The Abominable Snowman, or Yeti, has long been one of the favorite subjects of “cryptozoologists”–those who study and search for unknown mystery animals. Over the decades, true believers have searched the Himalayas for evidence of the existence of the mythical creature. And one person who played an odd role in that story was Hollywood actor Jimmy Stewart.
Jimmy Stewart, Monster Hunter
The Himalayan Mountains, in Nepal and Bhutan, are some of the most remote and hostile areas on the planet. The local people who lived in the mountains, known as Sherpa, had legends of a mysterious hairy man-ape they called by various names, including Yeti, Meh-Teh Kangmi, and Shookpah. When British explorers and mountain climbers began trekking into the Himalayas in the late 19th and early 20th century, they heard the legends. Some of them began reporting large apparently bipedal footprints in the snow, in inhospitable mountain passes: Laurence Waddell in 1899, Charles Howard-Bury in 1921, and NA Tombazi, a member of the Royal Geographic Society who in 1925 saw a large hairy manlike creature at a distance on a glacier, then found footprints at the spot. In the British press, the mystery creature was dubbed “The Abominable Snowman”.
The most famous instance in Yeti lore happened in 1951, when British explorer Eric Shipton, who was attempting to climb Mt Everest, photographed a set of tracks in the snow, with his ice ax providing scale, which his Sherpa guides attributed to the Yeti. Sir Edmund Hillary, the first European to ascend Mt Everest, took an interest in the legend, and arranged for the examination of a number of artifacts held in Buddhist Monasteries claimed to be from a Yeti, including a preserved scalp and an alleged skin which were procured by an “expedition” sent to the area by the Daily Mail newspaper. Under examination, the skin turned out to be a Tibetan Bear, and the scalp was from a Serow Antelope. Hillary, and the scientific community, dismissed the “Yeti” as a legend.
But there were those who still believed. In 1957, a Texan named Tom Slick, who had become wealthy in the oil business, funded his own private expedition to the Himalayas to search for evidence of the creature’s existence. (Slick also funded similar expeditions to Scotland to find the Loch Ness Monster and to the Pacific Northwest to find Bigfoot.)
For many years, the Pangboche Monastery in Nepal had been displaying a conical bit of skin and a shriveled dried-out hand, said to be the scalp and hand of a Yeti found dead in a cave. When Peter Byrne, an Irish-American cryptozoologist who had been investigating the Bigfoot phenomenon before joining Slick’s Yeti expedition, heard about them, he went to the monastery and asked to have them scientifically examined. The monastery was reluctant, since they depended for most of their income on offerings from pilgrims who traveled there to see the holy relics. Printed accounts of what happened next are contradictory. In some versions of the story, Byrne arranged an opportunity to examine the Yeti hand alone, and surreptitiously switched out one of the finger bones, replacing it with an ordinary human bone he had obtained from a London primatologist so the theft would not be noticed. In other versions (including Byrne’s own account), Byrne was allowed by the monks to remove the Yeti finger bone for examination after making a donation to the monastery of ten thousand rupees (about one hundred British pounds), replacing it with a human finger at the monk’s request to maintain its appearance.
However he had obtained the “Yeti finger”, Byrne now faced the problem of how to get it back to London for examination: the Nepalese government had passed laws forbidding any Yetis from being killed or removing any Yeti relics from the country. Byrne contacted Slick to ask for help. Slick, it turned out, had some extensive connections: through his friendship with Howard Hughes he had done some work for the CIA, and he also knew a who’s who of Hollywood movie stars. One of Slick’s friends was actor Jimmy Stewart, who at that very moment happened to be on vacation with his wife Gloria in Calcutta, India. So Slick and Byrne, who had smuggled the finger bones across the border from Nepal in his backpack, met with the Stewarts at the Grand Hotel in Calcutta, where they explained the situation to the actor. Stewart was intrigued, and he and his wife agreed to smuggle the bones back to London, avoiding Customs by packing them in Gloria’s lingerie case.
The pilfered bone was then examined by another friend of Slick’s, London primatologist Osman Hill. Hill at first decided that the “Yeti finger” was actually from a human, but later changed his mind and concluded it was “humanlike”.
The bone was then largely forgotten. When Hill died in 1976, the “Yeti finger” made its way to the museum collection of the Royal College of Surgeons, where it was found in the archives in 2011. Peter Byrne himself, now 85 years old, was astonished to learn that the finger still existed, and when he was taken by investigators to see it in London, confirmed that it was indeed the bone he had removed from the “Yeti hand” at Pangboche half a century before. Arrangements were made to have the finger DNA-tested, and the results were conclusive–the bone was that of an ordinary human.
In 1995, the “Yeti hand” itself was stolen from the Pangboche Monastery. When the monks heard that the original finger had been rediscovered, they asked that it be returned. In the meantime, in 2010, New Zealand mountain climber Mike Allsop, who had visited the Pangboche Monastery, arranged for a replica of the “Yeti hand” to be made by movie FX company Weta Workshop (who had made the costumes for the Lord of the Rings movies), and delivered it to the Monastery. Allsop has also formed a nonprofit group called “Return the Hand” to search for the original stolen “Yeti hand” so it can be returned to Pangboche.