Jun 21, 2022 I Nick Redfern

When Memories of the Paranormal Turn Out To Be Something Very Different

Now and again, I get asked questions about the legendary saga of the "Missing Thunderbird Photograph."  Legends of America say of the Thunderbirds: “Described as a supernatural being, the enormous bird was a symbol of power and strength that protected humans from evil spirits. It was called the Thunderbird because the flapping of its powerful wings sounded like thunder, and lightning would shoot out of its eyes. The Thunderbirds brought rain and storms, which could be good or bad. Good – when the rain was needed or bad when the rain came with destructive strong winds, floods, and fires caused by lightning. The bird was said to be so large, that several legends tell it picking up a whale in its talons." Cuyamungue provide data, too: “The wingspan of the Thunderbird was described to be twice as long as a Native Indian war canoe. Underneath its wings are lightning snakes which the Thunderbird uses as weapons. Lightning is created when the Thunderbird throws these lighting snakes or when he blinks his eyes that glow like fire. Sometimes these lightning snakes are depicted in Native American art as having wolf or dog-like heads with serpent tongues."

Now, let’s get to the crux of the affair. It’s the matter of a vanished photograph of just such a Thunderbird that numerous people in the fields of Cryptozoology and the paranormal swear they have seen, but which, bafflingly, can no longer be found. Anywhere. It’s as if the photo has been erased from our time-line – something, you may recall, that almost happened to Marty McFly in Back to the Future. To see how things really began, and in relation to the matter of this elusive photograph, we have to turn our attention to the folk at Mothman Fandom: “In the May 1963 issue of Saga magazine, writer Jack Pearl recounted this story of the Tombstone Thunderbird, along with some large bird sightings of the early 1960's. Not only did he tell the story though, he went one step further and claimed that the Tombstone Epitaph had, in 1886, ‘published a photograph of a huge bird nailed to a wall. The newspaper said that it had been shot by two prospectors and hauled into town by wagon. Lined up in front of the bird were six grown men with their arms outstretched, fingertip to fingertip. The creature measured about 36 feet from wingtip to wingtip.’”

The story starts to grow and grow. Take note of the words of the staff of Truewest Magazine: “Another writer, H.M. Cranmer, contended in Fate magazine in the fall of 1963 that the picture had been published in newspapers all over the country. Ivan T. Sanderson, considered an eminent researcher in the study of strange phenomena, claimed to not only seeing the photo, but once having a photocopy he unfortunately loaned out and never got back. Someone later came forward and remembered seeing Sanderson display the photo on Canadian television, although no copies of the show have been found.” In the early 2000s, I had some correspondence with the late anomalies researcher - and the editor and publisher of Strange Magazine - Mark Chorvinsky, who died in 2005. He sent me a wealth of material that was, tentatively, to be used in a full-length book on the Thunderbird photograph that I ultimately decided to shelve. Chorvinsky was good enough to allow me to use the material, should I one day decide to return to the mystery of the Thunderbird. I will provide his words without interruption:

"The legend of the Thunderbird Photo is intertwined with an article that is said to have appeared in the April 26, 1890 Tombstone Epitaph. Legend has it that the photograph accompanied the article. Until now there was a question as to whether or not any Thunderbird article appeared in the Epitaph. Despite the fact that the Epitaph article had been reprinted several times in the last century, local Tombstone historians as well as the editor of a later version of the Epitaph claimed that the article never ran. To a large extent this says more about the incompetence of those who have supposedly researched this case than anything else. I interviewed Tombstone historian Ben Traywick who told me that he had searched in vain through the entire run of the Tombstone Epitaph for the Thunderbird article. There was no article on the Thunderbird, Traywick claimed." What all of this tells us is that something really weird has happened - and over the decades. Right? Well, maybe not. Let's take a look at something that may (in part, if nothing else) go towards solving the riddle of the missing photo of the thunderbird. It all surrounds the human mind and our memories.

(Nick Redfern) Cryptozoologist Richard Freeman, who came across a case of how minds and memories can change.

A few years back, the Devon, England-based Center for Fortean Zoology launched a project designed to document all the many and varied reports of large pike in the waters of the U.K. I well remember that on one occasion the CFZ's Richard Freeman got very excited by the story of a man who had once read of a huge pike in an English lake - a violent marauding beast of monstrous size. Unfortunately, as Rich dug further and further into the story, he found to his disappointment that the man in question had made a mistake. What the man actually read was not a news story of the giant fish, but a horror-novel written back in 1982 called The Pike. The author: Cliff Twemlow. The book is an entertaining bit of cryptozoological hokum - kind of a second rate Jaws. Rich's source, however - and as a result of the passage of a couple of decades - had innocently got fact and fiction mixed up. I have seen things like this happen on several occasions. This issue of mistaking fiction for fact is something that those of us who investigate the mysteries of this world should be aware of - and remember, too. Now, let's take a look at another case of the brain doing strange things.

