the minnesota iceman
AMERICA’S LEGENDARY SIDESHOW ATTRACTION — REAL OR HUMBUG?
Without a doubt, the story of the elusive "Minnesota Iceman" is the most compelling, the weirdest and the most mysterious tale in the annals of the unexplained in America. What was it? What happened to it? And most of all, could the figure in the ice have really been either Bigfoot or the "missing link"? Researchers are always looking for that solid proof that Bigfoot exists in the form of either a live specimen or a dead one. Did someone actually have that evidence at one time? We're likely to never know, but the story itself is nearly as compelling as the answers.
The tale really has to begin with the discovery of the Iceman by Milwaukee zoology student Terry Cullen in December 1968 at Chicago's International Livestock Exhibition and Fair. The Iceman had already appeared on the scene prior to this, but it was at this exhibition that it really entered the public spotlight. Besides that, everything that occurred before Cullen found the creature on display at the fair is definitely open to question and conjecture.
There are three different versions of the story as to how the Iceman ended up in the freezer of a Minnesota man named Frank Hansen. The convoluted history of the Iceman has only added to the mystery of the creature's authenticity over the years. According to one ridiculous version, the Iceman was a Bigfoot-type creature that tried to rape a woman named Helen Westring while she was alone on a hunting trip. According to her story, the beast grabbed her and ripped off all her clothes, but Ms. Westring fainted before the creature could rape her. When she regained consciousness, she recovered her rifle and shot the creature through the right eye. She apparently then took the body back to town and it eventually came into the hands of Frank Hansen.
Another version of the story states that the creature was not from Minnesota at all but was reportedly found (already frozen) in a block of ice in the Sea of Okhostok, near eastern Siberia. The body was found by either Russian seal hunters or Japanese fishermen, who smuggled it to Hong Kong. After that, it was purchased by an American millionaire who lived on the west coast and he in turn rented the curiosity to Air Force veteran Frank Hansen of Winona, Minnesota, who exhibited the frozen specimen. Hansen reportedly came up with this story to appease the FBI when he was questioned about transporting what he was claiming was a frozen carcass back and forth over the Canadian-American border.
The third (and "official" version) was recounted by Frank Hansen himself in the pages of Saga Magazine in 1970. According to Hansen, the story of the Iceman began in 1960 when he was an Air Force captain and pilot assigned to the 343rd Fighter Group in Duluth, Minnesota. During the 1960 deer hunting season, Hansen was staying at a small resort on the shores of the Whiteface Reservoir, about 60 miles from Duluth. Three other Air Force personnel, Lieutenant Roy Asfedt, Lieutenant Dave Allison and Major Lou Szrot, were also part of the hunting party.
The men left the cabin at about 6:00 on the second morning of the trip and Hansen started off for a narrow neck of swamp that he hoped would be a good location. He sat motionless on a hillside for almost two hours when a slight movement at the edge of the swamp caught his eye. He looked up to see a large doe staring at him. At that same moment, a shot was fired on the opposite side of the swamp and the deer ran in Hansen's direction. He opened fire and hit the animal just as it was reaching the edge of the trees and it fell to the ground. Hansen bolted his rifle to take another shot, but before he could, the deer was up and out of sight in the heavy brush.
Walking toward the thicket, he found large spots of blood on the grass and signs of which direction the deer had vanished into the woods. The animal had left a clear trail into the swamp and Hansen decided to follow it. He said later that he pushed along, always thinking that the wounded animal would be just around the next bend in the trail until he realized that he had been walking for almost an hour. He decided to check his bearings and then retrace his own trail out of the swamp. He knew that he would now never be able to pack the animal out of the forest, even if he did find it.
Stepping over a small cedar log, he heard a strange gurgling sound ahead. Thinking that it might be the deer, he pushed aside the brush and peered into a small clearing. There, in the center of the area, were three large creatures that he first thought were bears. Two of them were on their knees, tearing at the insides of the deer that Hansen had shot. The gurgling sound had been noises made as the creatures drank the deer's blood, Hansen reported.
The third beast was crouched about 10 feet away from the hunter, over at the edge of the clearing. When it saw Hansen watching, it immediately began to let out a weird screeching sound. It screamed with its arms raised above its head and charged right at Hansen. Without thinking, he raised his rifle and fired the chambered shell. The explosion carried the bullet into the creature's eye and it was sent spinning to the frozen ground. Apparently, the two remaining creatures ran one way and Hansen ran the other. Blind with fear, he crashed back through the swamp until he fell to the ground. Now lost, as well as terrified, he passed out for a time.
