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The Strange Mystery of the Lost Thunderbird Photo

Known for a once thriving silver industry, the dusty town of tombstone, Arizona was also the location for one of the stranger and oft discussed accounts of an anomaly of cryptozoology. The Tombstone Epitaph on April 26, 1890 included a case of a rather curious encounter. The article details the fantastic account of some sort of huge, winged creature which was found by two ranchers in the desert region between the Whetstone and Huachuca mountains. The monstrous thing was said to look somewhat like an enormous alligator with an elongated tail and a set of massive, bat-like wings. When it was found, the creature was allegedly absolutely exhausted, and only capable of short bursts of flight. This would kick-start a much discussed oddity within cryptozoology and the realm of unexplained mysteries.

The two curious ranchers then were said to have pursued the strange creature for several miles on horseback as it took to the air to retreat in short, sporadic flights, occasionally getting within range to unleash upon it with their rifles and wounding it in the process. At one point, the injured monster apparently turned on the men in aggression and defiance, at which point they were able to shoot it dead. Afterwards, the ranchers claimed to have measured it and found the body to be roughly 92 feet in length, with two feet that were joined to the body just under massive wings that were awkwardly folded under the body. When the wings had been properly stretched out they were said to be around 160 feet in diameter from tip to tip, and the enormous head of the beast was reported as measuring 8 feet long, with strong jaws filled with formidable, sharp teeth and eyes the size of “dinner plates.” The wings were apparently covered by some sort of thin membrane, and the whole body covered with rather thin, almost translucent skin without hair or feathers.

Tombstone, Arizona

The ranchers reportedly chopped off a portion of one of the creature’s wings to take with them, after which they supposedly made arrangements to have the beast skinned and examined by scientists. It is unclear if that ever happened or not. The article simply ends on a note of excitement about what will be uncovered, but nothing is really known about what happened after this rather amazing story or what became of the alleged carcass. This account has drawn a fair amount of criticism, not only because of the sheer, ludicrous size description of the thing, but also because it seems like a story tailor-made to bring in tourists and money to the town. At the time, the once prosperous Tombstone had fallen on hard times due to the flooding of several of the silver mines that were the town’s lifeblood, and they were no doubt desperate to put their ailing town back on the map, so a sensational story of fantastic giant flying dinosaurs might have been one way to do it. The fact that such an amazing tale, which would have taken the scientific world by storm, was not mentioned in any of the other local newspapers, nor any apparent photograph taken of it, just makes the whole thing more suspicious. There was also the habit of papers of the time to generously exaggerate stories or even make them up entirely.

The bizarre story would not end there, and would indeed evolve into one of cryptozoology’s great mysteries. In 1966, after decades of debate as to the authenticity of the story of the “Tombstone Pterodactyl,” a writer by the name of Jack Pearl claimed that there was indeed a photo of the Tombstone creature, or at least one very much like it, which had been published in another article in the Tombstone Epitaph in 1886. The article allegedly said that a group of prospectors had carted the dead monster into town and pinned it to a barn wall for a photo. The picture apparently shows six men standing with arms outstretched before the winged beast, and its size estimated to be around 36 feet from wingtip to wingtip. Throughout this all the Epitaph denied that any photo had ever existed, even going through back issues and files to be sure, but there was nothing. But it just wouldn’t die.

The story of this photo’s existence was corroborated by writer H.M. Cranmer in a 1963 article in Fate Magazine, and renowned cryptozoologist Ivan Sanderson claimed that he had actually owned a photocopy of the photo but that it had been lost. From there, the legend of the now notorious “Thunderbird Photo” really took off. People began to come out of the woodwork swearing they had seen the photo on TV, in books, or in magazines, but in every case no actual copy could ever be tracked down. The question of the elusive photo’s existence became a popular topic within the realms of cryptozoology and Forteana, inciting heated debate and speculation, and the search for the lost photo became sort of a Holy Grail within the field. Author Joshua Hawley has said of it:

The most popular theory of the picture existing, the real picture, is a Pterodactyl-like creature spread out on a barn, wingspan about 18 feet and it had cowboys holding hands stretching their arms out depicting the actual size of the creature as it spread. However, this picture has never surfaced or been found.  Anything published will always be out there. So if it’s still out there and hidden, it’s one big great hide and seek. It’s the story of the Thunderbird in Tombstone, Arizona. Through the years, many could have sworn they saw the picture in magazines. But that is not possible as the Tombstone Epitaph had no ability to publish pictures back then. The thing is if it hasn’t been found yet with hundreds of people looking for something they remember, but they implant that memory and say I know I saw it.

In-depth investigations into the claims of the photo being printed in the Tombstone Epitaph were carried out, yet looking back deeply into the newspaper’s archives showed that no such picture was ever published and there had been no follow up article. Others searched all editions of various books in which people had sworn they had seen the photo, but it turned out that no such photo had ever been published in any one of them. Some people have sworn up and down that the picture was most certainly in a particular book, only to find that the photo was gone when they looked there. Over the years photos have been occasionally brought forward and claimed to be the supposed lost Thunderbird photo, but none of them seem to be exactly what was described in the original or what people insisted they remembered seeing. There have even been big names within the field of the paranormal and Forteana who are sure that they have seen the photo, with Mothman Prophecies author John Keel saying in the 1990s, “I know I saw it! And not only that – I compared notes with a lot of other people who saw it.” The eminent paranormal magazine Fate has always claimed to have once had a copy of the photo and had even published it, yet it is nowhere to be found. Mark Chorvinsky, of Strange Magazine, has also said of it:

The story of the ‘Tombstone Thunderbird’ has intrigued me as long as I can remember. Even as a child I remember reading the story and being amazed. How, I asked myself, could what seemed to be a prehistoric creature like a pterodactyl be shot by cowboys in the 1800s? Such a thing seemed impossible but evidence existed in the form of many stories and references to the event and of course, existed in the form of a photograph. That was the really exciting part—that photograph! I still remember what it looked like today. Or do I? I SWEAR that I saw it myself. It’s strange that so many people remember seeing the photo, including many very, very reliable people.

So what is going on here? How can so many people vividly and irresistibly remember seeing this photograph, so adamantly convinced that it is real, yet be totally unable to find a copy or any proof whatsoever of its actual existence? All kinds of theories have been thrown around trying to explain how so many people could remember seeing a photo that seems to not have ever existed, ranging from the rational to the decidedly fringe. One idea is that it is simply a mass false memory, or a shared memory instigated and propagated through the power of suggestion, while more far-out ideas postulate time warps, time travelers stealing the copies or even preventing it from ever being taken, as well as the notion of the photo somehow erasing itself from reality. Another idea is that this is all down to what is called the “Mandela Effect,” entailing a sort of mass shift of people from one dimension to another, with many keeping memories from their past reality that often clash or don’t add up with details from the new one. Although all evidence points to the fact that it never existed, the lost Tombstone Thunderbird photograph remains a persistent and compelling mystery and subject of debate, with many possible candidates for it being presented over the years, and there are those who continue to doggedly search for it. The true answer, however, has never been revealed.