The Mystery of the Severed Feet
Ever since 2007, periodic news reports of a particularly grisly kind have come out of the Pacific Northwest: the finding of a shoe on the beach — with a human foot still inside. The first was found by a 12-year-old girl on Jedediah Island in British Columbia. Over the years since, at least twenty more human feet have been found on the coasts of the Salish Sea, the small sea that separates Washington State from British Columbia, and includes the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound, and countless smaller waterways and islands. The prevailing suspicion has always been that, short of some natural explanation, there must be a serial killer on the loose with some kind of a foot fetish. Today we're going to see if the skeptical eye can find the truth.
Just a warning that may have been obvious from the title: we're going to be talking about parts of dead bodies today. It's a ghoulish topic, and it involves valuable and interesting human beings who lost their lives, to the sadness of many. So if this is something that's not your jam — and honestly, I hope none of you who are listening consider this to be your jam — this may be an episode for you to skip.
The basic facts are little more than what I already summarized: More than twenty partially decomposed human feet, in a sock, in a shoe, and usually a sneaker or a lighter shoe, not one that would have sunk. Most have been identified, and nothing has been known about the circumstances of the disappearances of all but a few of the deceased.
Naturally, there have been plenty of conjectures thrown out there by the curious. Let's have a look first at the most popular:
The work of a serial killer?
It's the first place many of our suspicions go: Some psycho is killing people, chopping off their feet, and throwing them into the sea. Totally not at all implausible. But it also has a fatal flaw. Medical examiners have, of course, studied the feet, and one piece of evidence the serial killer would have left is nowhere to be found: cut marks. If a knife, saw, or other method was used to cut the feet off, marks would have been left on the bones. And there are no such marks. We can't eliminate the possibility that a serial killer could be responsible for the missing people, but we can state for a fact that he didn't cut their feet off.
The same problem applies to a related explanation, that these were victims of organized crime executions. We often think of Mafia thugs when we think of people being killed and dismembered, but the lack of cut marks eliminates this possibility as well.
Body parts from a plane crash?
When the feet first began to be discovered, one suggestion was that they could have been remains of two people whose bodies were never found after a plane crashed into the sea in 2005. Plane crashes are very capable of disarticulating bodies; fragmentary remains are the rule, not the exception, in many plane crashes. This remained a plausible explanation but not for long, as soon the number of feet far exceeded the four that those two missing crash victims had between them.
As horrible as this might be, migrants are sometimes trafficked inside shipping containers. And shipping containers, like the countless ones passing through the Salish Sea every day, sometimes topple overboard. Could all of these feet be the remains of one or more such loads? The suggestion was a fair one to consider, but most of the remains have been identified and none were people who might have been trafficked overseas. Additionally, all the shoes but one were of brands common in North America.
Are they from the 2004 tsunami?
One other proposed explanation gained significant traction in the press for a time. In 2010, a man named Shane Lambert wrote a letter to the Vancouver Sun, in which he proposed the feet belonged to victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Nearly a quarter of a million people lost their lives, with the majority of those bodies washed out to sea irrecoverably. Surely, he reasoned, enough of those bodies could have made it to the Salish Sea, or at least their feet.
The timing was actually not too far off. Flotsam could have indeed been at sea for that long, but the currents do not support Lambert's idea. A lot of plastic waste comes from that exact same part of the world, and of the portion that catches a ride in the Pacific currents on its way to North America, it would instead get taken up into the North Pacific Gyre — way out by Hawaii. Hypothetical body parts from the tsunami would have ended up in the same place.
However, Lambert did key on another point that others have made as well. He suggested that these victims' shoed feet would likely be on beaches all around the world, but most of us see a shoe on the beach in a pile of seaweed, and looking inside it is about the last thing on our minds. But with the feet having been discovered on the shores of the Salish Sea, beachgoers are primed with the possibility and are much more likely to look inside. We find lots of feet here because we look inside the shoes more often, and find even more. It's a self-perpetuating cycle. Of course there is no data for this, but Lambert's suggestion is both reasonable and sound. Perhaps there are other places in the world with a lot of feet on the beaches — but nobody there thinks to look inside the shoes.
