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.

The Lavender Scare: When the U.S. Government Persecuted Employees for Being Gay

President Dwight Eisenhower circa 1959
President Dwight Eisenhower circa 1959
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many people have heard of the Red Scare, an episode of persecution of suspected communists in the 1940s and 1950s, but they’re less familiar with a scare of a different hue. Over the same period, and into the 1990s, officials investigated and fired government employees for being gay or lesbian—a phenomenon that has become known as the “Lavender Scare.”

Thousands of people were pushed out of government jobs, whether they worked at the State Department or other agencies, as federal contractors, or in the military, because of their perceived sexuality—and, in some cases, because of guilt by association. Most remain anonymous, part of a chapter in LGBTQ history that is frequently ignored.

"The Pervert File"

The Lavender Scare was the product of a perfect storm of circumstances. During the Great Depression and World War II, many gays and lesbians left their rural communities in search of opportunities elsewhere, including in Washington, D.C. Government jobs provided excellent pay and benefits, and in a city, people could build community. But trouble lay ahead.

The first rumblings began in 1947, when the U.S. Park Police instituted a “Sex Perversion Elimination Program” explicitly targeting gay men in Washington, D.C. public parks for harassment. Patrols focused on Lafayette and Franklin Parks, where any men deemed suspicious could be picked up regardless of their intentions. Men were arrested and intimidated, pushed to pay fines to resolve their arrests and go home—but not before their information, including fingerprints and photographs, was collected for inclusion in a “pervert file.” By February 1950, 700 men had been apprehended, 200 of whom were arrested. According to historian David K. Johnson in his book The Lavender Scare, the typical detainee was a 25-year-old government clerk.

The parks program appeared against the backdrop of “sexual psychopath” laws. Passed across the country starting in the 1930s, these laws criminalized LGBTQ people and promoted forcible treatment [PDF] for their sexual expression, which was viewed as a mental disorder. Nebraska Republican Arthur Miller, who authored D.C.’s now-repealed “sexual psychopath” law in 1948, became one of the most vitriolic individuals in attacking gay federal employees: “There are places in Washington where they gather for the purpose of sex orgies, where they worship at the cesspool and flesh pots of iniquity,” Miller said in a blisteringly homophobic floor speech in early 1950.

Miller wasn't the only one speaking out about the perceived menace. In his now-infamous speeches on the Senate floor in February 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy explicitly linked communism and homosexuality, arguing that LGBTQ people were particularly susceptible to communist recruitment because of their "peculiar mental twists."

McCarthy's speeches—and a revelation by deputy undersecretary of state John Peurifoy that the State Department had recently fired 91 employees for being gay—led to a public outcry. Within a month of McCarthy taking to the Senate floor, a Congressional investigation led by senators Kenneth Wherry and J. Lister Hill laid the groundwork for hearings on the issue. Those ultimately resulted in a bipartisan December 1950 report: “Employment of homosexuals and other sex perverts in government,” led by Democratic senator Clyde R. Hoey.

The report, which drew upon extensive interviews with federal agencies and the military, concluded that gay people should not be employed by the government because they were "generally unsuitable" and because they constituted a security risk. The unsuitability was said to stem from the fact that "overt acts of sex perversion" were a crime under federal and local laws, as well as the assertion that "persons who engage in such activity are looked upon as outcasts by society generally." Furthermore, the report said, gay people "lack the emotional stability of normal persons" and "indulgence in acts of sex perversion weakens the moral fiber of an individual to a degree that he is not suitable for a position of responsibility." This lack of moral fiber was said to make gay people, who might be blackmailed for their activities, particularly "susceptible to the blandishments of the foreign espionage agent."

In a callback to the park stings of the 1940s, the report successfully recommended changes to D.C. criminal procedure that forced men suspected of “perversion” into court when they were caught by law enforcement, effectively outing them. The report also pushed government entities to develop clear policies and procedures for terminating gay and lesbian employees—a recommendation that would have tremendous consequences.

"As Dangerous as the Communists"

Kenneth Wherry
Kenneth Wherry
Harris & Ewing, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The government seized on the idea that being gay was a security risk. As Senator Wherry put it, "Only the most naive could believe that the Communists' fifth column in the United States would neglect to propagate and use homosexuals to gain their treacherous ends." In a 1950 newsletter, Republican National Chair Guy George Gabrielson cited “sexual perverts” as a government peril that was "perhaps as dangerous as the actual communists" [PDF].

Inspired in part by the Hoey Report, President Dwight Eisenhower signed executive order 10450 in 1953, listing “sexual perversion” as grounds for identifying someone as a security risk. The document made it possible to aggressively pursue people like Airman Second Class Helen Grace James. James has described being followed and watched during her days in the Air Force, even during activities as innocent as eating a sandwich with a friend or going to the bathroom. The feeling of constant scrutiny affected her mental health and her sleep. "We were scared all the time," she told the Criminal podcast.

