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Ambrose Bierce

5 more of history's most famous unsolved disappearances

Image: American author Ambrose Pierce mysteriously vanished during the early 20th century | Public Domain

In a previous article, we looked at some of the most well-known unsolved vanishing acts in history, from the lost colony of 16th-century America to Amelia Earhart’s famous 1937 flight that disappeared without a trace.

In this second serving of strange happenings, we look at five more notorious cases of figures from history who may as well have evaporated into thin air, from 18th-century England to 1930s China.

1. Owen Parfitt - 1768

Everyone in the Shropshire town of Shepton Mallet knew old Owen Parfitt. He was a local character with a reputation for repeating tales of his wild younger days, of life as a soldier of fortune in Africa, of adventures on the high seas with pirates, and carousing with women. Owen was known to have a foul temper and an equally foul mouth, but the elderly man was essentially harmless, as he could no longer get about without assistance.

One balmy June evening in 1768 (some sources say 1763) Owen was helped by his sister and a young woman named Susannah Snook to his usual sitting spot outside his house.

Once they’d got Owen settled, the two women went back into the house. When it looked as though heavy rain was approaching, Susannah went outside to fetch him, but he was nowhere to be seen. He could not have gone anywhere on his own, but a group of farm hands who had been working nearby claimed not to have seen or heard anything at all. He was never seen again.

Susannah, Owen’s sister, and many people from the town searched high and low for Owen, but no trace of him was found.

Over the years the people of Shepton Mallet traded theories about where Owen had gone. Some said he had been abducted by the Devil, while others believed his old pirate mates had come for him, taking him away to lead them to buried treasure in a far-off land.

The Shepton Mallet community murmured with excitement in 1813 when builders came across a skeleton in the ground. Was it Owen? It was believed to be until experts declared that it was the skeleton of a young woman.

2. Walter Powell - 1881

Walter Powell was born in 1842 in Newport, Wales, into a wealthy family of colliery owners and was educated at a leading public school. He was an MP from 1868 until his disappearance. In his 30s he took up the hobby of flying hot-air balloons.

On 10th December 1881, Walter, Captain Templer, and Mr. Agg-Gardner were flying in a balloon called Saladin over the southwest of England.

The men travelled for around 50 miles before attempting to land on the south coast at Bridport, Dorset. The descent came in too fast and the balloon crashed to the ground, ejecting Captain Templer before floating up again and dumping out Agg-Gardener. The erratic balloon then started to ascend at speed, with just one passenger left inside – Walter Powell. Powell waved to the others on the ground as he was carried up into the sky and over the English Channel. He was never seen again.

The sea, coastline, and surrounding area were thoroughly searched for days, but no traces of the balloon or Powell were ever found. Powell was presumed to have died and was replaced in the House of Commons a few months later.

3. Ambrose Bierce – 1913/14

One missing persons case that captured the public imagination is that of American author Ambrose Bierce. Born in rural Ohio in 1842, Bierce fought for the North in the American Civil War and became such a renowned writer that he is credited with influencing Ernest Hemingway. Known as a satirist and nicknamed ‘Bitter Bierce’, he often wrote about themes of death and melancholy.

At the age of 71 he moved to Mexico and witnessed the revolution of Pancho Villa. In a famous letter to his cousin from Mexico he wrote:

‘Good-bye — if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life.’

He was never seen or heard from after late December 1913, and it is thought that he died sometime in 1914. What happened to Bierce has never been determined, but various theories abound. Some say he committed suicide and never in fact went to Mexico, while others believe he was killed at the Battle of Ojinaga in January 1914.

At this battle, the revolutionaries won a stunning victory against government forces, and while they only lost 35 of their own men, it is believed that Bierce may have been one of the fatalities, as he was embedded with them at the time.

4. Judge Joseph Crater - 1930

Judge Joseph Crater vanished without a trace from the streets of New York in the summer of 1930, and his fate remains an enigma. For nearly a century it has been one of America’s most famous mysteries, with many documentaries and books trying to shed new light on the lost judge.

Joseph Crater was born in 1889 and followed in his father’s footsteps into the legal profession, where he was appointed a judge of the New York State Supreme Court in 1920. Crater led a high-profile life, rubbing shoulders with the social and political elite of New York, as well as hanging out with gangsters and showgirls.

On 6th August 1930, Judge Crater told his friends that was going to attend a play called Dancing Partner. In fact, he skipped the show and went to his office, removed papers, destroyed some files, and had two cheques cashed that totalled over $100,000 in today’s money. Later that same night, Crater got into a taxi after having dinner with two friends and vanished.

The judge’s disappearance created a media sensation, and everyone had a theory about what had happened to him. Many speculated that he had fallen foul of the mob or been killed by shadowy government forces after finding out about high-level corruption. Others simply believed that he faked his death, running away with a big chunk of money to start a new life and escape debtors. Another possibility had the judge slipping into the river and drowning while on a night-time stroll by the water’s edge.

5. Missing Chinese Battalion - 1937

We have seen how individuals can disappear without a trace, but is it possible for 3,000 people to vanish at the same time?

This is what some people believed happened to a battalion of Chinese soldiers in December 1937 (though not all accounts give the same date).

In late 1937, a fierce war was raging in China. The Japanese had invaded and were sweeping through the country. Just outside Nanking, Chinese Colonel Li Fu Sien decided to use a group of fresh reinforcements – 3,000 men – to fight the enemy in a two-mile line along the Yangtze River. The colonel gave the men their orders and returned to his headquarters a mile away.

It was at dawn the next day that the mystery began. The colonel’s men were unable to get in touch with the troops at the front line. Perhaps they had all been killed or taken prisoner in the night? After initial investigations, it soon became apparent that nobody had heard or seen a thing. None of the other troop positions near to the 3,000 men had heard any sounds of battle, or seen anyone passing them by, which they would have done had the men deserted or been attacked.

The posts where the 3,000 men had been stationed looked as though they had simply vanished – everything looked intact, with cooking fires still burning and artillery unfired, but with no sign of the men.

Several days later Nanking fell, and peace only came back to China years later. Strangely, the Japanese army reports contained no mention of attacking, taking prisoner, or even happening upon the battalion.

Some wild theories have emerged over the years, such as one speculating the men vanished into a wormhole, or another venturing that they were abducted by aliens. Many historians, though, are uncertain that it happened at all, but the legend endures.