8 Explorers Who Mysteriously Disappeared (and Some Who’ve Been Found)

A statue of Gaspar Corte-Real
A statue of Gaspar Corte-Real

By their very nature, explorers often push the boundaries of survival in the name of glory, so it’s not a great surprise that many have gone missing in the course of their adventures. Over the years, the quest to uncover the truth of what happened to them has captivated the public, historians, and journalists alike, leading to numerous theories and some surprising finds.

1. Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real

The youngest of three Portuguese brothers, Gaspar Corte-Real was a keen explorer who undertook an expedition to Greenland in 1500. He embarked on a second expedition in 1501 with his older brother Miguel, in which they claimed Greenland for the crown before apparently sailing on to reach Newfoundland or Labrador. At that point, Gaspar sent two of his three ships back to Portugal, including the one captained by his brother. Gaspar’s ship continued its explorations, but was never seen again.

In 1502, Miguel Corte-Real, learning of his brother’s disappearance, led a search party to the area where Gaspar was believed lost, but he found nothing, and his ship too went missing. The oldest Corte-Real brother, Vasco Annes, begged the king to let him mount a further search party to find his lost brothers, but the king refused—perhaps unwilling to risk the embarrassment of losing a third Corte-Real.

The disappearances have remained a mystery for centuries. But in the 1910s, Edmund Burke Delabarre, a psychology professor at Brown University, put forward a new theory about the inscriptions on the famous Dighton Rock in Massachusetts. The rock is covered with petroglyphs that were first noted way back in 1680, and since then scholars have proposed numerous theories about who carved them and why. Delabarre suggested that the inscription was in fact abbreviated Latin, and reads: “I, Miguel Cortereal, 1511. In this place, by the will of God, I became a chief of the Indians.” This astounding theory implies that the explorer may have continued his travels into America and survived at least nine years in the New World. If his inscription is to be believed, he made quite a success of his new life.

2. Jean-Francois De Galaup

La Perouse's last letter
La Perouse's last letter

Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de la Pérouse, was an accomplished sea captain. In 1785, inspired by the successes of Captain James Cook, the French king Louis XVI sent La Pérouse on an expedition to explore the Pacific. The party was made up of two ships—La Boussole and L'Astrolabe—manned by 225 crewmembers. The voyage was expected to last four years. La Pérouse kept scrupulous records of his findings during the trip, mapping coastlines, taking specimens, and making observations of the peoples and places he encountered. (Thankfully, he sent his journals back to France, where they were preserved for posterity and later published to great success.) Having successfully sailed through the Pacific, taking in Japan, the Philippines, and Tonga, La Pérouse arrived at Botany Bay in Australia and was witnessed by British settlers sailing out of the bay in March 1788, the last sighting of the expedition. By 1791, when no communication had been received from La Pérouse for some time, a search party was dispatched from France—but no trace of the expedition was found.

The puzzle seemed to be solved in 1826 when an Irish sailor, Peter Dillon, came across something intriguing while exploring the Solomon Islands. The locals had a number of European swords, which Dillon thought might have belonged to La Pérouse, and told of sighting two large ships that had broken up on the reefs there. In 1964 the wreck of La Boussole was at last discovered on the reefs of Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands, confirming that this indeed was where the expedition had reached its sad end. However, in 2017 an Australian researcher found an 1818 account by an Indian castaway that seems to suggest La Pérouse was killed by locals on a small island off Northern Australia, perhaps in a later leg of his voyage after constructing a schooner from the remains of La Boussole.

3. Naomi Uemura

Japanese explorer Naomi Uemura in 1974
Japanese explorer Naomi Uemura in 1974
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Modern explorer and adventurer Naomi Uemura was part of the first Japanese team to scale Mount Everest in 1970. (He would have been the first Japanese person to reach the summit if his impeccable manners hadn’t made him relinquish the lead to allow his elder, Teruo Matsuura, the honor of going first.) Uemura completed many amazing feats during his lifetime, including climbing the highest mountain on each of the world’s continents solo, trekking across the Arctic to become the first person to reach the North Pole solo, and rafting down the Amazon. In February 1984, Uemura set off to scale Mount McKinley in Alaska in an attempt to become the first person to achieve a solo winter climb of the treacherous peak. Uemura reached the peak, but that is all we know, as he never made it off the mountain. Rescue parties searched for the adventurer, but all that was found was some equipment and his diary hidden in a snow cave. To date his body has not been found, and the exact circumstances of his tragic death remain a mystery.

4. Percy Fawcett

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

In the last 90 years, some 13 expeditions and over 100 people have perished in futile attempts to discover the fate of British explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. Fawcett was the very epitome of a dashing explorer: He had a distinguished military career before following his sense of adventure to help create maps of the vast and uncharted Amazon jungle. During the 1920s, he departed on a number of ambitious expeditions in an attempt to locate the fabled lost city of El Dorado, which he dubbed the city of “Z.”

In 1925 Fawcett set off into the Mato Grosso region of Brazil with his eldest son, Jack, and his son’s best friend, Raleigh Rimell. The trio plowed into the jungle, covering up to 15 miles in a day in their zeal to find the rumored riches of the lost city. By May 29 the group sent their native guides back with their latest letters, including one to Fawcett’s wife, Nina, in which he wrote: “You need have no fear of any failure.” This missive was the last thing heard of Fawcett, and after two years with no sign, the Royal Geographical Society sent the first of many search parties. That no trace was discovered of Fawcett only served to keep the many rumors surrounding his fate alive.

Researchers have since come forward with many different theories: Fawcett had “gone native” and was living among a remote tribe; he succumbed to malaria or a jaguar attack; he deliberately disappeared in order to set up a mystical commune. But perhaps the most believable version of his fate was obtained by journalist David Grann, who retraced Fawcett’s steps in 2005 and discovered the Kalapalo Indians had an oral history indicating that Fawcett had ignored their advice and walked right into the domain of a hostile tribe who, in all likelihood, killed him.

5. George Bass

George Bass was an English surgeon who, inspired by tales of Pacific exploration, took to the seas as a ship’s surgeon. He embarked on many expeditions, but the one for which he is most remembered is his voyage to Australia with Matthew Flinders in the 1790s. The pair mapped large swathes of the Australian coast, and Bass identified the body of water between Australia and Tasmania that was later named the Bass Strait in his honor. Despite his success as an explorer, Bass felt under-appreciated and became envious of the merchants who were making their fortunes shipping goods from Europe to the new settlements in Australia. Consequently, he abandoned his cartography and set himself up as a trader. Unfortunately he was a little late to the party and when he returned to Australia, his ship laden with goods, he discovered many others had beaten him to the punch and the market was saturated with British products.

Undeterred, he decided to try his luck in South America and set sail with his bounteous cargo in 1803. Bass and his ship were never seen again, and their fate remains an enigma. Rumors persisted that Bass made it to Chile or Peru, where he was captured by the Spaniards and forced to work in the mines there as a slave until his death.

6. George Mallory

George Mallory was a British explorer and mountaineer who captured the public’s imagination after he was asked why he wanted to climb Everest and he responded: “Because it’s there.” As one of the foremost mountaineers of his day, Mallory was an obvious choice to take part in the first British expeditions to the as-yet-unconquered Everest throughout the early 1920s—well before the benefit of modern materials, technology, and weather forecasting.

In June 1924, George Mallory and fellow mountaineer Andrew Irvine set off for an attempt on the summit. Another member of the expedition glimpsed them climbing at over 26,800 feet, but that was the last time they were seen alive. That the pair perished in their attempt was certain, but debate raged over whether they had become the first to reach the summit and died on their way down, or if they died having never reached the top. Various pieces of the puzzle emerged over time—in the 1930s, Irvine’s ice axe was discovered at 27,700 feet, and in 1991 a 1920s oxygen canister was found. Finally, in 1999, an expedition discovered Mallory’s frozen body on the mountainside, clearly the victim of a terrible fall. The climbers carefully buried the body where they found it, but sadly no trace was ever found of Andrew Irvine.

It was hoped that Mallory’s camera might be found—an artifact that could prove for certain if he made it to the summit—but unfortunately the camera remains missing. Tantalizingly, Mallory had stated that he was going to carry a photograph of his wife and leave it at the summit, and when Mallory’s body was found the photograph was not there, providing yet another clue that perhaps this great mountaineer had conquered the world’s tallest mountain.

7. Sir John Franklin

Sir John Franklin circa 1830
Sir John Franklin circa 1830
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the foremost explorers of the Victorian era was Sir John Franklin, who had captained a number of expeditions to the Arctic in search of the Northwest passage. Franklin succeeded in mapping large areas of coastline, identifying many new botanical specimens and furthering our knowledge of the unforgiving Arctic weather during his first two expeditions. Some 20 years after he had retired, Franklin was tempted back to make one final effort to find the Northwest Passage. In 1845, when Franklin was 60 years old, he set off with 129 crewmembers in HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The ships made it to Baffin Island, where they were sighted by a whaling ship, but after that the ships were seen no more.

With no word from the expedition, numerous rescue missions were sent out to try and discover their fate. Finally, in 1859, after a tip-off from local Inuit hunters, a team led by Francis McClintock found objects and remains from the group on King William Island. It became clear that the two ships had become hopelessly trapped in the sea ice. A note was found which indicated that the ships had finally been abandoned in April 1848, having been stuck fast in the ice since September 1846. The note also revealed that Franklin had died in June 1847, though no cause was given. Scientific analysis of the mummified remains of some of the sailors indicated they may have died from lead poisoning, likely caused by the lead used to seal their canned food. Historians argue that those who did not die from contaminated supplies probably perished in the freezing conditions as they tried to march across the ice to safety. In September 2016, archaeologists announced the discovery of the wrecked remains of HMS Terror off the coast of King William Island, which historians hope will provide yet more clues about the terrible fate of the stranded crew and their desperate struggle for survival.

8. Ludwig Leichhardt

Ludwig Leichhardt, German explorer
Ludwig Leichhardt, German explorer
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1848, German scientist and explorer Ludwig Leichhardt led an attempt to cross Australia’s desert interior from east to west. Leichhardt was already an explorer of some renown, having completed two earlier expeditions across Australia—on one occasion, he had been given up for dead after he spent 18 months in the Australian interior, only to show up very much alive and with copious notes and discoveries.

Leichhardt set off for his final mission accompanied by seven companions, 50 bullocks, 20 mules, seven horses, and a huge amount of supplies and equipment. Despite all of that, the only trace ever found of the missing expedition was a small brass plaque inscribed with Leichhardt’s name and the year 1848, which had been attached to his rifle. The lack of any further evidence of the bodies or equipment from the expedition has proved an enduring mystery, and things aren’t made any clearer by the fact that no one is sure which route they took or how far through Australia’s vast interior they got.

An 1852 search party reported that they had found an abandoned campsite with a tree with the letter L carved into it, a mark Leichhardt reportedly frequently left to indicate his route. Over the years a number of further searches uncovered more trees inscribed with an L, but their disparate locations did little to solve the riddle of the progress and fate of the explorers. The public was so intrigued by the mysterious disappearance that numerous rumors were published in the newspapers, inevitably leading to sensationalist stories of the group dying of thirst, being murdered by Aboriginal people, or even of Leichhardt surviving into old age living in the bush. However, until some concrete evidence or remains are discovered, it is likely that the truth will remain elusive.

This story first ran in 2016.

Campsite Killer: The Unsolved Mystery of the Lake Bodom Murders

Brett Taylor/iStock via Getty Images
Brett Taylor/iStock via Getty Images

The worst night of Nils Wilhelm Gustafsson’s life is one he doesn’t even remember. On June 4, 1960, Gustafsson, then 18, headed for a campground in Espoo, Finland, to spend time with his friends. The group included Seppo Antero Boisman; Boisman’s girlfriend, Anja Tuulikki Maki; and Gustafsson’s girlfriend, Maila Irmeli Bjorklund. The teenagers pitched a single tent on the shore of Lake Bodom and commenced a night of socializing and drinking. At some point in the evening, they retired to the tent.

The next morning, two boys hiking through the campgrounds on a bird-watching expedition noticed the tent from a distance. They weren’t close enough to see many details, but it was clear the tent had been torn and slashed. Nearby, a man with blond hair appeared to be walking away from the campsite.

The boys continued on, apparently thinking little of it. Later that morning, a local passed by the tent and was close enough to observe a shocking sight. Outside the tent lay Gustafsson and Bjorklund, bloodied and battered (by some accounts, Bjorklund was partly hidden inside the tent's fabric). Authorities found Boisman and Maki inside, their bodies displaying knife gashes and injuries consistent with being bludgeoned. Bjorklund, Boisman, and Maki were dead. Only Gustafsson had survived whatever assault had taken place. When police asked him what had happened, he could say only that a shadowy figure dressed in black with bright red eyes appeared and viciously attacked the group.

