THE MYSTERIOUS THUNDERBIRD PHOTO
The "Holy Grail" of Enthusiasts & Collectors of the Unknown

Books on the Unexplained from Whitechapel Press

INTO THE SHADOWS
American Unsolved Mysteries & Tales of the Unexplained by Troy Taylor


MYSTERIOUS ILLINOIS
The History, Mystery & Unexplained of the Prairie State 


OUT PAST THE CAMPFIRE LIGHT
Hauntings, Horrors & Unsolved Mysteries of the Great Outdoors

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

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 1800's? 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?

You see, in more recent years, an even greater mystery has developed than whether or not a group of cowpokes shot down a "flying monster" in the Arizona desert. That mystery surrounds the elusive photograph that was taken of the incident and which many of us (myself included) believe that we saw. But if we did, where is the photo and what has become of it over the years?

One of the first accounts that was written of the Thunderbird that was allegedly killed in Tombstone was in the book On the Old West Coast by Major Horace Bell. I was able to track down a copy of this long out of print title and found it to be a very readable and entertaining book about Bell's adventures in California in the late 1800's. On the Old West Coast was published in 1930 and edited from Bell's writings by Lanier Bartlett.

Horace Bell had previously written a book called Reminiscences of a Ranger about his life in and journeys throughout California, Texas, Mexico and Central America. Bell had been a miner, a Ranger who pursued Joaquin Murrietta, a soldier of fortune in the forces of Benito Juarez in Mexico, an aide to General William Walker in Nicaragua, a Union officer in the Civil War and on the Texas border and finally, a newspaper editor in Los Angeles. He was considered a history writer and while he admitted to often writing stories that were "tongue in cheek", he declared that he was a truthful history writer, chronicling events as they happened. This is why the events that he wrote about in the Lake Elizabeth area - and by extension, Tombstone - are so strange to read about today.

The account in Bell's book, in a chapter entitled "Spit in the Mouth of Hell", does not start out to be about the creature that was killed in Tombstone. Bell believed that this same creature had its origins in California instead.

In October 1886, a Los Angeles, California newspaper reported on some strange events that had been occurring for years around nearby Lake Elizabeth. According to early stories from the days of the Spanish occupation of the region, the lake had long been considered a haunted place, plagued by frightening voices, shrieks, screams and groans that apparently emanated from the lake itself. After the Spanish, the Mexican settlers refused to live near the lake. They called it "La Laguna del Diablo" - the "Devil's Lake".

In the middle 1830's, Don Pedro Carrillo purchased the land around La Laguna del Diablo and built a hacienda, barn and corral by the water. He disregarded the superstitions about the place but just three months after construction on his ranch was completed, he abandoned the place. He stated that there were supernatural beings nearby and refused to live there. The land remained idle for the next two decades and even after the Americans came to the region, the lake was shunned as a cursed spot.

Some years later, Don Chico Lopez settled on the property and what occurred next was told in a manuscript by
Don Guillermo Embustero y Mentiroso, who was a guest at the Lopez ranch. According to Don Guillermo, a great agitation took place during his visit. Around noon one day, Lopez's foreman, Chico Vasquez, rode up to the hacienda very upset. He told of strange happenings at the lake and everyone saddled their horses and rode out to the shore. They arrived to find the water calm and quiet and Lopez began berating his foreman for bothering them with foolishness but then stopped as a terrifying scream came from some brush at the edge of the lake. The plants whipped back and forth and the account stated that they were so close to whatever was lurking in the brush that they could smell its foul breath. The men were startled when their horses reared up and began running in fright.

