Investigating the Thunderbird Photo Story
This case presents a number of avenues for investigation. On the nuts and bolts side, there are numerous leads to follow with respect to a location in which the photo might be found. Books, magazines, television shows, and newspapers are the media most often suggested by those who recall seeing the photograph. Some magazines have been mentioned repeatedly as possible sources, so those would be good starting places. The many firsthand descriptions of the photo would have to be transcribed and the key points compared and contrasted with the other reports.
One researcher, W. Ritchie Benedict, is certain that he saw it on a television show in Canada in the '60s. Several believe that the photograph was in a newspaper. With such a variety of possible sources, one would think that the object of our quest would have been easily found. Magazines that have been named include Fate and National Geographic, both of which have supposedly been checked to no avail. The late Curtis and Mary Fuller, when queried by Ivan T. Sanderson about this subject, believed that they had published such a photo in their own Fate magazine, but they were wrong. The American Weekly has been mentioned but has not yet been searched. A number of correspondents have wondered if the photo has any relationship to the cowboys and dinosaurs film The Valley of Gwangi with its living pterodactyl sequence. A long-running series in Strange Magazine entitled "The Search for the Thunderbird Photograph" has brought in dozens of leads. Where to start?The Saga Saga: Searching for the Source of the First T-bird Photo Mention
During an investigation of a historical nature it is valuable to focus on several cultural elements of a case. One is "first mention" -- the earliest known written/published/recorded example of the phenomenon. The other is the situation surrounding the "birth" and infancy of the phenomenon in the public consciousness.
The "men's magazines" of the '60s are most often named as the source of the photo, including Saga, Argosy, True, Male, and so on. So many people said that they thought that they saw it in Saga magazine that I went to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and searched through the entire run of Saga from the first to the last issue. There was no photograph of a thunderbird, but there was something that may be the source of much of the belief in the Thunderbird Photograph, and possibly the entry of the photograph to the public. An article by Jack Pearl entitled "Monster Bird that Carries off Human Beings!" appeared in the May 1963 issue of Saga.
Pearl describes the Thunderbird Photograph but gives the date of its publication in the Tombstone Epitaph as 1886 rather than 1890, the year the Tombstone Epitaph dragon article ran. This 1963 article was the first time we know of that the Thunderbird Photo was mentioned in print. This makes the article extremely significant. With no earlier printed mention, this article may be the source of the Thunderbird Photo legend with respect to its emergence into the public consciousness. Pending an investigation into Pearl's sources, it might have even turned out that the photo was a creation of Pearl's.
That is, if there is no photograph.
There are only two possibilities -- Pearl either made up the story of the Thunderbird Photograph or he had a source. If he had a source, then we have knowledge of the photo (or the T-bird photo legend) predating the 1962 Pearl article. What can be learned by closely analyzing the article, and is there any way to ascertain whether Pearl had a source and, if so, who or what it was?
Many young men undoubtedly read Pearl's description of the photo in Saga. Did Pearl's description of the image become implanted in their memories, and did they recall seeing the photo itself years later? Pearl's article may have been the first publication of the description of the photo, but this may have been more by chance than design. Pearl does not appear to have been spinning yarns when he wrote his article, rather he was cobbling together letters and clippings from a thunderbird file that had most likely been collected over time in Saga's offices. Pearl was not a folklorist or a fortean researcher. There is no evidence that he cared about the facts of the case, and in fact the opposite is the truth.
Pearl may have been responsible for introducing the notion of a Thunderbird Photo to the general public, but one gets the impression that he got the information from somewhere else, like all of the thunderbird stories that comprise the article. But where did Pearl get the T-bird photo story? There are 21 traceable Jack Pearls living in the United States today, and I wrote to all of them asking if they were the Jack Pearl who wrote the Saga T-bird article in 1963. I received no positive responses so I looked further into who Jack Pearl might be. I learned a great deal about Pearl, none of it particularly relevant to our investigation, with the exception of the fact that Pearl appears to have exhibited no particular interest in strange phenomena in any of his non-Saga writings.
