How Lewis Keseberg Was Branded the Killer Cannibal of the Donner Party

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When the last of four relief teams arrived at a lakeside camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains on April 17, 1847 to recover what was left of the Donner Party, the log cabins built by the marooned pioneers were silent. Stranded there since the previous November—when the party realized the snow was too high and their cattle too weak for all 80 or so of them to travel safely over the summit blocking the last leg of their journey to California's Central Valley—they'd had little food on which to survive. First they slaughtered their cattle, then their dogs—and then, when rescue didn't come, they began to eat the dead. According to one account, the last relief team found human remains—battered skulls and bones stripped of flesh—scattered over the area, among other sights "too dreadful to put on record."

The scene was similar at George Donner’s tent, a few miles from the cabins at Truckee Lake. The doomed group’s namesake had been seen by an earlier rescue party on the cusp of death and in the care of his wife Tamzene. Now the tent was empty, and a pot filled with human meat stood at the front of it. George's split-open head, emptied of its brain, was found nearby. The only sign of life was a set of fresh footprints marking the snow.

After a physically and emotionally grueling day, the relief team was exhausted. They decided to make camp for the night, with plans to investigate the tracks further once they'd had a chance to rest. Setting out on the 19th, they followed the prints to Lewis Keseberg, a blue-eyed, 32-year-old German immigrant and the sole survivor at Truckee Lake.

The sight of men bearing provisions should have been a welcome one for Keseberg. But they had found him in a compromising position: Tamzene Donner, who had been in decent health when the last relief team saw her, had disappeared—and Keseberg was preparing himself a meal of fresh human lungs and liver. What’s more, he was carrying $225 worth of gold stolen from the Donners' coin hoard in his waistcoat. To the rescue party, it looked as though Keseberg had violated one of humanity's greatest taboos, one that went beyond mere cannibalism: Murdering a person—Tamzene—to feast on her body.

A SUSPICIOUS CHARACTER

When Keseberg had joined the Donner Party less than a year earlier, pioneers spurred on by the idea of Manifest Destiny were pouring into the West by the thousands. California promised mild weather year-round and fertile farmland—and the Donner and Reed families of Illinois wanted a piece of the bounty. Keseberg, his pregnant wife Elisabeth Philippine, and his 3-year-old daughter Ada were among the people who decided to join their covered wagon train in the spring of 1846 as it rolled through the heart of America toward the Golden Coast.

The stories that would later be told about Keseberg started with his behavior on the trail. He reportedly acted cruelly toward his own family—ignoring his daughter and abusing his wife—and often didn't treat other members of the party any better. On October 5, James Reed murdered a teamster during a quarrel involving oxen, and Keseberg vocally supported Reed's execution. The other men refused to hang Reed in front of his wife and children, and instead agreed to leave him in the desert without food or weapons.

That same week, Keseberg ejected an elderly Belgian man named Hardcoop from his wagon to relieve his tired cattle. The man’s legs had given out just days before, and he was unable to keep up with the party on foot. The last anyone saw him, Hardcoop was catching his breath in the brush, his feet black and bloodied.

Damning behavior aside, Keseberg’s personality wasn’t winning him any popularity contests. In his account of the ordeal [PDF], an emigrant named Jacob Wright Harlan characterized Keseberg as an eccentric, antisocial man who mostly kept to himself. He also struck Harlan as someone "predisposed to derangement of mind"—and this was before the tragedy.

“Keseberg was his own worst enemy,” Michael Wallis, author of The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny, tells Mental Floss. “His overall demeanor set the stage for the eventual vilification of him.”

TRAGEDY AT TRUCKEE LAKE

The Sierra Nevada, a roughly 70-mile-wide mountain range snaking through California and parts of Nevada, presented one of the biggest obstacles of the Donner Party's trip. The mountains become impassable in the winter when the snow piles up; to get ahead of the weather, the group should have departed from Missouri in mid to late April. But the first members of the Donner expedition didn't leave Independence, Missouri, until May 12. To make matters worse, the winter of 1846-1847 was especially brutal in the area: About 20 storms pummeled the mountains that season, adding up to 25 feet of snow.

