Great Moments in Pop Culture – Jimmy Stewart Smuggles a Yeti’s Finger

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As much as this is a story about Jimmy Stewart, more than that, it’s the tale of oil magnate, adventurer, and heist-architect, Tom Slick. An oil man literally called Tom Slick is so on-the-nose, it sounds like something from The Dandy, but Tom Slick was real, and exactly the sort of man I want to be. That is, super rich, and spending my time and resources on crazy shit. Slick’s money, aquired through his status as heir to his daddy’s oil fortune, was used to establish a number of research institutes, investigating topics like astrophysics and human consciousness. He was fascinated with the idea of mental powers, perhaps sparked by a meeting with an Indian mystic who claimed he could levitate; something Slick envisioned could save a lot of resources when applied to the construction industry. Although he never did figure out telekinetic brick-laying, in 1984, Slick’s Texas Biomedical Research Institute did perform the first successful transplant of a baboon’s heart into a human body. But Slick also self-funded various expeditions in search of legendary mysterious creatures, such as Nessie, Orang Pendek, the giant salamander of Trinity Alps, and the Yeti.

Though its mythos is of a living survivor from prehistoric times, the Western notion of a Yeti only really became a thing in 1951, with a photograph taken by mountineer Eric Shipton. Known as the Shipton Footprint, this was my own introduction to the Yeti, via the ‘Unexplained Mysteries’ series of trading cards you got inside Brooke Bond teabags. An evocative image, Shipton’s black and white photograph shows an enormous, sunken footprint pushed into the snow, primate-like with a fat toe bent off at an angle, and measuring the full length of the pickaxe which lays beside to give a sense of scale. Like the Surgeon’s Photograph of Nessie, this was the kickstarter to Yeti mania. The Daily Mail — as when they embraced the Loch Ness phenomena in 1933, with front page coverage that effectively birthed the very idea of Nessie into public consciousness — funded an expedition to locate the creature.

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The Mail‘s 1954 ‘Snowman Expedition’ saw a team of scientists, zoologists, biologists, anthropologists, mountaineers, and over 200 Sherpas, trekking up Everest and around the Himalayas for six gruelling months. This hunt for the newly-named Abominable Snowman found little but unexplained footprints, though locals did allow the team to view, for the first time, sacred relics of supposed Yeti remains, which included bones and scalps, and at a Buddhist monastery in Nepal, an entire mummified hand; the Pangboche Hand. Incidentally, it’s odd to think the of Daily Mail, a maligned rag that exists solely to stir up racially-motivated fear in your dad, and to ogle “busty displays” from teenage celebrities, having played such a formative role in two of cryptozoology’s greatest legends. It’s like if The Sun had invented Mothman.

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Whereas modern Bigfoot culture is primarily associated with rednecks stumbling around the woods, back then, hairy manbeasts were considered fringe-science candidates for the Missing Link; a speculative half-man, half-beast evolutionary midpoint. Though the idea of a catch-all Missing Link has fallen out of favour, for a while, it served as a scientific El Dorado; everyone chasing the discovery of this thing, to have their name forever linked with the find of the century. In such a climate, rumours of a large, gnarled, hairy hand was like spotting flakes of gold in the river, especially to a man like Tom Slick.

In 1956, Slick announced plans for a trip to Katmandu to capture the creature, which he’d track with a pack of bloodhounds while observing from above in a helicopter, but was scuppered when the local government refused permission. The following year, a bill was passed, legally prohibiting foreign visitors from killing any Yetis. The American government followed suit in 1959, issuing a memo entitled “Regulations Governing Mountain Climbing Expeditions in Nepal – Relating to Yeti” with three regulations.

— Permits for Yeti searches have to be purchased from the government of Nepal.

— Yetis must not be killed, but can be photographed or captured alive, with all photographs immediately submitted to the government. And no shooting at a Yeti, except in self-defence.

— Evidence of the Yeti must be immediately submitted to the government, and not released to the press without express permission.

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Despite enough red tape to give Noel Edmonds an aneurysm, Slick wasn’t perturbed, particularly as one of his team of adventurers, Peter Byrne, had personally observed the Pangboche Hand during a Slick-sponsored expedition in 1958. Displaying spectacular white-tourist privilege, Byrne had asked the monks if he could just have the sacred relic, but they refused, as removing the hand was thought to bring bad luck on the temple. On Slick’s urging, he returned the following year, to request just a single finger. But this time, Byrne was armed, so to speak, with a finger of his own. The digit had been provided by William Osman Hill, a London professor of primatology and associate of Slick’s. Eager to find proof of the Yeti, during a meeting with the pair, Hill had dumped a severed human hand onto the table, and suggested they lop off a finger and make the switch.

Byrne returned to the monastery in 1959, where he swapped out one of the Yeti’s fingers for the human one, although there are differing stories of how this went down. In one, Byrne explained the plan, and bartered a donation of $160 before cutting off the finger and attaching the replacement with the monks’ permission. In the other version, he got the monks drunk before sneakily swapping the fingers over, like when Indy steals the idol at the start of Raiders, and scuttling off into the snow. From there, Byrne and the finger travelled to India. But as I found once when looking on eBay for legitimate shrunken heads because I’m a ghoul, British customs frown upon the importing of human (or manbeast) remains, leaving Byrne with the problem of getting the finger back to London.

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Luckily, Slick had connections. Namely, friend-of-a-friend, Hollywood actor Jimmy Stewart, who was holidaying in India at the time with his wife, Gloria. Incredibly not weirded out by some guy traipsing around with an illicit mummified body-part in his backpack, and with a keen interest in natural history, Stewart promised he’d get the finger back to London, where Tom Slick was waiting. Knowing that British customs officers were too polite to go rooting around in a lady’s underwear case, Stewart hid the dead finger among his wife’s knickers. The plan was a success, and finally reaching random-hand-procurer Osman Hill for analysis, Hill declared it the bone of a legitimate Neanderthal. Following Slick’s death in 1962, when the plane he was travelling in “disintegrated mid-flight,” the hand became another forgotten relic.

It wasn’t until 1991 that the Pangboche Finger made its reappearance, when a fragment was tested by the television show Unsolved Mysteries, which tissue sampling intriguingly concluded was “near human.” Unfortunately, Unsolved Mysteries roused a little too much interest, as the original Pangboche Hand was promptly stolen from the monastery soon after the episode aired, disappearing into the underground black market of antiquities, never to be seen again. The Pangboche Hand on display in the monstary today is a replica, put together by special effects workshop Weta — of the LOTR films — based on the original photographs taken by Peter Byrne.

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The severed finger re-emerged in 2011, among a number of items bequeathed to the Royal College of Surgeons’ museum, from the private collection of Osman Hill, literally inside a box labelled ‘Yeti Finger’. It was tested once again, this time with more advanced DNA sequencing, which revealed the finger to be… human. Though it’s disappointing it didn’t turn out to be the bones of a legendary monster, on the other hand, this means Jimmy Stewart once smuggled a human finger into the country by hiding it in his wife’s bras. Jimmy Stewart; beloved gentleman actor of Hollywood’s golden age; confirmed smuggler of human remains. Speaking of movies, this whole tale is crying out for an adaptation starring Tom Hanks and Jack Black as Stewart and Slick. Incredibly, a movie titled Tom Slick: Monster Hunter was once greenlit, with Nic Cage attached as the lead, but fell into development hell, most likely after they realised I’d drop dead from excitement if it ever went ahead.

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~ by Stuart on July 1, 2018.

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