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Monday, July 12, 2010

MICHAEL NEWTON: “Bigfoot Just Died”

01. Jerry Crew and a Bluff Creek footprint case, from the Humboldt Times.

Two events, nine years apart, largely define the public consciousness of Bigfoot-Sasquatch creatures in America. Neither begins nor ends the tale, but both are pivotal, intensely controversial, hedged with claims of hoaxes which, themselves, seem fabricated in an effort to deceive. The “mainstream” media has swallowed each successive claim in turn, without a hint of skeptical investigation, even when they contradict each other flatly, fatally.
* * *

The basic details of the first story are widely known, though often garbled in retelling. In spring 1957 contractor Raymond Wallace launched construction of a road at Bluff Creek, California. Raymond’s brother Wilbur was the foreman, supervising a 30-man team that included catskinner Gerald “Jerry” Crew (in charge of driving the heavy machinery). The crew completed 10 miles of road before winter set in, then returned to the job in spring 1958.
According to later statements from Wilbur Wallace, trouble began at the worksite on 3 August 1958, when he found a 700-pound spare tire hurled into a gulch near the road. On 27 August, Jerry Crew reported finding huge humanoid footprints around his bulldozer. On 25 September the local Humboldt Times printed a letter penned by the wife of highway workman Jess Bemis, relating the crew’s tales of “Big Foot.” Jerry Crew found more tracks on 1 and 2 October, making plaster casts of some with help from tracker Bob Titmus. On 5 October, Humboldt Times columnist Andrew Genzoli published an article on “Bigfoot,” including a photo of Crew with a footprint cast. On 12 October newly-hired workmen Bob Breaezle and Ray Kerr claimed a nocturnal Sasquatch sighting. Bob Titmus cast more prints at Bluff Creek on 1 November, later showing them to various researchers including RenĂ© Dahinden, John Green, and millionaire monster-hunter Tom Slick. Before November’s end, Slick organized a Pacific Northwest Expedition that pursued Bigfoot through much of 1959.1

The rest is history—and, as such, often misreported. For example, while Genzoli and the Times take credit for coining the nicknames “Big Foot” and “Bigfoot” for Sasquatch, the former was first used by residents of Rowan County, Kentucky, to describe a night-prowling manimal during the 1930s.2

Confusion also surrounds early claims of a hoax at Bluff Creek. Genzoli suggested a possible fraud in his original Bigfoot story, while the competing Humboldt Standard opined that the footprints were either a hoax or the trail of “a mentally deficient, over-grown boy gone wild.” On 15 October 1958, Times reporter Bill Chambers told his readers that the Humboldt County sheriff had identified a prime suspect and expected a speedy confession. Said suspect—Ray Wallace—told the Times, “I’m not going in. If they want to put out a warrant I’m going to sue them for slander, and I won’t fool around about it! If they think they're going to make a laughing stock out of me, they’ve got another thing [sic] coming.”3

* * *

Today, we know that Wallace was, in fact, a hoaxer. Through the years, his claims regarding Bigfoot blossomed from fake tracks into fantasies suggesting that he may have lost his mind—or, at the very least, believed that others were crazy enough to believe him.

In February 1967 Wallace wrote to John Green, claiming discovery of an “ape cave” near Washington’s Mount St. Helens, where creatures “have stayed for possibly several thousand years.” In October 1969 he told California’s Klam-ity Kourier that “Big Foot used to be very tame,” accepting apples from Wallace and capering for films that brought Wallace offers of $250,000. In March 1970 he claimed possession of audio tapes, recorded while Sasquatches screamed and gobbled elderberries during “several hundred” encounters. May 1978 brought the assertion that “Big Footed creatures are people, they speak a language.” Eleven months later, Wallace told John Green that “the Big Foots were killed and hauled down the Klamath River in a tug boat and out into the ocean 12 miles to where was a small ship anchored in international waters and frozen into a block of ice and then transported to Hong Kong and sold, so now there aren’t any more left in northern California. or if there is they are being let out of flying saucers.”4

