8 of the Most Intriguing Disappearances in History

British soldier, archaeologist, and explorer Percy Fawcett circa 1920
British soldier, archaeologist, and explorer Percy Fawcett circa 1920
Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It’s relatively difficult to get lost without a trace, at least these days. But history contains a number of examples of individuals (and groups) who seemingly managed to vanish into thin air. Many of these stories have become fodder for sci-fi and paranormal theories, from ghosts to sea monsters, but while the answers are probably far more prosaic, we just don’t have them—yet. Ian Crofton’s 2006 book The Disappeared, which contains 35 of these stories, provided much of the information for the eight here.

1. THE ROANOKE COLONY

It may be the oldest mystery in the nation: In the late 16th century, more than 100 colonists seemingly vanished from Roanoke Island, part of what is now North Carolina. The colonists had arrived in 1587 under the leadership of the Englishman John White, a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh, and were part of the second (though some say it's the third) attempt to settle the area. The earliest days of the colony seemed to have been touched by both joy (White’s daughter gave birth to the first English child born in the New World about a month after arriving) and sorrow as relationships with the Native Americans deteriorated. When things started to look dire not long after the colony got started, White was persuaded to go back to England to get reinforcements and supplies.

Unfortunately, storms and a war with Spain delayed White’s return until three years after he had left. Upon his return to Roanoke Island, he found no sign of his family or any of the other colonists. The only clues to their whereabouts seemed to be the letters “CRO” carved into a tree, and the word “Croatoan” carved into a fence post. White had left instructions that if the settlers moved, they should carve a sign of the place they were going to, and if they were in distress, they should add a cross. White found no cross, but he did find a mess of broken and spoiled belongings. He presumed the settlers had gone to live with the friendly Croatoan tribe, but bad weather and other mishaps prevented him from going to the island where the tribe lived (now called Hatteras Island) to check things out. White never managed to contact the colonists, and nothing more was ever heard of them.

Today, some believe the colonists assimilated into local tribes, but the theory has yet to be proven. Archeological digs at Hatteras Island have found late 16th-century European artifacts, but that doesn’t prove the colonists moved there, since the items could have been acquired by trade or plunder. More recent research has pointed to a site called Merry Hill on Albemarle Sound. In 2015, archeologists said the concentration and dates of European artifacts at the site have convinced them that at least some of the “lost” Roanoke colonists ended up there—but likely fewer than a dozen.

Where did the rest go? Chief Powhattan is said to have told Captain John Smith, leader of the Jamestown Colony, that he had massacred the colonists because they were living with a tribe he considered hostile, but historians have cast some doubt on this account. It’s also possible some, or all, of the colonists escaped with one of the small boats White left, and perished at sea—perhaps trying to return to their homeland, or find a new one. More digs are planned for the area in late 2018 and 2019, but it seems likely the secrets of the colony will remain hidden for some time to come.

2. THE CREW OF THE MARY CELESTE

The Amazon in 1861. The ship was later renamed Mary Celeste.
The Amazon in 1861. The ship was later renamed the Mary Celeste.
Wikimedia // Public Domain

On November 5, 1872, the Mary Celeste set sail from New York Harbor, bound for Genoa with a cargo of industrial alcohol. Almost a month later, the ship was spotted drifting 400 miles east of the Azores. The captain of the boat that spotted her, David Morehouse, noticed something strange about the way she was sailing, and sent his chief mate and a small party to investigate.

Aboard the Mary Celeste, they discovered a perplexing scene: a ship under full sail, but with not a soul aboard. There was no sign of a struggle, and a six-month supply of food and water was still among the supplies. Almost all of the 1701 barrels of alcohol seemed untouched. But the lifeboat was missing, as were most of the ship’s papers and several navigational tools. The boarding party also found two open hatches, and 3 feet of water in the hold; however, the ship was basically in seaworthy condition. The last entry in the captain’s log had been made 10 days prior.

Morehouse’s chief mate sailed the Mary Celeste to Gibraltar, and Morehouse himself later claimed the salvage rights to the ship. Suspicions about the crew’s disappearance initially settled on him—perhaps he had murdered the crew for the salvage rights?—but a British vice admiralty court found no evidence of foul play. (Morehouse did receive a relatively low salvage award, however, perhaps because of lingering suspicions about his involvement.)

