It’s December 9, 1968 and someone is calling Ivan T. Sanderson on the telephone.
You may remember Sanderson from “Worse Than Frankenstein” earlier this series, but just in case here’s a brief recap of everything you need to know. Born in Edinburgh in 1911, he studied zoology at Cambridge, did some field work after graduation, and soon realized that he made a better writer than a zoologist. Soon he was a successful science writer with a syndicated newspaper column, numerous magazine articles, and several best-selling books under his belt. He was also a popular guest on radio and television programs, where he brought along strange and exotic animals to discuss with the host. A strange combination of Mary Roach and Joan Embery, if you will.
In the 1950s Sanderson’s reputation suffered due to his preoccupation with the paranormal. In and of itself, this wasn’t a problem; it’s a subject that the general public loves, and it can be fun when discussed responsibly. Sanderson did not discuss it responsibly, never signaling to the audience when he was taking off his scientist hat and putting on his wild speculation hat. He did not help his case by being overly credulous and prone to double down instead of admitting he’d made a mistake. At the low point of his career, a group of pranksters tricked him into thinking there was a 17’ tall prehistoric penguin walking the sands of Miami Beach at night.
In the end what really sunk him was his pursuit of the abominable snowman.
In the early 20th Century the world was captivated by the quest to summit Mount Everest. The mountaineers involved often embellished exploits with local legends, which frequently featured a legendary beast known as the “yeti.” Pseudo-scientists took these tall tales at face value and concluded that there was something unknown to modern science living at the roof of the world. It was extremely unlikely, but not impossible. We discover new species all the time, even big ones: mountain gorillas had merely been a legend before 1902.
The pursuit of the yeti led to the birth of the pseudo-science of “cryptozoology,” the study of unknown animals. Sanderson was at the vanguard of this movement, and had even coined its name. Alas, the yeti refused to sit still for photographs. Its scat, fur, and severed limbs always turned out to be misidentified bits of other animals. These setbacks did not deter cryptozoologists, who hypothesized that their quarry was a new species of primate, perhaps even a “relic population” of a hominid like gigantopithecus that had somehow managed to survive to modern times in the isolated Himalayan biome.
Once Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary summited Everest in 1953, public interest in the yeti waned. As research grants dried up, cryptozoologists shifted their focus to include legends of hairy wild men all over the world. Then in 1958 a road construction crew in Humboldt County, CA was attacked by an unseen creature which they called “Bigfoot,” and the rest is history. The name caught the public imagination and the money started flowing again. It didn’t hurt that it was a lot easier to get to Oregon than it was to get to Tibet. Bigfoot research had the exact same problems as yeti research, like a complete lack of physical evidence, but that never stopped true believers like Sanderson from speculating wildly about its nature.
By the late 1960s few people took Sanderson seriously. His books had fallen out of print and his syndicated newspaper column was long gone. He still published magazine articles, but not in prestigious publications like the Saturday Evening Post — he had to make do with bottom-feeding rags like Fate and Argosy. Sanderson grew increasingly bitter, and convinced himself that his critics were the ones who were deluded.
Most of the skeptics are actually crackpots, yakking away in a vacuum of make-believe.
The Siberskoye Creature
That brings us back to December 1968. At the time Sanderson was hosting a group of cryptozoologists, occultists, and other explorers of paranormal at his farm in northern New Jersey.
Among those guests was “the father of cryptozoology,” Belgian scientist Bernard Heuvelmans. Heuvelmans had a doctorate in zoology from the Université libre de Bruxelle, but had become fascinated cryptozoology after reading a Saturday Evening Post article by Sanderson about the possibility that dinosaurs surviving into pre-modern times had inspired mythological creatures. He quickly became the field’s leading light, publishing numerous best-selling books including On the Track of Unknown Animals and In the Wake of Sea Serpents. He even consulted with cartoonist Hergé on the plot of Tintin in Tibet, where the eternal boy reporter has an encounter with a benevolent yeti.
