The Thunderbird Photo holds a special fascination for many forteans and has recently been described by veteran fortean Robert Durant as "the fortean mystery of mysteries." The photo is currently little-known outside of the small fortean community.
I have interviewed dozens of people who are absolutely certain that they saw the Thunderbird Photograph, but there is no sign of the photo anywhere.
Close friends of mine swear that they saw the photo, which people recall seeing variously in books, magazines, newspapers, and on television. Certainly such an unusual image would have been published repeatedly, particularly in fortean publications.
Every week I follow a new lead or continue working on an old one, but I feel no closer to finding the Thunderbird Photograph. This is one of my most unusual cases, and I specialize in the unusual.
The key figures in the T-bird case are some of the most prominent figures in fortean history -- including Ivan T. Sanderson, John A. Keel, and Vincent H. Gaddis, to name just a few.
I first read of the T-bird photo in a 1972 issue of Ivan T. Sanderson's journal Pursuit. There were several references to the photograph over the next two decades, mostly in Daniel Cohen's books on monsters and in John A. Keel's Strange Creatures from Time and Space. Analysis of the text demonstrates that Sanderson's reference was clearly the source for these later mentions. We will return to Sanderson's 1972 discussion of the photograph in the second part of this article in the next issue of Strange Magazine online.
Enter KeelThen, in the early 1980s the Thunderbird Photograph came up in conversation with John A. Keel, who suggested that I investigate the case. We discussed the photograph in an interview in Strange Magazine #5. I asked Keel if he thought that there was a Thunderbird Photograph or not. His response:
Absolutely! I know I saw it. And not only that -- I compared notes with a lot of other people who also saw it. It wasn't just me and Ivan [T. Sanderson], it was a lot [of] people and we all saw this...photograph and nobody can locate it. It was either in one of the tabloids or one of the men's magazines. There were a lot of men's magazines in those days. We checked everything we could think of. I could almost make a drawing of it. I can remember all the details. The thing was sort of nailed to a barn, or hanging from a barn or something, and these men -- a large group of men -- were standing in front of it. They all were very rustic-looking, like real farmers. And one guy had on a top hat and they referred to him in the caption as a college professor, but he was probably just another cowboy.
[The creature that was nailed up] looked like a pterodactyl or something; it had an enormous wingspread. I would say it was like the 1880s or something. The guys were all wearing cowboy boots and cowboy hats and they were all kind of scrungy, like they had been out riding the range. There was a ramp in front of the barn and the people in the photo were standing on it. Having a ramp going up into the barn is a common feature of barns. I can't remember exactly how many men there were, but there may have been five, there may have been fifteen. I suppose everybody in the neighborhood got in on it. That photograph has always bugged me. At the time, when you see a photograph like that -- and it must have been in a magazine -- you assume that a lot of people have copies of the photograph and that it's not going to be a problem if you ever need it again. Then you find out that no one can remember where it was. Ivan and I really did a search for it, and everybody remembered the damned thing. Since we couldn't find it in any of the standard magazines, it may have been in a tabloid-type publication of that period, and they would be very hard to locate now. There was The Tattler, Midnight, and other imitations of the National Enquirer. It's not something that I read about, it's something I saw. Maybe one of the Thunderbird books in the '50s had the photo in it.
In a later interview in Fortean Times, Keel described the photograph but changed some of the details. In a successive issue of that magazine Keel came under criticism in the letters column for changing his description of the photograph while claiming that he could clearly remember all of the details of the photograph. For the record, we should note that Keel also saw purple blobs floating amongst the trees in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and thought that hoaxer Tom Monteleone and friends were "on the level" while all evidence should have led any reasonable person to the opposite conclusion (see Strange #15). But the Thunderbird Photograph trail does not end with Keel nor is the case for its existence dependent on his credibility.
The interview with Keel in issue #5 of Strange reawakened interest in the photograph and introduced the mystery to a new generation of strange phenomena enthusiasts. It also brought a number of Thunderbird Photo sighters out of the woodwork, some of whom have impeccable credentials and sharp memories.