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John Johnson - 1934 Article
Portland Sunday Telegram - Section D
Sunday December 16, 1934

Created July 1998

[only material not found in John's original story has been transcribed here]

"Fate Led Kidnapped Saco Boy Back Home 20 Years After"

John W. Johnson, "Snatched" By Indians As Child, Passed From Tribe To Tribe Becoming Medicine Man --- Was Recognized By Relative --- Medium Foretold Fate

by W. Whidden Johnson
(Written Especially For The Sunday Telegram)

Dr. Johnson in his later years

A hundred years have come and gone since the few residents of Factory Island, in Saco, were shaken by one of the strangest kidnapings this Country ever knew - a "snatch" that asked no ransom, that left no clues, and that was so cleverly executed that for 20 years no one even suspected that the disappearance of three year old, curly-haired, blue-eyed John Johnson was the result of a kidnapping. But a stranger sequel to a strange disappearance was yet to be unfolded and many people still remember the picturesque Indian healer, Dr. John W. Johnson, who was a familiar figure with the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show as it toured the State during the closing years of the last century.

The story of how he vanished from Factory Island and the amazing facts of his recognition by members of his family more than two decades later has been told by his son, Howard W. Johnson, now a resident of Kennebunkport, who accompanied his father on several of the medicine show tours and who has heard from his father many of the adventures that befell him in his eventful life.

Disappeared At Play
... This group, spreading out to all parts of the island, soon discovered the only clue to the strange disappearance that was ever found - the child's hat and coat on the bank of the Saco River. ...

... there remained for the parents only the erection of a suitable memorial to the memory of their son. Another child having been born and died in the meantime the parents decided to honor them both with a single grave stone, and there is to be seen today in the cemetery at Biddeford a stone bearing the names of John and his sister Catherine, together with the dates of the respective disappearance and death.

Fate Foretold By Medium

Identified By Scar
... The father was then [1855] in Lewiston, where he was connected with the textile mills, ...

Penobscot Chief Daylight

Indians Resentful
... The doctor who had treated him when he received the scar on his forehead was summoned and stated that the scar borne by the Indian was identical with that received by the small boy. ...

Stays With Indians

Returns To Family

Dr. Johnson on horseback at Camp Ellis 1899

Always A Wanderer
The habits of his early years, however, were never to be shaken off and to the end of his days - he lived to be nearly 80 - he remained a wanderer.

For a time after his return to his father, his mother having died some years before, he was enrolled at the academy at Limerick. Here he did well enough until some roving band of Indians would encamp in the vicinity. Then the desire for his old, free life would get the better of him and he would desert his studies for a time.

So serious did his derelictions become along this line that three strong men were hired to guard him. When word spread that Indians were in the neighborhood these men would seize the former tribesman and hustle him to a room of a building in the town and there hold him prisoner until the danger had passed. At other times he was taken to Sebago and hid in the home of a relative of the family, William Haley.

Studies With Physicians
Before being reunited with his father he had studied with Indian doctors and had become quite successful in the treatment of patients with Indian remedies. Even the white doctors of that time seldom attended medical school, most of them learning the arts of healing by serving as apprentices to some established doctor. To this profession the young man now naturally turned and was employed by several different doctors at various times, two of them being Dr. Wardwell and Dr. Wight, both of Gorham, N.H.

He also traveled widely about Maine and other New England states, practising medicine wherever he chanced to be. Although his remedies and treatments would seem crude to modern medical science he seldom had far to seek for patients and his son can tell of many cures that he made that would tax the skill of many doctors today. Not the least of these was the pulling that same son through cases of double pneumonia for four successive winters.

His travels were usually undertaken alone, for the white wife that he married in Jackson N.H. about 1869 did not share his love for roaming.

Dr. Johnson in the Garb of an Indian Scout

Joins Medicine Show
It would seem that the sudden popularity of the Indian Medicine Shows which sprang up all over the country about 1884 was made to order for this wandering, picturesque doctor. These shows traveled from town to town, putting on their entertainments of war dance, juggling, vaudeville acts and Indian lectures - chiefly on the merits of their remedies. When interest of the audience had been sustained to the proper pitch members of the group would pass among them, distributing their cures at a dollar a bottle.

It was with the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show that Dr. Johnson became attached, and his son well remembers one summer tour on which he accompanied the troupe through the towns of Bucksport, Corinna, Pittsfield, Dexter, Dover-Foxcroft, and other places in that locality.

Kickapoo Indian Oil, Kickapoo Indian Sagwa (a blood tonic), Kickapoo Cough Cure, and Kickapoo Worm Remedy were standard products of the company, and inasmuch as the contents could be mixed and bottled backstage for about seven cents each, and the dollars taken in as fast as the bottles could be handed out each evening, the show was somewhat of a gold mine for its owners.

The stirring eloquence of Dr. Johnson, quite as much as his picturesque character, was invaluable aid to the show. His knowledge of medical skill, too, despite what might seem his unorthodox way of acquiring it, was by no means below average of the day and to him fell the task of diagnosing the ills of those who came for service.

Still Remembered In Saco
William L. Garrish of Saco, an antique dealer, well remembers the striking figure and inspiring eloquence of the doctor as he spoke to audiences in that city, standing in the back of his wagon beneath the light of flaring torches.

Dr. Johnson & son Howard with a Sable Island Pony team He also recalls his daring feats of horsemanship, as he rode easily his vicious, untamed Sable Island ponies, holding his seat apparently without difficultly as they plunged and reared. He alone dared ride these half-wild, degenerate horses from the frigid sand spits of Sable Island: and perhaps his son, Howard, is the only man ever who succeeded in driving them as carriage horses. This he accomplished by the simple, if somewhat hazardous, expedient of having a carriage and harness of special strength made to order and then driving the animals into the nearest tree when they became unmanageable.

Belmont Newell aka Rolling Thunder

Early Life Little Known
... As for what little we do know, as well as the story of his life between the time he left main body of Indians and his recognition by his family, we are indebted to a book written by Mr. Freeman of Saco and printed by the Brown and Thurston of Portland in 1861. Only three copies of this book are now in existence, one of which is owned by Mr. Garrish. ...

Marries Indian Girl

Died in 1907
Despite his eventful life Dr. Johnson died peacefully enough in the Trull Hospital, in Biddeford, in 1907, survived by several sons and daughters of the white wife whom he married some years after his adventures with the Indians. Although he himself recognized that there was no Indian blood in his veins, his Indian friends were never reconciled to the fact. To the end he was held to be one of their own tribesmen, and even today his son, Howard, is stoutly maintained to be cousin of these red men with whom he became acquainted and with whom he has always continued the friendship.

Source: Portland Sunday Telegram - Section D
Sunday December 16, 1934
Contributed by: Don & Bev Newell

Ne-Do-Ba Comment - - - only information not found in John's original story has been transcribed here - photos appeared in a different sequence in the original.