Mysterious disappearances aren’t new. For whatever reasons, some people just seem to vanish without a trace, never to be seen again. Yet, as bizarre as these cases may be, there seems to be an even stranger type of disappearance out there; people who vanish in full view of others, under circumstances where it seems impossible that they could have even gone far, let alone totally disappeared. These are the cases in which people were there one moment and gone the next, seeming to have just literally faded from existence, leaving us baffled and perhaps even questioning what we think we know about this mysterious world of ours. Let’s take a look at the history of some of the more curious accounts of these spontaneous vanishings of people who by all indications seemed to have just ceased to exist.
One of the earliest well-known accounts of people spontaneously vanishing comes from back in the 1700s. Sometime in the 1760s, in the English town of Shepton Mallet, there lived an elderly man in his 70s by the name of Owen Parfitt. Crippled with disease, Parfitt was said to be unable to get around on his own, instead spending his days either bedridden or sitting outside by the doorway to his home, where he lived with his sister. According to the story, one day old Owen was sitting in his usual spot by the door, where his sister, also his primary caretaker, had been keeping an eye on him as usual. On this day the weather was rather chilly, and Owen had covered himself with a coat, but there were no indications that anything was amiss, or that this day was any different from the many other times Owen had sat outside. When his sister went to move him, she found that only the coat remained where Owen had been sitting just moments before. Since he was unable to walk on his own, she at first thought that perhaps a neighbor had moved him inside for her, as was sometimes the case, but the old man was nowhere to be found and the neighbors denied having moved him, although they had seen him sitting there all day. In fact, there were many witnesses about on that day, yet no one had seen anything unusual at all. Owen’s sister searched the area but Owen was nowhere to be found, and it was baffling that he could have gotten far so soon, in front of so many people, and with the inability to walk. A search was launched by authorities, but no trace of Owen Parfitt was ever found, leading to the popular legend at the time that the Devil had come for him as payment for a pact they had made. His disappearance remains a mystery to this day.
Other equally baffling cases continued into the 1800s. On the night of November 25, 1809, a British diplomat by the name of Benjamin Bathurst was on his way to Berlin in order to get back to London after an important trip to Vienna. On the way, Bathurst made a stop at the town of Perleberg in order to get new horses and to have a meal. When the horses were ready and he had finished eating his dinner, Bathurst excused himself and told his assistant he would go out and wait in the carriage so that they could continue on their trip. The diplomat then went out to the carriage and the assistant followed moments after, yet when the door to the carriage was opened Bathurst wasn’t there. In fact, he was nowhere to be seen, and there was no sign of where he could have gone, even though he had been there just seconds before. Considering his prominence as a diplomat, a massive search was immediately put together, complete with dogs scouring the woods, house to house searches, and thorough dragging of the nearby river Stepnitz, but nothing could be found. After several more searches, a coat thought to have belonged to Bathhurst was found in a restroom and some boots were found in the surrounding wilderness, but it was unclear if they actually belonged to the missing man or not. At the time, the region was ravaged by war due to the rampaging Napoleon Bonaparte, and Bathurst’s wife thought the French had kidnapped her husband, but Bonaparte himself reportedly denied having any knowledge of such a thing, and even aided in search efforts. In the end, no definitive trace of Bathurst would ever be found and he was never seen again; seemingly erased from existence.
Sometimes, not only did the person disappear, but they did so right before the eyes of witnesses, literally fading away in plain sight. Just a few years after Bathurst’s odd case, another even more bizarre disappearance was to occur. In 1815, at a Prussian prison at Weichselmunde, a prisoner by the name of Diderici was doing a 10-year sentence for assuming the identity of his dead employer by dressing up in his clothes and a wig and trying to withdraw a large amount of money after the man had died of a stroke. Allegedly, one day Diderici was being led through the exercise yard in chains in a line of other prisoners, when something very odd began to happen. According to other prisoners, Diderici began to literally fade away, his body gradually becoming transparent and immaterial until finally his empty manacles and chains clattered to the ground as baffled prisoners and prison guards looked on. An inquiry into the case would turn up nearly 30 eyewitness accounts from both convicts and guards that reported the exact same thing; that Diderici had become slowly invisible until he was simply not there anymore. Puzzled by the case, the authorities would end up brushing the whole affair under the carpet, closing the case and proclaiming it an “Act of God.” Diderici would never be seen again.
