Vanishing act: 6 of history's most mysterious disappearances

Aviatrix Amelia Earhart disappeared on On 21 May 1937 never to be seen again
Amelia Earhart

‘I have a feeling that there is just one more flight in my system.’

Amelia Earhart, one month before she disappeared

Millions of people go missing in the world every year. Many are found, many are not. Some are explainable, others are mysteries.Here we look at six of the most famous disappearances in history. Though shrouded in legend, the facts of these cases are still baffling. They all remain unsolved.

Virginia Dare and the Lost Colony

Born on 18 August 1587 in the fledgling Roanoke Island colony in present-day North Carolina, Virginia Dare was the first English child born in the New World. Nine days after her birth, Virginia’s grandfather, John White (c. 1539-1593) left the colony to go on a supply run to England. White returned to the island three years later to discover that all the settlers had disappeared..

White could find nothing at all to indicate where the 100 or so men, women, and children had gone or what might have happened to them, apart from the words ‘Croatoan’ carved onto a stockade and ‘Cro’ cut into a tree.

Bad weather prevented an extensive search and White returned to England.

Conventional thinking has been that the newcomers either died of disease, starvation, or that they were annihilated by indigenous people. (A previous group of colonists had been angrily driven out by local tribes in 1586). Others have suggested that the settlers moved on in some way, perhaps living with or near a friendly indigenous tribe.

In 2012, experts found a hidden image of a fort on a contemporary map of the area made by John White (the ‘Virginea Pars’ map), possibly concealed at the behest of Sir Walter Raleigh for reasons of state secrecy. This could have been, so the theory goes, a secret outpost that the colonists relocated to.

But, surely, if the ‘lost colonists’ had survived and moved on they would have contacted other settlers and set the record straight?

2. Benjamin Bathurst

One dark night in November 1809, a young man travelling under the name of ‘Baron de Koch’ was stood on the deserted cobbled streets of the town of Perleberg, Germany, waiting to board his coach and leave.

The man’s secretary was standing nearby, in the doorway of the inn they were leaving, paying the innkeeper. The man’s valet was at the back of the coach. The young man walked round to the other side of the horses, and he was never seen again.

The disappearing traveller was posing as a wealthy merchant and was in fact Benjamin Bathurst, a distinguished British diplomat, 25 years old, on his way home to England from Vienna.

Bathurst’s mission had been to attempt to persuade the Austrians to ally with Britain against Napoleon’s France in the ongoing wars which were tearing up the continent.

Was he carrying a secret? A witness at the inn in Perleberg described Bathurst as having been very nervous, and he was said to have asked a local official in Perleberg for armed protection.

An extensive initial search concluded that he was dead, prompting denials from Napoleon’s government.

Though the usual theory is that robbers murdered him, this has never been substantiated.

In 1852 a skull was discovered at a house that used to belong to a man who in November 1809 was a waiter at the White Swan, where Bathurst was staying. The skull showed signs of violence, but the identity of the remains was never conclusively determined.

To this day, the fate of the disappearing delegate remains unknown.

3. The Mary Celeste

On 4 December 1872, the crew of the Canadian ship Dei Gratia noticed something very strange when they encountered an American vessel in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean: there was nobody on deck.

On searching the ship, they found none of the ten passengers were on board, yet the cargo was complete and most of the passengers’ personal possessions were still present. (Contrary to popular belief, the Dei Gratia crew did not walk into the cabin to find steaming cups of tea and plates of untouched food).

While there was no sign of a significant disturbance, the ship’s boat was gone, one of the sails was missing, and the most recent entry for the log was dated 25 November.

What had happened to the crew?

At the initial hearing in Gibraltar, the explanation floated was that the crew had got drunk on the cargo of commercial alcohol, killed the captain and his family, then escaped in the lifeboat. This was shown at the time to be baseless, the alcohol for one being undrinkable.

This did not prevent many from suspecting that foul play still took place. Many believed that either the captains of the two ships cooked up a get-rich scheme together or that pirates had attacked the ship.

If it was piracy, then why was the cargo intact? If the crew abandoned ship, what was the reason? The ship was not unseaworthy or in danger of sinking.

More plausible hypotheses have included a waterspout hitting the ship and causing the captain to believe the boat was taking on more water than it was; and a temporary evacuation to the lifeboat that ended in accidental separation from the ship.

Despite the vast amount of research into the mystery, what happened to the ten passengers of the Mary Celeste remains unknown.

4. Louis Le Prince

In September 1890, 49-year-old French inventor and artist Louis Le Prince was on the cusp of international stardom, with a planned tour of the US to showcase his pioneering new motion-picture camera.

On 16 September, Le Prince boarded a train in Dijon, bound for Paris. He was never seen again.

What happened to Le Prince?

The leading theory is that he committed suicide. A drowned man resembling Le Prince was recovered from the Seine in 1890, although this person was never formally identified as Le Prince.

The fact that he would have been a major rival to Thomas Edison has led many to cry foul play, including Le Prince’s widow, although nothing has ever been substantiated.

Other theories for his vanishing include intentional ‘disappearance’ to escape debts.

To this day, Le Prince’s fate remains a mystery.

5. The Flannan Isles Lighthouse

On 26 December 1900, the lighthouse tender vessel Hesperus approached the tiny island of Eilean Mòr, in the Outer Hebrides, to investigate a reported problem with the island’s lighthouse.

On approaching the island, the lighthouse sat eerily unresponsive to the ship’s calls and signals.

Relief keeper Joseph Moore went over in a boat, alone, to investigate. (Brave man!).

There was no sign of any of the three men lighthouse keepers in the lighthouse or on the island. Contrary to the legend that sprang up, the searchers did not find half-eaten meals on the table or a chair on the floor, although one of the men may have left in a hurry, as he didn’t take his oilskins.

From there very beginning there was wild speculation about what might have happened. Some believed that the men, suffering from cabin fever, turned on one another and fought a fatal clifftop brawl. Others held that a giant sea monster leapt out of the water and snatched the men from the cliff edge.

The most likely explanation is the original one. The initial investigation concluded that the men had been working on something near the cliff edge during a severe storm, and that ‘an extra-large sea’ had swept the unfortunate fellows out to sea.

6. Amelia Earhart

By the 1920s, the flying feats and championing of women’s rights had made former medical student Amelia Earhart an international celebrity.

On 21 May 1937, 39-year-old Earhart and co-pilot Fred Noonan took off from California in a Lockheed Electra 10E to circumnavigate the globe. On 2 July, they left Lae, New Guinea (now Papua New Guinea) for Howland Island, 2,500 miles away.

Neither the pair nor their plane were ever seen again.

The usual theory is that Noonan and Earhart’s plane ran into difficulties and they crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

Initial search parties in 1937 had reason to believe that Earhart may have ended up on Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro, Kiribati). Subsequent investigations of the island, one as recently as 2019, have all been inconclusive.

An Australian soldier claimed to have seen the wreckage of a plane very similar to Earhart’s on the island of New Britain in 1945. Searches in the 1990s failed to turn up this wreck, however.

Another theory holds that Earhart was in fact carrying out secret aerial reconnaissance for the government. She was then either imprisoned or executed by the Japanese. Witnesses were apparently located who had seen Earhart on Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, in 1937.

At a dinner in 1965 a retired pilot was introduced to banker and former flier Irene Craigmile Bolam (1904-1982) – the man claimed that he immediately recognised her as Earhart, but this was subsequently proven to be untrue.

Many experts and amateurs alike have over the years tried to solve the riddle, but Earhart and Noonan’s disappearance remains unexplained to this day.

Written by:

James Brigden