VANISHED: 6 Unsolved and Baffling Disappearances
By Sohini Das Gupta
A lanky stranger in a beach town with a fake ID. A young mother trying to pin a murder on her toddler. Ships that never sailed home, and missing person posters fluttering in the cold, Alaskan air. At first glance, there may seem little to tie these people, places and things together. Yet you’re reading about them years after they disappeared — because they disappeared. United in their fate of retreating from the world’s view across disparate times and spaces, six missing people come briefly together. Perhaps they will spark new theories. Perhaps they will plague you with their enduring lack of closure. The only way to know for sure is to dive into today’s Daily Dose.
will we ever know?
Solomon Northup: 12 Years a Slave …
If yov’ve read 12 Years a Slave or seen the 2013 Academy Award-winning movie of the same name, you already know how Northup, a freeborn Black man in 19th-century America, was deceived, drugged, bound and sold into slavery — before finally gaining freedom. Yet the ultimate fate of the Saratoga Springs, New York, resident who loved music, carpentry and his wife, Anne, is mired in a mystery that begins almost exactly where his autobiography ended.
… And Then?
Outside the book, a few bread crumbs piece together a fuzzy picture of Northup’s post-slavery life, starting in 1853. He most certainly became a fiery abolitionist speaker, joining orators such as Frederick Douglass in addressing audiences across the Northeastern U.S. and Canada. There are suggestions he worked with the Underground Railroad, which helped tens of thousands of slaves flee Southern states in the early to mid-1800s. Chances are he also suffered from financial woes. The last known public sighting of Northup was in 1857, when, as he was about to give a lecture outside Toronto, he was subjected to a racist verbal attack and allegedly forced to flee, according to a local newspaper. Theories of what happened next vary wildly, from a second kidnapping or murder by his vengeful abductors to an impoverished, even inebriated life of anonymity that slowly saw him waste away. Or perhaps he moved to Virginia to live with his daughter? Like Northup’s memoir, before it recently resurfaced in public memory, the telltale clues of his last years are probably now lost to time.
The Franklin Expedition: To the Arctic …
When a squabble with fellow administrators prompted Sir John Franklin to leave his post as governor of the Van Diemen’s Land colony in Tasmania in 1843, his spirited wife, Lady Jane Franklin, pushed for the former expert explorer to recover some of his lost glory. Their plan? One last expedition to chart the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean in Canada’s far north. As fate would have it, the ambitious expedition of 1845 was indeed the final voyage for Franklin — and his crews of around 130 men aboard the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.
… And Trapped.
The expedition was last seen in Baffin Bay, from where the ships were planning to enter Lancaster Sound, the eastern entrance of the present-day Northwest Passage, more than two months after setting sail from England. There, it ran into ice and was forced to reroute farther south, where it again hit an ice trap. And that was it. Despite several long and expensive search operations, the world lost sight and sound of Franklin and his men. For more than 150 years, the fate of the crew remained shrouded in mystery — until 2014. A note was discovered in 1859 suggesting Franklin died onboard, though dozens of crew members, facing scurvy and starvation in the icy conditions, are believed to have set out on foot in a doomed attempt to reach the Canadian mainland. To this day, many questions remain unanswered: Was it starvation, disease or cannibalism that finally got his crew? Questions, with no satisfying response, remain in the wake of the two ships.
tragedies that cut deep
Cherrie Mahan: Broken Hearts …
Nothing compares to the anguish of a missing child, and for those who knew and loved Pennsylvania third grader Cherrie Mahan, it has been 36 winters of heartbreak. On February 22, 1985, she was dropped off by her school bus, reportedly a mere 50 feet from her home. Cherrie was dressed for the weather in a coat, a denim skirt, a leotard, a pair of blue leg warmers and her Cabbage Patch Kids earmuffs. But waiting inside, little did mother Janice McKinney and stepfather Leroy McKinney know that they would never see her again. Janice has said in interviews that she’d heard the rumble of the bus but when Cherrie failed to show up after 10 minutes, Leroy went out to check.
… And a Turning Point.
By then, there was no trace of their daughter and there hasn’t been since, although false leads and sightings continue to haunt them. What happened to the 8-year-old remains shrouded in speculation and is one of America’s most infamous disappearances. Despite countless search efforts and public campaigns, no person of interest was ever linked closely to the case. However, in her short (known) life, Cherrie contributed to a landmark approach in how the U.S. searches for missing persons: She was the first to be featured on the iconic “Have You Seen Me?” circulars produced by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Peter Bergmann: Ghost of Himself …
You would think that in our internet-centric world it would be difficult to shed your identity, adopt a new one and glide, spiritlike, through an Irish holiday town, before (presumably) drowning yourself in the Atlantic Ocean. But that’s exactly what Peter Bergmann did in 2009. Or at least that’s what a thin, silver-haired, spiffily dressed stranger who spoke with a thick German accent and called himself Peter Bergmann did, at any rate. All we know is that a middle-aged man parked himself in the salty heart of Sligo in the days leading up to his disappearance.