As they brought their horses back under control, the men turned and looked back to the lake. Silhouetted against the sky was a large creature with enormous wings. The creature flapped them over and over again as it tried to rise from the mud. It roared and screamed and churned up the water around it. The horses and men fled in a panic. The next morning, all of the vaqueros on the ranch were mustered, armed and sent down to the lake to investigate. There was no sign of the winged monster but it was said that the smell of it still lingered in the air.
In 1883, the Lopez horses and cattle began to vanish. At first, bears or wolves were thought to be responsible but then one night, there was a terrible uproar in the corral. When the vaqueros came running, they found that ten mares and foals had been slaughtered. They said that, outlined against the sky, they saw the huge flying creature as it flapped away into the darkness. Don Chico Lopez promptly sold out and moved away from the area.

Then in 1886, the newspaper reported more strange happenings at Lake Elizabeth. The reports stated that a creature had been feeding on cattle, horses, sheep and chickens and had caused terror and excitement among the local inhabitants. On one occasion, the beast had tried to devour a large steer but as the animal bellowed and kicked, the sound attracted the attention of its owner, Don Felipe Rivera. The steer put up a fierce fight and managed to free itself. The angry creature then retreated but not before Rivera got a good look at it. He said that it was at least 45 feet long and had wings that laid flat on its back when not expanded. He pursued the monster as it started towards the lake and fired at it with his Colt revolver. Rivera said that when the bullets struck the monster's side, it sounded as if they were hitting a "great iron kettle".

But Don Felipe was nothing if not enterprising and he made immediate plans to try and capture the creature and sell it to the circus. He even signed a contract with Sells Brothers, who agreed to pay him $20,000 to deliver the beast to him alive. Don Felipe never managed to capture the creature, although it was reportedly seen several times in 1886. The creature was last seen, according to Horace Bell, winging away to the east.

"Since then," he wrote, "it has never been seen in its native valley because it was found and killed 800 miles from Lake Elizabeth, as is proved by the article that appeared in the Epitaph, Tombstone, Arizona." Bell then goes on to quote from the article, which he apparently saw, and provides details to the story. However, he does not say that the event occurred in 1886, as many believe. He provides a follow-up story, which is about the Tombstone article, that appeared in a Los Angeles newspaper in 1890. For this reason, it's safe to assume that the Thunderbird (if it really existed) was killed at some point between 1886 and 1890.

The article states that two ranchers sighted an enormous flying creature in the Arizona desert between Whetstone and the Huachuca Mountains. The beast resembled a huge alligator with an extremely elongated tail and an immense pair of wings. According to their story, the creature was greatly exhausted and was only able to fly a short distance at a time. The men, who were on horseback and armed with Winchester rifles, pursued the creature for several miles before getting close enough to open fire on it and wound it. The creature then turned on the cowboys but due to its exhaustion, they were able to keep far enough away from it until a few more shots could kill it.

An examination of the creature showed that it measured 92 feet in length and that its greatest diameter was about 50 inches. It had only two feet, situated a short distance in front of where the wings joined the body. The beak, as near as they could judge, was about eight feet long and its jaws were set with strong, sharp teeth. They experienced some difficulty trying to measure the wings, as they had folded up underneath the body as the monster had fallen, but eventually unrolled one of them. It was an incredible 78 feet in length, giving the beast a wingspan of about 160 feet. The wings were of a thick, nearly transparent membrane that had no feathers or hair on it. Its flesh was relatively smooth though and had been easily penetrated by their bullets.

The ranchers cut off a portion of the wing and took it with them, perhaps as proof of what they had seen. After arriving in Tombstone, they spread the word of the creature and made plans to return to the site where it had fallen and to skin it. They planned, the article stated, to offer the hide to eminent scientists for examination. They returned to the site to bring the creature back to town and here, the article ends. There are no details of the body being brought to town and no mention whatsoever of any photograph being taken.

The story of the Thunderbird was relegated to the ranks of creatures like the "jackalope" until 1963, when the story was revived. In the May 1963 issue of Saga, a men's magazine of the day, writer Jack Pearl recounted the 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."

While this is a different variation of the story (and size of the creature), it seems to be referring to the same incident. Was this nothing more than a mythic legend of the west, or was there something to the story after all?

