Notable Disappearances From History

May 15, 2019 Kayode Oseh

The fates of most historical figures are well known. Upon their deaths, there are great funerary celebrations, their gravesides are attended for centuries and for some, statues are made for them as monuments and valor. But others are not so lucky. They are swallowed up by the earth and their memories are erased from the histories, subjected to an exile from which they never return.

Below are people whose graves can never be visited, for no living soul knows where they are.

Hereward The Wake
Disappeared A.D. 1071

The existence of Hereward the Wake is cited by several sources, so there is little doubt that he was real person. However, the scope of his deeds is greatly embellished, seeded with tales of fighting bears and rescuing princesses. Born in England circa 1035, Hereward was a rogue in his youth and exiled to France for a few years by his father. When he returned home around 15 years later, he found his family’s lands seized by the Norman conquest and learned his brother had been killed, his decapitated head mounted on a spike.

Hereward flew into a rage, slaughtering a number of Norman soldiers at a feast. He spent much of the remainder of his life as a kind of freedom fighter for the Saxon cause. In 1071, his forces were driven to the Isle of Ely, where they put up a last stand. When the Normans were turned back, they produced a witch in a wood tower to rain curses down upon the Saxon resistance. Hereward and his men managed to set the tower ablaze, burning it to the ground with the witch still shrieking inside.

Ely was eventually captured, but not before Hereward managed to escape, a fact corroborated by all known sources. History loses track of Hereward after that. Different accounts claim that he was killed or imprisoned, but the most compelling theory is that he simply vanished as a mercenary waiting for death in self-imposed exile.


Khachatur Abovian
Disappeared April 14, 1848


Born in 1809, Khachatur Abovian was an important figure in Armenian history, best known for the posthumously published book Wounds of Armenia. Abovian’s father wished for him to join the priesthood, but he dropped out of the seminary after a few years, far more interested in history and language. He remained close to the church and was assigned to act as a translator and guide for German professor Friedrich Parrot, who wished to study Mount Ararat, in 1829.

Parrot took the young man under his wing and arranged for him to be enrolled at the University of Dorpat. There, Abovian studied a wide variety of subjects, including philosophy, literature, and foreign languages. He then returned home to Armenia, where many of his progressive ideas were frowned upon. He worked as a writer and a teacher and raised two children with his wife, Emilia.

In stereotypical tales of fathers abandoning their families, Dad steps out to buy a pack of cigarettes and never returns. Abovian’s tale is somewhat similar: He left home to take an early-morning walk on April 14, 1848 and didn’t come back. Inexplicably, his wife waited a month before reporting him missing. Due to his writings, Khachatur had a lot of enemies, and any one of them may have killed him to silence his voice. Other theories indicate that he may have been picked up by Russia’s Special Corps of Gendarmes and sent into exile in the frozen wastelands of Siberia. No trace of him has ever been found.


Theodosia Burr
Disappeared Circa January 2, 1813


Founding father Aaron Burr served as the third Vice President of the United States, but he is probably best known for his 1804 duel with Alexander Hamilton. Burr was also quite the womanizer, but his fondness for ladies extended past the bedroom. He genuinely believed women were the intellectual equals of men. This philosophy extended to his daughter, Theodosia, who received an uncommonly extensive education.

Theodosia married Joseph Alston, a landowner who would later go on to become Governor of South Carolina during the War of 1812. When Burr returned to New York City after spending some time in Europe, Theodosia boarded the schooner Patriot in Georgetown, South Carolina on December 31, 1812 to travel north and visit her father. Patriot never arrived at its destination. The perils of such a journey were many and there are several theories as to the ultimate fate of the ship. Some claim it is most likely that Patriot was wrecked on Cape Hatteras, which is infamous for sandbars and rough waters. Others claim the vessel was intercepted by pirates, who would no doubt have slaughtered everyone aboard and taken their valuables. More than 200 years later, no trace of the ship has ever turned up.


