9 Chilling Missing Person Cases From History That Are Almost Too Hard To Believe
Out of all the things that freak me out, nothing freaks me out quite the same way that missing person cases from history do. There’s something about the fact that someone could totally disappear — that they could vanish without a trace — never to be seen again that just… gets me. I think it has to do with the fact that in many of these cases, we’ll never truly know what happened. I, uh… don’t do well with ambiguity.
According to statistics from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) from 2014, there are around 90,000 missing people in the United States at any given time. About 50,000 of them are adults; the rest are children. They’re split roughly 50/50 between men and women (although I think it’s worth noting that these statistics don’t take into account any other genders). These days, the majority of cases reported each year are solved; for example, as Todd Matthews of NamUs said on NPR's All Things Considered in 2013, of the roughly 661,000 missing person cases that were reported in the Untied States in 2012, only about 2,079 remained unsolved by the year’s end.
But that wasn’t always the case. We have lots of technology and techniques now that can help solve missing person cases much more quickly, efficiently, and effectively than we could in times gone by. And obviously the United States isn’t the only location in which people disappear; according to a report in the Wall Street Journal from 2012, around 8 million children alone go missing each year around the world.
The mysteries below remain unsolved, and they’re probably going to stay as such. If you want to help other cases, however, you can volunteer with NamUs or send in tips to the FBI; internationally, you might think about checking out Interpol’s missing person database.
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1. Charley Ross
When four-year-old Charley Ross disappeared in 1874, his would become the first documented case of kidnapping-for-ransom in the history of the United States. On July 1, he and his brother, five-year-old Walter Lewis, were taken while they were playing in their family’s front yard in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood. Walter Lewis was later released, but Charley was not.
Several days later, a letter was delivered to the dry goods store their family ran. It read (all sic), “You wil have to pay us before you git him from us, and pay us a big cent to. If you put the cops hunting for him you is only defeeting yu own end.” Five days after that, another letter specified the amount the kidnappers required: “This is the lever that moved the rock that hides him from yu $20,00. Not one doler less — impossible — impossible — you cannot get him without it.” ($20,000 today is about $410,940.)
A Philadelphia policeman was eventually arrested and tried for the kidnapping, but there was no evidence he committed it. Charley Ross was never found, but the Charley Project — a large missing persons database — bears his name.
2. Dawn Crey
Dawn Crey is one of at least 500 — but possibly as many as 1,100 — Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people to have gone missing in Canada over the past three to four decades. After the death of her father, she was separated from her siblings and grew up in the foster system; as a teenager, she began suffering from substance abuse problems. She survived an acid attack as an adult. She eventually wound up in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and was in and out of jail for several years — and in late 2000, she went missing.
Her remains are believed to have been found on the Pickton farm in Port Coquitlam, where serial killer Robert Pickton committed his crimes; Pickton was convicted of second-degree murder in the deaths of six women, although he was also charged with an additional 20 counts of first degree murder (all of which were stayed). But Dawn Crey was not included in those charges; there wasn’t enough DNA evidence to conclusively determine her to be a victim.
Her case — and those of so many other missing or murdered Aboriginal Canadian women — has never been fully solved.
3. Dorothy Arnold
Dorothy Arnold was born in New York in 1886 to Francis Rose Arnold and Mary Martha Parks Arnold — that is, she was the daughter of a wealthy, high-society perfume importer. She was well educated; after attending the Vetlin School for Girls, she majored in literature and language at Bryn Mawr, graduating in 1905.
And on Dec. 12, 1910, she went missing, never to be seen again.
She had left home that morning to go shopping; among other errands, she wanted to buy a dress to wear to her younger sister’s upcoming debutante ball. She didn’t buy the dress, but she did buy some chocolate and a book (Engaged Girl Sketches by Emily Calvin Blake). She ran into a friend on the street and chatted with her, after which she left to walk home through Central Park.
The time was 2 p.m. And that was the last anyone saw of her.
