The Civil War Pterosaur
This famous Internet photo of Civil War soldiers posing with a pterosaur has a surprising source.
Today we're going to dive down two different rabbit holes, curious holes, because they converge. One leads us back through American history to the Civil War of the 1860s, to the time when brother fought brother in the war between the Union and the Confederacy. The other hole goes to the darkest jungles of the world of cryptozoology, where winged reptiles soared through the skies. The confluence of these seemingly disparate subjects is a single photograph about which nearly everything is incongruous. A group of Civil War soldiers of the Union army, posing triumphantly with the corpse of a giant reptile, 100 million years out of place. And, unusually, we're going to devote an entire episode to a discussion of this single photograph — quite the sardonic topic for an audio program.
Let us begin by setting the stage for what we're looking at. There are two such photos easily found on the Internet, both generally similar: Half a dozen or so Union soldiers posing for the camera with a pterosaur spread out on the ground at their feet. Both photos are old and ragged, monochromatic and aged to a golden brown, with flaws and scratches and tears. Quite a curiosity that there would be two photos that are so similar, isn't it? More about that a bit later.
The first of the two photos has a known provenance, and is almost always presented as such on the Internet. It was taken as a publicity shot for the 2000 television series FreakyLinks, and featured Civil War reenactors standing over a prop pterodactyl that was used on the show. The photo was digitally altered to make it look old and beat up. Famed cryptozoologist Loren Coleman tracked down the prop pterosaur that was featured in the show and in the photo, and he acquired it. He took it back to his International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine, where you can go and see it today. Coleman took great photos of it, but you can't see it very well in the staged photo, but it's an acknowledged fact that it is the same prop.
It's the second picture that we're concerned about today. Six Civil War soldiers, rifles in hand, pose alongside a gigantic pterosaur of indeterminate species, lying flat on the ground with its impressive and terrifying head inexplicably half-raised and turned to give a full view. The picture is promoted most aggressively by a pair of Young Earth Creationists, Jon Whitcomb and Clifford Paiva, who have dubbed it the "PTP photo" — and you can easily find it online with an image search for that term. Whitcomb and Paiva have each been involved with a number of projects attempting to show that the Earth is only some 6,000 years old (such as locating the remains of Noah's Ark), in an effort to prove the literal truth of Genesis. There has long been a crossover between Young Earth Creationism and cryptozoology — particularly the branch dealing with relict dinosaurs and other long-extinct animals. Their basic claim is that dinosaurs lived so recently that the bones we find are of animals who died in Noah's Flood. Thus the Earth is young, the Bible is literally true, and it's entirely possible that some relict dinosaurs or pterosaurs still survive.
Whitcomb has even self-published a 116-page book laying out his case that the photo is not a hoax and does indeed show a recently deceased pterosaur. He says the photo has been around longer than digital photo manipulation software, but is short on specifics. He says:
Skeptics of the claim that PTP is a real animal often point out what they describe as evidence that the image was digitally manipulated. Although we'll talk about this, I tend to dismiss this entire line of discussion. All versions of the photo you can find online are far too low resolution to make any such determinations about. Typically, a digital artist works in very high resolution, and when the finished product is output at a much lower res, his footprints are effectively erased.
While Whitcomb points to shadows and things that he believes are too accurate for a digital artist to manage, the main skeptical points are brought up, paradoxically, by his partner Paiva (and it should be pointed out that neither gentleman has any relevant professional expertise). I say paradoxically because Paiva does conclude the photo is genuine, but also discusses two issues in depth that he believes proves it to be a digital manipulation.
The first point is that the creature's wings appear to be curved downward, like bowls, which is the opposite of how an airfoil should be shaped. Some skeptics describe them as shaped like canoes. However, I don't think we can say for sure that if a pterosaur's wing was at rest, that its membrane would not sag downward. Either way, there is not enough detail in the photo to make the determination that Paiva claims. The wing is really just a dark area in the picture.
