The lost thunderbird photo 2: A bird by any other name, father(s) of cryptozoology, and Propaganda


  • Context, the tombstone story itself, and how this case is likely unrelated but tangled into the story.
  • Stories of actual big birds killed in varies places in America, one of which was in fact nailed to a barn. However, none fit the size of the bird described in the photo, including the tombstone story.
  • Cranmer himself, the statements he made regarding the photo, his letter, and of course his quote by one of the men in the photo: “”Shucks, there is no such bird, never was, and never will be.””

As such we will continue with another name which has been linked to this photo:

Ivan Sanderson & Pursuit

Another one of our colourful characters is Ivan Sanderson, following Cranmer’s recounting of the tale, Ivan claimed to have not only seen the photo in question, but to owned a copy. Further, that the photo was taken in Texas, or Nevada, not Tombstone. As such even Ivan was unsure of the source and original location. But to simply cut Ivan’s life down to but a photograph would be a crime.

He was, like Cranmer an eccentric man, with an interesting life. A “most unforgettable character”, as described by readers digest.

Ivan was born in 20 January 1911, in Scotland, and in 1925 his father was killed by a rhino, in World War 2 Ivan was involved with the British intelligence. Ivan is most known for documenting a ‘Giant Penguin Hoax, from 1948. When several people reported finding giant three-toed animal tracks in Florida, Ivan declared these to be genuine tracks from a giant penguin similar to this hoax here.
Sanderson ran TV shows, interviews, radio broadcasts, and even a small zoo. Which would tragically flood in 1955, and in the same year a barn full of his animals would burn down.. Thankfully the flood animals all survived, but those caught in the fire were not as lucky. It has been suggested that this fire, or the one which claimed Cranmer, also took the photo. “That one burned in a fire and another was taken away by strangers.”

Ivan formed SITU (“Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained “), in 1965. Which would, for a time, house our lost thunderbird photo. And Ivan’s photo, a copy, would be acknowledged being as lost in 1972 (see PURSUIT, Vol 5, No.2). The fire at Ivan’s barn in 1955, is unlikely to be the burned photo. As it does not fit the timeline, and so we can conclude that the burned one referenced, is in fact Cranmer’s photograph.
That is unless the two photos were one of the same, that at some point Ivan and Cranmer cross paths, that a second photo never existed.

But what about the “Strangers” who took the other photo, and where did they take it?

In short, they were hardly strangers, and were, as a matter of fact, two members of “Pursuit”. One from Boston, and the other from Philadelphia. Who had taken the photo to Pennsylvania to investigate sightings of thunderbirds in the area. The photo did not return with them, it was never taken from Pennsylvania. However, we can confirm that this photo was taken with them, as a game warden was shown the photo and later claimed to have seen it. see PURSUIT, Vol 5, No.2. Further, this states that the photo was taken five years ago, in 1967, and has been lost since.
With Ivan beginning SITU in 1965, meaning the photo was possibly only in his possession for three years. From 1965 to 1967. Additionally with Ivan being involved in world war 2, which began in 1939 and ended in 1945 its unlikely but not impossible that he acquired the photo during this time.

A quote from John Keel further reinforces this rough time period for Sanderson’s photo, and even narrows it down to Ivan owning it for possibly just a year. An additional note of this quote is that Keel claims it would have been from the fifies, not 1880.

“In 1993 Keel phoned me in response to the Opsasnick and Johnson letters that ran in Strange #12. He insisted that the photo would have appeared before 1966. “It had to be in the fifties,” he told me. “I was talking to Ivan [T. Sanderson] about this in about 1965 or 1966, probably 1966. When I spoke to Ivan about this then, the photo was already missing.”

However, Ivan’s photo has been the centre of much debate and controversy. The first of which being that this version may have been a sketch, possibly by Ivan Sanderson himself.

A quote from David Robbins claimed to have also seen the photo, and that this was the case. In addition, he also claimed the photo was published in the 1950’s.

“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.”

We also further get an idea of the timeline when considering the history of cryptozoology, that Bernard Heuvelmans book ‘On the Track of Unknown Animals’, which is largely considered to be the first cryptid book, was published in 1955. As such if the photo is from a cryptozoology book, it would have to be after the publication of this one.