On December 9th, Sanderson received a telephone call from long-time fan Terry Cullen. Two years before Cullen and his friends had encountered a strange sideshow exhibit at the Wisconsin State Fair. ”The Siberskoye Creature,” “history’s most incredible discovery preserved in a grave of ice” — a grand name for a fancy trailer exhibiting what looked like a gorilla crammed into a refrigerator.
Carnival sideshows have a long history of trickery, stitching together cryptids from pieces of other animals, displaying models as corpses but hiding them in environments that defeat close examination, that sort of thing. Cullen’s friends thought the Siberskoye Creature was exactly this sort of put-on and laughed. Cullen, though, was impressed by the level of detail and thought the figure frozen in the ice might be a real abominable snowman. He followed the exhibit around for several months, trying to learn all he could about the creature, but had lost track of it at the end of the summer exhibition season.
A friend of his had just spotted the Siberskoye Creature at the Chicago International Livestock Exhibition. Cullen thought Sanderson should go check it out.
Sanderson made some calls, only to find out that the Livestock Exhibition had closed. Its organizers put him in contact with the Siberskoye Creature’s exhibitor, Frank D. Hansen of Minnesota. Sanderson dashed off a telegram asking if he could come see the Creature. Hansen agreed, so Sanderson asked Heuvelmans if he wanted to take a road trip.
Heuvelmans thought it would be wild goose chase. From Cullen’s description he figured the “abominable snowman” was just a crested macaque or something similar. On the other hand, this was a chance to see a part of the United States that he had never seen. He said yes.
The next day they into Sanderson’s car and started driving. On December 17th they arrived at the home of Frank Hansen in Rollingstone, MN.
He was not happy to see them.
Hansen had been expecting a magazine feature writer who wanted a private tour of his star attraction. What he got was the science editor of Argosy and an internationally famous zoologist.
Hansen tried to back out of his agreement, claiming he didn’t need the publicity and didn’t want the Siberskoye Creature to undergo any sort of scientific examination. He had been exhibiting the Creature as a mystery, which was only possible if he remained deliberately ignorant. If he knew it was fake, he would have to remove it from display or become a liar. If he knew it was real, he would have to turn it over to scientists for study. Either way, he was endangering his livelihood.
In the end, Hansen relented when Sanderson gave his solemn word that they would not publish anything about what they saw. Heuvelmans, rather pointedly, said nothing.
Hansen led the two men into the trailer, and there it was, in an ordinary-looking glass-topped chest freezer. The block of ice inside was hard to see through, thick and cloudy, but there was definitely something frozen within. Some sort of a primate, though not like any they had ever seen.
The Creature was chimp-like in some ways, gorilla-like in others, and distressingly human in others. It was approximately 6′ tall and almost completely covered with dark hair except for its face and palms. It was lying on its back in a pose reminiscent of a dying faun, with the knees slightly bent, the right arm laying on the belly, the left arm thrown back over its head. Its legs were short and stumpy, and its arms and fingers were unusually long. It had a sloping forehead and a pug nose, and an expression of sadness or agony.
It was also definitely male because it had a visible dong, which both men wrote far too much about later.
The Creature had also clearly been shot in the head, blowing out the back of the skull and pushing the left eye out of its socket. There was even blood in the ice, which looked surprisingly fresh and red.
To modern eyes, the Creature looks like something from of The Planet of the Apes, or maybe from the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey — though to be fair to Sanderson and Heuvelmans, those movies wouldn’t be released for another four months.
The two men were convinced they had discovered the perfectly preserved remains of some distant human ancestor. And not some desiccated corpse thousands of years old — no, the ice inside the refrigerator was machine-made, and fresh. This had been frozen recently.
Sanderson thought it was North American, and probably a gigantopithecus. Heuvelmans thought it was Asian, and from a new species he dubbed homo pongoides (“chimp-like man”)
They excitedly asked Hansen where he had found the Creature.
Hansen had told Cullen that it had been dragged out of the Bering Sea by a Soviet fishing trawler, confiscated by the Chinese, and eventually made its way to Hong Kong where Hansen had purchased it. Now he told a slightly different story, that it had been pulled out of the Bering Sea by Japanese whalers, and then discovered in a Hong Kong deep freeze by a Hollywood location scout who had purchased it on behalf of a reclusive California millionaire. The millionaire had authorized Hansen to display the Creature at state fairs and carnivals across the country.
