The eccentric Orval Elijah Brown (February 19, 1908-March 20, 2005) was born near Lizemores, in Clay County. Brown, a free-spirited individual, gained notoriety as the ‘‘Clay County Wild Man’’ during the Great Depression for his untamed physical appearance that included a flowing beard and the wearing of little more than a self-made loincloth. Despite his unkempt look, Brown claimed to live a disciplined life free of sex, drugs, and alcohol, and he continually worked to maintain his physical health.
Brown spent his early life on his family’s farm in the Big Sycamore section of Clay County. He attended school through the eighth grade, was an avid reader, enjoyed various outdoor pastimes, and demonstrated an aversion to clothing. By the age of 20, Brown’s behavior helped to make him a local folk hero. Hearing of a Tarzan-like man who lived in a cave, visitors flocked to the Brown homestead to have their picture taken with the ‘‘Wild Man’’ for the price of 25 cents. Brown also traveled to local carnivals and fairs to sell his photos.
Brown’s posing career was interrupted by service in the U.S. Army from 1930 to 1933, where he played football and took up boxing. He also served in the navy from 1941 to 1943. Upon his honorable discharge from the navy, he returned to Clay County. In September 1950, Brown was arrested and charged in the killing of his first cousin, Wilford Reedy. Accounts vary, but Brown said the act was in self defense. However, he pleaded insanity and spent nearly 18 years at the state mental hospital at Weston. He was released in 1968 and moved to Carl, in Nicholas County, to live with his sister until 1995.
In 1995, Brown’s health forced him to a veterans’ hospital in Beckley. Brown then moved to a retirement home in Roane County.
This Article was written by Brad Martin
Last Revised on February 19, 2013
Hickory and Lady Slippers: Life and Legend of Clay County People vol. 3. Clay County High School, 1985.
Wilson, Jill. Wild Man Still Startling Passers-by. Sunday Gazette-Mail, 9/30/1984.
Cite This Article
Martin, Brad "Clay County Wild Man." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 19 February 2013. Web. 23 May 2015.