Day 6

America's last true hermit: The story of Christopher Knight: "The Stranger in the Woods"

Christopher Knight disappeared into the forests of Maine when he was 20 years old. In 2013, he was arrested while stealing from a local camp in the middle of the night. He hadn't spoken with another human being in 27 years. Then, he told his story to Michael Finkel.
Author Michael Finkel took this photograph just a few hundred metres from Knight's camp in The Jarsey, a dense forest in Maine. (Michael Finkel)

When Christopher Knight was 20 years old, he parked his car on a back road in rural Maine, threw the car keys onto the console, and walked into the woods without a compass or map.

He wasn't seen or heard from again for 27 years.

Knight’s senior high school photo, from the 1984 yearbook of Lawrence High School. (Lawrence Public Library)
Knight's disappearance was no accident. He wanted to live a life in total isolation.

Knight was so determined to avoid detection that he says he never made a single fire — even in the dead of winter.

Locals knew him only as the "North Pond hermit," a mysterious thief who repeatedly broke into the local cabins to steal books, food and propane.

Knight was so elusive that some people thought he was an urban legend. For decades, law enforcement didn't even know his name.

When he was finally caught and arrested while stealing from a local camp in 2013, Knight was 47 years old.

"I feel very confident that Chris Knight is the most solitary known human being who has ever lived." - Michael Finkel

Now, Christopher Knight's story is the subject of a new book, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. Its author, Michael Finkel, was perhaps the only journalist who ever managed to gain Knight's trust.

"Something like 500 journalists tried to get in touch with Chris Knight, and he remained silent," Finkel tells Day 6 guest host Rachel Giese.

"I read about his story from my home in Montana and I decided to hand write him a letter. I didn't expect to hear back from him, but it could be something as simple as the fact that I hand wrote the letter that made him respond," Finkel says. 

"He could had easily tossed my letter in the garbage bin with all the others, but he didn't."

                 

"The most solitary known human being"

While researching his book, Michael Finkel looked into the lives of other hermits.

"I could come across no example in all of human history in which someone spent that long by themselves," he says. "I feel very confident that Chris Knight is the most solitary known human being who has ever lived." 

The landscape at Little North Pond, near where Knight's camp was situated. (Michael Finkel)

"You might imagine that Chris Knight was in the great wilderness," Finkel says. "The northern half of Maine is called 'the Great Woods', It's very remote. But there were 300 cabins within a couple hours' walking distance."

In fact, Knight was just three minutes' walk from the nearest cabin.

"There were little villages all around, and he lived on private property. It was this combination of perfectly disguised place within walking distance of summer homes that he could steal from."

In this photo taken by the local police, Knight sits in the tent at his camp on the morning following his arrest, on April 4, 2013. (Maine State Police)

During his time in the woods, Knight estimated he had committed around a thousand break-ins. These thefts were the only evidence of his existence. But despite his criminal status, he still did his best to do the right thing, according to Finkel.

One of the earliest known security camera photos of Knight, who is shown here peering into the refrigerator inside a North Pond cabin. (Debbie Baker)

"He had a code of breaking in," Finkel explains. "He never smashed a window. He never kicked in a door. But some people thought Chris Knight was the worst thing that ever happened to them. It wasn't really the cheese, or the books; it was the piece of mind and their sense of security that he stole, and some people hated him."

"Other people thought, 'he's no more trouble than the seasonal house flies.' In fact, people said that they were jealous of him, and many people said that if they caught him stealing they would have just let him go."

"He said that he felt horrible about it, but he made this decision, and he was so committed to being completely alone that he decided it was necessary for his survival."  

The sun shines in Knight’s camp shortly after his arrest, before it was dismantled by the police. (Maine State Police)

After seven months in jail, Knight was conditionally released, returning home to live with his mother.

"I was really worried that ... someone completely alone in the forest, thrown into our fast-paced world, would buckle," Finkel says. "At first it was really touch and go whether he would be able to adjust.

"He will never find the freedom that he once had. But he's a survivor."

To hear Rachel Giese's conversation with Michael Finkel, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

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