How Many Pterodactyls Did You Kill In the War, Daddy?

Editors note

Since this photograph has become such a big deal I've refrained from updating the information and instead have kept the article preserved as a sort of time capsule of the events as they happened. - Derek

June 20th, 1998

Thunderbird Photo or Hoax designed to make my life hell? You be the judge
Click here to see a larger version of the photo

This photograph was squeezed between the pages of a 70's cheesy paranormal book I found at a thrift store. If it's real it sure makes for an interesting idea. Did a group of civil war soldiers kill (or find) what appears to be a pterodactyl?

I'm calling it a pterodactyl and saying they are civil war soldiers because that's what it looks like to me but I don't want to jump to any hasty conclusions.

I looked at some civil war era photos and this one looks very similar to those. The guns look to be old in design and the caps most of the men wear are of the civil war era. The blue uniforms would lead me to believe that these are Union soldiers. The photograph is printed on paper photo stock but maybe this is a reproduction of the original photo.

So let's assume that this is a real photograph of Union troops from the Civil War.

The next questions should be about the giant bird they are surrounding. I can find no mention of civil war troops encountering a bird of large size. If it is a hoaxed photograph from that time period why would they fake a pterodactyl? Could it be a existing creature of large size? The biggest bird in North America is the California Condor which has had a measured wingspan of over 11 feet but this creature looks nothing like a California condor. The head is too large, not to mention the lack of feathers.

Is the bird then from the gray area of animal science known as cryptozoology? In the 1940's writer Robert Lyman said he saw a bird with at least a 20 foot wingspan fly into the Pennsylvanian woods. He believed that this was a young specimen of the thunderbird which, according to Indian legend, was responsible for causing thunder and lightning.

Western American historian Mari Sandoz wrote of a "flying serpent" that was seen over the Missouri River by passengers of a steamboat in the 1850's. And in 1976 reports of a giant bird flying over parts of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas made national news. It was described as over 4 feet tall and having black feathers, a long beak and red blazing eyes. Newspapers were quick to call it "big bird" after the Sesame Street character.

So reports of large birds have been around for many years. Maybe, just maybe it is the real thing. I'll leave it up to you, my cyberspace audience to judge.

July 1st, 1998

This photograph is either going to be the biggest paranormal news scoop of the century or it's going to make me the biggest fool on the planet. Or perhaps both.

Several days after it was up I started getting massive amounts of e-mail from people demanding to know how I faked it, why did I do it, and what kind of fool do they think I am. It seems that the photo looks very similar to a holy grail of cryptozoology called "the thunderbird photo" (I knew I was on the right track with that thunderbird thing)

sketch of the supposed original photograph

The story goes like this:

In April 1890 the Tombstone Epitaph (and/or possibly another) newspaper reported that 2 men had shot and killed a Thunderbird. Many people claimed that a picture accompanied the article which showed the gigantic bird with a wingspan of anywhere from 20 to 160 feet (recollections are vague) in front of a group of men. An exhaustive search by the Epitaph, authorities on old west photography and several different magazines over the years have failed to come up with the photo, but that hasn't stopped people from claiming that they saw it. People have claimed to see it in either a men's magazine of the 60's, on a television interview show or in tabloids from the 70's. Almost all the descriptions are of a group of old west men standing by the bird and not of Union soldiers. Since I'm not claiming this is the real thunderbird photo (if one exists) I can't expalin why this one has soldiers and not cowboys.

So now you see how I have gotten involved. I found the photo (which measures approx. 8 by 10) folded between two pages of a paperback book at a little junk store somewhere south of Dardenelle Arkansas on Highway 7.(for a further description of the trip it was found on please see my diary of a madman section) If anyone is in that part of north Arkansas and is willing to do a little traveling to find the store let me know and I'll send you the details. The book was one of those ratty paranormal ones from the 70's called, "Search for the Outer Space Gods" written by Jonathan Ferody in 1977 and published by Harpsong Press. Contrary to popular opinion, I had not heard of the 'thunderbird photo' until I started receiving e-mails and researched it.

To set the record straight let me say that I have never knowingly published anything in these pages that I knew to be an obvious fake. A lot of the stories in Freakylinks were posted by me way after they happened and although I try and verify events as best I can, I can not say for certain that these stories are true or false. If you look at the bottom of every entry you can see my sources. Look these up and decide for yourself if they are real or imagined by me in a feverish daze. Or just assume they are all fake if you want.

While I am in some small way a investigative journalist, I could just as easily be in the entertainment business. These things are suppose to be fun and it is fun for me. If you want to believe they are true and that I am John the Baptist then feel free. Or if you think I am the anti-Christ then that's fine too.

