This would have made for an unnerving discovery.

Would a horror movie with a title like that make you want to sign up with another streaming service so you can watch it? No, I didn’t think so. But just such a creature emerged from the ocean off Clearwater, Florida over seventy years ago—or did it?

WE SEE WHAT WE WANT TO SEE

In 1948 some people walking along the beach in Clearwater, on Florida’s west coast, came across something remarkable: the footprints of an enormous creature. These prints measured 14” long and 11” wide and ended in long claws. Whatever they belonged to had appeared out of the Gulf of Mexico and walked along the shore for quite some distance before returning to the sea.

For the next couple of years these tracks showed up on other beaches, from Clearwater to Sarasota, as well as along the Suwannee River—over forty miles from the ocean. Law enforcement heard reports of people having spotted the monster, nicknamed Old Three Toes, in various places. A huge, bird-like creature, they said, at least fifteen feet long, or something furry with a pig-like head. Naturally, no one of any authority saw the creature. Some thought it to be a hoax.

The prehistoric penguin was rather large.

AN EXPERT WEIGHS IN

Stories of Old Three Toes brought renowned zoologist, Ivan T. Sanderson, from New York to Florida to investigate the phenomenon. Sanderson had coined the term, “cryptozoology,” the study of creatures out of myth and legend, such as the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland. Seemed like he was the perfect scientist for the job.

Sanderson spent months studying the footprints and listening to witness accounts. In the end he declared that it was not a hoax, that Old Three Toes was a twelve-foot-long penguin, an offshoot of a creature that went extinct millions of years past. At one point he even claimed to have seen the monster himself. Doubtless that clouded his credibility.

THE HOAX REVEALED

Tony Signorini shows off his giant penguin feet.

The discovery of footprints, as well as reports of “sightings,” continued until 1958, when they stopped. It wasn’t until 1988 that the mystery of Old Three Toes was solved. A Clearwater resident named Tony Signorini told a reporter from a local newspaper that he and a prankster friend, the late Al Williams, had created the feet out of cast iron, each one weighing about thirty pounds. They put them in a rowboat and paddled offshore in shallow water, where Signorini would attach them to a pair of high-top sneakers. Walking in them was not easy, but the stir that they created proved worth the effort.

Discredited cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson went on to other fantastic investigations, such as Unidentified Flying Objects, the Sasquatch, and the Abominable Snowman. He died in 1973.

Tony Signorini died in 2013, and the giant penguin feet went to his son, Jeff. He intends to keep the feet that spawned the legend of Old Three Toes in the family.

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