In January 1981 Wallace advised the University of British Columbia that based on appearance, “I know that Big Foot and Sasquatches are all brothers or sisters.” In the same letter, he claimed possession of film footage that showed a Sasquatch killing a deer. By then, he had also confessed faking tracks at Bluff Creek—but claimed it was part of a plan to save Bigfoot from hunters. The prints, Wallace said, were made with wooden feet he purchased from a friend for $50.5

* * *

Michael Dennett, head of Seattle’s “Society for Sensible Explanations,” identified Wallace’s friend, more or less, in the autumn 1982 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. The culprit was 86-year-old Rant Mullins (misspelled “Rent” by Dennett), whose marathon confession included claims that he and an accomplice staged the stoning of a Washington miner’s cabin by “mountain devils” in July 1924, and that he started faking Sasquatch tracks with hand-carved wooden feet to “have some fun” in 1930. In all, Mullins claimed he had made eight separate pairs of ersatz monster feet, most of which “went to California.” According to Mullins, however, his sale of wooden feet to Wallace occurred in 1969, when they met for the first time in Toledo, Washington.6

Exposure of Mullins failed to halt Wallace’s antics. In December 1984 he offered John Green photos of a nine-foot male Sasquatch, but never delivered. In October 1989 he wrote to Green again, describing an alleged 1975 audience with “some government officials” who informed Wallace that “these big foots are being let out of flying saucers.”7 That absurdity did nothing to enhance his nonexistent credibility.

The bottom line: no serious Bigfoot researcher, from Tom Slick and Ivan Sanderson in 1959 to John Green thirty years later, ever took Ray Wallace seriously. Nor did the media.

That is, until he died.

* * *

Wallace gave up the ghost on 26 November 2002, at age 84, in a Washington nursing home. Nine days later, an article in the Seattle Times quoted son Michael Wallace as saying, “Ray L. Wallace was Bigfoot. The reality is, Bigfoot just died.”8

Two days later, the Vancouver Sun elaborated on the growing Wallace legend, crediting him with creating the beast depicted in Roger Patterson’s famous Bigfoot film from October 1967. According to the Sun, the film “was another of Wallace's fakes...he told Patterson where to go to spot the creature and knew who had been inside the suit.” While the actor remained unnamed in print, the Sun declared that “most of the pictures of bigfoot...are in reality a hoaxer's wife dressed in a gorilla suit.” That allegation flatly contradicted Michael Wallace, who told the Seattle Times that “his father called the Patterson film ‘a fake’ and said he had nothing to do with it.”9

The New York Times treated Wallace to front-page coverage on 3 January 2003, and dished up more misinformation in the process. Reporter Timothy Egan led with a complaint from Michael Wallace that his father’s hoax “was just a joke, and then it took on such a life of its own that even now, we can’t stop it.” Why not? Egan wrote: “Bigfoot defenders, including at least two scientists and a clinical psychologist who says he ran into the Big Guy two years ago in southern Oregon, are undeterred. They give Mr. Wallace credit for the hoax, which led to news stories around the world and began thousands of campfire debates. But, they say, other evidence is too strong to let a prank kill something that has become ingrained in the culture.”10

Subsequently, all three authorities in question—Dr. Wolf Fahrenbach, retired from the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center; Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum, professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University; and Dr. Matthew Johnson, a clinical psychologist and Bigfoot witness—specifically refuted the words placed in their mouth by Egan. None gave Wallace “credit” for his hoaxes, and Dr. Meldrum specifically offered evidence refuting Wallace’s claim that he hoaxed the tracks cast by Bob Titmus and others around Bluff Creek. None championed Bigfoot’s existence as a cultural icon.11