The thing about this case that I find most distressing, though, is this detail: Her parents, although worried, did not contact the police for weeks after her disappearance. Apparently they were worried that doing so would bring the media to their doorstep and result in some “socially embarrassing” attention. For what it’s worth, they did contact friends and put them on the case; however, I just can’t help but think that if they were just able to, y’know, not care so much what society thought (and if society could also have not had a habit of being so judgmental in the first place), the police would have been brought in sooner — and might have stood a better chance of finding out what actually happened to her.
Now we’ll never know.
4. Megumi Yokota
In November of 1977, 13-year-old Megumi Yokota and a friend of hers walked home from school together in Niigata, the town in western Japan where they lived. They separated when they got closer to their homes — but only one of them actually made it to her final destination.
Yokota was the one who did not.
Years later, it was discovered that she had been kidnapped by North Korean agents. According to NPR, North Korea confirmed in 2002 that it had operated an abduction program during the 1970s and ‘80s which kidnapped people from Japan; these kidnapped people were then tasked with training North Korean spies in Japanese language and culture for the purpose of infiltration. Japan suspects that 17 citizens were taken during this period, although North Korea says that the number was only 13. Five were released in 2002; eight, the country said, had died in captivity. Megumi Yokota was allegedly among these eight; according to North Korea, she died by suicide in 1994, after which she was cremated. Her remains were sent to her family.
In 2014, Yokota’s parents were allowed to meet their granddaughter. Yokota had married before her death; her daughter was 26 when the meeting occurred. It’s thought to have been meant as a good will gesture from North Korea.
But there’s also this: According to Japanese officials, the cremated remains that had been sent to the Yokota family were found after DNA testing not to belong to Megumi Yokota.
Some family members are convinced that she is still alive.
5. Ettore Majorana
An Italian theoretical physicist, Ettore Majorana worked on neutrino masses; both the Majorana equation and Majorana fermions are named for him. But in 1938, he emptied his bank account, bought a ticket for a boat headed from Palermo to Naples, and… disappeared.
On March 25 — the day he vanished — he sent a curious note to the Director of the Naples Physics Institute, Antonio Carrelli. The note read:
I made a decision that has become unavoidable. There isn't a bit of selfishness in it, but I realize what trouble my sudden disappearance will cause you and the students. For this as well, I beg your forgiveness, but especially for betraying the trust, the sincere friendship and the sympathy you gave me over the past months. I ask you to remember me to all those I learned to know and appreciate in your Institute, especially Sciuti: I will keep a fond memory of them all at least until 11 pm tonight, possibly later too.
We have no idea what happened to him, or why. Some theories think he died by suicide; others think he escaped to Argentina, to Venezuela,or to a monastery; some even think that he might have been killed, possibly as a result of the fact that some of his work may have contributed indirectly to the development of the atomic bomb.
Whatever happened, he did appear to be aware of — and perhaps the architect of — his disappearance; his direct mention of it in his letter is fairly strong evidence for that. But beyond that? We’ve got nothin’. We have such scant details that it’s tempting to fill in the blanks ourelves: Why did he empty his bank account? Why take a surprise trip to Palermo? Did he even get on the boat in the first place? What was the “decision that has become unavoidable?” But at this point, it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever figure it out.
6. Tara Calico
On Sept. 20, 1988, Tara Calico — then 19 — borrowed her mother’s pink Huffy to go for a bike ride near her home in Belen, New Mexico. (Her own bike had a flat tire.) She was last seen on Highway 47 in Valencia County at around 11:30 that morning — roughly two hours after she had departed for the trip.
She never arrived home.
Although pieces of her Walkman and a cassette tape were found at the side of the road, nothing else of Calico’s has ever been located; she, the bike, and everything else she had on her have remained missing. It’s also unknown whether a pickup truck witnesses had seen following her abducted her or not — no one actually saw it happen.
The saddest thing, though, is this: On June 15, 1989, a Polaroid photo was found in the parking lot of a convenience store in Florida.It depicted a young woman and a boy, both with their hands bound behind their backs and tape over their mouths. It’s never been confirmed, but it’s thought that the young woman may be Calico. Several other Polaroids thought to depict Calico have been found over the years, although these, too, have never been confirmed.
