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Monday, July 05, 2010

MICHAEL NEWTON: Muddying Clearwater

01. A photo of a Three-Toes print from 1948. (St. Petersburg Times)

Most of us love mysteries. There is a certain thrill inherent in an unsolved riddle, be it natural, historical, or criminal. Why else does the Roanoke Colony still inspire DNA research and fictional tales? Why else do new “solutions” to the London Ripper murders still appear with clockwork regularity, 122 years after the fact?

One thing sweeter than luxuriating in the details of mystery is solving it. Real-life detective stories fill our airwaves, newspapers, and bookstore shelves. We can participate vicariously in the pleasure of exposing guilty persons, cracking codes, revealing hoaxes. There is such an appetite for exposés, in fact, that some apparently are manufactured from thin air, tailored to fit specific facts, and foisted on a public eager to swallow them, hook, line, and sinker.

Thereby hangs a tale.
* * *

In the mid-1930s, large three-toed footprints appeared on lonely beaches ranging from Queensland, Tasmania, and New Zealand to Patagonia and Nantucket, Massachusetts. The year 1937 brought similar reports from Natal, South Africa, where witness Aleko Lilius photographed footprints and claimed to have fired on their hulking, reptilian maker. Strangely, Lilius also claimed that some of the tracks were faked by a Zulu witch doctor, which left the story dangling in uncertainty.1
Fast-forward to February 1948, on the west coast of Florida. Early one morning, date unknown, two young lovers told police they had been interrupted by “a monster” rising from the surf at Clearwater. Daylight brought discovery of large three-toed tracks on the beach, with more appearing on 6 March, a mile and a half north of the first site. On 20 March the action shifted southward, to Dan’s Island. On 3 April a 350-yard line of footprints appeared at Indian Rocks, 10 miles south of Clearwater. Some time later, date again unknown, more tracks were found at Philip’s Hammock, on Tampa Bay.
The next eyewitness sighting of an unknown creature—and the first with witnesses identified—occurred on 25 July. Two instructors from the Dunedin Flying School, John Milner and George Orfanides, were circling over the Gulf of Mexico at 200 feet when they saw a large creature swimming near Hog Island (now Caladesi Island). They judged it to be 15 feet long, with a “very hairy body, a heavy blunt head and back legs like an alligator but much heavier. The tail [was] long and blunt.” Rushing back to their airstrip, the witnesses picked up associates Mario Hernandez and Francis Whillock, then flew back to Hog Island. They found the beast again and made a dozen passes to observe it, later stating that it had four legs “pressed under the body most of the time.”2
In August a pair of tourists from Milwaukee, fishing from a rowboat among the Anclote Keys, north of Tarpon Springs, saw a large gray object ashore. They first mistook it for a tent, then watched it waddle off into the surf, describing it as “having a head like a rhinoceros but with no neck. It sort of flowed into its narrow shoulders. It was gray and covered with short thick fur. It had short, very thick legs and huge feet, and from its shoulders hung two flippers. It didn’t run into the water, or dive in; it sort of slid in sidewise.”3

Two more sightings occurred in October. On the 21st, several members of a local Baptist church were picnicking beside the Suwannee River, near Chiefland, when they saw “a dome-shaped, rough and knobby object” in the water. All assumed it was a log, until they noticed that it swam upstream, against the river’s current. On the same day, a new trail of 242 three-toed footprints appeared at Suwannee Gables, near Old Town. Three days later, witness Mary Belle Smith saw “a very large, dun-colored animal” paddling in the Suwannee, near the point where Highway 19 bridged the river.4
* * *

Meanwhile, a thousand miles to the north, Three-Toes was making waves in New York City. Reports from Clearwater raised eyebrows at the New York Herald-Tribune and in the boardroom of the National Broadcasting Company. Together, those media giants commissioned an on-site investigation.

Their first and only choice to lead the expedition: Ivan Terrence Sanderson.

A native Scotsman, Sanderson held a B.A. with honors in zoology from England’s Cambridge University, buttressed by M.A. degrees in botany and geology. His passion was wildlife, pursued in every corner of the globe, including various bizarre encounters that would fuel a lifelong interest in cryptozoology. Settled in New Jersey after World War II, he soon became a fixture on radio and television, educating Americans to the lifestyles of exotic species.

He was, in short, Jack Hanna and Steve Irwin, rolled up into one.

Who better to investigate an unknown critter at large in America’s southern playground?