And the winner is...
The real reason for the severed feet in the Salish Sea has nothing to do with any of the theories offered. But it raises some interesting questions of its own.
That early clue noted by medical examiners — that found that none of the feet had been mechanically separated from the bodies — meant that no serial killer's knife or saw was responsible, and neither was any boat propeller. Whatever did separate those feet from the bodies was probably a natural process.
In a nutshell, here it is. The shores and the waters of the Salish Sea are populous, and so by simple probability, there are lots of dead bodies in those waters. Bodies left in water eventually disarticulate — or fall apart — as they decompose, get nibbled on by sea life, and moved around by waves and currents. And so there are lots of shoes with feet inside, and some of these wind up on the beaches.
The first question this raises is why are feet the parts that wash up? Why not hands, or heads, or torsos? The reason is that hands and heads and torsos are not laced into flotation devices. And that's why the majority of these shoes that wash up are athletic shoes, because they tend to have thick foam soles — feet are not washing up in steel toed work boots, high heels, or Oxfords. And it really is as simple as that. Once a foot laced into a flotation device disarticulates from the rest of the body, it pops up to the surface and goes wherever the wind and waves drive it.
The evolution of athletic shoe soles plays a role in why this is a relatively modern phenomenon. They tend to weigh less and have more foam in them than they used to.
The second question is more complicated: If we're saying it happens in the Salish Sea because these waters are especially full of dead bodies, and we're saying this is because the shores and waters have a lot of people, then what's different here from all the other places in the world where there are lots of people on the shorelines and on boats? Why don't we get headlines about severed feet off the beaches of California, off of Hong Kong, Tokyo, Sydney, Florida, the French Riviera, Hawaii, Greece, and scores of other places?
There are a few reasons for this. The first is suggested by LiveOcean, a 3D ocean physics simulator at the University of Washington in Seattle. It turns out the Salish Sea is a debris trap like no other. The prevailing winds blow straight into it, keeping most flotsam in and not letting it go out to sea; and then it's a maze of coastline nooks and crannies that catch just about everything.
Second, it's very cold water, much colder than most of the other places we just listed. In such water, bottom feeding crustaceans tend to be scavengers, not hunters. This means they're going to go to work on sunken corpses with ligament-snipping pincers. In 2007, the Canadian Police Research Center conducted experiments with pig carcasses sunk to the bottom, and found they would be skeletonized in as little as four days.
Finally, the Salish Sea and its arms like Puget Sound have one more thing going for the severed feet, and that's endless kilometers of tidal coastlines with people on the rocks tidepooling and hiking in sneakers. For a person to slip on a mossy, seaweedy rock and get hurt, possibly hitting their head, would hardly be a rare event.
It's also been pointed out that dead bodies in water do not stay underwater for long — and just to repeat our disclaimer, this gets graphic again. Decomposition gases cause bodies to bloat after a few days. These gases can expand and the body can float up to the surface. However this has been studied, and it's only a thing in shallow water. First of all it doesn't always happen, the bodies aren't always made buoyant enough to float. Second, if the water is deep enough, the pressure prevents the gases from expanding at all, and the body will remain on the bottom for the crustaceans.
Who were they?
Nothing links any of the victims who have been identified, which is most but not all of them. No evidence of foul play has surfaced in any investigations of their disappearances. They are probably victims of suicides or accidents — In addition to the treacherous tidepooling throughout the region, Vancouver has lots of bridges popular with suicide jumpers, and anyone can fall off a boat or hit their head on a dock.
In a few of the cases, both feet belonging to the same person were found, but most of them have been solo feet from different individuals. Most of the identified victims had been missing for a long time, up to 25 years, and none have (so far) been missing for less than a year.
And who these people are is the best place to exit this topic — far better than the mechanics of body flotation and disarticulation. The next time we see a headline of another foot being found — for there will be a next time, perhaps tomorrow — think of it not as another cool example of a weird phenomenon, but take a moment to remember the person who the foot belonged to, and their friends and family who loved and missed them, and the unfortunate way their amazing and fascinating life came to an all-too-early end. It's a case where science is best employed to bring closure, and not to construct a colorful urban legend.
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