Disappearing Acts

People Who Have Vanished

The news that someone has vanished without a trace can lead to gossip, police searches and tabloid headlines. It also can mean more fame in absentia than the missing person ever had while present. Here are some of the modern world’s more famous Disappearing Acts.

Amelia Earhart

AMELIA EARHART is possibly the 20th century’s most famous disappearing act. The famous aviatrix took off from Oakland, California in May of 1937, intending to be the first person to pilot a plane around the world on an equatorial route. On July 2, on the final days of her flight, she and her navigator Fred Noonan were supposed to land at Howland Island in the South Pacific. They never arrived. They came close; the last transmission from Earhart was heard at 8:43 am local time. Despite an extensive search by the U.S. Navy, Earhart and her plane were never seen again.

Glenn Miller

Seven years after Amelia Earhart went missing, another famous flier disappeared: GLENN MILLER. The popular bandleader joined the U.S. Army in 1942 and formed the morale-building Glenn Miller Army Air Corps Band. On a cloudy December day in 1944 he took off from England in a small plane and headed for Paris to make arrangements for a concert. The next day his band arrived in Paris and found no trace of him — Miller had never arrived. No trace of Miller was ever found.

For many years the army suspected that icing on the wings may have sent the plane plummeting into the English Channel. Another theory is that Miller’s plane was hit when Allied bombers returning from an aborted mission jettisoned their bombs over the Channel.

Steve Fossett

Still another disapparing aviator was STEVE FOSSETT. A multimillionaire and adventurer, Fossett became the first person to fly around the world in a balloon, alone and non-stop, in 2002. He set many other aviation records, some eclectic (such as the “West to east (non-supersonic) U.S. transcontinental speed record” of 2 hours, 56 minutes, 20 seconds in 2003). Fossett disappeared abruptly on 3 September 2007 after taking off from a rural Nevada airstrip in a small plane to scout locations for a planned run at the world land speed record. Despite searches by the Civil Air Patrol, Fossett and his plane were not found. He was declared legally dead on 15 February 2008. That September a hiker in the California mountains near Mammoth Lakes found money and a pilot’s license belonging to Fossett; searchers then found the wreckage of his plane nearby, with human remains believed to be Fossett’s.

Leon Theremin

Russian engineer and inventor LEON THEREMIN moved to New York City in 1927, and for more than a decade he made electronic instruments and enjoyed the high-life of an urban sophisticate. In 1938 he mysteriously disappeared, kidnapped from his New York apartment. In 1945 a German newspaper reported that he had been abducted by the Soviet secret police and had been executed.Years later he was spotted in Moscow by a reporter for the New York Times, and his disappearance was explained: he had been singled out by Joseph Stalin as a threat to Soviet security and imprisoned for seven years at a labor camp in Siberia. After his political “rehabilitation,” Theremin worked for Soviet intelligence agencies developing electronic eavesdropping devices and taught at a conservatory of music — until he was told there was no place for electronics in music. He died in 1993.

Jimmy Hoffa

On a less lofty level was the case of JIMMY HOFFA. In 1975 Hoffa was trying to make a return to power in the Teamsters Union. On July 30 Hoffa made plans to meet Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone, a reputed Detroit mob figure, and Tony Provenzano, a New Jersey Teamster official and alleged mobster, at the Machus Red Fox restaurant in West Bloomfield, near Detroit. Neither man showed up, and Hoffa made a few calls trying to find out where they were. He was last seen in the parking lot of the Red Fox about 2:30. Though his whereabouts have never been discovered, Hoffa is widely assumed to have been murdered by agents of organized crime. He was officially declared dead in 1982.

