Walking Sam: The Spook in the Stovepipe Hat
It could be argued that tragedy and unrest are perhaps nearly unavoidable constants in life, though without them, our appreciation of pleasure and joy might not have become the long-sought standard for our modern way of living. Today, as much as the sweet citrus of happiness and plenty can be found with little more than persistence and a dream as the tools of provenance, there is almost always the occasional lemon that lends its inevitable bitterness to the equation just as well.
Though it is the exception, rather than the rule, there is from time to time the very random appearance of the odd, paired with the unsettling, that occurs in life as well. While loss of employment, fiscal uncertainty, the illness or death of a loved one, or a host of other potential discomforts will be the ailment that constitutes most American unrest, these stranger aspects to our existence seem to allude to there being something deeper beneath the mainline current of our consensus reality, and something which may not always have our best interests in mind.
In 2009, a rash of teen suicides had been taking place near the town of
South Dakota. The first of these
involved a promising 19-year-old athlete, who had played on the varsity team at
the local high school. Almost without warning, this young man had been found
dead, having hanged himself. This tragic, though purposeful incident had caused
great alarm among the residents of the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, since the boy
had been well loved and admired for his promising potential. However, it had
not been an isolated incident; around the same time, a 14-year-old girl and
straight-A student was found to have taken her life as well, in the very same
The twin suicides led to the tribal officials on the reservation calling for a state of emergency among the 13,000 so residents at Rosebud. Between January and March of that year, there had already been three suicides—and numerous other attempts at such—that had taken place. By May, seven more young adults would attempt suicide either by hanging, poisoning, or other self-inflicted injury, and before the heat of summer had settled over the reservation, doctors would have record of nearly 150 suicides for the year of 2009 alone.
The New York Times reported on the tragic circumstances, attaining commentary from Philip May, a professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico who had been concerned about the increased incidents with suicide among American Indians, after studying the phenomenon for 35 years. “Very generally, adolescence is a time of trouble for all youths,” May told the Times. “But in many American Indian communities, it’s compounded by limited opportunities, historical trauma and contemporary discrimination. The way the Lakota people and other Plains tribes have experienced history in the last 100 years has reduced the mental health factors that are available to them to cope.”
A story so tragic and strange would seem to have little to do with the presence of strange, mystery animals and other shadowy entities that have become the focus of the cryptozoological community. And yet, in relation to the growing concern over teen suicides among the native reservations in America, some of the cultural beliefs regarding why, precisely, these deaths had occurred actually did seem to involve a strange, shadowy intruder, which had caused great alarm, and heavy questions, amidst a minority of cryptozoological researchers, as well as cultural psychologists and sociologists.
The next piece of this curious story would take place the following month in July of 2009. Mike Crowley, a man who had been on a business trip near Eagle Butte on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, decided to attend a Tribal Council meeting there on July 15. Federal officials had been visiting at the time, and so the Council had decided to host a meeting where local tribal members could express their issues and concerns about official Council related matters, as well as to address anything else that may be on their minds. Many of these, of course, were grievances.
“Anyone with a knowledge of the government's interaction with the Lakota over the years,” Crowley wrote in October 2009, “especially in the early years when people were rounded up and placed on the reservation, and later when the reservation lands were chipped away to be sold off for white settlement – would understand that many historical wrongs were committed.” Incidents like the Wounded Knee Massacre had aroused desire—and rightly so—for an official apology to be issued by
for the massacre. However, there was at least one strange request that had been
brought up at the Tribal Council meeting that day, as Crowley
One local woman, who left before I could talk with her personally, asked
for help dealing with
Walking Sam. The woman, who was elderly but otherwise quite lucid, described
Walking Sam as a big man in a tall hat who has appeared around the reservation
and caused young people to commit suicides. She said that Walking Sam has been
picked up on the police scanners, but that the police have not been able to
protect the community from him. Washington
The story sounded mostly like an urban legend, enhanced a bit, perhaps, by the genuine concern over the endemic suicide problem on the reservation. And yet, something about the addition that this “Walking Sam” character, whatever it may have been, could actually have a physical side struck home.
“At the time, I was thinking that this may have been a reference to Bigfoot sightings,” Crowley thought, knowing that there had been a history of Bigfoot sightings on the Standing Rock and Pine Ridge reservations in the Dakota states. “Or, perhaps it may just have been a plea for help with teen suicides,”
further postulated. “A plea that needs to be translated through a cultural
filter. The woman was from Red Scaffold, which is a small community on the
Mike would eventually contact me, as well as cryptozoologist Loren Coleman, looking for further answers to this strange mystery. Coleman, writing about the story at the Cryptomundo Blog, offered a similar theory to what
had surmised: maybe Walking Sam was a cultural interpretation of the same
creature more commonly known today as Bigfoot.
