Grave Sightings: Amelia Earhart
Every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like expanses to overgrown boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles out there, I’m finally putting my archive of interesting tombstones to good use.
It’s been nearly 80 years since Amelia Earhart and her Lockheed Electra disappeared from the face of the earth in 1937, but she remains one of America’s favorite missing persons.
There’s no shortage of theories on what happened to Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan. The most popular belief is probably the simple crash-and-sink theory. It's been well documented that Earhart and Noonan were having trouble with their communication instruments and couldn't locate the tiny island of Howland, which is only two miles long by half a mile wide. Unable to get good directions from the team waiting for them there, theorists believe that the duo flew around looking for a safe place to land until the Electra ran out of fuel.
Now, take the theory above and change the ending, and you have the Gardner Island theory. A group of people, including Earhart’s mother, believed that another, more visible island became the landing target when the Electra began to run low on fuel. Human remains were discovered on the island in 1940, but testing showed they belonged to a male. The bones went missing before researchers could get a second opinion. The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has since discovered many artifacts on the island, now known as Nikumaroro, including a cosmetic jar that resembles the packaging for a well-known freckle-removing cream. Earhart had freckles and apparently disliked them.
Then there’s the theory that Earhart and Noonan were captured and executed by Japanese soldiers when they crashed on the island of Saipan. TIGHAR dismisses this theory, saying, “it was a physical impossibility for the Earhart flight to have reached territory controlled by Japan and, even if it had, there was nothing there to spy on in 1937, and no military to capture her for spying on something that wasn’t there.”
Amelia’s husband, George Putnam, personally investigated the theory that Amelia disappeared to become Tokyo Rose, the radio broadcaster who spouted Japanese propaganda during WWII. He flew to China to listen to audio files himself, and swore afterward that his wife’s voice was not among them.
If you think those last two theories are outlandish, this one’s a real doozie: Amelia Earhart didn’t die. She simply located to New Jersey (obviously) and resurfaced under the name Irene Bolam. The real Irene Bolam steadfastly denied this claim, and had plenty of proof that she was, and always had been, Irene—not Amelia.
Whichever theory is correct, one thing’s for sure: Amelia still hasn’t been found. So how do we have a Grave Sighting for a woman who hasn’t even been located, let alone buried?
Well, despite her international popularity, no one loves Amelia more than the good people of her hometown, Atchison, Kansas. They’ve erected several memorials to her, including an earthwork in the middle of a cemetery and a statue in the adjacent International Forest of Friendship, “a living, growing memorial to the world history of aviation and aerospace.” The inset of the earthwork below, by the way, is how it appears on Google Earth. The bigger picture is how it looks from the viewing platform on a nearby hill. Either the Google Earth satellite is old, or the viewing platform is worthless, because from my view on the platform, it just looked like someone got a little overzealous with the Weed-B-Gon.
If you ever find yourself in Atchison, you can also visit Amelia’s birthplace, now a museum maintained by the Ninety-Nines, an international organization for female pilots. Unless you have a trip to Howland Island or Nikumaroro planned, these tributes are the closest you’ll get to being able to pay your respects. Unless, of course, TIGHAR’s continued expeditions finally find the aviatrix and bring her home.
See all entries in our Grave Sightings series here.