10 Things That Went Missing Without a Trace

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 
Judge Joseph Force Crater
Judge Joseph Force Crater is seen here Sept. 5, 1930 with his wife just three days before his disappearance. ©Bettmann/Corbis

If you've seen the classic 1960 movie "Spartacus," you may be surprised to learn that the rebellious second-century gladiator portrayed by Kirk Douglas wasn't actually captured and put to death by the Romans. In real life, he was never found — dead or alive — even though the slave army was defeated on the battlefield [source: Appian]. Spartacus seems to have slipped off into the shadowy netherworld occupied by the likes of 17th-century British pirate "Long Ben" Avery or 1970s airline hijacker D.B. Cooper, who eluded pursuers and never resurfaced again.

As you can see, people have been disappearing without a trace for centuries. There's New York Supreme Court Judge Joseph Force Crater, who left his dinner companions and walked down a Manhattan street one evening in 1930 to attend a play and was never seen again. Then you have Jane, Arnna and Grant Beaumont, three Australian children who disappeared from a beach in 1966 and were never located, despite an exhaustive search.


We often become fixated on these types of cases. That's because, one of the human mind's integral characteristics is what psychologists call closure — our desire to find definite, clear answers to questions, and our corresponding discomfort with the unknown and the ambiguous [source: Konnikova].

Not to mention, the circumstances surrounding these disappearances fuel our love of a good mystery. Here's a look at 10 of the most puzzling disappearances ever.

10: Solomon Northup, Author of "12 Years a Slave"

Solomon Northup
Solomon Northup, author of "12 Years a Slave" was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. The notarized act of sale on the right shows how Solomon Northup , aged about 23 was sold along with several other men, by Theophilus Freeman to William Prince Ford. Public Domain/Notarial Archives Division/Parish of Orleans

Solomon Northup was born a free Black man in Minerva, New York, in 1808. In 1841 when he was 33, he was married with three children and agreed to join a traveling music show because the pay was good. But soon after, the two men who offered him the job, kidnapped and sold him into slavery in Louisiana where he spent years in bondage trying to convince those around him that he was in fact a free man. His story became well known after the 2013 film, "12 Years a Slave," won the best picture Oscar at the 86th Academy Awards. It was based on his memoirs. But most of those who were moved by Northup's successful struggle to regain his freedom probably are unaware that his life took a second troubling turn.

After he finally regained his freedom and returned home to New York in 1853, he published his book about his experience. Then Northup began a speaking tour as an antislavery activist and became involved in the Underground Railroad that helped those who were enslaved find refuge in Canada. But around 1863, Northrup mysteriously dropped out of sight, and no records of his fate exist. Some believe he may have been captured and killed while serving as a Union spy, while others fear he was kidnapped and again sold into slavery, though that seems unlikely [source: Carola]. It is known that he experienced financial difficulties and lost his property, and some speculate he might have disappeared to start life over away from his creditors [source: Robichaux]. Although his final whereabouts is unknown, in 2014 five generations of descendants posed for photographs in The Hollywood Reporter.


9: Jimmy Hoffa

Jimmy Hoffa
Jimmy Hoffa hasn't been seen since he attended a lunch meeting July 30, 1975, in Detroit. Library of Congress

The brash, hard-nosed and corrupt leader of the Teamsters union spent four years in prison for charges that included jury-tampering, mail fraud and bribery, before being pardoned by President Richard Nixon in 1971 [source: Time]. Four years later, July 30, 1975, Hoffa disappeared outside a Detroit-area restaurant where he had gone for a meeting. He was attempting to regain power in the Teamsters, and the most popular theory is that he was killed by mobsters who coveted the union's flush pension fund. Two weeks before his disappearance, federal investigators found out that millions had been stolen from the pension fund [source: Candiotti].

Despite decades of FBI probing, Hoffa's remains have never turned up. Some rumors say that he was buried under the old Giants Stadium in New Jersey, while other stories say his body was fed to alligators in the Everglades or else shipped to Japan inside a compacted junked car. In 2013, FBI agents — following a tip from the alleged former underboss of a Detroit crime family — spent several days excavating a suburban Detroit field, but turned up nothing [source: Santia].


8: The Lost Colony of Roanoke

The Lost Colony of Roanoke
"The Lost Colony" engraving by William James Linton shows how John White returned to the Roanoke Colony in 1590 only to discover the settlement abandoned. Public Domain

This one is a conundrum that's puzzled historians for centuries. In July 1587, a group of 117 English settlers landed on Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now North Carolina. The following month, John White, the colony's governor, sailed back across the Atlantic to pick up a load of supplies, pledging to return in three months. When he arrived in England, however, war broke out with Spain, and with all the available ships pressed into service against the Spanish Armada, Smith was stranded. He wasn't able to sail back to Roanoke Island until August 1590 [sources: Ewen and Shields].

When White arrived, he was shocked to discover that the fort he'd erected had been partially dismantled, and the colonists he'd left behind had vanished — as had their houses, weapons and other belongings. There was also no Maltese cross carved anywhere, the agreed-upon sign that the colony had left under duress.


