A Civil War Monster Photograph

What a gruesome head! I don’t recall when I first saw the monster photo, perhaps as long ago as 1968, but that long beak and head appendage made me uneasy. I saw nothing wrong with the six soldiers, but those wings reminded me of a canoe. I wondered if American Civil War soldiers had cut a canoe in half to make a fake winged monster. Yet a creepy sensation never completely left me: It was the memory of that head.

This old photo, now called “Ptp,” was declared genuine by two scientists, in January of 2017

But what could I do about that old photo, as a young man; what could I do but wonder? As a teenager, I had occasional daydreams of exploring a remote jungle, searching for creatures not yet discovered by the Western world. But I came to think of those daydreams as idle distractions.

Nevertheless, in my senior years that old photo would come back to me, in a life filled with an adventure I had never imagined in my youth.

In my mid-twenties, I was a custodian at a Methodist Church in Pasadena, California; in my mid-forties, I was a custodian at a large university in Long Beach. In one of my adventures at the university, one night in a biology lab, I picked up a small trash can that needed emptying: A huge dark scorpion scurried across the floor from its removed hiding place.

Who would have guessed that at fifty-five I would travel alone to Papua New Guinea, find a native interpreter, and explore a remote jungle? Who would have predicted I would go there, not to discover a new species of insect but to find and videotape a huge flying creature, usually active only at night, that was said to carry away natives, on occasion, to eat them? Yet in 2004 I would indeed have that kind of adventure.

I quit my job as a janitor at the university, in 1997, striking out into my own animation business in Southern California. I often used image-manipulation software, like Photoshop, in 2d animation. The image of Civil War soldiers standing over a winged monster — that was a distant memory.

My animation business failed, so I tried event videography, including weddings and receptions. Yet I found more success with legal video work for attorney firms: day-in-the-life and settlement documentaries. I could handle a brain-injured accident victim better than a mother-of-the-bride. That’s when I became fascinated by a narrow branch of cryptozoology, a newborn baby brother to Bigfoot.

Paul Nation, of Texas, on his 2002 expedition on Umboi Island, Papua New Guinea, searching for the ropen

Paul Nation, of Granbury, Texas, sent me several videotapes, in 2003, from his expeditions in Papua New Guinea. They were looking for a large nocturnal flying creature that some natives call ropen. The demeanor of the native witnesses and the substance of what they said — that caught my attention.

I had come to recognize witness credibility, as a forensic videographer, and I noticed that almost none of the natives mentioned anything about their superstitions or legends of the ropen. In fact, almost none of them had any clear sighting of the animal, admitting they had seen it only briefly and at a distance . . . with one exception.

Gideo Koro (left), eyewitness of the ropen, interviewed in 1994, on Umboi Island

The many native eyewitnesses who admitted they had seen very little — that convinced me of their honesty. But the one person on the video who had a clear view of the ropen one day — that opened my mind to the possibility that a large flying creature lived in the southwest Pacific, an animal not yet discovered by the Western world, perhaps even a modern pterosaur.

The teenager Gideo Koro saw the ropen fly over the surface of a crater lake in daylight, around late 1993 or early 1994 on Umboi Island. In the videotaped interview that was recorded in 1994, I could see the fear in his face, yet I needed verification of the extraordinary idea that apparent pterosaurs lived in the southwest Pacific. I found that verification in the testimony of Duane Hodgkinson, an American World War II veteran.

We’ll not here dive into why I did what I did in the year 2004. Whether foolish or brave, I made the decision and got what appeared to be both positive and negative consequences.

I wanted to be part of one of the two expedition teams that would search for the ropen in 2004. None of the other American men was a professional videographer, so I felt confident that I could be an essential part of a team. Paul Nation and I began making plans to fly to the Southwest Pacific together, hoping to eventually join up with the other team somewhere on Umboi Island. Unfortunately, Paul had to cancel, leaving one team of two men, and they had already made detailed expedition plans for two men.

Yet I felt compelled to go on an expedition, even if it meant traveling to Papua New Guinea alone. Paul gave me many detailed instructions: What boat to take to Umboi, where to get another boat to get to Opai Beach, what village to avoid, which villagers I could trust, what gifts to give to village leaders, and much more. I knew exactly how to go on my own expedition to the far side of the planet, to search for a large predatory animal . . . yet, Paul had neglected to tell me how to explain all that to my wife.