When Hansen recovered, he fired off three shots into the air (the signal for a hunter in distress) and then fired off three more. Eventually, after traveling some distance, he heard a voice calling out and he emerged out of the woods and into a hunting camp. He explained that he had become lost but never mentioned the strange creatures that he had encountered. One of the hunters said that he knew where Hansen and his friends had parked their truck that morning and offered to drive him there. When he arrived, his friends were waiting and while he good-naturedly took their ribbing about becoming lost, he never told them about what he had seen and what he had done in the swamp.
Time passed and the truth gnawed at him. What had the creature been? Was it an escaped gorilla? Was it a man dressed up for a prank? Except for the fact that it was covered with hair, the beast had seemed to be a human being. Had Hansen committed murder - or had the whole thing been the product of his fevered imagination? For the next two months after returning home, Hansen was troubled with migraine headaches and had trouble concentrating on flying and flight instruction. He knew that he had to return to the swamp, but he refused to do so unless he would be able to find his way out again. Then on November 29, the area was covered with five inches of fresh snow and Hansen returned to the region near Whiteface on December 2.
Hansen had brought along a swamp-buggy with his pickup and he drove the vehicle into the forest, re-tracing his route from hunting season. He eventually found the body of the creature, proving to himself that the encounter had been real after all. He brushed away the snow and found that the corpse had been frozen, covered with blood, and that the eye that Hansen had shot was missing. As he inspected the creature, he realized that it was not a human but what he called a "freak of nature". Even so, he did not want to leave the creature in the swamp. He feared that hunters might stumble across the corpse and summon the authorities and that the investigation that followed might lead back to Hansen. With that in mind, he left the swamp-buggy in the woods and returned to Duluth. He told his wife that the vehicle had gotten stuck and so he needed to return with a pick, shovel, ax and chainsaw to get it out. When he returned to Whiteface, Hansen chopped the body from the frozen earth and loaded it onto the rear platform of the swamp-buggy. He tied it down with cargo straps and then hauled the creature back to his truck, cutting trail as he went. He used nylon straps to then move it over to the truck bed and to cover it with tarps for the trip home.
It was almost dark when he returned to his Air Force housing in Duluth. Needless to say, his wife was almost hysterical when he told her about what had happened to him and showed her the gigantic corpse. The Hansen's had recently purchased a new freezer and because they couldn't bury the beast in the frozen ground, decided to remove the meat in the freezer and replace it with the body, at least until spring. So, after the kids had gone to bed, Hansen and his wife, Irene, hauled the body out of the truck and into the basement. The creature was now beginning to stink but they managed to hold their breath as they bent the arms and legs of the corpse and forced it into the metal box. They covered it with a blanket and left it there for over a month.
Hansen still planned to bury the corpse somewhere in the spring but after checking on its condition, saw that it was beginning to dehydrate and decay. He and Irene finally decided that the body would be better preserved if they filled the freezer with water and encased the cadaver in ice. They began to pour about 20 gallons of water into the freezer each day until it was a solid block of ice. This seemed to be the perfect plan, until the spring thaw arrived and Hansen began to wrestle with the idea of trying to thaw out the body and transport it somewhere and bury it. His plans continued to be delayed until his retirement approached and the family purchased a farm near Rollingstone, Minnesota.
Hansen realized that he could not risk hiring a moving company to transport the freezer, so he rented a truck and moved all of the furniture himself. Friends helped to move the locked, "meat packed" freezer into the truck and then into the basement of the new house. During the seven-hour ordeal, the top layer of ice began to melt and while Hansen was able to quickly re-freeze the body, he became so paranoid about the beast unthawing that he purchased a generator for the new home so that the power would never go out. He was now sure that the monster would never be discovered.
In November 1965, Hansen retired from the Air Force and joined his family on the farm. Now, with time on his hands, he began to do some reading and ran across some books and articles on the "abominable snowman". The more that he read, the more certain he was that the creature in his freezer was one of these elusive beasts. He made a few discreet inquiries about the statute of limitations on murder in Minnesota and learned that there was no time limit. Even though he was sure the creature was not human, he decided to keep the corpse hidden in the freezer for a while longer.
A little over a year later, Hansen met a "veteran showman" who recognized his boredom with civilian life and suggested that Hansen exhibit a rare old John Deere tractor that he had acquired and had loaned to the Smithsonian Institution. It had been returned to him from Washington and he had been showing it on a limited basis. The showman suggested that Hansen take the tractor on the state fair circuit. He wouldn't make much money at it, but it would keep him busy. Hansen was pleased with the idea but had other "things" in mind. He asked his friend if the body of a hairy creature that resembled a prehistoric man would make a good attraction? The showman assured him that it would but when he asked Hansen where he would get something like that, Hansen told him that he could have a model made.
Hansen now decided to consult with his attorney concerning the legalities of displaying the creature he had killed in the woods. The lawyer didn't believe a word of the story until Hansen drove him out to the farm and showed him what was in the freezer. Not surprisingly, the attorney was stunned but advised Hansen that he could possibly get into legal trouble by displaying the body. There could be a murder charge if the creature was determined to be human, he said, and there were also laws about transporting dead bodies.
