In 1886 a most unusual photograph appeared in an issue of the Tombstone Epitaph, the local newspaper of Tombstone, AZ. The photo depicted the carcass of a gigantic, leather-winged, knife-beak monster nailed to the side of a barn. Several men stood in front of it to show just how wide its wingspan was. According to European settler folklore of the Southwest, the creature was a Thunderbird- a being from the mythologies of many Native American nations that was said to create thunder with its wingbeats. Thunderbird or not, the creature also bore a striking resemblance to a prehistoric pterosaur and may, according to some, have been a living example of the group. Supposedly the animal in the photo had been shot by ranchers.
Many people believe they have seen a version of this mysterious picture somewhere, either in a magazine or on TV. But no one can say exactly where and when. And despite diligent searching, no one has yet been able to find the original photograph or even the copy of the issue of Epitaph that it supposedly appeared in. Has the photo been completely lost to history? Or is it possible that it never even existed? Perhaps the Thunderbird photo was just an urban legend. But then how could so many people recall having seen it?
For one thing, it is quite possible that some people are actually recalling one of the numerous fake Thunderbird photos that have cropped up over the years. Photos produced either for movies, as attempts to recreate the alleged original, or as outright hoaxes.
It’s also possible that people are hearing the legend and unconsciously attaching vague memories of some other picture they have seen. The image of a gigantic winged monster nailed to a barn is quite striking and evocative, so perhaps human minds have simply filled in their own ideas of what it looks like. In psychology, this is called confabulation, defined as the unconscious creation of distorted, fabricated or misinterpreted memories. In pop culture, this is also referred to as the “Mandela effect”, based on the false memory many people have of Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s. As another example, many people claimed to recall a kid’s movie from the 1990s starring comedian Sinbad as a genie named Shazam (this confabulation has been made murkier by the creation of a spoof scene from this non-existent movie, which you can see here). Or the fact that people can remember the title of the children’s book series The Berenstain Bears as being spelled “Berenstein”. Memory is malleable and spotty. The brain will often fill in blank spots with its own concoctions. So in the case of the elusive Thunderbird photo, it may be that many people’s brains are simply taking a brief glimpse of a fake Thunderbird photo- or a photo of something else entirely- and welding it to the urban legend that has been built up over the years?
It’s significant that this report of a flying monster is not an isolated incident. Newspapers of the 1800s- particularly papers from the American West- were rife with tales of dragons and other flying beasts. The majority of these tales were outright fabrications designed to drum up sales during a slump. It’s quite possible that the Thunderbird story started off as one of these tall tales and was repeated over the years until it fell into collective memory, creating an air of mystery and authenticity.
As to the picture of the beast on the barn itself, it should be noted that newspapers of the late 1800s did not actually use photographs since the technology of the time could not do photo transfers to cheap paper stock. Instead, newspapers relied on drawings of events to illustrate their stories. If there ever actually was an original Thunderbird photo, it more than likely did not come from a newspaper.