Some of the most enduring and perplexing mysteries involve mass disappearances, in which a group of people vanishes without a trace. Some disappearances can be plausibly explained, but others create more questions than answers. Over time, some theories become so outlandish that they seem to overshadow any scientific or logical explanation. Here are five strange mass disappearances in history that make you wonder, “What really happened?”
5. The Lost Eskimo Village
In November 1930, a fur trapper named Joe Labelle visited an Inuit village on the rocky shores of Lake Anjikuni in northern Canada. Having been there several times before, he looked forward to a warm meal and familiar faces. Instead, he discovered an empty village with everything left as if the several dozen villagers had departed quite suddenly. A number of sled dogs, a valuable commodity, had died from starvation. Even more bizarre, a grave had been emptied. Despite a thorough search by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, no one was ever found, and the police dismissed the trapper’s report. Could it be a real mass disappearance, or a story spun by a lonely trapper? In the years since, a number of books and magazine stories have transformed the story into urban legend, complete with mysterious lights in the sky and the suggestion of alien abduction. In some circles, the village has been dubbed “Roswell North.” Yes, the truth is out there.
4. Roman Ninth Legion
By the 2nd century A.D., the Ninth Legion had become one of the most feared military units in the Roman army. Formed around 65 B.C., the legion of more than 4,000 trained soldiers had fought and won many battles from Africa and Spain to Germania and Britain. But around 109 A.D., the legion was sent into what is now modern-day Scotland and mysteriously disappeared several years later. Most historians believe the legion’s demise is not mysterious at all, proposing that the legion was either transferred to the Middle East or disbanded. Yet there is no proof, and as with most legends, the most dramatic explanation remains the most popular with the public. In this version of events, the soldiers were brutally annihilated around 117 A.D. by a merciless band of Scottish warriors. This tale has been propagated by numerous TV programs, films, and most notably the book The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff. Published in 1954, it was one of the most celebrated children’s books of the 20th century, selling more than a million copies. The topic is red hot in films these days, with both the 2010 movie Centurion and the 2011 flick The Eagle offering their takes on the story. With little archaeological evidence, the true story may never be discovered. Yet the story of a band of underdog warriors inflicting a stunning defeat against a well-equipped and well-trained professional army will always sell tickets at the box office.
3. USS Cyclops
On Feb. 16, 1918, the USS Cyclops, a Proteus-class U.S. Navy vessel, departed from Rio de Janeiro after a mission in Brazilian waters. Led by an experienced but controversial captain named Commander George Worley, the ship carried 11,000 tons of manganese ore, more than three tons past her maximum capacity. After an unscheduled stop in Barbados, the ship sailed into the North Atlantic en route to Baltimore. But she never arrived there, vanishing without a trace with all 306 crewmembers. It remains the largest non-combat loss of life in U.S. Naval history. It seems most likely that the heavy load, engine failure, and a storm in the Virginia Capes combined to sink the ship. But other, more bizarre theories circulated, including the possibility that the Cyclops fell prey to a German U-boat, or that the German-born Worley and some Germans aboard had hijacked the vessel.
A formal investigation concluded that, “Many theories have been advanced, but none that satisfactorily accounts for her disappearance.” Strangely enough, two sister ships to the Cyclops, the USS Proteus and the USS Nereus, also vanished without a trace in the North Atlantic during World War II. Similar to the USS Cyclops’ situation, both ships were also carrying heavy loads of ore. Investigations concluded that both ships sank due to a catastrophic structural failure. Since no wreckage was ever found and no German records confirmed any of its submarines sinking this type of vessel, another theory remains: the Bermuda Triangle collected three more trophies.
2. The Lost Colony
Probably the most well known mystery on this list, the fate of the Lost Colony still challenges historians and archaeologists to this day. In 1587, 117 settlers traveled from England to Roanoke Island on North Carolina’s coast to establish a settlement. Desperate for supplies and help defending against hostile Native Americans, the colony’s leader, John White, sailed back to England in late 1587 to get help. White’s return was delayed three years, and when he returned to Roanoke Island in 1590, all of the men, women, and children had vanished without a trace. White and his search party also found the word “CROATOAN” carved into a fence post. White assumed the carving meant the settlers had moved to a nearby island of the same name, but stormy weather prevented the men from checking the island before returning to England. Although some theories have involved everything from mysterious stone carvings (later proven to be an elaborate hoax) to alien abductions, historians point out the settlement was doomed from the very beginning. The settlers had arrived far too late in the season for an abundant harvest, and their meager supplies would have rapidly disappeared. But as the settlement disappeared into history, so did the potential answers.
Some interesting discoveries surfaced in the early 18th century after an English explorer named John Lawson visited Croatoan Island (today known as Hatteras Island). He later wrote, “Several of their ancestors were white people who could talk as we do, (with) gray eyes being found infrequently among these Indians and no others.” In addition, the Pembroke Indians in the southeastern portion of the state were also known to speak Anglo-Saxon English, and tribe members feature the last names of many of the lost colonists. The best guess is that the colonists moved on for the sake of survival.
1. Mary Celeste
In December 1872, as the British brig Dei Gratia sailed in the Atlantic approximately 400 miles east of the Azores, her crew spotted a ship mysteriously adrift. The vessel turned out to be the Mary Celeste, a 282-ton, 100-foot-long ship that had departed from New York eight days earlier. A boarding party went below decks and found all of the crew’s belongings still aboard, along with a six-month supply of food and water. But they found no sign of Capt. Benjamin Briggs, his wife, 2-year-old daughter, and the seven-member crew. With a lack of evidence except for a missing lifeboat and two disassembled pumps, speculation quickly spread from simple theories such as a drunken mutiny or pirate attack to more complex ones. The most intriguing one is that there was a small explosion in the ship’s hold, which was filled with barrels of alcohol. Panicked about the possibility of another explosion, Briggs might have ordered everyone into the lifeboat. Yet Briggs was a highly respected captain who would have never ordered the crew (and his family) to abandon his functioning ship in open seas. This theory only posed more questions. A 2007 documentary by the Smithsonian concluded that the crew abandoned ship in poor weather within sight of Santa Maria Island. Briggs, his family, and the crew then drowned just offshore when their single lifeboat capsized in the raging seas. The Mary Celeste then drifted to the location where it was discovered. Whatever actually happened, this “ghost ship” remains one of the greatest maritime mysteries in history.
One More: Flight 19
In the early afternoon of Dec. 5, 1945, five TBM Avenger torpedo bombers took off from the U.S. Naval Air Station in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on a routine navigational training mission. Designated as Flight 19, the 14 men were led by an experienced flight instructor, Lt. Charles Taylor, who planned to fly a triangular route with some practice bombing runs. But shortly after the initial run, both of Taylor’s compasses malfunctioned and he became lost. With no land in sight, the planes flew in first one direction and then another until the daylight turned into darkness. Transcripts of the in-flight communications reported that the planes ditched at sea, but despite a search neither the planes nor the crew were ever found. Compounding the tragedy, a PBM Mariner with a 13-man crew also disappeared during the search for Flight 19, after exploding in midair. Flight 19 inspired a number of theories that ranged from the ocean spewing enormous quantities of trapped methane gas and alien abductions to the mysterious powers of the Bermuda Triangle. In the U.S. Navy’s final report, the loss of Flight 19 was initially blamed on pilot error but after a review, the verdict was switched to a more fitting “causes or reasons unknown.”