Vanished! History's Famous Disappearances

Unsolved Mysteries Continue to Spark Interest

by J. M. Pressley
First published: March 29, 2011

When people go missing, the most sensational cases generate long-term interest and speculation.

D. B. Cooper

On November 24, 1971, a man calling himself Dan Cooper purchased a one-way ticket on Northwest Airlines Flight 305 from Portland to Seattle. News services would later mistakenly publish reports with the name D. B. Cooper (a preliminary suspect who was quickly eliminated by police) and the moniker stuck. Shortly after takeoff, the man informed a flight attendant that he had a bomb and demanded $200,000 in unmarked $20 bills along with several parachutes. The FBI agreed to the ransom. When the plane finally landed in Seattle, Cooper released the 36 passengers and two of the flight attendants. The plane refueled with instructions to fly a course for Mexico at minimum speed and low altitude.

Approximately 20 minutes after the plane took off from Seattle, Cooper deployed the jet's rear airstair and parachuted into the night somewhere over the southwest wilderness of Washington state. A few bundles of the ransom bills totaling $5,800 were discovered along the banks of the Columbia River in 1980, but no trace of Cooper has ever been found. The FBI maintains that Cooper could not have survived the jump given the conditions; however, it remains to date the nation's only unsolved hijacking case.

Joseph Force Crater

On August 6, 1930, everything seemed to be normal for Crater, an associate justice sitting on the New York Supreme Court. He spent some time perusing files in his courthouse chambers in the morning, and he bought a ticket to that night's showing of the Broadway comedy Dancing Girl. He dined with his mistress, Sally Lou Ritz, and a friend that evening at Billy Haas's Chophouse on West 45th Street. Crater was reportedly in a good mood. When the dinner ended sometime after 9:00 p.m., Crater's companions saw the judge walking down the street as they hailed a taxi. It was the last time anyone saw Crater. The investigation didn't begin in earnest until early September, and no evidence of Crater's fate has ever been found. He was declared legally dead in 1939.

Curiously, Sally Lou Ritz vanished as well a few weeks after Crater disappeared. The two most popular theories are that Crater either was murdered or fled the country with his mistress. In any event, Joseph Force Crater became a media sensation in absentia as "the missingest man in New York."

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart was world famous as the foremost female pioneer in aviation. She was already the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and set several speed and distance aviation records in the early 1930s. In 1937, Earhart planned to circumnavigate the globe in a twin-engine Lockheed Electra. On June 29, 1937, Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan arrived in Lae, New Guinea, having traveled 22,000 miles. The next stop was planned at Howland Island, where they were to rendezvous with the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca. The plane never made it. Earhart made several radio transmissions to the Itasca, reporting that she was low on fuel and trying to get a navigational fix on the ship. The cutter was never able to establish communication with the Electra and soon lost contact.

An extensive search turned up no trace of Earhart or her plane. There are two prevailing theories. Either Earhart and Noonan ran out of fuel and ditched the Electra at sea, or they crash-landed near uninhabited Gardner Island (present-day Nikumaroro). Whatever her actual fate may have been, Earhart's disappearance continues to fascinate people to this day.

Percy Fawcett

Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett was a surveyor with a taste for adventure. He first arrived in South America in 1906 on assignment from the Royal Geographic Society to map the border between Bolivia and Brazil. Fawcett led seven expeditions altogether into the Amazon wilderness between 1906 and 1924. Then, in 1925, Fawcett journeyed into the rain forest accompanied by his son, Jack, and Jack's friend, Raleigh Rimmel. Fawcett was convinced that somewhere in the jungles of western Brazil lay a lost city of "Z"—and he was determined to find it.

The last communication anyone had was a telegraph message Fawcett sent to his wife on May 29 as they prepared to set out. All three vanished into the jungle and were never heard from again. Subsequent search expeditions over the decades have turned up little more than unsubstantiated, conflicting rumors of Fawcett's fate.

