1922 (pre-): William Hugh Knight's Yeti Sighting

The 'Abominable Snowman'?
[Larger version here]

According to a number of sources, in 1903 an explorer named William Hugh Knight stopped to rest his horse while traveling in the Himalayas near Gangtok in Sikkim, India, close to the Tibetan border. His traveling companions had gotten ahead of him, but he wasn't worried about catching up. Knight was watching the sun set when a slight sound made him look in a different direction... and there, about twenty paces from him, was a strange being indeed.

        This being, or creature, was humanoid and standing upright on its legs; it was apparently looking intently at something further down the slope, and hadn't noticed Knight's presence in the area. Knight described this humanoid as looking powerfully built, and having yellow fur and the "mane of a gorilla." The feet were splayed, and the hands large and formidable looking... and the creature was holding what was unmistakably a primitive-looking bow.

        After watching the creature for a few minutes, it suddenly ran off down the mountain at tremendous speed, leaping with marvelous sureness from rock to rock. Knight's overall impression of the strange creature was that he had seen something that was a mix of human and animal... and he was rather glad when he caught back up to his companions.

Problems, Problems, Problems...

        This particular account has changed quite a bit since it's first report, and has proven a problem to previous researchers to track down; worse still, many writers have filled in information they were missing with guesswork and imagination, which has then been passed on as true. I've gotten lucky... I've found the earliest reports of this story. Better still, I've found a little more; but one headache at a time.

        The first publication of the experience of William Hugh Knight came in newspapers in January 1922. At the time, the papers were abuzz with the news that Colonel Charles Howard-Bury's expedition to the Himalayas had found footprints very high up in the range, which most newspapers identified as 'man-like,' and possibly belonging to a creature that the natives called an "abominable snowman." Shortly after the first reports of the Howard-Bury prints, new information was released in a longer version of the original article... and now not only were the prints described as 'man-like,' but it was stated that Howard-Bury's native porters had claimed that they had seen the humanoid creatures lurking nearby waiting for a chance to attack the party.

        But, of more use to us now, the expanded article also included a new exclusive... a "well-known explorer of Tibet" and "member of the British Royal Societies club," William Hugh Knight, had decided to tell the newspapers about a strange sighting he had "shortly before the last Tibetan war" while he was in said country. The incident had been more or less forgotten by him until he saw the reports of the prints from the Howard-Bury expedition.

Knight's Story as First Reported

        In summary, this is what Knight reported through the newspapers:

       Sometime "shortly before the last Tibetan war," Knight was returning to India from Tibet, traveling on horseback with another (unnamed) European, a Tibetan guide, and about 40~50 native porters. Near Gantok [now 'Gangtok'] in Sikkim, India, they climbed a rather steep ascent; all the others had gotton ahead of Knight by about 1/2 a mile, and about a 1/2 mile outside of Gantok he decided to let his horse have a rest. He dismounted on an open clearing and loosened the gear on the horse, and then watched the setting sun for a while. As he was doing this he heard a "slight sound," and looked in the direction of it to find that about fifteen to twenty paces away there was a strange figure standing. The figure was looking intently down the hillside at something; it never seemed to notice Knight's presence.

        Knight described this man-like figure as "a little under six feet high, almost stark naked in that bitter cold -- it was the month of November. He was kind of pale yellow all over, about the color of a Chinaman, a shock of matted hair on his head, little hair on his face, highly-splayed feet, and large, formidable hands. His muscular development in the arms, thighs, legs, back, and chest was terrific. He had in his hand what seemed to be some form of primitive bow." Knight watched this strange man for five minutes or so, at which time the figure bounded off down the slope at a tremendous speed that impressed Knight.

        That night, Knight mentioned this odd experience to some people at dinner in Gantok, and later to another European named Claude White; neither audience seemed much concerned, as Knight stated "they took it as a matter of course." So Knight himself didn't give the incident much further thought until years later, when the reports of the footprints found by Howard-Bury's party made him wonder if the man he saw was one of the so-called "Abominable Snowmen" that made the prints.

        So, to sum up the prime points of Knight's original story: the man wasn't naked, nor was he covered in hair, had skin colored like a Chinaman (Chinese presence and influence was strong in Tibet before the English took the country, so the presence of a Chinese man would not be impossible), he was of average size for a man but of tremendously better muscular build, and carried a primitive -- or self-made -- bow... all of which corresponded nicely with the theories in the same newspapers claiming that the 'snowmen' were either a lost tribe of people that would soon be discovered, or individual sightings of murderers and other human outcasts sent to fend for themselves in the wilds of the Himalayas.

     This is, of course, not the theory that is currently held... and so changes were in store for this report.

Growth and Change

        It didn't take long for the first small changes to appear in the account. In March 1922, Scientific American ran a short article about the Everest Reconnaissance that had just finished... and took time out to mention the new stories regarding the "wild hairy men." Surprisingly, they spend no time at all discussing Howard-Bury's experiences; the magazine only talks about the new account regarding William Hugh Knight, largely repeating the details as given above but with some subtle changes.

        The height of the figure -- which Knight placed at a little under six feet tall -- is not mentioned. The magazine does mention that the figure was pale yellow all over, but they leave out Knight's comparison to a 'Chinaman;' they also leave out Knight's comment about the figure having "little hair on his face." And instead of repeating Knight's observation that the figure's "muscular development in the arms, thighs, legs, back, and chest was terrific," the magazine states "he had the muscular development of a gorilla." So the overall picture comes across as much less human and far more ape-like, with the implication of possibly having body hair like an ape as well.