Hansen continued to press him about displaying the body as an exhibit though. The attorney considered his ideas for a moment. "You have the original body," he finally said. "The authorities will be after it because this thing is the scientific find of the century. However, it might be possible to create a model as you suggested. Maintain a record of the model's construction but show the real creature instead. If the officials pressure you, it's a small matter to produce photos of the model taken during different phases of fabrication." Hansen agreed and then came up with an even better idea. He would exhibit the model only for the first year so that the "carnies" would accept it as a bogus sideshow exhibit.
In January 1967, Hansen made sketches of the creature and then went to Hollywood to confer with some makeup artists who created special effects for the movies. He spoke with Bud Westmore, the head of makeup effects for Universal and he told Hansen that a believable model could cost as much as $20,000 to produce. He told Hansen that he didn't have time to make the model for him but if needed, he would provide technical support. Hansen then consulted with the Los Angeles County Museum and it was suggested that he contact Howard Ball, an independent artist who had created life-sized animal exhibits for the La Brea Tar Pits. Hansen hired Ball to create the model and was also told by John Chambers from Fox (the makeup master who has been accused of creating the Bigfoot suit for the Patterson film) that a small wax studio in Los Angeles could implant the hair according to Hansen's specifications. With Chambers' introduction, Hansen hired Pete and Betty Corral, who implanted the model's hair individually with needles.
Hansen now had a model that he had spent thousands of dollars on, but no guarantee that it would make any money as an exhibit. He decided to put the final touches on the creature himself (rather than spend more money) and he and a friend from Pasadena added bloody eyes, a broken arm and blood-soaked hair to make it look as close to the original in Hansen's freezer as possible. Hansen then rented a freezer where he could encase the model in ice to get it ready for its debut on the west coast.
The exhibit debuted on May 3, 1967 as what the carnival folks called a "What is It?" show. Hansen explained that the creature had been found frozen in the Bering Straits by Japanese fishermen. He had created this cover story and stuck to it for the next two years. The tour continued until November 1967, when Hansen closed at the Louisiana State Fair and returned home to Minnesota. By March 1968, he had convinced himself that it was now safe to replace the model with the real specimen for the upcoming fair season. He had been told by carnival experts that the model was a sensational attraction but that it had too many flaws to fool anyone with an expert knowledge of anatomy. He was sure that word had gotten out that the exhibit was a fake and that he would be safe to put the real cadaver on display.
Hansen then got to work unthawing the real body so that he could cut the tendons in the arms and legs and make it look like the model. He froze it again and then prepared to hit the fair circuit. The attention that the exhibit got was different than when Hansen had been showing the model though. While most of the onlookers had been impressed with the old exhibit, the real corpse was drawing a different crowd. Now, doctors, college students and scientists were coming to examine and photograph the "missing link". At the Oklahoma State Fair, one prominent surgeon visited the exhibit on nine separate occasions, each time bringing a different colleague with him. At the Kansas State Fair, the county pathologist was so intrigued that he sent many of his associates to see the display.
Hansen was displaying the creature as the "real thing", which he maintained that it was, although he continued his cover story that the monster was actually owned by a California millionaire and that it had been recovered in the icy waters of the ocean. While the creature was drawing attention, Hansen was still able to keep its existence quiet and to maintain, despite some nagging doubts, that it was merely a carnival exhibit. However, that was all about to change.
In December 1968, college student Terry Cullen became more than a little intrigued by the exhibit that he saw at the Chicago exhibition. Like everyone else, he paid his 25 cents to see the "man left over from the Ice Age" and filed past the frozen block of ice that Hansen had secured in a refrigerated glass coffin. He was not convinced that this was some carnival sideshow and began to try unsuccessfully to interest some mainstream academics in what he had found. Finally, Cullen alerted famed naturalist and author of a book on abominable snowmen, Ivan T. Sanderson. Sanderson, who had also founded the Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained, was intrigued. As it turned out, his house guest at the time turned out to be Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans, the respected cryptozoologist and the author of On the Track of Unknown Animals. After hearing from Cullen, the two men immediately traveled to see first hand what Hansen was putting on display.
After seeing the frozen creature, they contacted Hansen and asked for permission to study it closer. Hansen agreed but would later admit that "this was a grave mistake on my part." Both men were very impressed with the creature, Hansen said, but neither of them made mention of publishing a scientific report about the Iceman. This was the last thing that Hansen wanted.
(Left) One of Sanderson's sketches of the Iceman, showing the measurements that he was able to discern through the glass and ice. He and Heuvelmans described the creature as being covered in blood as well.
