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Gorilla Terrorizes Thorntown

Thorntown, Indiana Gorilla
Thorntown, Indiana Gorilla: The Newspaper Has a Sense of Humor
That’s what newspaper headlines around the country exclaimed in 1943! Folks were convinced that there was a gorilla on the loose in Thorntown, Indiana–and with good reason.

Three good friends, Homer Birge, George Coffman, and Asher Cones, were tired of hearing about Gobby Jones fishing successes. All he ever did was fish! After one too many fish stories, they hatched a plan: they would make an animal to scare him away from Sugar Creek!

Attack of the Thorntown Gorilla

What animal would be better than a bear? So they set out to make a bear. One of the men, Homer, and his wife made the suit out of an old horsehair coat (some sources declare that it was a buffalo coat) that had once belonged to a family member sewed over some old overalls.

The effect wasn’t quite enough so Asher Cones tracked down another coat that he remembered another town resident once wore. He offered ten dollars to the guy for his coat (again, some sources say $20).

They used a wire frame to fashion a head, inserting tiger eyes to shine in car lights. They cut eye holes just below the tiger eyes and added in a set of tin teeth, painted white. To wear it, you had to hold it on with one hand!

The Terror Begins

These three guys decided it was time to teach this guy a lesson. Homer suited up, George led Gobby to the spot–and they scared him so bad he lost his wallet in the water and scaled a bank he could never have climbed under normal circumstances!

Gobby, however, didn’t believe he saw a bear. He thought he saw a gorilla! So, that’s how it became the Thorntown Gorilla and not the Thorntown Bear.

You know how small towns are: word gets around. So, when these pranksters would hear that someone didn’t believe that there was a gorilla on the loose, they were quick to make a believer out of them!

They worked out a way to get people to where they needed them and developed a signal (flashing car lights) to let whomever was dressed as the ape to know that the car they needed was right behind them, right where they wanted them! Then whomever was in the car (often Asher) would turn around, pick up whomever (usually Homer), and they would hit the road.

They had that down to such a science it took them thirty seconds to clear out!

Not stopping there, they even cut out wooden feet that matched a gorilla footprint! Attaching the feet to old shoes, they would make clear, unmistakable footprints around the riverbank and in farmer’s cornfields.

The Story Gets Out

Now remember, this is 1943! There’s a good chance that some of the townspeople had never even seen a live gorilla before! So when word begins to really spread about this, when naysayers are suddenly believers, well, the story was bound to get around!

And get around it did. Newspapers from around the country, from New York to California, reported on the Thorntown Gorilla, speculating on how it got there and what to do next. Men grabbed their guns and, in great groups, would scour the woods and cornfields for the gorilla.

The fishing holes were empty, kids were afraid to visit the old swimming holes, and one man missed work because his wife was too afraid to be alone! But what would you expect when the gorilla could appear anywhere, like the time it popped up in the window of an elderly couple’s house, scaring the poor woman so bad she went over backwards in her rocking chair?

They say that they had usually planned who was going to see the gorilla. Asher admits that he told his wife because, when the phone rang, he would head out! Don’t you just wonder what she thought about it?

Shelving the Gorilla

Although George had called it quits long before the gorilla drives and the airplanes flying over the area looking for the gorilla, that’s what it took for Asher to end it. Homer kept it going under Asher gave him a talking to! Together, they placed it into a box, nailed it shut, and stored it in Homer’s attic.

Of course, no one else knew about it–but the sightings continued off and on. They did find a “demented” woman (as Asher Cone’s statement said) at the area where they had been a couple of times, wearing a fur coat.

They didn’t let anyone know it was them until YEARS, if not decades, had passed. Some people were really mad about the whole thing. They definitely didn’t want to get into trouble! If anyone had gotten close enough, they would have seen through the disguise for what it was: a shabby coat and mask!

Funny enough, the former owner of the coat, the one they bought for ten or twenty bucks, never made the connection between the sale of an old, heavy, decidedly furry coat at a strange time of year and the sudden appearance of a gorilla. That could have ended this story right there.

But then again–if he had figured out the true story of the Boone County gorilla, would anyone have believed him?

Thorntown Gorilla Legend Lives On

Thorntown Gorilla Now Bigfoot
Thorntown Gorilla Now Bigfoot
Asher Cones was the last survivor of the gorilla group. I am so sorry to say that he passed away at the age of 101 on Christmas Eve, 2014. Oh, the stories I bet he could tell! The town held what sounds like a wonderful event at the Thorntown Heritage Museum that is supported by the Thorntown Public Library (yes, I will share that museum AND the library with you later!) to commemorate his life.

What I find particularly hilarious is that there is a website that has included the Thorntown Gorilla in its listing of Bigfoot sightings! It is included in a list of Sasquatch sightings from 1818-1980 and was apparently included in a book written by the couple behind the website back in 1982!

A special thank you to the staff of the Thorntown Public Library for being so accommodating, especially to Christine Sterle (Director) and Karen K. Niemeyer (adult services librarian) for allowing me to monopolize their time and to Phyllis Myers, the local history librarian and museum coordinator. Phyllis not only gave me an incredible tour, but when you see her, please tell her that she needs to write her book! Can you do that for me, please?

Small Towns: Destinations, not Drive-Thrus! I’m Jessica Nunemaker and THIS is little Indiana!

Just don’t forget to tell ’em that  little Indiana sent you!

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About Jessica Nunemaker

Jessica Nunemaker is the Owner of Little More than a website, Little Indiana is a PBS segment on the state-wide program "The Weekly Special," a bi-weekly column in a local newspaper, and a book. Look for "Little Indiana: Small Town Destinations" published by Indiana University Press in April 2016--just in time for Indiana's BIG 200th Birthday Celebration.

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