Had the Creature ever been thoroughly examined?
Only once, Hansen said. When he had shaved down the ice to make the Creature more visible, some hair samples were sent to experts for analysis. Their findings were on file at the ”California office,” though Hansen had never seen them. He offered to get copies for his guests. (He never did.)
Could they make an examination of the Creature now?
Hansen hemmed and hawed, but in the end agreed provided his guests abided by strip club rules: they could look, but not touch. For the next three days the two men more or less lived out of Hansen’s trailer, taking photographs and making sketches of the Creature and discussing their observations.
In a thoughtless moment Sanderson took one of the flood lights they were using to illuminate the Creature and placed it on the ice cold glass of the refrigeration unit, which shattered. Hansen was furious and fumed about how much it would cost him to replace the cracked glass. At the same time a foul odor began to seep through the cracks, which convinced both men that the body inside was genuine — and rotting. It also confused Hansen, who claimed the Creature shouldn’t be able to rot as he had always kept the temperature below 5°F. (He was wrong about that — creatures frozen in ice do rot, just slowly. Frozen mammoths and cavemen are usually in environments like peat bogs or tundras that inhibit decomposition.)
At one point Sanderson became obsessed with the idea of x-raying the Creature and asked Hansen what it would cost. He offered to buy the Creature for $500,000 if that was what it took. (Sanderson didn’t have the money, but apparently believed he could raise it from scientific institutions.)
Hansen looked thoughtful and said he’d ask the owner.
The next day he announced that the millionaire would not allow the exhibit to be x-rayed, nor would he sell at any price. The millionaire was also furious that an examination had taken place without his permission, even one as cursory as this. He was threatening to cancel Hansen’s contract if he didn’t get rid of the two busybodies immediately.
Sanderson and Heuvelmans were politely shown the door.
The Minnesota Iceman Affair
On the long drive back to New Jersey they discussed their next steps. Clearly the Siberskoye Creature was the most important zoological discovery of the 20th Century, far too valuable to leave in the hands of a carnie like Frank Hansen. They had to do something, and do something fast before it rotted away inside a coffin of ice.
They decided Heuvelmans, with his impeccable academic credentials, would present the case to the scientific community. Sanderson would present their case in the popular press, and put pressure on his remaining contacts in the American scientific community.
Sanderson drafted up a quick memorandum summarizing the legal, ethical, and scientific issues surrounding the Creature, arguing that for the greater good it needed to be removed from Hansen’s care. For good measure, Sanderson concluded the memo with several paragraphs ranting about organized religion and airing his personal grievances about the scientific establishment.
Several copies were mailed out to notable primatologists and anthropologists including Carleton S. Coon of Harvard, John R. Napier of the Smithsonian Institution, W.C. Osman-Hill of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, and George A. Agogino of the Paleo-Indian Institute. Additional copies were sent to the Departments of the Interior, Health, Education, and Welfare. The response was lukewarm at best; several parties were intrigued, but everyone thought Sanderson’s conclusions were premature at best and that the situation was hardly urgent.
That was all behind the scenes, though. Sanderson made a far bigger impact on Christmas Day. That evening he was a guest on The Tonight Show, and mentioned the Creature in his banter with guest host Jack Jones.
That earned him a visit from a panicky Frank Hansen. The showman confessed that his earlier stories were complete fabrications. He had no idea where the Creature came from. He had heard about it while he was in the Air Force, from several airmen who had been stationed in Hong Kong. After his retirement from the service he teamed up with the millionaire to purchase and exhibit it. The primary purpose of Hansen’s visit was to stress that the millionaire was now insisting on strict secrecy. The Creature would never be x-rayed or examined in any detail. He also reminded Sanderson of his pledge to not publish any his observations. (The desire for secrecy seems strange, given that the Siberskoye Creature was still being exhibited to the public and had already been prominently featured in local newspapers and trade publications.)