I would not uncover the source of the T-bird photo story until I closely compared Pearl's article to all of the other known Thunderbird Photograph references.The Source Discovered
From whom did Pearl get the story of the Thunderbird Photograph? The answers are in Pearl's article and in Fate magazine several months after the Saga article appeared.
H. M. Cranmer, of Hammersley Fork, Pennsylvania, was the author of a series of letters to Fate magazine about thunderbirds, beginning in December 1950. Cranmer is one of a small handful of individuals who wrote about thunderbirds in the 1950s and 1960s.
In September, 1963, a scant four months after Pearl's Saga article Cranmer wrote a letter to Fate about the Thunderbird Photograph.
There are many clues that Cranmer was Pearl's source for the Thunderbird Photo tale. Pearl writes in his article that some thunderbird reports were received by Saga magazine "from a Pennsylvania resident." We know that H. M. Cranmer lived in Pennsylvania, and that he was sending thunderbird reports to magazine editors in 1963.
Pearl then goes on to quote his unnamed source, describing three thunderbird sightings in Pennsylvania -- which are the same first person accounts as those detailed by Hiram Cranmer in his letter to Fate magazine in September 1963.
I think that anyone who compares the details in the two excerpts to the right from Jack Pearl's Saga article introducing the Thunderbird Photo and the H. M. Cranmer letter in Fate will conclude that Cranmer was Pearl's source.
Cranmer's Thunderbird Photo revelations were printed in the same Fate letter containing his big bird sightings. We can see that Pearl used the sightings in Cranmer's letter, why not use the Thunderbird Photo material? After a good deal of research, we have found no earlier published mention of the photograph, so what other possible sources would Pearl have had? There is no evidence in his article of his having interviewed Sanderson, Keel, Gaddis, or any of the others who claim that they saw the photograph in the 1950s or earlier. Pearl's only sources appear to be some newspaper clippings and the letter from Cranmer containing the sightings and the photo description.
As editor of Strange and strangemag.com, and having been a columnist at Fate for a number of years, I can shed some light as to the probable sequence of events. There are a number of people out there who have pet topics and occasionally write about them in a letter to the editor -- in Cranmer's case, thunderbirds.
When an editor is receptive and publishes a letter in the magazine, the letter's author is made to feel that he or she has, in a sense, contributed to the publication, and from that point on checks in from time to time with an update on their pet subject.
Cranmer did this with Fate magazine and, as I have shown, with Saga. Sometimes the letter writer varies the letter to some extent when it goes out to the various magazines, but generally it includes much the same information and is often the exact same letter. I get letters all the time that are most certainly going out the to editors of the other fortean/paranormal magazines at the same time. Saga, having a good-sized full-time staff in New York, was a major newsstand magazine. The wheels at smaller-staffed, more specialized Fate most likely turned a little slower.
I suspect that Cranmer's letter about the Thunderbird Photograph and his personal sightings was sent out at or around the same time to both Saga and Fate, and that this letter included the first known written description of the Thunderbird Photograph. While Pearl does not name Cranmer as his source, the clues he gives us and the many details duplicated in the Pearl material and the Cranmer Fate letter demonstrates that it was more accident than design that the first mention of the T-bird Photo in print was in Saga -- it could have appeared just as easily in Fate first, but Pearl decided to use it to inspire or perhaps beef up his pulpy article. I would suggest that when we read Cranmer's letter as published in the September 1963 Fate, we are essentially reading the letter that supplied Pearl with the Thunderbird Photo description that Pearl used in Saga.
In his letter published in Fate, Cranmer wrote:
Sometime about the year 1900 two prospectors shot and carried into Tombstone, Ariz., on a burro one of these birds. When nailed against the wall of the Tombstone Epitaph its wingspread measured 36 feet. A picture showed six men, with outstretched arms touching, standing under the bird. Later, a group of actors dressed as professors were photographed under the bird, with one of them saying, "Shucks, there is no such bird, never was, and never will be."