July 3rd

I just finished talking with cryptozooligist Vincent Trambetti who has helped me before. (see the globster story) He asked if he could come to Orlando and examine the photograph in person and I have agreed. On a similar note let me say that I've been seeing copies of the photograph on a lot of other web sites. That's fine but if possible please list Freakylinks as the owner of the photograph. That way when you call me a fraud, cheat and a con man people will know who you are talking about.

July 5th

I've agreed to let Trambetti take the photo to some civil war experts who work for the National Archives. Hopefully they'll be able to tell if the photo is a fake or maybe identify one of the men in the picture.

I'd like to give a big thanks to Freakylinks reader Tina Sparks from Little Rock Arkansas who retraced my fateful trip in June and found the store where I purchased the book. Tina did this without asking for a dime and I'm sure she has scored major brownie points on the karmic wheel.

I called and spoke with J.D. Samerson who runs "J.D.'s Store" just outside Dardenelle Ark. He remembered me (kind of hard to forget a guy who is carrying around a giant head) and said that he didn't remember exactly where he had got that load of books but they most likely came from an auction house in Fort Smith he goes to often. J.D. could not remember the exact date they were bought but he thought it was in the late part of 1997. I called the auction house and spoke with Sue Night who says they buy their stock from several trustee companies who are employed by banks and surviving relatives to sell off the contents of homes when the owner dies. She does not keep lists of exact items because they give a set price for truckloads and a truck may contain items from several different estates. She gave me the name of the trustee companies but the several I talked to was unable to give me any information of a particular estate because of legal reasons. So the hunt for the original owner seems to be at a dead end and even if I could find out who he or she was they are probably deceased.

July 12th

Contrary to popular opinion the photo has made it safely back to me. I would like to thank photo specialist Larry Novelle and historian Harrold D. Carrol at the National Archives for their work on determining the photographs authenticity. Here's their findings.

Larry Novelle on determination of the photographs age:

The paper stock of the photo was first made in 1960 and used up to 1974. This was found by comparing the photo stock number on the back of the picture with known stock numbers of the manufacturing company. Although this would seem to mean that the photo was reproduced from the original sometime in that period it is possible that someone kept some of the paper stock and used it after the 1974 cut off date. One interesting point was that in 1961 the Library of Congress bought over 7 thousand original glass negatives of civil war photographs originally owned by famed civil war photographer Matthew Brady. They immediately began to make what is known as "soft copies" of the original negatives by photographing the images onto 8 by 10 paper. (which this photo is on) There was enough evidence to say for certain that this photograph is not the original and is in fact "a photograph of a photograph." It could be possible that this photograph was made by using the 'soft copy' as a negative.

Several of the stains on the photograph appear to have been part of the original image and are very similar to common problems associated with wet plate collodion negatives. The wet plate technique was commonly used during the civil war but the technology had been outdated by 1880.

editors note - For those of you that are into technical terms the stains were described by Novelle as being "indicative of a uneven sensitivity drop from ether drying" and "loss of far detail suggesting that potassium cyanide was used as a field fixative instead of hypo soda"

Harrold D. Carrol examined the photograph for accuracy. Here's his findings:

The 7 men visible are dressed as Union soldiers and there are no glaring discrepancies visible within the photograph. Four ( or perhaps 5, I'm unable to tell since the majority of one man is hidden) are dressed as members of the regular army and the manner of the clothing suggest that they are Volunteers. Soldiers of the period who were drafted are usually seen as "less polished" and often the uniforms are home spun or not as official as the ones in the photo. This would place them as Volunteers at any point in the war or possibly as draftees from the early years of 1861-62.

The man on the far right is dressed as an artillery sergeant and although he is slightly out of place to be with an infantry group it is not that unusual. The man in the foreground is dressed as a lieutenant and is holding a sword with is correct for the time period. The rifles appear to be muzzle loaders but without being able to see detail I can not say for certain.

The natural location of the photograph is also hard to ascertain. The pines and sandy soil visible could be from any number of battlegrounds ranging from the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Alabama or Mississippi.

In 35 years of research I have not come across any mention of a giant bird being seen or shot down by Union troops.

There is no glaring improbabilities in the photo but there is also nothing that can defiantly place the photo as having been shot in the time period of 1861 to 1865. Without further information I can not classify the image as have being shot during the civil war. I also can not say that it wasn't.

