The enormous wingspan of the creature was said to have been 160 feet and the body was more than 92 feet long. It was smooth and featherless, more like a bat than a bird. The cowboys cut off a piece of the wing and brought it with them into Tombstone, Arizona.
Or least that’s the story that was allegedly told in an April 1892 issue of the Tombstone newspaper, the "Epitaph." This was the only mention of the story and it gave all of the appearances of the tall tales that were often written in the Western newspapers of the era. What makes this story different, though, is that it has given rise to an odd, modern legend.
The story was revived in 1930 in the book "On the Old West Coast" by Horace Bell, and then 33 years later, a writer named Jack Pearl mentioned the story in the sensationalistic men’s magazine Saga. 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.”
Then, in the September 1963 issue of the magazine Fate, a writer named H.M. Cranmer would state that not only was the story true, but that 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 Fortean Times 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 (the magazine started in 1948), but a search through back issues failed to reveal it. Meanwhile, the original Epitaph story (which 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 not such a photo. Even an extended search of other Arizona and California newspapers of the period produced no results.
So, is the photo real? If not, then why do so many of us (myself included) with an interest in the unusual claim to remember seeing it? Who knows? Just recently, in the late 1990s, author John Keel insisted, “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 1960s. Most of these magazines dealt with amazing subject matter like Bigfoot and ghosts. 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, Keel’s writings prompted a memory from W. Ritchie Benedict, who recalled seeing Ivan T. Sanderson display the photo on a Canadian television show. Unfortunately, no copies of the show have ever been found.
During the 1990s, 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 like old books, Western photograph collections, men’s magazines, 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 phenomenon 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” that we have created from inside of our own overcrowded minds, but then again, what if the photo does exist—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!