Cranmer then goes on to describe his April 1922, March 1957, and July 1962 thunderbird sightings. By including detail like the caption of the photograph, Cranmer gives the impression that he has seen the photo, but makes no mention of having a copy. He uses the past tense when referring to the photo, which we would not expect if the photo was extant. In a later March 1966 letter to Fate on the subject, which we will return to in a moment, Cranmer also discusses the photograph, but once again he makes no claim to have seen the photograph himself, much less having a copy.
Cranmer, who died in a tragic house fire, has been described as a regional storyteller with several non-thunderbird local tales published in a collection of Pennsylvania-area stories edited by Kenneth Goldstein and Robert Byington, entitled Two Penny Ballads and Four Dollar Whiskey: A Pennsylvania Folklore Miscellany (Hatboro, PA: Folklore Associates, Inc., 1966).
Cranmer's multiple thunderbird sightings do not help his credibility. Experiencing forteana firsthand is a rare occurrence and that those who somehow manage to encounter the same phenomenon repeatedly while others rarely if ever experience it once stretches credulity to some extent. In addition to thunderbirds, Cranmer also claimed to have seen a good number of UFOs hovering around oil and gas rigs in Hammersley Fork, Pennsylvania, in 1950 and again in 1954.
In short, Cranmer is the most likely source of the Thunderbird Photograph legend. And, as a teller-of-tales and one who has seen strange phenomena repeatedly, he is not a particularly credible source.Is the Thunderbird Photograph a Friend-of-a-Friend Tale?
Thunderbird afficionado Gerald Musinsky, who also believes that it appears that it was Cranmer who started the T-bird photo legend, writes, in an e-mail forwarded to me by Fortean Times editor Bob Rickard, that "Some who knew Cranmer verify that Cranmer did indeed have some sort of copy of a [thunderbird] photo (or picture) that hung in his living room." The photo (or whatever it supposedly was) is said to have been lost in the fire that claimed Cranmer.
I have contacted Musinsky to try to learn who it was that could verify that Cranmer had some sort of a thunderbird visual on his wall, but have not heard back from him. However, Musinsky has written several articles about thunderbirds, and in one of them, he writes that, "Regarding the 'Thunderbird' photograph Lyman, Jr. commented, 'I've seen that photograph Hi Cranmer claimed to have.' (Gerald Musinsky, "Return Of The Thunderbird: Avian Mystery of the Black Forest," Cryptozoological Realms web site, 1997). The "Lyman, Jr." referred to is Robert Ray Lyman, Jr., now deceased. Lyman, Jr. was the son of Robert R. Lyman, Sr., himself a thunderbird enthusiast, and author of a series of books on Pennsylvania phenomena, including Amazing Indeed: Strange Events in the Black Forest, Vol. 1.; and his 1971 Amazing Indeed: Strange Events in the Black Forest, Vol. 2., which includes information about H. M. Cranmer and his various encounters with thunderbirds. With Lyman, Jr. and Cranmer gone, this trail is cold, although I am trying to locate others who may have been friendly with Cranmer. There are several big problems with Cranmer supposedly having a copy of the photo, and Lyman, Jr. seeing it.
If Cranmer had the Thunderbird Photograph, or a copy of it, he would certainly have sent a copy of it to Fate and Saga to support the material that he was presenting in his letters. Also, neither of Cranmer's Fate letters about the photograph make it sound like he has a copy of the photograph and, if he had a copy, this would have certainly been mentioned. I suspect that the photo that Cranmer supposedly had is just another part of the growing legend.
Furthermore, in the aforementioned March 1966 issue of Fate magazine, Cranmer wrote a follow-up letter in which he said that he heard about the Thunderbird Photo from "a lady in Tombstone." Thus, from the standpoint of an investigator trying to follow the story back to its source, the photo is reduced to a friend-of-a-friend tale, a contemporary/"urban" legend.
If Hiram Cranmer was the source of the Thunderbird Photograph legend, what does that say about those who believe that they saw it a decade before the Cranmer Fate letter and the Pearl Saga article including the Cranmer material -- not to mention those who have repeatedly said that they actually had a copy of the photograph?
Next issue: a look into the role of the Western Frontier Press in the affair and the exciting results of our research trip to Tombstone, Arizona.