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Monday, 9 May 2011

That Thunderbird Photo

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.

Selected References:

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.

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  1. Looking at the top picture, I can see where the "Right-side-up/Upside-down" problem comes in: the bird's body is in the normal orientation but the head hangs down. The fact that the head hung down limply seems to have made a strong impression on many viewers. The other elements of the photo were rearranged at the same time the bird was pasted on-the man nearest the bird had originally been over to the right. And many people remember the building (Barn) as being right there but actually it is off to the background. The problem with matching the photo up to the descriptions came from the descriptions of people who actually might not have seen the photo for themselves, and after Sanderson lost his copy of the photostat (which cannot have been either very large or very clear), he fell back on the published description, which is what EVERYBODY repeated verbatim thereafter.

    The weak link is in the photostat-photo itself: I cannot vouch for the existance of the photo at the top for much before 2000 and that is well before it was "Discovered" and circulated around the internet as a candidate for "THE Thunderbird photo". However it is posted on the Old West websites discussing the story and it might have been published in a back issue of Old West magazine (it would not have had to have been published before 1960 in order to get the story circulating) However, it IS a plain hoax and it COULD have been made as early as the 1890s, because it was pasted onto a photo originally taken in 1893.

    Best Wishes, Dale D.

  2. I feel this statement is revealing of something missing:
    "Cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson found that the only copy he had,...had been lost while out on loan to some researchers"
    Since these researchers are the last "eyewitnesses" of the photo (even including Sandersen), then who were they? What were their names? Is there a statement of what they recalled?

  3. The two men were known and their identities not hidden in the files of the SITU. This was not an attempt at obfuscation at the time, and there were several descriptions of the photo on file there, including drawings. Unfortunately eventually the SITU folded and its files went into storage, away from the eyes of the public. Presumably the custodians of those files could re-open them to tell what the files hold. I did not take down the names of the two men and I have never been in contact with them. It is possible that both of them are deceased by now.

  4. I vividly remember a book on unexplained mysteries in the 80's having the picture of a Thunderbird on a barn door with people under it. However, I can't remember if the bird was upside down or not.

  5. Yes, that was one of the attempts to re-create the "Lost" photo after it had been reported missing. The photo had been reported "Lost" in the early 1970s.

  6. I incline toward the parallel universe explanation. I remember the photo too, so perhaps the photo slipped into an alternative reality at some juncture, one that is still close enough to allow some leakage of memory. Our reality has no photo but enough people saw it before the split in realities, so we still remember it.

  7. ...Whereas what I believe is that the photo was never gone. It was always there and this is a copy of it. And People remember the photo but they do not remember it well enough to recognise it when it is presented to them again. In this case, The image shown at the top of the page satisfactorily accounts for the majority of the details given in most descriptions, it is a photostat as Sanderson's account requires, it conforms specifically to John Keel's description AND It could legitimately be thought of as 1890s vintage because the original photograph IS of 1890s vintage.

    Best Wishes, Dale D.

  8. I should add that It is an obvious and outright HOAX, which was always the official position on the photograph Before it went missing.

  9. I'm writing to clear up a point concerning the Canadian television show mistakenly referred to as "The Pierre BENTON" show. he show's actual title was "The Pierre BERTON Show". BERTON was a well-known Canadian journalist and popular historian whose program ran for some years on the CTV Network.

    I distinctly remember watching the interview with Ivan Sanderson, when I was a university student at the time and living with my family. It kindled my interest in the Thunderbird, an interest that persists to the present. I can assure readers that, while Sanderson gave a vivid description of the photograph (where the bird is nailed, head up, on the wall of a barn), he did NOT have a copy of the photo to display on the show. The reason I remember this clearly is that I tried to track the photo down for years after, to no avail. I was also a member of Sanderson's society for the investigation of the unexplained at the time, and of course wrote Sanderson directly. No photo was ever forthcoming from SITU, suggesting that it was never in the possession of that Institution.
    Interestingly enough, some years later I met a man at a party who swore he had seen t on the show

  10. Part 1
    Actually a copy of the photo HAD been in the possession of the SITU from all accounts, only it was in photostat form ONLY, and it was the copy that was forever afterward described as "The big bird nailed onto the side of the building" with an almost ritual repetition of the description. However there is some dispute over the details and enough variation was present among respondants that you could say there was some dispute about such details as "bird displayed head up" or "nailed to the wall"-SANDERSON basically always gave out the one full, standard descrition most people remember.

    The source for the comment on the "Pierre Benton Show" was actually posted in PURSUIT about the time of Sanderson's death. I have the issue but it would take me a little searching to find it where it is in storage. It does say that the photo was (supposedly) on display during the broadcast and urged a searching of old film storage locations in hopes of locating a copy.

