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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Vanish into a Wiki Wormhole with this list of unexplained disappearances

Illustration for article titled Vanish into a Wiki Wormhole with this list of unexplained disappearances

With over 4 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you're throwing a term paper together at the last minute, or trying to figure out who the hell the Manhattan Jaspers are before you fill out your March Madness bracket. But follow enough links, and you get sucked into some seriously strange places. We explore some of Wikipedia's oddities in our 4,473,441-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Unexplained disappearances

What it’s about: As the world waits to learn the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, it’s worth acknowledging that sometimes, people just up and disappear. Wikipedia has a list of some of the most notable disappearances that are simply not explained.

Strangest fact: In 1872, a sailor on board the Dei Gratia saw a ship on the horizon, adrift at an odd angle, sporting slightly torn sails. It was the Mary Celeste, a cargo ship taking a load of alcohol from New York to Genoa, Italy. The ship’s cargo was intact, the crew’s possessions were undisturbed, but the crew was nowhere to be found. One lifeboat was missing, but there was no sign as to where the crew had gone or why. Besides seven sailors, the ship had carried the captain’s wife and 2-year-old daughter (the couple had left a 7-year-old son behind with family). The ship had not run into any inclement weather, and the intact cargo ruled out piracy. The disappearance of the crew is considered the greatest mystery in nautical history, and it wasn’t until 2005 until anyone even came up with a plausible theory—German journalist Eigel Wiese posited that vapors from the ship’s cargo of alcohol could have seeped out of the barrels, and built up inside the hold. The captain, fearing an explosion, abandoned ship, and the lifeboat was lost at sea. While that may seem far-fetched, it’s still the closest anyone’s come to solving the mystery.

Biggest controversy: John Bingham, the Earl Of Lucan (known as Lord Lucan) was a British raconteur in the 1960s. Despite not being an actor, he was at one point considered for the role of James Bond, probably because he embodied the lifestyle so well in real life—he raced speedboats, drove an Aston Martin, and quit his job as a banker to become a professional gambler. After an acrimonious divorce in 1972, his children’s nanny was found murdered in the basement of the Lucan family home, and his ex-wife claimed Lucan had attacked her as well. As the police launched a murder investigation, Lucan borrowed a car from a friend and drove off, never to be seen again. The car was found abandoned, with bloodstains inside and a probable murder weapon in the trunk. But despite a widely publicized investigation, and numerous alleged sightings, no proof of Lucan’s whereabouts was ever confirmed. 

Thing we were happiest to learn: Truth is stranger than fiction. A century ago, Fate magazine published the curious story of David Lang, a Tennessee man who had supposedly vanished into thin air while walking across a field, while in full view of his family and a few other witnesses. The witnesses searched the field for a hole Lang might have fallen into, but to no avail. According to the story, his children called out to their father, and heard a far-off disembodied voice calling back. Of course, the story turned out to be a hoax, and one most likely based on the short story “The Difficulty Of Crossing A Field” by Ambrose Bierce. Bierce was a satirist and short-story writer in the late 19th and early 20th century. His story of a mysterious disappearance paled in comparison to his real-life mysterious disappearance. A decorated Civil War veteran, 71-year-old Bierce set out on a tour of old battlefields in 1913. After traveling to Louisiana and Texas, he continued on into Mexico, which was in the midst of revolution. He joined Pancho Villa’s army as an observer, traveling with them to Chihuahua, where he wrote a letter to a friend stating, “I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.” He subsequently vanished, in what was one of the most famous disappearances in American history. Some contemporaries insist he had been killed by Villa; one friend insisted that the elderly, asthmatic Bierce couldn’t have ridden with Villa’s army and never left the United States. In any case, Bierce’s final whereabouts remain a mystery to this day.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: There’s another Schindlers List waiting to be told, but with a less happy ending. Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish architect and diplomat credited with saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from Nazi occupiers. As a special envoy in Budapest, he issued passports that helped Jews escape, and sheltered people in embassy buildings considered Swedish territory. As the Red Army swept through Hungary in 1945, Wallenberg was detained by Soviet officials who suspected him of being a spy. He was never seen again, and state radio announced he had been murdered later that year. But in 1957, the Soviet government admitted he had died of a heart attack in 1947, while in their custody. There are conflicting stories saying he was executed, not killed by natural causes, and prisoners reported seeing Wallenberg alive after 1947. To this day, no one knows for sure how or when he met his end.

Also noteworthy: In 1978, 20-year-old Australian pilot Frederick Valentich was flying a Cessna, and told Melbourne air traffic control he was being followed by another aircraft. His final report to ATC was “It is hovering, and it’s not an aircraft.” Neither Valentich or his plane were ever seen again. Some believe Valentich was disoriented and the mystery plane was his own plane’s reflection in the water. Some suggest he staged his own disappearance. And the most far-fetched theory is that Valentich, a UFO buff, staged the incident so people would believe he had encountered a UFO. Sure enough, several UFO sightings were reported the night of the disappearance, although none of them were made public until after Valentich’s story made the news.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: While, statistically speaking, the Bermuda Triangle isn’t any more disappearance-prone than any other stretch of ocean, its page is still full of fascinating stories of disappearances, shipwrecks, superstitions, and crazy theories.

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