August 3rd, 1998

Professor M. Nance Darbrow from the University of Florida Paleontology Department has studied the photo and has this to say about it:

The animal appears to be (or is modeled after) a Pteranodon longiceps, or sternbergi pterodactyl. The snout on both are long as seen in the picture. While the Sternbergi has a more pronounced and taller crest than the longiceps it's hard to tell from the picture which this one is. The torso on both are very short and this appears to be borne out in the photo since the men behind are only 2 or 3 feet from the front of the animal. In the picture there is a distinct warp to the upper wing bone which is consistent with fossil records of both species. Although the metacarpals (hand bones) are hard to see it does appear that there are clawed which again is consistent with fossil records.

It is my opinion that if the animal was faked then it was done by a professional who knew his fossils. Longiceps fossils have been found in North America although it was not until 1871 that they were first discovered. This would seem to preclude the fact that a model was constructed during the civil war.

January 12th, 2000

What your friend at the University of Florida has identified as Pteranodon longiceps is incorrect - it is actually either a Rhamphorynchus or Campylognathoides, (both of which represent the European pterodactyl families that have "diamond tipped" tails. It's probably a Rhamphorynchus longiceps, as such a specimen did indeed exist. ) The more serious charge regards the use of Pteranodon over Pterodactylus- It's like calling an albatross a sparrow. Pteranodon is a large Cretaceous flying reptile that inhabited the shores and bays of N. America about 65 million years ago. It had a wingspan of up to 35 ft. and a crested horn on the back of its head BUT NO TAIL- YOUR ILLUSTRATION CLEARLY HAS A TAIL! As for Pterodactyls, the largest ones petered out at around a 5 ft. wingspan. And they had tails. So the photograph w/ the soldiers is indeed a Pteranodon but the illustration is misused and misnamed. I implore you to take the time to make the change. Once again PterANODON = big with no tail - PterODACTYL = little w/ a tail.

Dr. Christian Barscuz
Anthropology Department
University of Arizona

April 11th, 2000

David Peters who runs The Pterosaur Homepage had this to say about the photo:

"Nice try. Very nice try. Got the elbow right and no one does that.

In my opinion this is a fake. Civil war reenactment with a carnival or old museum pterosaur. Reasons?

  1. The head is twice too wide.

  2. The nostrils should be anteroposteriorly oriented, not vertical as shown.

  3. The wing material under the soldiers boot seems like unsupported cloth. In life, or death, it would be much more taut with fibrous support structures.

  4. No propatagia (the anterior wing material between wrist and shoulder

  5. The "Pteranodon" apparently has no lower jaw. In life, the lower jaw was deep enough to raise the back of the skull or tip it sideways.

  6. Either the "Pteranodon" is lacking a forearm (radius & ulna) or it is lacking hand bones (metacarpals) because the proportions are wrong in the wing.

That's all I can tell from the photo. Hope this helps."

David Peters

April 20th, 2000

I received an email from "The Legendary Shark", who points out some things about the photograph that others haven't noticed. He sent images that are cropped out from the original thunderbird photograph with his comments (click the image for the large version):

August 21st, 2000

Check out Shawn's theory on the Thunderbird Photo:

"I think the thunderbird or pterodactyl is a fake, however I find the photo interesting. I think the photo may indeed be genuinely from the 1800's. After the 'face' was found, I decided to take a closer look at the photo myself. I viewed the 'negative' image and found some guy that looks like Charles Darwin! He may not be Charles, but he looks like Charles.

I maybe reaching a bit, and perhaps I don't know enough about photographs to give you a professional opinion, but here it is anyway. I super imposed an image of Charles (I found on the net) for comparison.

A. Is your original
B. The 'negative' of your original
C. And D. are about the same (Charles faded in for effect).
D. And C. are about the same (Charles faded in for effect).
E. Charles Darwin.

I just noticed another person slightly to the left of the woman's(?) face! I see him from the waist up, His right side view. He's facing the woman. He's wearing a hat, white shirt and a tie? He's leaning slightly back. He looks as if he is holding something in his hand (it kind of looks like a water hose)."


August 28, 2000

Someone sent me another picture that looks rather similar to this one. Check out my old diary page for the info on that one.


"Animals of the World" edited by Michael Bonn, 1996, Greene Press

"Seen in the Sky" Strange Facts of the Unknown World published in 1978 by Register Press

phone conversation with Mark Simmons, editor Esoterica magazine, June 26th, 1998

phone and personal conversations with Vincent Trambetti, June 27th, 28th, July 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 1998

phone interview with J.D. Samerson, July 3rd, 1998

phone interview with Sue Night, July 3rd, 1998

report on photograph, Larry Novelle and Harrold D. Carrol, received July 11th, 1999

report on photograph and phone interview, M. Nance Darbrow, July 20th, 28th, 1999

photo owned by Derek Barnes, all rights reserved, this means you

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