(From PURSUIT: The Journal of the Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained - April 1975)
(Right) Sanderson's sketch showing what he believed the Iceman would have looked like if seen clearly. The gaps in the drawing are portions that were too covered in ice to see clearly.
(From PURSUIT: The Journal of the Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained - April 1975)
However, Sanderson and Heuvelmans spent three days examining the creature in Hansen's trailer. The corpse was that of an adult male with large hands and feet. Its skin was covered with dark brown hair that, for the most part, was three to four inches long. The creature had been shot through one eye and it had a gaping wound and a fracture to the left arm. In places where the ice had melted, the two investigators could smell putrefaction, leading them to believe the body was authentic. They could hardly believe what they saw. Heuvelmans would later publish a report on the creature in the February 1969 bulletin of the Royal Institute of Natural Sciences of Belgium. He called the creature the "Homo Pongoides" and stated that "the long search for the rumored live 'ape-man' or 'missing link' has at last been successful."
Sanderson wrote his own article for the pages of Argosy and it was published in May 1969. He stated that "one look was actually enough to convince us that this was -- from our point of view, at least -- the 'genuine article'. This was no phony 'Chinese' trick or 'art' work. If nothing else confirmed this, the appalling stench of rotting flesh exuding form a point in the insulation of the coffin certainly did."
Hansen's problems began with the publication of the Heuvelmans article and escalated when Sanderson's piece hit the newsstands. To make it worse, Sanderson, who was a well-known nature personality for television, mentioned the Iceman during an appearance on the Tonight Show. Soon, newspapers, television shows, radio stations and magazines from all over the world began trying to verify the existence of the creature. Calls came in daily and both the FBI and the Smithsonian Institution requested permission to examine the body, along with dozens of scientists who asked for blood and hair samples. Hansen refused them all. Heuvelmans had stated in this article that it appeared the creature had been shot. Because of this, newspapers began to speculate on the possibility that law enforcement officials should investigate just how Hansen had obtained the creature if, of course, it was actually real. "If the body is that of a human being, there is the question of who shot him and whether any crime was committed," said and article in the Detroit News.
On that note, the body of the Iceman vanished. The model was again put out in its place and Hansen kept quiet as investigators tracked down the Hollywood makeup artists who had created the fake. He now began spreading the story that the body had been returned to the possession of the California millionaire who owned it. No further examinations would be made.
According to Hansen, this was done on his attorney's advice. He told Hansen that he should substitute the model for the real thing and "take a long vacation". The actual corpse was hidden "away from the Midwest" and the model was re-frozen and put on display in its place.
Debunkers quickly assured everyone that the exhibit had been a fake from the very beginning, although the original investigators would never waver on their identification of it as something very real. Photographs that were taken of the exhibit (the model) in 1969 show at least 15 technical differences between the original that was studied by Sanderson and Heuvelmans and the replacement body. They were sure that the original exhibit had not been a fake, as was Terry Cullen. In addition to the smell noted by the later investigators, Cullen had become so intrigued by the body because he could see plant matter in the creature's teeth, along with skin shed by lice on its flesh. These were items that only would have been noticed by a scientist and would have been beyond the detail of a "carnie" hoax.
So, was the Iceman real - or an elaborate and expensive hoax? Obviously, we are never going to know for sure unless the real specimen eventually turns up somewhere. But if the whole thing was a hoax and the body never existed, then why would Hansen create such an elaborate and damning story to explain it? Was he simply trying to cash in on the model that he had created? This seems unlikely, especially based on the admissions that were paid to see whatever was in the ice block - we are not talking about huge sums of money here. The only way that Hansen could have gotten rich from the creature was by selling the genuine body, which he never did. He seemed to be more worried about criminal charges that might threaten his Air Force retirement check than about getting rich off the corpse.
The biggest question that remains in my mind is, whatever happened to the original body? According to Hansen in 1970, he had been pressed for the conditions or circumstances under which he would consider giving up the specimen for scientific evaluation. He stated that he had to be assured complete amnesty for any possible violation of federal or state laws for either the murder of the creature (if it was deemed too human) or for transporting and exhibiting the corpse. Whatever became of his requests and whether or not they were granted is unknown. As far as I know, the real body - if there was indeed a real body, as so many investigators insisted - was never seen again.
As for the fake body, the intricate model fashioned for Hansen by Hollywood, it did continue to turn up at state fairs and traveling exhibits. Many remember seeing the exhibit and it is rumored to still turn up at fairs today. I believe that I saw the model on display at the Illinois State Fair in 1982 or 1983, but I cannot be sure if it was the same exhibit. The model vanished, along with Frank Hansen, for many years but then turned up again in Minnesota, publicly displayed until Hansen’s death. After his passing, his son sold the model to the Museum of the Weird in Austin, Texas, where it remains on display today.