02. Ivan Sanderson with a footprint cast in 1948. (St. Petersburg Times)

Sanderson first heard of Three-Toes in July 1948, then embarked for Clearwater in mid-October. Only one set of footprints—from 21 October—remained by the time he arrived, but Sanderson examined them minutely. The left foot measured 13.41 inches from its heel to the tip of its clawed middle toe, while the right was 13.5 inches long. As to depth, depending on the soil, prints ranged from three-quarters of an inch to two inches deep.5

Sanderson later wrote: “We were told by several people who had observed the tracks when fresh—and these included the local police—that the imprints were originally clearly defined on the hardest sand, although we were unable to make any impression on this by stamping or even by throwing a 35-pound lead model of the imprints down upon it from a height of three feet.”6

And again: “When we attempted to reproduce them with 35-pound lead models strapped to the writer’s feet, no impression whatsoever was left on the ball-bearing sand when it was wet, and impressions made in medium or soft mud were surrounded by an impact ridge that completely surrounded the imprint. No such ridge at any time appeared around any imprint at Clearwater, on the Suwannee, or elsewhere.”7 [Italics in the original.]

Highway engineers, consulted by Sanderson, opined that “if made physically by a man, either with devices strapped to his feet or on stilts,” the Florida tracks would require “a ton on each leg” as “the absolute minimum weight” to produce the impressions discovered.8

Weight aside, Sanderson’s initial suspicion of a hoax floundered on the variations seen in individual footprints. Examining the tracks, he found one point where the beast had climbed an embankment, gouging claw marks three inches deep with no trace of the foot’s ball or heel. Elsewhere, he saw that “the middle toe could on occasion be held up by a root while the outer and inner toes not only reached the ground but gouged deep claw incisions into its surface,” an impression “manifestly impossible of reproduction with any rigid device.” In yet another print, the toes were seen to “spread by as much as 15° and slip under small sticks.”9

Finally, if any further evidence were needed, Sanderson himself sighted the creature while flying above the Suwannee River with Herald-Tribune pilot Lloyd Rondeau, midway between Old Town and the river’s mouth. Both men saw an “enormous dirty-yellow colored creature rolling about on the surface of the water, making a huge lozenge-shaped patch of foam on the dark waters all around it,” but the beast vanished while they circled back to make another pass. Sanderson later wrote that “the same thing” was seen at Dundein, on 14 November, but no further details are known of the creature’s last appearance.10 Sanderson left Florida two days later, to compile his findings.
* * *

The release of Ivan Sanderson’s 53-page report sent Three-Toes packing. At home in New Jersey, Sanderson divided his time between straightforward nature writing (with his first book, How to Know the American Mammals, published in 1951) and excursions into Forteana. In 1965 he founded the Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained (SITU) and launched its journal, Pursuit, pledged to “the acquisition, investigation and dissemination of information on reports of all tangible items in the fields of chemistry, astronomy, geology, biology and anthropology, that are not readily explained.”

Sanderson revisited the Three-Toes case two decades after his Florida expedition, in a pair of articles published by Fate magazine. The December 1967 issue covered cases from the latter 1930s, while Sanderson recited 1948’s events in January 1968, suggesting that the creature may have been an unknown giant penguin. A year later, both articles appeared as consecutive chapters in More “Things,” a collection of Sanderson’s magazine pieces published by Pyramid Books.

Stomach cancer claimed Sanderson’s life on 19 February 1973. SITU briefly survived him, then disbanded. In Florida, Three-Toes was seemingly forgotten.
* * *

Fifteen years and four months after Sanderson’s death, reporter Jan Kirby wrote an article for the St. Petersburg Times, headlined “Clearwater Can Relax; Monster is Unmasked.” Opening with a wholly unsubstantiated claim that three-toed tracks “appeared frequently” throughout western Florida for a decade after 1948, Kirby proceeded to say that “a number of local people, including the police, believed the whole thing was a hoax,” but “had no way to prove it.”11


03. Tony Signorini flaunts his “monster feet” in 1988. (St. Petersburg Times)

Chief among the doubters, Kirby said, was ex-police chief Frank Daniels, who allegedly blamed the footprints on Al Williams, an inveterate practical joker and owner of Clearwater’s Auto Electric shop. Daniels told Kirby, “We suspected Williams because he usually called in the reports of the monster and was such a local prankster....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.”12

Kirby proved herself gullible by accepting those claims at face value. First, we know from coverage of events in 1948 that Al Williams did not report “most” of the footprint discoveries or cryptid sightings. In fact, his name appears nowhere on any published list of witnesses. Furthermore, Daniels implies that the pilot who reported a hog-headed creature to police was unidentified, thus suspected of being Williams. He was, in fact, John Milner, accompanied by George Orfanides, Mario Hernandez, and Frank Whillock. The only other sighting from an aircraft involved Ivan Sanderson and pilot Lloyd Rondeau.

