18 Incidents of People Vanishing into Thin Air Throughout History
18 Incidents of People Vanishing into Thin Air Throughout History

18 Incidents of People Vanishing into Thin Air Throughout History

Larry Holzwarth - October 10, 2018

18 Incidents of People Vanishing into Thin Air Throughout History
A painting of the ship Amazon, which was later renamed the Mary Celeste, an action which sailors considered to bring bad luck to the ship. Wikimedia

7. Benjamin Briggs, his family, and the crew of the Mary Celeste

On December 5, 1872, the Canadian merchant brigantine Dei Gratia encountered a ship under sail near the Azores. When the ship did not respond to hails and appeared to be abandoned, the Canadians boarded the vessel, named the Mary Celeste. There was no one aboard. The ship was seaworthy, though it was apparent that it had been in some difficulty from the slipshod appearance of its decks. The log had not been updated for ten days, a ship’s boat was missing, and the vessel was well provided with food and water. The cargo was unmolested (it was denatured alcohol) and the personal belongings of the captain, his family, and the crew of seven appeared undisturbed. The vessel was taken into Gibraltar.

So what happened to Captain Briggs, his wife and infant daughter aboard with him (his son remained at home to attend school) and the seven members of the crew? It remains a mystery today. The small boat was never found. Each theory which has been proposed has as many arguments against it as solutions it proposes. The possibility of piracy is discounted by the personal possessions left behind unmolested. The ship was relatively undamaged, the cargo undisturbed. Numerous statements by men who claimed to have been survivors were debunked by research. Mary Celeste returned to service but proved to be unpopular among seamen, often a superstitious lot, and it proved unprofitable to its owners. What became of the people who went to sea on the ship has never been explained, and in the absence of new evidence likely never will be.

18 Incidents of People Vanishing into Thin Air Throughout History
A photograph of the killer of John Wilkes Booth, Boston Corbett, taken by Matthew Brady circa 1865. Library of Congress

8. Boston Corbett vanished years after killing John Wilkes Booth

Boston Corbett was a soldier in the United States Army who, against orders, shot and killed John Wilkes Booth in Richard Garrett’s tobacco barn in Virginia on April 26, 1865, twelve days after Booth had fired the shot that killed Abraham Lincoln. Corbett came forward as the shooter after his commanding officer demanded to know who fired against orders; other witnesses claimed the Corbett never fired. Nonetheless he was presented to the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, as the killer, and Stanton ordered him released, rather than charged with disobeying orders. Corbett was a strange character who claimed to have castrated himself to avoid temptations of the flesh. In 1887 he was declared insane and sent to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane, from which he escaped the following year.

Corbett visited briefly with a man he had befriended when they were both prisoners of the Confederates (he was held at Andersonville) during the war, before announcing that he was heading to Mexico. He was last seen as he departed Neodesha, Kansas. Some believe that he went to Minnesota, settling in a cabin in the woods near Hinckley. Others believe that he died on the way to Mexico, still others claim that he settled in Oklahoma. Several men came forward in later years claiming to be Corbett, all were disproved by one means or another. A Thomas Corbett appears on the list of victims killed in a fire in Hinckley, Minnesota, in 1894, but there is no proof that the man was Boston Corbett. The killer of John Wilkes Booth simply disappeared, leaving behind little evidence of his fate.

18 Incidents of People Vanishing into Thin Air Throughout History
Louis Le Prince, the first person to successfully film moving pictures, in the 1880s. BBC

9. Louis Le Prince was the true inventor of the motion picture camera, two years before Edison

Louis Le Prince was an artist in France who experimented with a single lens motion picture camera, using a strip of paper based film, and successfully filmed moving picture segments in Leeds, England in October of 1888. Edison did not begin filming until 1890, using celluloid film. Le Prince’s work with moving pictures predated Edison’s by several years, as did that of several other pioneers of motion pictures, including William Friese-Greene and Wordsworth Donisthorpe. After capturing moving images on film Le Prince began work on a projector in 1889, demonstrating it privately to family and friends, but by 1890 he had not yet demonstrated his work in public. In September 1890, Le Prince embarked on a journey intended to first take him to England, where he would publicly display his invention, followed by trip to the United States for the same purpose.