In the September 1963 issue of Fate magazine, a correspondent to the magazine named H.M Cranmer would state that not only was the story true, but the photo was published and had appeared in newspapers all over America. And Cranmer would not be the only one who remembered the photo. Eminent researcher Ivan T. Sanderson also remembered seeing the photo and in fact, even claimed to have once had a photocopy of it that he loaned to two associates, who lost it. The editors of Fate even came to believe that they may have published the photo in an earlier issue of the magazine but a search through back issues failed to reveal it. Meanwhile, the original Epitaph story, which again mentions no photograph, was revived in a 1969 issue of Old West, further confusing the issue as to whether the photo was real or not.

The Epitaph however stated that it did not exist, or if it did, it had not been in their newspaper. Responding to numerous inquiries, employees of the paper started a thorough search of back issues and files. They could find no such photo and even an extended search of other Arizona and California newspapers of the period produced no results. A number of articles that appeared in Pursuit, the journal for the Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained prompted a memory from W. Ritchie Benedict, who recalled seeing Ivan T. Sanderson himself display a copy of the photo on a Canadian television show "The Pierre Benton Show". Unfortunately though, no copies of the show have ever been found.

So, is the photo real? And if not, then why do so many of us with an interest in the unusual claim to remember seeing it? Who knows? In the late 1990's, author John Keel insisted that "I know I saw it! And not only that - I compared notes with a lot of other people who saw it." Like many of us, Keel believes that he saw it in one of the men's magazines (like Saga or True) that were so popular in the 1960's. Most of these magazines dealt with amazing subject matter like Bigfoot, ghosts and more. Keel also remembers the photo in the same way that most of us do - with men wearing cowboy clothing and the bird looking like a pterodactyl or some prehistoric, winged creature.

Interestingly, a reprint of the original article that appeared in Old West magazine caused a reader to remember another strange incident. He wrote to the magazine in the summer of 1970 and gave a firsthand account of a separate flying monster incident that also occurred near Tombstone. The writer had met two cowboys who told about seeing a similar creature around 1890, although they had shot at and chased the creature until their horses refused to go any further. This giant bird was not killed, brought to town or photographed. In fact, except for the fact that it was not shot down, their account sounds much closer to Bell's original report.

During the 1990's, the search for the "Thunderbird Photo" reached a point of obsession for those interested in the subject. A discussion of the matter stretched over several issues of Mark Chorvinsky's Strange magazine and readers who believed they had seen the photo cited sources that ranged from old books, to Western photograph collections, men's magazines, National Geographic and beyond. As for myself, I combed through literally hundreds of issues of dusty copies of True and Saga but could find nothing more than the previously mentioned article by Jack Pearl. If the photo exists, I certainly don't have it in my own collection.

So, how do we explain this weird phenomena of a photograph that so many remember seeing and yet no one can seem to find? Author Mark Hall believes that the description of the photo creates such a vivid image in the mind that many people who have a knowledge and an interest in curious and eclectic things begin to think the photo is familiar. It literally creates a "shared memory" of something that does not exist. We think we have seen it, but we actually have not.

To be honest, I can't say for sure if I agree with this or not. I can certainly see the possibility of a "memory" like this that we have created from inside of our own overcrowded minds, but then again, what if the photo does exist and it's out there, just waiting to be discovered in some dusty garage, overflowing file cabinet or musty basement. I, for one, haven't given up quite yet - and I have a feeling that I am not the only one who is still out there looking.

But are thunderbirds and mysterious flying creatures actually real? Do they fill the skies of anything other than our imaginations? If not, then what have so many people seen over the years? At this point, such creatures remain a mystery but one thing is sure, the sightings have continued over the years and occasionally an unusual report still trickles in from somewhere across America. So keep that in mind the next time that you are standing in an open field and a large, dark shadow suddenly fills the sky overhead. Was that just a cloud passing in front of the sun - or something else??

© Copyright 2001-2008 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.

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