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Mysterious Disappearances

by Scott Corrales

The Roman author Julius Obsequens, worthy perhaps of the distinction of being the earliest "Fortean" researcher, approached the subject of unexplained disappearances in his Liber Prodigiorum with a story that was well-known to his audience: "One day, when Romulus, founder of Rome, exhorted his troops in the vicinity of the Caprean Swamp, there erupted a sudden, noisy thunderstorm during which Romulus was enveloped in a cloud so dense that he was lost out of sight, and was never again seen by mortal men. He was then ascended to divine rank, and worshipped under the name Quirinus".

People still disappear, perhaps not as spectacularly as Romulus did (nor are they elevated to godhead), but that they do so is an undisputed fact. It is necessary to separate what could best be described as commonplace disappearances--the ones involving people on the run from the law, deadbeat parents, parents who abduct their children to live in obscurity elsewhere, and a host of other mundane reasons--from the cases which boggle the mind and defy common sense: cases where people vanish without a trace from airplanes travelling at thirty thousand feet, or disappear from rooms that have been locked from the outside. Perhaps even more than UFOs, the enigma of sudden disappearance has challenged investigators for a hundred years, and an ominous silence stifles the small, silent question at the end of every case, often all-too-horrible to enunciate: where did these people disappear to?

The ability to "take a powder" in antiquity was considered the exclusive province of sorcerers and witches. The notorious Apollonius of Tyana disappeared from the sight of the Emperor Domitian and his court, as tradition would have it, causing great consternation. Mexican author Artemio del Valle Arizpe gave us the legend of "La Mulata de Córdoba", a witch from colonial times who was imprisoned for her uncanny ability to find lost items and hidden treasures: when her jailor stopped by her cell to check on her, he was astounded to see the woman boarding a tiny sailing ship she had drawn on the wall, and sailed off, waving at her captor. The vampires of Eastern Europe were reputedly able to vanish and reappear at will thanks to the evil powers at their disposal.

Even if the aforementioned were true, it would not begin to solve our dilemma: contemporary cases involving mysterious disappearances do not, as a rule, involve people who want to vanish from the sight of their peers for one reason or another. Their disappearance is often sudden and unexpected, taking place by day or by night, alone or escorted, and sometimes involving the evaporation of the vehicle in which they travelled.

In 1941, a Swiss rescue team was called upon to search for a group of mountain climbers that had not returned to their base camp. After a number of days, the rescuers managed to find the footprints of the mountaineering party, which stopped abruptly in the middle of a glacier. In this case, the authorities determined "it was a disappearance under circumstances which could not be clearly determined, on account of the facts".

The Florida state police would be next in line for bemusement, this time resulting from the 1952 disappearance of Tom Brook, his wife, and his 11 year-old son. According to the report, the Brooks had visited a friend some 30 miles away from Miami, and got into their car to return home at 11:40 p.m.. They never completed the trip: local law enforcement found their empty car, headlights ablaze and doors open, just 7 miles away from their friend's house. Mrs. Brooke's handbag was found in the back seat, containing a considerable amount of money. Police records indicate that the family's footprints led to a meadow at the edge of the road, stopping abruptly after a few dozen steps, as in the case involving the missing Swiss mountaineers eleven years earlier. A similar fate befell a French family in 1972: after spending an evening with friends, and heading back to their home in the early hours of the morning, they never reached their destination, a scant 2 miles away. No satisfactory explanation was ever provided.

It is difficult enough to find conjectures to account for the fates of these hapless individuals. The task becomes overwhelming when the disappearance of hundreds, even thousands, must be accounted for.

During the War of the Spanish Succession in 1707, a four thousand-man invasion force under the Habsburg Archduke, Charles, camped at the foot of the Pyrenees on their way to Spain, breaking camp the following morning and marching through a mountain pass. This well-armed and equipped force never reached its goal, nor was it ever accounted for. During the French invasion of Indochina in the mid 19th century, a column of 650 fusiliers marched toward Saigon, disappearing without having ever engaged the enemy. The possibility that the fusiliers had been ambushed