Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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The Last Man on Earth – Podcast #88

I was just telling my students the other day that my favorite television show of all time was the Twilight Zone. In particular, I love the 1959 episode “Time Enough at Last” with the late Burgess Meredith. Just in case you don’t know the story, Meredith plays a bank teller named Henry Bemis, a man who just loves to read, but everyone around him prevents him from doing just that. So, during his lunch break one day he heads down to the bank’s vault in search of a peaceful place to read. That’s when an atomic bomb goes off and life ends for everyone except Henry Bemiss. He is now alone in a post-apocalyptical world and now has plenty of time on his hands. Well, I won’t give away how the story ends for those that have never seen it, but I’ll just say that it ends with the usual Twilight Zone twist.

Around the same time that this episode ran on TV, Scott Newhall, who was the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle at the time, wondered what would happen if, in fact, someone really was the last person on Earth. His real inspiration came from the stories of Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe, but the same basic question remained: Could modern man survive in the rubble of a ruined world?

To find out, they recruited their hunting and fishing columnist, 41-year-old Bud Boyd. The plan was to simply drop him into the mountains somewhere with virtually no supplies and see if he could survive.

But Boyd decided to make it even more challenging by bringing his family along. Crazy idea, but they were trying to sell papers.

In addition to the Chronicle, forty-one other newspapers across the United States signed up to follow Bud’s story.

On June 28th of 1960, Bud, his 44-year-old wife Betty, their daughters, 15-year-old Susan and 12-year-old Sharon, and son 8-year-old Bruce were flown in a DC-3 to the Marble Mountains in northwestern California. After eating a fried chicken lunch, pack horses carried the family to a remote camp beside Lipstick Lake. All they were allowed to take with them was one ax, a 50-foot (15-meter) clothesline, a ball of white nylon twine, some salt, and one pocketknife for each of them. Other than the clothes on their backs, nothing else was allowed. No guns, blankets, tents, sleeping bags, food, or matches. They needed to live off of the land, and they planned to do it for six weeks.

One thing that wasn’t mentioned in the promotions leading up to this adventure was how Bud was going to do his reporting. That was to be done with old-fashioned pencil and paper. As Bud finished each story, he was to place them in an agreed-upon spot. Every couple of days, the owner of a ranch would ride up to collect them. Since the publisher had no idea when the stories would actually arrive, they planned to publish them undated seven days later, although it ended up being a longer period than that.

From the minute the family set camp, things just started to go downhill. Very quickly a beautiful day turned stormy. Bud was able to construct a crude lean-to just before the sky opened up to release a torrent of rain and hail over their heads. Soaked to their bones, it was back to work as soon as the clouds cleared. It took quite some time, but Bud was able to start a fire to keep them warm. No attempt had been made yet to get food, but luckily they had snuck in two sandwiches for each of them. He ended his first post to the paper with the sentence “Scared to death.”

Last Man Bud Boyd building a shelter for his family.
Last Man Bud Boyd building a shelter for his family. Image originally appeared on page 9 of the July 15, 1960 publication of the Detroit Free Press.

Their first night in the wild didn’t go much better. They huddled together to stay warm and as Bud dozed off, the fire started to die out. Suddenly, Betty woke Bud up and said, “Something’s out there.” Bud grabbed a flashlight out of their emergency kit – another item that was not on the approved list of supplies – and shined it into the darkness. He didn’t see anything, but the loud crackling of the brush led him to conclude that it was a bear.

On their second day, Bud set forth on building a better shelter. But this was very time-consuming and meant that he didn’t have time to hunt or gather up any food. With the sandwiches now eaten and everyone hungry, Bud knew what he had to do next.

It was on the third day that he set out to catch trout, which proved to be quite difficult without the proper equipment. The forest is loaded with lots of branches, so creating a fishing pole was the simplest task. Next, he unraveled some of the twine to use as a fishing line. As for a hook, he broke one of his daughter Sharon’s rings and bent it into shape. The flashing of the ring’s stone acted as a lure and he eventually caught seven trout. Dandelion stems and skunk cabbage tubers were gathered to add some veggies to their diet.

