Thawing the Minnesota Iceman
This sideshow attraction convinced a few real scientists that it was an actual ape-man.
by Brian Dunning
May 16, 2017
Today's is an episode near and dear to my heart. As I've mentioned once or twice on the show before, I grew up obsessed with Bigfoot. As a boy, I read every book on the subject I could get my hands on — all of which were completely credulous and promoted Bigfoot as a real animal. I read them to best prepare myself for some inevitable eventual encounter with the beast, and I marveled that so many people seemed unconcerned about this terrible monster that lurked behind every tree. And when I read of the Minnesota Iceman — apparently, the complete preserved corpse of a frozen Bigfoot in a block of ice — I breathed a sigh of relief that now the world would be forced to acknowledge the reality of this simian threat. Today we're going to look at the facts of what's known about this relic, and see what conclusions we can draw from it.
The Minnesota Iceman was a six-foot-tall hairy ape-man laying on its back in a block of ice, inside a large freezer sealed with a thick pane of glass on top. Some of the ice was clear, some was murky, but enough could be seen to make out its basic features. Its face had an upturned nose with large nostrils, and one of its eyes was dislodged as part of an apparent head wound. Its left hand was thrown up over its head, while its right hand was oddly holding its penis up across its abdomen. Its introduction to the world was inauspicious: it was on the carnival and sideshow circuit.
One chilly day in November of 1968, a young naturalist at the University of Minnesota, Terry Cullen, was having a scholarly look at the animals on display at the International Livestock Exhibition in Chicago. His attention was drawn to carnival barker Frank D. Hansen, displaying what he described as "The Siberskoye Creature". Cullen was intrigued; indeed, he was enthralled. For the requested 35¢, he studied it as thoroughly as circumstances permitted, and concluded that it was indeed a real body. One of the leading authors on Bigfoot and abominable snowmen was Ivan T. Sanderson, the noted naturalist and occultist, and Cullen knew of him through having read some of his articles and books. Cullen decided to contact him about the creature.
When Sanderson got the word, he was hosting an assorted group of occultists and paranormalists (as he often did) on his New Jersey property nicknamed The Farm. Among them happened to be the father of cryptozoology, the Belgian-French zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans. Like Batman and Robin getting the bat signal, Sanderson and Heuvelmans immediately went to go see Hansen, and on December 17, found themselves face to face (through the ice and glass) with The Siberskoye Creature. It's their respective reporting of what they saw — Sanderson mainly to the Bigfoot community, and Heuvelmans mainly to the European zoology community — that launched the Minnesota Iceman into the pop culture consciousness.
However, the two men saw the creature very differently. Like Cullen, Sanderson and Heuvelmans were both completely convinced of the creature's authenticity, i.e., they were satisfied that it was not a hoax latex mannequin, or anything like that. Heuvelmans published in a prestigious Belgian journal his theory that the Iceman was a new species, which he name Homo Pongoides, that had evolved backwards from Neanderthal and became more ape-like. Sanderson, meanwhile, wrote an article for an Italian journal forwarding the theory that the Iceman would likely turn out to be a relative of Gigantopithecus.
But Sanderson also worked at the Iceman from another angle. He was so convinced that it was a real creature of great zoological importance that it should be rescued from the carnival circuit and transferred into the hands of the authorities. He decided that getting Hansen busted for breaking some law would be the easiest way to do this. Sanderson alerted the Bureau of Customs, Department of Agriculture, Department of the Interior, and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. He also brought the case to his contacts at the Smithsonian Institution, whereupon its secretary, Dillon Ripley, reported to the FBI (in fact he wrote J. Edgar Hoover personally) that Hansen was transporting a corpse across state lines, and that a scientific journal had identified the corpse as a human who had been shot.
It was a very close shave for Frank Hansen, because nothing ever really came from any of Sanderson's reports; apparently none of the government agencies were too concerned about a sideshow attraction. However, Dr. John Napier, director of primate biology at the Smithsonian Institution, did want to see the creature for himself, and he wrote to Hansen to ask if he could. Apparently Hansen had been spooked by the unwanted attention, because the reply that Napier received was from a "family member" saying that Hansen had disappeared to "Florida or California or somewhere" and was unreachable, and that the Iceman's true owner had reclaimed it so it was now permanently gone. And from that moment on, Hansen responded to every official or scientific inquiry with the claim that what he was exhibiting was merely a rubber model made to look like the original.
That his Iceman was a rubber sideshow gaff, and not the body of any living creature, may have been the one thing Hansen was ever honest about. This was writ large for all to see in 2013 when the A&E television network featured it in an episode of its reality series Shipping Wars, an episode titled "Crypt-Prank-ology". A truck driver picks up the Iceman in Cottage Grove, MN — still in Hansen's original glass-topped freezer — to transport it to its new home at the Museum of the Weird in Austin, TX. At the beginning of the journey, a veneer of ice still covers the Iceman; but by the time it arrives 36 hours later, much of the ice has melted, and A&E cameras caught plenty of nice, clear video of the Iceman's face and raised arm, clear of the ice, and still looking as fresh as the day they were molded. That no effort was made to keep the Iceman frozen for the trip, and that its new owner expressed not the slightest misgivings over its balmy condition, is a clue that he wasn't too worried about any actual meat thawing out.
