What makes a mysterious disappearance even more intriguing? When baffling clues are left behind — or even more tantalizingly, when they surface again, months or years after the fact. Here are eight head-scratchingly compelling tales of people who vanished… and the weirdest theories they spawned.
1. The Lost Colony
Every schoolkid’s heard this tale, but there’s a reason why it’s resonated since that fateful August of 1590. The mystery was set into motion three years earlier, when John White — governor of the colony established on what’s now Roanoke Island, in North Carolina’s Outer Banks — decided to sail home to England and re-up on supplies, leaving behind his wife, daughter, and his granddaughter, Virginia Dare (famously, the first English child born in “the New World.”) White intended it to be a quick trip, but his return was delayed by a ship shortage during a clash between the navies of England and Spain. When he finally arrived, Roanoke was completely deserted, as if the colony and its 117 settlers had never existed.
They, or someone, did leave frustratingly unhelpful clues behind: the word “Croatoan” carved into a post, and the letters “CRO” carved into a tree. (White had left behind instructions that the colonists should leave such a carved marker behind if they had to relocate, but with the specific detail that they should include a Maltese cross with the message.) An untimely hurricane cut his search efforts short, and the fate of the colony was lost to history. Did they move to the nearby island named in their cryptic message, merge with (or get killed by) a local Native American tribe? Did Spanish explorers slaughter them? Was it drought or disease? Did they make a failed attempt to sail home and drown? Archaeological investigations continue, but we may never know the truth.
2. Percy Fawcett
Interest in Amazon explorer Percy Fawcett’s disappearance has enjoyed a revival thanks to David Grann’s The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (soon to be a film, too). But it doesn’t take a best-seller to make the tale of Fawcett — a seasoned adventurer who never returned from a jungle expedition in search of an ancient city he thought might be El Dorado — an endlessly fascinating one.
The party consisted of Fawcett, his 21-year-old son Jack, and Jack’s best friend, Raleigh Rimmell; they set out in 1925, leaving instructions that if the worst happened, no rescue parties should be sent after them. The trip into wildest Brazil was simply too dangerous, rife with the possibilities of deadly diseases, dangerous insects and animals (nightmare stuff: anacondas, piranhas, giant spiders), confusing turf, and indigenous inhabitants who were known to be hostile toward foreign visitors.
The last time anyone heard a peep from Fawcett was May 29, 1925, though unconfirmed sightings and the occasional clue (his compass surfaced in 1933 … but did he lose it on the 1925 trip, or leave it behind before he left?) continue to add layers to the story. Despite his “no rescue” orders, the search for Fawcett (as years have passed, of course, the focus has shifted to the truth about his fate) remains a robust pursuit. In 1996, an expedition tracing his trail ran afoul of locals, who kidnapped the group but let them go after appropriating some $30,000 worth of equipment. Over the years, it’s estimated that 100 people have died while looking for Fawcett.
3. Amelia Earhart
The ultimate mystery from the early days of aviation would make this list no matter what, simply due to its tragic/romantic nature (you know the story already: the pioneering pilot went missing, along with navigator Fred Noonan, on July 2, 1937 while attempting to fly nonstop around the equator). But it’s also the entry that offers the most puzzle pieces, and they keep coming; as recently as October 2014, fragments of Earhart’s plane were still being identified. Did she and Noonan run out of fuel and crash-land … but survive for a time on a Pacific Island, perhaps uninhabited atoll Nikumaroro, where metal possibly linked to her craft has been found? Source: AmeliaEarhart.com.
4. Ludwig Leichhardt
What happened to “the Prince of Explorers,” German scientist and naturalist Ludwig Leichhardt, who vanished in 1848 while attempting a nearly 3,000-mile trek across Australia’s interior? Also gone were the “seven men, 20 mules, 50 bullocks, seven horses and masses of gear” that accompanied him. Odd, no? Theories abound (murder, mutiny, starvation, death by shark, etc.), but only one clue has ever been found: “the Leichhardt Plate,” discovered “attached to a burnt gun, wedged in a boab tree,” upon which an “L” had been carved. (Leichhardt was known to leave his initial behind to mark his journeys.) The plate has been extensively analyzed, offering some insights into the route the explorer may have taken — though thus far the findings have yielded precious little information about Leichhardt’s fate.