… And an Enduring Irish Mystery.
But “disappearance” isn’t the right word, for the out-of-towner’s body washed ashore the morning after he was last spotted taking a stroll by the waves. Partly clothed, frail and revealed during autopsy to have been riddled with prostate cancer, the remains ensured that the man who preferred to die anonymously could not be deemed “missing.” What remains unknown, 12 years later, is the story of the life he lived. Was he an intelligence operative, given his stealth? Was he running away from the law, or simply the indignity of an uncertain end? CCTV footage shows “Peter Bergmann” hauling his belongings around town, shedding any last shreds of his old life in garbage cans, one drop at a time.
the sneaky ones
Matthew Sheppard: A Brilliant Scheme …
Arkansas man Matthew Sheppard also had hoped to shed his former identity. His plan and purpose (escaping debt) might strike you as less mysterious, but boy, what a plan it was. It all began with a meticulously schemed fake drowning just feet from his onlooking wife in the fast currents of Arkansas’ Little Red River in the winter of 2008. Dive teams and search parties were called, but they failed to find his body. Water passing through a huge, upstream dam was even stopped to help the recovery team. But the river gave up no corpse. Things soon got fishy. Investigators became suspicious when Sheppard’s wife, Monica, left the riverbank the morning after the “drowning” (family members would usually have to be dragged from the scene of a loved one’s disappearance). They then discovered his life insurance policy had been increased to $1 million just a month before.
… Falls Apart.
Two months later, Monica was contacted by her husband, who by then was hiding out in Mexico. Sheppard, using the alias John P. Howard, soon reunited with his wife and 7-year-old daughter in Iowa. A string of forged documents had landed him his new identity, a job and even a rented house in Yankton, South Dakota. Sheppard’s biggest gamble, however, was enrolling his daughter in an elementary school in Yankton. That’s when, six months after “disappearing,” the law caught up with him. Sheppard was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Sharon Kinne: Black Widow …
Back in 1960, it was easy for Missouri resident Sharon Kinne to convince investigating police that the bullet fired from the .22-caliber pistol that killed her husband, James, was discharged by their toddler, Dana. You know, in a grisly domestic accident. Only it wasn’t. On the brink of the serial killing spree that earned Kinne the moniker “La Pistorela,” she managed to pin the death on her 2-year-old daughter. It was the first of her many staggering escapes and misdirections. Armed with confidence and a 20-something’s magnetism, within months, Kinne had moved to Kansas City, where she took on a married lover. When things soured between them, she turned the pistol on his wife, Patricia Jones. Kinne was charged and tried but soon found herself acquitted on a legal technicality.
… Escaped Prison.
Meanwhile, awaiting retrial for her own husband’s murder, a free-on-bond Kinne took off to Mexico. It was there, in the amorous-ambiguous hotel-room shooting of Francisco Paredes Ordoñez, that she was finally, in 1965, convicted of murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison. But Kinne wasn’t done. In December 1969, she pulled off one last operation: disappearing — until this day — from her Mexican prison. Since being baptized into the pantheon of America’s most famous serial killers, rumors about the gun-toting housewife’s whereabouts keep conspiracy theorists wondering even today.
the disappearance capital of america
Triangle of Trouble …
You needn’t have watched Into the Wild or read about young adventurer Chris McCandless to nurse a healthy fear of the Alaskan wilderness. Startlingly beautiful, this vast expanse of steppe, tundra and mountain ranges can be punishing in its refusal to accept wanderers and trespassers. Entire airplanes have flown into Alaska and vanished. The so-called Alaska Triangle that runs between the towns of Juneau, Anchorage and Utkiagviq (formerly known as Barrow) has seen more than 16,000 people disappear since 1988. That’s more than twice the national average in the same time period. For the scientifically minded, the most obvious explanation is also the most compelling one: the difficulty of navigating such terrain. The natural element thought to be responsible for many disappearances? Honeycombed glaciers.
But Not Just Nature.
But there’s another, even more tragic reason for Alaska’s high disappearance rate. Home to more than 230 federally recognized Indigenous tribes, the cruel legacy of colonization and exploitation means many communities continue to struggle. Whether dealing with substance abuse or racism, the socioeconomic difficulties facing Alaska Natives are partly to blame for an above-average number of missing persons. According to a 2018 study by the Urban Indian Health Institute, Anchorage has the joint-third-highest number of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women in the U.S. Recognizing the severity of risks facing Indigenous people, the administration of President Joe Biden has established a Missing and Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services to pursue justice for missing or murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.
- Sohini Das Gupta, OZY Author Contact Sohini Das Gupta