The only apparent clue, carved into a wooden post, was "CROATOAN," the name of both a nearby island and a Native American tribe. It could be that the settlers were killed or abducted by Native Americans, with whom the English had tense relations, or fallen victim to Spaniards who came up from Florida. They might have suffered a devastating epidemic or perhaps they split up and intermarried with some of the Native American tribes. It's also been hypothesized that they may have tried to sail back to England themselves, only to be lost at sea [sources: Ewen and Shields].

7: Three Alcatraz Escapees

Alcatraz escape
An Alcatraz prison guard kneels by the hole in Frank Morris' cell through which he and John and Clarence Anglin escaped. Prison officials report Morris dug the hole with broken spoons. The Denver Post/POST_ARCHIVE

The federal prison on Alcatraz Island was once home to the most incorrigible criminals, because even if they managed to get past their cells, the cold, swift currents of the San Francisco Bay seemingly made the place escape-proof [source: Federal Bureau of Prisons]. But that didn't stop convicts from trying.

In 1962, Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers — John and Clarence — used spoons to dig holes in the walls of their prison cells, leaving behind papier-mache heads propped on their pillows to fool the guards into thinking they were still asleep. Then they climbed up a utility vent and down a drainpipe and headed for the water, where they paddled away, using a boat and life vests that they had improvised from raincoats they glued together.


The prisoners were never caught, though a few pieces of their gear and possessions were found floating in the bay and a body — too deteriorated to be identifiable — was found a short distance up the coast several weeks later. These findings led prison authorities to classify the escapees as presumed drowned. However, it's worth noting that up until 50 years later, the U.S. Marshals Service still had the three men on their list of wanted fugitives [source: Sullivan].

6: Richard Serra's "Equal-Parallel: Guernica-Bengasi"

Richard Serra Equal-Parallel: Guernica-Bengasi
Richard Serra's massive "Equal-Parallel: Guernica-Bengasi" sculpture included four steel pieces in two different sizes. It's thought the original was melted down when it was stored while the museum was being renovated. Museo Reina Sofía

You'd think that a 42-ton (38-metric ton) sculpture would be pretty difficult to lose. After all, it wasn't a painting or even a photograph. This sculpture was massive. It consisted of four steel slabs in two different sizes and was commissioned by Madrid's Reina Sofia Contemporary Art Museum for its grand opening. The sculpture was on display at Reina Sofia for four years after its opening, but in 1990, the museum underwent a renovation and decided the piece was too big. It was shipped off to a private storage facility. But 15 years later, "Equal-Parallel: Guernica-Bengasi," by sculptor Richard Serra was nowhere to be found.

In 2005, the museum's recently installed director, Ana Martinez de Aguilar, decided to retrieve "Equal-Parallel: Guernica-Bengasi" to exhibit it once again. She discovered that the storage company had gone into receivership and that the sculpture — whose paper trail ended in 1992 — was embarrassingly missing. So what could have happened to Equal-Pararell/Guernica-Bengasi? Writer Juan Tallón shed new light on the investigation in his 2022 book "Obra maestra," in which he says everything suggests the sculpture was melted down. Serra, to his credit, agreed to create a new, identical copy of his sculpture for the museum, which has been on permanent display since 2009.


5: Helen Brach

Helen Vorhees Brach
Helen Vorhees Brach vanished without a trace in February 1977. She was declared dead seven years later in 1984, though her body was never found. © Bettmann/CORBIS

Helen Vorhees Brach, the widow of candy company executive Frank Brach, disappeared after supposedly being dropped off at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in February 1977. For years, rumors swirled around the fate of the eccentric heiress, who had already built a $500,000 marble monument in an Ohio cemetery, where she had planned to be buried alongside her husband, parents and two dogs.

It didn't help that the driver who'd dropped her off at the airport, Jack Matlick, took two weeks to report her disappearance and was later found to have cashed $13,000 in checks with Brach's forged signature. The only family member of Brach's Matlick told she was missing was her brother Charles Vorhees. When Charles Vorhees finally made the trip to Chicago, he and Matlick burned his sister's personal papers before they filed a formal missing persons report [source: Garvey].


But in 1994, federal authorities instead arrested Richard Bailey, a former vacuum-sweeper salesman-turned-swindler whose game was to court older women (such as Brach) and convince them to invest in racehorses of dubious value. Bailey pled guilty to charges that included fraud and racketeering, and the judge who sentenced him to 30 years in prison decided that Bailey had probably played a role in Brach's disappearance, though Bailey denied that [source: Garvey]. Matlick died in 2011.

4: George Washington's False Teeth

George Washington's dentures
A replica set of George Washington's dentures is shown along with a copy of his letter written to his dentist Mr. Greenwood thanking him for his attentiveness. Greenwood made these dentures from a gold plate with ivory teeth riveted to it. SSPL via Getty Images

It'd be embarrassing enough to misplace your own dentures, so imagine how red-faced you'd be if you couldn't find a historic pair that belonged to George Washington. But that's exactly what happened in 1981, when the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History discovered that one pair of Washington's chompers, which had been loaned to the Smithsonian in 1965 by the University of Maryland Dental School, had vanished from a locked storage room where they'd been kept. A search of the facility failed to produce any sign of the teeth [source: Molotsky].

