9 Historical Mass Disappearances: Where Did They All Go?
An eerie exploration of vanishing islands, missing crews, and other puzzling historical disappearances.
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People have mysteriously disappeared in groups over thousands of years and under all kinds of circumstances—by land, by sea, and in one case perhaps by music. Some of these mysteries were resolved with a final explanation that ties all the evidence together. For instance, we unfortunately know how the lost Donner-Reed party ended up (frozen and cannibalized). But for the following groups, clear conclusions remain missing.
In 1587, about 120 English men, women, and children established the Roanoke Colony on an island in the Outer Banks of today’s North Carolina. Three years later, just one member of the settlement remained.
When colony governor John White returned in 1590 from a supply trip to England, he could not locate a single person in his village—including his three-year-old granddaughter Virginia Dare, the first English person born in the colonies. Instead, he found a new wooden fence and the word “Croatoan” carved into a post.
Over 400 years, speculation on the fate of the Lost Colony inhabitants ranges from disease to death at the hands of Native Americans fighting to regain their homeland.
A counter-theory says local Native Americans offered to support the leaderless-colonists in White’s absence. The offer was so well received, the English folk integrated into their hosts’ culture and moved to Croatoan Island (today’s Hatteras), never to be discovered by White or anyone else.
Whatever actually happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke remains unknown in any settled way.
For 150 years, officials recorded the stats and adventures of the fierce Ninth Roman Legion. And then, they didn’t.
Formed in the 1st century BCE, the military unit—also known as Legion IX Hispana—gained renown fighting in what are now Spain and France. In 43 CE, they participated in the Roman invasion of Britain.
Within 80 years, Legion IX’s role maintaining the Roman Empire’s control over what would become the British Empire disappeared from historical records. Speculations run from redeployment (with less interesting adventures to track), to being wiped out by Persian armies.
A popular theory stems from the last record of Legion IX in Britain. In the 2011 movie The Eagle, Channing Tatum’s character crosses Hadrian’s Wall into Scotland to redeem his father’s reputation after he was lost with the Ninth Legion in wild Celt territory 20 years before.
Information about the legion ended in Britain in 108. 1700 years later, an additional, uneventful record was discovered, placing Legion IX in what we know as The Netherlands around 120. Then the warriors’ history is over.
Ships lost at sea are the frequent stuff of history and popular culture. Less common is when ships are found at sea, but the people supposed to be aboard have disappeared. In 1955, the MV Joyita was found empty in the South Pacific. Its radio was tuned to the international distress channel, but no SOS signal was received.
First a 1930s Hollywood director’s luxury yacht, followed by Naval use in World War II, the beat-up boat was refurbished and ended as a charter operated by a British sailor.
The Joyita left Samoa transporting a crew, a surgeon, a couple of pharmacists, a coconut oil trader, a family with two children, a government official, medical supplies, timber, and food. Destination: a small island about four days away.
The empty vessel was discovered five weeks later, listing to one side about 600 miles off course. Along with all 25 people, MV Joyita was missing its log, liferafts, cargo, navigation equipment, and the captain’s weapons.
Soviet spies, WWII-holdout Japanese soldiers, miscommunication, mutiny against an overly confident captain, and insurance fraud are among the theories floated by news media and historians, with no definitive official conclusion.
In remote northern Canada, Angikuni Lake is the site of caribou, Arctic fish, and the legendary disappearance of a whole Inuit village. Explanations for the missing 25 to 1,000 villagers have developed through UFO websites and a 1983 Dean Koontz horror novel.
The Angikuni mystery is a story about a story about a story. In 1959, a paranormal conspiracy novelist referenced a 1930 newspaper story about a Canadian fur trapper’s tale. The trapper arrived at a village where Inuit residents were known to be friendly to travelers.
Instead, the trapper found six empty tents, seven dead dogs, an upturned human grave, abandoned meals, and needles paused in the process of sewing clothing.
A 1931 Canadian police report, though, concluded that evidence pointed to the newspaper story being at best exaggerated.
In fact, the journalist had a reputation for telling bigger stories than he could support. Successive tellings by more mystery-chasers expanded already unsubstantiated details. Ultimately, most official records find more missing evidence than Inuit villagers.
The disappearance of three Scottish lighthouse keepers in 1900 remains a mystery. From the beginning and as recently as the 2018 movie The Vanishing, evidence of both nature’s violence and disturbed human behavior have fed curiosity and creative explanations.