Many investigators believe the crew abandoned ship deliberately, since the lifeboat appeared to have been purposely detached rather than torn off in a wave. Some theorize that a quantity of the industrial alcohol—nine barrels were later found empty on the ship—had leaked, and the resultant fumes left the crew terrified of an explosion. They might have left in the lifeboat and intended to watch the ship from a safe distance until the fumes dissipated, then fell victim to a wave, storm, or other calamity. Other theories surrounding the crew’s disappearance have mentioned mutiny, piracy, ghosts, and giant squid, while more recent speculation has centered around a malfunctioning ship pump. Regardless of the truth, the mystery has continued to fascinate, helped along by multiple retellings (and embellishments) in both literature and film.

3. BENJAMIN BATHURST

In 1809, the British envoy to Vienna, Benjamin Bathurst, vanished into thin air. Well, almost—after being recalled to London, he checked in at the White Swann Inn at the Prussian town of Perleberg on November 25, ate dinner, and retired to his room. He dismissed his bodyguards at around 7 or 8 p.m., and a little later went to check on his coach, with which he was supposed to depart at 9 p.m. But when his servants went to check on him at 9, he was nowhere to be found.

Granted, tensions at the time were running high: The Napoleonic Wars were at their height, and Bathurst feared that French agents were after him. He also seems to have believed that Napoleon had it in for him personally. There are indications that the 25-year-old Bathurst wasn’t in the best of mental health, so he may have been imagining things, or at least exaggerating them—especially because historians say a diplomat at the time shouldn’t have been overly concerned for his life. Yet one woman who saw Bathurst drinking tea the day he disappeared said he seemed so nervous he couldn’t drink without spilling from his cup.

A few weeks later, two old women found a pair of Bathurst’s trousers, which contained bullet holes—but no blood—and a letter from Bathurst to his wife that said he feared he’d never see England again. Bathurst also blamed his predicament on the Come d’Entraigues, a French nobleman who later turned out to be a double agent working for Napoleon. But the French vehemently denied any attempt on Bathurst’s life, and insisted that Bathurst had committed suicide. Napoleon himself even assured Bathurst’s wife he had nothing to do with the matter, and allowed her to go to the Rhine area. A four-month investigation she conducted in 1810 failed to find a conclusive answer to her husband’s vanishing.

Others have theorized that Bathurst was murdered by his valet or someone else who may have been after his money or the diplomatic correspondence he carried. In 1852, a skeleton of a person apparently killed with a heavy blow to the back of the head was found in the cellar of a house where a man who was working at the White Swann Inn had lived, but when the skull was shown to Bathurst’s sister, she said it didn’t look anything like him.

4. AMBROSE BIERCE

By the time he was in his seventies, the sardonic writer sometimes nicknamed “Bitter Bierce”—best known for his Devil’s Dictionary—started dropping hints that he was tired of life. He wrote to one friend that he was “sleepy for death,” and to another, “my work is finished, and so am I.”

Bierce also told friends he was interested in the revolution then underway in Mexico, where Pancho Villa and others were fighting the federal government. In one of his last letters, he wrote to a family member: “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 stars. To be a Gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia!"

Bierce seems to have crossed into Mexico over the border at El Paso, and journalists who talked to him in Mexico reported that he said he was going to sign up with Villa’s army. In his last known letter, written on December 26, 1913 to his secretary, Bierce said he was with Villa and that they were leaving the next morning for Ojinaga. Villa’s army seized Ojinaga after a 10-day siege, and some scholars think Bierce may have been killed in the fighting, with his body later burned because of a typhoid epidemic. But none of the American journalists covering the battle mentioned Bierce’s presence.

There are, however, reports that an “old gringo” was killed at Ojinaga. Bierce is also reported to have died, maybe, at several other points during the Mexican Revolution; the torturous tales surrounding his death could be part of one of his own short stories. Others think Bierce never visited Mexico at all, but went to the Grand Canyon, where he sealed his own fate at the business end of a German revolver.

5. PERCY HARRISON FAWCETT

The soldier, explorer, and mystic Percy Harrison Fawcett—who some say was the inspiration for Indiana Jones—disappeared in 1925 while searching the Amazon jungle for a lost city he simply called “Z.”

Fawcett had heard stories of an ancient civilization whose remains were buried in the jungle, one full of crystals, mysterious monuments, and towers emitting a strange glow. After preliminary investigations revealed some telling finds (though Fawcett was cagey about what exactly those were), the explorer, his son Jack, and Jack’s school friend Raleigh Rimell headed north from the town of Cuiaba at the base of the Maato Grosso plateau. About 400 miles along, Fawcett told his Brazilian assistants to turn back, and sent a letter to his wife along with them, telling her: “You need have no fear of failure.”

