Today, Jonathan Downes is the director of the Center for Fortean Zoology, which undertakes worldwide investigations of unknown animals: Nessie, Bigfoot, the Chupacabra, etc. Back in 1982, however, Downes was a psychiatric nurse at an old hospital in the English southwest called Starcross Hospital. In the 1800s it had the decidedly politically incorrect name of the West Counties Idiot Asylum. While he was employed at the hospital Downes was given a fascinating story by a senior doctor who was, at the time in question, fast approaching retirement. It was a story of definitive cryptozoological proportions. Or, at least, that’s how it first appeared to be.
I interviewed Downes a number of years ago on this particularly noteworthy affair and he told me a fascinating saga that I will now relate. He began: “There had, apparently, been a number of occasions when captured German aircrew and pilots who had been shot down over South Devon or the English Channel were kept, temporarily, in a remote wing of Starcross Hospital – which is roughly ten miles from the city of Exeter – until they could be transferred to the prisoner of war camp high above Starcross on the Haldon Hills.”
On one particularly memorable occasion, Downes revealed, a man was seen racing through the woods. And, as a German plane had been shot down that same night, it was a natural assumption that the man was the German pilot, who, presumably, had parachuted out of his plane before it crashed. Back to Downes: “The old man who told me the story was actually one of the Home Guards [a body created by the British Government to help defend the nation if German troops ever managed to invade the British Isles – which they did not].
“He told me that one of the party had been a teacher in Germany before the war and could speak the language. He ordered the man to stop, but the fugitive ignored him. The captain was an educated man, and had no intention of using force to capture the fugitive unless it was absolutely necessary. A man with a shotgun – a local farmer, who had lost two of his sons in the desperate weeks leading up to Dunkirk – raised his weapon and fired. The dark figure ahead of them let out a grunt of agony and fell to the ground.”
As the unit reached the man, and one illuminated the area with a flashlight, it immediately became clear that the shot, injured man was no Nazi pilot; he was naked and covered in hair. Downes continues: “Apparently, the doctor told me, the badly injured wild man was taken to Starcross Hospital in the middle of the night, and all efforts were made to make him comfortable. Then, in the early hours of the morning, apparently an unmarked black van arrived, and two men in uniform and another wearing a long white coat, manhandled the mysterious victim onto a stretcher, loaded him into the back of the van, and took him to an unknown destination. My informant never heard anything about the case again. He did hint, however, that the authorities warned everybody involved to say nothing.”
Was the hair-covered creature actually a British Bigfoot? Might it have been a definitive wild man? Incredibly, could it have been part of a still-surviving, relic population of primitive humans? Doubtless, those questions would have been pondered on for years to come, had it not been for one, significant thing: in no time at all, Downes cracked the case. He revealed the next part of the story:
“In the early weeks of 1983, I found myself going through the voluminous filing cabinets that held over a century’s worth of patient records at Starcross. This was part of my training as a psychiatric nurse. And, although I was supposed to be looking for the distribution of different syndromes of mental and physical handicap from which the patients at Starcross Hospital suffered, much to my surprise I found what I strongly suspected to be the solution to my then forty year old mystery.”
The files, said Downes, revealed how a “very wealthy, and noble, local family” was afflicted by a strange, and extremely rare, condition. As Downes demonstrated, several members of the family suffered from “…congenital, generalized, hypertrichosis, commonly known as Wolf-Man Syndrome. In extreme cases, this disease not only causes bizarre behavior and radical mood swings, but the body of the victim becomes excessively hairy. Although several people from the family had been diagnosed as suffering from this syndrome, there were no hospital records absolutely proving that they had been resident at a hospital after the First World War [which ended in 1918].
“What I did find out, however, was that the bloodline definitely had not died out. The family was still very important in the Devon area. They were notable benefactors to local charities, and, at one time, at least, members of the family had been on the governing board of Starcross Hospital itself.” Downes added:
“I thought it was quite likely that the unruly rabble that had accompanied the Home Guard on that fateful night in 1942 had actually shot a member of the ruling family – in the mistaken belief that he was a German airman. This would explain everything. It would explain why the whole affair had been shrouded in secrecy. In those days, the part of the landowner and the patrician establishment was far greater than it is today.
“There is still a stigma surrounding mental illness, mental handicap, and disability. This poor idiot, covered in hair, was still a member of the family who, after all, still paid the wages of most of the members of the posse that had hunted him down. Especially at a time when the nation was facing the deadly peril of the Nazi hordes, the powers-that-be would not have wanted the populace at large to be aware that one of their own was an unstable, dangerous, hair-covered lunatic who had escaped from his care and was wandering, naked and belligerent, across the countryside.”
A case that could have languished for years in a file titled “British Bigfoot, 1942” ended up being nothing of the sort. It was not a tale of a hair-covered monster, but of a tragic man who found himself a victim of both circumstances and a rare medical condition.