Jimmy Hoffa

Jimmy Hoffa was the popular leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. He was also allegedly in cahoots with the Mob. In 1964, Hoffa was convicted on charges of bribery and fraud. After exhausting his appeals, Hoffa began serving a 13-year sentence in 1967. President Nixon granted him clemency in 1971—on the condition that Hoffa abstain from any union activities until 1980. In defiance, Hoffa attempted a comeback that was less than well received by his Teamster and Mob allies. On the afternoon of July 30, 1975, Hoffa was supposed to meet Anthony Giacalone and Anthony Provenzano for a lunch at the Machus Red Fox Restaurant in the Detroit suburbs.

When he failed to return that evening, his wife called the police. Hoffa's unlocked car was still in the restaurant parking lot, but there was no sign of the former labor leader. Giacalone and Provenzano had credible alibis and denied having arranged any meeting. Hoffa was declared legally dead in 1982, but the case of his disappearance remains open.

Natalee Holloway

On May 26, 2005, Natalee Holloway arrived in Aruba for a senior class trip. The Birmingham, Alabama native was with a group of 124 other recent Mountain Brook High School graduates. The presence of seven chaperones apparently did little to prevent the students from turning the trip into a week-long drinking binge. The group was due to depart on Monday, May 30; Holloway never arrived at the airport. Investigators discovered that she had left a night club around 1:30 that morning with three young men, including a 17-year-old Dutch student named Joran van der Sloot.

After first denying that he knew Holloway, van der Sloot admitted that he had driven with her and his friends to the beach and then dropped her off at her hotel around 2:00 a.m. Holloway was nowhere to be found, although her passport and luggage were packed in her room. A massive search by Aruban and American authorities yielded no clues. The subsequent arrests of van der Sloot and his friends produced conflicting stories, made no headway in the case, and caused widespread criticism of the Aruban investigation. To date, Holloway's fate remains unknown.

Harold Holt

Harold Holt was a career politician in Australia. After 32 years serving in the Australian Parliament, Holt was elected prime minister in January of 1966. His term would only last 22 months. In December of 1967, Holt took a trip to Portsea with some friends to visit his favorite vacation spot, Cheviot Beach. The surf conditions were heavy, but Holt, an avid swimmer and skin diver, determined to go for a dip in the ocean. Witnesses on shore reported that one moment he was there, and the next—Holt simply vanished. The disappearance sparked one of the largest search efforts in Australian history. Holt was never found.

Two days after he went missing, the government made the public statement that Holt was presumed dead, lost at sea. In the absence of any substantial evidence, numerous theories have been posited, ranging from the credible (caught in a rip current and drowned) to somewhat ludicrous (abduction either by a Chinese submarine or UFO). Given Holt's age, a shoulder injury, and the weather conditions, accidental drowning seems the likeliest explanation.

Glenn Miller

Glenn Miller was a best-selling recording artist as leader of the Glenn Miller Orchestra in the late thirties and early forties. In 1942, Miller contacted the U.S. Army with an interest in contributing to the war effort. Miller was made a captain in the Army Air Force and formed a military band that performed in England during 1944. He remained as popular in uniform as he was in his civilian career. In December of 1944, Miller was preparing for a concert for Allied troops in Paris. He was slated to fly from Bedfordshire to Paris on December 15 on a single-engine UC-64 Norseman with Lt. Col. Norman Baessell and pilot John Morgan. The plane took off that afternoon; that was the last time anyone saw Miller alive. His plane never arrived in Paris.

In its official report, the Army Air Force stated that the UC-64 likely crashed into the English Channel due either to icing conditions or engine failure. More speculative explanations have Miller's plane struck by jettisoned bombs from British bombers as they returned from a raid or mistakenly shot down by an English shore anti-aircraft battery. There are also multiple conspiracy theories that all feature some form of government embarrassment and cover-up. The only fact is that neither the plane nor its passengers have ever been located. To date, Miller's official status is "missing in action."

Sources

CNN, Crime Library, The Independent, The Museum of Unnatural History, Time Magazine