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.

Why We Eat What We Eat On Thanksgiving

monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images
monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images

When Americans sit down with their families for Thanksgiving dinner, most of them will probably gorge themselves on the same traditional Thanksgiving menu, with turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and pumpkin pie taking up the most real estate on the plates. How did these dishes become the national "what you eat on Thanksgiving" options, though?

Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving?

It's not necessarily because the pilgrims did it. Turkey may not have been on the menu at the 1621 celebration by the Pilgrims of Plymouth that is considered the first Thanksgiving (though some historians and fans of Virginia's Berkeley Plantation might quibble with the "first" part). There were definitely wild turkeys in the Plymouth area, though, as colonist William Bradford noted in his book Of Plymouth Plantation.

However, the best existing account of the Pilgrims' harvest feast comes from colonist Edward Winslow, the primary author of Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Winslow's first-hand account of the first Thanksgiving included no explicit mention of turkey. He does, however, mention the Pilgrims gathering wild fowl for the meal, although that could just as likely have meant ducks or geese.

When it comes to why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving today, it helps to know a bit about the history of the holiday. While the idea of giving thanks and celebrating the harvest was popular in certain parts of the country, it was by no means an annual national holiday until the 19th century. Presidents would occasionally declare a Thanksgiving Day celebration, but the holiday hadn't completely caught on nationwide. Many of these early celebrations included turkey; Alexander Hamilton once remarked, "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day."

When Bradford's journals were reprinted in 1856 after being lost for at least half a century, they found a receptive audience with advocates who wanted Thanksgiving turned into a national holiday. Since Bradford wrote of how the colonists had hunted wild turkeys during the autumn of 1621 and since turkey is a uniquely North American (and scrumptious) bird, it gained traction as the Thanksgiving meal of choice for Americans after Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

Moreover, there were pragmatic reasons for eating turkey rather than, say, chicken at a feast like Thanksgiving. The birds are large enough that they can feed a table full of hungry family members, and unlike chickens or cows, they don't serve an additional purpose like laying eggs or making milk. Unlike pork, turkey wasn't so common that it seemed like an unsuitable choice for a special occasion, either.

Did the pilgrims have cranberry sauce?

While the cranberries the Pilgrims needed were probably easy to come by, making cranberry sauce requires sugar. Sugar was a rare luxury at the time of the first Thanksgiving, so while revelers may have eaten cranberries, it's unlikely that the feast featured the tasty sauce. What's more, it's not even entirely clear that cranberry sauce had been invented yet. It's not until 1663 that visitors to the area started commenting on a sweet sauce made of boiled cranberries that accompanied meat.

There's the same problem with potatoes. Neither sweet potatoes nor white potatoes were available to the colonists in 1621, so the Pilgrims definitely didn't feast on everyone's favorite tubers.

How about pumpkin pie?

It may be the flagship dessert at modern Thanksgiving dinners, but pumpkin pie didn't make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims probably lacked the butter and flour needed to make a pie crust, and it's not clear that they even had an oven in which they could have baked a pumpkin pie. That doesn't mean pumpkins weren't available for the meal, though; they were probably served after being baked in the coals of a fire or stewed. Pumpkin pie became a popular dish on 17th-century American tables, though, and it might have shown up for Thanksgiving as early as the 1623 celebration of the holiday.

This article originally appeared in 2008.

15 Colorful Facts About Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe’s enchanting floral still life paintings are now a deeply ingrained part of American culture—so much so that they often eclipse her other colorful accomplishments. For a more complete portrait of the artist, who was born on November 15, 1887, brush up on these 15 little-known facts about her.

1. Flower paintings make up a small percentage of Georgia O'Keeffe's body of work.

Though Georgia O'Keeffe is most famous for her lovingly rendered close-ups of flowers—like Black Iris and Oriental Poppies—these make up just about 200 of her 2000-plus paintings. The rest primarily depict landscapes, leaves, rocks, shells, and bones.

2. Georgia O'Keeffe rejected sexual interpretations of her paintings.

For decades, critics assumed that O'Keeffe's flowers were intended as homages—or at the very least, allusions—to the female form. But in 1943, she insisted that they had it all wrong, saying, “Well—I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.” So there.

3. Georgia O'Keeffe was not a native of the American Southwest.


Joe Raedle/Getty Images

O'Keeffe was actually born on a Wisconsin dairy farm. She'd go on to live in Chicago; New York City; New York’s Lake George; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Amarillo, Texas. She first visited New Mexico in 1917, and as she grew older, her trips there became more and more frequent. Following the death of her husband in 1946, she moved to New Mexico permanently.

4. Georgia O'Keeffe’s favorite studio was the backseat of a Model-A Ford.

In an interview with C-SPAN, Carolyn Kastner, former curator of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, explained how the artist customized her car for this use: "She would remove the driver's seat. Then she would unbolt the passenger car, turn it around to face the back seat. Then she would lay the canvas on the back seat as an easel and paint inside her Model-A Ford."