She’d be in her late 40s now, but we’ll likely never know what really happened to her.
7. Bobby Dunbar
In August of 1912, Bobby Dunbar was four years old. His parents had taken him to Swayze Lake in Louisiana for a fishing trip — but during that trip, on Aug. 23, he disappeared.
That’s not the most chilling part of this case, though. That dubious honor goes to this bit: After an eight-month search, investigators located a boy matching Bobby’s description and returned him to the Dunbars. He lived out the rest of his life as Bobby Dunbar.
But he may not actually have been Bobby Dunbar.
The boy had been found with William Cantwell Walters, who said his name wasn’t Bobby Dunbar, but Charles Bruce Anderson; his mother was Julia Anderson. The courts, however, sided with the Dunbars (who could afford a lawyer to fight for custody) over Anderson (who could not), and that was that.
In 2014, however, DNA testing confirmed that the boy was not Bobby Dunbar; it’s believed that he was actually the son of Anderson and William Cantwell Walters’ brother — that is, he probably really was Charles Bruce Anderson. I’ve noted before that I find the whole case terribly sad, and this is part of the reason why: While it’s true that we don’t know whether his life would have been any better or worse had he lived it as Charles Bruce Anderson, the fact that he never got a chance to find out is just heart-wrenching to me.
The other part of why I find it so sad is that we don’t know what happened to the real Bobby Dunbar, either
8. The Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers
On Dec. 26, 1900, the ship Hesperus, captained by James Harvey, was traveling to the lighthouse at Eliean Mor, an uninhabited island that was part of the Flannan Islands located in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. The lighthouse keepers were the only folks meant to be present on the island; in fact, the Hesperus was actually transporting a replacement lighthouse keeper, Joseph Moore, to Eliean Mor.
When they arrived, however, the lighthouse was empty.
A horn blast and a flare sent up to alert the lighthouse keepers to their arrival went unanswered — and when Moore actually made landfall and arrived at the lighthouse itself, he found the door unlocked. Several oil skin coats near the door were missing; there was a partially eaten meal and an overturned chair in the kitchen; and the clock had stopped. But of Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald McArthur — the three keepers maintaining and watching over the lighthouse — there was no sign.
According to the logbook, there had been a bad storm beginning on Dec. 12; Marshall had written of “severe winds the likes of which I have never seen before in 20 years.” Several days later, the report from Dec. 15 stated, “Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all.” That’s the last entry in the book, though, so we still don’t totally know what happened. Even weirder, there were apparently no reported storms in the area during the period of Dec. 12 to 15, 1900.
No bodies were ever found.
9. Mary Agnes Moroney
Mary Agnes Moroney — sometimes spelled Maroney — was just 2 years old when a woman calling herself "Julia Otis" knocked on the door of her family’s home in Chicago in 1930. The family was destitute; Catherine and Michael Moroney had married young (very young, in her case — she was just 13), and several years later, they had two daughters with a third on the way and little means to support them.
“Julia Otis” must have seemed like a dream come true. Catherine had been scrubbing the floors when “Otis” arrived, saying she had been sent by a social worker, Mrs. Henderson, to help the family out. She bought them groceries — and then she asked if she could take Mary Agnes to California with her for a short trip. It would be good for the child, she said.
But the next day, “Otis” returned. She brought money, food, clothing, and other gifts, and offered to take Mary Agnes shopping. This time, Catherine said yes, and “Otis” left with the little girl.
She never returned.
Interestingly — and horrifyingly — there was a “phantom social worker” scare in the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1980s and ‘90s. It was said that people calling themselves social workers would knock on the doors of family homes and conduct bizarre “visits” or “inspections,” with the ultimate goal of abducting the children living there. These days, it’s believed that these “phantom social workers” were really more of an urban legend — something kind of akin to the “satanic panic” of roughly the same era — but as the case of Mary Agnes Moroney shows, this particular legend is grounded in truth.