The Perambulating Skull

During the 1930s federal and state governments went to great lengths to build public support for New Deal policies. This included hiring photographers to document the hardships the country was facing in order to demonstrate the necessity for government action.

Occasionally such public relations efforts went a little too far. One notorious case became known as the 'perambulating skull' of South Dakota.

In 1936 the recently created Resettlement Administration (absorbed into the Farm Security Administration in 1937) was providing aid and shelter to families affected by a drought in South Dakota. Numerous cattle were believed to have died during this drought, depriving families of their livelihood.

The Resettlement Administration provided local newspapers with images of the harsh conditions that were causing families to flee. However, when editors at the Fargo Forum (a Republican newspaper) looked closely at these pictures, they noticed that the same steer's skull was turning up repeatedly in different pictures. Apparently the Resettlement Administration was using the steer's skull as a 'moving prop' in order to dramatize the claim that numerous cattle had died during the drought.

The 'perambulating skull' can be seen making appearances in the two photographs to the right.

  • Curtis D. MacDougall. Hoaxes. Dover Publications, Inc. 1958. p.95.

steer's skull 1
"Dry and parched earth in the Bad Lands of South Dakota." Image taken by Resettlement Administration photographer, 1936.

steer's skull 2
"Over-grazed land, Pennington County, S.D." Image taken by Resettlement Administration photographer, 1936.