By December, winter had crept up on the travelers and immobilized them under its weight. Unable to continue any further with their belongings, most of the emigrants, including the Kesebergs, made camp for the season at Truckee Lake, while the strongest among them formed what would come to be known as the Forlorn Hope Party, strapped on snowshoes, and set out in search of help. Though they were just 150 miles from their destination of Sutter’s Fort in California, a wrong turn set the Forlorn Hope fatally behind schedule.

Donner Lake (formerly Truckee Lake) as viewed from Donner Pass.© Frank Schulenburg, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Weeks passed, but the peak over which the Forlorn Hope Party had disappeared remained white and still, and the remaining members at the lake camp began succumbing to the cold and hunger. Those who died early on provided a shot at survival to the people around them: With starvation gnawing at their insides, a source of fresh meat—even if it belonged, as it did in many cases, to their closest kin—was often impossible to ignore. Roughly half the party, including most of the Forlorn Hope, engaged in cannibalism that winter. Those who did were haunted by their actions for the rest of their lives.

Lewis Keseberg never denied cannibalizing Tamzene Donner. When the final rescue party interrogated him on her whereabouts, he admitted to eating her flesh to survive, but he rebuffed any accusations that he had murdered Tamzene rather than waiting to butcher her only after she died of natural causes. As for the gold lining his trousers, and the bundle of stolen silks, jewels, and firearms found in his cabin, Keseberg eventually confessed to taking George Donner’s goods—but only upon request from Tamzene herself. As he told it, Tamzene left the tents after her husband died and slipped and fell into a creek on her way to his cabin. When she arrived she knew she didn’t have much time left, and asked Keseberg to gather up the money George Donner had hidden and return it to her children at Sutter’s Fort. She died later that night.

The rescue team didn’t fully buy his story, but they begrudgingly decided to lead him back to the central California valley where the rest of the party had ended up, so that a jury of his peers could decide his fate. After a slog across the Sierra Nevada, Keseberg reunited with his wife—who had been rescued by the first relief party (their daughter Ada and a child born on the trail both died of starvation)—and for the first time in months, sat down to enjoy a hearty meal that didn’t consist of dog, cattle, or human meat.

"BETTER THAN CALIFORNIA BEEF"

After Keseberg's return to civilization, news of the “Donner Party Tragedy” rippled across the nation by way of newspapers and word of mouth. The cannibalism aspect gripped the American consciousness, and Keseberg was cast as the savage who ate humans not just for sustenance, but for pleasure. Journalists dubbed him the “human cannibal” and began reporting the murder of Tamzene Donner—which had never been verified—as fact. Gossipers added their own embellishments to the account. According to one telling, which allegedly came from the surviving Donner Party children, Keseberg had taken a young boy to bed with him one night and killed him by morning, later hanging his carcass on the wall like a slab of game.

The most persistent rumor may have come from Keseberg himself. The story goes that after settling in California, he would frequent the local bars and brag about his escapades in cannibalism to anyone who would listen. In this version, Keseberg claimed human meat was more delicious than California beef, and described Tamzene Donner’s liver as the sweetest bite he had ever tasted.

It's easy to see how rumors like these could snowball. But according to Wallis, even if Keseberg did say these things, they don’t necessarily prove his guilt. “To people who know about the human mind and know what starvation and hyperthermia can do to you, it’s not too much out of the ordinary for him to say something like that,” he explains. Post-traumatic stress disorder is known to provoke psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, although it's unclear whether this was the case with Keseberg.

Whatever the source of the grisly stories, they led to legal trouble. Keseberg was ultimately accused of murdering six of his fellow Donner Party members, including Tamzene, but was acquitted on each count due to lack of evidence. He later returned to court, this time as the prosecutor, to sue members of the relief party who had found him at Truckee Lake for fueling the vicious rumors attached to his name. Again the jury sided in his favor, but his reward was modest: just $1 for the damages, and he was still expected to cover the court fees.

LAST CHANCE FOR REDEMPTION

Life never got easier for Keseberg, but he was granted one last bit of closure around age 65. A journalist named C.F. McGlashan was writing a book called History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra when he reached out to the surviving members to interview them. Finally, Keseberg had the platform to tell his version of the events that transpired that winter, and address the rumors that had dogged him for years. His first-hand account was a stark departure from the infamous stories of his barroom braggadocio:

“The flesh of starved beings contains little nutriment. It is like feeding straw to horses. I cannot describe the unutterable repugnance with which I tasted the first mouthful of flesh. There is an instinct in our nature that revolts at the thought of touching, much less eating, a corpse. It makes my blood curdle to think of it!”

