Every year thousands of people are reported missing. While most are found within hours, some disappear without a trace, never to be seen again. Here are some of the more famous and bizarre cases in history.
10. Louis Le Prince
Regarded by many as the true father of movies, Louis Le Prince was a French inventor who developed the first motion picture camera and projection system. In 1888, he used his invention to film Roundhay Garden Scene, a nearly 2-second long clip that is considered the world’s first motion picture. In September of 1890, Le Prince boarded a train bound for Paris, where he was to meet with his family for a trip to the United States to demonstrate his camera. But when the train arrived in Paris, Le Prince, along with his luggage and camera equipment, was nowhere to be found. The inventor was rumored to be nearly broke and deeply depressed, and theories abound that he engineered his own suicide. But it has also been proposed that Le Prince, known for his secrecy and paranoia regarding his work, was in fact murdered by parties seeking to steal the secrets to his invention. The most frequently cited suspect is none other than famed inventor Thomas Edison, now popularly regarded as the inventor of the movie camera, whose company would file a remarkably similar motion picture patent in the years following Le Prince’s disappearance.
9. Flight 19
One of the most bizarre disappearances in aviation history is that of Navy Flight 19, a group of five torpedo bombers that vanished during a training mission near Florida in late 1945. No debris or wreckage from the flight was ever found, and another plane carrying 13 airmen was lost when it exploded while searching for the missing squadron. The Navy conducted an inquiry into the incident, eventually publishing a 500-page report that suggested the pilots may have become disoriented and mistakenly headed out to sea, where they ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean. But a general lack of evidence led to the disappearance eventually being listed as “cause unknown,” with one member of the inquiry stating the planes must have “flown off to Mars.” A much stranger theory posited by a number of magazine articles suggested that supernatural elements were responsible for the disappearance, citing bizarre radio transmissions where the pilots report: “We are entering white water, nothing seems right. We don’t know where we are, the water is green, no white.” Although no concrete evidence was ever produced to back up these claims, Flight 19 and its disappearance became one of the key incidents that helped to form the legend of the now-famous Bermuda Triangle.
8. Ambrose Bierce
A famed American writer and social critic, Ambrose Bierce is best known for The Devil’s Dictionary, as well as for numerous short stories about ghosts and the American Civil War. He gained fame as a writer for The San Francisco Examiner, where his cynical opinions and relentless sarcasm earned him the nickname “Bitter Bierce.” In 1913, the 71-year-old Bierce, a Civil War veteran, decided to go on a tour of battlefields in the South. He eventually crossed over into Mexico, and spent some time as an observer with Pancho Villa’s army during the Mexican Revolution, before vanishing somewhere near Chihuahua, Mexico in late 1913 or early 1914. Many have speculated that he was murdered, his body hidden by Pancho Villa’s men, who were afraid that Bierce would reveal secrets to the enemy. Still, others have maintained that Bierce’s disappearance was a calculated suicide. For his part, Bierce remained characteristically sardonic to the very end. An oft-quoted passage in one of his final letters reads: “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. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia!”
7. Percy Fawcett
An adventurer and a supposed inspiration for the Indiana Jones character, Percy Fawcett was a British archeologist who gained fame in the early 1900s for a series of map-making expeditions to the jungles of South America. In 1925, Fawcett, along with his son Jack, returned to Brazil as part of an ambitious expedition to discover a supposed lost city located deep in the jungle. On May 25, 1925, Fawcett sent a wire message to his wife letting her know that he, Jack, and a young man named Raleigh Rimmell were venturing into uncharted territory in search of the mythical city, which he had dubbed “Z.” It was the last anyone would hear from the group. The most probable explanation for the disappearance is that local Indian tribes, who were known for their hostility, killed the men, but no proof of foul play was ever uncovered. Other theories claim that Fawcett had survived and was suffering from amnesia, and a legend even spread that he was living as the chief of a tribe of cannibalistic Indians. Despite instructions left by Fawcett prior to the expedition, a number of disastrous search parties have been launched over the years, resulting in the deaths of at least 100 people.
6. D.B. Cooper
One of the most brazen criminals in American history, Dan “D.B.” Cooper was the alias of an unknown man who hijacked a Boeing 727 commercial airliner in 1971. After the plane landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the man demanded and received four parachutes and 200,000 in unmarked bills, at which point he released the passengers and ordered the plane and its four crew members to take off again and head for Reno, Nevada. Shortly after takeoff, Cooper lowered the aft stairs and parachuted from the plane. Though he is suspected to have landed somewhere near Vancouver, Washington, he was never seen again, and no body or remains of a parachute was ever discovered. What followed was one of the largest manhunts in American history, and although there have been over 1000 suspects in the case, Cooper’s true identity and whereabouts remain a mystery.
