The following essay is from the ISC (International Society of Cryptozoology) Newsletter Volume 7, No. 4 Winter 1988, pages 1 to 3. It’s unclear who the author is, but I suspect it may be the editor, the late Richard Greenwell.
Readers versed in cryptozoological lore will recall the case of the “giant penguin” footprints found on a Clearwater, Florida, beach in 1948.
The well-publicized incident attracted the attention of naturalist Ivan T. Sanderson, who conducted a 2-week, on-site investigation, resulting in a 50 page technical report. He summarized the case in his 1969 book More Things, expressing his conviction that the case was authentic.
Sanderson noted, for example, that “the tracks invariably followed the gentlest gradients even at the cost of considerable meandering and, secondly, that they meticulously avoided all possible snags and obstacles even down to the smallest bushes… these are, one and all, typical animal traits.” After discussing a series of anatomical features brought to light by the footprints, Sanderson went on to evaluate the possibility of hoaxing.
After reviewing and dismissing the possibility of machine-made prints, he discussed the man-made possibility: “If made physically by a man, either with devices strapped to his feet or on stilts, how did he carry a ton on each leg – the absolute minimum that the road engineers said could have made the imprints even in soft ground? He manifestly could not…” Sanderson also described how some engineer friends were asked to design a machine which could duplicate the tracks, but they were unable to do so.
A giant, 15-foot tall penguin, Sanderson concluded, must be the explanation, one which “would obviously have to be a wanderer in Florida, out of its natural element and perhaps lost.”
Now, 40 years later, the truth about the enigmatic tracks has surfaced. In the June 11, 1988, issue of the St. Petersburg Times, writer Jan Kirby has revealed the nature of the hoax. The Newsletter does not normally reprint articles. However, Kirby’s exposure is so well written and summarized the new information so succinctly, that an exception has been made – with the author’s permission. A slightly abridged version follows.
Clearwater Can Relax Monster Is Unmasked
The year was 1948. In Clearwater, Fla., a town of about 15,000, crazy things were happening. On a morning in February, a resident out for w walk on Clearwater Beach discovered what looked like the footprints of a monster and ran home to call the police.
The tracks were large – 14 inches long, 11 inches wide. They had three long toes with claws. Whatever had made them apparently had come out of the Gulf of Mexico at the south end of the beach and, taking 4-foot to 6 foot strides, had walked for more than 2 miles in the soft sand before returning to the water.
Over the next 10 years, the footprints of the “Clearwater Monster” appeared frequently: on Clearwater Beach, on Indian Rocks Beach, on the Courtney Campbell Parkway, on St. Petersburg Beach, on the beach at Sarasota. The “monster” also left prints on Honeymoon Island off the coast at Dunedin, along the banks of the Anclote River north of Tarpon Springs, and on the banks of the Suwannee River.
In July, 1948, four fliers from the Dunedin Flying School said they had seen the creature off Clearwater Bridge, and that it looked like a furry log with a head shaped like a hog’s. Because of the “monster” sightings, the “little town of Florida’s West Coast” made headlines and news broadcasts nationwide.
Ivan T. Sanderson, noted zoologist and science commentator for WNBC in New York as well as the science writer for the New York Herald Tribune, visited Florida in November 1948, to study the tracks along the Suwannee. Sanderson, who died in 1973, determined after months of study that the tracks had been made by some form of giant penguin. He called the creature “Florida Three-toes”.
A number of local people, including the police, believed the whole thing was a hoax. But they had no way to prove it, and no one ever came forward to admit it.
Tony Signorini still chuckles when he thinks about the stories that sprung up to explain the footprints that he and the late Al Williams stamped into the sand.
Williams was a notorious prankster in Clearwater in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Just for fun, he once sneaked a horse into the holding area of the Clearwater police station. Another time, because he loved to play tricks on the fire department, he set off flares in his business, Auto Electric. The fire department showed up all right, and the flares provided quiet a show, but as a result the building was badly damaged.
Signorini, who was Williams’ partner at Auto Electric, and, with his son and daughter, still runs the business on Greenwood Avenue in Clearwater, said Williams came up with the idea for the “monster” tracks. It seemed an appropriate prank: The Loch Ness Monster was still making news. Dinosaur remains had been dug up near Albuquerque, New Mexico, the year before, and during the war years Gulf residents had been constantly on the lookout for German submarines.
When Williams died in 1969, he left the secret of the “Clearwater Monster” with Signorini for safekeeping. Encouraged by his friends Bud and Joanne Lobaugh of Largo, SIgnorini agreed to bring the “monster” out of hiding. All these years, the “monster” was tucked away in its cardboard box under a workbench at Auto Electric. The real “monster” is a pair of cast iron feet with high-top black sneakers.