Also featured in the episode was Lyle Blackburn, whom Skeptoid regulars might remember from his book on the Boggy Creek monster. Blackburn did a writeup of the show for Cryptomundo, the cryptozoology website, wherein he openly referred to the Iceman as both a sideshow attraction and a gaff. Clearly, vanishingly little support remains, even among the staunchest in the cryptozoology community, for the Iceman being anything other than a rubber dummy.
The story clung to by true believers in the Minnesota Iceman is that one that Hansen made up to silence the unwanted attention: yes, today's Iceman is rubber, but there had originally been an actual ape-man body from which the replica was modeled. For example, here is part of a report on a Bigfoot enthusiast website from an attendee of the 2013 Cryptopalooza conference:
Mendoza reported that both the supposed original body encased in ice and the purported duplicate for display had been missing for years and had not been seen since the late 70's. What was not directly confirmed if it was actually the frozen display body or a possible duplicated created by the original owner promoter and exhibitor Frank Hansen, who travel around the country to display the supposed frozen creature.
But we have at least two strong reasons to dismiss the possibility that there was ever any Iceman other than today's rubber gaff. First of all, the only evidence of such a body was the verbal claim made by Frank Hansen, who had also made up at least three different stories to explain the creature's origin. To say he had a credibility problem would be to put it mildly. And second, we have the responses of Sanderson and Heuvelmans — the only scholarly men to have examined the Iceman before Hansen said he switched it for a replica.
Upon learning that Hansen told Napier the current Iceman was just a replica, Sanderson compared their photos from their original viewing against newly published newspaper photos of the version now claimed by Hansen to be a rubber replacement. He found that the patterns of the ice crystals under the glass were the same, and also that it appeared to be exactly the same freezer unit. He could not believe that Hansen had sent the original back to an apocryphal owner and then contrived a replacement that would have matched in details such as these. Heuvelmans felt the same way, and wrote:
I was the only one to believe that it was still the actual corpse. True, I had a definite advantage over everyone else — I was the only one to have many excellent photos of the original exhibit… I had been sent a few color slides of Hansen's new exhibit. After a comparison with my own, I had to agree with the evidence: it was the same and only specimen.
By April, just four months after the Iceman first appeared, Napier reported to the world that the Smithsonian no longer took any part of the story seriously. In a final footnote, the June 1969 issue of the Smithsonian Torch reported that the Iceman was "Made from latex rubber and hair by a group of exhibits specialists on the West Coast" for a cost of $3,500, a princely sum in the mid 1960s. A man they said was involved in its creation said that:
It is a fantastic, magnificent fabrication. It makes King Kong and the Frankenstein Monster mere toy manufacturer rejects by comparison.
The "magnificent fabrication" is best appreciated as an exhibit of Americana, a keepsake from the disappearing niche of carnival sideshow culture. Considered in this light, the Minnesota Iceman is a brilliant and admirable success. It did exactly what it was supposed to do — to mystify and terrify — to me, when I was a boy, as it did for so many others who got to see it in person, and hear the colorful Frank Hansen bark out his tale of the monster's strange discovery in the ice. For me, the Minnesota Iceman was yet another case where actually solving the mystery provided a reward much more valuable than what I had hoped for when I simply accepted the story. This is the rule, not the exception, here on Skeptoid. Never stop at the popular version of the urban legend — unless, of course, getting stuck in the ice is as far as you want to go.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Thawing the Minnesota Iceman." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
16 May 2017. Web.
16 Jul 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4571>
References & Further Reading
Berklacy, G. "Ripley Asks FBI Aid to Hunt Iceman." The Smithsonian Torch. 1 Apr. 1969, Number 4: 2.
Blackburn, L. "Transporting the Minnesota Iceman." Cryptomundo. Cryptomundo, 28 Jun. 2013. Web. 11 May. 2017. <http://cryptomundo.com/cryptozoo-news/transporting-the-minnesota-iceman/>
Editors. "Iceman Mystery Loses Steam." The Smithsonian Torch. 1 Jun. 1969, Number 6: 4.
Hansen, F. "I Killed The Ape-Man Creature Of Whiteface!" Saga. 1 Jul. 1970, July/70.
Heuvelmans, B. "Note Preliminaire sur un Specimen Conserve dans la glace d'une forme encore inconnu d'Hominide Vivian Homo Pongoindes." Bulletin Institute Royale des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique. 1 Jan. 1968, Volume 45, Number 4: 1-24.
Napier, J. Bigfoot: The Yeti and Sasquatch in Myth and Reality. London: Cape, 1972.
Regal, B. Searching for Sasquatch: Crackpots, Eggheads, and Cryptozoology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 70-79.
Sanderson, I. "Preliminary Description of the External Morphology of What Appeared to be the Fresh Corpse of a Hitherto Unknown Form of Living Hominid." Genus. 1 Jan. 1969, Volume 25: Numbers 1/4: 249-84.
Smith, B., Radford, B., Stollznow, K., Crowley, M. "Transcript for The Iceman Goeth." Monster Talk. The Skeptics Society, 8 Jan. 2013. Web. 9 May. 2017. <http://www.skeptic.com/podcasts/monstertalk/10/12/01/transcript/>
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