Monday, July 05, 2010

Five Mysterious Disappearances

Last week marked the 73rd anniversary of the day Amelia Earhart disappeared. The most promising modern hypothesis is that she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, strayed south of their charted course, ran out of fuel and landed on Gardner Island, one of the Phoenix Islands in the South Pacific nation of Kiribati. Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro) was uninhabited at the time, and later efforts to settle it ultimately failed because of the lack of fresh water. We'll never know, but if Earhart and Noonan survived their crash, they may well have died of dehydration.

It's not as easy for the modern Westerner to disappear, though it still happens all the time. In college, a castmate of mine didn't come back from spring break. I never heard what happened to him. His parents filed a missing persons report and hired a private investigator, but he was over 18, and the assumption was that he'd had some kind of breakdown. I heard someone had seen him in the Greyhound bus station in downtown DC, but that was only a rumor, and he never came back to school.

It has occurred to me more than once that this blog is a sort of insurance policy against my own disappearance. I take August off, but otherwise if I miss more than two days at a time, people start to check in by email and phone. It makes me think that everyone who lives alone should probably keep a blog. That wasn't an option for these people.

1. The Roanoke Colony, c. 1588. In 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh sent a group of 117 men, women and children to found a permanent settlement on Roanoke Island, near present-day Manteo, North Carolina. An earlier attempt to settle the site had failed, but this did not deter new colonists hoping for wealth and opportunity. Relations with the local Croatan tribe were never good, and got worse after a colonist was killed. The colony's governor, John White, sailed back to England to ask for help. Weather and the Spanish Armada kept him from returning until 1590. By extraordinary bad luck, the years 1587-89 marked the peak of area's worst drought in 800 years. White found the settlement's stockade abandoned, but not in a way that suggested the colonists had fled in a hurry. The name "Croatoan" was carved into a post, and the letters "Cro" were carved into a tree. White thought this might mean that the colony had moved to nearby Croatoan Island, but a coming storm — it was August, the heart of hurricane season — forced him to abandon his search, and he never made it back. The most popular (and happiest) theory is that the colonists were assimilated into one of the native communities.

2. Benjamin Bathurst, 1809. Benjamin Bathurst was a British diplomatic envoy who was sent to Vienna in 1809 to shore up the English-Austrian alliance against France. After French forces moved into Austria, Austria made a separate treaty with France, and Bathurst needed to return to England. He set out for Hamburg with a German courier, under assumed names. They stopped off for food and fresh horses at an inn in Perleberg, near Berlin, and when the time came to resume their journey, Bathurst was gone. His disappearance went unnoticed in England for weeks, but once it was reported, a massive search mobilized. Wild rumors circulated. The disappearance caught the imagination of the British press, and inspired several early science fiction stories. In 1852 a skeleton with a bashed-in skull was found under a nearby stable, but it was impossible to identify the remains as Bathurst's.

3. The Mary Celeste, 1872. The Mary Celeste, a 107-foot brigantine, left Staten Island for Genoa, Italy on November 7, 1872. She carried a captain, a crew of seven, and the captain's wife and two-year-old daughter, as well as a cargo of commercial alcohol. On December 4 or 5, the Dei Gratia, a Canadian merchant ship that had left New York a week after the Mary Celeste, spotted the Mary Celeste adrift, though still under sail. The captains of the two ships were friends; the Dei Gratia sailed in to investigate. When the Dei Gratia's mate boarded the ship, he found it "a wet mess," but intact, still laden with cargo — and empty. The people were gone, along with all of the ship's papers except for the captain's log book, which had a final entry dated November 24. The last entry on the ship's slate was dated November 25. No trace of the captain, his family, or the crew was ever found.

4. Ambrose Bierce, c.1914. The journalist and writer Ambrose Bierce was a prickly, cranky man who had survived the Civil War (including the Battle of Shiloh), an ugly divorce, and the loss of his two sons. At the age of 71, he left Washington, D.C. for a tour of the battlefields he had fought on in the Civil War. From there he went to Mexico, where the revolution was underway. He attached himself to Pancho Villa's army as a reporter, and filed an account of the Battle of Tierra Blanca in November 1913. On December 26, he wrote a letter from Chihuahua. He was never heard from again.

5. Jimmy Hoffa, 1975. The most famous disappearance of modern times has to be that of union leader Jimmy Hoffa, last seen in the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township, Michigan. He had been working on his autobiography, and trying to overturn a federal ban on participating in union governance that had been part of the deal to release him from prison in 1971. Hoffa had told people he was going to meet two men with known Mafia ties — Anthony Giacolone, from Detroit, and Anthony Provenzano, from Union City, NJ — at the restaurant, but they claimed to know nothing about this, and were found to be miles away at the time of Hoffa's disappearance. The assumption has always been that Hoffa was murdered and his remains destroyed, but authorities have never found any evidence to confirm this theory.


Thomas at My Porch said...

I would add Jim Thompson to the list. The American who introduced Thai silk to the world in a highly commercial way back in the 1960s. He disppeared somewhere in southeast Asia in 1964 and was never heard from again. Some say he was a spook. His eponymous company lives on today.

AnswerGirl said...

Yes — these lists are always just a sampling. If it were a list of 10, I'd also add photojournalist Sean Flynn (disappeared in Cambodia in 1970), D.B. Cooper (hijacker), Jean Spangler (Hollywood actress, subject of Megan Abbott's novel The Song is You), and Amalia Marquez (Talia Bey), a follower of Carlos Castaneda who went missing in 1998.