Keseberg’s greatest chance for redemption came when McGlashan arranged for him to meet Eliza Donner Houghton, Tamzene Donner’s youngest surviving daughter. Eliza had been only 4 years old at the time of the Donner Party tragedy, and when Keseberg saw the grown woman standing before him, he collapsed to his knees. He didn’t deny eating Tamzene’s remains, but he swore to Eliza that he hadn’t murdered her. Hearing the sincerity in the voice of this man she barely remembered from childhood, Eliza decided to take him at his word.

Despite earning validation from the courts and a descendent of the Donners, Keseberg’s reputation continued to shadow him wherever he went, whether in the towns where he lived or aboard the supply ship where he eventually worked. Toward the end of his life, he gathered enough money to open his own inn in Sacramento, but even this endeavor failed. “People thought, ‘Well, why would we stay there where this cannibal lives?’” Wallis says. The inn burned to the ground, and the cause of the fire was undetermined.

An internet search of Keseberg today still pulls up results related to his alleged crimes. The story’s stubborn presence through the decades becomes more notable in light of certain facts concerning the Forlorn Hope Party: During that trek, two Miwok men, named Salvadore and Luis, were murdered for their flesh by William Foster, but because they were Native Americans their story was ignored by newspapers. Tamzene Donner's death, and the gossip surrounding Keseberg's alleged involvement, however, received plenty of coverage.

Lewis Keseberg's wife Elisabeth Philippine died in 1877, and the widower lived out the remainder of his life poor and struggling to care for the couple’s children—both born after the Donner Party saga—who had intellectual disabilities. He died in 1895, nearly half a century after the events that defined him in the public eye. “He took his last breath in a hospital for the poor. The only thing in his pockets was lint,” Wallis says. “Keseberg is just one of the many great tragedies of this whole story.”

Additional Source: The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party

10 Killer Gifts for True Crime Fans

Ulysses Press/Little A
Ulysses Press/Little A

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Humans have a strange and lasting fascination with the dark and macabre. We’re hooked on stories about crime and murder, and if you know one of those obsessives who eagerly binges every true crime documentary and podcast that crosses their path, you’re in luck—we’ve compiled a list of gifts that will appeal to any murder mystery lover.

1. Donner Dinner Party: A Rowdy Game of Frontier Cannibalism!; $15

Chronicle Books/Amazon

The infamous story of the Donner party gets a new twist in this social deduction party game that challenges players to survive and eliminate the cannibals hiding within their group of friends. It’s “lots of fun accusing your friends of eating human flesh and poisoning your food,” one reviewer says.

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2. A Year of True Crime Page-a-Day Calendar; $16

Workman Calendars/Amazon

With this page-a-day calendar, every morning is an opportunity to build your loved one's true crime chops. Feed their morbid curiosity by reading about unsolved cases and horrifying killers while testing their knowledge with the occasional quizzes sprinkled throughout the 313-page calendar (weekends are combined onto one page).

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3. Bloody America: The Serial Killers Coloring Book; $10

Kolme Korkeudet Oy/Amazon

Some people use coloring books to relax, while others use them to dive into the grisly murders of American serial killers. Just make sure to also gift some red colored pencils before you wrap this up for your bestie.

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4. The Serial Killer Cookbook: True Crime Trivia and Disturbingly Delicious Last Meals from Death Row's Most Infamous Killers and Murderers; $15

Ulysses Press/Amazon

This macabre cookbook contains recipes for the last meals of some of the world’s most famous serial killers, including Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, and John Wayne Gacy. This cookbook covers everything from breakfast (seared steak with eggs and toast, courtesy of Ted Bundy) to dessert (chocolate cake, the last request of Bobby Wayne Woods). Each recipe includes a short description of the killer who requested the meal.

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5. Ripped from the Headlines!: The Shocking True Stories Behind the Movies’ Most Memorable Crimes; $15

Little A/Amazon

In this book, true crime historian Harold Schechter sorts out the truth and fiction that inspired some of Hollywood’s best-known murder movies—including Psycho (1960), Scream (1996), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). As Schechter makes clear, sometimes reality is even a little more sick and twisted than the movies show.