Sean Flynn
Disappeared April 6, 1970


Errol Flynn was Hollywood royalty, but his career was overshadowed by his scandalous lifestyle and he was dead at age 50, ravaged by his indulgences. He was married three times, having fathered three daughters and one son, a boy named Sean who was born in 1941.

Sean had an adventurous spirit. While he did some acting, he preferred globetrotting, serving for a while as a big game hunter and safari guide in Africa. When the conflict in Vietnam began, Sean served as a photojournalist and was wounded while afield, even making a parachute jump with the 101st Airborne Division.

When North Vietnamese forces advanced into Cambodia, Flynn followed suit. He and fellow journalist Dana Stone were intercepted by communist guerrillas on April 6, 1970. Neither man was ever seen again. Sean’s mother, French actress Lili Damita, searched for her son for years, exhausting a small fortune in the process. Damita died in 1994, no closer to discovering what had actually happened to Sean. In 2010, a mass grave was found in Cambodia, with remains believed to be those of western journalists killed by the Khmer Rouge. Unfortunately, DNA testing proved Flynn was not among them.


Mansell Richard James
Disappeared June 2, 1919


Canadian pilot Mansell James served with the British Royal Flying Air Corps during World War I. Although overshadowed by figures like Manfred von Richthofen, aka the Red Baron, James was an accomplished ace pilot, racking up 11 confirmed victories in the air. Following the war, James moved to the United States, where he put his flying skills to use. On May 28, 1919, he competed in a race put on by the Boston Globe for the fastest flight between Atlantic City and Boston, winning with ease.

There are conflicting reports about what happened on his return journey. In 1919, airplanes were still quite a curiosity in the United States and tended to draw crowds. He was last seen on June 2, in Tyringham, Massachusetts. Despite extensive searches, Mansell has never been found. Over the years, the wreckage of several planes have been uncovered, but none that could be definitely tied to the missing pilot.


Emperor Valens
Disappeared August 9, A.D. 378


Serving as an Emperor of Rome was not all it was cracked up to be. Many served reigns of no more than a few months or even days before being assassinated or committing suicide. Flavius Julius Valens Augustus served as the Eastern Roman Emperor between A.D. 364–378. During his time on the throne, the Empire began its calamitous decline, suffering discord at the hands of the Goths.

These tensions culminated in the Battle of Adrianople on August 9, 378. Perhaps because of Roman hubris, the battle was a savage rout. In the chaos, Valens was abandoned on the battlefield. He was never seen or heard from again. Some (likely apocryphal) sources claim that he escaped the bloodied fields of Adrianople and hid in a nearby home, which was then burned down by the Goths with him inside.


Owain Glyndwr
Disappeared 1412


Owain Glyndwr was the last Welshman to serve as the Prince of Wales, a freedom-fighting patriot who sought independence for his homeland. Born in the mid-1300s to a family of some privilege, Owain served in the British military. He appears in a scene in William Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Part I in a much embellished form, portrayed as a magical figure with the anglicized name “Owen Glendower.” Precisely what instigated Glyndwr to take up arms against the crown of Henry IV is not known, but it is believed that he came out on the raw end of a land dispute.

In 1400, Owain kicked off the Welsh Revolt, a conflict that would go on to rage for years. He was a competent leader and his rebels scored some important victories. He was crowned Prince in 1404. Unfortunately, there would be no happy ending in this David and Goliath story. England’s resources were simply too vast for the rebel Welshmen to overcome. After a stirring raid in 1412, Owain Glyndwr went off the grid.

At the time, he was probably the most wanted man in the world, sought after by an entire nation, with a huge bounty on his head. The following year, Henry IV died, and his son and successor Henry V offered Owain a royal pardon. Perhaps sensing this was a trap, Owain did not emerge from hiding. He was never caught or betrayed. Reports indicate that he probably died in 1415 and was buried in secret to keep his grave from being desecrated by his enemies.


Spartacus
Disappeared 71 B.C.