If I succeeded, in a remote tropical wilderness, in finding that huge creature of the night, it could be the last thing I would do; if I failed, it could be hard to explain to family and friends: my expensive trip to the far side of the planet, where I was looking for a giant non-extinct pterodactyl.

Notwithstanding all that, I found that I was able to survive, in 2004, by carefully progressing step by step, patiently moving forward, eventually finding the way to explain my purpose, for refinancing the house, to my wife. Fortunately my wife has always held firmly onto religious values like thou shalt not kill. If your spouse is not so firm, don’t follow in my footsteps.

My expedition on Umboi Island lasted two weeks. You can read details in my nonfiction cryptozoology book Searching for Ropens and Finding God or in one of my online publications. In brief, I saw no pterosaur and videotaped no ropen. I did get to videotape a number of eyewitnesses whom I interviewed, and one of them was Gideon Koro, the same native that so impressed me when I saw him on Paul Nation’s video.

How does all that relate to the apparent Civil War photo of an apparent pterosaur? I wrote four books, from 2006 to 2017, on modern pterosaurs, the last one specifically about that photo. After returning from my expedition, in October of 2004, I began writing extensive online publications on these featherless nocturnal flying creatures. That resulted in many eyewitnesses, from around the world, sending me their accounts of similar animals. Then came an email from Tom Payne.

I wrote a few blog posts, in 2013, in reply to careless comments made by a few skeptics of the “pterodactyl” photo. I felt they were wrong in their criticisms, but I was far from convinced that the photo was genuine. I had searched for photos of North American canoes, failing to find anything like the wings on the animal in the Civil War photo, yet I still had doubts. That’s were I stood, in January of 2017, somewhere between believing and disbelieving in the photo, when Tom Payne contacted me, for he had found one of my blog posts. Here’s part of what he said:

“I’m 67 years old and remember this photo from when I was young. . . . I’ve canoed all my life. I’ve owned several of them. Those aren’t halves of a canoe! Too narrow, too shallow. And definitely not a dugout canoe! Check out the uniforms! The guy on the right is a lefty, and he has a left handed holster. Only one pair of boots are [shown], but look at them! I have a degree in Computer Science. I can tell you that technology [Photoshop] wasn’t available to modify a photo like this before about 1980. First off, you couldn’t get the image into the computer. Photos didn’t become digitized until much later. I’ve always been convinced that this is an authentic photo. It may not be during the Civil War, however. Maybe a little later.”

I did an online search and verified that Tom Payne is indeed a canoe expert, and he even builds canoes. That had been my major stumbling block, but he knocked me out of my canoe imaginings of those wings. I phoned Cliff Paiva, my friend from California, a physicist who had previously examined the photo. (We had worked together, years earlier, on a scientific paper.) He could tell me if the photo had any other problem, anything that would suggest it might be a hoax.

Physicist Clifford Paiva, BSM Research Associates

We shared our findings, on January 14, 2017, and agreed that the photo had a genuine image of a real animal. We agreed that the head suggests it was a Pteranodon, but we stopped short of insisting it must be that species.

He suggested I write a small book on the photo, and on April 2, 2017, I self-published Modern Pterosaurs. (By that time, the “Civil War monster photo” had come to be known simply as Ptp.) Here’s a brief summary, quoting from this nonfiction cryptozoology book:

Title Page

. . . This is an evaluation of the photograph we call Ptp, along with reports of human encounters with similar flying creatures around the world.


. . . Why don’t we dive into the Ptp photograph in the first chapter? After all, it’s the main subject of the book. You probably need to put on winter clothing, so to speak, before you try to fly down a ski slope. Take the time to insulate yourself against generations of indoctrination into the Western philosophy of total extinctions of basic types of life. Without protection, your skin will become numb, and your eyes, snow-blind. You need to know what people have been encountering around the world, before you can see clearly what’s in the Ptp photo.

Chapter 7: Photo of a pterosaur

. . . Before we get into the evidences of authenticity in Ptp, we need to be clear about another photograph. A hoax was created, around the year 2000, apparently made in imitation of what we now call Ptp. Beware of falling into the trap that others have: confusing the two.

Both photos are easy to find online, so I won’t bother trying to get permission to publish the fake one. Let’s call the hoax photo HFf (Haxan Films fake). By the way, the valid photo . . . gets the name Ptp from “Pterosaur photo.” Ptp has a genuine animal but HFf has a fake animal.