We can conclude that the photo was published no earlier than 1950, and no later than 1965. When considering the publication of the Pearl article, we can narrow that to 1963

You can see David Robbins version of the photo here. Yet an important note is that this photo is not what Ivan and Cranmer described.

PURSUIT, Vol 5, No.2, describes the photo in Ivan’s possession as: “Strung up with outstretched wings against a barn, with six men with outstretched arms fingertip to fingertip, show its size.”
In the same PURSUIT volume is the description of the ‘great condor’: “This bird, they affirmed, had a wingspan equivalent to six men with outstretched arms fingertip to fingertip, making about 30 to 36 feet.” Far smaller than the 160 foot monster described in the original tombstone clipping, far more likely than it as well.

One of the PURSUIT members who took the photo on the Pennsylvania trip, where it would go missing, remembered it as:

I remember something. There was a bird, and its head… the thing about the head was you couldn’t see the head. The head was hung over, and all you could see were the wings. Black bird, and there were people standing in front of it, like across it, to show how long it was. It was like, maybe twenty feet, thirty feet across. The thing about the picture- I do recall seeing a picture; Ivan showed it to me- and it was a black bird on the side of an old barn, and there were people standing in front of it with their arms outstretched. But you could not see the head of the bird. You really couldn’t tell what kind of a bird it was, you know what I mean? It was a black bird like a raven or something..”

However, one person claims that Ivan’s photo has been found:

In a letter to then-SITU President Bob Warth during the early 1990s I spoke of my belief that the photograph had been a montage and that I had seen what I thought was the same photo without the bird. I had been through the SITU’s files about the missing photograph at that point and I deduced that this following photograph of the death of outlaw John Sontag, 1893, had been the BASE Photograph one or more montages had been built up on.”

Yet, this photo is one of two which are likely by the same hoaxer.

The first of these two images was published in Strange Magazine #19 in Spring 1998. Dr. Karl P. N. Shuker, prolific author of cryptozoological books and articles, submitted the photo, having received it from Matthew Bille, who in turn had obtained it from another party.“.

Interestingly, the more dubious hoax photo which Dale Drinnon claims to have first seen on an website in 1990s, has a very strange effect to it. That when reversed it shows a pterodactyl like creature on one side, and a rubbery looking bird on the other side. It’s almost like one of those ‘fold the page to see a new picture’ gags you see in older magazines, like mad magazine. Or a Rorschach test.

Which would be a strange thing to add to a hoax photo, and require some effort to produce. But this photo is not as described by Ivan, Cranmer, the PURSUIT members, and John Keel.

I can remember all the details. The thing was sort of nailed to a barn, or hanging from a barn or something, and these men — a large group of men — were standing in front of it. They all were very rustic-looking, like real farmers. And one guy had on a top hat and they referred to him in the caption as a college professor, but he was probably just another cowboy.

A Crash Course in Terminology

In Ivan Sanderson’s book animal treasure 1937, Ivan would discuss his encounter with another winged beast, an Olitiau. A creature described as being a giant winged bat, bird, or pterodactyl. Other sources claim Ivan encountered an Ahool, or a Kongamato, both of which are large winged monsters, sometimes linked to the thunderbird.

As a matter of fact the term ‘thunderbird’, in cryptozoology specifically, has become somewhat of an umbrella term. Any large flying winged creature falls under this term, even more so in the 1950’s, which makes the case more complex as the original photo could have been named something else. Further, considering language in general and its evolution over time, this becomes more of a probability, old English and Shakespearean vs our current language has many key differences.
A funny note here is the location ‘tombstone’, if we talk terminology then this could be literal. An actual monster found near a tombstone, in a graveyard, rather than a state.

H. M. Cranmer, suggested the name ‘Gymnogyps pennsylvanianus’ as the scientific name for thunderbirds, linking the photo to Cranmer, it could be that this is the name used for the creature in the missing photo. If Cranmer, or someone with connections to him, had hoaxed the photo, it would make sense for this to be the terminology used. However, before Cranmer used the term to describe these creatures, they was not named thunderbirds. It was Cranmer who began using the word in this way.

Yet, I am tempted to question why this photograph got so much attention when we have many cases of missing cryptozoology evidence. Some of which can be linked to the thunderbird photo when considering the issue of terminology.