Art Bell

Radio host ART BELL disappeared in 1998, at least for a while. Bell’s late-night show was famous for its discussions of UFOs, ghosts, and other eerie phenomena. On the evening of October 13 he suddenly ended his show by announcing that a “terrible, threatening event” had happened to his family and that he would be leaving the air forever, effective immediately. Bell hunkered down in his Nevada trailer and refused to speak publicly on the matter. Two weeks later he just as mysteriously resumed his broadcasts, refusing to explain the “event” or his disappearance. He continued broadcasting until April 2000, when he announced his retirement, saying that he had been falsely accused of being a child molester and, coincidentally, that he was in the midst coping with an assault on his own son by a teacher. In January 2001 Bell returned to the air, but then spent the next six years retiring and returning to broadcasting. He finally quit in 2007.

George Mallory

Mountaineer GEORGE MALLORY may have been the first man to reach the top of Mount Everest. In 1924 he and fellow climber Andrew Irvine made a dual attempt on the summit using oxygen bottles, a recent innovation. At one point a fellow climber on the mountain far below spotted them climbing strongly, perhaps within 1000 feet of the top. Then heavy storm clouds closed in and the pair disappeared. They never returned. Irvine’s ice axe was found later, but it could not be determined what became of the pair or if they reached the top before they perished. In 1999 an expedition found Mallory’s body at 27,000 feet, but the mystery of his last hours remained.

Agatha Christie

Two years later, in 1926, the husband of mystery writer AGATHA CHRISTIE told her he had been having an affair with another woman. On the night of December 3rd, the author climbed into her Morris automobile and drove off into the night. The car was later discovered teetering on the edge of a rock quarry, with no sign of Christie. After a breathless public search of nearly two weeks, she was discovered 250 miles away, registered under the name Theresa Neele at a country hotel. Despite assertions of emotional distress and memory loss, Christie’s disappearance (and cross-country travel) were never explained, and she refused to speak about the incident for the rest of her life.

Ambrose Bierce

American writer AMBROSE BIERCE was a famous columnist, critic, novelist and master of the short story in the late 19th century. A Civil War veteran, he became a San Francisco journalist with a reputation for harsh wit and macabre humor. A literary celebrity, when he was 71 years old he toured the Civil War battlefields of his youth, then set off for Mexico in 1913. Through letters he indicated that he was bidding farewell to his life in the United States, and some believe he was intent on joining the forces of Pancho Villa south of the border.Bierce was never seen again, and search missions over the years failed to come up with any conclusive answers. There are many rumors: some say he committed suicide in the Grand Canyon; some say he got shot by Pancho Villa because Bierce drank too much tequila; some say he was kidnapped by aliens; and some say he never died at all, which would make him over 160 years old and probably even more cynical than he was a century ago.

Aimee Semple McPherson

AIMEE SEMPLE McPHERSON was America’s most beloved evangelist when she disappeared on 18 May 1926 while swimming near Venice, California. Her followers frantically searched the area but found nothing. Newspapers ran story after story about “Sister Aimee.” Finally, five weeks later, McPherson knocked on the door of a cottage in Arizona, saying she had escaped from kidnappers in Mexico and walked 13 hours across the desert to safety.Her reappearance created a public uproar, especially after investigators found little proof for McPherson’s claims. Rumors flew. A grand jury was convened, first to investigate the kidnapping and then to consider charges against McPherson for false testimony. (Receipts and other evidence seemed to show that McPherson spent the month trysting with one of her employees, a radio station announcer named Kenneth Ormiston.) But eventually the charges were dropped. McPherson stuck by her kidnapping story and the true story of her disappearance has never been formally settled.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair

On August 28, 1995, members of MADALYN MURRAY O’HAIR’s organization, American Atheists, found a note taped to the office door saying she had been called away temporarily. That was the last ever heard from the famous atheist or her son and granddaughter, Jon Murray and Robin Murray O’Hair. The granddaughter’s car was found months later at the Austin airport, but police reported no evidence of foul play there or at O’Hair’s home. At least $500,000 appeared to be missing from American Atheist accounts; a Texas private investigator made news by suggesting that the three had taken the cash and fled to New Zealand.In 1999 police began to suspect that O’Hair and her children may have been kidnapped and killed by a former employee, David Rowland Waters. This proved to be the case: after a 2001 plea bargain with police, Waters led police to the remains of O’Hair and her relatives, which had been buried on a remote Texas ranch.