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6. The Deadbolt Mystery Society Monthly Box; $22/month

CrateJoy

Give the murder mystery lover in your life the opportunity to solve a brand-new case every single month. Each box includes the documents and files for a standalone mystery story that can be solved alone or with up to three friends. To crack the case, you’ll also need a laptop, tablet, or smartphone connected to the internet—each mystery includes interactive content that requires scanning QR codes or watching videos.

Buy it: Cratejoy

7. In Cold Blood; $10

Vintage/Amazon

Truman Capote’s 1965 classic about the murder of a Kansas family is considered by many to be the first true-crime nonfiction novel ever published. Capote’s book—still compulsively readable despite being written more than 50 years ago—follows the mysterious case from beginning to end, helping readers understand the perspectives of the victims, investigators, and suspects in equal time.

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8. Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide; $13

Forge Books/Amazon

Any avid true crime fan has at least heard of My Favorite Murder, the popular podcast that premiered in 2016. This book is a combination of practical wisdom, true crime tales, and personal stories from the podcast’s comedic hosts. Reviewers say it’s “poignant” and “worth every penny.”

Buy it: Amazon

9. I Like to Party Mug; $12

LookHUMAN/Amazon

This cheeky coffee mug says it all. Plus, it’s both dishwasher- and microwave-safe, making it a sturdy gift for the true crime lover in your life.

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10. Latent Fingerprint Kit; $60

Crime Scene Store/Amazon

Try your hand (get it?!) at being an amateur detective with this kit that lets you collect fingerprints left on most surfaces. It may not be glamorous, but it could help you solve the mystery of who put that practically empty carton back in the refrigerator when it barely contained enough milk for a cup of coffee.

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Oral History: In 1985, Mr. Snuffleupagus Shocked Sesame Street

Sesame Workshop
Sesame Workshop

On November 8, 1971, during the third-season premiere of Sesame Street, Aloysius Snuffleupagus was introduced to the world and proved immediately indispensable: Lacking a watering pot, Big Bird was delighted to see the massive, lumbering creature use his trunk to tend to his garden. The two became fast friends.

No one else, however, could be absolutely certain that Mr. Snuffleupagus actually existed.

Time and again, “Snuffy” would shuffle into the frame, just missing the adult residents of Sesame Street. Big Bird would try to convince them his pal was real. They’d humor him, but never really believed it.

So it went for 14 years, until the show’s producers began to hear of a growing concern among viewers: In the wake of news reports about child abuse cases, Big Bird’s implausible eyewitness testimony about his oversized friend might have real-life consequences. If adults were ignoring Sesame Street's biggest star, would kids feel like they wouldn't be heard, either?

The solution? Get rid of the ambiguity and let Snuffy loose. Three decades after his coming-out party, Mental Floss spoke with the writers, producers, and performers who had the delicate, important task of restoring Big Bird’s credibility and resolving his droopy-eyed friend’s identity crisis.

I. The elephant in the room

Sesame Workshop

Sesame Street was just two years old when Jim Henson decided he wanted to incorporate a massive presence on the show: A puppet that required two men to operate. Dubbed Mr. Snuffleupagus, the character debuted in 1971. News media described him as a “large and friendly monster resembling an anteater.” Then-executive producer Dulcy Singer and writer Tony Geiss agreed he would be Big Bird’s not-quite-real friend—a reflection of the wandering imaginations of the show’s preschool-aged audience.

Norman Stiles (Writer/Head Writer, 1971-1995): The character was kind of a collaboration between [executive producer] Jon Stone and Jim Henson. I think the initial idea was really to be ambiguous in the sense that, well, Big Bird says he’s real and the audience sees him and yet he always manages to not be there when the other people were there—so is he real or isn’t he real? The whole idea was to not really answer that, but to leave it as an open question.

Emilio Delgado (“Luis,” 1971-2017): It was going with the whole thing of a child’s imaginary playmate, which a lot of kids have. Big Bird was the only one who could see him. When adults came around, he would be talking about Snuffy this, and Snuffy that. We’d just say, "Yeah, sure, OK." We didn’t believe him.