Unable to question Williams, deceased since 1969, Kirby turned to his business partner, Tony Signorini, with whom she says Williams “left the secret of the ‘Clearwater Monster’ for safekeeping.” There was more to the story, however, since Signorini claimed he was the monster, cavorting on beaches and river banks with a pair of 30-pound lead “monster” feet attached to high-top tennis shoes.13

How did he make the tracks described by Ivan Sanderson as falling beyond human fabrication? According to Signorini, “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 [six feet]. The shoes were heavy enough to sink down in the sand.”14

Or, were they? What of Sanderson’s experiments, using lead feet five pound heavier than Signorini’s? How does Tony’s tale explain the tracks which showed only toe marks climbing embankments? And how on Earth did the rigid middle toes of Tony’s lead boots flex and rise while walking over tree roots, or perform the other movements cataloged by Sanderson?

Likewise, while Signorini’s hopping gait might explain an occasional six-foot stride, artificial feet twice the size of his own could just as easily reduce the space between his footsteps. And, as Sanderson reported in 1948, the tracks typically displayed a stride ranging from 25 to 31 inches, far less than six feet, thus belying Tony’s description of marathon leap-fests by moonlight.

Next, we have Kirby’s spurious claim that “the ‘monster’ came out only at night.”15 Signorini and Williams may have been nocturnal hoaxers, but large unidentified creatures were seen in the flesh by more than a dozen witnesses during the 1948 monster flap. All but one of those incidents occurred in broad daylight. All but one involved multiple witnesses.

Finally, why did Signorini wait 40 years to reveal his practical joke? According to Kirby, he was “encouraged” to tell all by various friends, after Al Williams died in 1969. He thus agreed to “bring the monster out of hiding,” yet inexplicably stalled for another 19 years.16

Across the country and around the world, journalists rushed to trumpet Signorini’s tale without a hint of critical fact-checking. Curiously, one publication that climbed aboard the bandwagon was a quarterly newsletter published by the International Society of Cryptozoology. While acknowledging—then otherwise ignoring—Ivan Sanderson’s technical report from 1948, The ISC Newsletter reprinted Jan Kirby’s article verbatim and capped it by commending Signorini for his belated revelation, rating his fraud as “one of the best and most colorful hoaxes of all time.”17 The various discrepancies in Kirby’s article passed unremarked.
* * *
Enter Mike Dash, a renowned British author/historian, Cambridge-educated in the mould of Ivan Sanderson, who spent 20 years as a contributing editor of Fortean Times. Toronto’s Globe and Mail describes him as “that rarity: a perfectionist in his research and a writer who perfectly carves out his story with a pen as sharp as a stiletto.” London’s Sunday Telegraph calls Dash “an indefatigable researcher with a prodigious descriptive flair.” The New York Times has praised his “unabashedly cinematic flair, backed by meticulous research.”18

In 2000, Dash published Borderlands, billed as “The Ultimate Exploration of the Unknown.” His chapter on hoaxes opens with Tony Signorini at Clearwater, but after briefly summarizing the events of 1948, Dash tells us, for instance, that Signorini’s lead boots “perfectly matched the plaster cast prints taken on Clearwater beach, proving that the affair was a hoax.”19 That fact was not revealed in Jan Kirby’s original report from 1988—or anywhere else, prior to publication of Borderlands. Indeed, no photos of the 40-year-old casts were featured in the article detailing Signorini’s statement, which displayed his homemade boots. Without a source we may be wise to ask whether the casts even survived to 1988, and if so, whether any “perfect match” was truly made.

