We’ve all heard of people who have seemingly vanished into thin air. D.B. Cooper, Jimmy Hoffa, Amelia Earhart. But it’s especially weird when entire groups of people are just… gone. Unsolved mass disappearances are unsettling because they just shouldn’t happen – it shouldn’t be possible for whole colonies to vanish and leave behind no evidence of what happened to them.
We may never know the truth about what happened to Malaysian Flight 370 or the Roanoke settlement. The best we can do is hope it never happens to us. Here are some of the spookiest mass disappearances in history.
• Roanoke Colony
Photo: Henry Howe / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Founded in August 1587, the Roanoke Colony was located in what is now present-day North Carolina. It was one of America’s first colonies and the first English child born on American soil was delivered there. It is also the location of one of the world’s most mysterious mass disappearances.
Governor John White and a cadre of 100 men shipped off to Europe from Roanoke on a supply trip. When they returned three years later, the Roanoke Colony was abandoned. The only clue as to what happened was an etching of the word “CROATOAN” into a post. Many suspect that the neighboring Croatoan tried either massacred the settlers or subsumed them.
• • Ancestral Puebloans
Photo: Tobi 87 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
The Anasazi Indians arose in southern Utah around 1500 BCE. Seven centuries ago, they began living in cliff dwellings high atop canyon walls. These cliff dwellings are still there today, but the people left long ago. Researchers believe that some cataclysmic event drove them away. In the late 1200s, something threatened them. Was it nomadic raiders? Was it a terrible drought that seized the Southwest from 1276 to 1299? Was it conflict from within – violence, bloodshed, and even cannibalism? No one knows.
Though the Ancestral Puebloans were once called Anasazi Indians, their descendants, modern Puebloans, have argued that the name “Anasazi” is offensive. It means “Enemy Ancestors.”
• • Easter Island
Photo: TravelingOtter / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0
Off the coast of Chile, 1,100 miles from the nearest island, lies Rapa Nui, which to Westerners is known as Easter Island. In 800 CE, Polynesian explorers arrived on this lush, 63-square-mile paradise. They began building. When the Europeans came in 1722, they discovered 400 statues, many 13 feet tall and as heavy as 14 tons, but almost no inhabitants. Easter Island was barren and empty.
There are two prominent theories: Jared Diamond, author of Collapse and Guns, Germs, and Steel, contends that the Polynesians committed ecocide. There were too many of them, and they caused deforestation, cutting down palm trees and even setting fire to grass, resulting in a lack of nutrient-rich soil. Another theory points to the Polynesian rat, which arrived at Easter Island via canoe, multiplying to such an extent it wiped out the seeds needed to grow vegetation.
• • The Mary Celeste
Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
The Mary Celeste was a cargo ship that set sail from New York City to Genoa, Italy, in the winter of 1872. On December 5, it was discovered adrift and deserted 400 miles east of The Azores. The last log entry was 10 days earlier. The ship still had 1,701 barrels of industrial alcohol aboard, crewmen’s belongings, and a six-month supply of food and water. Not one of the 10 people who boarded in New York City were ever found.
A flurry of explanations materialized after the ship’s mesmerizing disappearance. Its ragged sails, rigging, and puddles of water suggest to some a murderous waterspout. Others believe it was piracy or a mutiny – but nothing really explains why the ship’s wares were left untouched.
• • The USS Cyclops
Photo: Francis Sargent / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Over the past century, the Bermuda Triangle has earned its reputation as a wellspring for hair-raising disappearances of ships and planes. Take, for instance, the USS Cyclops, which was en route to Baltimore from Brazil in 1918. It was a carrier ship that boasted 10,800 tons of manganese used to produce weaponry, until its inexplicable disappearance somewhere north of Barbados.
The 542-foot ship carried 309 crewmembers and passengers. It remains the single greatest loss of life in US Naval history not involving combat. In what is perhaps the most anticlimactic explanation conceivable, the Naval History & Heritage Command say it “probably sank in an unexpected storm.” Others have said it was the Germans. According to President Woodrow Wilson,
“Only God and the sea know what happened to the great ship.”
• • Flannan Isles Lighthouse Keepers
Photo: Marc Calhoun / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0
On a night in December 1900, the crew of a ship called the Archtor noticed when there was no light beaming from the lighthouse on the Flannan Isles. An investigative crew was sent, but they didn’t arrive until December 26. The investigators found the three lighthouse keepers – Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald McArthur – missing.
Their disappearance remains unsolved, but at the time, the captain of the rescue crew sent out a telegram saying, “Poor fellows they must been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that.”
• • Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
Photo: byeangel / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0
Headlines in 2014 blared in repetition: “What happened to Flight 370?” An hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur, a Malaysian Airlines jet vanished from air traffic radar screens. Its 12 crew members and 227 passengers went missing on March 8 somewhere over the southern Indian Ocean.
The best piece of evidence was found in July 2015 – marine debris confirmed to be a flaperon (part of the wing) belonging to the plane. Since then, five other pieces of the wreckage have been found that investigators say are likely from Flight 370.