Carol-Lynn Parente (Executive Producer, 2005-2016): There was a lot of humor to be mined from the issue. We never explained whether he was imaginary or not. Kids were able to see him, but adults couldn’t. You never really knew—was he imaginary? Playing with that question was a lot of fun; kind of a healthy ambiguity.

Stiles: You really had to believe that it was just terrible coincidences and quirks of Snuffy’s own personality that made it so that he just wasn’t there when Big Bird wanted him to be there to introduce him to his friends.

Delgado: Jerry Nelson originally did the voice and was inside the puppet, in the front. Bryant Young was in the rear. Boy, did we get jokes out of that.

Parente: He’s one of the tougher puppets to operate. Just the massive size of him requires certain [camera] blocking. It’s very physical, and very warm inside his belly. It’s only so long the performers can go through takes before they stop and need to be fanned off before they can start again.

Delgado: Later, Jerry stopped doing it. Maybe his back was bothering him. That’s when Marty took it over.

II. Identity crisis

2004 Sesame Workshop

“Marty” is Martin P. Robinson, a puppeteer who assumed the front end and voice of Mr. Snuffleupagus in 1981. For the first 10 years, the character had been a proverbial one-joke pony (or elephant), catching sight of adults and getting so excited he somehow wound up missing them. This would continue for several more years, which eventually began to wear on the nerves of both Robinson and Caroll Spinney, the actor who has portrayed Big Bird since his inception in 1969. Robinson was especially vocal about Snuffy not being a figment of his friend's imagination.

Martin P. Robinson (via Still Gaming: Lee & Zee Show Podcast, 2009): He was never imaginary. I say that a lot. And I say it with great strength of conviction. He was my character, he was never imaginary; he just had bad timing. He was shy, he had bad timing, and the joke was, he’s big, you can’t miss him, but adults being the way they are—preoccupied, going to work, you know—they miss those little details. And Snuffleupagus just happened to be one of those little details that they kept missing year after year after year. So he was a good, real friend to Bird; it’s just that no one else ever took the time to actually meet him.

Delgado: How long can you play a joke out? As performers, as Muppeteers, as artists, you can only carry a story so far before you have to do something else with it. They probably felt that’s what was happening.

Robinson: Those scripts just got so old. Caroll and I would look at the scripts and say, "Oh, lord, this one again."

Delgado: The adults would play along, knowing he didn’t exist. At the same time, I liked the idea of Marty saying, "OK, he just happened to be there at the wrong time." People were barely missing him.

The actors’ desire to play off a new dynamic was soon joined by a more pressing, potentially catastrophic issue. In the early 1980s, news programs like 60 Minutes were reporting on troubling statistics involving child abuse both at home and in daycare centers. If Big Bird—ostensibly the show’s stand-in for the 6-year-old viewing audience—was being brushed aside when trying to convince people Snuffleupagus was real, there was the chance children might not be convinced adults would believe them if they came forward with more troubling claims.

Stiles: We started getting some letters from people who worked with children who had experienced some kind of abuse, and what we were told was that they often don’t think they’ll be believed because the stories are so fantastic in their minds.

Michael Davis (Author, Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street): I remember having my own internal conversations about Snuffy. My kids were in daycare and there were a lot of those stories about what was happening in daycare, a lot of those stories about children being abducted and kids on the back of the milk cartons and all of that. It became kind of a national focus, sometimes bordering on a mania.

Parente: All this was really stemming from a specific set of incidences in the news, claims of sexual abuse going on in some daycare centers, and kids being questioned about what was going on. The fear was that if we represented adults not believing what kids said, they might not be motivated to tell the truth. That caused us to rethink the storyline: Is something we’ve been doing for 14 years—that seemed innocent enough—now something that’s become harmful?

Delgado: It was a very serious consideration. It was something that could happen in their lives, and the [Children’s Television] Workshop was very attuned to things like that.

The CTW—now Sesame Workshop—is the organization comprised of researchers, psychologists, and freelance child experts who generate and evaluate the show’s themes and messages to make sure they’re going to be understood. Revealing Snuffleupagus required a concentrated effort to make certain Sesame Street’s writers and producers were communicating the idea effectively.

