This is one of those matters in cryptozoology that shall be forever unsolvable at this point. The situation is that once upon a time there was supposed to be a photograph that had been circulated in the late 1950s or early 1960s, which was seen casually by several persons someplace or another. And then at one point in time, cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson found that the only copy he had, in form of a photostat from some unspecified earlier publication, had been lost while out on loan to some researchers. Naturally enough, Sanderson wanted to get another copy of it as a replacement. And then something happened (perhaps baffling but perhaps not): nobody seemed to be able to find another copy of the photo or even identify where it had originally come from. To quote an internet source on the subject:
...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 photostat 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[photostat-DD] 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. [John Keel even said specifically that the creature did not look like aarge vulture with a hooked beak, as Sanderson's explanation had it. Keel said it had a long and pointed beak like a Pteranodon. This is quoted in such books as Jerome Clark's Unexplained!-DD]
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??
Late in the 1990s while working at IUPUI I had found a copy of a photo which I took to be the original of the "Lost" thiunderbird photo from a collection of photos purporting to represent surviving Pterosaurs on a Creationist website. It was in fact the same photo which Loren Coleman illustrates first in a Cryptomundo posting in March 2006
At this point, Coleman quoted another researcher who had published the photo without comment or caption. At the time, Coleman did not know me and I did not know the other fellow (the link Coleman posted at Cryptomundo for this person's blog has long since gone dead) So, Later in 2006, I mentioned casually to Coleman that I thought I had a copy of the original Thunderbird photo. Not knowing about the other fellow, I sent Coleman another copy of the same photo. I gather Coleman did not take it well, for he never got back to me on the matter.
So WHY did I choose that anonymously-submitted example from the 1990s? Two things in particular: the first is that the bird did NOT match the usual idea of what the "Thunderbird" in the photo was supposed to look like, BUT it matched John Keel's description specifically and exactly. And the second reason is that This copy is not a photograph, it is a photostat, as Sanderson's copy was supposed to have been.
So WHY was everyone going around looking for a photo that showed a bird nailed to a barn with six cowboys standing under it with fingertips touchig to mark six fathoms? Because that was the remaining published description of the photo from Saga magazine. And WHY was nobody able to find the photo again? My guess was that the description was wrong: near enough right to ring a bell with people who had seen the montage but not exact enough that the original could be recognised again by going on the published description.
My solution as far back as the period the SITU was still up and active, was that the photograph had been a montage and could possibly have come in more than one variation: indeed some accounts mention more than one photo. Here is a copy of another reconstruction of what the photo was supposed to look like taken from one of the Cryptozoological discussion boards, original without credit but I would guess from Deviant Art. And please note it does NOT match the published description from Saga either:
Compare to the version at the top. The bird could be mistakenly remembered as being in the upside-down position when it was actually rightside up and people were remembering THAT photo; or else it is also possible that an alternate montage pasted on the figure of the bird upside down as well.
Here is another remembrance, with the witness this time inverting the bird to the rightside-up version as better representing what the witness remembered:
In a letter to then-SITU President Bob Warth during the early 1990s I spoke of my belief that the photograph had been a montage and that I had seen what I thought was the same photo without the bird. I had been through the SITU's files about the missing photograph at that point and I deduced that this following photograph of the death of outlaw John Sontag (1893) had been the BASE Photograph one or more montages had been built up on:
Another clever internet viewer later came to the same conclusion.
As to where or when the original montage could have been made, it COULD have been made anytime after 1893: my guess is sometime in the early 20th century and possibly as an April Fool's gag or possibly a souvenir postcard coming out of Tombstone Arizona or anywhere else in the Southwest. Possibly not the only variation of the idea in circulation, either. BUT The version shown at the top of this page is most likely the version in the possession of Ivan Sanderson and remembered by John Keel, because of the specific reasons given above.
Clark, Jerome (1993). Unexplained! 347 Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences, and Puzzling Physical Phenomena. Visible Ink Press.
Coleman, Loren (1986). "Curious encounters: Phantom trains, spooky spots and other mysterious wonders"" Faber and Faber, Inc.
Hall, Mark A. 1994. Thunderbirds- The Living Legend!. Mark A. Hall Publications, Wilmington, NC.
PS, I have also seen the original letters from H. M. Cranmer in Sanderson's archives.