But nothing more was ever heard from Fawcett, Jack, or Raleigh. One Swiss man named Stefan Rattin reported encountering an old white man who was believed to be Fawcett. Rattin went out again with a couple of reporters, and they were never heard from again. Over the years, more than a dozen expeditions have looked for Fawcett—but none have been able to prove what happened to him.

6. JIMMY HOFFA

Jimmy Hoffa testifying at an investigation
Keystone/Getty Images

On July 30, 1975, Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa was supposed to meet mobster and fellow Teamster Anthony Provenzano, as well as mobster Anthony Giacalone, in the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township, Michigan. Around the time the meeting was supposed to happen, Hoffa called his wife, complaining of being stood up. But by the next morning, he hadn’t come home—and has never been seen again.

Police found Hoffa’s car in the parking lot unlocked, with no clues inside. Witnesses reported seeing two men chatting with Hoffa in the parking lot on the evening in question, but both Provenzano and Giacalone had watertight alibis, and said no meeting had been scheduled. However, Hoffa and Provenzano were known enemies at the time (although the pair had once been friends), and over the years, most have assumed Hoffa was murdered, and that the mob was somehow involved. Yet the how, why, and where have never been revealed.

In the intervening decades, several people have come forward claiming to have played a part in Hoffa’s murder under one scenario or another, but there have always been doubts about their confessions. The FBI has also undertaken major excavations after receiving tips tying various locations to Hoffa’s death—but once again, Hoffa’s body has remained elusive.

7. HARRY HOLT

On December 17, 1967, Harold Holt, then Prime Minister of Australia, went for a swim on Cheviot Beach near Portsea, near Melbourne, and never returned. The authorities mounted one of the largest search-and-rescue operations the nation had ever seen, but found no sign of his corpse. While the 59-year-old Holt was generally outdoorsy, strong, and fit, he’d had recent health trouble, including a shoulder injury that some said gave him agonizing pain. And he’d collapsed in Parliament earlier in the year, perhaps because of a heart condition. Then there’s the fact that Cheviot Beach was known for its rip tides. Yet the lack of a body has stirred conspiracy theories for decades—some say Holt was depressed at the time and may have committed suicide. Others say he was murdered because of his support for the Vietnam War, or may have been abducted by a Chinese or Soviet submarine. (Or, of course, by aliens.)

8. LORD LUCAN

John Bingham, the 7th Earl of Lucan, was known for his taste for luxury, gambling, fast cars, and right-wing politics, as well as for his dashing mustache. (His debonair manner is said to have once earned him consideration for the part of James Bond.) After a largely dissipated youth, he married Veronica Duncan, daughter of an army officer. But after they separated in 1973, he took to heavy drinking and began a bitter custody battle over their three children.

On November 7, 1974, Veronica ran into a pub on Lower Belgrave Street covered in blood. At her house, police found her nanny beaten to death with a length of lead pipe, and the children clustered together upstairs, sobbing. Veronica said Lucan had come to the house, murdered the nanny, and then turned to her, but that she’d managed to flee.

The police issued a warrant for his arrest, and police worldwide got in on the hunt—but Lucan was nowhere. However, before he had skipped town, he stopped at the house of a friend, to whom he told a confusing story: He had just happened to pass Veronica’s house, saw her being attacked, and let himself in with his key, but then slipped in a pool of blood before the assailant and his wife ran away. Lucan also told his mother that a “terrible catastrophe” had occurred at his wife’s house. A bloody Ford Corsair he had borrowed was later found abandoned in Newhaven, with a lead pipe inside, virtually identical to the one found at the murder scene.

Lord Lucan’s disappearance has filled hundreds of tabloid column inches in Britain, but there’s no proof of what happened to him. Some think he murdered the nanny thinking she was his wife, then killed himself when he realized his mistake. For a period in 1974 the Australian police thought they’d found him, but their man turned out to be John Stonehouse, a former British government minister who faked his own suicide in Miami (really). Since then, Lucan has been seen hiking Mount Etna, playing cards in Botswana, partying in Goa, changing in a locker room in Vancouver, and, as a ghost, haunting the halls of government buildings in County Mayo, Ireland. One unlikely theory has it that Lucan decided to hang out in his friend John Aspinall’s private zoo, where a tiger mauled him to death. He was only legally declared dead in 1999.

