Mysterious Disappearances

Millions of people are reported missing in the United States each year; by some estimates, more than 95 percent of them return home safely, and of the rest, the majority prove to be cases of murder, accidental death, amnesia, or of the missing person trying to evade ordinary responsibilities. In a few instances, though, the person simply seems to have vanished.

For example, according to journalist and short-story writer Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?), who collected accounts of mysterious disappearances, on September 3, 1873, an ordinary English shoemaker named James Burne Worson bet some of his friends that he could run a distance of 20 miles (32.2m) and back without stopping. Once the bet was struck, Worson’s friends followed behind him in a cart, watching him to prevent cheating. A few miles into the run, at a point where Worson was only a few yards ahead of the cart, he stumbled, screamed, and disappeared, right before his astonished friends’ eyes.

In another Bierce account, a sixteen-year-old boy named Charles Ashmore went to get water from a spring one winter, and when he failed to return, his family followed his footprints in the snow. They stopped midway to the spring, as though the boy had been lifted into the air. There were no other footprints around to suggest foul play, and afterward the area was said to be haunted by Charles’s spirit.

Bierce theorized that the cause of such disappearances was holes in ordinary reality, from which nothing, not even light or sound, can escape. Bierce voiced his speculations many years before astronomers described black holes. A few people believe that small black holes, similar to the ones in outer space, exist on Earth and are responsible for at least a few mysterious disappearances each year. Skeptics suggest that Bierce, who was a fiction writer, simply made up these disappearance stories. They dismiss any suggestion that black holes exist on Earth.

Interestingly, Bierce himself disappeared, after going to Mexico in 1913. Exactly what became of Bierce is still a mystery, although at the time Mexico was undergoing a violent revolution, and the most widely accepted theory is that he was killed during a military engagement there in 1914. Bierce’s body, however, was never identified.

Violence at the hands of other human beings also is generally thought to explain the disappearance of more than one hundred colonists at Roanoke, an island off the coast of Virginia, in 1591. When, after an absence of four years, a supply ship arrived from England, all the settlers were gone. Though there was no sign of foul play, the word Croatan—the name of an Indian tribe in the area—had been carved on a wooden post at the colony, so the prevailing theory is that the colonists were attacked and taken away by the Indians. Nonetheless, a few people believe that the colonists’ disappearance was due to some kind of paranormal phenomenon, such as an alien abduction or a rift in time that accidentally propelled the colonists into the future.

Similar arguments have been made regarding the mysterious disappearance of all passengers and crew from a ship called the Mary Celeste. On December 4, 1872, the Mary Celeste was found afloat in the Atlantic Ocean with its sails ripped and hanging and its bow scarred with 6-footlong (1.8m) gashes. Its lifeboat was missing, and there were signs that everyone on board had left in a hurry. The obvious explanation is that the ship had been attacked by pirates, a common occurrence in those waters. However, the lifeboat was never found, and none of the passengers’ valuables ever turned up.

Consequently, during the 1970s people began to propose a variety of paranormal theories related to the disappearance. One of the most popular was that the Mary Celeste’s passengers and crew had been victims of the Bermuda Triangle, a region in the Atlantic Ocean said to be responsible for numerous mysterious disappearances, even though the Bermuda Triangle disappearances were said to involve vessels as well as their passengers.


  • The Mary Celeste


The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning