Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Disappeared: The Stories of 35 Historical Disappearances from the Mary Celeste to Jimmy Hoffa by Ian Crofton

This was a fun book to fill a sleepless night and feed my fascination with mysterious disappearances. It is comprised of a series of 35 articles, most about three pages in length, about missing persons from ancient times to the 1980s. It includes a bevy of well known cases as well as some more obscure ones. It begins with the story of the lost army of Cambyses, supposedly 50,000 strong, that vanished during a sandstorm in the Egyptian desert in 523 B.C. and ends with the victims of Argentina's Dirty War.

There are tales of disappearing royals and noblemen, such as an incident from the reign of wicked King John who not only tried to usurp his brother Richard the Lionheart's throne, but made his inconvenient nephew, Arthur of Brittany disappear. Shakespeare immortalized the incident in his play "King John" when, in a completely fictitious scene, Arthur attempts to flee by jumping from a castle wall, only to perish declaring: "Heaven take my soul, and England keep my bones!" And, of course, what would a book about disappearances be without the famous medieval mystery of the Princes in the Tower; who murdered them remains one of the great conundrums of British history. And, a favorite of mine, the romantic tale of Count Philip Konigsmark, the dashing Swedish soldier, who cuckolded King George I, and vanished the night he and his beloved Sophia Dorothea planned to run away to start a new life together. And Lord Lucan, who still provides fodder for the British tabloids, who did a vanishing act one night in 1974 after mistakenly bludgeoning the children's nanny to death when he actually intended to murder his wife.

There are also some literary disappearances in which authors achieved immortality not only in the pages of their own books but in volumes such as this one about unsolved mysteries. The roguish French poet Francois Villon for instance, who vanished from the pages of history after being banished from Paris, the colorful stagecoach robber "Black Bart" a.k.a. Charles E. Boles, who often left those he robbed with a sample of his poetry, and Agatha Christie who vanished for ten days, perhaps in a plot to boost her book sales or avenge her husband's adultery. And sardonic, misanthropic Ambrose Bierce, often called "Bitter Bierce," author of "The Devil's Dictionary" and some wonderful tales of terror, who, sick of the ways of the world and men, left it all behind to get a firsthand glimpse of Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution and was never seen again. And Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of the still beloved story of "The Little Prince," whose plane may have been shot down by the Germans.

There are disappearances at sea, such as the vanishing crew of the "Mary Celeste," the lighthouse keepers of Eilean Mor, and the intriguing tale of Rudolph Diesel, inventor of the diesel engine, who boarded an ocean liner in Antwerp to travel to London to attend a conference, and, after bidding his traveling companions good night, was never seen again. Nothing was found out of place in his cabin the next morning, his bed was turned back but had not been slept in, his nightshirt was laid out, his watch was on the nightstand, and his belongings and luggage were all in place, exactly as they should be.

Explorers are also accounted for, at least in the pages of this book, Mallory and Irvine who attempted to scale Mount Everest but disappeared somewhere between earth and heaven, Colonel Percy Fawcett who vanished into the green hell of the Amazon in search of a mysterious lost city he cryptically referred to as "Z", and the doomed, icebound Franklin Expedition with its ships "The Erebus" and "The Terror."

Aviators also abound. Amelia Earhart, possibly the most famous missing person of all, aviatrix Amy Johnson, the already mentioned Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and big band leader Glen Miller whose plane may have been shot down over the English Channel.

And there are politicians and diplomats, such as Benjamin Bathurst, the British diplomat who vanished in 1809 just outside the door of an inn after walking round the front of his coach, courageous Swede Raoul Wallenberg who saved thousands of Jews during World War II but may have ended his life in a Russian prison after being mistaken for a spy, and Harold Holt, a Prime Minister of Australia who went for a Sunday afternoon swim and never came back.

And, of course, those staples of missing persons books, rough and tough Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa, former navy frogman Lionel "Buster' Crabb, and The Lost Colony of Roanoke.

Besides its entertainment value, another good point about this book I would like to mention is that it is quite up to date; if you are like me and mostly know these stories from older books, this one does bring many of the mysteries up to date, such as the discovery of an engraved bracelet and possible wreckage from Antoine de Saint-Exupery's plane, and George Mallory's remains on Mt. Everest, conspicuously without Andrew Irvine and the photograph of his beloved wife, Ruth, which Mallory had vowed to place atop the summit, leaving us to wonder whether he died while ascending or descending the mountain? And the latest sightings of Lord Lucan. Though, curiously the author, either deliberately or unintentionally, does not include some intriguing evidence that has emerged about the Glenn Miller disappearance that strongly suggests a cover-up. There are also some notable and curious omissions which disappointed me and made the book feel incomplete. It would have been nice if the author had included heiress Dorothy Arnold, who vanished from a busy New York street in 1910, Judge Crater, West Point Cadet Richard Colvin Cox, Michael Rockefeller, who may have fallen victim to the headhunting tribes he was studying on an anthropological expedition, and Labour M.P. Victor Grayson. Their inclusion would have made this chronicle of those who vanished without a trace feel much more complete, but one can't have everything and it's impossible to please everyone. That said, it's still an enjoyable and interesting read. The chapters are brief, but serve to prick the reader's curiosity and, hopefully, inspire further investigation of whatever cases intrigue the most.

No comments: