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 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

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.

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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Oral History: In 1985, Mr. Snuffleupagus Shocked Sesame Street

Sesame Workshop
Sesame Workshop

On November 8, 1971, during the third-season premiere of Sesame Street, Aloysius Snuffleupagus was introduced to the world and proved immediately indispensable: Lacking a watering pot, Big Bird was delighted to see the massive, lumbering creature use his trunk to tend to his garden. The two became fast friends.

No one else, however, could be absolutely certain that Mr. Snuffleupagus actually existed.

Time and again, “Snuffy” would shuffle into the frame, just missing the adult residents of Sesame Street. Big Bird would try to convince them his pal was real. They’d humor him, but never really believed it.

So it went for 14 years, until the show’s producers began to hear of a growing concern among viewers: In the wake of news reports about child abuse cases, Big Bird’s implausible eyewitness testimony about his oversized friend might have real-life consequences. If adults were ignoring Sesame Street's biggest star, would kids feel like they wouldn't be heard, either?

The solution? Get rid of the ambiguity and let Snuffy loose. Three decades after his coming-out party, Mental Floss spoke with the writers, producers, and performers who had the delicate, important task of restoring Big Bird’s credibility and resolving his droopy-eyed friend’s identity crisis.

I. The elephant in the room

Sesame Workshop

Sesame Street was just two years old when Jim Henson decided he wanted to incorporate a massive presence on the show: A puppet that required two men to operate. Dubbed Mr. Snuffleupagus, the character debuted in 1971. News media described him as a “large and friendly monster resembling an anteater.” Then-executive producer Dulcy Singer and writer Tony Geiss agreed he would be Big Bird’s not-quite-real friend—a reflection of the wandering imaginations of the show’s preschool-aged audience.

Norman Stiles (Writer/Head Writer, 1971-1995): The character was kind of a collaboration between [executive producer] Jon Stone and Jim Henson. I think the initial idea was really to be ambiguous in the sense that, well, Big Bird says he’s real and the audience sees him and yet he always manages to not be there when the other people were there—so is he real or isn’t he real? The whole idea was to not really answer that, but to leave it as an open question.

Emilio Delgado (“Luis,” 1971-2017): It was going with the whole thing of a child’s imaginary playmate, which a lot of kids have. Big Bird was the only one who could see him. When adults came around, he would be talking about Snuffy this, and Snuffy that. We’d just say, "Yeah, sure, OK." We didn’t believe him.

Carol-Lynn Parente (Executive Producer, 2005-2016): There was a lot of humor to be mined from the issue. We never explained whether he was imaginary or not. Kids were able to see him, but adults couldn’t. You never really knew—was he imaginary? Playing with that question was a lot of fun; kind of a healthy ambiguity.

Stiles: You really had to believe that it was just terrible coincidences and quirks of Snuffy’s own personality that made it so that he just wasn’t there when Big Bird wanted him to be there to introduce him to his friends.

Delgado: Jerry Nelson originally did the voice and was inside the puppet, in the front. Bryant Young was in the rear. Boy, did we get jokes out of that.

Parente: He’s one of the tougher puppets to operate. Just the massive size of him requires certain [camera] blocking. It’s very physical, and very warm inside his belly. It’s only so long the performers can go through takes before they stop and need to be fanned off before they can start again.

Delgado: Later, Jerry stopped doing it. Maybe his back was bothering him. That’s when Marty took it over.

II. Identity crisis

2004 Sesame Workshop

“Marty” is Martin P. Robinson, a puppeteer who assumed the front end and voice of Mr. Snuffleupagus in 1981. For the first 10 years, the character had been a proverbial one-joke pony (or elephant), catching sight of adults and getting so excited he somehow wound up missing them. This would continue for several more years, which eventually began to wear on the nerves of both Robinson and Caroll Spinney, the actor who has portrayed Big Bird since his inception in 1969. Robinson was especially vocal about Snuffy not being a figment of his friend's imagination.

Martin P. Robinson (via Still Gaming: Lee & Zee Show Podcast, 2009): He was never imaginary. I say that a lot. And I say it with great strength of conviction. He was my character, he was never imaginary; he just had bad timing. He was shy, he had bad timing, and the joke was, he’s big, you can’t miss him, but adults being the way they are—preoccupied, going to work, you know—they miss those little details. And Snuffleupagus just happened to be one of those little details that they kept missing year after year after year. So he was a good, real friend to Bird; it’s just that no one else ever took the time to actually meet him.

Delgado: How long can you play a joke out? As performers, as Muppeteers, as artists, you can only carry a story so far before you have to do something else with it. They probably felt that’s what was happening.

Robinson: Those scripts just got so old. Caroll and I would look at the scripts and say, "Oh, lord, this one again."

Delgado: The adults would play along, knowing he didn’t exist. At the same time, I liked the idea of Marty saying, "OK, he just happened to be there at the wrong time." People were barely missing him.

The actors’ desire to play off a new dynamic was soon joined by a more pressing, potentially catastrophic issue. In the early 1980s, news programs like 60 Minutes were reporting on troubling statistics involving child abuse both at home and in daycare centers. If Big Bird—ostensibly the show’s stand-in for the 6-year-old viewing audience—was being brushed aside when trying to convince people Snuffleupagus was real, there was the chance children might not be convinced adults would believe them if they came forward with more troubling claims.

Stiles: We started getting some letters from people who worked with children who had experienced some kind of abuse, and what we were told was that they often don’t think they’ll be believed because the stories are so fantastic in their minds.

Michael Davis (Author, Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street): I remember having my own internal conversations about Snuffy. My kids were in daycare and there were a lot of those stories about what was happening in daycare, a lot of those stories about children being abducted and kids on the back of the milk cartons and all of that. It became kind of a national focus, sometimes bordering on a mania.

Parente: All this was really stemming from a specific set of incidences in the news, claims of sexual abuse going on in some daycare centers, and kids being questioned about what was going on. The fear was that if we represented adults not believing what kids said, they might not be motivated to tell the truth. That caused us to rethink the storyline: Is something we’ve been doing for 14 years—that seemed innocent enough—now something that’s become harmful?

Delgado: It was a very serious consideration. It was something that could happen in their lives, and the [Children’s Television] Workshop was very attuned to things like that.

The CTW—now Sesame Workshop—is the organization comprised of researchers, psychologists, and freelance child experts who generate and evaluate the show’s themes and messages to make sure they’re going to be understood. Revealing Snuffleupagus required a concentrated effort to make certain Sesame Street’s writers and producers were communicating the idea effectively.

Parente: The process has been pretty much the same all these years. We look to experts in childhood development and that helps guide us—what’s the best way to address what we want to address? That’s the model Sesame was founded on, with writers, producers, educators, and researchers all working together.

Davis: I do think that the result from Sesame Street was a smart one because Big Bird, as a character, is a projection of a 6-year-old. So to have a situation where the 6-year-old’s eyewitness reports are being doubted so deeply and ridiculed ... They are kind mocking him a little bit and rolling their eyes at him.

Parente: It’s rare a children’s show is grounded in the real world. Much of our competition is in the animated world, where fantastical things happen. This is a real neighborhood. We think of it as kids coming to a play date with real friends, and it requires a real investment in how you tell a story.

Lawrence Rubin, Ph.D. (Child Psychologist): The writers took a real-world concern and asked themselves, "Are we helping or hurting kids by keeping Snuffy in the imaginary closet, and do we have a moral imperative to respond to a real issue by changing something about the show?"

Stiles: We wanted kids to know that grownups will believe them, but we wanted to preserve the fun that we were having, so I proposed that we have some of the grownups believe Big Bird, and that was the first step.

For the show’s 16th season in 1984 to 1985, producers laid the groundwork for the eventual reveal by depicting Big Bird as knowing the difference between fantasy and reality, with a handful of adults taking him at his word even with Snuffy still at large.

Robinson: They devised this two-year scheme, where in the first year they would have some of the cast members learn from Bird that Bird could indeed tell the difference between what was real and what was imaginary, that he knew the difference and was very clear about it. And once they got that from Bird, they said, "Okay, you know the difference. If you say Snuffy is real, then he’s real and we’d love to meet him, whenever the timing is right." And the other half of the adults said, "What, are you crazy? He’s imaginary! There’s no such thing as a Snuffleupagus."

Stiles: That changed the dynamic between the grownups ... Now, Big Bird wasn’t alone. He had grownups believing him, and we had a new dynamic where the grownups who believed him would now actually try to see Snuffy. That went on, I think, for about a year. I don’t remember the exact combination of conversations, but we finally decided, alright, let’s move. Just creatively, this has run its course.

III. The reveal

The show’s 17th season premiere aired on November 18, 1985. As promised, Big Bird made arrangements to introduce Snuffy to the adults on Sesame Street by telling them he’d yell out a secret word (“Food!”) when they were ready. Unfortunately, Snuffy is too nervous to remain idle, and Big Bird has a few false alarms that make the adults even more dubious.

Rubin: Watching this now, I’m 60 years old, sitting on the edge of my chair, going, "Oh, God, don’t go away! Stay there! Wait!"

Stiles: [Our goal] was to do what we had always done before, which was, "If you stay here, he’ll be here."

Robinson: They did it in one show ... I always thought it would have been nice if they could have revealed him to one person at a time. So that one person would have actually seen him, and then go back screaming to the rest saying, "I saw him!"

In a somewhat bizarre non-sequitur, talk show host Phil Donahue appears to pick up his broken toaster from Luis’s Fix-It Shop and begins to engage characters on the merits of Big Bird’s preferred code word.

Davis: You know, the first thing that comes to mind is that bimodal audience that they always talked about and writing something that would be appealing to adults as much as it would be to kids. Having Phil Donahue being the protagonist kind of making fun of himself and his show was hilarious.

Parente: There are plenty of studies that prove kids get more of the educational value when there’s co-viewing going on, so things like Donahue and other celebrities are by design. When you have a parent viewing with their child, they can ask questions and spawn a conversation.