Judge Crater

JUDGE JOSEPH CRATER was a justice on the New York Supreme Court when he disappeared in 1930. Crater was a highly public figure and alleged by some to have ties to both organized crime and the Tammany Hall political machine. On the evening of August 6 he hailed a cab, climbed in, and was never seen in public again. The case went unsolved and Crater was declared legally dead in 1937.

Spalding Gray

Another New Yorker, actor SPALDING GRAY, made a sudden exit in 2004. Gray vanished on the wintry night of 10 January after being spotted on the Staten Island Ferry. Earlier that day, Gray had attended the movie Big Fish with family and later called his son, giving no indication that anything was wrong. He was known to enjoy wandering, but he also was known to have been deeply depressed ever since a car crash in Ireland in 2001 had left him with physical and psychic scars. Gloominess was part of Gray’s job: his popular theatrical monologues often touched on his own unhappy thoughts of death. Gray’s partly-decomposed body was found in New York’s East River two months later. No cause of death has been determined, but friends feared that Gray may have committed suicide by jumping from the Staten Island Ferry.

Glen and Bessie Hyde

Somewhat like the Amelia Earhart story, the tale of GLEN AND BESSIE HYDE involves an attempt at a first-ever feat. In November of 1928 they began rafting through the Grand Canyon on a homemade wooden boat; had they succeeded, Bessie would have been the first woman to raft that entire stretch of the Colorado River. It wasn’t to be: one month later their boat was discovered floating downriver, in excellent shape, but there was no sign of the Hydes. They were never found.

D.B. Cooper

D.B. COOPER shocked America in 1971 when he skyjacked a Northwest Orient airliner and then leapt into the Washington night from the rear of the plane with $200,000 in cash tied to his body. Neither Cooper nor his parachute were ever found. However, in 1980 a boy playing along the Columbia River discovered $5880 in decaying bills which matched those given to Cooper. Authorities speculate that Cooper was killed in the jump or died of exposure shortly thereafter, but no proof of his demise has ever been found. Also missing: the rest of the cash.

Chandra Levy

CHANDRA LEVY disappeared from Washington, D.C. in May of 2001, shortly after finishing an internship with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. She was expected to return to California but never arrived; her last known communication was an e-mail to her parents on May 1. A police search of her apartment found her packed bags, along with money, credit cards and a laptop computer, but no sign of a struggle. The investigation also revealed that Levy had a relationship with California Rep.Gary Condit; the married congressman at first called her a “good friend” but later admitted to police that he and Levy were romantically involved. Police denied that Condit was a suspect in the disappearance, but his involvement turned Levy’s disappearance into a national story. On May 22, 2002 her remains were discovered in a Washington, D. C. park. An El Salvadoran named Ingmar A. Guandique, in the United States illegally, was charged with her murder in March of 2009. Guandique was already in prison at the time for assaulting women in the same park. He was convicted of Chandra Levy’s murder in 2010 and sentenced to 60 years in prison.

Mark Sanford

The wacky 2009 disappearance of South Carolina Governor MARK SANFORD blasted a large hole in his political career. The governor dropped out of sight on Thursday, June 18th, after leaving his mansion at the wheel of a black state-issued Chevy Suburban. By Sunday there were statehouse rumors about his disappearance; by Monday the press was hot on the Case of the Missing Governor. Sanford’s security detail hadn’t heard from him; his wife said she had spent Father’s Day with their four sons but didn’t know where he was. Aides finally claimed Sanford was unreachable because he had gone hiking alone on the Appalachian Trail to “recharge.”That story blew up two days later, when a reporter from the newspaper The State caught Sanford at Atlanta airport getting off a flight from Buenos Aires. Later that day, Sanford admitted tearfully at a press conference that he had been secretly visiting a lover in Argentina. The lover was later identified as Maria Belen Chapur, a 41-year-old former TV producer, and the world had a new euphemism for extramarital affairs: “Hiking the Appalachian Trail.”

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