Frozen Enigma: Unraveling the Mystery of the Minnesota Iceman in Cryptozoology’s Hall of Curiosities

Cryptozoology is the study of hidden animals. These are either animals that were thought to have gone extinct and are still being seen today or are animals that no one has ever caught or officially recorded. Most accounts are based on eyewitness testimony or out-of-focus photos, and though many reports seem bizarre or too good to be true, once in a while, a new (or old) animal is discovered (or rediscovered), proving the eyewitnesses are correct.

The legend of the Minnesota Iceman has intrigued me for years because it tells a convincing narrative that there may be something to the bigfoot legend. In the late 60s, a zoology major Terry Cullen came across a traveling exhibit in Milwaukee displaying what appeared to be a dead bigfoot carcass frozen in a block of ice. Because of the specimen’s appearance, he contacted Ivan T. Sanderson, a zoologist known for his nature writing and interest in cryptozoology.

The owner of the exhibit was a man named Frank Hansen. Hansen stated that the Minnesota Iceman had been discovered in the region of Siberia and that he was acting as its caretaker for an absentee owner he described as an “eccentric California millionaire.” Touring carnivals and fairs with the exhibit, Hansen was detained by Canadian Customs officials, who were concerned he was transporting an actual corpse. He eventually permitted Sanderson, and a man named Bernard Heuvelmans, to study the Iceman closer. This meant they could observe it through the ice for as long as they wanted but were not allowed to touch the body in any way. The specimen was very convincing, and the body featured a fracture to the left arm and a dangling right eyeball. It looked like the creature had been shot through the back of the head. They concluded it was a genuine creature, saying they found “putrefaction where some of the flesh had been exposed from the melted ice.”

Sanderson, then science editor for “Argosy” magazine, authored an article about the Iceman in the April 1969 issue that featured the headline, “Is this the missing link between man and the apes?” Sanderson also spoke about the Iceman in television appearances and contacted primatologist John Napier, asking him to investigate it under the official auspices of the Smithsonian Institution. Hansen suddenly withdrew the Minnesota Iceman from public inspection, saying the withdrawal was on orders from its California-based owner. Hansen later provided a new “Iceman” for an exhibit, described by observers as a latex model that was different from the original.

Napier, in conjunction with the Smithsonian, made preliminary investigations of Hansen’s affairs and said he found that Hansen had commissioned the creation of the Iceman from a West Coast company in 1967, leading Napier to quickly conclude there was only ever one Iceman latex model that he theorized had been repositioned and re-frozen between appearances. Napier stated that “The Smithsonian Institution…is satisfied that the creature is simply a carnival exhibit made of latex rubber and hair…the model and the present so-called ‘substitute’ are the same.

The exciting part is the amount of detail in the “original” Iceman. If this was a fake, why would the creator add such details as a fracture and dangling eyeball? The long dark hair could be seen coming out of the skin instead of glued on like many special effects artists do. The cost of a model of this size and detail would’ve been relatively high. Many feel that when word got out that the Iceman was real, Hansen panicked and pulled it from the exhibition, avoiding possible arrest for transporting a corpse from town to town. By replacing it with a latex model, he covers himself if local police or the FBI decides to investigate more.

So, was the original body real later to be replaced with a fake? If so, what happened to the actual body? If the “real” body was also fake, who was the artist that created such a realistic prop? Why has no one come forward to take credit? The artist certainly deserves credit for a job well done!

In 2013 the Minnesota Iceman showed up again, after being out of the public eye for many years, and went for sale on eBay, claiming to be the original prop used by Hansen in the late 60s and early 70s. It was sold to Steve Busti, the Museum of the Weird owner in Austin, Texas.

I was thrilled to learn that the Iceman would be on loan to the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine. Looking for an excuse for a road trip, my nephew and I decided to take the 3-hour drive (4-1/2 hours after hitting Boston traffic and torrential rain storms) on August 21, 2015. I had no idea what to expect.

I knew it was the “fake” Iceman but didn’t know how it would be displayed. On the one hand, it would be cool if it was on ice, but on the other hand, I wanted to see it clearly to appreciate the time and effort that went into making it. There was only one rule: no photography! I understood why, as owner Loren Coleman wanted as many people as possible to come and see the Iceman in person during its limited run from August 2015 until February 2016. If people post pictures all over the internet, why visit? All images of the Iceman used in this blog are from Google.

When you entered the Museum, the display case was in the first room near the admissions desk. The wooden case was glass-topped with a large cloth covering what was inside. You had to move the fabric to see the body. I was very impressed with this creation! It is very realistic, and if this is the actual one used in the early 70s, then someone needs to commend the creator. For me, the 4-1/2 hour trip was worth it for seeing this piece of history. The International Cryptozoology Museum should be commended for obtaining it for that limited run.

More recently, in 2017 and 2018, I made my way to Austin, Texas, and got to see the Iceman on display at his permanent home. My girlfriend at the time had been to the Museum of the Weird on a previous visit to Austin and was very excited to share it with me, knowing how much I love this kind of thing.

Upon entering, I was overwhelmed by their gift shop, one of the best I have ever seen, with so many great things to look at. For an additional fee, you could then enter the back room featuring so many great tributes to the world of the sideshow. From there, a tour guide brings you to yet another location, featuring the Iceman on ice in a freezer that looks like a giant coffin. Here the guide answers your questions about the Iceman and then proceeds to do a show for the audience that combines magic and sideshow trickery. This show was very entertaining, though at times not for the squeamish. For example, after hammering a nail into his nasal cavity, my girlfriend removed it with a rusty pair of pliers. Great stuff!

Seeing the Iceman was like stepping back in time to an era where people were entertained by leaving their houses with their friends and family for a few hours to enjoy a carnival or to take a chance to see what was behind the curtain. Though it was great to see him out of the ice in Maine, seeing him encased in ice is how he should be displayed. Even though I knew it was fake, the ice added such an air of mystery to the display, and I can see how, when it was initially on display, people would believe it was real (of course, perhaps at one time, it was). The only thing missing was the hint of rotting flesh smell.

In the 60s and 70s, this display created such a stir, with people not only validating its authenticity as an honest-to-goodness missing link but with police and the FBI concerned enough that an actual corpse was used for this display. This would be unheard of these days. This display is an essential part of American history, regardless of whether there once was a body of a bigfoot, a missing link, or just a big hoax. Whatever it was, the Minnesota Iceman will remain in the history books as a what-if moment. What if the original body on display was the missing link? How would that change everything we thought about the evolution of man? All I know is that it is a hell of a story, one that should be shared and kept alive for future generations.

Remember to read my other posts in my CABINET OF CURIOSITIES series! If you want to purchase the books I referenced here, click on the images below.

~David Albaugh

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