    At a point just after Ivan Sanderson had died, over a couple of years and before the files had been removed from the original SITU HQs location, I went through the files pretty thoroughly, the second year while I was staying at the library building itself, and I combed through pretty well ALL of the files pretty thoroughly. I saw a lot of things that only came to light after Sanderson's death, including a copy of Loren Coleman's photo of a "NAPES" track from Illinois. At that time I was formulating the theory that some of the reports in North America referred to a subhuman primate but I was not certain as to whether it was a (Tailless) ape or a (Tailed) monkey, or something perhaps even more primitive, from the reports, and so reseraching that led to finding the NAPES track photo.

  11. Part 2
    In the case of the Thunderbird photo, I had two guys living at SITU HQs at that time (Steve and Marty) who swore up and down they had seen a copy of the photo and that it was in the files. I saw no trace of the photo but I saw several drawings made of what it was supposed to have been, and I saw and read enough at that time to suspect the original photo had been a montage. I was never in doubt that there had once been a photo but I DID learn that Sanderson never had anything other than the photostat of it, which he once leant out to a couple of Thunderbird researchers on one occasion. On that occasion the photostat never made it back. I have no date for this event but it was well some years before the Thunderbird later became big news again: and at that later date, people began working themselves into a froth again to get a copy of the original photo.

    IMHO, the original photo was a montage and probably circulated for many years in the form of a gag postcard, probably locally in the Southwest somewhere as an "Old West" souvenir. And eventually somebody sent Sanderson the photostat of it. But I have never seen anything other than photostats of it myself, if this one image is indeed the same one that the fuss was all about. This one departs from Sanderson's original rote-description in enough ways tyat most people did not and do not "Recognise" it as "THE Thunderbird photo"-HOWEVER, as far as I am concerned everything else about it fits, beyond the fact that the pasted-on bird is not "Nailed to the wall" (Nailing the body of a bird that large to a wall does not sound like it would go over very well nor yet even hold the dead bird nailed to the building long, which is another suspicious circumstance) I call that part a slip in the memory repeated often enough that it became a firm conviction that the original had actually been that way.

    Beyond that, it is still my contention that the head of the bird in this version of the image does indeed correspond very well to John Keel's description. Sanderson seems to have considered the Thunderbird to have been a large condor-like bird, which is once again at variance to this image but also to Keel's description of a "Long pointed" snout. In that way Sanderson seems to have remembered incorrectly but Keel remembered it correctly. And therefore I am not too much worried about it not being "Nalied to the wall"in this image

    Best Wishes, Dale D.

  12. Part 3
    And actually, the background of the area where the bird in the photograph is situated could be remembered as looking like a wall, as distinct from the rest of the image area: the only difference in this case is that the men would then be situated above the "wall" rather than below it

    Best Wishes, Dale D.

  13. That top one looks like something I saw here in New Jersey but it definitely wasn't a thunderbird. I know of one other person that the same thing I did in the middle of the road on the New Jersery- Pennsylvania around some hills near a construction site he was working at. He had to turn his truck around. It looks more like some kind of condor than a Thunderbird though.

  14. I have heard it defitely stated (in Sanderson's files and by H. Cranmer) that there is more than one kind of big bird involved in Pennsylvania, one being a "Thunderbird" and the other being an "Eastern Condor", a distinctly different bird that had a distinctly different silhouette and was much smaller, perhaps half the dimensions of the other. I would refrain from making any final statements on the matter with most of the information being so "iffy" at this point, though.

    Best Wishes, Dale D.

    1. "definitely" stated, that is.

  15. BTW, I have heard that the site Cryptomundo has dismissed this candidate photo as "Merely another photoshopped photo found on the internet." It isn't: it came from the period before photoshopping and the basic photop is legitimately from the 1890s. It is a pasted-up montage and there was a fad for them in the early part of the 20th century, the 19teens and twenties. They were very commonly made into souvenir novelty postcards and that is EXACTLY what I think the reproduced photo is and what "the Thunderbird photo" actually WAS.

  16. i too remember seeing the photo in the early 70s. dont know why but i keep thinking about "boys life" magazine.

  17. In the 1970s is when Sanderson mentioned his copy had gone missing and he could not seem to find another copy. It was not news until then. Incidentally I was at SITU HQs in 1974 and 1975 (summers) and we did a pretty thoroughsearch of the files looking for it. We did not see the image at that time, but one of the other guys was certain he had seen a copy in the files once before. I did see Ivan Sanderson's notes about it and a drawing he had made of the photo after it was missing, just as a reminder of what it had looked like when it had been on file before then. (Ballpoint pen sketch on lined paper BTW)


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