Mike writes that “[w]hen the tracks were found it was observed that they seemed to have been made by a jointless, flat-bottomed foot.” While that was true of some tracks, mostly found on public beaches, it does not describe those analyzed in Sanderson’s report from 1948. As previously noted, those tracks featured flexible toes, prints with no visible ball or heel, and other traits clearly at odds with Signorini’s alleged robotic leaping. Dash was not ignorant of Sanderson’s report. In fact, he lists More “Things” as his primary source for the Clearwater case.20

Mike Dash acknowledges Sanderson’s personal sighting of an unknown creature on the Suwannee River, but then writes: “The principal puzzle is how a naturalist of Sanderson’s standing could have allowed himself to be taken in by what was really rather a crude deception.”21

How “taken in”? By the evidence of his own eyes? By scientific calculations from a team of engineers?

Dash suggests: “Indeed, the existence of so many witnesses—Sanderson included—is extremely revealing. Given that there was no giant penguin haunting the Gulf Coast...what had [various witnesses] and the British naturalist actually seen? Another mystery animal, perhaps—but that seems to be stretching coincidence too far. It must be more likely that they had seen nothing at all, and either invented their stories out of mischief or to please their questioner, or caught up in the excitement of the giant penguin panic, misidentified known animals that they had glimpsed for only an instant.”22

But here’s the rub: there was no “giant penguin panic” at Clearwater (or anywhere else) in 1948. As previously noted, Sanderson’s penguin theory surfaced for the first time in Fate magazine, 20 years after the fact.23 No one in Florida expected to see a giant penguin in 1948. They could not strive to “please their questioner” when no one asked about a penguin. And indeed, none of the eyewitness descriptions recorded—including Sanderson’s—referred to anything resembling a penguin, giant or otherwise.

As for Sanderson himself, it is unlikely that he lied about his sighting for “mischief’s” sake and persuaded his pilot to join in the deception? No one questioned him, so a desire “to please” may be ruled out. Or was he grossly mistaken in what he saw, despite Dash’s admission of his standing as a zoologist? More to the point, what creature known to science in the Sunshine State is 12 feet long and four feet wide, “domed above,” with “things at either end” to churn up water? Wikipedia’s suggestion that “some sharks might resemble a giant penguin when seen from above under adverse conditions” is farcical.24

As Dash reports, “The whole ridiculous business still retains the power to baffle.”25

* * *

Another example of false information’s proliferation surfaced in 2001, soon after the University Press of Florida published my own book of regional cryptid reports, Florida’s Unexpected Wildlife. The book includes a chapter on Three-Toes, which examines Tony Signorini’s tale. Soon after its release, one James Barrett-Morison reviewed the book online, reporting that the chapter in question describes “gigantic three-toed footprints stretching over twelve inches long, which appeared on the west coast of Florida between 1948 and 1958.”26 Barrett-Morison borrows the latter error from Jan Kirby’s article of 11 June 1988, while shaving nearly two inches from the recorded footprints. Neither piece of misinformation appears in my text.

And so it goes.

* * *

On a slow news day in June 2006, reporter Jeff Klinkenberg resuscitated Signorini’s story for the St. Petersburg Times—and further muddied the waters. For starters, he seemingly had no idea when the events occurred, placing them “sixty years ago this summer,” at a time when local residents enjoyed The Big Sleep at their local theater (released in 1946).27

Twelve paragraphs in, we discover that he’s describing a preliminary “rampage” that supposedly took place a full year prior to the events on 1948, with Three-Toes traipsing around Indian Rocks, Sarasota, the Pinellas peninsula, St. Petersburg, and Tampa Bay (all sites listed by Jan Kirby for mythical track sightings between 1949 and 1958). No source available today supports these claims, but even if the incidents described by Klinkenberg did occur, he still has the year wrong.28

In 1948, Klinkenberg writes—avoiding a specific date—the creature “returned,” surfacing near the mouth of the Suwannee River. He ignores its February premiere at Clearwater Beach and subsequent outings. While garbling the chronology beyond recognition, he also takes time out to slander Cambridge-educated Ivan Sanderson as “a self-taught zoologist,” presumably incapable of distinguishing shite from Shinola.29

To cap his story, Klinkenberg collars Tony Signorini, then 85 years old, with a pocketful of rattling rosary beads to signify belated religious zeal. Church Tony blames the hoax on then-boss Al Williams, whose irrepressible sense of humor somehow left neighbors regarding him as “kind of crabby.” Perhaps that was because his “jokes” ran toward such acts as locking horses up in a jail and detonating explosive charges in the local fire station.30
What a card.

