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Was it an Illustration or a

Witness Recreations

Author David Robbins also recalls seeing a version of the photo in the 1950s, but he believes that what he saw was an illustration, not a photograph. Robbins made a sketch of the illustration for us. [See figure 1] He writes:

The alleged photo of the Thunderbird is, in fact, an artist's reproduction, and it was first published in the late 1950s. Unless someone reproduced the original at a later date. I remember it so clearly because it was my father who showed it to me, and I have so few memories of him. You see, he died when I was eight years old, in 1959. So the Thunderbird had to have been in a magazine before then. I do remember he was fond of reading magazines like Saga and True, or something similar.

Strange Magazine reader David W. Dera also remembers seeing the photo, but believes that, like Robbins, he may have seen a pen-and-ink rendering.

There are also a number of compelling reasons to think that Ivan T. Sanderson also had a sketch of the alleged photograph and that he may have shown this sketch on Canadian Television in the 1960s or early '70s. We will return to this next issue.

The Artists' Recreations

Over the years this magazine has published a number of continuing pieces on our ongoing "Search for the Thunderbird Photograph," and during this time we have been contacted by several T-bird photo sighters who are also artists and were able to recreate what they saw. In addition to these artists' recreations from memory we also have several sketches from others who remember seeing the Thunderbird Photograph.

We only have sketches from a small sampling of the people who claim to have seen the photograph, and we can already see that there is some significant variation in description. One of the most interesting aspects of this case is that some people distinctly recall seeing a photograph of a pterodactyl up against a wall, while others insist that the creature was a big bird. This was well demonstrated in the illustrations rendered by two artists, Larry Thomas and David St. Albans, who both recalled seeing the photograph. The reconstructions vary considerably. Larry Thomas gives us one of the most detailed descriptions of the photo and feels strongly that his depiction of the photograph is the most accurate for reasons that I will let him delineate himself below.

In 1980 while working as a upstate New York, I would spend many lunch hours in the local library. This is when I first saw the Thunderbird Photograph. While looking through the section dedicated to the Old West, I pulled out a rather thin book from around the turn of the century. As I flipped through the pages I came across the most fascinating photo; there spread out before me was the biggest bird I have ever seen. The photo quality was sharp and clear, every detail was visible. The bird's wings were supported and stretched out by a large group of men standing on a loading dock of a barnlike building. The bird must have possessed a wingspread of 25-30 feet. I have a pretty good eye for form and shape; my livelihood depends on it. The photo/rendering is as accurate as I can possibly get, given that it's been at least 12 years or more.... I feel that its accuracy is quite high. [See figure 2]

Secondly, I am the only person so far who has seen it as recently as 1980, and for a period of four years thereafter. That makes it only fifteen years ago. Canadian correspondent, W. Ritchie Benedict, remembers it as similarly as I. I quote, "As I recall, the creature had a very pointed head, and its eyes were closed. I particularly recall the ramp, and the top hats on some of the men." (Strange #6, page 44)

Actually, there are others who claim to have seen the photograph more recently than 1980. One such person is Jon Jay Smith, who saw the photograph in a book about unexplained phenomena in the early 1980s. Smith recalls a black and white photograph of a "huge eagle-like bird (definitely a bird) nailed to the side of a barn; six farmers (?) with outstretched arms, to show its huge wingspan, stood under the bird." He saw it in the Niles Public Library in Niles, Illinois. Jon Jay Smith has made a sketch of the photograph as he remembers it. [See Figure 3]

Artist David St. Albans (pseud.) of Las Vegas, Nevada, had a different recollection than either Larry Thomas or Jon Jay Smith. Figure 4 is his drawing of the missing photo, which he saw in a 1960s men's magazine.

In his May 23, 1998 correspondence with this author, he writes:

I saw [the photo] when I was living in Carpentersville, IL in 1964-67 (closer to '67 I should think). It was definitely in a "Men's Stories" type magazine.... I'm certain the story was an article about flying monsters, as it influenced me into getting into Heuvelmans' works and Fort's as well.... I believe this magazine was not one of the regulars like Argosy, but it was a sort of a rip-off of that type. I distinctly recall the photograph was really grainy and badly printed. It could have been anything up on the barn, but it sure didn't look like a modern bird. The wings were definitely bat-like.

Since these illustrations were published in Strange #18, there has been some response by other T-bird photo viewers, including author Kristan Lawson, who had this to say:

Despite Larry G. Thomas's conviction that his memory of the photo is extremely accurate, I do not think his drawing even closely resembles the Thunderbird Photo that I remember seeing. The Thomas drawing was totally unfamiliar, and the St. Albans drawing was a fairly accurate reproduction. Of course, my memory of it has a bird, not a pterodactyl.
Lawson was so certain that he was right about the photograph, that he went on a research excursion to the Bancroft Library in California, which has one of the world's foremost collections of Western photographs. No one who he spoke to there had ever heard of a Thunderbird Photograph.

We have a number of eyewitness accounts now of several variations on the Thunderbird Photograph, together with some sketches and detailed illustrations of same. We also have the information gleaned from letters, interviews, and emails from T-bird Photo sighters. My investigation would begin with some questions that were nagging at me: Why was the photo constantly tied-in with the Tombstone Epitaph article, especially when the article did not mention a photograph? Was the Epitaph article an isolated case, or was there a tradition of such pieces in Western newspapers? Learning the answers to these questions put the whole case in a new light for me. I would find that the Tombstone flying monster had lots of company, and that it was actually just one piece of the puzzle in the untold history of western American Dragons.

Part Five: American Dragons of the West
Cowboys and Dragons Contents



Click on drawing for larger view



Smith Drawing




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