This article originally ran in 2016.

5 Weird American Cemetery Legends

iStock/grandriver
iStock/grandriver

These strange, spooky cemetery tales of vampires, ghosts, and bloody headstones will keep you up at night. (If you're not too scared, add them to your next cemetery road trip, and keep this guide of common cemetery symbols handy for when you visit.)

1. The Vampire of Lafayette Cemetery

Perhaps it's not surprising that a grave with "born in Transylvania" etched on it would invite vampire comparisons. Local legends say that a tree growing over this grave in Lafayette, Colorado, sprung from the stake that killed the vampire inside, and that the red rosebushes nearby are his bloody fingernails. There are also reports of a tall, slender man in a dark coat with black hair and long nails who sometimes sits on the tombstone. It's not clear what the man who bought the plot—Fodor Glava, a miner who died in 1918—would have thought of all these stories, especially since he might not have actually been buried there.

2. The Green Glow of Forest Park Cemetery

The abandoned Forest Park Cemetery (also known as Pinewoods Cemetery) near Troy, New York, is known for several urban legends. One of the strangest concerns local taxi drivers, who say they pick up fares nearby asking to go home, only to have the passenger mysteriously vanish when they drive by the cemetery. Others tell of a decapitated angel statue that bleeds from its neck—although the effect may be attributed to a certain kind of moss. But one of the eeriest parts of the grounds is a dilapidated mausoleum said to be home to a green, glowing light often seen right where the coffins used to be located.

3. The New Orleans Tomb That Grants Wishes

Famed "Voodoo Queen" Marie Laveau is buried in arguably the oldest and most famous cemetery in New Orleans, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. (Or said to be, anyway—some dispute surrounds her actual burial spot.) For years, visitors hoping to earn Marie's supernatural assistance would mark three large Xs on her mausoleum; some also knocked three times on her crypt. However, a 2014 restoration of her tomb removed the Xs, and there's a substantial fine now in place for anyone who dares write on her tomb.

4. Pennsylvania's Bleeding Headstone

The Union Cemetery in Millheim has one of the nation's weirder headstones: It's said to bleed. The grave belongs to 19th-century local William (or Daniel) Musser, whose descendants tried to replace the tombstone repeatedly, but the blood (or something that looked like blood) just kept coming back—until they added an iron plate on top.

5. Smiley's Ghost in Garland, Texas

A single plot in the Mills Cemetery is home to five members of the Smiley family, who all died on the same day. Rumor has it that if you lie down on the grave at midnight (especially on Halloween), you'll find it very difficult to rise back up, as the ghost of old man Smiley tries to pull you down, hoping to add one more member to the family's eternal resting place.

16 Soothing Facts About Muzak

Keith Brofsky/iStock via Getty Images
Keith Brofsky/iStock via Getty Images

Whether you know it as background music, elevator music, or, as Ted Nugent once called it, an “evil force causing people to collapse into uncontrollable fits of blandness,” Muzak has ruled speakers for the better part of a century. Press play on your favorite easy-listening album and scroll on for some unforgettable facts about the most forgettable genre of music.

1. Muzak is a brand name.

Much like Chapstick, Popsicle, and a certain type of vacuum-sealing plastic food container, Muzak is a registered trademark. It began as the name of the company that first produced the easy-listening instrumental tunes that played in factories, elevators, and department stores. As its popularity grew, people started to use Muzak as a generic term for all background music.

2. Muzak was invented by a U.S. army general.

Major General George Owen Squier
Library of Congress // Public Domain

During World War I, Major General George Owen Squier used electrical power lines to transmit phonograph music over long distances without interference. He patented this invention in 1922 and founded Wired Radio, Inc. to profit from the technology. The company first devised a subscription service that included three channels of music and news and marketed it to Cleveland residents for $1.50 per month. When Squier and his associates realized their product was a little too close to regular (free) radio, they started pitching it to hotel and restaurant owners, who were more willing to pay for a steady broadcast of background music without interruptions from radio hosts or advertisements.

3. The name is a portmanteau of music and Kodak.

In 1934, Squier changed the name of his business from Wired Radio to Muzak, combining the first syllable of music with the last syllable of Kodak, which had already proven to be an extremely catchy, successful name for a company.

