The legend of the Thunderbird Photo is intertwined with an article that is said to have appeared in the April 26, 1890 Tombstone Epitaph. Legend has it that the photograph accompanied the article.
Until now there was a question as to whether or not any Thunderbird article appeared in the Epitaph. Despite the fact that the Epitaph article had been reprinted several times in the last century, local Tombstone historians as well as the editor of a later version of the Epitaph claimed that the article never ran. To a large extent this says more about the incompetence of those who have supposedly researched this case than anything else.
I interviewed Tombstone historian Ben Traywick who told me that he had searched in vain through the entire run of the Tombstone Epitaph for the Thunderbird article.
"There was no article on the Thunderbird," Traywick claimed. "It may have appeared in another paper, but not the Epitaph." Traywick also makes this statement in our "Strange World Video" (Strange Magazine, 1995, dir. Mark Chorvinsky/Greg Snook).
Additionally, Wallace E. Clayton, editor of The National Tombstone Epitaph,wrote in the November 1984 issue in response to a reader's question about the Thunderbird Photograph that "Epitaph contributor Ben T. Traywick spent a great amount of time in libraries in Arizona and the major Western history research institutions in California, and never has found the photograph nor any mention of the big bird in the newspapers of the time."
I interviewed Ben Traywick again recently and he reiterated that he had searched local papers for the years in question, and had never seen the Epitaph article. But, he explained, Tombstone resident Jack Fiske had claimed to have seen the article, although he never showed it to Traywick.
I then called Jack Fiske, who I had also interviewed earlier in my investigation, and asked about the article.
"I never saw it," Fiske told me. "You should talk to Ben Traywick, he has the article."
The Tombstone "experts" clearly did not have the article.
Richard Ravalli, Jr., in the "Letters" section of Strange Magazine #18 (Summer, 1997) wondered about Ben Traywick's statement that there was never a T-bird article -- with or without a photo -- in the Tombstone Epitaph. Ravalli noted that the only reprinting of the article that he was able to find was in Horace Bell's On the Old West Coast. Ravalli asked, "My question is this: Does the article exist? Or did Bell (or someone else) make it up?"
With Tombstone locals Traywick and Fiske -- both of whom had written articles about the Tombstone monster -- unable to come up with an article, and the only readily available source being Bell's reprinting in his book, confusion on this issue has reigned for a number of years.
I decided to determine definitively whether or not the article had ever been in the Epitaph. The date given for its original publication was April 26, 1890. According to the Library of Congress, the only library known to have a full run of the 1890 Tombstone Epitaph is the University of Arizona. I deputized University of Arizona reference librarian Jodi Nuñez and her capable crew. They were willing and able to check out their newspaper collection and in a short period of time they confirmed that the Thunderbird article was in fact in the Epitaph and within several days I was able obtain a copy of the original Epitaph article.
Traywick and Clayton are clearly incorrect about the article never appearing in the Epitaph -- they had only to search that newspaper on the date that the article was said to have appeared to have found it. Likewise John A. Keel, Mark Hall, Ivan T. Sanderson, and other investigators who have supposedly investigated this case.
In his Monsters, Giants, and Little Men from Mars (Dell, 1975: NY, p. 175), strange phenomena popularizer Daniel Cohen perpetuated the notion that the Tombstone flying monster article may have never appeared in the Epitaph, writing that the story, "...was said to have first seen the light of day in the Tombstone Epitaph, though, again, no one seems able to locate the original account. The story, however, has been retold again and again in articles and columns about Western oddities, and in Fortean publications, and there is a considerable variation on the versions now extant."In The Encyclopedia of Monsters (Avon, NY, 1991, p. 85 -- first published 1982), Daniel Cohen states flatly that the Tombstone flying monster story was "attributed (incorrectly) to the Tombstone Epitaph."
This is my first opportunity to correct Cohen, Traywick, and others' claims that the article was either never published in the Epitaph or was somehow "unfindable," which has added a certain amount of confusion to an already complicated case.
In any event, we now know that the article appeared in the April 26, 1890 Tombstone Epitaph and a microfilm photocopy is displayed on the right. [Click on the clipping at right to read the Epitaph article.] The article is fascinating, but there is no photo accompanying it, nor does the article mention a photograph.
According to the article, two ranchers were riding in the desert between Whetstone, Arizona, and the Huachuca Mountains in late April, 1890, when they came upon a "winged monster resembling a huge alligator with an extremely elongated tail and an immense pair of wings." The creature appeared exhausted and could only fly short distances. The ranchers, armed with Winchester rifles, chased the creature for several miles, finally getting close enough to fire upon it and wound it. The creature turned on the men but as it was exhausted, they were able to keep out of its way. They shot the monster again, mortally wounding it. Upon examination they found that it was ninety-two feet long with a diameter of up to fifty inches. It had two feet, located a short distance in front of where the wings were joined to the body. The beak was about eight feet long, with strong, sharp teeth.
The eyes were as large as dinner plates and protruded from the head. The wings measured seventy-eight feet, making the total length from tip to tip about one hundred and sixty feet. The wings were composed of a thick, nearly translucent membrane. The wings and body were hairless and featherless. The men cut off a small portion of the tip of one wing and took it home with them. One man then went into Tombstone to make preparations to skin the creature.
The article claimed that the hide would be sent to eminent scientists for examination. The ranchers returned to the site accompanied by several "prominent men" who would endeavor to bring the strange creature to town.
To the best of my knowledge, this is the last that anyone ever heard of this creature. There is no mention of any photograph being taken.
The article claims that the creature's wingspan was 160 feet. By comparison, Queztalcoatlus, the largest known pterosaur, had a wingspan of 36-39 feet, less than one-fifth that of the Tombstone flying monster.
In later sections of this article we will be discussing the content of the Tombstone article. For now, it will suffice that we have established that there was a Thunderbird article in the Epitaph and that there was no photo accompanying it or mentioned in it.
The Actual Tombstone Epitaph Article
Below is a portion of the actual Thunderbird article as it appeared in the Tombstone Epitaph on April 26, 1890. This should put to rest the oft-repeated assertion that the article was never published.
For text of original Tombstone Epitaph article, click on clipping above