History has recorded many instances of mysterious disappearances, sometimes with equally mysterious reappearances. Such incidents are not, however, generally thought of as paranormal, since the evidence is usually anecdotal, reports uncorroborated, and incidents subject to more mundane explanations. In the case of well known or important individuals in the history of politics and religion, kidnapping, secret imprisonment, or assassination may have been responsible for many disappearances. In the case of ordinary folk, many young people throughout history have quarreled with their parents and left home, sometimes dying in foreign wars, or, more likely today, on the streets, victims of crime, prostitution, or drugs. Adults in one kind of difficulty or another have often had good reason for disappearing. There have also been many cases of genuine amnesia, or loss of memory, resulting in the victim's traveling far from home and reappearing without any clear recollection of what happened.
Many such explanations are equally valid for the thousands of disappearances every year in many countries of the world in modern times. However, there are a number of cases that re-main intriguing mysteries.
For example, in November 1809 Benjamin Bathurst, a member of the British diplomatic service, vanished while returning from a mission to the court of Emperor Francis at Vienna. Bathurst stopped for a meal at an inn in Perleberg, a small German town, and in the evening checked the horses of his carriage. He was seen by witnesses to walk around to the far side of the horses and then disappear. He was never seen or heard of again, in spite of the most extensive investigations.
In the 1550s, in the French town of Artigues, Martin Guerre left his wife and young son one morning, walking in the direction of his father's farm. He disappeared without a trace. Eight years later, he returned and was welcomed by his wife, his four sisters, and his uncle Peter. His father had died. Martin resumed married life and fathered two more children. Three years later, another Martin Guerre turned up, a soldier with a wooden leg who had served in the Flanders war. The first Martin was arrested for impersonation, and even Uncle Peter changed his mind and said he was an impostor. At the trial, 150 witnesses were examined, and their evidence was conflicting. Martin's brothers took the side of the arrested man, who presented his case convincingly. Eventually Martin's wife changed her mind and said the man with the wooden leg was the real Martin. The other was imprisoned and executed.
In his books Lo! (1931) and Wild Talents (1932), Charles Fort, the chronicler of the anomalous and inexplicable, recorded a number of mysterious disappearances and reappearances, including other cases with a strange resemblance to the story of Martin Guerre. Fort cited the case of a New York woman around 1920 whose husband was in an insane asylum. The woman was visited by a man who greeted her fondly, claiming to be her husband. The woman accepted him and settled down with him. Some time later she learned that her husband was still in the asylum, and thereupon had the other man arrested. How could she have made a mistake in the first place? Fort noted another case where a man came to a woman whose husband was a sailor and claimed that he was the husband. "Go away!" said she, "you are darker than my husband." "Ah!" said he, "I have had yellow fever." So she accepted him, but later changed her mind and this case also ended in a police court.
Although a wife should surely know her own husband, even after a prolonged absence, it is reasonable to suppose that she might still be mistaken, or have preferred an impostor for reasons of her own. Some other cases of disappearance are apparently inexplicable, especially when various people have disappeared in exactly the same mysterious circumstances.
The Vanishing Children
One night in November 1878, at Quincy, Illinois, Charles Ashmore, age 16, was sent to fetch water from a well. When he did not return his father went to look for him with a lantern. The boy's footprints in the snow ended abruptly. A few days later, his mother heard his voice, as did other members of the family and neighbors, but the boy was never seen again.
On Christmas Eve 1889, 11-year-old Oliver Larch of South Bend, Indiana, also went to a well to fetch water. After a short while, his parents heard him crying out, "Help! Help! They've got me! Help!" The cries seemed to be coming from overhead. Oliver's father and others in the house went to look for the boy, carrying a lamp. Halfway to the well, about 75 feet from the house, the boy's footprints in the snow ended abruptly, and there were no other tracks. The boy had vanished forever.
By an astonishing coincidence, another 11-year-old named Oliver, son of a Mr. Thomas, a farmer at Rhayader in Wales, also vanished while going to fetch water from a well on Christmas Eve 20 years later, in 1909. The boy's footsteps also stopped in the snow, and he too was heard to cry out in terror before disappearing forever.
What happened to these children who vanished under such amazingly similar circumstances? They appeared to have been lifted up into the air. But explanations involving kidnapping balloonists or predatory eagles are too far-fetched to consider. An 11-year-old boy weighs some 75 pounds, far beyond the lifting capacity of an eagle. No balloonists were reported in the areas.
It is not unusual for armies to be decimated in combat, particularly in view of the awesome destructive capabilities of modern armaments, but in most military campaigns there are reasonably satisfactory accounts of the fate of regiments, with a tally of corpses or survivors. However, there have been a few instances in both ancient and modern history where whole armies have disappeared without trace.
An early example dates from the Roman conquests of Britain. About the year 119 C.E., the Ninth Roman Legion, known as "Hispana," was sent to subdue one of several revolts in Brigantia, a confederacy of tribes in northern Britain. The Ninth Legion, Composed of some six thousand men, disappeared without a trace.
Some historians do not accept the evidence for this mass dis-appearance, but there are other cases in more recent history. During the Gallipoli campaign in World War I, the British First-Fifth Norfolk Regiment under Col. Sir Horace Beauchamp pursued the enemy through forest territory and disappeared without a trace. The regiment was composed of 250 soldiers and 16 officers. Their strange story was reported in an eyewitness account by Gen. Sir Ian Hamilton in a dispatch to Secretary-at-War Earl Kitchener. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, former sapper Frederick Reichardt (who had been in the New Zealand Engineers) signed a statement in which he recalled the appearance of a strange, huge cloud about 800 feet long and 220 feet high, into which the illfated regiment marched. When this cloud lifted soon afterward, the men had disappeared.