I'll give you another example of the memory malfunctioning: back in 2006, I spent 6 or 7 months in England, where I grew up. While I was there, I attended a couple of local lectures in the county of Staffordshire. At the end of one of the lectures, a guy came up to me and asked if I was aware that in Hopwas Woods - an area of woodland not at all a long distance from where I once lived - there was something terrible lurking. Granted, Hopwas Woods does have a few weird tales attached to it, but that's not the point. Did I know, he asked, that deep in Hopwas Woods there was a bog that was so deep it was practically bottomless? On top of that, an ancient book had been found in the area which contained codes that, once deciphered, could allow for the summoning of terrible beasts from the depths of the bog. I asked the guy where the story came from. He said that he thought (but was not fully sure) that he had read about it in The Unexplained - that was a very popular weekly "partwork" magazine published in the U.K. in the early 1980s and that built up into multiple, bound volumes. I had to break the news to my informant that his memory was playing tricks on him. The story he remembered was never published in The Unexplained at all. What he was remembering was a 1975 novel called The Sucking Pit - the author being Guy N. Smith, who has written an untold number of horror novels over the years. As luck would have it, I read the book in my late teens, around eight or nine years after it was published. I still have it to this day, somewhere on one of my bookshelves.

(Nick Redfern) Guy N. Smith on the right

Now, let's have a look at a UFO-themed example of this issue of when the memory screws up. From 1990 to 1991, the late author David Bischoff penned a trilogy of novels: Abduction: The UFO Conspiracy; Deception: The UFO Conspiracy; and Revelation: The UFO Conspiracy. If you are into UFOs, cosmic cover-ups and the world of fiction (and all rolled into one), then if you have not read this great series, you really should. They are, in my opinion, the definitive UFO novels. While I won’t reveal the complete plot-line that links all three of the books – in case you plan on purchasing copies after reading this! – I will explain my enthusiasm for them. Imagine a combination of The X-Files meets The Fugitive meets Robert Ludlum meets The Invaders and you’ll have some idea of what this series is all about. Except that Bischoff’s books predate Mulder and Scully by a couple of years.

It's time now to return to the theme of this article: our memories. One day, I received an email from a guy who said that he had read one of my two books on Roswell (it being The Roswell UFO Conspiracy) and wanted to make a few points. He said he knew that aliens came down not too far from Roswell, New Mexico in the summer of 1947. He also said that in terms of the bodies allegedly found on the Foster Ranch, they were not the large-headed, small creatures that most people associate with when it comes to the famous case. Rather, he said that the aliens at Roswell actually looked just like us, for the most part. He also said that the aliens were genetically designed so that when they died on the ranch, their bodies  decomposed extremely quickly - and, as a result, the U.S. government never had the chance to study their rapidly decaying remains. On top of that, he said that he had read all of this in one of the controversial Majestic 12 documents that surfaced from the 1980s to the 1990s; but which, oddly, he could no longer find.

The guy assured me this was the correct scenario for Roswell. I said he was wrong. Rather, I explained, this is the exact scenario  presented in the second novel in David Bischoff's The UFO Conspiracy series. No, I was wrong, he told me. He said he only ever read UFO non-fiction, rather than saucer-themed fiction. Well, he got back to me two days later, and lo and behold, he said that he did have these very three books - after all - on one of his many bookshelves, which he had read when they were published. While he was searching his shelves, I spent a couple of hours going through my own copies of the trilogy looking for the relevant page on the decomposing aliens. I finally found it, on page 233 of Deception. When we chatted again I told him to turn to page 233 and read it. He did. Three decades after reading Deception, and after we chatted again, he realized his error. In the early 1990s he had read Deception (and not Majestic 12-themed documents at all); but around thirty years later his mind and memories had turned the Bischoff scenario for Roswell into a real event, rather than what it really is: a fine piece of entertaining UFO conspiracy-fiction.

Of course, there was no attempt on the part of the guy to deceive me. Rather, his memories had deceived himself. It's a cautionary, UFO-themed story of how the passage of time - and the human memory - can turn one thing into something very different. Perhaps something like that has occurred with the memories of the people who have followed the Thunderbird issue over the decades. It happened with all the people above, and in relation to Bischoff's books, Smith's books, and Twemlow's book. The people had all read books that, in their minds, became reality. Maybe, something like that has happened with all those people who have chased down the Thunderbird picture.

Nick Redfern

Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.

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