Not that it mattered. By then, the hoax claim had indeed taken on a life of its own. CBS News belatedly boarded the bandwagon, playing it for laughs on 16 May 2003, as reporter Bill Whitaker asked Wallace’s widow if she “knew Bigfoot intimately.” “Oh, yes,” Elna Wallace replied. “I slept with him.”12 An online Skeptics Dictionary floated the fantastic tale that, in addition to faking footprints, Wallace “also published photos and films of Bigfeet eating elk, frogs, and cereal.”13 In October 2008 the widow of Humboldt Times editor L.W. “Scoop” Beal claimed that her husband collaborated with Wallace in the original 1958 hoax. “It was just a fun thing and the fun got out of hand,” she said.14

* * *

John Green and other researchers responded to the Wallace family’s claims, but their replies were generally lost in the hilarity surrounding assertions that Wallace “created” or “invented” Bigfoot. That claim itself was preposterous, inasmuch as the first white settler’s sighting of a hairy “wildman” in North America dates from 1785—133 years before Wallace was born15—but even that discrepancy can be explained, after a fashion.
Rising to defend the Wallace clan from “venomous denouncements,” Internet blogger “Gian Quasar” wrote: “Despite John Green’s association of the ‘Bigfoot’ with the Sasquatch, there is no similarity at all.” In “Quasar’s” view, identical descriptions spanning generations founder on the application of a different name.16 In fact, however, Sasquatch was no more the legendary monster’s “proper” name than Bigfoot: it was coined by Canadian journalist J.W. Burns in 1929.17

John Green himself responded to the Wallace claims by stating that “the tracks that were observed in the Bluff Creek drainage in northern California in the 1950’s are not just another set of tracks that can easily be set aside as something tainted by claims of fakery.” In Green’s view, “The tracks at Bluff Creek appeared at a time and place when and where there was no knowledge of anything to imitate, circumstances that can never occur again.” More specifically, he wrote, “Ray Wallace is connected to all this in only two ways that have been established. The men who first reported the 16” tracks were his employees, and it was the Bluff Creek events that started him on his long career, mainly after he moved to Washington, of producing and trying to sell crudely-faked track casts and photographs and telling outrageous whoppers about his adventures with ‘Bigfoots.’”18

An endorsement of sorts for Green’s view came, ironically, from Strange Magazine editor Mark Chorvinsky, described by the Seattle Times in 2002 as “one of the leading proponents of the theory that Mr. Wallace fathered Bigfoot.” The Times quoted Chorvinsky as saying, “The fact is there was no Bigfoot in popular consciousness before 1958. America got its own monster, its own Abominable Snowman thanks to Ray Wallace.”19

Still, for those in the know, there were claims of a big-footed beast at large, subject to imitation, long before 1958. Unless Rant Mullins lied outrageously—hardly impossible, for an admitted fraud—the hoaxing had begun in 1924, and Wallace was an upstart who began his trickery in 1969. Again, proof positive that Ray Wallace “invented” nothing.

Spokesmen for the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO) stand by Green’s assertion that Wallace launched his career as a hoaxer well after the Bluff Creek events, and claims published in Skeptical Inquirer that the wooden feet displayed by Wallace relatives in 2002 “matched the Bluff Creek tracks” are refuted by various longtime researchers, with photographic comparisons to prove their point. Likewise, there is no evidence that any serious researcher was ever deceived by a Wallace hoax during the prankster’s lifetime.20

Internet blogger Brian Dunning added a refreshing note of true skepticism to the Wallace case in 2006, when he wrote: “I see many cases on both sides of the Bigfoot debate where bad arguments, bad science, and just plain weirdness is being put forth, doing great disservice to their own side of the argument. There are intelligent and productive ways to explore a subject and present a case, but I don’t see it being done very often on either side of the Bigfoot debate....Obviously, anyone who has any kind of basic understanding of research methodology can’t accept Ray Wallace's story as proof that Bigfoot is a hoax. Sure, he made fake prints. So have a thousand other guys. They were doing it before Ray Wallace was born, and they’re still doing it today. Anyone can be making those tracks. Anyone...”21

* * *

Crypto-hoaxes may be driven by a range of motivations. While posthumous write-ups took pains to portray Ray Wallace as a “lovable trickster,” Wallace also claimed possession of vast Bigfoot film footage—6,000 to 15,000 feet in some reports—and tossed around figures of $10,000 to $250,000 while hawking individual films or photos.22 That said, no evidence has surfaced to suggest that any potential buyer ever took him seriously or paid Wallace a dime.