Of course, they didn’t have a pot to cook in, nor did they have any type of container to carry water back from the lake to the campsite. Toilet paper? Forget it – moss was their best option. And to solve those feminine sanitary needs, a bandana was cut into strips and washed as needed.

Late on the fifth day, they were once again awoken by a black bear, so Bud grabbed the flashlight which was next to the “sealed rifle.” Huh? What? You heard it correctly. A rifle had been packed, just in case of an emergency, but was never used.

There was a big setback on the sixth day. The fishing line broke and the hook that he had fashioned out of the ring was lost. The best solution that Bud could come up with was to carve a new hook from a piece of manzanita wood, which did work, but presented him with a new problem: Wood absorbs water and eventually softens to the point where it becomes unusable.

Day 8 was a lucky day for the family because a hunter’s stash was discovered. It was really just a bunch of garbage, but when you have so little, this was like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. They now had an old skillet, a coffee can, an aluminum cup, a plate and spoon, an old Wesson Oil bottle, and a piece of canvas. Now they could really cook up a storm, assuming they could collect up enough food.

But they couldn’t. One can only live off trout, frogs, and a few veggies for so long. Their main problem was that they were camped at too high of an elevation, so it was very cold and food was scarce. The decision was made on day 10 to move camp. They followed a stream to a new location, which was about 1000-feet (300-meters) lower in elevation.

This new camp was better in every way. It had a warmer climate. Wild fruits and vegetables were more plentiful. And there was an abundance of wildlife that could potentially be trapped and consumed. But, they were all getting sick. Betty and Bud both suffered from stomach cramps. This was followed by Susan getting ill and finally Bruce. The family was faced with a tough decision. Should they stay or go?

Betty Boyd comforts daughter Susan
Betty Boyd comforts daughter Susan. Image originally appeared on page 9 of the July 22, 1960 publication of the Orlando Sentinel.

Ultimately, they decided to leave. Bud hiked 6-miles (9.6-km) to the nearest ranch. The rancher saddled up six horses and packed them with supplies before heading up to rescue the family. It must have seemed like a feast to finally be able to eat bacon, eggs, potatoes, peanut butter and jelly, watermelon, and dried fruits for the first time in nearly two weeks.

After twelve days of a planned six-week experiment, it was all over. They were taken back to civilization on July 10th. But this was not good news for the San Francisco Chronicle. They had not even run one single story on the family’s adventure at that point. The series was scheduled to start the very next day and the decision was made to go forward with it. Day-after-day the syndicated story would appear in papers across the country, just as if the family was still up there in the woods.

Coinciding with the first day of publication of the stories, was an article titled “Boyd’s Camping Jaunt Exposed” that appeared on the front page of the competing San Francisco Examiner. Their ace reporter Ed Montgomery had located the Boyds’ camp shortly after they had abandoned it. There he found used food cans, burned matches, soap, toilet paper, soda bottle caps, sugar, spaghetti and beef tins, watermelon rinds, shells from fresh eggs, and more.

Montgomery’s find implied that the Boyds had not really been roughing it at all. Of course, as I mentioned, Bud claimed to have gone for help at the end of their eleventh day, but that segment of the story ran in the national papers days after the Examiner story exposing the fraud appeared. One can’t help but wonder if Bud wrote that piece after the Examiner story was published.

The San Francisco Chronicle filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against the Examiner and its owner Hearst Publishing Company. They charged that Montgomery’s article was “malicious, false, and defamatory.” Bud Boyd and his family also sued the Examiner for an additional $605,000.

One thing that Boyd had on his side was that there were three impartial observers who had accompanied the family to the point where they first entered the woods. They were Stanley Mosk, California’s Attorney General, Reverend Francis J. Ford, an Air Force Reserve Chaplain, and Rear Admiral A.G. Cook, who served as San Francisco’s Civil Defense Chief. All three later said that they were convinced that it was an honest experiment.

On April 6, 1962, both papers ran identical stories stating that all suits were being dismissed.

Bud never admitted whether he had hoaxed the public or not. His editor Scott Newhall stated in his biography that “I think this story was legitimate.”

What do you think? Sadly, Bud passed away on August 18th of 1971 at the age of 52, so we will never know for sure.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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