Sanderson could not resist a chance to gloat. He told Hansen that Heuvelmans was preparing a paper for publication in a prestigious European scientific journal, and that he had just submitted the first draft of an article about the Creature to Argosy. Hansen grew angry, stormed out and told Sanderson this would not end well.
At this point, Sanderson decided to ratchet up the pressure by sending copies of his memo to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Customs. Now he was arguing that the Siberskoye Creature was human, or at least human enough to deserve the protection of the law. If it had been shot, it would need to be autopsied to determine the cause of death. Additionally, there were rules and regulations that needed to be followed when a human body was transported both into and inside the United States. Sanderson also suspected he had been purchased not in Hong Kong, but in Red China, which would make him contraband.
Neither organization was terribly interested. Customs never responded. The FBI made a brief pro forma investigation — basically, calling Hansen and asking him a few questions — and then told Sanderson that they could not act on suspicion alone, only on concrete evidence that a crime had been committed.
Heuvelmans’s paper about the Creature appeared in print on March 1st — but Sanderson had beaten him to the punch by publishing a short paper a less reputable scientific journal. Heuvelmans was understandably upset, accusing Sanderson of violating their gentleman’s agreement. Sanderson fired back, accusing Heuvelmans of dragging his feet when time was of the essence. The heated argument brought an end to their partnership and their friendship.
While the two men bickered, the memo finally reached its intended audience. John Napier of the Smithsonian was not entirely convinced that the Siberskoye Creature was real, but he was convinced that it was worth checking out. Napier reached out to his superiors, who agreed. The Institution wrote to Hansen, politely asking for permission to examine the Creature, because it might prove to be “an outstanding contribution to human knowledge.”
Hansen’s response shocked them. He said the Siberskoye Creature had been withdrawn from exhibition by the owner, who had replaced it with a clever replica that would tour in its place. That shocked Napier and the Smithsonian, who became worried that the greatest scientific discovery of the century might vanish without a trace. They decided to put pressure on Hansen, throwing a spotlight on his activities and limiting his options. So they issued a press release announcing that the Smithsonian Institution was interested in investigating the Siberskoye Creature.
The papers had a field day with the idea that the Smithsonian was trying to hunt down and study a real life Bigfoot, and the story of the “Minnesota Iceman” briefly became a national sensation. The May issue of Argosy only threw more fuel on the fire. Sanderson’s article was the cover story, and featured sensational color illustrations of the exhibit by artist John Schoenherr that made the Iceman seem more human than ape.
That controversy was good publicity, so Frank Hansen held a press conference of his own to announce that he would be taking the Iceman on tour for the 1969 carnival season. There were two major changes to the exhibit: he was adding “As investigated by the FBI!” to all of the advertising, and the price for a peek had rocketed up to 35¢. Several photographers were on hand to take pictures of the showman and his exhibit.
After seeing their photos, Sanderson became convinced that Hansen was telling the truth — the original Iceman had been replaced by a fake.
Heuvelmans reached a different conclusion, the original Iceman was still on display, but had been defrosted and refrozen in a slightly different pose.
John Napier and the Smithsonian agreed with Heuvelmans that the original Iceman was still on display, but they were starting to suspect that it had always been a fake.
Initially Napier had been cautiously optimistic that the Iceman was an authentic specimen, but the more he thought about it the more everything felt off. The Iceman’s fur was in an agouti pattern, virtually unknown among the higher primates. Its proportions were weird; they looked natural enough in the moment but when you compared them to other apes and hominids they were ever so subtly off. Then there were his humanlike characteristics: in some cases the Iceman combined the worst features of ape and man, and in others split the difference between, leaving it unsuited to thrive in any environment.
These suspicions were confirmed at the beginning of May when the Smithsonian received a call from a California wax museum, who claimed that one of their contractors had fabricated the Iceman for Frank Hansen in 1967. Napier and his team did some digging and discovered that early that year Hansen had approached several Hollywood special effects houses about creating a sideshow exhibit. There was no millionaire involved, there was nothing in Hansen’s proposal about duplicating an existing body, and he was very up front about the fact that he was going to pass it off as the real thing.
