Thursday, April 3, 2014

Clearwater's Giant Penguin Mystery

In February 1948, beachgoers in Clearwater were shocked to find enormous three-toed footprints in the sand, extending for two miles along the shore. Police were called in, and scientists were consulted, and newspaper articles were written, but no one had any explanation.

Incredibly, the mystery didn't stop there. Over the next decade, the footprints of the "Clearwater Monster" kept showing up again and again, in various nearby locations such as Clearwater Beach, St. Pete's Beach, Indian Rocks Beach, Tarpon Springs, the Courtney Campbell Parkway, Honeymoon Island, and even as far south as Sarasota. Famed cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson inspected the footprints and, after some study, declared them to be that of a giant fifteen-foot-tall penguin.

In 1988, local practical joker Tony Signorini admitted to journalists that he and his friend - the late Al Williams - had staged an elaborate hoax for years, for no other reason than because it was fun messing with people's heads. As reported in the St. Petersburg Times:

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.”

And that, as they say, is that. Of course, there do seem to be a lot of odd discrepancies, such as the size of the iron feet not always matching the size of the footprints, and something about the way Signorini tells the story almost sounds reverse-engineered to me. Could this actually be a hoax of a hoax? I try to imagine Mr. Signorini wearing the thirty-pound iron shoes (never mind that experts who examined the prints insisted they must have been made by something much heavier) and hopping in them to create six-foot strides, for more than a few minutes. Then I picture him doing it for two miles, and then I attempt with great difficulty to postulate him doing it, over and over and over again for seemingly no great purpose, for ten years.

Does that sound believable to you? It does? Okay. I'll sit down then.

Oh, and by the way, just to complicate the matter further, there have also been people who somehow reported seeing the creature, or a creature - in the vicinity of the footprints. In July, 1948, four students from the Dunedin Flying School said they spotted it off Clearwater Bridge, and that it resembled "a furry log with a head shaped like a hog's". (So much for penguins.)

Signorini insists he and Williams had nothing to do with that.

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