After some protracted teasing of the audience—Snuffy can’t seem to stay put—the entire cast meets Snuffy and stares at him in awe.

Robinson: He’s starting to peel off and Elmo actually grabs onto his trunk and holds him down. There was a shot when they actually pinned Elmo onto the trunk, and I’m whipping him around in the air like a pinwheel. But it held him up just long enough so that the cast actually showed up, and saw him there. And so, one by one, down the line, it was this line of shocked faces. And they all came up and shook hands with him.

Delgado: We were all amazed that this giant elephant-looking thing was actually real. You get a big reaction from everybody, and everybody was very happy Big Bird had been telling the truth all along. He was very happy people believed him.

Stiles: Big Bird [said] "Well, now what do you have to say?" You know, that was really his moment, and I just loved giving him the opportunity to say that.

Rubin: It was incredibly respectful of a child. The conversation did not diminish Big Bird, it wasn’t dismissive or pandering. It’s how you hope a conversation with someone wishing to be heard would go.

Delgado: It was kind of a big party. And Big Bird has a child’s mind, so he was satisfied. Like, "See, I told you he was real!"

Near the end of the episode, cast member Bob McGrath makes a pointed comment: “From now on, we’ll believe you whenever you tell us something.”

Rubin: It was so honest. Some parents get caught up in authoritarian mode and don’t have the flexibility to retract, recant, or acknowledge a kid’s reality. He was the collective voice of parents—"Sorry, we should’ve listened."

Parente: [A line like that] is exactly what we look to the child experts for, bringing in or soliciting experts to weigh in on specific dialogue to get it right. Simplicity is key, particularly with kids. It’s not about making it flowery with jokes, not doing it in the form of song. Songs are great, but often lyrical messaging is not necessarily the best takeaway. When it’s simple and straightforward, that’s when you have your best chance.

IV. Aftermath

Sesame Workshop

In 1985, Sesame Street was averaging 10 million viewers a week, making any pivotal episode hugely influential with its young audience. Later that year, they depicted the characters of Gordon (Roscoe Orman) and Susan (Loretta Long) adopting a child. Coupled with acknowledging the real-life death of cast member Will Lee (Mr. Hooper) in 1982, Snuffy’s status as a real Sesame citizen was part of the show’s overall evolution from teaching the alphabet to imparting life lessons.

Davis: I think it was a really smart thing for them to eliminate that as a possibility for the viewer and to say that even as outrageous as the claim sounded at first, here was this real-life big woolly mammoth of a friend that they just had not yet met. I give them a lot of credit for changing with the times and I remember some people saying, "Oh, it was politically correct," but it’s not that at all. It’s more that society changes and the way that we view things changes and Sesame Street has successfully negotiated those waters through the years.

Snuffy got topical again in 1992, when the show decided to depict his parents going through a divorce. Unlike his big reveal, this one didn’t go so well.

Parente: It was the first time in history we ever taped an episode and then didn't air it.

Stiles: He had kind of this family going and it helped that we had this family. There weren’t any other puppet families that we had, so I think it was a natural choice.

Delgado: He got a little sister later on.

Davis: It is interesting that they choose to have Snuffy’s parents get divorced because that character, he’s a little bit of a downer. He’s got a little Eeyore about him.

Parente: We knew enough to put it through the rigors of testing before it would air. And it was a lovely episode, but we found kids were upset after watching it. They were just not familiar with what divorce was.

Delgado: Kids freaked out.

Stiles: The shows weren’t necessarily for the child who’s watching whose parents are divorced, although that was part of it. It was, I think, more so that children would understand if they meet other children whose parents are divorced … The whole thing is difficult, because you’re opening up this can of worms for children who may not have even thought of the possibility that their parents might get divorced. Now all of a sudden, they walk into the kitchen and see their parents arguing about something and they go, "Uh-oh."

Parente: Snuffy’s family was going through it in real time, right in the midst of the crisis. We learned if we can see the characters after coming through divorce, it’s a better way of approaching it.

Despite the hiccup, Snuffy has remained a high-profile and viable member of the Sesame gang for well over 40 years. Most recently, he’s been spotted on Twitter, where he follows just one account: Big Bird’s.

Parente: One of my favorite things is to see people meet Snuffy for the first time. He’s bigger than life. He takes your breath away.

Davis: Sesame Street at its finest moments always found a way to include humor and to use it to help smooth things along and to help it go down in a way that was acceptable. You can’t give enough credit to the writers for brilliantly finding a way to make things funny for people who drink from sippy cups and people who drink from martini glasses.

Parente: We want to be helpful and useful for kids as well as parents. I think that’s why we’re here, 46 years later, always paying attention. What is it kids and parents need from us? In 1985, what they needed us to do was to stop that storyline and present a model of adults listening to children.

Delgado: It's definitely one of the biggest things to happen on the show.

Parente: The appeal of Snuffy is that he’s Big Bird’s best friend. People love Big Bird, so he benefits by association: "If that’s Big Bird’s friend, he’s my friend, too."

This story has been updated for 2020.