I share the view that this could be one potential solution to the problem, though of course, there are a variety of different ways of looking at it such a strange story. During an appearance on Gene Steinberg’s Paracast program, I had been discussing a theory I call the “Fortean Folk Devil,” in which people undergoing stress or strife may, to an extent, project their misgivings or fears onto a token “monster,” that becomes a sort of scape-goat for their troubles, and thus rendered a psychological coping mechanism as well. I borrowed the idea of the “Folk devil” from sociologist Stanley Cohen, who wrote about how “mod rockers” in the 1960s had been branded “folk devils” for the perception that they were corrupting youth with unsavory themes their music expressed. The same concept applies to a large swath of different circumstances, ranging from the Salem Witch Trials and, going even further back, religious groups that have been persecuted throughout time, to the fervent political debate over “right and left,” in which both sides today seem to point the finger to the other as “extremists” that are potentially damaging to the sustainment of the American way of life.
However, in the case of the Fortean Folk Devil, cryptozoological beings become the token scapegoat for a group’s misgivings. With Mothman, we have observed that the collapse of the Silver Bridge near Point Pleasant, Ohio on
December 16, 1967 has long been attributed to a winged
beast that was allegedly seen in the area in the months leading up to the
disaster. In Malay Cultures, we see what are known as “grease devils” and
“monkey-men,” which during times of economic and civil unrest, tend to be
sighted by a concerned populace. And in a surprising number of instances, the
presence of Bigfoot-type creatures have come to represent a cultural outcast
capable of bearing the proverbial cross of a community’s woes. Near Fouke,
Arkansas in the 1970s, a “swamp beast” of this sort that had purportedly
inhabited the deep bogs and marshes in the backwoods of rural Texarkana was fabled
to have attacked the home of one young couple, Bobby and Elizabeth Ford,
leading to a strange and sordid tale that was later dramatized by director
Charles Pierce in his film The Legend of
Boggy Creek. While there were a number of legitimate sightings of a
“monster” near the general vicinity of the Ford’s home, the creature was seldom
believed to have ever been aggressive toward humans.
This apparent truism led Smokey Crabtree, an area resident and entrepreneur, to author a book called Smokey and the Fouke Monster, in which he discussed rather frankly his feelings toward the treatment the beast had received by local press, along with his own encounters with the creature predating the 1970s. In his opinion, it couldn’t have been the same “monster” that attacked the Ford home late one evening in May of 1971, and Crabtree even went so far as to guess that what they had actually been worked into a frenzy over on that fateful night had merely been a stray horse that wandered onto the property. Bobby Ford’s brother, on the other hand, admitted to local journalists the following day that he suspected the family had battled a large, wild cat of some variety the night before, rather than a proto-human monstrosity.
The point here is not to attempt to dissuade the believer from accepting there ever having been a Fouke Monster. The multitude of reports of such a creature seen in the area might indeed suggest that a creature of this kind existed (or perhaps still does); however, knowledge of such local legends no doubt influenced people’s perceptions of the story of a “monster” that attacked the Ford home that evening in 1971. And much the same, whatever the strange and unsettling “Walking Sam” creature may actually be, it seems most likely that this Fortean Folk Devil does have its basis in real myth and history associated with another creature: that most famous American cryptid otherwise known as Bigfoot or Sasquatch.
As a final point worthy of expressing here, it is indeed interesting to note that this “Walking Sam” character is said to be a tall entity that wears a “stovepipe” or top hat, similar to the fashion worn in the day of
presidency. There are at least a few reports of Bigfoot creatures wearing
clothing (though these are nearly always systematically rejected by those
researchers who lean more toward a biological component in such sightings).
Arguably, such reports must indeed be viewed as less than credible; however,
there are nonetheless parallels to other strange and unsettling traditions that
appear to emerge, in which the top hat or similar headgear is reported. Author
Jason Offut wrote in Darkness Walks,
his treatise of the eerie spirit beings known as “shadow people”, that in many
instances these entities are said to appear wearing tall hats that would fit
the description of a stovepipe hat.
by Steve Snodgrass via Flickr
Again, though it is a curious parallel, the presence of the hat seems to convey a mysterious and maniacal, if not a slightly absurd presence in the mystery of the Walking Sam entity. Why the top hat, rather than, for instance, a fierce looking skullcap adorned with horns? Is there something within our innate psychological substructure that favors the stovepipe hat when ranked among history’s creepier cranial adornments? And if so, why would a creature like Bigfoot ever be perceived as bearing some kind of a penchant for such outdated headgear?
Crabtree, Smokey. Smokey and the Fouke Monster. Day’s Creek Production Corporation, 1974.