A story about a humanoid ancestor trapped in ice, found in a sideshow carnival, which garnered interest from both the Smithsonian Institute and the FBI. Was it really a lost species in the human evolutionary chain, a neanderthal sub-species that still exists in the remote regions of the USA, or an elaborate hoax with more twists and turns than could possibly be imagined…
A couple of months ago we visited Austin’s Museum of the Weird, a collection of mostly carnivalesque relics from the “freak-shows” of old. It is definitely worth the price of admission in if you are in the area, not only because they have a number of interesting items on display, but because they really focus on the stories behind these things, and that’s always where the fascinating bits are. The headliner for this museum is the Minnesota Iceman, and while the specimen itself may be a little hard to see under the sheet of ice, the story behind it is filled with insane twists and turns and has become a mysterious legend in itself.
The story began in the late 1960’s with Frank Hansen, a showman, who was travelling the country fair circuits with a trailer that contained a body he touted as: “Preserved in ice for centuries perhaps a medieval man, rescued from the ice age”.
The exhibit was brought to the attention of two men, the noted TV presenter and biologist Ivan T. Sanderson, and the Belgium Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans, who both had an interest in cryptozoology. They were told that the block of ice had been found floating off Kamchatka in the Bering Sea by a Soviet fishing trawler who though that it was a frozen seal corpse. As the ice began to melt it became apparent that the creature was simian in nature, and the creature and the cargo of the ship had been seized by Chinese customs officers when the ship had come into port.
Still, the contents somehow made it onto the American country fair circuit, and Frank Hansen was displaying the creature in a freezer in his trailer.
The description of the creature, a hairy simian that was over 5ft tall, had non-opposable big toes (present in all primates except humans for climbing), had no prominent canines, and had a sagittal crest (a bone ridge running along top of his head that is present in the great apes and some early hominids).
Enticed by the description of these features, the two men arranged to meet with Hansen at his home in Rolling Hills, Minnesota. Upon arrival, they were told a different story to the origins of the specimen; that it had been fished up by Japanese whalers and Hansen had bought it legally in Hong Kong at the behest of a rich and powerful Hollywood movie mogul who wished to remain anonymous.
Sanderson and Heuvelmans were also refused a thorough scientific examination of the object, and were forbid from creating any mass publicity of the item, a puzzling request from a carnival showman whose fortunes relied on attention.
Hansen did allow the men to see the specimen though, letting them view it through the freezer over the next three days; they studied, photographed and sketched the creature. Their analysis determined that the creature was in fact nearly 6ft tall (1.8m), had the same proportions of a human male, but was covered in a thick mattering of hair that followed the hair patterns of the great apes, rather than humans (i.e.. like apes, hair was not present around the facial area, whereas human males grow facial hair). The hands and feet were also significantly larger than a humans, but did not have the opposable big toe of the great apes. The facial features also presented a snub nose, and a prominent brow ridge, but the fact it had one eye missing, and the other dislodged from its socket meant that some of the features were obscured. The iceman also had a broken arm through which bone was showing, so he had presumably suffered some trauma during his death, one which Heuvelmans theorized was consistent with a shotgun blast..
After examining the creature, both Sanderson and Heuvelmans were convinced of its authenticity. Reasons for this included firstly the smell of decomposing flesh coming from the freezer where a seal had come loose, the presence of lice (and symptoms of other parasites) on the body, visible details such as the pores encasing each individual hairs, and lastly the damage (an undamaged specimen would be much more enticing to sideshow customers, and faking sinew and skin tissue was much more detailed and difficult to create).
Despite their certainty that the iceman was a real specimen, they had serious doubts about its back story, firstly because they had been presented with two differing versions, secondly because maneuvering a block of ice of substantial size and proportions (the original ice block was reported to be much bigger) throughout countries was not an easy operation, and thirdly because the patterns of the bubbles in the ice were consistent with being artificially frozen.
Despite this, and the promises they had made to Hansen they would not publicize their findings, both Sanderson and Heuvelmans went away to write up their own scientific study of the creature with the intention of being published, and with a dual pronged plan of getting hold of the Iceman for further scientific analysis, Sanderson approaching the American authorities and FBI, while Heuvelmans hoped to gain leverage from the Smithsonian and other scientific circles.