4. Muzak has been releasing instrumental covers of pop songs since its inception.

The first-ever original Muzak recording was an instrumental medley of three songs performed by the Sam Lanin Orchestra: “Whispering,” by John and Malvin Shonberger, “Do You Ever Think of Me?” which was covered by Bing Crosby, and “Here in My Arms,” by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers from the 1925 Broadway musical Dearest Enemy.

5. Muzak was briefly owned by Warner Bros.

The sound of Muzak was wafting across the country by the end of the 1930s, which caught the ears of Warner Bros. The company bought Muzak in 1938, fostered it for about a year, and then sold it to three businessmen: Waddill Catchings, Allen Miller, and William Benton (Benton would later publish the Encyclopaedia Britannica and serve as a U.S. senator for Connecticut).

6. Muzak was designed to make factory workers more productive.

Muzak manufactured soundtracks, based on a theory called “stimulus progression,” that consisted of 15-minute segments of background music that gradually ascended in peppiness. The method was meant to tacitly encourage workers to increase their pace, especially during the productivity lulls that often occurred during the late morning and mid-afternoon.

7. Muzak helped calm anxious elevator passengers.

Since more advanced electric elevators diminished the need for elevator operators in the mid-20th century, passengers were often left alone with an unsettling silence that made them all too aware that they were hurtling upward or downward in a steel box. Soft, calming Muzak played through speakers offered the perfect distraction.

8. There’s a reason Muzak's tempo is slower in supermarkets.

Just like factory workers might move faster while listening to fast-paced tracks, you might slow down while shopping to slower-tempo Muzak—which is exactly what supermarket owners want you to do. The more time you spend in a store, the more likely you are to toss a few extra snacks in your cart. (It's unclear whether the slower music might inhibit the productivity of supermarket workers.)

9. More than one U.S. president endorsed Muzak.

Muzak was installed in the White House during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, but he was arguably only the second biggest presidential fan of the genre. Lyndon B. Johnson actually owned Muzak franchises in Austin while serving as a U.S. Senator from Texas.

10. Andy Warhol was also a fan of Muzak.

Andy Warhol
Graham Wood/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Pop culture aficionado Andy Warhol supposedly said, “I like anything on Muzak—it’s so listenable. They should have it on MTV.”

11. Ted Nugent offered to buy Muzak for $10 million to “shelve it for good.”

In 1986, the Whackmaster put in a bid to purchase Muzak from parent company Westinghouse just to shut it down. According to the Ottawa Citizen, he called it an “evil force” that was “responsible for ruining some of the best minds of our generation.” Westinghouse rejected the bid.

12. Muzak didn’t formally introduce vocals until 1987.

As part of a rebranding campaign to modernize Muzak, the company started adding voice-accompanied tunes in 1987. Before that, Muzak broadcasts had only featured voices twice. The first was an announcement that Iran had freed American hostages in 1981, and the second was as part of a worldwide radio broadcast of “We Are the World” in 1985.

13. 7-Elevens blared Muzak in parking lots to chase off loiterers.

7-Eleven storefront at night
Mike841125, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1991, 7-Eleven parking lots in Southern California became well-trafficked watering holes for youth who evidently had no place else to go. To deter them from loitering with skateboards, beer, and lots of teen angst, the stores blared Muzak—and it worked. “It will keep us away,” one young loafer told the Los Angeles Times. “But they’re torturing themselves more than us because they have to sit inside and listen to it.”

14. Seattle is the capital of Muzak.

Though it's well known as the birthplace of grunge, Seattle also had a thriving elevator music scene. Muzak based its corporate headquarters there in the 1980s, and three other leading background (and foreground) music corporations opened in the city over the years: Yesco Foreground Music, Audio Environments Inc., and Environmental Music Service Inc.

15. Kurt Cobain wanted Muzak to cover Nirvana songs.

When an interviewer told the Seattle-based rock star that Muzak didn’t recreate Nirvana tracks because it found them too aggressive for its purposes, an amused Cobain said, “Oh, well, we have some pretty songs, too. God, that’s really a bummer. That upsets me.”

16. It’s no longer called Muzak.

In 2013, an Ontario-based sensory marketing company called Mood Media acquired Muzak. The company, which provides music, smells, signs, lights, and interactive displays to businesses to achieve a certain mood, consolidated all of its services under the Mood brand, effectively killing the Muzak name (at least officially).

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