8 Unsolved Disappearances From History

There’s a reason unsolved mysteries intrigue the human mind. Not knowing what happened to someone leaves wonder and curiosity piqued, whether a disappearance is recent or centuries old.

Jan 10, 2024By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History
unsolved disappearances history

 

While the disappearance of aviators Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan is likely the first event that pops into mind with the consideration of long-standing missing persons cases, they are far from the only unsolved missing persons investigations from history that keep detectives, researchers, and internet sleuths alike up at night. A lack of answers can be frustrating, not only for friends and family of the lost but for the public at large who become wrapped up in these cases. Will these mysteries ever be solved?

 

1. Martha Wright

unsolved disappearances lincoln tunnel
Martha Wright disappeared from the Lincoln Tunnel, via NJ.com

 

Traveling to New York City from New Jersey in 1975, husband and wife Jackson and Martha Wright encountered challenging driving conditions. The car’s windshields kept fogging up with condensation, and Mr. Wright, who was driving, could not see well as the couple drove into the dark Lincoln Tunnel.

 

Though today the tunnel is quite busy, that night, they were the only vehicle inside at the time. To deal with the condensation, Jackson decided to stop the car and wipe the front windshield. Martha said she would get out and wipe down the back windshield to speed things along since there was no traffic to worry about. She hopped out, but when her husband finished in the front and turned around to get back in the car, he couldn’t see her. He hadn’t heard anything or seen another vehicle enter the tunnel. Martha was simply gone. He called out to her and searched all over but couldn’t find her. Even after a subsequent police investigation, Martha Wright was never seen again.

 

2. Flight MH370

mh370 flight path
The flight path of MH370, via Encyclopedia Britannica

 

On the quiet night of March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 left Kuala Lumpur, the largest city in Malaysia, and headed toward its destination of Beijing. Everything about the beginning of the flight was normal, although it was a red-eye 12:42 AM flight. The commanding officer was one of the most senior pilots at Malaysia Airlines; his copilot was an extremely competent young officer completing his last training flight to become fully certified.

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Ten flight attendants and 227 passengers rounded out the population of the plane. The flight soon took a turn for the strange, as the pilots stopped communicating with air traffic control, then the plane’s transponder, which transmits its location, was switched off at 1:21 AM. Still, Malaysian military radar was able to track the aircraft and watched as it switched directions from its flight plan and headed southwest, then suddenly northwest. However, at 2:22, the military radar lost track of the plane. A satellite was able to receive hourly signals until 8:11 AM when flight MH370 was considered lost for good.

 

It has not been seen since, and search efforts have been in vain, except for some small debris found in various locations, mostly on the African coast, starting in 2015. It is believed that the plane is lost with no survivors, but the cause of the crash and the plane’s final resting place is unknown to this day.

 

3. Henry Hudson

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Henry Hudson, via Encyclopedia Britannica

 

Henry Hudson is one of history’s most well-known explorers, with an equally recognizable river, strait, and bay named after him. He made four voyages to the “New World,” eager, as many were in the early seventeenth century and beyond, to locate a Northwest Passage that would lead to the rich trade that Asia had to offer.

 

Of English origin, Hudson lived in London with his wife and three sons. One of his sons, John, accompanied him on more than one of his voyages, including his fourth and final. The voyage of the ship Discovery left London in 1610 with a crew of 23. For reasons unknown, Hudson decided to extend the trip beyond its original planned route, resulting in the need to overwinter in James Bay in Canada.

 

Parts of the trip seemed pointless, with Hudson sailing back and forth across the bay that would come to bear his name. His crew grew restless and angry with their captain, and Hudson ended up replacing his first mate after accusing him of plotting against him.

 

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Hudson Adrift, engraving by John Collier, 1881, via Encyclopedia Britannica

 

In June 1611, the Discovery still lay on James Bay, and the crew demanded to return to England. Hudson finally agreed but angrily replaced his mate again. On the morning of June 22nd, instigated by three ringleaders, including the two replaced mates, a group of mutineers seized control of the Discovery. They elected to set Hudson, his son John, and seven others in the ship’s boat and cast them adrift. The boat and the men aboard were never seen again. There is much speculation about what happened to them, including that they died or were adopted into an indigenous tribe. The mutineers returned to England, but only eight survived the voyage. They were eventually tried for murder in 1618, but all were found not guilty. 

 

4. Albert Jennings Fountain

albert jennings fountain
Albert Jennings Fountain, via Digie

 

Albert Jennings Fountain seemed like a pillar of the community, especially in the “Wild West.” Born in New York, Fountain was an attorney who served the Union during the Civil War. He headed west to Texas, serving as the 14th Lieutenant Governor of Texas and in the Texas Senate. He was married and had nine children.

 

Later, his family moved to New Mexico, where Fountain continued to work as an attorney. He famously defended Billy the Kid against a murder charge and prosecuted several federal land cases and livestock rustling crimes. His political career continued in the New Mexico legislature, and was very successful in his endeavors. However, his success in law and politics garnered him enemies. On February 1st, 1886, while on their way home in their wagon from the court near White Sands in Lincoln County, New Mexico with his eight-year-old son in tow, Fountain disappeared. His wife soon reported her husband and son missing, and a search party was dispatched. About forty-five miles from their home, a part of their wagon was found, along with two pools of blood and Fountain’s legal papers from the court.

 

unsolved disappearances pat garrett
Pat Garrett, via Encyclopedia Britannica

 

The two were never found. A legal investigation led to the arrest of three men who were later acquitted. Famed lawman Pat Garrett spent a great deal of time investigating the matter on his own, as Fountain was a close personal friend, and some believe that his assassination in 1908 resulted from the fact that he was getting close to solving the case.