        The next substantial alteration to Knight's account came in 1938, in a tome titled At Grips With Everest, by Stanley Snaith. The book was about the various adventures of the Everest explorers, and, as such, had to at least mention the strange footprints and stories related to them; and it seems likely that Snaith started with the Scientific American account mentioned above when talking about Knight's experience.

        Snaith briefly recounted Knight's report of his sighting and, like the Scientific American article, did not mention any clothing being on the figure. In Snaith's book, the description of the strange being seen by Knight became "a creature with a face of a Mongoloid cast, splay-footed, with the crouched shoulders and thick mane of a gorilla, leaping with marvelous sureness from rock to rock. It carried a primitive bow." Snaith then apparently added Knight's thoughts: "Human or animal? It seemed to him [Knight] a cross between the two. Certainly no human being could live naked in such winds. But equally certainly no animal could use, much less devise, a bow and arrow." And so the human wild-man of Knight's original report was transformed by Snaith into a half-animal/half-human creature; and since the earlier newspaper reports and the Scientific American article were more difficult to find by 1938, Snaith's version of the story was what started to be repeated.

        Snaith's version was picked up by Popular Science in 1952 when they ran an article about pictures of strange footprints photographed that year by Everest explorer Eric Shipton... and it's probably due to this Popular Science article that Ivan T. Sanderson mentions Knight's encounter in his book Abominable Snowmen: Legend Comes to Life (1961), though it's clear that Sanderson had never actually seen a copy of Snaith's book, which he believed had been printed in 1920. In a footnote to the strange account, Sanderson mentioned how he was having difficulty in tracking down information on 'Hugh Knight' himself (he didn't know his first name was William), but that a corespondent thought Hugh Knight might be the Col. Knight who wrote a book called Diary of a Pedestrian in Cashmere & Thibet in 1863. In fact, by an 1946 edition of his book, Sanderson added a further note stating he was starting to wonder if "Hugh Knight" ever actually existed! But the story rolled on...

        Gardner Soule was the next person to make substantial alterations to the story in his 1966 book, Trail of the Abominable Snowman; and, ironically, it's perfectly clear he had to have seen the original 1922 newspaper articles about the encounter... yet he still changed the story. First off, Soule claimed the encounter happened in 1903; this is presumably because this was the year the British invaded Tibet, which could have been the "Tibetan war" that Knight mentioned in the newspapers. Soule repeated Knight's original description of the man he saw, almost word-for-word... almost. Soule leaves out the comparison to a 'Chinaman'; instead he quotes Knight as saying something that wasn't in the original newspapers: "He was a kind of pale yellow all over."

       The net result of all of these variations on Knight's original report was that, as the general idea of what an "Abominable Snowman" (or "Yeti," as natives actually called the proposed creatures) became more of a man/beast thought to be covered with hair, later accounts of Knight's sighting were liable to describe a half-human/half-gorilla creature with yellow fur and holding a bow, and leaping from rock-to-rock with great dexterity.

        And the best part of this whole mess is this: not only is the new version of the legend an incorrect construction... it's an incorrect construction based on a likely false story.

The Missing Details

        Remember how I mentioned that Ivan T. Sanderson had a note in a later edition of his book stating he wasn't sure if 'Hugh Knight even existed? It looks like he may have guessed correctly!

        I can find no record of a William Hugh Knight associated in any way with Tibet except after the newspaper reports in January 1922, which is strange if we are to believe he was a "well-known explorer of Tibet." The "British Royal Societies club" is not an existent club so, therefore, Knight didn't belong to it. And William Hugh Knight's name is not mentioned in any records of British expeditions or invasions of the Himalayas or Tibet.

        I think that Sanderson found the most important clue regarding the Knight story; for there actually was a well-known explorer of Tibet by the name of Knight, and Sanderson's correspondent had found him. This explorer's name was William Henry Knight, and he was known for the book Diary of a Pedestrian in Cashmere & Tibet, a collection of memoirs about the author's random travels through the two countries, published in 1863. Not a single event in Knight's book can be in any way associated with the stories of the Himalayan Yeti; nor is it likely that William Henry Knight could be the person quoted in the newspaper account in 1922, sixty years after he published his book. What's most likely is that "William HUGH Knight" is a vaguely disguised version of William Henry Knight's name, and said name was chosen because it held the possibility of associating the new character of the newspapers with the old writer of the travel book. Unless new evidence is found to either prove the existence of William Hugh Knight previous to 1922, or to directly connect him with the earlier William Henry Knight, things look dark indeed for our "well-known explorer of Tibet."

        From the evidence I've found, I believe that William Hugh Knight and his tale were created by a newspaper writer to add new life to a well-selling story; and that this new 'report' was designed to 'prove' the assertions being made in the newspapers about the origin of the footprints reported by Col. Howard-Bury's party. Howard-Bury himself felt the footprints he saw were perfectly explainable, and was amused to see what stories the newspapers had been telling about him when he returned from his expedition. Howard-Bury's return and the publication in 1922 of his own book about the expedition -- which doesn't mention sightings or encounters with wild men -- was about the same time that William Hugh Knight's newspaper career ended... until, that is, the Knight "report" was re-discovered by Stanley Snaith as he wrote a book that was destined to revive the legend of the Abominable Snowman and add it to the common man's list of well-known (but not always believed) stories.