Parente: The process has been pretty much the same all these years. We look to experts in childhood development and that helps guide us—what’s the best way to address what we want to address? That’s the model Sesame was founded on, with writers, producers, educators, and researchers all working together.

Davis: I do think that the result from Sesame Street was a smart one because Big Bird, as a character, is a projection of a 6-year-old. So to have a situation where the 6-year-old’s eyewitness reports are being doubted so deeply and ridiculed ... They are kind mocking him a little bit and rolling their eyes at him.

Parente: It’s rare a children’s show is grounded in the real world. Much of our competition is in the animated world, where fantastical things happen. This is a real neighborhood. We think of it as kids coming to a play date with real friends, and it requires a real investment in how you tell a story.

Lawrence Rubin, Ph.D. (Child Psychologist): The writers took a real-world concern and asked themselves, "Are we helping or hurting kids by keeping Snuffy in the imaginary closet, and do we have a moral imperative to respond to a real issue by changing something about the show?"

Stiles: We wanted kids to know that grownups will believe them, but we wanted to preserve the fun that we were having, so I proposed that we have some of the grownups believe Big Bird, and that was the first step.

For the show’s 16th season in 1984 to 1985, producers laid the groundwork for the eventual reveal by depicting Big Bird as knowing the difference between fantasy and reality, with a handful of adults taking him at his word even with Snuffy still at large.

Robinson: They devised this two-year scheme, where in the first year they would have some of the cast members learn from Bird that Bird could indeed tell the difference between what was real and what was imaginary, that he knew the difference and was very clear about it. And once they got that from Bird, they said, "Okay, you know the difference. If you say Snuffy is real, then he’s real and we’d love to meet him, whenever the timing is right." And the other half of the adults said, "What, are you crazy? He’s imaginary! There’s no such thing as a Snuffleupagus."

Stiles: That changed the dynamic between the grownups ... Now, Big Bird wasn’t alone. He had grownups believing him, and we had a new dynamic where the grownups who believed him would now actually try to see Snuffy. That went on, I think, for about a year. I don’t remember the exact combination of conversations, but we finally decided, alright, let’s move. Just creatively, this has run its course.

III. The reveal

The show’s 17th season premiere aired on November 18, 1985. As promised, Big Bird made arrangements to introduce Snuffy to the adults on Sesame Street by telling them he’d yell out a secret word (“Food!”) when they were ready. Unfortunately, Snuffy is too nervous to remain idle, and Big Bird has a few false alarms that make the adults even more dubious.

Rubin: Watching this now, I’m 60 years old, sitting on the edge of my chair, going, "Oh, God, don’t go away! Stay there! Wait!"

Stiles: [Our goal] was to do what we had always done before, which was, "If you stay here, he’ll be here."

Robinson: They did it in one show ... I always thought it would have been nice if they could have revealed him to one person at a time. So that one person would have actually seen him, and then go back screaming to the rest saying, "I saw him!"

In a somewhat bizarre non-sequitur, talk show host Phil Donahue appears to pick up his broken toaster from Luis’s Fix-It Shop and begins to engage characters on the merits of Big Bird’s preferred code word.

Davis: You know, the first thing that comes to mind is that bimodal audience that they always talked about and writing something that would be appealing to adults as much as it would be to kids. Having Phil Donahue being the protagonist kind of making fun of himself and his show was hilarious.

Parente: There are plenty of studies that prove kids get more of the educational value when there’s co-viewing going on, so things like Donahue and other celebrities are by design. When you have a parent viewing with their child, they can ask questions and spawn a conversation.

After some protracted teasing of the audience—Snuffy can’t seem to stay put—the entire cast meets Snuffy and stares at him in awe.

Robinson: He’s starting to peel off and Elmo actually grabs onto his trunk and holds him down. There was a shot when they actually pinned Elmo onto the trunk, and I’m whipping him around in the air like a pinwheel. But it held him up just long enough so that the cast actually showed up, and saw him there. And so, one by one, down the line, it was this line of shocked faces. And they all came up and shook hands with him.

Delgado: We were all amazed that this giant elephant-looking thing was actually real. You get a big reaction from everybody, and everybody was very happy Big Bird had been telling the truth all along. He was very happy people believed him.

Stiles: Big Bird [said] "Well, now what do you have to say?" You know, that was really his moment, and I just loved giving him the opportunity to say that.

