On October 24, 1894, Elijah Washington Knotts - better known as E.W. Knotts and "Lige" to his near and dear - began cleaning out a sulphur spring on his Neosho property when he made a discovery - a petrified man. In another version of the tale, a nine-year old boy named Harvey Mosty, claimed the find.
Either way, on Knotts' property located along Hickory Creek and adjacent to Bethesda Spring, a well-preserved petrified man was found in Neosho.
A program titled "Neosho's Petrified Man: Real or Hoax?" was presented this week at the Neosho-Newton County Library by local historian Charlie Brown.
"He's our tech guy so we claim as part of our family at the library," Genealogy Director Patricia Thompson said as she introduced Brown.
Brown also previously served as the director of the Newton County Historical Museum in Neosho.
"I'm big into dinosaurs, bones, and all that," Brown said. "It fascinates me."
He first learned about the petrified man found in Neosho when he was museum director in the late 1990's. Brown followed a paper trail using old newspaper clippings, first locally and then nationwide to learn more.
He soon found that, whether Knotts or the young boy first located the petrified man, the discovery soon became a sensation and not just in Neosho.
"This was Neosho's claim to fame in the 1890's and early 1900's," Brown said.
In that era, traveling sideshows exhibiting the strange and often macabre were common and apparently, according to Brown, petrified men were popular. Many were eventually revealed to be hoaxes but the man discovered in Neosho is believed to be genuine.
The petrified man pulled out of an embankment near Hickory Creek was a man of more than six feet tall. He weighed 302 pounds and was said to be perfectly preserved in every way except for the stomach area. His fingernails, toenails, wrinkles in his hands and face as well as veins located in his arms, legs, and neck appeared as natural as in life. No more than six inches of dirt covered the body.
The body - as yet unidentified - was described as one of the finest specimens of a petrified man every found. Who he was and how he came to rest there proved to be a mystery until the local postmaster, John Shannon, told about a battle that occured during the Civil War.
Shannon stated that there had been two Union companies camped in Neosho. A large body of Confederate troops led by Cherokee General Stand Watie attacked the Federals, who retreated to Hickory Creek, in the vicinity of where the body had been discovered. In the battle, around twenty Union soldiers were killed. Since the petrified man had been laid out with hands folded on his breast and limbs aligned, it appeared he had been buried by friends.
"In fact, we did a living history of this battle when I was park director," Brown said. "Stand Watie was camped above Big Spring Park and came down the hill with his troops. They ran over to where Colonel Richardson was camped, which was over by where the museum is and they routed them down Hickory Creek. Between 14 and 20 Union soldiers were killed and buried, some of them along the river.
The petrified man was put on display in Neosho and by November, a month after the discovery, had traveled as far away as the East Coast. The petrified man also was toured in the area. While on display to crowds at Newtonia, Mrs. J.C. (Sarah) Stillions came forward to identity the petrified man as her father, Adam Cluck. Cluck had not returned to his family after the Civil War and she stated she had no doubt it was her father. Stillions at the time was a resident of Indian Springs in McDonald County.
was her father. According to newspaper accounts of the period, Stillions was overcome with emotion.
She made several efforts to get legal possession of her father's body. Her claims led to a court battle on March 14, 1895 in Springfield, Missouri but she was never able to reclaim her father for burial. Others came forward to say that it was indeed Cluck.
Cluck's remains toured for decades, billed as Neosho's Petrified Man. The usual admission price was ten cents for adults and a nickel for children. Over the years, owners changed but each made large sums of money from the traveling wonder.
Until the early 1920's, Cluck's body remained as intact as the day it was discovered. Theories as to how the body became petrified abounded and more than one effort to debunk the claim were made. It is thought that the spring water's mineral content contributed to the rapid petrification and later day scientists theorize it was possible.
After a change of owners in the 1920's, a dispute over how to ship the body - as baggage or as human remains arose - and in the process of determining the status, a leg was cut off from the stone body for testing. Then Cluck was shipped to Newkirk, Oklahoma but on arrival, the owner had fallen ill and wasn't present to claim the cargo. Cluck was sent to St. Louis but en route, the train wrecked and the body was broken. Although the owners later did retrieve it, they buried it in their yard.
Sometime in the 1940's, the current resident was doing some digging when he found the petrified man in pieces. Eventually, it was determined to be Adam Cluck, the famous Neosho petrified man.
At some point, the body was said to have been buried under the high school gymnasium but it is no longer there.
In fact, the whereabouts of Neosho's petrified man are unknown. No photographs have been found but Brown says he is still searching, hoping to find a photograph.
Some of the local residents who attended Brown's program had heard stories about the petrified man. One of those present is a descendent of Stillions and has been searching on his own.
Adam Cluck, however, has been largely forgotten.
"Someone needs to go to that spring and put a sign saying "This is where the petrified man was found," Brown said.