His survivors, however, may have done better.

At the peak of Wallace-Bigfoot fever, in early 2003, Reuters journalist Chris Gardner reported that actor Judge Reinhold (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, etc.), wife Amy, and independent producer Eric Geadelmann had joined forces to create TLP Productions, with various movie projects in mind. According to Gardner, TLP had purchased rights to Wallace’s life story for an undisclosed amount and planned two other films—a dark comedy titled One Stupid Thing, and drama about the Ku Klux Klan called Ghosts in the Hills. Thus far, none of those films has been released, and a search of the Internet Movie Database on 30 June 2010 revealed no trace of TLP Productions.23
* * *

The net result of Wallace mania was threefold. First—though sadly, not for the first time—it turned a spotlight on the media’s capacity for swallowing wild tales, hook, line, and sinker. Throughout the feeding frenzy, only one American reporter—the Denver Post’s Theo Stein—showed anything resembling objectivity, with a front-page article that dismissed Wallace in a single line, while listing scientists—primatologists Jane Goodall and Russell Mittermeier; Esteban Sarmiento, functional anatomist with the American Museum of Natural History; Daris Swindler, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Washington; and George Schaller, international science director for the Wildlife Conservation Society—who agreed that “a hard-eyed look [at Bigfoot evidence] is absolutely essential.”24

Sadly, for every Theo Stein there is a “Giant Quasar,” telling the world that “There is no question that Ray Wallace was the Bigfoot.” His proof? “Along with his brother he created the footprints in 1958, 1962, and 1967, which shows he was active for about 10 years in the area. One must only refer to the earliest books on the subject to see his wooden feet alone were the Bigfoot.”25
02. “Lovable trickster” Ray Wallace.

Within a single paragraph, “Quasar” encapsulates the errors of the slightly better journalists who came before him. Seemingly unaware that Wallace left “the area”—i.e., Bluff Creek—in 1961, to settle in Toledo, Washington, “Quasar” proceeds to credit Ray with various California track finds and films spanning the next six years. His argument collapses totally with the reference to early Bigfoot books (or any others, for that matter), which display footprints of Sasquatch footprint casts bearing no resemblance to Wallace’s crude wooden feet, in either shape or size. Ironically, “Quasar” himself provides a hand-drawn “fatal comparison for Bluff Creek,” revealing that Wallace’s boots and the footprints discovered had nothing in common.26

03. A Bluff Creek cast from 1958 (left) compared to the wooden “foot” displayed to reporters by Wallace family members in 2002.

Was Ray Wallace a hoaxer, for whatever motive? Absolutely.

Did he bamboozle any serious Bigfoot researchers? Absolutely not.

He neither “invented” nor personified Bigfoot. His passing ended nothing but a life of lies. And if he was responsible for all the Bigfoot-Yeti tracks reported from five continents from 1958 until his death, he must have presided over a global conspiracy dwarfing the CIA and KGB combined.

The mystery endures.