Rubin: It was incredibly respectful of a child. The conversation did not diminish Big Bird, it wasn’t dismissive or pandering. It’s how you hope a conversation with someone wishing to be heard would go.

Delgado: It was kind of a big party. And Big Bird has a child’s mind, so he was satisfied. Like, "See, I told you he was real!"

Near the end of the episode, cast member Bob McGrath makes a pointed comment: “From now on, we’ll believe you whenever you tell us something.”

Rubin: It was so honest. Some parents get caught up in authoritarian mode and don’t have the flexibility to retract, recant, or acknowledge a kid’s reality. He was the collective voice of parents—"Sorry, we should’ve listened."

Parente: [A line like that] is exactly what we look to the child experts for, bringing in or soliciting experts to weigh in on specific dialogue to get it right. Simplicity is key, particularly with kids. It’s not about making it flowery with jokes, not doing it in the form of song. Songs are great, but often lyrical messaging is not necessarily the best takeaway. When it’s simple and straightforward, that’s when you have your best chance.

IV. Aftermath

Sesame Workshop

In 1985, Sesame Street was averaging 10 million viewers a week, making any pivotal episode hugely influential with its young audience. Later that year, they depicted the characters of Gordon (Roscoe Orman) and Susan (Loretta Long) adopting a child. Coupled with acknowledging the real-life death of cast member Will Lee (Mr. Hooper) in 1982, Snuffy’s status as a real Sesame citizen was part of the show’s overall evolution from teaching the alphabet to imparting life lessons.

Davis: I think it was a really smart thing for them to eliminate that as a possibility for the viewer and to say that even as outrageous as the claim sounded at first, here was this real-life big woolly mammoth of a friend that they just had not yet met. I give them a lot of credit for changing with the times and I remember some people saying, "Oh, it was politically correct," but it’s not that at all. It’s more that society changes and the way that we view things changes and Sesame Street has successfully negotiated those waters through the years.

Snuffy got topical again in 1992, when the show decided to depict his parents going through a divorce. Unlike his big reveal, this one didn’t go so well.

Parente: It was the first time in history we ever taped an episode and then didn't air it.

Stiles: He had kind of this family going and it helped that we had this family. There weren’t any other puppet families that we had, so I think it was a natural choice.

Delgado: He got a little sister later on.

Davis: It is interesting that they choose to have Snuffy’s parents get divorced because that character, he’s a little bit of a downer. He’s got a little Eeyore about him.

Parente: We knew enough to put it through the rigors of testing before it would air. And it was a lovely episode, but we found kids were upset after watching it. They were just not familiar with what divorce was.

Delgado: Kids freaked out.

Stiles: The shows weren’t necessarily for the child who’s watching whose parents are divorced, although that was part of it. It was, I think, more so that children would understand if they meet other children whose parents are divorced … The whole thing is difficult, because you’re opening up this can of worms for children who may not have even thought of the possibility that their parents might get divorced. Now all of a sudden, they walk into the kitchen and see their parents arguing about something and they go, "Uh-oh."

Parente: Snuffy’s family was going through it in real time, right in the midst of the crisis. We learned if we can see the characters after coming through divorce, it’s a better way of approaching it.

Despite the hiccup, Snuffy has remained a high-profile and viable member of the Sesame gang for well over 40 years. Most recently, he’s been spotted on Twitter, where he follows just one account: Big Bird’s.

Parente: One of my favorite things is to see people meet Snuffy for the first time. He’s bigger than life. He takes your breath away.

Davis: Sesame Street at its finest moments always found a way to include humor and to use it to help smooth things along and to help it go down in a way that was acceptable. You can’t give enough credit to the writers for brilliantly finding a way to make things funny for people who drink from sippy cups and people who drink from martini glasses.

Parente: We want to be helpful and useful for kids as well as parents. I think that’s why we’re here, 46 years later, always paying attention. What is it kids and parents need from us? In 1985, what they needed us to do was to stop that storyline and present a model of adults listening to children.

Delgado: It's definitely one of the biggest things to happen on the show.

Parente: The appeal of Snuffy is that he’s Big Bird’s best friend. People love Big Bird, so he benefits by association: "If that’s Big Bird’s friend, he’s my friend, too."

This story has been updated for 2020.