Signorini lifted the feet, each weighing 30 pounds, out of the box and put them on. “You see, I would just swing my leg back and forth like this and then give a big hop, and the weight of the feet would carry me that far,” Signorini said, explaining the 6 foot stride of the creature. “The shoes were heavy enough to sink down in the sand.”
Signorini said the idea for the big three-toed footprints came from a picture of dinosaur tracks. After several tries at making the feet, Williams and Signorini decided concrete was not heavy enough, so the molds for the tracks were taken to a foundry in St. Petersburg. The resulting cast iron feet were ideal.
Holes were drilled into the tops of the feet and the sneakers wet in place with screws. When the inner soles of the shoes were glued in place, the “monster” was ready.
A rowboat supplied by a friend brought the “creature” to shore. “We would go out nights with not too many waves or beach walkers around.” He said. The “monster” came out only at night. “I put the shoes on in the water, and then walked a long way, maybe 2 miles, up the beach and then got back in the boat,” Signorini said, grinning. “I had to be careful the water was not too deep when I had them on.”
“Other times,” he continued, “we would take them in the care and carry them to where we wanted to make the tracks. Then we’d take a palm frond and brush away all the footprints we’d made while we were doing it.” At the Suwannee River site, “we stayed on property belonging to a friend named Al Spears. After we found some good places along the river, we waded in the water and carried the feet. Then I’d put them on where we wanted to make tracks.”
Clearwater police were skeptical about the existence of the monster from the beginning, and suspected that Al Williams might be the culprit, said Frank Daniels, who retired in 1981 after 32 years on the force, the last 13 years as chief.
“I don’t think any of the Clearwater cops took it seriously,” Daniels said. “We suspected Williams because he usually called in the reports of the monster and was such a local prankster, but we cold never prove it. When a pilot flying over the beaches reported seeing something furry with a head shaped like a hog’s in the Gulf, we suspected Williams because he flew his own plane.”
“You know, that’s a funny thing,” Signorini recalled with a smile, “because we never knew who was flying that plane and made the report. It wasn’t us.”
Tony Signorini is to be commended for bringing these details out into the open after keeping them secret for 40 years. Not only does it finally close the file on a problematical cryptozoological case, it also provides a new piece of Americana for folklorists and sociologists to study – and enjoy.
The lesson to be learned within cryptozoology is, of course, fundamental. Despite careful detailed analyses by zoologists and engineers, which provided detailed and sophisticated mechanical and anatomical conclusions supporting the hypothesis of a real animal, we now see that, not only was the entire episode a hoax, but that it was perpetrated by relatively amateur, good natured pranksters, not knowledgeable experts attempting, though (sic) their expertise, to fool zoological authorities.
Although Sanderson was known as a colorful and sometimes eccentric individual, he was also extremely knowledgeable on many subjects, and had done more fieldwork than most zoologists do today. Even so, it seems that, in this case at least, he failed to identify the true nature of the phenomenon.
In his 1969 book, Sanderson stated: “That any man or body of men could know so much about wild animal life as to make the tracks in just the manner that they appear, but that they also should be able to carry this out time and time again at night without anybody seeing them or giving them away… is frankly incredible.”
And yet, that is exactly what happened. The Clearwater Monster or giant Penguin may now be inducted into the Cryptozoology Hall of Fame as one of the best and most colorful hoaxes of all time.
Sanderson also opined on the nature of cinematic illusion, as in this passage from one of his last books More Things chapter 5:
Even in the late 1920s the “dinosaurs” in the film of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World were utterly realistic–close-ups of their heads showed drooling saliva, nictitating membranes, and flashing eyes. (Incidentally, these “dinosaurs” were wearing skillfully constructed “suits” made by a man who had a degree in paleontology, and were fitted over live chickens!)
In fact the special effects seen in The Lost World were done by Willis O’Brien and were of the “stop motion” variety, which uses small models that are moved slightly and photographed frame by frame:
O’Brien later went on to do the special effects for King Kong, using the same technique. Thankfully, no live chickens were inconvenienced in the making of either King Kong or The Lost World…
Another interesting insight into Sanderson is given by, of all people, James Randi! Randi evidently knew Sanderson personally, and recounts how Sanderson seemed to ignore critical thinking when promoting his books:
I knew Sanderson well. Ivan was a “character” in every way, a man who kept an odiferous cheetah named “Baby” in his New York apartment for weeks on end when he felt like it, and even slept with the beast. He had the claw marks to show for it. He was in the business of writing books about strange subjects, and he would never allow ugly facts to interfere with an otherwise attractive story. In person, he left no question about his doubts; in print he successfully resisted expressing any really serious reservations he had.