Painting inside the car allowed O'Keeffe to stay out of the unrelenting desert sun, where she painted many of her later works. The Model-A also provided a barrier from the bees that would gather as the day wore on.

5. Georgia O'Keeffe also painted skyscrapers.

While nature was O'Keeffe's main source of inspiration, the time she spent in 1920s Manhattan spurred the creation of surreal efforts like New York With Moon, City Night, and The Shelton with Sunspots.

6. Georgia O'Keeffe immersed herself in nature.

While in New Mexico, O’Keeffe spent summers and falls at her Ghost Ranch, putting up with the region's hottest, most stifling days in order to capture its most vivid colors. (The rest of the year she stayed at her second home, located in the small town of Abiquiu.) When she wasn't painting in her Model-A, O'Keeffe often camped out in the harsh surrounding terrain, to keep close to the landscapes that inspired her.

7. Not even bad weather could keep Georgia O'Keeffe away from her work.

The artist would rig up tents from tarps, contend with unrelenting downpours, and paint with gloves on when it got too cold. She went camping well into her 70s and enjoyed a well-documented rafting trip with photographer Todd Webb at age 74. Her camping equipment is occasionally exhibited at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.

8. Georgia O'Keeffe married the man behind her first gallery show.

"At last, a woman on paper!" That’s what modernist photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz cried when he first saw O'Keeffe's abstract charcoal drawings. He was so enthusiastic about this series of sketches that he put them on display—before consulting their creator.

When O'Keeffe arrived at his gallery, she wasn't pleased, and brusquely introduced herself: "I am Georgia O'Keeffe and you will have to take these pictures down." Despite their rocky beginnings, Stieglitz and O'Keeffe quickly made amends, and went on to become partners in art and in life.

9. Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz wrote 25,000 pages of love letters to each other.

When the pair met in 1916, Stieglitz was famous and married; she was unknown and 23 years his junior. All the same, they began writing to each other often (sometimes two or three times a day) and at length (as many as 40 pages at a time). These preserved writings chart the progression of their romance—from flirtation to affair to their marriage in 1924—and even document their marital struggles.

10. Georgia O'Keeffe served as a muse to other artists.

Thanks in part to Stieglitz, O'Keeffe was one of the most photographed women of the 20th century. Stieglitz made O'Keeffe the subject of a long-term series of portraits meant to capture individuals as they aged, and she made for a striking model. Though he died in 1946, the project lived on as other photographers sought out O'Keeffe in order to capture the beloved artist against the harsh New Mexican landscapes she loved so dearly.

O'Keeffe later wrote:

"When I look over the photographs Stieglitz took of me—some of them more than 60 years ago—I wonder who that person is. It is as if in my one life I have lived many lives. If the person in the photographs were living in this world today, she would be quite a different person—but it doesn't matter—Stieglitz photographed her then."

11. Georgia O'Keeffe quit painting—three times.

The first break spanned several years (the exact number is a matter of debate), when O'Keeffe took on more stable jobs to help her family through financial troubles. In the early 1930s, a nervous breakdown led to her hospitalization, and caused her to set aside her brushes for more than a year.

In the years leading up to her death in 1986, failing eyesight forced O'Keeffe to give up painting entirely. Until then, she fought hard to keep working, enlisting assistants to prepare her canvas and mix her oil paints for pieces like 1977's Sky Above Clouds/Yellow Horizon and Clouds. She managed to use watercolors until she was 95.

12. After going blind, Georgia O'Keeffe turned to sculpting.


By Alfred Stieglitz - Phillips, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Although her vision eventually made painting impossible, O'Keeffe's desire to create was not squelched. She memorably declared, "I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.” O'Keeffe began experimenting with clay sculpting in her late 80s, and continued with it into her 96th year.

13. Georgia O'Keeffe is the mother of American Modernism.

Searching for what she called “the Great American Thing,” O'Keeffe was part of the Stieglitz Circle, which included such lauded early modernists as Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Paul Strand, and Edward Steichen. By the mid-1920s, she had become the first female painter to gain acclaim alongside her male contemporaries in New York's cutthroat art world. Her distinctive way of rendering nature in shapes and forms that made them seem simultaneously familiar and new earned her a reputation as a pioneer of the form.

14. Georgia O'Keeffe blazed new trails for female artists.

In 1946, O’Keeffe became the first woman to earn a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Twenty-four years later, a Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective exhibit introduced her work to a new generation. Fifteen years after that, O'Keeffe was included in the inaugural slate of artists chosen to receive the newly founded National Medal of Arts for her contribution to American culture.

15. Georgia O'Keeffe wasn't fearless, but she rejected fear.

O'Keeffe was purported to have said, "I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do."

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