on the Unexplained from Whitechapel Press
INTO THE SHADOWS
American Unsolved Mysteries & Tales of the Unexplained by Troy Taylor
The History, Mystery & Unexplained of the Prairie State
OUT PAST THE
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
© Copyright 2001-2008 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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