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

The Legend:

In 1903, an explorer named William Hugh Knight spotted a strange being on a mountain slope in the Himalayas. Seen at a distance, the creature was described as having yellow fur, being splay-footed (that is, with feet that are flattened or spread out), with the crouched shoulders and thick mane of a gorilla, large and formidable hands, and leaping with marvelous sureness from rock to rock. Stranger still, it appeared to be carrying "a primitive bow." The creature seemed to Knight to be a mix of human and animal; after he had watched this creature for five minutes or so while it, in turn, was watching something further down the slope, it suddenly ran off down the mountain with tremendous speed.

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 'manlike,' 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... now not only were the prints described as 'manlike,' 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 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, 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. While 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 manlike 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, formidible 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 presense and influence was strong in Tibet before the English took the country, so the presense of a Chinaman 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 of the Report

        The first substantial alteration of 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. As part of this, Snaith briefly recounted Knight's account of his sighting, but with some very judicious editing... clothing, for instance, was not mentioned. 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." In addition to this very different take on the creature's appearance and behavior and not mentioning anything about when the encounter had happened, Snaith also added to Knight's thoughts on the matter: "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 instantly became the half-animal/half-human of Snaith's. Since the earlier newspaper reports were difficult to find by 1938 and Snaith's book was not, Snaith's version of the story was what started to be repeated.

        Snaith's description 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. The same report was used again in Popular Science five years later as part of a sum-up of all known evidence for a hairy wildman living in the Himalayas. And it's probably due to these two articles that Ivan T. Sanderson mentions Knight's encounter in his book Abominable Snowmen: Legend Comes to Life (1961), though it's clear that Sanderson never actually saw a copy of Snaith's book, which he believed had been printed in 1920. In a footnote to the 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 1966, Knight's story changed again... ironically, it was changed by someone who must have had the original newspaper reports, but the changes were designed to enhance the hairy wild man story, not squash it. Gardner Soule, who also penned many magazine articles on the topic, released his book Trail of the Abominable Snowman in this year. He set the date for Knight's sighting as 1903 -- probably because this is the year of the British invasion of Tibet, which could have been the "Tibetan war" mentioned in the original article -- and then Soule repeated Knight's original description of the man he saw, almost word for word... almost. Soule's version of the story is exactly the same as the original, except that he leaves out all details about the mongoloid appearance of the creature's face; in fact, he doesn't mention the face at all. Also dropped from the description was the comparison of the creature's yellow color to the skin of a Chinaman; all that remained was a statement that the creature was yellow in color.

        These small changes led to many accounts of the story afterwards claiming the beast was covered with yellow fur, since Soule's version stated it was yellow all over and the then-common idea of the Abominable Snowman, or Yeti, as it was now dubbed, assumed it was a missing link between men and apes... and therefore hairy. Hence modern versions of the story tell of an unusually colored furred creature holding a bow and, borrowing from Snaith's account, having extrodinary dexterity jumping from rock to rock, and a gorilla-like appearance to its body.

        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 his book stating he was having trouble finding information on Hugh Knight? There was a reason he was having that trouble, though Sanderson didn't know it... as it turnes out, it's likely that William Hugh Knight never existed.

        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 existant club, so Knight didn't belong to it. His name is not mentioned in any records of British expeditions or invasions of the Himalayas or Tibet.

        I think that Sanderson got close to an important clue regarding the Knight story; for there was a well-known explorer of Tibet by the name of Knight, and Sanderson's correspondant 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 existance 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 carreer 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.