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. Sources: History Channel, The Lost Colony.
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. Sources: History Channel, Unmuseum, CBS. Image via History Channel.
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.
5. Michael Rockefeller
The fate of Nelson Rockefeller's son, who vanished while collecting art and artifacts in what was then New Guinea in 1961, is one of history's most scintillating mysteries. A lot of that has to do with the "he was eaten by cannibals" theory, which has gained momentum in recent months. He left behind no clues, but over the years no small amount of detective work has started to piece together the likely scenario surrounding his untimely end.
6. Joseph Force Crater
Dubbed "The Missingest Man in New York," New York Supreme Court Judge Crater was 41 when he dropped out of sight on a Manhattan street after dining with a friend, and a showgirl named Sally Lou Ritz. He was headed to see a comedy on Broadway. Allegedly. Ahead of his disappearance, he'd destroyed documents, withdrawn $5,000, and moved papers from his office to his apartment. Was he the victim of a criminal element, or did he make himself disappear on purpose? A key clue emerged in 2005, according to the History Channel:
According to New York police ... a woman who had died earlier that year had left a handwritten note in which she claimed that her husband and several other men, including a police officer, had murdered Crater and buried his body beneath a section of the Coney Island boardwalk. That site had been excavated during the construction of the New York Aquarium in the 1950s, long before technology existed to detect and identify human remains. As a result, the question of whether Judge Crater sleeps with the fishes remains a mystery.
Source: History Channel.
7. Tara Calico
The most modern mystery on this list is also probably the most disturbing. The tale of "the girl in the photograph" began in 1988 New Mexico, when 19-year-old college student Tara Calico vanished while taking a bike ride from her family's home. Bicycle tracks, and pieces of what might have been Tara's Walkman, were found 20 miles away. But it seemed like leads in the missing-person case had frustratingly dried up, until a year later, when an incredibly creepy photo was found in a supermarket parking lot. Was the captive girl Tara (note the V.C. Andrews book next to her, said to be one of her favorite authors)? Was the boy with her a local nine-year-old who'd gone missing just months before her? Despite this haunting bit of maybe-evidence, the case remains unsolved. Source: Crime Library.
8. Ambrose Bierce
Rounding out the list: the strange end of Ambrose Bierce, author of the seminal short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." A Civil War vet, he saddled up and rode to Mexico in 1913; he was 71, and in search of excitement. He found it in the form of Pancho Villa's revolution ... or did he? Theories behind his vanishing include: he was shot by Mexican revolutionaries; he went underground or was placed in a mental hospital; or he committed suicide (the latter strongly suggested by a letter sent to his sister, excerpted below). Decades later, reports of his demise continue to inspire stories and speculation.
"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!"