1890, April 20: The Tombstone Monster

On April 26, 1890, the Tombstone Epitaph, newspaper of Tombstone, Arizona, USA, reported a very strange occurrence.

        According to the newspaper, on Sunday, April 20, two ranchers were returning from a trip to the Huachuca mountains (about 38 miles south-west of Tombstone), when they discovered a huge winged monster resting on the desert between the Huachucas and the Whetstone mountains. The beast -- described as resembling an alligator with an extremely long tail and giant wings -- lifted into the air to escape, but was apparently exhausted when found and capable of making only short flights at the time. After the initial shock of the moment had passed the two ranchers, Winchester rifles in hand, rode after the fantastic critter. After chasing the monster for several miles as it presumably kept taking a series of short flights to escape them, the men finally had it in range and opened fire on the gigantic creature. It turned to attack, but "owing to its exhausted condition" was easily evaded by the men who kept shooting at the animal, which soon partly rolled over and became motionless.

        The ranchers took time out to examine and measure their strange prize: from head to tail-tip it measured ninety-two feet, with a greatest diameter of about fifty inches. The animal only had two feet, a short distance in front of where the wings were attached to the body. The head alone was eight feet long, with jaws thickly set with straight, sharp teeth, and eyes the size of a dinner plate that protruded out of the head. The wingspan of the beast was an astounding 160 feet from wingtip-to-wingtip! The animal's body had no hair or feathers, just smooth skin which was easily penetrated by a bullet; the wings were nearly transparent membranes.

        According to the article one of the ranchers came to Tombstone for supplies on Friday, April 25, and had both told his story and announced his intention to skin the monster at that time. The last word written on the topic by the paper was that the rancher and several prominent men of the town were hoping to bring the body back to Tombstone before it was skinned and sent East for scientists to examine.

        There was no follow-up article after.

A Slow Spread

        Strangely, given the spectacular nature of the article, it didn't instantly fly off the presses to other papers. The article was reprinted with minor edits in a few papers as far as California, but timewise many of them didn't print it until June or later... the last I know of is in a Kansas newspaper in September of that year. Perhaps the claim made in the article was just too fantastic for many editors to spring on their readers. Here's an illustration that was printed by the San Francisco Examiner when they presented the story, which seems to indicate they felt the account was entertainment rather than fact:

The Monster?
From the San Francisco Examiner. [Larger version here]

        If the monster existed, I would have expected to have seen a lot more about the situation after the fact -- especially about two weeks after at the very least. Imagine what that huge carcass must have smelled like by then! This lack of further coverage triggers a number of alarms... newspapers through the 1800's are fairly famous for publishing false news stories for a variety of reasons -- gullible editors, bored writers, or looking for a boost in sales -- and the Tombstone Monster could very easily be an example of one, especially considering the 'two ranchers' are never identified and nothing more was said of it.

        83 years later, however, something more was said of it.

Questionable Ideas

        In 1963 the 'Men's Magazine' SAGA ran an article by Jack Pearl entitled Monster Bird That Carries Off Human Beings! As you might have intuited from the title, the contents of the article were more spectacular then they were factual. This article had some strange ideas that all added together to create a new story about the Tombstone Monster.

        Pearl, who was essentially just cobbling together an article from letters written by a man named Hi Cranmer, asserted that Native American tales of Thunderbirds -- gigantic birds that either generate lightning or travel with storms -- were related to and possibly evidence for modern reports of surviving pterodactyls! Pterodactyls, of course, are a flying reptile species that is generally believed to have gone extinct 150 million years ago. One of the stories that was mentioned in relation to this matter was the 1890 Tombstone Monster story above; but what really caused a stir was a different claim the article made based on Cranmer's letters.

        According to Cranmer's letters, and Pearl's article, in 1886 two prospectors brought an odd 'bird' into Tombstone that they had shot. The animal was nailed up to the wall of the Tombstone Epitaph building so its picture could be taken. Its wingspan was 36 feet wingtip-to-wingtip, and the photo showed six men with their outstretched arms touching lined up under the 'bird' to show how big it was. The article further claims that those who have seen the photo, which Pearl claimed was printed in an 1886 edition of the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper, all recognize the strange 'bird' as being a pterodactyl!

        Pearl's article doesn't include the picture, and it doesn't appear that Cranmer had a copy of it himself... and likely for good reason. In 1886, the only illustrations in the Tombstone Epitaph were black and white block prints and etchings; there were no photos presented in the paper, and likely the paper's printers were not set up with the equipment needed to do so. This supposed photo has now grown to legendary proportions... and as such, I will deal with it in its own article later. But, because the 'pterodactyl' picture was associated with the Tombstone Epitaph in the article, and the same article mentioned the odd monster killed in 1890 which was reported by the Tombstone Epitaph, many enthusiasts quickly conflated the two stories and started to assert that the 1890 Tombstone Monster was a pterodactyl itself, and possibly the very one in the legendary photo no one could find!

        This assertion only works when the details of the original article are unknown, of course. No pterodactyl has a wingspan of 160 feet -- which is equivalent to the height of a sixteen story building -- nor do they have long tails, as described for the Tombstone Monster. In fact though, the description of the monster given in the original article and the semi-humorous depiction of it from the San Francisco Examiner do remind me of a different creature I've researched. Have a look:

Bestiary Dragon
A Medieval dragon. [Larger version here]

This dragon illustration comes from a Medieval manuscript dated to 1200~1250 CE, and shows the most common form that was attributed to said beast in illustrations from the period. I quote from the original article regarding the 1890 Tombstone Monster:

"They then proceeded to make an examination and found that it [the dead creature] 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."

I have to wonder if the author of the 1890 article had seen any of the Medieval dragon illustrations, and if these were the inspiration for a false news story.

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