Months and years would pass, with police unable to garner any additional detail from the lone survivor of the horrific event. It was a case so sensational it became common knowledge among residents of Finland. Everyone knew of the Lake Bodom killings and how authorities were unable to locate the perpetrator. Children were cautioned not to be out after dark in case the killer was still lurking.

That all changed in March 2004. After nearly a half-century, DNA evidence prompted prosecuting attorneys to haul in a suspect they claimed had motive to commit the murders. The case had the backing of forensic science unavailable to investigators in 1960.

Their suspect was Nils Gustafsson.

 

Investigators hadn't suspected Gustafsson at the time of the murders. When Finnish police arrived at the crime scene, he was in bad shape, with a broken jaw, bruises, and a concussion. He couldn't remember anything other than his account of a supernatural figure, which seemed borne out of a state of shock.

Police tried to piece together what had transpired based on physical evidence. On June 4, the group had arrived at the campsite near Lake Bodom, a popular spot for camping and fishing located about 14 miles from Helsinki, on motorcycles. The bikes were still there when the authorities arrived, but the keys were missing. Gustafsson’s shoes were also thought to be lost, until investigators turned them up roughly a half-mile from the campsite. No murder weapon was found on the scene.

The most curious observation was how the killer had launched the assault. The teens had seemingly been knifed and clubbed while they were still inside the tent, with the killer slashing through the shelter in order to stab them. Gustafsson had been found on top of the tent. According to some version of events, so had Bjorklund, meaning she either crawled out of the tent or her body must have been moved between the time of the attack and when police arrived.

Finnish investigators examine the Lake Bodom crime scene in Espoo, Finland in June 1960
Finnish investigators examine the Lake Bodom crime scene in Espoo, Finland in June 1960.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The scene would have been mystifying under most circumstances. But investigators made their own jobs harder by failing to secure the area completely, and inviting search parties to look for clues. Their assistance meant the crime scene was disturbed, making evaluations for footprints or other evidence difficult.

With a paucity of physical evidence, the likelihood of finding a resolution did not seem promising. No arrests were made, and only a handful of suspects emerged in the years that followed. One person of interest was Karl Valdemar Gyllström, who ran a kiosk business on the campgrounds and was reputed to be an extremely irate man who often took issue with campers, presumably due to noise issues. Gyllström was said to have cut tent stakes out of spite and even threw rocks at visitors if he was in an especially foul mood. In the campfire lore that surrounded the crime, some believed Gyllström had simply snapped and brutally assaulted the Gustafsson party.

The surface of a lake is pictured
mukk/iStock via Getty Images

The theory gained momentum when Gyllström died by suicide in 1969. Supposedly, before dying he drunkenly confessed to the murders. As damning as that seemed, police declared Gyllström could not have committed the crime. According to his wife, he'd been in bed with her on the night of the attack (though some argue that it was a coerced alibi). The confession was purportedly false, though it’s not clear what may have prompted Gyllström to take responsibility for the killings.

Police had other leads, too. There was Pauli Luoma, who was said to be in the vicinity of the campsite, but his alibi for that night—being in another town—was confirmed. Pentti Soinenen was a crook who confessed to the murders while being held in jail on other charges. Little else linked him to the crime, however, and police considered it nothing more than jailhouse bragging.

Another suspect, the unfortunately named Hans Assmann, had more of a reason to seem suspicious. A physician named Jorma Palo insisted that at some point after the murders, Assmann had come into Helsinki Surgical Hospital with dirt under his fingernails and blood on his clothes. English-language accounts of the crime don’t specify why he was seeking treatment. But when police looked into it, they found Assmann had a credible alibi.

No one, it seemed, could be placed at the scene. No one other than the man who had managed to come out alive.

 

For decades, the Lake Bodom mystery sat unsolved. Meanwhile, DNA testing was growing into a viable way to re-examine both current and cold cases, first being used in the 1980s. But Finland, with just a single forensics lab serving the entire country, had little bandwidth to turn its attention to old investigations. The Lake Bodom murders weren't revisited until 2004, when a fresh look at Gustafsson's shoes became the focal point of a new round of accusations.

Themis, goddess of justice, against a background of red law books
djedzura/iStock via Getty Images

Forensic scientists at the country's National Bureau of Investigation crime lab tested the shoes and found blood from the victims. Remarkably, the shoes were missing any blood from Gustafsson himself. How he could have been attacked along with the others, yet only have their DNA on his shoes, was puzzling. The explanation, authorities believed, was that he had committed the attacks himself, then discarded his shoes before somehow assaulting himself to make it look like he had been maimed by a third party.