 

5. The Flannan Isles Lighthouse Keepers

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The Flannan Isles Lighthouse, via the Northern Lighthouse Board

 

The Flannan Isles, and more specifically, the island of Eilean Mor, is a remote but beautiful location off the coast of Scotland with a unique history. It was once home to a chapel built by St. Flannan, an Irish Bishop who would later become a saint. Shepherds and others would visit the island and his chapel by day, but none dared to stay overnight or permanently inhabit the island for fear of the spirits that were said to dwell there.

 

In 1899, a lighthouse was built on Eilean Mor, and the island became inhabited for the first time. Three lighthouse keepers stayed on the island at a time, with one keeper being replaced at a time every so often so that they rotated in shifts. On December 26, 1900, it was time for a shift change, and the ship Hesperus, which carried a lighthouse maintenance crew and the relief keeper, Joseph Moore, reached Eilean Moore in the afternoon. They fired a flare as was their usual habit, expecting a response from the three men on the island. None was fired. Perplexed, the boat anchored, and Moore rowed ashore. He later reported feeling a sense of foreboding as he climbed the steps to the lighthouse. Moore found no sign of James Ducat, Thomas Marshall, or Donald MacArthur.

 

unsolved disappearances flannan keepers
The missing Flannan lighthouse keepers, one week before they vanished, via News 9

 

He returned to the Hesperus and reported his findings. The crew immediately began searching the island. Several inconsistencies were noted. The last entry in the lighthouse’s logbook was December 15th. It made notes of a severe storm beginning on the 12th, though none had been reported in that area until December 17th. One of the men’s coats had been left on its hook, an anomaly in the bitter winter weather. It was against regulations for all three men to leave their posts at once, and they wouldn’t have unless in an extreme emergency. Ropes normally stored 70 feet above the coastline on a crane were strewn all over the rocks below.

 

The ropes led to the formation of the theory that would be initially reported: the ropes had spilled from their crate due to the extreme winds of the supposed storm, and the men had gone to pick them up and had been swept away by a wave. But this led to several questions: why had they broken regulation and gone all at once? Why had one gone without a coat? Where were the bodies?

 

Dozens of theories have been floated since, but no definitive answer has been found. The lighthouse at Eilean Mor would remain open, but subsequent keepers have reported strange happenings, such as eerie voices in the wind calling the names of the dead men. 

 

6. Bobby Dunbar

unsolved disappearances swayze
Campground near Swayze Lake, via the Dyrt

 

In 1912, four-year-old Bobby Dunbar disappeared from Swayze Lake in Louisiana while on a day trip with his family. His parents called the authorities after they were unable to locate him, fearing he’d been consumed by one of the local alligators. After a statewide search and dynamiting of the lake (subsequently dissecting alligators), everyone began to give up hope.

 

However, eight months later, a boy matching Bobby’s description was located in Mississippi in the custody of a man named William Walters. Walters was a traveling handyman. He was arrested, though he claimed the child was his nephew, Charles Bruce Anderson, known as Bruce. He was taking care of Bruce while his mother, Julia, looked for work. The boy was taken to the overjoyed Dunbars, who confirmed after bathing him and identifying moles on his body that the boy was indeed their missing son.

 

unsolved disappearances bobby bruce
Bobby Dunbar and Bruce Anderson, via KATC

 

Julia Anderson arrived a few days later, supporting Walters’ story and claiming that Bobby was indeed Bruce and she wanted her son returned to her. The Dunbars refused, and unable to pay for a court battle, Anderson acquiesced and returned home. Walters went to prison for kidnapping until an appeal was filed two years later. Rather than repeat the considerable expense of trying him again, the state set him free. Anderson maintained his innocence until the end of his life. Bobby, on the other hand, seemed to adjust well and lived a happy life. He grew up and raised four children of his own.

 

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“Bobby” and Lessie Dunbar, via Daily World

 

In 2004, Bobby’s son consented to a DNA test at the behest of his daughter, who was completing some genetic research, to settle the matter once and for all. The DNA test showed beyond a doubt that Bobby was not related to any member of the Dunbar family and was, in fact, Bruce Anderson. What happened to the real Bobby? The mystery remains to this day.

 

7. Ambrose Bierce

unsolved disappearances ambrose bierce
Ambrose Bierce, via the Poetry Foundation

 

Journalist and author Ambrose Bierce was known for his wit and sarcasm but also his fascination with death and all that is morbid. A Civil War veteran, he certainly saw his share of gore but was eager to observe history in further action as, at age 71, he headed to Mexico to see Pancho Villa’s revolution play out in real-time. He would never return, and no one would know his fate. Some speculate he was caught in the crossfire, while others wondered if the contemplative writer planned to commit suicide and his Mexico trip was a ruse. Regardless, he would never be seen again, dead or alive.

 

8. Percy Fawcett

unsolved disappearances fawcett
Percy Fawcett, Torquay Museum via the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum

 

Said to be the inspiration behind both Indiana Jones and Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Percy Fawcett was an intrepid adventurer ahead of his time. A member of the Royal Geographic Society, the British Fawcett had a military background and was eager to work as an explorer. He began with a mapmaking expedition to the Amazon and would return several times.

 

In 1925, he, along with his son Jack and fellow explorer Raleigh Rimmell, set out in search of the Lost City of Z (pronounced Zed). Fawcett believed that this city was a refuge for citizens who had fled the destruction of Atlantis, another lost city, and that their wisdom lay within its walls. The men departed in April and were in contact with England for five months until their letters suddenly stopped. Fawcett’s wife Nina pushed for rescue efforts, and volunteers lined up willingly. Thousands participated in searches for the party over the next several years, and hundreds died attempting to find out what happened to the Fawcett party. No answers were ever found.

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By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”