The hunt for the elusive Tombstone Thunderbird photo is an enigmatic tale of mystery because of the particular circumstances surrounding this photograph, which may or may not have ever existed. Several people claim to have seen the photograph in books or magazines, but no one can remember which book they saw it inside or where it was published. People look and look, but can’t find a photograph which they will swear up and down they’ve seen before. The photograph is supposed to be evidence of a referenced Thunderbird encounter from an article in the Tombstone Epitaph. Whether or not the photo exists and where it can be found if it DOES exist still remains a mystery…
The article dates back to an article that ran in the Tombstone Epitaph on Saturday, April 26, 1890 which reads:
FOUND ON THE DESERT
A Strange Winged Monster Discovered and Killed on the Huachuca Desert
A winged monster, resembling a huge alligator with an extremely elongated tail and an immense pair of wings, was found on the desert between the Whetsone and Huachuca mountains last Sunday by two ranchers who were returning home from the Huachucas. The creature was evidently greatly exhausted by a long flight and when discovered was able to fly but a short distance at a time. After the first shock of wild amazement had passed, the two men, who were on horseback and armed with Winchester rifles, regained sufficient courage to pursue the monster and after an exciting chase of several miles succeeded in getting near enough to open fire with their rifles and wounding it. The creature then turned on the men, but owing to its exhausted condition they were able to keep out of its way and after a few well directed shots the monster partly rolled over and remained motionless. The men cautiously approached, their horses snorting with terror, and found that the creature was dead. They then proceeded to make an examination and found that it measured about ninety-two feet in length and the greatest diameter was about fifty inches. The monster had only two feet, these being situated a short distance in front of where the wings were joined to the body. The head, as near as they could judge, was about eight feet long, the jaws being thickly set with strong, sharp teeth. Its eyes were as large as a dinner plate and protruded about half way from the head. They had some difficulty in measuring the wings as they were partly folded under the body, but finally got one straightened out sufficiently to get a measurement of seventy-eight feet, making the total length from tip to tip about 160 feet. The wings were composed of a thick and nearly transparent membrane and were devoid of feathers or hair, as was the entire body. The skin of the body was comparatively smooth and easily penetrated by a bullet. The men cut off a small portion of the tip of one wing and took it home with them. Late last night one of them arrived in this city for supplies and to make the necessary preparations to skin the creature, when the hide will be sent east for examination by the eminent scientists of the day. The finder returned early this morning accompanied by several prominent men who will endeavor to bring the strange creature to this city before it is mutilated.
The most interesting thing about the article is the fact that a photo isn’t mentioned at all. However, it does contain an detailed description of a strange winged creature with the promise that the creature would be skinned and examined; though, the Tombstone Epitaph never ran a follow-up story to the article on the winged monster. This information is curiously suspect– Why do so many people believe that a photograph of the bird found in the desert near Tombstone, Arizona exists and why are people also not looking for the creature’s remains?
Did Thunderbirds Exist In The Sonoran Desert?
The first thing to consider is whether or not these giant birds actually exist. Previously, in Part I, we discussed the numerous sightings of giant birds in pre-historic and modern times. There are enough stories to make the existence of these giant birds plausible, many of the accounts from Part I weren’t from the southwestern United States. There is one story that fits not only the time frame of the Epitaph sighting, but the general vicinity as well. The Sacramento Daily Record-Union published a story titled “Monster of the Air” on March 20, 1882, eight years before the Tombstone Thunderbird sighting, which references a story in the Gridley Herald. (I did not find a copy of the Herald article). The story describes an avian similar to the one seen in the Tombstone desert. It was a “creature that looked something like a crocodile” and it was “not less than eighteen feet in length”; however, certain differences in the beast differentiate it from the creature reported near Tombstone. The Hearald’s beast also had “six wings, each projecting between eighteen inches and two feet from the body”. It also had “twelve feet, six on a side”. Although these creatures were described differently, this information does suggest that strange, flying creatures existed in the southwestern United States around the time the Epitaph article was written. Although the descriptions of the winged monster vary, at least one person living in the area at the time of these sightings was certain that the story in the Gridley Herald and the Tombstone Epitaph were related.
In Chapter 10 (Spit in the Mouth of Hell) of his memoir On the Old West Coast, Major Horace Bell recounts a 1780’s story he transcribed by Don Guillermo Embustero y Mentiroso which describes a mythical story explaining the Devil’s Turnpike near Elizabeth Lake in the Mojave Desert near Los Angeles. When he returns the transcribed story to the fourth generation ancestor of Don Guillermo, Major Bell comments that the ancestor believed that the end of the legend– the part where God overcame the Devil to purify Lake Elizabeth– was incorrect. The ancestor’s account describes area surrounding Elizabeth Lake as follows:
“By all reports that is a horrible, haunted body of water. It is a mouth of Hell. For the century since the birth of that laguna as narrated in the manuscript, frightfully and unearthly noises have emanated from those depths. Screams, shrieks, groans, as though Hell itself and its congregation of the damned might lie directly beneath the lake.