During the Spanish War of Succession (1701-14), an army of four thousand fully equipped troops was reported to have marched into the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains and disappeared without a trace.
As recently as 1939 a Chinese army of nearly three thousand troops disappeared overnight. They were stationed 16 miles south of Nanking and had orders to fight to the finish. One hundred and thirteen men were detailed to guard a strategically important bridge over which the enemy could advance; the other troops, 2,988 men, dug in at their front line. Col. Li Fu Sien gave the troops their orders and returned to headquarters, a couple of miles behind the front line. In the morning he found no response from the army field telephones and went to investigate. The detachment guarding the bridge was in position and assured the colonel that no enemy forces had passed across the bridge, but the 2,988 men in the front line had all disappeared. If they had deserted en masse, it is strange that they were never heard of again.
Disappearance and Reappearance
There are many stories of mysterious disappearances with equally mysterious reappearances at a great distance, and some old and new examples are discussed elsewhere as incidents of teleportation.
In the case of Spiritualist mediums, the claimed phenomenon usually involves theories of dematerialization (rendering physical matter intangible) with rematerialization at a distance. In the case of inanimate objects or small living creatures (such as insects, birds, snakes), the appearance or disappearance over a distance is termed an apport. To date there is neither a satisfactory theory to account for paranormal transportation, nor any verified case illustrative of its occurrence. Reports of such cases must be considered highly questionable, especially in light of the numerous verified cases of fraudulently produced apports.
The books of Charles Fort meticulously list many accounts of objects or groups of objects that have appeared or disappeared suddenly, including insects, fish, blocks of ice, and unusual artifacts, some the subject of mysterious falls from the sky. Many of these have been explored as products of infrequent but natural phenomena.
Ancient accounts of teleportation of human beings are more impressive than modern ones, insofar as limited means of transport would preclude conventional rapid transit as an explanation. They are, of course, countered by the inability to verify what often comes across as a tall tale. According to Philostratus the Elder (ca. 170-245 C.E.), the great mystic Apollonius of Tyana vanished from a crowded courtroom in Rome and reappeared the same afternoon at Puteoli, 100 miles away. Similar stories are told in the Bible. In the Acts of the Apostles, the apostles were delivered from a prison, though the officers testified "the prison house we found shut in all safety, and the keepers standing before the doors; but, when we opened, we found no man within" (Acts 5:23). St. Philip, after baptizing the Ethiopian, was "caught away by the spirit" and "found at Azotus" (Acts 8:39).
In modern times, an astonishing story was reported of Armando Valdes, corporal in the Chilean army. On April 25, 1977, he was said to have disappeared in front of six of his men, reappearing minutes later. But the calendar on his watch was dated five days ahead and he had grown something like a five-day beard! He could remember nothing of what had happened. Had he been taken five days into the future before being returned? This telescoping of time recalls the folklore of super-natural time in the kingdom of fairies and the legend of Rip Van Winkle.
Another case of apparent time anomaly is the strange story of Rudolph Fentz. In the book Vanishings (1981), author Michael Harrison states that Fentz left his home in Florida in 1876 because his wife objected to his smoking in the house. Fentz went for a walk and was missing for 74 years. In June 1950 he appeared in Times Square, New York City, dressed in the formal wear of 1876—shepherd's plaid trousers, button boots, Prince Albert coat, glossy "plug" hat. He stepped off the pavement and was knocked down by a taxi, dying instantly. His pockets contained $70 in outdated bank notes and two gold certificates. His calling cards showed an address on Fifth Avenue. There was a bill from a livery stable in Lexington Avenue for "feeding and stabling one horse and washing one carriage, $3," but the stables had long ceased to exist and the premises were now occupied by a shop.
In his book Lo!, Fort records that in the town of Romford, Essex, in England, no less than six individuals were found wandering in the streets between 1920 and 1923. All of them "were unable to tell how they got there, or anything else about themselves." Even stranger was the report of a man who was walking down Euston Road in west central London one day, but nine months later found himself working on a farm in Australia.
Many stories have been told of ships that vanish at sea, or even crews that disappear, as in the case of the famous "Mary Celeste. " Claims have been made that certain ocean areas, like the so-called Bermuda Triangle, have mysteriously snatched ships and aircraft, though most of these claims have now been laid to rest. One of the most time-honored legends of the sea is that of the Flying Dutchman, condemned to sail his ship from age to age until redeemed by the love of a pure maiden.
One of the strangest disappearances of modern history is surely that of the famous writer Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?). He had written many strange stories himself, including three about mysterious disappearances. One of these was based on the real-life story of David Lang, a farmer in Gallatin, Tennessee, who was said to have vanished in full view of five other people while crossing a field. A year later, his two children were out walking and heard a man's voice calling for help. They shouted "Father, are you there?" and Lang's voice answered. The children fetched Lang's wife and the calls for help persisted, but got fainter and eventually died out. Bierce visited the farm in Gallatin and based his story "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field" on the incident.
Bierce himself disappeared without a trace some time after 1913. One theory is that he died in Mexico during the civil warfare between Villa and Carranza, but no one really knows how, where, or when he died.
Begg, Paul. Into Thin Air: People Who Disappear. North Pom-fret, VT: David & Charles, 1979.
Berlitz, Charles, and J. M. Valentine. Without a Trace. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977.
O'Donnell, Elliott. Strange Disappearances. London, 1927. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1972.
Phillips, G. Ragland. Brigantia: A Mysteriography. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976.
Steiger, Brad. Strange Disappearances. New York: Magnum Books, 1972.