A Page from North Quabbin History: The Wild Man of Royalston

  • Charley Richardson claimed he was being plagued with pranks and random acts of terror by the Wild Man of Royalston. In the end, it was determined that Richardson himself was committing the pranks.   CONTRIBUTED

  • A receipt received for $10 for assistance in the search for the Wild Man of Royalston. CONTRIBUTED/PETER ZHEUTLIN

  • A sketch of Londonderry and her search party, which accompanied Annie Londonderry’s article in the November 3, 1895 New York World. CONTRIBUTED

For The Athol Daily News 
Published: 10/30/2022 4:00:54 PM
Modified: 10/30/2022 4:00:34 PM

October is the month of spooky tales. A real life spooky tale took place in Royalston in 1895.

A local farmer in Royalston, Charley Richardson, had suddenly become plagued with pranks and random acts of terror, throughout the summer and fall of that year. These included the back of one of his livestock being broken, a clock being thrown through his window and a stove which exploded when he lit it, according to Peter Zheutlin, author of several books about his great grand aunt, Annie Kopchovsky Londonderry, a bicyclist and reporter for the New York World, who covered the Wild Man of Royalston story for the New York World.

Richardson blamed the acts of terror on a supposed Wild Man of Royalston, a scruffy hermit type character, who it was said lived in the woods, said Zheutlin. Richardson even claimed to have met the Wild Man in the woods around a campfire and that he had shot a hole through his coat. There was growing fear in the community as well.

The story was covered by local newspapers and soon both papers in Boston and New York, including Joseph Pulitzer’s flagship newspaper, the New York World, began running stories about the Wild Man of Royalston. At that time, Zheutlin said, the New York City papers were a combination of daily news and sensational stories. “They were always looking for these type stories … a little bit of mischief in a small town in North Central Massachusetts tells you something about what journalism was looking for (at that time),” he said. Londonderry was working at the paper at the time as a sensation reporter. “Sensation reporters were in the mold of Nellie Bly,” Zheutlin said.

Londonderry, prior to covering the Wild Man of Royalston story, had written her first-person account of her bicycle trip around the world for the New York World published on October 20, 1895.

Immediately an editor saw the potential for having a reporter on the wild man story. ”He sent a telegram to Londonderry asking her to take a train out to Athol and cover the story,” according to Zheutlin. Soon, Londonderry was traveling once again, this time to Boston. ”

When she arrived in Boston, Londonderry registered in the hotel as Nellie Bly Jr., the pseudonym she had used when writing her article about her bicycle trip around the world. Soon she had left Boston and was headed by train to Athol, Zheutlin continued.

Londonderry became part of one of the search parties for the Wild Man, a search party which also included the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office and Richardson. It didn’t take long though for suspicion to fall on Richardson, who was believed to be perpetrating the acts, as he lived on the farm with his mother and instead wanted to move to the city.

Once the story was uncovered, Londonderry wrote a story for the New York World in November.

“In her telling she quickly solves the crime after interviewing Richardson. In reality, Richardson was already under suspicion. In her story she sensationalizes it with her as the center of it,” Zheutlin said.

Londonderry wrote for the World for six to eight months, according to Zheutlin, mainly writing stories about women who were taking on new roles. “She wrote stories about an all woman stock market, a commune in New Jersey run by a self-proclaimed Messiah and a matchmaker for lonely hearts,” Zheutlin said.

As for Richardson, he never moved to the city. Instead he stayed in the area, eventually becoming a member of the Royalston School Board.

The family’s discovery of Londonderry’s story had its beginnings in 1993, when Zheutlin’s mother received a letter from a complete stranger who was researching the story of the first woman cycling around the world, Zheutlin said. The letter stated that based on the genealogical research the writer had done, he believed his mother might be related to her. He laid out his research in the letter and it was clear he had found the right family, Zheutlin continued, yet his mother had not only not heard of the bicycle trip but had not heard of Londonderry either. “I decided to chase down the story myself. Now I have I guess between 200 and 300 newspaper articles published around the world (about the ride). Londonderry’s bicycle trip occurred from June 1894 to September 1895.

Zheutlin uncovered Londonderry’s reporting on the Wild Man of Royalston while researching a story about his great grandaunt’s trip around the world by bicycle from June 1894 to September 1895.

The bicycle trip around the world was ostensibly set in motion by a wager between two wealthy Boston merchants debating women’s equality and wagered on whether a woman could make it around the world on a bicycle, Zheutlin said. Bicycles and women’s suffrage were both popular topics in the 1890s, he continued.

“Like many stories surrounding my great grandaunt there may be more than meets the eye. She was quite a storyteller and (teller) of tall tales which made her suited to be a sensation reporter. I suspect she may have fabricated this (wager) story to make it more dramatic,” he said.

During her bicycle trip around the world Londonderry left her husband and three children at home. After her journalism career ended and the family was living in New York City Londonderry ran a garment accessories business until her death in 1917.

In 2007, Zheutlin wrote “Around the World on Two Wheels,” telling the story of Londonderry’s bicycle journey, with the last chapter relaying the story of the Wild Man of Royalston. In 2021, he wrote a fictionalized novel of Londenderry’s bicycle trip around the world entitled “Spin: A Novel.” Both books are available at Amazon. To learn more about Londonderry’s life, readers can visit www.annielondonderry.com.

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