Investigators theorized that Gustafsson could have been compelled to murder the three because of some jealousy. Indeed, someone who was staying at a nearby campsite the evening of the murders testified in court that she saw Gustafsson and Boisman in a heated argument, with Gustafsson appearing to be heavily inebriated. Perhaps, investigators thought, Bjorklund had rejected his advances. Or maybe Gustafsson believed Boisman was making a pass at her. That would explain why Bjorklund had seemingly been stabbed and hit with more frequency than the others. The police hypothesized Gustafsson had been exiled from the tent, possibly after a fistfight with Boisman left him with a fractured jaw. He then returned in a rage, the theory went, swinging a knife through the tent until his friends were dead.

The district prosecutor in Espoo had enough faith in the story to bring charges against Gustafsson, with the potential for life in prison if he was convicted. In protesting his innocence, his lawyer, Riitta Leppiniemi, argued that Gustafsson’s blood had been inside the tent and that being pummeled at the hands of Boisman to the point of a broken jaw would have left him in no condition to violently murder three people. Leppiniemi also criticized the eyewitness testimony of the camper, who had stayed silent about the fight she had purportedly witnessed for 45 years for no discernible reason, and couldn’t remember certain key details.

During the 2005 trial, a police officer named Markku Tuominen claimed Gustafsson was candid after his arrest, and said, “What’s done is done,” predicting he’d get 15 years for the crime. But Gustafsson rejected that and stuck largely to the same story he’d been telling for decades. He couldn’t remember anything other than going fishing with Boisman and that there was no argument.

Lake Bodom in the winter is pictured
Felipe Tofani, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The court ultimately found that there was insufficient evidence to convict Gustafsson, citing that too much time had passed to compile an accurate picture of the event. Gustafsson was freed.

With nearly 60 years having passed since the events of June 1960, no answers appear to be forthcoming. The crime is still part of Finnish folklore. It inspired one heavy metal band to dub themselves Children of Bodom; the band even released a beer made of water from the lake. Some in Finland have tried to turn Gustafsson’s claim that he didn’t remember anything into an inadvertent confession. If he couldn’t remember what happened, how did he know he didn’t do it? But such logic is not for the purview of courtrooms.

Another question is why Gustafsson's shoes were left so far from the campsite. If he took them off to sleep, why not place them near the tent? And who was the blond man the boys saw walking away from what they later learned was the scene of the crime? (Assmann was blond; it's not entirely clear what hair color Gustafsson had at the time of the attacks.) And if Gustafsson had somehow worked up the nerve to stab himself in a staged attack, why wasn’t there a blood trail leading to wherever the knife was deposited or hidden?

The only clarity around the murders is that someone was successful in killing three people at the shore of Lake Bodom. Whether it was a man, woman, group, or something with glowing red eyes, they appear to have gotten away with it.

The Reason Why Objects in a Car’s Side-View Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

aydinozcanbaz/iStock via Getty Images
aydinozcanbaz/iStock via Getty Images

“Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” It's a warning you see in basically every car, but why can't passenger-side mirrors display objects accurately? Well, it's actually a careful design choice made with safety in mind.

The way we see things is dependent on how light reflects off objects around us. An object's color, texture, shape, and other characteristics influence the direction and intensity of light that bounces off them. If the objects are reflected off an intermediate object, like a mirror, our perception of the original object may be distorted.

The shape of the mirror also makes a difference in our perception. In the U.S., passenger-side mirrors are convex (curved slightly outward), whereas driver-side mirrors are flat. A convex mirror placed on the passenger side reduces the driver's blind spots on that side of the vehicle by presenting a wider field of view, but it also makes other cars appear farther away due to a slight distortion caused by the shape. The flatter mirror on the driver’s side produces a more accurate depiction of what’s behind the car with a more narrow field of view, since light bounces off in the same direction that it hits the mirror and doesn't distort the reflection of the object.

When the two mirrors' reflections are combined in the driver's point of view, drivers have the ability to both see wider areas on the passenger side while keeping their eyes (mainly) on the road. The flat-convex combo has been the U.S. standard for years, though the U.S. Department of Transportation is looking into the safety benefits of two convex mirrors, which European cars usually sport.

For now, always remember to check your mirrors frequently, and look over your shoulder before you change lanes. (Don't forget your turn signal!)

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