The following year a museum employee revealed that Washington's lower plate had turned up in an area of the museum accessible only to Smithsonian employees, but the top half was still missing. Though popular myth portrays Washington as wearing wooden teeth, his dentures actually contained ivory and gold, and it's possible the thief destroyed the relic in order to melt down the gold and sell it.


3: Flight 19

TBM Avengers
The members of Flight 19, which some thought was lost in the Bermuda Triangle, were flying Grumman TBM Avengers like these seen here. U.S. Naval Institute

Dec. 5, 1945, a team of five TBM Avengers — prop-driven torpedo bombers — took off from a naval base in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The flight was the first leg of a routine two-hour training exercise that was supposed to take the planes no more than 150 miles (241 kilometers) away from the airstrip.

About an hour-and-a-half after takeoff, the control tower in Fort Lauderdale received a strange message from the team's flight leader, who sounded confused and worried: "Both my compasses are out and I am trying to find Fort Lauderdale, Florida." More discussion followed between the tower, the lead pilot and the student pilots of the other planes as he tried to determine where they were.


When the planes didn't return, a PBM Mariner aircraft with a 13-man crew was dispatched to search for them. That plane never came back, either. The U.S. military then launched one of the largest searches in history, with hundreds of ships and aircraft scrutinizing more than 200,000 square miles (517,998 square kilometers) of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, but no trace of the planes was ever found.

Since then, the mystery of Flight 19 remains one of the most puzzling in the history of aviation, providing more fodder for paranormal enthusiasts who believe in the Bermuda Triangle. The reality is simpler, if more tragic. The instructor-pilot thought he was over the Florida Keys, when he was in fact over the Bahamas. He changed course several times, and the planes ran out of fuel and crashed [source: Witzenburg].

2: The Crew of the Mary Celeste

The Mary Celeste
The Mary Celeste, commanded by Benjamin Briggs, was found unmanned drifting toward the Strait of Gibraltar in 1872. No trace of the crew was ever found. De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

The Mary Celeste is sort of the 19th-century maritime version of Flight 19, except that the ship itself actually was recovered. In December 1872, the British vessel Dei Gratia was about 400 miles (644 kilometers) east of the Azores islands, which are 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) west of Portugal, when its crew spotted another ship drifting in the distance. That ship turned out to be the Mary Celeste, which had departed from New York City eight days earlier on a trip to Genoa, Italy.

When the British sailors boarded the Mary Celeste, they were puzzled. The crewmen's belongings were still in their quarters and the cargo of 1,701 barrels of industrial alcohol was intact. The ship had enough food and water to last six months at sea. So where were the people? The Mary Celeste crew, consisting of Capt. Benjamin Spooner Briggs, his wife and 2-year-old daughter, plus seven crewmen, was gone, as was the ship's lone lifeboat. The last log entry was from 11 days before the ship was found empty.


There was only one clue to what might have happened: One of the ship's two pumps had been partially disassembled, and there was water sloshing inside the ship's bottom, suggesting that the Mary Celeste had suffered a mechanical malfunction. Even so, the Mary Celeste was still sailable. One theory is that the captain mistakenly thought it was about to sink, so they abandoned ship for a lifeboat and drowned at sea. There are also wilder explanations, ranging from a mutiny to an attack by a sea monster, but more than 140 years later, nobody really knows [source: Blumberg].

1: Pro Basketball Star John Brisker

John Brisker
Nobody knows what happened to NBA player John Brisker, though theories swirl around his disappearance. Public Domain

In the early 1970s, Brisker was an all-star forward for the Pittsburgh Condors of the now-defunct American Basketball Association averaging 26 points a game. But his soft shooting touch and quickness were overshadowed by his reputation as a menacing and hot-tempered brawler. It once took four police officers to subdue him in an off-court tussle. After finishing his career in 1975 with the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics, Brisker tried his hand at operating a restaurant, but it eventually failed. In February 1978, Brisker traveled to Africa with a friend, supposedly to lay the groundwork for an import-export business that he hoped would resurrect his fortunes and help to pay off his creditors.

About six weeks later, Brisker made a call from Kampala, Uganda, to his companion, Melvis Diane Williamson, telling her that he would soon send for her and their young daughter. That was the last anyone heard from him. Over the years, rumors have persisted that Brisker was killed while fighting as a mercenary for Idi Amin, or that he was murdered after running afoul of the Ugandan dictator, who had an even worse mean streak than Brisker.

Other stories have him drifting to Guyana and dying in the Jonestown massacre in November 1978. Or maybe he took on a new identity and is alive somewhere today. As a Seattle sports writer put it, "All anyone knows is the ungentle giant shone briefly for the SuperSonics and veered out of sight" [sources: Jamieson, Halvonik].

Lots More Information

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