Once James was arrested in 1955, the Army threatened to go to her parents and friends with news of her sexuality, saying James was "a threat to the nation and a bad person," she explained to Criminal. "I finally said, just write down whatever you want to write down and I'll sign it."

After being discharged, James fled the East Coast. "[I] had no money, no support at all. I couldn't tell my family, I couldn't tell my friends," she said. "I had hoped to make a career of the Air Force, I loved it." Being kicked out of the Air Force, she felt, was a stain on her military family. She fought for years to change her undesirable discharge to an honorable one; she was finally successful in 2018.

James suffered in silence for years, but Frank Kameny took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1957, he was fired from his job as an astronomer with the Army Map Service for being gay. In his Supreme Court petition three years later, he called the government's policies on homosexuality “nothing more than a reflection of ancient primitive, archaic, obsolete taboos … an anachronistic relic of the Stone Age carried over into the Space Age—and a harmful relic!” His case may have been the first explicitly involving LGBTQ rights to make its way before the court, which denied his appeal. Kameny went on to become a prominent member of the gay rights movement, and was a founder of the Mattachine Society, an activist organization that collects and preserves important archival material related to LGBTQ history.

All in all, an estimated 10,000 people lost their jobs in the Lavender Scare. President Clinton effectively overturned parts of Executive Order 10450 in 1995, but the government didn't apologize for the discrimination until the administration of Barack Obama.

Fellow Travelers

Frank Kameny attending Pride on June 12, 2010
LGBTQ activist and Lavender Scare target Frank Kameny attending a Pride event in 2010

Although not a well-known period in history, The Lavender Scare has had a cultural afterlife. It was the subject of a 2017 documentary, and a key element of a 2007 novel, Fellow Travelers, which followed a youthful civil servant, a forbidden affair, and the terror of living a double life in 1950s Washington. The book was adapted into an opera first staged in 2016, complete with a set inspired by the overbearing style of 1950s brutalist architecture.

“The piece wants to memorialize those people whose lives were lost, or jobs were lost,” Peter Rothstein, who directed the Minnesota Opera production, tells Mental Floss. Many members of the LGBTQ community aren’t aware of the Lavender Scare, or don’t know about its full extent, something Rothstein discovered when he started to research in preparation for the production. “I thought I was kind of up on my queer history. I was like 'whoa!' The scope of it.”

While stereotypes about gay men and musical theater abound, Rothstein notes that musicals play an important role in America’s cultural history and climate. Many recent works, including Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamiltonhave explored historical and cultural identity—and with Fellow Travelers, Rothstein says, the medium was particularly apt. “There’s a huge subtext of men not able to articulate for themselves, because they haven’t really been given language to describe their emotional, sexual specificity," he explained.

This neglected piece of queer history reflects a time when shame kept many people silent. Thankfully, historians such as Johnson are collecting stories before survivors of this generation fade away. As they uncover more tales of careers—and lives—ruined, perhaps the Lavender Scare will begin to take on more of a role in mainstream history books.

Periodic Table Discovered at Scotland's St Andrews University Could Be World's Oldest

Alan Aitken
Alan Aitken

The oldest surviving periodic table of elements in the world may have been found at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, according to the Scottish newspaper The Courier.

University researchers and international experts recently determined that the chart, which was rediscovered in a chemistry department storage area in 2014, dates back to 1885—just 16 years after Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev invented the method of sorting the elements into related groups and arranging them by increasing atomic weight.

Mendeleev’s original periodic table had 60 elements, while the modern version we use today contains 118 elements. The chart found at St Andrews is similar to Mendeleev’s second version of the table, created in 1871. It’s thought to be the only surviving table of its kind in Europe.

The periodic table soaks in a washing treatment
Richard Hawkes

The St Andrews table is written in German, and was presumably produced for German universities to use as a teaching aid, according to St Andrews chemistry professor David O’Hagan. The item itself was dated 1885, but St Andrews researcher M. Pilar Gil found a receipt showing that the university purchased the table from a German catalog in 1888. A St Andrews chemistry professor at the time likely ordered it because he wanted to have the latest teaching materials in the scientific field, even if they weren't written in English.

When university staffers first found the table in 2014, it was in “bad condition,” O’Hagan tells The Courier in the video below. The material was fragile and bits of it flaked off when it was handled. Conservators in the university's special collections department have since worked to preserve the document for posterity.

The 19th century table looks quite a bit different from its modern counterparts. Although Mendeleev laid the groundwork for the periodic table we know today, English physicist Henry Moseley improved it in 1913 by rearranging the elements by the number of protons they had rather than their atomic weight. Then, in the 1920s, Horace Deming created the boxy layout we now associate with periodic tables.

Learn more about the St Andrews discovery in the video below.

[h/t The Courier]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER