It is a fact that literally thousands of people go missing every year in this country alone; some of these are likely well-covered up homicides, but most are voluntary—either teenage runaways or people who just want to start over again—with a few as yet undiscovered suicides thrown in for good measure. However, there are a few vanishings that remain inexplicable or have so captured the public imagination that they continue to intrigue us to this day. Here is my listing of the top ten most mysterious or famous disappearances over the years that continue to baffle investigators to this day.
10. Harold Holt, 1967
It’s not every day that an active head of state—in this case the Prime Minister of Australia—goes disappearing, but that’s precisely what happened one Sunday morning in December of 1967 when the Prime Minister went for a swim and was never seen again. Of course, a massive hunt was undertaken, but despite one of the largest search-and-rescue operations ever mounted in Australia, his body was never found. There were many rumors surrounding Holt’s death, including claims that he had committed suicide or faked his own death in order to run away with his mistress. His death even became the subject of numerous urban myths in Australia, including outlandish but persistent stories that he had been kidnapped by a Chinese submarine, or that he had been abducted by a UFO. Most likely, however, the 59-year-old Prime Minister—not in the best of health at the time anyway—was simply swept away at a beach notorious for its strong and dangerous rip currents and the rest is, as they say, history.
9. John Cabot, 1499
It’s not really that big a mystery what happened to famed Italian explorer, John Cabot—the second European to step foot on North America in 1497—who disappeared along with his five ship fleet during an expedition to find a western route from Europe to Asia. This was, after all, 1499, when things like the Coast Guard and GPS was not yet around to help someone out of such situations. Still, it is unusual that nothing was heard again from at least one of the ships from the ill-fated cruise, but such was the case with Mister Cabot’s fleet. In fact, considering that his ships were primitive wooden vessels that averaged less than 100-foot in length, the prospect that they were all destroyed in a storm or became entangled in an ice flow—or even that the crew succumbed to disease—must be considered not only possible, but considering the era, practically inevitable.
8. Raoul Wallenberg, 1945
Never heard of Raoul Wallenberg? It’s not surprising, as few people outside of Sweden have heard of the courageous Swedish diplomat who was credited with saving the lives of at least 20,000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust (ten times more than Oskar Schindler, by the way). Such, however, are the vagaries of fame. Arrested on espionage charges in Budapest following the arrival of the Soviet army, his subsequent fate remains a mystery despite hundreds of purported sightings in Soviet prisons, some as recent as the 1980s. In 2001, after 10 years of research, a Swedish-Russian panel concluded that Wallenberg probably died (most likely executed by the Russians) in July of 1947, but to date no hard evidence has been found to confirm this. In any case, he rightfully remains a genuine hero for his actions, however, especially in his home country of Sweden and to thousands of Jews around the world.
7. Judge Joseph Force Crater, 1930
Though not well known today, at the time the disappearance of Judge Crater—an associate justice for the Supreme Court for the State of New York—along with his “girlfriend” Sally Lou Ritz, was quite a sensation that prompted one of the biggest manhunts of the 20th century. Some speculated the judge ran afoul of the mafia, which is not all that outlandish a prospect, considering that there were any numbers of judges during that era known to have connections with organized crime. Others, however, believe the judge and his mistress planned their own disappearance and probably skipped town with bags of loot in an effort to start a new life elsewhere—like, say, Rio de Janeiro. In any case, whatever became of the good judge and his mistress has remained a well-kept secret for eighty years and one that isn’t likely to be solved anytime soon. One legacy he did leave behind, however, was that for many years the term “pulling a Crater” was used as slang for a person who mysteriously disappeared under suspicious circumstances.
6. Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli, 1927
1927 was a big year in aviation, and nothing was bigger than the race to be the first to make the Paris to New York Atlantic crossing. At one point, as many as a half dozen aviators were vying for the honor of being the first, but most dropped out due to mechanical or funding problems, leaving only a few genuine contenders. Of course, we know today that Charles Lindbergh was the one who eventually pulled it off, but it was a close call as just days before he made his flight, a well-known French aviator named Charles Nungesser attempted to take the prize by flying from Paris to New York. Unfortunately—or perhaps fortuitously from Lindbergh’s standpoint—the man, along with his navigator, François Coli, disappeared somewhere over the Atlantic and were never heard from again. They are presumed to have crashed into the sea, of course, though some maintain they made it to Newfoundland or Maine and went down in the vast forests of those sparsely populated regions, though no wreckage that could be confirmed to be from their biplane, The White Bird, has ever been found.
5. Glenn Miller, 1944
When the popular American jazz musician and bandleader vanished reroute from England to France to play for troops in recently liberated Paris, few people knew about it at the time. This is because it happened the same day the Germans launched their last major offensive against the allies in what would be known as the Battle of the Bulge, pushing such news to the back page. What happened to the single-engine Norseman he was riding in over the English Channel some 10 days before Christmas has never been explained, and no trace of Miller or the plane has ever been found. There is speculation a German fighter got it, or that the plane got hit by ordnance being dropped by British bombers on their way back from a canceled bombing mission. (Bombers couldn’t land with unexploded ordnance on board and had to jettison their bomb loads—preferably over the ocean—before they could land.) Whatever the case, Miller’s death was a huge loss to the American musical scene and one that it never quite recovered from.
4. D.B. Copper, 1971
In what has to be considered one of the most bizarre events in aviation and criminal history, a man calling himself D.B. Cooper skyjacked a Boeing 727 over Washington State and, after collecting a ransom of $200,000 dollars from authorities, jumped from the rear stairs of the plane from an altitude of 10,000 feet, never to be seen again. Of course, such a feat is made to order for conspiracy buffs, which came up with all sorts of scenarios—not to mention alleged suspects—about who the mysterious man was and what became of him. The mystery appeared destined to remain unsolved, however, until a boy playing on the banks of the Columbia River in 1980 found a stack of decaying bills later confirmed to have been part of Cooper’s ransom, suggesting that the man probably didn’t survive the plunge after all. However, it was only a small part of the ransom (about $5,000 dollars), forcing one to ask what became of the rest of it—or of the man who almost got away with the perfect crime.
3. Percy Fawcett, 1925
When British archaeologist and explorer, Percy Fawcett, together with his eldest son, Jack, and friend Raleigh Rimmell, set out for the jungles of Brazil in search for a hidden “city of gold”, who could have imagined that something could possibly go wrong? As was wont to happen when people set off on adventures of this nature, they were never heard from again and their fate remains unknown to this day. Several unconfirmed sightings and many conflicting reports and theories explaining their disappearance followed, but despite the loss of over 100 lives in more than a dozen follow-up expeditions, and the recovery of some of Fawcett’s belongings, their fate remains a mystery. Probably ended up as shrunken heads on some witch doctor’s coffee table, but who knows? Sounds a little like an Indiana Jones movie to me.
2. Jimmy Hoffa, 1975
So what’s the payoff for being one of the most obnoxious—if successful—union leader ever to put on a tirade? A cement overcoat, which is probably what Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa got when his organized crime chums decided he was more trouble than he was worth. In any case, when he went missing sometime after, 2:45 pm on July 30, 1975, from the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox Restaurant near Detroit, nobody was really that surprised. Of course, what do you expect when you’re meeting with a pair of Mafiosos with fun-loving names like “Tony Jack” Giacolone and “Tony Pro” Provenzano. While it’s pretty apparent he was “offend” by some mob hit man, the real mystery remains as to where they buried the body. One of the more popular suggestions is the fifty-yard line at Giant’s Stadium in New Jersey, which would seem a fitting final resting place for arguably one of the most corrupt—though effective—union leaders in American history.
1. Amelia Earhart, 1937
Easily the most famous disappearance in history, what happened to the 39-year-old aviatrix and her navigator, Fred Noonan, has remained a source for speculation to this day. On one of the last legs of a circumnavigation of the globe, the pair left Lae, New Guinea en route to a tiny speck of land known as Howland Island, never to be seen or heard of again. Of course, the most likely explanation is they simply got lost and ran out of fuel, forcing her to ditch in the sea—a precarious and probably fatal prospect in the heavy, two-engine Lockheed Electra she was flying. Conspiracy theorists had had a field day ever since, claiming that she was captured by the Japanese when she flew too near the Marshal Islands on a secret spying mission for President Roosevelt, while others think she set down on some other deserted island and played Gilligan’s Island with Fred for awhile. Even as late as 1970 there were those who claimed she was still alive, having somehow survived to make her way to America to live under an assumed name. Gotta who love those conspiracy theories?