Le Prince visited a brother in Dijon, departing that city on September 16 for Paris. His brother saw him off at the Dijon station, but friends awaiting him in Paris never saw him get off the train. Somewhere between Dijon and Paris Le Prince vanished from the train, which was an express. Nor was his luggage on the train when it arrived in Paris. French police and Scotland Yard investigated the disappearance, and his family hired additional investigators, but no trace of Le Prince was found. Among the theories which were put forward were murder over patents (implicating Edison), a faked suicide for financial reasons, a real suicide pre-planned by Le Prince, and a murder committed by his brother, the only person to report having seen Le Prince board the train at Dijon. In 1897, after years of searching and disproven theories, Le Prince was officially declared dead. By the end of the twentieth century his preceding Thomas Edison in developing a working motion picture camera and projector was recognized by the film industry.

18 Incidents of People Vanishing into Thin Air Throughout History
Belle Gunness, who murdered her three children seen here as well as at least eleven other people before vanishing. Wikimedia

10. Belle Gunness was discovered to be a serial killer after she vanished

In April of 1908, the home occupied by Belle Gunness, a widow, and her three children erupted in a fire and burned to the ground. When the fire was out the police and fire investigators found the body of a woman, which though headless was presumed to be Belle, and the bodies of her three children. They also found eleven other bodies and partial remains. Investigators determined the fire to have been arson, and when they learned that Belle Gunness had emptied her bank accounts in the days preceding the fire, they realized that the headless body was not her, and that there was a serial killer on the run. By November the police had an arson suspect in custody, and a confession which revealed how Gunness had selected her victims.

Gunness was a lonely hearts killer, advertising for male companionship and after gaining the confidence of her male victims killing them for their money. The men who visited her farm never left, according to the hired hand she employed, Ray Lamphere. Gunness asked Lamphere to burn down the house after she learned that the brother of one of her earlier victims was asking questions as to his whereabouts, and intended to visit the farm to interrogate Belle. With her money in hand, Belle vanished. Lamphere was convicted of arson, but authorities believed that none of the dead expired as a result of the fire, and that Gunness had killed them prior to her departure, as part of a plot to fake her own death. Belle Gunness vanished completely, where she went, what she did, and her ultimate fate remains unknown to the present day.

18 Incidents of People Vanishing into Thin Air Throughout History
Ambrose Bierce, one of America’s most prolific and respected writers and journalists, in 1892. Wikimedia

11. Ambrose Bierce vanished in Mexico

Ambrose Bierce was an American reporter and writer, whose The Devil’s Dictionary has been called one of the greatest masterpieces of American literature (the first entry, Accuracy, is defined as “A certain uninteresting quality carefully excluded from human statements”). Bierce wrote in several genres, including realist fiction, a style in which he is recognized as one of the pioneers. His work in horror fiction has been ranked as equal to that of Edgar Allen Poe, and by the early 1900s he was considered one of the preeminent writers and journalists in the United States. Ernest Hemingway later cited Bierce as one of his influences when it came to covering war in both fiction and non-fiction. He also wrote poetry and fables. But it is for his Devil’s Dictionary that he is best remembered today, a work which is frequently cited by writers and speechwriters in the twenty-first century.

In the fall of 1913 the 71 year old Bierce, a veteran of the Civil War, toured several of the battlefields on which he served before heading to Mexico, where he attached himself to Pancho Villa’s band as a journalist and observer. In December Bierce was in Chihuahua, where his last known communication with the world was sent in the form of a letter to his friend Blanche Partington, a writer and journalist in San Francisco. He then vanished without a trace. US authorities conducted an investigation into his disappearance, which found nothing. There were rumors that he was executed by Mexican authorities as a revolutionary, and others that he was executed by Villa’s men, but the mystery of what happened to Ambrose Bierce and why has never been solved.