In 1901, popular rumors about the lightkeepers’ disappearance featured sea monsters; a half century later, spies and extraterrestrials. Next came blame for human violence fed by madness and every common vice.
What is known rests on intact Flannan Isles Lighthouse logs and observer notes made during the first days after their disappearance. The lighthouse revealed beds made, a clean kitchen, and completed weather logs. Outside, strong, iron equipment was twisted up out of the ground at high points on the island. No bodies were ever found.
Officials believe two keepers likely went out to prepare for a storm and the third followed quickly to warn them of a huge wave approaching. Still, mystery hunters are intrigued by details that came not from observers, but from false log entries and a 1912 poem’s description of the lighthouse and kitchen in disarray.
A small island existed in the Gulf of Mexico through centuries of historical documents. Then, by all accounts, it wasn’t there. How, why, and even if—all are questions open to speculation.
The earliest document identifying Bermeja is from 1539 Spain. The 80-square-kilometer island about 100 miles off the Yucatan Peninsula can be seen steadily in maps and government literature since.
Bermeja came to serve as the landpoint separating U.S. and Mexican economic rights in the Gulf. Then in 1997, a survey team could not locate the rocky land. Officials reported that the island had “disappeared.” By 2000, the latest nautical boundary-rights negotiations did not reference what had been a key point on the map.
Explanations of the disappeared island feature erosion, climate, and navigational error. Some scientists and historians even conclude that the island never existed. One popular theory says that early sailors misidentified low cloud formations as solid land, cartographers marked and continued to reference Bermeja on maps for centuries—never taking a closer look, due to dangerous sailing conditions.
Also blamed: a covert U.S. explosion of Bermeja. With no island, the U.S. gained lucrative oil drilling rights that would have gone to Mexico if the island boundary remained on the map.
Where did the 10 people last seen aboard the American merchant brig, the Mary Celeste, go, and why was the ship found empty and drifting hundreds of miles from land?
A month after departing New York for Italy in 1872, the Mary Celeste was found ambling upright near Gibraltar, in relatively stable condition, though with torn sails.
Most of the ship’s cargo and personal belongings were onboard, along with the log updated through 10 days before. Not on board were the Mary Celeste’s captain, his wife and toddler daughter, and seven crew members, the lifeboat, and nine out of 1700 shipped barrels of alcohol.
This famous ghostship’s stories have featured sea monsters, pirates, complicated weather, and faulty tools. Recently theorized: alcohol fumes from an explosion, leading passengers and crew to wait in a lifeboat until it was safe to reboard.
Adding to the ship’s mystique were the rumors of a curse, with a history of accidents and the death of three previous captains. Netflix’s 2022 mystery-horror series “1899,” about a passenger ship’s encounter with a ghost ship in the Atlantic, suggests inspiration from Mary Celeste’s mysterious missing crew.
Picture a scene in the Middle Ages, a brightly dressed man playing his flute, followed by a string of wide-eyed children. The legend of the Pied Piper is familiar, but what happened surrounding the historical exit of children from the German town of Hamelin is a mystery.
In fairy tales and poetry, the piper is hired to exterminate a plague of rats. When the townspeople didn’t pay his fee, he removed their children as well.
A fourteenth century village record notes a century passing since Hamelin’s children left. Subsequent historical artifacts support a variety of explanations. Some consider the Piper a symbol of death, and the historical mass disappearance of children in 1284 due to disease, a natural disaster, or brainwashing by a pagan cult.
One economic theory suggests that the children were part of a deal to relieve overpopulation in the Hamelin area and to repopulate land to the east. Colonization of Transylvania by the Germans is also a possibility, with “children of Hamelin” a catch-all term for the town’s citizens.
Two British ships, one named the HMS Terror (the other, Erebus) sailed north and west in 1845. Destination: an uncharted route near the top of the world called the Northwest Passage.
The ships failed to return as expected. However, the lost Franklin Expedition led to the eventual discovery and mapping of a long-hypothesized route through the Arctic from the Atlantic to the Pacific. As crews and explorers searched for the missing ships and 129 sailors, they found artifacts, including three years of Terror and Erebus logs.
The ships got stuck in the ice. One captain died. Eventually, the crews abandoned ship with hopes to make their way south over frozen tundra, seeking rescue.
In 150 years of exploration and research, both ships and partial remains of about 30 crew members have been found, some mummified. From the remains, scientists have found evidence of lead poisoning, nutritional deficit, pneumonia, and finally cannibalism.
It was not until more than 50 years after the lost Franklin expedition that Roald Amundsen made it all the way through the narrow, ice and island clogged sea.