Articles and Papers

The Abominable Showman

The Minnesota Iceman melted mysteriously away after prominent cryptozoologists pronounced it a genuine hominid in the late 1960s. Ian Simmons, preparing for the Fortean exhibition 'Of Monsters and Miracles', went in search of the fairground curiosity and met the creature's exhibitor, the tractor-freak Frank Hansen.

Frank Hansen
Frank Hansen today: "I say it's a fabricated illusion."

Cryptozoologists came as close as they ever have to proving the existence of Bigfoot, when a supposed preserved hominid frozen in a block of ice surfaced in 1968 on the American carnival circuit.

According to its exhibitor, the Minnesota farmer Frank Hansen, the creature had been found floating in the sea off Siberia in its ice block and had been purchased by an anonymous Californian millionaire, who had arranged for Hansen to exhibit it.

The prominent cryptozoologists Ivan T. Sanderson and Bernard Heuvelmans headed for Hansen's farm in Minnesota in December 1968. On seeing the creature, they declared it genuine and announced their find to the world. But before further scientists could get their hands on it, the Iceman was returned to its mysterious owner and replaced by a latex replica, never to be seen again. The question remained: was there ever a real hominid, or had Hansen fooled everyone?

Hansen toured the replica round fairs and shopping malls for a few more years until he felt it had run its course. Then, like the supposed original, it disappeared into obscurity to become a tall tale recycled in every pop mystery book.

Hansen's travelling Iceman truck
Hansen's travelling Iceman truck from his glory days as a showman on the fairground circuit.

The challenge of trying to find the Iceman, or at least the replica, for the Fortean exhibition was too great to resist. My quest took me from freak show entrepreneur Ward Hall, tracked down in a Las Vegas hotel and who entertainingly referred to the Iceman as "Frank Hansen s Frozen Over coat", through to cryptozoologists Loren Coleman and Mark Hall and eventually to Hansen himself, now the elderly exhibitor of the world's oldest John Deere tractor and living in a bungalow in the prairie hamlet of Rollingstone, Minnesota.

When I spoke to Hansen on the phone, he seemed receptive to resurrecting the replica for a British appearance, so I flew over to try and strike a deal which would bring the creature to London for the exhibition. I found Hansen's bungalow several miles down a dirt track across rolling prairie.

A small, avuncular man, his trousers supported by bright green John Deere braces, greeted me warmly. Despite being willing to lend the replica for the exhibition, he could not do so in time as he was just about to tour his tractor round agricultural shows from which he would not be returning until October. However, he showed me his old Iceman exhibition rig, provided me with photos of the figure and told me the background story, which, to my knowledge, has been published nowhere else. This is it.

"Many years ago, I was exhibiting an antique tractor at the Arizona State Fair when I was approached by a gentleman who was impressed by my showmanship. He explained that he'd got this thing frozen in ice that he'd acquired, I don't want to say where because that's still controversial, but it was overseas. He got it shipped into the United States and had an ice carver carve some of the ice away from it, thinking it was a frozen seal or fish of some type. Then they realised it was a hairy ape or something, if you will, like a so-called Bigfoot — if they exist. I said I was interested and he gave me his 'Confidential Business Card'. I immediately recognised his name and he told me to look him up if I came to Los Angeles area.

As it happened, I was going from the Arizona State fair to the Great Western Livestock Show with my tractor. Two or three days after the show, this man sent a chauffeur who took me someplace down south in the Long Beach area, where there was a big underground refrigerated locker. I saw this thing lying there covered with plastic which looked to me like some fish or sea urchin of some type. But when I looked closer, I realised the man knew what he was talking about.

Heuvelmans and Sanderson
Heuvelmans and Sanderson catch up with the football results.

I asked him what he had in mind and he said: 'I'd like to have it exhibited to the public so that they can form their own opinions as to what it might be. I don't want it to be depicted as anything that would upset anyone, but just an interesting sideshow. I don't want to die and go down in history as the man who upset the biblical version of creation. If you're willing to put up the money yourself to build a show, I'll let you have it for two years.'

I agreed to his plan, put the tractor in store, and started redesigning my big semi trailer to fit the new exhibit I was making for this creature in ice. I had a coffin specially made and in fact spent a lot of time and money. I even had to borrow money from my bank. I knew that if this thing was real and it rolled out accidentally on the highway I could be in trouble, so I contacted some friends in the movie industry in the Los Angeles area and arranged for a sculptor to make a model of the thing without him even seeing it. I just made diagrams and drawings and told him I wanted it for a carnival sideshow.

