Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Midlist Writer blog, where he talks about writing, adventure travel, caving, and everything else he gets up to. He also reproduces all the posts from Civil War Horror, so drop on by!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Deja-vu Blogfest: The Thunderbird photo and False Memory Syndrome

Today I'm participating in the Deja-vu blogfest, where bloggers are reposting their favorite old post. I first published this one back in 2009 on my blog Grizzled Old Traveler. It's a travel blog that I don't update anymore now that I blog professionally for Gadling. There are still some good posts on there, though. This is my favorite. My second favorite is Ten Reasons the Moon Landing Conspiracy theory is Stupid.

Yesterday I was chatting with a fellow writer about a book she's writing on legendary beasts. One of my favorites is the Thunderbird, a giant dinosaur-like winged creature that haunts the American Southwest, and the conversation turned to the strange role I've played in the story of this mysterious creature.

Let me say at the outset that I don't think the Thunderbird is real. With all the aviation, birdwatchers, and development in the United States in the past century, no giant flying monster could have remained undetected. My skepticism, however, makes this story all the more interesting.

The Thunderbird is part of Native American religious belief, but that creature is like a giant bird with feathers. The more modern Thunderbird is always described as reptilian, which makes some cryptozoologoists (people who study unknown animals) think it's a pterosaur. Supposedly there was an article in the 26 April 1890 edition of the Tombstone, Arizona, Epitaph, about two cowboys shooting a creature with leathery wings like a bat and a head like an alligator. They dragged it back to town and nailed it up to a barn, its wingspan covering the barn's entire length. I haven't seen this article myself, but I know that frontier journalism often played with the truth. Mark Twain got started on fiction while working on his brother's newspaper in the Nevada Territory!

Some photos have turned up over the years. The most famous one shows a giant Thunderbird nailed to a barn with some cowboys standing nearby. I can't show it to you because it doesn't seem to exist, at least not anymore. Many investigators claim to have seen it or even owned a copy, but nobody has one now

This is where it gets weird. I remember seeing that photo. My memory is of a fairly clear black and white image of a Thunderbird nailed to the roof of a barn, its wingspan almost equal to the barn's length. Men in old western costume are lined up on the roof and in front of the barn. I remember it looked like a rather poor cut-and-paste job. It was common for frontier people to pose next to and on a barn after a barn raising, so perhaps someone added the Thunderbird to a real photo. I even remember where I saw it, in a paranormal magazine at Bookman's, a used bookstore I used to work at in Tucson, Arizona. For some reason I didn't buy the magazine.

This must be a false memory. If the picture existed in a paranormal magazine, it would have been located by dedicated cryptozoologists by now. My experience is just like other people's, in that I have a very clear memory of the event and I no longer have the photo. Some people claim to have seen it in the possession of someone else. Others had a copy and lost it. In my case, I saw it in a magazine I didn't buy. I have unwittingly become part of an urban legend.

Weird, huh? What's going on here? Paranormal investigator Jerome Clark theorizes that the idea of the image is evocative enough to implant a false memory. Perhaps I read about the photo and created the memory? I wonder if ten years from now my writer friend will be writing another book on monsters and will be pulling her hair out trying to find that image of the Thunderbird she remembers seeing.

Oh, and not all memories of this photo are alike. This article includes the memory of a different image of the Thunderbird, and other reports say the creature was nailed to the wall of the barn, not the roof.
While I'm careful to use only public domain photos in this blog, I'm not sure these are. If they are really as old as they appear to be, then they are in the public domain. They could simply be old fakes. If they are modern fakes, then I'm in breach of copyright, but the only way the creator could sue me is if they admitted faking the photo! I'll take that chance. :-)


  1. That's awesome. I wrote an Role-Playing game of Victorian horror (and it was my entry to the DejaVu blogfest today as well) and something like this would be prefect.

    I am going to have to bookmark this and come back to it.

  2. Like dreams, we start to wonder if it was real or all in our head.

  3. Urban legends an interesting topic. Shortly after the whole Bigfoot deal was admitted as a hoax a friend pointed out to me that he was real and exactly who he was. Supposedly, someone mentioned in a book over 2,000 years ago. Scared the crap out of me all over again. That great what if...the things that nightmares and stories are made of.

  4. What? Is it a dinosaur or what? Fascinating.

    Thanks so much for joining the Blogfest!

  5. It's certainly a weird story, and I'm particularly interested in how the creature morphed from one thing (essentially any large eagle) to something else entirely.

  6. Hey, Sean! Fascinating post! I've heard of the Thunderbird, but only from the TV show Ancient Aliens. They, of course, postulate that the Thunderbird was really an alien aircraft.

    LOVE those photos above. You're right. If they are from the 19th century, then there's no copyright issue. No worries.

    But they are incredibly awesome.

  7. This is a fascinating post, and I think there's a mystery story in all this. Very cool post and lots of food for thought with the false memories! Wow!

  8. This is a fascinating post, especially the part about false memories. Perfect fodder for a mystery story! :)

    Thanks for contributing to the blogfest. This was an excellent selection!

  9. Ohh-hh, you've intrigued me. I will certainly be coming back.

  10. Color me impressed that you found such great photos, real or faked! Fascinating post. There's a story of an alien photo in Oregon that disappeared, but many people remember seeing it, and it was supposed to have been in a newspaper there at one point. Disappearing evidence always makes things more interesting.

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse

  11. The shot of the civil war soldiers with the pteranodon was leaked online as part of a promo for a the tv series FreakyLinks back in 2000. Part of the original site ("written" by a series character) is floating around here:



Got something to say? Feel free! No anonymous comments allowed, though. Too many spammers and haters on the Internet.