1 The chronology is summarized from Loren Coleman’s Bigfoot! The True Story of Apes in America (New York: Paraview, 2003), pp. 66-71, and John Green’s Sasquatch: The Apes Among Us (Blaine, WA: Hancock House, 1978), pp. 65-82.
2 Michael Newton, Strange Kentucky Monsters (Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2010), p. 53.
3 John Driscoll, “Birth of Bigfoot,” The Times-Standard (Eureka, CA), 30 October 2008.
4 “Wallace Hoax Behind Bigfoot?” Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO), http://www.bfro.net/news/wallace.asp#commentarY.
5 Ibid.; Coleman, pp. 76-7.
6 Michael Dennett, “Bigfoot Jokester Reveals Punch Line—Finally,” Skeptical Inquirer 7 (Fall 1982): 8-9.
7 BFRO, “Wallace Hoax Behind Bigfoot?”
8 Bob Young, “Lovable trickster created a monster with Bigfoot hoax,” Seattle Times, 5 December 2002.
9 “Footprints big but 42-year Bigfoot hoax even larger,” Vancouver Sun, 7 December 2002; Young.
10 Timothy Egan, “Search for Bigfoot Outlives The Man Who Created Him,” New York Times, 3 January 2003.
11 BFRO, “Wallace Hoax Behind Bigfoot?”
12 “Bigfoot Remains Mysterious,” CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, (16 May 2003), http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1P1-74033087.html.
13 “Bigfoot,” The Skeptics Dictionary, http://www.skepdic.com/bigfoot.html.
14 Driscoll.
15 Chad Arment, The Historical Bigfoot (Landisville, PA: Coachwhip, 2006), p. 187.
16 Gian Quasar, "On the Trail of the Sasquatch: Exposing the truth about Bigfoot," http://www.bermuda-triangle.org/html/bluff_creek_bigfoot.html.
17 Michael Newton, Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005), p. 412.
18 “John Green's Commentary of the ‘Birth of Bigfoot’ Story.” BFRO, http://www.bfro.net/news/jgreen_bluff_creek_tracks.asp.
19 Young.
20 “BFRO’s Quick FAQ on the 12/02 ‘Death of Bigfoot’ Story, BFRO, http://www.bfro.net/news/wallace_faq.asp; Joe Nickell, “Mysterious Entities of the Pacific Northwest, Part I,” Skeptical Inquirer 31 (January/February 2007), http://www.csicop.org/si/show/mysterious_entities_of_the_pacific_northwest_part_i.
21 Brian Dunning, “Killing Bigfoot with Bad Science,” Skeptoid 11 (3 December 2006), http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4011.
22 “New Bigfoot Photo Investigation,” Strange Magazine 13 (Spring 1994), http://www.bigfootencounters.com/articles/strange14.htm.
23 Chris Gardner, “Reinholds put their Bigfoot forward in venture,” Reuters/Hollywood Reporter, at BFRO, http://www.bfro.net/news/wallace.asp.
24 Theo Stein, “Bigfoot Believers: Legitimate scientific study of legend gains backing of top primate experts,” Denver Post, 5 January 2003.
25 Quasar.
26 Ibid.


Dale Drinnon said...

Just a couple of comments because they are personal information not generally available: "Big Foot" was the name given to several legendary creatures figured to be a bear or a "Crazy Indian" at different times by 1900. An early sound cartoon shown on Youtube from the 1930s includes the "Big Footed Monster of the North Woods" but it looks vaguely like a hairy tyrannosaurus. I have seen the clip but I do not know the name of the original cartoon. A member of one of my groups had sent the link to me. Other than including the name "Big Foot[ed]", it was of no consequence.

"Sasquatch" can be looked upon as a fair English transliteration of an authentic Native name, only the "Tl" has been changed to "Tch" because English-speakers have trouble pronouncing it.

I HAVE got a picture postcard from Happy Camp of "Bigfoot track casts" that I feel certain were made by Wallace's faked feet, and Cryptomundo posted a poor scan of the picture side. I also incidentally also own a similar board track template from Indiana, which I got after the former owner/hoaxter had died.

And I can attest that I have a personal letter from Sabina Sanderson shortly after Ivan's death which includes a derisive rant about Wallace's claims.

Michael Malone said...

A most excellent and well researched article. There seems to be all sorts of "holes" in the timelines of the Wallace story that have often bothered me, but I never put my finger on it till you laid it all out so nicely. Basically, there is no Wallace story, other than that of tired old huckster. Everything else was created nonsense.

Thanks again.