There is some debate about who actually created the sculpture. The usual suspects trotted out include special effects artists Howard Ball, Werner Keppler, and Pete and Betty Corrall. However, there’s no solid evidence of any of their involvement, and it’s possible they may have all been involved at different stages of the project, with Ball doing the sculpting, Keppler doing the casting, and the Corralls doing detail work with the fur.
On May 8th, the Smithsonian announced it had no further interest in the Minnesota Iceman.
The Smithsonian Institution has withdrawn its interest in the so-called “Minnesota Iceman” as it is satisfied that the creature is simply a carnival exhibit made of latex rubber and hair. Information has been received from a reliable source, that the Smithsonian is not at liberty to disclose, concerning the ownership of the model as well as the manner, date, and place of its fabrication. This information, combined with some recent suggestions received from Ivan T. Sanderson, the science writer and original “discoverer” of the Iceman, as to the manner in which the creature could have been artificially made, has convinced us beyond reasonable doubt that the “original” model and the present so called “substitute” are one and the same.
Sanderson and Heuvelmans continued to maintain that they had seen a real body, but as far as anyone was concerned, the Minnesota Iceman affair was over.
Well, almost. In July Hansen took the Iceman on a tour of Canada’s Prairie Provinces. When he tried to cross back into the United States, he was stoped by customs officials who insisted he needed a permit to transport human remains across an international border. Hansen insisted the Iceman was only an illusion, but also refused to allow customs officials to examine it. In a blind panic he called Sanderson, who told him to just allow them to x-ray it (which was all he had ever wanted). That drove Hansen into an indignant rage. After the showman calmed down, he was able resolve his problem through a direct appeal to his U.S. Senator… one Walter F. Mondale.
Eventually Hansen hit the point of diminishing returns. At the end of the year he stopped touring and announced that he was returning the Iceman to its owner, who would finally conduct scientific tests on it. (If those tests ever happened, no one has ever seen them.)
Hansen couldn’t resist one more twist of the knife. He published a tell-all article, “I Shot The Ape-Man Creature of Whiteface!”, in the July 1970 issue of the men’s magazine Saga. (Other cover stories included “Shark Hunters!” and “Britt Eklund: Stockholm’s Sensational Sexport!”) It told a completely different version of the Iceman’s origin: that Hansen himself had shot it in 1960 while hunting near the Whiteface Reservoir, some 20 miles north of Duluth. Panicking and thinking he might be on the hook for murder, he shoved it into a chest freezer which he just left in his garage for seven years before deciding to make a model and go on tour. The twist is that he starts off exhibiting the model instead of the real specimen, only to switch it with the real deal when the heat comes down. He also graciously offered to allow the scientific community to test the Iceman if they didn’t believe him — provided, of course, that he was given complete immunity for any violates of Federal, state, or local law he may have committed. All of them, mind you, not just ones specifically related to the Iceman itself.
It’s a clever story. Too clever by half. It neatly resolves all of the potential crimes Hansen might have been accused of like smuggling, transporting human remains without a permit, and fraud while simultaneously making everyone who had been investigating the Iceman look like idiots. An airtight story with no ambiguities is probably a lie. It doesn’t help that if Hansen future-proofed his story, making sure he covered all the bases by ending with the following disclaimer:
There will surely be skeptics that will brand this story a complete fabrication. Possibly it is, I am not under oath and, should the situation dictate, I will deny every word of it.Frank D. Hansen, “I Shot the Ape-Man Creature of Whiteface!”, Saga (July 1970)
Heuvelmans’s final thoughts about the Iceman were presented in his 1974 book L’Homme de Néanderthal est toujours vivant (“Neanderthal Man Is Still Alive”). It’s… not great. Heuvelmans starts off wondering if the Iceman is an Ainu (who, while hairier than the average Japanese person, are not exactly monkey people); then he wonders if it could some sort of Mongol/monkey crossbreed created by the Soviets to work in the salt mines of Siberia; and finally discards his hypothesis that it represented an new hominid for the hypothesis that it was a Neanderthal which had somehow survived into the 20th Century. Even though the Iceman had little physical resemblance to a Neanderthal.