[Testimony of the American explorer Scott Norman]

“I was sitting in a chair . . . . looking up at the starry skies, when this animal came gliding just over the shed and into the field . . . The animal I saw had an 8–10 foot wing span, the wings were bat-like in shape, the inside had that wavy type of look. The body was about 5–6 feet in length, the neck about 1–2 feet in length, the head was about four feet in length, and the head . . . [had] a crest that was about two feet in length, fit that of a Pteranodon, don’t know how else to describe it.”

[from an eyewitness in central Arkansas]

“Have you ever seen a Pteranodon? Well, I have. A real live one in broad daylight that I had the privilege of observing. It started out five or six feet from me. . . . the neck is the same length and has the same curve, and the head crest is the same thickness and texture. Anyway, I say it’s real. I have actually seen one before.”

[from later in Chapter 7]

How greatly we are indebted to the scientist Clifford Paiva for his many years of support for Ptp! How much we have learned from his detailed study of it! What more could anyone ask of this physicist? Consider the following evidence he has revealed, as well as what I have added to it . . .

The skeptic APS accidentally provided us one of the pieces of evidence supporting authenticity. (Remember that he admits he is not a photography expert.) He said that “odd lines” were close to the shoe that is on the beak. Paiva looked closer and found a branch under that beak, a major breakthrough. . . .

By the middle of the 19th century, . . . [photography] technology had advanced, reducing needed exposure time from hours down to seconds. Nevertheless, people needed to keep as still as possible, often for well over six seconds.

Props were sometimes used to keep people steady during those few seconds. They were often hidden, but sometimes the camera caught a prop in the act.

Take the case that the animal in Ptp is real and the photograph recorded in the mid-19th century. How hard it would have been to keep very still with your shoe on that beak! How natural to use a tree branch to steady both beak and shoe during those critical few seconds! Now look at Figure-18. They did indeed use a prop.

From page 99 of the book Modern Pterosaurs, by Jonathan Whitcomb

. . . One day, early in 2017, I realized it would be unlikely for a large animal to die in a perfect place for it to be photographed. How much more likely for the animal to have died in the underbrush or in the woods than in a small clearing, an ideal place for photography!

I looked for a drag mark and there it was, running from around the lower right of the photo to near the end of that beak . . . exactly what we should find in a photo of a large animal that was dragged out from underbrush to a clearing where the whole thing could be photographed well.

Independently, Paiva and I then found more evidence that the animal had been dragged to a proper area for the camera. That clearing had not been entirely devoid of trees. A sapling had been broken down, probably to allow the dragging of the animal to where it was to be placed for the photograph.

. . . Why has nobody, apparently, thought of this before [that Ptp is not a hoax but a genuine photograph, with a real animal, from the 19th century]? Westerners assume universal extinctions, clouding their vision when they look at this old photograph.

The Photoshop conjecture was so popular among many skeptics, before 2017, that I decided to look closer . . . I knew, from years of digital image work for 2D animation, that the last thing a hoaxer would do would be to insert images of soldiers onto a tree background. But the critics were ignorant, so I found another route to approach those soldiers.

Whitcomb tested the photograph for distances from camera to soldier

I numbered the men behind the animal (Figure-22) left to right: BS1 to BS5, knowing the man in front (FS) is closer to us, if the photo is genuine. Magnifying the image until the pixels could be counted, I found that FS has a wider belt buckle, later confirmed by Paiva . . .

The difference is but slight, but should we expect anything else, if the photo is genuine? The camera would indeed have to be back a good distance, to capture the wide wings. That means that the relative front-to-back distance between FS and the other men should be only slight. Paiva confirmed the buckle-width difference.

I ran a similar test on buttons, finding the width for FS to be slightly greater, consistent with the buckles test. . . .

I present these evidences, not to prove beyond all doubt that Ptp must have a genuine image of a modern pterosaur, to show how greatly the evidences favor that conclusion, compared with any other explanation that has come forward. A modern pterosaur is far more likely in this image than a hoax, and that should help many persons to bring an open mind into examining eyewitness accounts from around the world.

[End of quoting from the book Modern Pterosaurs]

After spending over 10,000 hours, from 2003 to 2017, investigating reports of apparent living pterosaurs from around the world, I have found much resistance from professors in Western nations, skepticism that goes far beyond anything scientific. It seems to come from generations of strict indoctrination into 19th century assumptions about the universal extinctions of general zoological types, specifically dinosaurs and pterosaurs. It’s time we all listened to eyewitnesses who report large featherless flying animals that look nothing like any bird or bat.