5. The Mary Celeste
The prototypical “ghost ship,” the Mary Celeste was a merchant vessel that was discovered in 1872 abandoned and adrift in the Atlantic Ocean. All of the ship’s 7 crewmembers, along with Captain Benjamin Briggs and his wife and daughter, were nowhere to be found. The ship’s life raft was gone, but the Mary Celeste appeared to be perfectly seaworthy, and even stranger, a number of necessary survival items had been left behind. The ship’s cargo and a number of valuables were also untouched, seemingly ruling out the possibility of piracy. So what could have happened? A number of theories have been proposed, ranging from mutiny to alien abduction, but the most likely scenario is that a freak storm or earthquake caused the ship to take on a small amount of water, leading to a panic and an unnecessary evacuation. Adrift in a single life raft, the survivors are suspected to have perished at sea.
4. Joseph Force Crater
Although he is relatively unknown today, Joseph Force Crater’s disappearance in 1930 became a national obsession, to the point that the phrase “pulling a Crater” became synonymous with vanishing. A well-known judge in New York City, Crater inexplicably disappeared on the night of August 6, 1930. A number of bizarre details surround the case, most notably Crater’s relationship with an Atlantic City showgirl named Sally Lou Ritz, who would herself disappear soon after the Judge. An investigation found that Crater’s safe deposit box had been emptied, along with thousands of dollars from his bank account, but no concrete proof that Crater engineered his own disappearance has ever been uncovered.
3. The Lost Colony
Perhaps the most mysterious case of mass disappearance is the so-called “lost colony” of Roanoke Island. In 1587 a group of 114 people settled the island in an attempt to establish a permanent colony in the New World, but a bitterly harsh growing season and fear of the local Indian tribes led the group to send their leader, John White, back to England for assistance. Upon returning in 1590, he found that the settlement had been dismantled and all 114 colonists, along with Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the colonies, had vanished. The only sign they left behind was the word “Croatan,” the name of a nearby island, carved into a tree. Some claim the colonists were murdered and their settlement razed by Indians, while others blame starvation or raids by Spanish marauders. But the most popular theory continues to be that the colonists were assimilated into a local Indian tribe. Reports from later settlers that some tribes they encountered knew some English have helped to substantiate these claims, and a project is now underway to try to prove the theory using DNA evidence.
2. Amelia Earhart
Perhaps the most famous missing person on this list, Amelia Earhart was a groundbreaking pilot who set numerous records in aviation in the 1920s. In 1937, along with navigator Fred Noonan, she set out for what was to be her crowning achievement: a flight around the world. Near the end of her 29,000-mile journey, Earhart encountered unfavorable weather conditions in the south Pacific, and was unable to find the small island where she was to refuel. Sometime around July 2, all contact with her plane was lost, and Earhart and Noonan would not be seen again. The search that followed was the largest in naval history to that point, covering over 250,000 miles of ocean, but no wreckage from Earhart’s Lockheed Electra was ever found. The most logical explanation is that the plane ran out of gas and ditched in the ocean, but another popular theory states that Earhart and Noonan crashed on an uninhabited island where they eventually died. Still another theory says that the duo crashed on a Japanese-controlled island, where they were captured and eventually executed.
1. Jimmy Hoffa
Despite years of speculation and countless investigations, Jimmy Hoffa’s vanishing remains the mother of all missing person stories. A powerful labor organizer, Hoffa was President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters for many years, and was known for his mob connections. He was due to meet two of his mafia contacts on July 30, 1975 at a restaurant in Michigan, but disappeared before the meeting could ever take place. Because of Hoffa’s business dealings and his proven associations with crime families, investigators have little doubt that he was murdered, but the big mystery concerns what became of his body. A number of grisly possibilities were considered, among them that Hoffa’s body was mixed into concrete that was used to build the New York Giants football stadium, that he was buried beneath a swimming pool in Michigan, and that he was crushed in a car compactor, but all of these theories have proven to be unsubstantiated. Hoffa was declared dead in 1982, but his case continues to be open, and every few years a new lead emerges about the possible location of his remains.