After a few months he came up with what looked to me like a very passable replica of whatever was in the ice. I put the replica in the coffin in clear view of people in the area who knew what I was doing and headed down to the warehouse where the replica was switched with the original Iceman.

The first place we showed the exhibit was Chico, California. People just flocked to see and doctors told their patients: 'You've got to go down to the fair and see that thing frozen in ice' and it was just fantastic. At other shows, we had ministers tell their flocks: 'I saw the only thing that escaped the Great Flood. It's out at the fairground and you've got to go and see it!' This created a lot of interest in the scientific community and we found that people were closing the gates on us and trying to get in to find out what exactly this thing was.

We had it up in Canada for one show and were coming back into the United States. It was 5 o'clock at night and I thought we'd cleared customs when they changed shift and in comes a new customs man with a hold order on me from Washington. They thought I might be illegally transporting a cadaver across the international border. It turned out the Smithsonian had contacted the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in Chicago, who set out to seize the Iceman and get a core sample to find out whether it was real or a fabricated illusion as I claimed it was, or whatever.

I called up Senator Mondale from Minnesota and told him what was happening. He said: 'Don't let them touch it, that would be an illegal seizure. You have proper documents saving it was made in the USA and it was going to Canada for exhibit and coming back to the USA.' I spent the night standing guard over the coffin. They were nice enough to let me back up to a dock and plug in to 110v electricity to keep my freezer going so I didn't have to run my generators. I don t know what Mondale did, but the next morning the telephone was ringing itself off the hook and I was getting apologies from all over the country. I had a chance to thank him some time later.

Frank Hansen and his exhibit
Frozen asset: Frank Hansen stands guard over his beloved Iceman.

We came back into the United States and then we got involved with Bernard Heuvelmans and Ivan T. Sanderson. Mr Sanderson called me one day and said that he was coming to Wisconsin to investigate the sighting of an abominable snowman and he'd like to come over and visit me. I asked him what for and he said, 'I've heard about that thing you've got frozen in ice and I want to see it' I told him: 'It's not on exhibit so you're just wasting your time.' But two or three days later, in a blizzard, in comes this station wagon, so loaded down with stuff in the back it was practically standing on its tail. Sanderson gets out and introduces himself and his colleague from Belgium, Dr Bernard Heuvelmans. Who just happened to come to the States for something, and he'd brought him along.

I told them they couldn't even see it, but that night we spent in my basement bar, where Sanderson, although he claimed he never drank, put away a whole quart of gin and we got kind of mellow. I finally agreed to show them provided they promised not to write anything about it without first giving me a copy so I could get the owner's approval. Next morning it was cold — about 20 below zero — and we went into the trailer out in my driveway. There was ice all over the top of the coffin, which I scraped off. They rushed down to their station wagon and got out more camera equipment than I'd ever seen. They took some pictures and complained that they couldn't get a decent picture through the triple thermoglass on the top. They asked if I could take the top off and I said 'No way'. Then Dr Heuvelmans asked if there was some way I could get them some more lighting. I had a light suspended from the trailer roof and it was fairly close to the glass, but it wasn't down close enough, so I said, 'Well, I'll go up the house and get a longer cord and come back and extend the light down. Once the light's right over the face then you can shoot photos of the face.'

I came back and was just walking in the trailer when I heard this tremendous crack. Dr Heuvelmans had taken a cord down and laid this 150 watt bulb right on that cold glass and it had just shattered it. It didn't break, I mean it didn't fall apart, but it just shattered it in cracks. A very strange odour came out which I had detected on occasions myself, but I didn't know what it was.

Ivan Sanderson went into hysterics. 'Oh my God!' he said, 'The worst has happened!' I asked: 'What do you mean by the worst?' He said: 'Its real! That's putrefaction coming out of there! Don't you know the smell of putrefaction?' 'No, I don't' I replied. He said: 'We've got to get this thing in scientific hands immediately!' Dr Heuvelmans started packing his stuff away and said 'Come on, we've got to get out of here, I've got to get back to Belgium, let my colleagues know what I've discovered.' 'Wait a minute; I said, 'what have you discovered?' and they said: 'We've discovered the abominable snowman does exist and you've got a baby right here!' 'Remember your promise to me,' I said.

I'll never forget Heuvelmans' reply: 'I'm a scientist first and a gentleman second.' They jumped in their car with all the stuff and took off. That was, I think, in December and not long after that I got a call from Sanderson telling me to watch the Johnny Carson show which would prove he was a man of his word. Sanderson was a guest and Carson asked him about this great scientific discovery he'd just accidentally stumbled upon. He said that it was too bad he couldn't reveal what he'd seen at the time, but he had to keep his word to the caretaker and he couldn't do this and he couldn't do that. He wasn't on very long, four or five minutes. Then I was sent a copy of Argosy magazine, with a story by Sanderson about this thing, calling it Homo pongides, which I found out was what Heuvelmans had called it in his paper published by the Royal Institute of Natural Sciences of Belgium.