That sets the tone for the rest of the book, which is a masterclass in racism, cluelessness and utter credulity. Heuvelmans rants against the scientific community for not accepting his blurry photographs as unimpeachable evidence. He even speculates that the Iceman was killed in Vietnam and smuggled into the United States by the CIA as part of a heroin-smuggling operation that apparently dabbled in importing sideshow attractions. His most jaw-dropping claim is that Hollywood special effects are good enough to create a convincing fake. Apparently he still hadn’t seen Planet of the Apes.
He would have been better off staying quiet.
Where Everyone Went Wrong
Believe it or not, there are still people out there who believe the Minnesota Iceman was a real cryptid. You can find them all over the internet debating what the Iceman really was, where it really came from, and where it is now.
These people are idiots.
There is a concept in the world of the carnival (and also in related fields like stage magic and pro wrestling) called “kayfabe.” The idea is that these types of performance succeed by creating a heightened bubble of unreality in which both the audience and performers are active participants.
The audience’s obligation is simple — don’t be a dick. You can figure out how the magician does his trick, that the pro wrestlers help each other pull off moves, that the sideshow monster is just a mutilated shark in formaldehyde. You don’t blurt that out, though, because that would ruin the fun for others who are still caught up in the spell.
The performer’s obligation is far more demanding. They must maintain the fiction of the performance at all times. They cannot break character when the rube has it all figured out. They cannot confess the truth when they’re off the job or even on their deathbed. In effect, the performer is forced to play a character 24/7/365.
Kayfabe started to vanish as audiences became more sophisticated and information became more easily available. Stage magic sawed it in half back in the days of Houdini, and pro wrestling whacked it over the head with a steel chair in the late 1990s. It still lingers, to some extent, at the carnival sideshow.
In some respects, Frank D. Hansen was in a master of kayfabe. Just look at the way he tricked Ivan Sanderson and Bernard Heuvelmans. He spent top dollar to create a masterpiece of illusion, and made damn sure that it could never be closely examined by hiding it under two inches of ice two feet away from the audience. Then he hooked his marks by appealing to their biases — they wanted to see a wild man, so they saw a wild man. He kept them on the line by creating a fanciful story about the exhibit full of questions that could never be satisfactorily answered. If they became frustrated by their inability to find out more, he could deflect that ire onto a non-existent owner.
In other respects, Frank D. Hansen was terrible at kayfabe. He had a tendency to overcomplicate things, and his stories had to keep evolving because he hadn’t thought through all the angles — like, how had he managed to obtain something fished out of the sea by the Soviets and later confiscated by the Chicoms. His new additions tended to provide too much detail and back him into a corner. When he could add no more, he would then have to radically change his story in ways that should have made it obvious he was lying.
In the end, though, Frank D. Hansen was the worst at kayfabe, and here’s why: it’s not a suicide pact. When the state puts you on trial for witchcraft, when the athletic commission starts asking you for permits, when the FBI shows up on your doorstep asking if you have smuggled the remains of a hitherto-unknown hominid into the country and are storing it in a freezer in your garage — you can break character and tell the truth.
Hansen, though, had trapped himself. What had started a way of guerrilla marketing his exhibit to a hacky magazine quickly turned into an escalating series of crises that involved the national press, the international scientific community, and multiple branches of the United States government. Hansen could have made this go away early on by being honest. Instead, he chose to double down and put himself in a situation where had to keep lying or the backlash would destroy his business. This castle of lies was built on sand, and ultimately collapsed on itself anyway.
So that’s it. There never was a hominid body to be found. Only two unusually gullible scientists, and a carnie who didn’t know how to quit while he was ahead.
The Minnesota Iceman, though, is still going strong. He disappeared from the public eye for four decades, but in 2013 he was auctioned off on eBay and purchased by Steve Busti, who put it on display at the “Museum of the Weird” in Austin, TX.
Ivan T. Sanderson was also responsible for crafting the legend of the the Flatwoods Monster (“Worse Than Frankenstein”).
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