(*Please note I have done LIGHT research on these as I do plan on attempting to track down more information on them at a later date. Some of these are also known hoaxes, however, as the thunderbird photo is likely a hoax photo these hoaxes are also worth consideration.)

Many of these can be classified under the thunderbird case, hoax or not. Further, the creature could also be named something not listed here, Roc, devil bird, and Xexeu, are a few examples of the thunderbird ‘umbrella’.

Large flying bird like monsters are almost universal, and the terminology used to categorise them evolved over time. From demons, to dragons, to vampire bats, to dinosaurs. Winged monsters, Thunderbirds, big birds, Ropens.

However, one of these cases became of special interest to me. That being Ian Colvin’s kongamato photo, this one is mentioned time and time again along side the thunderbird. Its one which has a strong tie into the thunderbird lost photo. Even more interesting is Ian Colvin wrote a very tongue in cheek political book, under the pen name “Rip Van Winkle”.
This name, “Rip Van Winkle” is based on a short story, which is based on a German folktale. As discussed before Cranmer was a lover of folktales, and so was Ivan Sanderson.

This leaves us with a known lost photo, one which, as I discovered, is very documented, as are the floods in Zambezi Valley at the time. Even more exciting is this photo is from the fifties. A monster photo that can be linked to Ivan Sanderson and his Olitiau/Ahool/Kongamato encounter, it can be linked to H. M. Cranmer via his love for folktales. It fits the bill, the timeline, and those who owned it, we can heavily link them together.

However, frustratingly disappointing, after emails to the daily telegraph, where it was published, I discovered that the photo was long gone. They have kept no records of the papers, or even the photos used in these papers, of this time. I have further attempted national archives, photo archives, and anywhere that could have the photo, and have come up empty-handed.

It has been suggested, that a hoax photo by Billy Meier is Ian Colvin’s photo, however this is not the case. As of writing this, Ian Colvin’s Kongamato photograph is missing. Maybe it exists in an attic somewhere, tucked away, rotting, and forgotten.


Back to the subject of war raises another issue. That ‘cryptids’, are at times, caught in the crossfire of war related propaganda. My personal favorite examples of this relate to the loch ness monster, who was apparently bombed by an Italian. Resulting in this paper declaring that Nessie is still very much so alive and well, according to scientists.

In terms of monster birds, the use of them in war time was not uncommon. As seen by this photo urging people to join the army, and depicting two monster birds fighting.
Interestingly enough, one of these photos almost fits what people claim to remember. That would be this one here, we have our ‘thunderbird’ and men, in this case seven of them, I’m not fully convinced this is the photo. This photo has seven men, not six, and it is a statue.

However, this photo is taken from a propaganda film, it’s possible that people simply saw this. If we consider that the point of these ‘productions’ was to get inside the viewer’s head, some of them using quickly shown images, and various things that ‘sink in’ but then at a later date maybe can’t be placed. We can see the same idea in the modern world, ever seen an ad for pizza in passing and suddenly had a craving for pizza?

Ivan Sanderson would sadly die of cancer, which would in later years impact his brain and maybe his memory of the photo too, maybe the above statue really was what Ivan remembered and, in his illness, became muddled. Yet that does not explain those who claim to have seen the photo, nor the PURSUIT member who remembers seeing it in Pennsylvania.
Ivan would sadly die in 1973, along with him, his extensive archives of the world and wonderful of the natural world. Most of these were tragically stolen, never to again see the light of day.

“One fault of Sanderson’s, however, may have been his trusting of others. As he was getting sicker and sicker with cancer, after Mark A. Hall’s year of being a director of SITU, the end times of SITU in Blairstown, New Jersey, were not happy ones. More and more people, unscreened, would end up coming to visit the Sandersons. Many would “look” at the files, and walk away with materials. By the end, the rumors making the rounds were that people “in station wagons were backing up to the concrete bunker” and loading books and files into their vehicles. The “borrowed” files and books never were returned.
Ivan Sanderson’s concrete building that he had built on his land specifically for his decades of materials was legendary. It was filled to overflowing with files and his priceless library. By the time of his death, the collection of SITU was, more or less, gone.” (See Richard Grigonis’s website).

However, to this day Ivan’s work and legacy live on in the study of unexplained animals whose existence or survival is debated. Or as Ivan Sanderson, and Bernard Heuvelsmans, would name it: “Cryptozoology”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s