Insisting that the only thing he needed was capital, Joe would reveal plans of a balloon farm that would fly passengers from the Peninsula to Buffalo. His other schemes included a 'feather farm' and a circus comprised of bay district residents who were to wheel animals across a tightrope in a wheelbarrow.

But a lack of capital wasn't his only problem. Although he was quite harmless, his eccentric appearance would often frighten potential investors. He dressed in a bear skin coat and an old felt hat. He wore only one shoe; his other foot was covered with a burlap bag. But the hermit's pride was his trousers. Wearing up to five pairs of pants at a time, he would arrange them so that each pair covered up the holes in the pair beneath it.

Although he lived close to the lake, he was averse to bathing and, on dark nights--- if you couldn't see him---you could smell him. A believer in the 'natural look,' Joe shaved his grey beard only at Christmas. In spite of his frightening appearance, he remained a friend to many of the towns-people---including the police.

John Carney, author of 'Tales of Old Erie,' writes of the only incident in which Joe caused problems for the police. Arrested on the basis of circumstantial evidence for stealing some fishing tackle from a local boat owner, Joe was lodged in the county jail while awaiting trial. After making friends with the warden, the hermit hired him as his lawyer for a $4,862.83 fee.

When the judge rejected his attorney and appointed the public attorney to handle the case, Joe insisted on calling himself Chief Kickapoo, leader of a tribe of Indians and the world's greatest tightrope walker. Convinced that the strange old man was 'crazy but honest,' the judge acquitted him. But Joe refused to leave the jail where he was well fed and where he had planned a balloon flight with the warden. After much persuasion, he finally left the jail and returned to his driftwood shack on the Peninsula.

Joe's greatest love was children. Young hikers on the Peninsula would seek the hermit and listen to him imitate the birds and talk to the animals through his felt hat. A natural ventriloquist, he would converse with an imaginary duck that the children had named Joe. But Joe---not Joe Duck, Joe Root---was a loner at heart. His evenings were spent in his small shack where he was protected from the heat by an air conditioner that consisted of ice chunks placed in the pockets of a pair of trousers that hung from the roof.

As the hermit grew older, he was persuaded to leave the Peninsula and enter the County Home. But he couldn't live away from his beloved Presque Isle and he returned to it for the last time in 1910. By now, the 'respectable' elements of the town---who were frightened by this strange primitive---had decided to rid themselves of the old man. So they 'captured' him and had him committed to Warren State Mental Hospital.

In 1912, the man who had loved the outdoors died within four walls. 'He wasn't insane,' explains Carney, 'people were just afraid of him.'

It was a sad end for a good man---especially a man like Joe Root."

Postscript: Joseph 'Joe' Root died of myocarditis and manic depressive psychosis at Warren State Hospital on October 29, 1912. His body was sent to the Anatomical Board in Philadelphia, PA. Joe Root has become a legendary figure in the history of Erie, Pennsylvania.

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  1. In all my years growing up in the 40s through the late 60s as a resident of Erie, I have never heard about this man until today, when I read about the Joe Root golf outing on Presque Isle. What a fascinating story.Thjank you for this story.

  2. I do remember hearing of "Joe Root" but nothing specific. Just remember his name.