The Thunderbird Photograph: Hoax, or a Real-Life Monster?

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Back in 1890, news of a strange sighting jarred the people of southeastern Arizona. A local newspaper, the Tombstone Epitaph, reported that two ranchers encountered an enormous, winged creature that they claimed looked like an alligator with wings. They were returning to Tombstone from a stint in the Huachaca Mountains when they came across the animal, which was reportedly visibly exhausted from some long flight, but flew a short ways when it saw the men. Armed and on horseback, the men began chasing the creature, firing at it until it was badly wounded and soon died. Amazingly, they said it measured about 92 feet in length, but was comparatively tiny in diameter at only 50 inches. Its head was an enormous 8 feet long, and each of its wings measured 78 feet in length, with no feathers or hair, just thick, rubbery skin. In short, the animal was massive – it was part bird, part alligator, and completely bewildering.

So did these men make up the story of the other-worldly beast for publicity? It’s entirely possible, since by 1890, Tombstone had turned into something of a ghost town after an earthquake flooded the lucrative silver mines which had provided the town’s only industry. It certainly could have benefitted from tourism that might have resulted from such a bizarre story. But no one seemed to make any effort to exploit the story to reel in tourists, and it was all but forgotten by the 1930s when author Horace Bell unearthed it as part of a book on Old West folklore. Then, in the 1960s, a magazine writer named Jack Pearl claimed that there had been a picture showing the ranchers having nailed the gigantic beast to a wall, and that it had appeared in the original article in the Tombstone Epitaph. In fact, several other people also claimed to have seem the photograph, but no one could locate any copies of it. And somehow, they all seemed to agree that it was indeed the type of photo described by Pearl.

By the 1990s, the search for the missing “Thunderbird Photograph” was in full swing; if so many reputable people claimed to have seen it, then it must exist somewhere. Finally, in 2015, a cryptozoology website, Cryptomundo, published several photos, supposing that one of them may be the lost Thunderbird Photo. But none of them even came close to matching Pearl’s description of the giant creature nailed to a wall (instead, one showed men standing behind a smaller bird-like creature on the ground, one showed men holding a large bird upside down, and the last showed Civil War soldiers and was clearly was not even from the right time period.) If seeing is believing, then we can assume that the Thunderbird sighting was nothing more than a hoax, due to the complete lack of convincing photo evidence. In all probability, the claims of having seen the photo of a creature nailed to a wall were some sort of psychological phenomenon, a “shared memory” of a photo that never actually existed. But, as some cryptozoology enthusiasts would be quick to point out, we also have no clear evidence that this creature didn’t exist, so we can’t be 100% certain that the men fabricated the story. Either way, for many, it’s fun to think about.

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