History Features

Tombstone's Flying Monster

The Old West cold case on the Thunderbird photo is solved in our eyes.

The Old West cold case on the Thunderbird photo is solved in our eyes.

One of the West’s most fascinating cold cases involves a flying monster, a dying town and a disappearing photograph.

For decades, people have been trying to solve the mystery of the “Thunderbird photograph.”

True West doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but we have some, and they give a pretty clear picture of what happened to the picture that has been the source of such angst and wonderment all these years.

Let’s just say that it is a mystery to us that the Thunderbird photograph is still a mystery.


The Horse’s Mouth

The story began when The Tombstone Epitaph published this news article on April 26, 1890:

A winged monster, resembling a huge alligator with an extremely elongated tail and an immense pair of wings, was found on the desert between the Whetstone and Huachuca mountains last Sunday by two ranchers who were returning home from the Huachucas. The creature was evidently greatly exhausted by a long flight and when discovered was able to fly but a short distance at a time.

After the first shock of wild amazement had passed the two men, who were on horseback and armed with Winchester rifles, regained sufficient courage to pursue the monster and after an exciting chase of several miles succeeded in getting near enough to open fire with their rifles and wounding it.

The creature then turned on the men, but owing to its exhausted condition they were able to keep out of its way and after a few well directed shots the monster partly rolled over and remained motionless. The men cautiously approached, their horses snorting with terror, and found that the creature was dead.

They then proceeded to make an examination and found that it measured about ninety-two feet in length and the greatest diameter was about fifty inches. The monster had only two feet, these being situated a short distance in front of where the wings were joined to the body. The head, as near as they could judge, was about eight feet long, the jaws being thickly set with strong, sharp teeth. Its eyes were as large as a dinner plate and protruded about halfway from the head.

They had some difficulty in measuring the wings as they were partly folded under the body, but finally got one straightened out sufficiently to get a measurement of seventy-eight feet, making the total length from tip to tip about 160 feet. The wings were composed of a thick and nearly transparent membrane and were devoid of feathers or hair, as was the entire body. The skin of the body was comparatively smooth and easily penetrated by a bullet.

The men cut off a small portion of the tip of one wing and took it home with them. Late last night one of them arrived in this city for supplies and to make the necessary preparations to skin the creature, when the hide will be sent east for examination by the eminent scientists of the day.

The finder returned early this morning accompanied by several prominent men who will endeavor to bring the strange creature to this city before it is mutilated.

Wow, what a story. What an adventure. And what a possible boon to struggling Tombstone, the once thriving mining community that had become famous—or infamous—for the 1881 Gunfight Behind the O.K. Corral.

Tombstone had fallen on bad days by 1890 and was a town in trouble. An earthquake had shifted the earth’s plates and flooded the silver mines that had once brought so much wealth. Several attempts to pump out the water and revive the mining interests all failed. While there were still several bars in town, the population was declining and business was way off. Everyone feared the town’s heyday was past and would never come back.

But Tombstone still had two daily newspapers, as did nearby Tucson. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize a flying monster would be big news, both to curious tourists and studious scientists. And any Chamber of Commerce guy worth his salt would have instantly seen the economic possibility in such a creature—this was better than a circus coming to town. It would attract visitors, certainly from Tucson and Bisbee, and folks might even come from Prescott or Phoenix to get a gander. You can make a lot of money on tourists—they need a place to stay and three squares a day, and they usually like to take home a trinket or two. So what if your tourist attraction is a freak show, money is money.

But alas, that’s not what happened. There was no Chamber of Commerce effort to exploit this amazing creature; there were no scientists rushing to the town in stagecoaches to examine this prehistoric-sounding pterodactyl. There wasn’t even a...

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