Gone Girl

Why I stay up late pondering the fates of people who’ve gone missing.

Clockwise from left: Amelia Earhart, Henry Vansittart, Dorothy Arnold, and Hiram Maxim (or if legend is to be believed, William Cantelo).
Clockwise from left: Amelia Earhart, Henry Vansittart, Dorothy Arnold, and Hiram Maxim (or if legend is to be believed, William Cantelo).
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Getty Images, Wikipedia Commons.

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Sometimes at night, when reality TV leaves me cold and I can’t get into a book, I turn to crime—or, perhaps more accurately, to maybe-crime. I was raised on Unsolved Mysteries and Law & Order, and that fascination with misadventure has stayed with me into adulthood. Murder porn isn’t my thing, though—I can’t get past the blood and gore. Instead, I’m into people who go missing.

The lack of narrative closure is at once enthralling and frustrating. Did this person disappear intentionally? Did they drive a car into a body of water, never to be found again? Was it foul play? Were they—or are they?!—being held somewhere against their will?

But I’m not particularly interested in the modern-day Natalee Holloway type of disappearance, the tabloid fodder with real-time updates. Creepy kicks lose their thrill when I know that somewhere, at that moment, a family is in anguish. So instead, I turn to Wikipedia. Specifically, to the “List of people who disappeared mysteriously”—a category page I stumbled on after reading about a missing person (who that gateway shadow was I can’t recall) some time ago.

The page is listed in chronological order, beginning with the alleged 531 B.C. disappearance of Laozi, the (possibly not real) founder of Taoism. It contains both solved and unsolved disappearances, but it is the latter that draws me back again and again. After Laozi, “List of people who disappeared mysteriously” includes about 100 names before we even get into the 1930s. It goes all the way up to the present day, but I prefer to focus on the pre–World War II stories. These tales offer a bit more hope than modern-day disappearances, too: In the days before (or early in) the era of mass communication, it was a lot easier to disappear intentionally, so perhaps some of these people reinvented themselves and went on to live happy lives. That’s more fun to imagine than thinking that a missing person probably died by accident, by murder, or by suicide, and their body just hasn’t been found, or they’re being kept captive by somebody.

When a name and brief explanation of a case catches my eye, I start, of course, with the Wikipedia page. But from there, I explore the footnotes and Google, following a trail of blog posts, encyclopedia articles, discussions on forums like Reddit, podcasts—anywhere to get the scintillating details and the favorite theories for what could have happened. The more intricate and passionately argued the theory, the better.

In many of the historical cases, the person in question clearly died at sea or through other misadventures. (It wasn’t just Amelia Earhart: In the early 20th century, flying—especially attempts to break aviation records—led to an awful lot of “mysteriousdisappearances.) But even in those cases, the Wikipedia page occasionally gives an Unsolved Mysteries–esque unlikely alternative answer. In 1788, “Aimée du Buc de Rivéry, daughter of a wealthy plantation owner on the French island of Martinique,” was traveling home from school in France when her ship went missing. The likely answer, of course, is that the ship sank and Aimée died. But then the Wikipedia summary gets good: “It has been suggested that she was enslaved and eventually sent to Constantinople as a gift to the Ottoman sultan by the Ottoman governor of Algiers.” That probably didn’t happen, but I would totally watch a period movie loosely inspired by that story.

In fact, if you’re a struggling historical fiction writer, this page offers many a promising tale. Take William Cantelo, who created one of the first machine guns before he went missing on a sales trip in the 1880s. What happened? “His sons speculated years later that he may have re-emerged as Hiram Maxim, another machine-gun pioneer, whom he strongly resembled.” How delightful is the idea that a machine-gun pioneer could rename himself and then take up the same niche occupation—and thrive in it—without being officially found out? I’m pretty satisfied with my life, but who hasn’t had a rough day and fantasized about starting fresh? I had always assumed that transforming yourself would involve a new line of work, but if machine guns were William Cantelo’s calling, then they could have been Hiram Maxim’s too.

Some of these tales were tabloid sensations but have been mostly forgotten, such as Joseph Force Crater, who was a New York Supreme Court associate justice. He went missing in 1930 after dining with his mistress. Or consider the case of early 20th-century socialite and frustrated writer Dorothy Arnold, who went missing after shopping for a dress for her sister’s debutante ball. When I read those types of stories, I like to imagine the people who will, in 100 years, stumble upon our most talked-about crimes and disappearances. Will they seem quaint somehow? Will we seem fantastically ignorant about science and humanity? Will the answers that seem obvious today appear ludicrous? Probably. And perhaps that’s the real reason I keep reading—not just to creep myself out, but to remind myself that the stories that seem so unforgettable at present will be buried, waiting for slightly twisted people like me to stumble, and project, upon them in the murky uncertain of the night, when almost anything seems possible. Except maybe the idea that Aimée du Buc de Rivéry ended up in Constantinople.