The decision was made for me to get out of this as quickly as possible and not long after that my good friend Sheriff George Ford of Winona County showed up and said: 'Frank, would you believe I got an enquiry from Mr Brewer at the FBI office in Rochester who has received a letter from J. Edgar Hoover asking for him to find out what is in this coffin. Is it flesh and blood? Is it something that should be confiscated? Is it something that's been shot and frozen artificially? What is it?'

I said 'Well, George, it's what I tell everybody it is, it's a fabricated illusion which I had made in a studio in Hollywood: He said: 'You don't mind if I look at it, do you?' and I said, 'No I don't mind' and he said, 'Well, I'll be back tomorrow with a pathologist, I've got to answer this enquiry for Mr Brewer in Rochester.'

That night I got my neighbour from across the road to come over with his big tractor with his big front end loader and got my tractor with the front-end loader out and we dug my trailer tractor out of the snowbank — it was completely covered in snow — and backed it underneath the semi. Before daylight the next morning we were heading south. Headlines saying 'Creature Neither Man Nor Beast Vanishes' were everywhere. The whole world was looking for this thing and we were heading down interstate 94 towards Chicago!

We went to a predetermined location down in Illinois. I had already told the owner that I needed the model badly and he had someone rent a refrigerated truck, put the model in it, came up to where I was and we made the big switch. He took the original back to California and I came back home and called a news conference. The UP, AP, everybody came in, and I said: 'There you are, Dr Heuvelmans' great discovery. It's a totally fabricated illusion made in Hollywood.' I gave the name of the man who made it, all the information that they wanted and that seemed to put an end to the controversy for a short time.

Frank Hansen's portable platform for exhibiting the Iceman in shopping malls.
Frank Hansen's portable platform for exhibiting the Iceman in shopping malls.

But the Smithsonian didn't give up on it. Napier or someone working for the Smithsonian had seen the specimen when it was on show in Canada and he was the man responsible for our troubles at the border coming back because he was convinced this was an authentic creature. That's why they had to have it examined. So anyway, they were still plaguing me.

About that time I got a call from a shopping centre promoter out in Long Island, New York, name of Bill Shilling, who suggested I tour the Iceman as a shopping centre promotion. I told him it was in a semi trailer which was too big to get in shopping centres. He suggested I made some sort of portable platform and I said I'd give it some thought and let him know.

I say it's a fabricated illusion, scientists say it isn't — sounds like a number one exhibit to me. So I built a platform and the equipment to haul it around and took it to New York where Bill Shilling had his headquarters. I put the exhibit up at the Walt Whitman shopping centre, Long Island. Believe me, the newspapers got it, the mall was packed, the merchants were crazy selling goods. They were standing in line the full length of the mall trying to get a look at this specimen. Some said: 'You can see it's a fabricated illusion, it's man-made,' and some said, 'it's just what the scientists say; and it just went on and on until I transported it round the country. It made headlines wherever we went and finally 1 found the carnies had decided that it was too good a deal to pass up and they started to put together mock-ups and fabrications — really poorly done objects — using the Argosy magazine story and claiming it was my specimen and everything.

After I ran into two or three of those, I decided it was the wrong business to be in and I came back in, pulled the plug, let it thaw out and took the so-called fabrication and shipped it out to California where it is to this day. I've become the exhibitor of the world's oldest John Deere tractor and that keeps me so busy it's all I can do."

Well, that's Hansen's version of the tale. Some of it sounds convincing, some less so, but it is all too finely balanced to decide definitely one way or the other. When he'd finished telling the tale I asked him straight out: "Was the original Iceman real?" He replied: "Do you know, I never did find out. I just knew, whatever it was, it was just the greatest exhibit possible and that was fine for me. I didn't want to ask. Just knowing could have got me in a lot of trouble." Did the original still exist, I asked. "Oh yes, the owner's still got it on ice in California."

So, whether Sanderson and Heuvelmans were right, and this is the closest we've got to the real Bigfoot, or whether John Napier was right and Hansen pulled off one of the best cryptozoological scams ever, I still don't know. Is there really a mysterious Californian? Was there ever a real hominid, or only a rubber one, which fooled Sanderson and Heuvelmans and was defrosted and rearranged to become "the replica"? I leave the last word to a Hansen. "This is one of the biggest Believe It Or Not's ever."

From: Fortean Times [FT83], October 1995, pp. 83-37.