18 Incidents of People Vanishing into Thin Air Throughout History
Judge Crater’s disappearance led to the slang phrase, “pull a Crater” which was in common use through the 1940s. Associated Press

12. Judge Crater’s disappearance led to the phrase “pulled a Crater”

Joseph Crater was a New York State Supreme Court justice whose disappearance led to the slang phrase “pulled a Crater” in reference to someone not showing up where and when expected. Crater vanished after dinner with friends at a New York restaurant. Although witnesses gave conflicting accounts of his departure from the restaurant it was generally agreed that he left in a taxi. His wife, who was in Maine expecting his return from New York, reported him missing after ten days had elapsed. Crater vanished in early August, 1930, but his missing status was not reported to the police until September 3, which made the story a widely reported news item in the New York papers. The investigation revealed Crater had destroyed several files in his office and emptied his safe deposit boxes, as well as having a clerk cash checks for large amounts of money just prior to his disappearance.

The investigation revealed links between Crater, New York showgirl June Brice, an expensive call girl named Vivian Gordon, and through the two women gangster Legs Diamond. It was revealed the Crater also had connections with Arnold Rothstein, the gangster and gambler widely believed to have been the man who provided the money used to bribe the Chicago White Sox to throw the 1919 World Series. A grand jury investigation into Crater’s activities and disappearance returned an open verdict, failed to determine whether Crater was alive or dead, or whether he had been involved in any criminal activity. Although there were later claims that Judge Crater had been killed by a bodyguard for Abe Reles of Murder Incorporated, no hard evidence was ever found, and no trace of Judge Crater was reported after his departure from the New York restaurant in 1930.

18 Incidents of People Vanishing into Thin Air Throughout History
Amelia Earhart was an international celebrity and heroine for years before her unexplained disappearance with Fred Noonan. Library of Congress

13. Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan’s vanishing has fascinated investigators ever since

Amelia Earhart was one of the most famous women in the world in the early 1930s, for her feats as an aviatrix and for her writing about her flying and women’s issues. Earhart was a consultant to presidents, a member of the faculty at Purdue University, and an early and vocal support of women’s rights and an Equal Rights Amendment. She set flying records for distance and speed, as well as participating in some of the early air races which became popular during the 1930s. Her friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt led to the First Lady obtaining a student’s flying permit, though the president and the Secret Service objected to her learning to fly and Eleanor was unable to pursue a flying career any further. Earhart’s 1937 round the world flight, accompanied by navigator Fred Noonan, was followed by the public in a manner similar to those of the astronauts thirty years later.

Earhart and Noonan vanished in the Pacific while on a leg of the flight which should have had them fly from their departure point, Lae Airfield in New Guinea, to Howland Island. Neither flyer was ever heard from again, though there were reported sightings and radio transmissions for many years following their disappearance. Rumors that they were captured by the Japanese and executed as spies arose, as did tales – unsubstantiated – that they were in fact dispatched by United States authorities to test Japanese security. The wreckage of the aircraft has been reported as being found by several investigators, then discounted. Heavy fighting in the region during the Second World War left the area littered with wreckage and false clues. To date, the fate of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan remains unknown, and the cause of their disappearance remains speculative.

18 Incidents of People Vanishing into Thin Air Throughout History
Glenn Miller, the leader of one of the most popular music acts of all time, vanished during the Second World War. Wikimedia

14. Glenn Miller vanished somewhere over England, the British Channel, or France

Between 1939 and 1943, the best-selling recording artist in the United States was Glenn Miller and his Orchestra, whose hits included In the Mood, Little Brown Jug, Moonlight Serenade, and Chattanooga Choo Choo, to name just a few. Miller and his orchestra logged 23 number one hits during the four year period, more than the Beatles did during their career (20). His popularity did not extend to many music critics, which Miller ignored, creating music for his listeners who loved the swing sound of his band, rather than so-called jazz purists. During the Second World War Miller’s band toured to entertain troops, with Miller officially joining the Army in 1942, transferring to the Army Air Force later in the year. Miller recorded many songs (at Abbey Road Studios, later used by The Beatles) in German to be broadcast as part of America’s propaganda effort.