Months later, Sanderson and Heuvelmans were ready to publish their study of what they agreed upon was a new human ancestor which they had named “Homo Pongoides”. Heuvalmans’ article was published in a Belgium Scientific Journal and released by the Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique to the press, while Sanderson’s was published in the popular magazine “Argosy”. Hansen was furious at the publicity that came with these articles, and took the specimen off show, claiming that the mysterious Hollywood tycoon had come and taken the iceman away, leaving him with a rubber replica that had been created as a decoy in case the authorities were ever notified.
With a rubber replica, the most Hansen could be charged with was fraud, something that would never seriously be pursued against a small- town carnival showman, an industry renowned for charlatans and tricksters. If the corpse was real, however, there was the possibility that it would be considered human and Hansen could be prosecuted for transporting a corpse across state lines, possible smuggling (there were no customs records for the Iceman), and there was the troubling fact the creature seemed to have been killed from a shotgun blast to the face.
In the spring of 1969, amid pressure to produce the corpse from the police, scientists and the FBI, Hansen invited television crews to his home and unveiled the trailer exhibit, with new signage saying it was a completely man-made artifact, a replica of the original Iceman. In addition, the exhibit was considerably different than the first iceman; it had been completely re-positioned and its teeth were now showing prominent canines where none had been before. All the seals on the glass container had also been replaced so the display was now completely airtight, and no smell could escape. The Smithsonian also received a call from an owner of a wax museum that collaborated the specimen had been made with the assistance of one of his employees. Satisfied that the whole endeavor had been a hoax, and the creature in Hansen’s possession was a rubber dummy, both the scientific community and the authorities lost interest in the creature and dropped the whole affair.
In 1970, the Iceman appeared in the news again, this time in the American magazine Saga, under the sensational headline: “I Killed the Ape-Man Creature of Whiteface”, written by Frank Hansen himself. In the article, Hansen claimed that he had been out hunting with some army buddies, and after becoming separated while following an injured deer, came across three of the hairy creatures feasting upon its carcass.
Hansen claimed that the Iceman lunged at him, and he shot and killed it in self-defense while fleeing for his life. Hansen also later claimed he felt guilty about the incident, and returned to the scene at a later date to examine the creature. After realizing it was half human he panicked, and unable to bury the corpse in the frozen ground had decided to take it home instead, and hide the evidence. He returned home with the creature, and confessed to his wife, who helped carry it into the basement. The smell of the rotting corpse became too intense after a couple of days, so the couple came up with the ingenious idea to put the creature in a freezer, and cover it in water so that it would become trapped in the ice, and free from smell, until it could be buried once the ground had thawed.
In the meanwhile, Hansen had retired, and started showing an old rare tractor that he had found on the show circuit. He figured he could make more money with an Iceman, so had asked his lawyer friend for advice. He claimed his friend advised him to tour the creature, but to also pay to get a replica made in case he was ever questioned, and he would then be easily able to provide both receipts, and witnesses to testify that the Iceman was fake. Hansen’s article ended with the statement that he would give the original specimen up for a full scientific study if he was granted full immunity for any possible charges, and until then would continue to show the fake specimen to the public. Neither the authorities or the scientific community was willing to get involved in the sage again, and public interest in an acknowledged fakery was sparse, so the Minnesota Iceman gradually disappeared from the show circuit after failing to attract crowds. It made a few sporadic appearances in public, occasionally being rented out by car dealerships, or malls, where it would be left unaccompanied with only a sign to tell the tale until even these business opportunities dried up and it seemed the story had been consigned to history.
In 2012 the Iceman resurfaced again, this time on eBay, with a price tag of $20,000. It failed to reach the minimum bid, but was finally bought by The Museum of the Weird where it resides today. The non-profit International Cryptozoology Museum hosted the Iceman, ice free for the first time for charity, and in doing so proved that it was a man-made model, but Hansen never claimed otherwise. The original Iceman has never been recovered, and while some theorize that the model was just defrosted and refrozen rather than switched out, the mystery remains today. Both Sanderson and Huevelmans went to their deathbeds insisting on the authenticity of the first creature on show.
Picture Credits: Argosy Magazine; Saga Magazine
This story is based on the events recounted by Bernard Huevelmans in his book Neanderthal: The Strange Saga of the Minnesota Iceman, Translated by Paul Leblond which you can get here:
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