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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Mysterious Woman of the Woods

The toughest work in lumber camps was done by oxen, who hauled huge sleds of massive tree trunks out of the brush and over the snow to the nearest river. When spring came, their masters floated the winter's harvest downstream to the company mill. One lumberjack, however, was given the lonely task of driving the oxen through the forest and back to civilization.

One spring in the 1860s, a young man named Delos Washburn was given that job in northeast Wisconsin. His crew had spent the winter 70 miles northwest of Green Bay, where Forest, Langlade and Oconto counties meet. When all his mates headed downriver with the logs, he started overland with the oxen along a crude path through the forest, the only road in any direction for many miles. He brought along a load of hay for the beasts and enough food to hold him for several days, when he expected to reach Oconto.

At the end of the first day, nightfall overtook him in the vicinity of the modern village of Mountain, roughly midway between Wausau and Peshtigo. The oxen, not used to having their freedom, had been hard to keep on track, and even after he had fed them, eaten his own dinner, and settled down next to the fire, one of them wandered off into the woods. Washburn was reluctantly pursuing the beast, calling it by name and coaxing it back to camp, when to his amazement a voice answered his own -- "Don't be afraid; he won't go far." And into the campfire's circle of light stepped a solitary young woman.

Washburn was astonished. The only road in all of Oconto County was this narrow logging track through the woods. The nearest houses were 25 or 30 miles away, where a couple hardy families had settled at Gillett. To make things even more mysterious, the woman didn't know her own name, where she came from, or how long she had spent in the wilderness all by herself.

A few days later the pair reached Oconto. None of the residents recognized the woman, and as officials questioned her it became clear that she was mentally disabled. Either she had wandered off from caretakers somewhere and become lost in the woods, or her experiences in the wilderness had permanently unhinged her memory and reason.

They concluded that she was harmlessly insane, nick-named her Crazy Jane, and provided her room and board in exchange for working as a servant in the county jail. For years they asked passing travelers about her, hoping to discover some family who were searching for a long-lost girl or woman. But no one could ever shed any light on her origins or explain how she had walked out of the woods into Delos Washburn's camp, many miles from any road or settlement.

Jane enjoyed her work, performed it competently, and although she slept in the jail, came and went freely around the village. She became a town character, and for decades everybody in the neighborhood knew Crazy Jane and her story.

Then one winter night, when she was past middle age and had become a well-established fixture in the community, Jane vanished as abruptly as she'd appeared. The city and the surrounding area were searched but no trace of her could be found. Finally, in the spring, a hunter far out in the marshes along Green Bay came upon her corpse. It was concluded that she had wandered off, become lost in the darkness, and died of exposure in the night.

Her friends in Oconto could never find out any more about her, and Jane's true identity and origins remain a mystery to this day. Her story is just one of the many mysteries you can discover in our online collection of local history and biography articles.

:: Posted in Bizarre Events on January 18, 2011

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