04. Florida’s Unexpected Wildlife, by the author.

Signorini dates the Three-Toes hoax vaguely from 1946 or ’47, when he was “about 25 or so.” After that false beginning, his description of events jibes fairly well with his confession from June 1988: nocturnal forays, the bizarre leaping, and so on. This time around, he says, “I’m sure the police chief knew it was us, but he never said anything.” Another brilliant wit, presumably. In closing, Klinkenberg suggests to Signorini that he launch a new monster flap. Tony’s reply: “Sure, I’ll go, though somebody will have to carry the monster shoes. They’re too heavy for me now that I’m an old man.”31

Thankfully, the rest is silence ... at least, so far.

* * *

What finally remains of Tony Signorini’s hoax confession? There is no doubt that he owned a pair of cast-lead “monster” feet in 1988. Whether he made the feet himself, or somehow got his hands on those fabricated by Sanderson’s team 40 years earlier—perhaps from friends in the police department who allegedly collaborated in his prank—remains unclear. No evidence exists that anyone has ever weighed the boots in question to discover whether they weigh 30 pounds or 35, the recorded weight of Sanderson’s models.

And beyond the lead boots ... nothing.

Unless Ivan Sanderson lied flagrantly about his Florida sighting and findings from 1948 to the end of his life, Signorini’s story must be partly false, at least. Whether he faked some tracks or not, we know that Tony never weighed 4,000 pounds—the estimated bulk advanced by highway engineers for Three-Toes—and that rigid metal boots cannot show variation in their shape or size from one track to the next. It’s physically impossible. If Signorini’s boots made any tracks at all in Florida, they could not have produced the footprints analyzed by Sanderson.

Who was the hoaxer?

All we know today is that the mystery endures.


1 Ivan Sanderson, More “Things” (New York: Pyramid Books, 1969), pp. 26-30.
2 Ibid., p. 36.
3 Ibid., p. 37.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid., p. 43.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid., pp. 50-1.
8 Ibid., p. 50.
9 Ibid., pp. 43, 45, 47, 51.
10 Ibid. p. 30.
11 Jan Kirby, “Clearwater Can Relax; Monster is Unmasked.” St. Petersburg (FL) Times, 11 June 1988.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid.
17 Anonymous, “Florida ‘Giant Penguin’ Hoax Revealed,” The ISC Newsletter 7 (Winter 1988): 1-3.
18 Mike Dash website, http://www.mikedash.com/.
19 Mike Dash, Borderlands (New York: Delta, 2000), p. 275.
20 Ibid., pp. 275, 496; Sanderson, pp. 45-6.
21 Dash, pp. 275.
22 Ibid., pp. 274-5.
23 Ivan Sanderson, “That Forgotten Monster: Old Three-Toes.” Fate 20 (December 1967): 66-75, and 21 (January 1968): 85-93.
24 “Giant penguin hoax,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_penguin_hoax.
25 Dash, p. 275.
26 James Barrett-Morison, review of Florida’s Unexpected Wildlife, Florida Book Review, http://www.floridabookreview.com/id34.html.
27 Jeff Klinkenberg, “Man, not beast,” St. Petersburg Times, 24 June 2006.
28 Ibid.
29 Ibid.
30 Ibid.
31 Ibid.

2 comments:

Dale Drinnon said...

Thank you for this piece, I had done a treatment of this in a previous blog but we focued on different details.

The key point I made which you did NOT make was that Tony's hoax-tracks did NOT match the 3-toes tracks at all. The 3-toes tracks were asymmetrical, and this was noted in an early issue of PURSUIT.

That there was a 1946 "Apparition" of 3-toes was mentioned by Willy Ley. That did not include the further mention that such tracks were found a decade before that in Belize and they occor throughout the 1800s all the way around the edge of South America; and regularly at Trinidad, where they are attributed to the Huilla. Furthermore 3-Toes is a global phenomenon, although reports predominate in the Southern hemisphere. Some "Bunyip" tracks in Australia are "3-Toes" tracks.

Furthermore, the tracks and sightings are still taking place in Florida, AFTER Tony's death.

My candidate for the culprit is an elephant seal. That will sound crazy to most people that have not read my blog posting, but there are reasons for that. The blog includes photographs.

BTW, thanks for the reprints of the newspaper photos, yours are of a much better quality than my copies were.

Charlene said...

"AFTER Tony's death"? Excuse me, as a long-time friend of the family, I can attest that Tony is still alive and kicking -- at the ripe old age of 90!