In December 1944, Miller began making plans to relocate his band from England to Paris, to be nearer the front and able to entertain troops as they rotated on rest and recreation shifts from combat duty. His flight took off from RAF Twinwood Farm, a single engine aircraft called a Norseman. Miller never arrived in Paris. It was assumed that the aircraft went down in the Channel, though the cause of the accident has never been proved, since the airplane was never found. By the end of the twentieth century the leading cause of the loss of the plane was believed to be icing, either of the wings or the carburetor, but other causes have been suggested, including shot down by the Luftwaffe, shot down by friendly fire, and pilot error. No trace of Major Glenn Miller or the aircraft was ever found.

18 Incidents of People Vanishing into Thin Air Throughout History
American writer and critic H. L. Mencken was lavish in his praise for the work of twelve year old Barbara Follett. National Archives

15. Barbara Follett walked away from her marriage and writing career.

Barbara Follett published her first novel The House Without Windows in 1927, receiving lavish praise from literary critics at The New York Times and from American sage H. L. Mencken. What made the novel truly remarkable was that Barbara was twelve years of age at the time of publication. Her second novel, The Voyage of the Norman D. was equally well received when it was published the following year. Barbara’s career as a novelist reached its peak before she was fourteen, though she continued to write for a time, including book length manuscripts and travelogues. In 1933, while working as a secretary, Barbara married Nickerson Rogers, and settled in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Her marriage was an unhappy one, and Barbara suspected her husband of being unfaithful. In early December, 1939, Barbara left their home in the aftermath of a spat with her husband, allegedly with about $30 in her pocket. Nickerson did not report her missing until she had been gone for two weeks, and after she had been gone several months he requested a missing person’s bulletin be issued. The bulletin was released using Barbara’s married name rather than her own more famous last name, well known in the publishing world. Despite police and private investigations, no trace of Barbara was ever found, nor was there any evidence of a crime involving the former prodigy. Barbara Follett simply vanished, her fate remains unknown.

18 Incidents of People Vanishing into Thin Air Throughout History
An aerial view of the submarine base at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Lattimore would have had a similar view during his hikes in the Hawaiian hills. US Navy

16 Thomas Lattimore was briefly a governor of American Samoa

Thomas Lattimore was a career officer in the United States Navy, who graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1914. He served during the First World War as a junior officer, promoted to Lieutenant Junior Grade before the war ended, and during the interwar years served in many posts, including briefly as acting governor of American Samoa, since he was temporarily the senior officer present. In the spring of 1941 he was assigned as commanding officer of USS Dobbin, a destroyer tender based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaiian Territory. Later that summer the decision was made to keep the American Pacific Fleet in Hawaiian waters, rather than at the anchorages along America’s west coast.

Lattimore was known to enjoy solitary hikes in the hills surrounding Pearl Harbor. After one such hike he returned to his ship with an arm injury, which he claimed occurred as the result of an accidental fall, and which required his arm to be in a cast. In July 1941, after the cast had been removed, Lattimore again left for a hike in the Aiea Mountains. When he failed to return, search parties of sailors, soldiers, and Marines were sent to look for him, including search dogs. He was never found, nor were any clues as to what may have happened to him. Rumors about his fate included abduction by Japanese spies who were gathering information preparatory to the Pearl Harbor attack, but the Commander’s fate remained, and still remains, a mystery, largely forgotten following the Japanese attack in December, other than among sailors who knew him.