The second point is the symmetry of the black-and-white pattern in the two wings. Both Paiva and skeptics point out that all the many details are far too symmetric to be natural, while Whitcomb points to butterflies and other animals that display detailed symmetric markings. Paiva took Photoshop and flipped one wing and moved it next to the other. With the proviso that the low-res images do appear to match, they're also very different dimensionally. Another skeptic, Bruce Baryla (a philatelist and Adobe® Photoshop expert), was able to use Photoshop and get extremely close. He wrote:
If you've been to the movies, you know there's not a whole lot that's beyond digital artists; especially when they have the freedom to output at low resolution and add a bunch of obscuring aging effects to the finished image.
Correction: An earlier version of this credited Mr. Baryla with also being expert at identifying counterfeit stamps, and he has clarified that this is not among his many skill sets. —BD
This aging damage on both photos looks very much like one was trying to copy the other. Both have odd-shaped white blotches where it looks like the surface of the photo came off. They're ragged around the edges like pirate maps made for children. The contrast of the trees in the background looks unearthly, almost negative in places, as if someone applied some digital filter to simulate the chemical degradation of the oldest photographic films, like we see in Daguerreotypes. But what's really interesting here is that if you do an image search for Civil War photos, you won't find very many with any flaws at all. Pictures that old have usually been conserved very well. Of course this isn't proof of anything, but it does tip the scales toward both photos having been created recently to look old in a kitschy, pop-culture kind of way.
We should also look at the soldiers in the photo for more signs of authenticity. With the help of Chris from The Regimental Quartermaster, a maker of Civil War uniforms and accoutrements for reenactors, I found at least two things that are wrong with the uniforms on the soldiers in the photo. The most obvious is their belt buckles. In the PTP photo, the soldiers are wearing rectangular officer's belt buckles. But from everything else about the soldiers, it's obvious that none of them are officers. All should be wearing the oval shaped enlisted man's belt buckle.
Also, Union soldiers were issued a stout leather cartridge box that could hold a heavy load of 40 cartridges for the Springfield Model 1861 .58 caliber rifle. This was worn at the back of the hip on the right side with a wide leather strap that went over the left shoulder. Worn properly, this strap had a round brass breast plate with an eagle insignia, and the breast plate would be right in the center of the soldier's chest. Four of the six soldiers in the photo have this breast plate, but in all four of them, the plate is well off center, way down to their right. This suggests that the cartridge box is worn too high on their back. This wouldn't be the case for a real soldier, as that box was quite heavy.
Generally, everything else about the soldiers' appearances is within the normal range of variation. But the picture overall is one of some guys who are not experienced reenactors getting ahold of some replica uniforms and not quite knowing how to wear them exactly right, and having been given officers' belt buckles by mistake by the costume supplier.
Quite possibly, a Hollywood-based costume supplier. For it turns out — drum roll please — that the mystery of the PTP photo is one that has a verified solution, one which so many of these people struggling to prove it or disprove it overlooked. While they all agree that the PTP's photo's twin was staged and shot for the TV show FreakyLinks, very few of them seem to have gone to the trouble to actually watch the episode in question, episode 4, called "Coelacanth This", directed by Jefrey Levy. They probably should, because that's where the PTP photo itself appears. In one scene, the characters are discussing an old photograph that they suspect might be connected to some recent attacks by what seems to be a giant bird:
And the PTP photo, in all its glory, comes up on their computer screens.
The head of the PTP creature is clearly nothing like the FreakyLinks prop pterosaur, as we can plainly see from Loren Coleman's excellent photos of the prop as he moved it to his museum. When the FreakyLinks producers staged their photo for the TV show, the prop laid flat and didn't look dramatic enough for this photo-analysis scene in the show. So production designer Steve Wolfe hired digital FX firm E=MC2 Digital to make a better version of the image for that scene. Guys were hired to pose in almost-correct Civil War uniforms, and the artist did his thing.
Update: According to Brian Cain of Haxan Films, they had not obtained talent releases from the guys in the first photo to also appear in the show, so they had to make a new photo with new actors who had signed proper releases. —BD
Both photos, with fictional histories attached, also appear in the "Freak-o-pedia", a mock diary of the show's main character, that's a companion to the TV series, and is on the website for Haxan Films which created the show.
Both Civil War pterosaur photos: copyright 2000, 20th Century Fox Film Corporation and Regency Entertainment. With apologies to the Young Earthers, these aren't the pterosaurs you're looking for.
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