And even when American squatters began to come into the country [for the gold rush] they soon gave up their desire to possess the region [around Elizabeth Lake]. You may judge by this that there must have been something to the stories of its horrors, for the American squatter is hard to scare from good land.”
The Don Guillermo continued with a story of Don Pedro Carrillo’s experience in the region. Don Pedro Carrillo had built a house near the lake and, three months later, torched the place. He claimed it was because of the hell raised on and around the Devil’s Lake. When he finished his account of Carrillo, the fourth generation Don Guillermo tells his own experience with the Lake Elizabeth monster, which he experienced while staying at the residence of Chico Lopez.
We went immediately to the lake, the two Chicos [Chico Lopez and Chico Vasquez) and I.
It was mid-day and the sun shone benignly on the mirror-like surface of the laguna, which was calm as a sleeping infant… when, as terrifying as a peal of thunder from a clear sky, a great whistling, hissing, screaming roar issued from a growth of tules growing on a margin of the lake and so near to us that we could smell the nauseating, fetid breath of the monster emitting the sound. So sickening was the foul effluvia that we reeled in our saddles and no doubt would have been overcome had not our horses dashed away with us in fright.
After bringing our horses under control we turned and gazed back at the lake. From our position we could discern the outlines of a huge monster, larger than the greatest whale, with enormous bat-like wings. At times it would flap these wings as though attempting to rise from the mud where it lay. It would roar and splash the water with what appeared to be great flippers or legs.
The men would go back to the lake in the morning, but they would find no traces of the monster. It was like that for a while, but then horses and cattle began to disappear half a dozen at a time. One night, the best claimed to have seen “an incredible griffon winging away, heavy with feasting” after ten mares and their foals had gone missing. The Don Guillermo’s tale ends there, but there are several other accounts which Major Horace Bell includes in the chapter– including a reproduction of an October 1866 article from a Los Angeles paper, which published an account of Don Felipe.
In this account, the monster is described as “about fifteen varas (fourty-four feet)” and as having “a head very much like a bulldog” with approximately six legs and wings “which lie flat on the monster’s back when not expanded. Don Felipe also claims to have shot at the beast, but had his flattened bullets bounce back to him “as flat as coins”.
The last account of note is the mention of the best “seen emerging [from the Elizabeth Lake] and flying away eastward. Since then it has never been seen in its native valley because it was found and killed eight hundred miles from Lake Elizabeth, as is proved by the… article that appeared in The Epitaph” with a follow-up to The Epitaph article in May 1890 by a Los Angeles newspaper. These two comments effectively connect the Elizabeth Lake monster to the Tombstone Thunderbird, and make its existence extremely plausible due to the consistent media coverage received by such a strange creature. This brings us back to the question of the Thunderbird Photograph…
The Thunderbird Photograph
So if a beast, which could be described as a Thunderbird, did exist in the southwest, do these news reports conclusively prove the existence of a photograph? No. They don’t. The potential for a photograph of the beast is certainly there, but the photo still remains elusive. Nothing can really explain the numerous accounts of a photo, which has frequently been described as a photograph of a pterodactyl against a barn wall with a singular line of men posing near the beast. Though there are several accounts of having seen the photo in this or that publication and there have even been several reproductions and sketches of the Thunderbird photo, the photo itself appears not to exist. I’m going to cop out and defer you to the wonderful article over at strangemag.com called Cowboys & Dragons: Unravelling the Mystery of the Thunderbird Photograph if you are interested in a thorough examination of the Thunderbird photograph and the various “sightings”, because this article is so well done I would be tempted to plagiarize.
My personal running theory on the photograph is that, based on the report in the article from The Epitaph, it was assumed that the beast had been photographed when there was never a follow up. I believe it likely that the body was never re-found and so the story was never completed. I also believe that the story of this giant bird was noteworthy enough that the story was re-visited and because of the absence of a photograph several were created to accompany stories which discussed the Tombstone Thunderbird. This is, of course, my own theory on the photograph– that there never was an “original” photo… but… since I’m just one person spouting theory there very well may be a real Thunderbird photo out there somewhere. If there is– Do you believe to have seen it?
* “Found on the Desert: A Strange Winged Monster Discovered and Killed on the Huachuca Desert.” Tombstone Epitaph 26 April 1890.
* Cowboys & Dragons: Unravelling the Mystery of the Thunderbird Photograph at strangemag.com
* Bartlett, Lanier, ed. On the Old West Coast: Being Further Reminiscences of a Ranger– Major Horace bell. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1930. P 194-206.
* Treat, Wesley. Weird Arizona: Your Travel Guide to Arizona’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets.” Ed. Mark Sceurman and Mark Moran. New York, NY: Berenson Design & Books, LLC, 2007.
* “A Monster of the Air.” Sacramento Daily Record-Union 20 March 1882.