18 Incidents of People Vanishing into Thin Air Throughout History
The wreckage of the bomber known as Lady be Good in the Libyan desert in 1960, seventeen years after it was lost. US Air Force

17. The crew of the Lady be Good vanished in the Libyan desert

For fifteen years, the American B-24 Liberator bomber named Lady be Good by its crew was believed to have been lost over the Mediterranean Sea while flying its first combat mission in 1943. The bomber had been part of a raid on Naples, after which it failed to return to its base in Libya. Its crew of nine officers and men had been assigned to the squadron only the week before the mission, and were inexperienced flying over the desert, where landmarks which could be used to correct navigational errors were scarce. The bomber took off as a sandstorm was developing, and in the low visibility the pilot was unable to join the formation of planes which had launched earlier, so it continued on its mission without escort. On its return leg, the automatic direction finder failed.

The crew failed to spot its airfield, and continued to fly south over the Libyan desert in the low visibility caused by the sandstorm. It eventually ran out of fuel in the desert, and belly landed in the sand. The wreck of the aircraft was partially covered by shifting sands, and remained undisturbed until 1958, when a crew of surveyors for British Petroleum discovered the aircraft. There was no indication of what happened to the crew, other than that the absence of parachutes indicated that the crew bailed out before the aircraft landed in the desert, with only one engine still running. In 1960 a comprehensive search by the United States Air Force and British Petroleum discovered the remains of eight of the nine men who flew in Lady be Good, ending a seventeen year mystery over their fate.

18 Incidents of People Vanishing into Thin Air Throughout History
Although some of the badly deteriorated cash extorted by the man known as D. B. Cooper was found in 1980, the rest of the money and the man has never been found. Federal Bureau of Investigation

18. D. B. Cooper became a part of American folklore

When D. B. Cooper (not his real name) jumped from a Boeing 727 carrying a briefcase containing $200,000 in November 1971, he vanished from sight and entered into legend. Despite some of the money being found in 1980, most of the money and the man who extorted it by hijacking an airliner have never been found. The FBI and local authorities held an intensive manhunt in the rough country where Cooper would have landed by parachute, but found no trace of the hijacker nor the equipment which he carried with him when he made his jump. The search operation was one of the most expensive of American history to that time, but it delivered little of value to the investigators. Other than a small amount of money found in 1980, none of the cash has ever turned up.

D. B. Cooper, which is a name created by the media to identify the hijacker, may or may not have survived the parachute jump and the harsh country in which he may have landed. From the day of the hijacking he became a folk hero, with many Americans expressing the hope that he got away with several crimes that November day. The fact that none of the money was ever found in circulation suggests otherwise, despite several individuals, or relatives of individuals, claiming to either be the hijacker or knowing who he was. The FBI finally suspended the investigation in 2016, citing the need to focus resources into more pressing issues. Whoever the man known as D.B. Cooper was, he vanished, as did the money he extorted, disappearing perhaps into plain sight but hidden from history.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Owain Glyndwr”. BBC Wales. Online

“King of the Pirates: The Swashbuckling Life of Henry Every”. E. T. Fox. 2008

“Signs of Cherokee Culture: Sequoyah’s Syllabary in Eastern Cherokee Life”. Margaret Bender. 2002

“‘Twelve Years’ Is the Story of a Slave Whose End is a Mystery”. Hansi Lo Wang, National Public Radio, transcript. January, 2014. Online

“Abandoned Ship: The Mary Celeste”. Jess Blumberg, Smithsonian Magazine. November 2007

“Louis Le Prince, who shot the world’s first film in Leeds”. Ian Youngs, BBC News. June 23, 2015

“Belle Gunness: The Black Widow of the Midwest Who Lured Numerous Victims to Their Deaths”. Steven Casale, The Line Up. Jan 8, 2017

“Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company”. Roy Morris. 1995

“Amelia Earhart: Island bones ‘likely’ belonged to famed pilot”. BBC News. March 8, 2018

“Mystery of Glenn Miller’s death is finally solved 73 years after his disappearance”. David Pilditch, The Daily Express. December 20, 2017

“Books: Tragedy in a hothouse”. Harold Grier McGurdy, TIME Magazine. June 3, 1966

“Lady be Good, Mystery Bomber of World War II”. Dennis McLendon. 1982

“Unmasking D. B. Cooper”. Geoffrey Gray, New York Magazine. October 21, 2007

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