A similarly bizarre vanishing supposedly happened in 1873 in Leamington Spa, England. A shoemaker by the name of James Worson was out with his friends when he suddenly made a bet with them that he could run without stopping all the way to Coventry, which was a full 16 miles away. The friends did not have faith in Worson’s ability to do this, and readily took him up on the bet. In order to make sure he followed through, the friends allegedly followed Worson in a horse drawn cart. Worson ran for a few miles without any problems, and his friends were starting to think they might actually lose the bet when he suddenly tripped on something in the road. The story goes that Worson pitched forward, but never hit the ground, instead completely blinking out of existence right before his terrified friends’ eyes. A police search turned up nothing and this seems to be another case of someone who just spontaneously ceased to exist in full view of witnesses.
One of the more famous such cases of baffling sudden disappearances in the same era happened in 1890 to the French inventor Louis Le Prince, mostly known today for his contributions to cinema and as the first person to ever capture moving images on film. On September 16, 1890, Le Prince boarded a train to return to Paris after having visited his brother in Dijon. As the train rattled along on its way, Le Prince was seen checking in his luggage and entering his cabin, from which no one would see him leave during the rest of the journey. When the train reached Paris, Le Prince did not disembark, and a train conductor was sent to his room to rouse him, thinking he had merely fallen asleep in his cabin. When the cabin was opened, it was discovered that both Le Prince and his luggage were gone. A complete search of the train turned up no trace of the man or his belongings, and no one could be found who could recall Le Prince ever leaving his cabin once the train had departed. Since the train had made no stops between Dijon and Paris, he could not have gotten off anywhere, and the cabin windows had been closed and locked from the inside. Additionally, there was no sign at all of any foul play and no reports that anything had been amiss during the trip. Le Prince was just simply gone. Interestingly, his disappearance would allow Thomas Edison to take credit for inventing motion pictures, even though Le Prince had already been in possession of plans for this invention long before, which he had been hoping to have patented in America and would have if he had not gone missing. This is an interesting case of a mysterious disappearance actually shaping history as we know it.
Of course, stories of such baffling vanishings have continued into more modern times as well. In April of 1959, a man named Bruce Campbell was travelling by car with his wife from Massachusetts to go visit their son, who lived far away. At one point on their long, cross country journey they allegedly stopped for the night at a motel in Jacksonville, Illinois. The couple, exhausted from driving all day, promptly retired for the night. When Mrs. Campbell woke up in the morning, she found that her husband was no longer in the bed with her. At first she was not so concerned, thinking he’d just gotten up early, but it soon became clear that he was nowhere in the room. Even more strangely, Bruce’s clothes were still right where he had left them the previously evening and his suitcase had not been touched, meaning that he had gone outside in his pajamas. Additionally, all of his personal belongings and even his wallet with all of his money were also still precisely where he’d left them. Even after an investigation by authorities Bruce Campbell was never found.
A similar well known case involving a couple allegedly occurred in 1975, when a Jackson and Martha Wright were driving from New Jersey to New York City. According to Jackson’s version of events, the two were driving through the Lincoln tunnel, in New York City, when they noticed that there was a large amount of condensation on their windows. The couple then pulled over and Jackson went about wiping the fog off the front windshield while Martha took care of the back. It was at this point that Jackson says he turned to see how his wife was doing and found that she was gone. In fact, the woman was nowhere to be seen, even though she had been there just moments before. Jackson would claim that he had not seen or heard anything unusual, and it would have been impossible for her to get very far in such a brief amount of time. Although this all sounds highly suspicious, police were never able to find any evidence of foul play, and Jackson was never considered a suspect in the disappearance. Martha Wright's sudden disappearance remains a baffling mystery.
Even more recent is the strange disappearance of Brian Shaffer, who was a medical student at Ohio State University. On April 1, 2006, Brian went out to have some drinks at a local bar called the Ugly Tuna Saloona. Some drinks turned into a lot of drinks, and Brian was reported to be heavily intoxicated as the night wore on. At some point between 1:30 and 2 AM in the morning, Brian made a drunken call to his girlfriend and then was seen talking to two women at the bar. This would be the last time anyone would ever see him. A subsequent investigation found that no one remembered seeing him after he was witnessed talking to the two women, and even more bizarrely, security camera footage showed Brian entering the bar but at no point does it ever show him actually leaving. With no evidence of foul play or any reason for why he would have suddenly disappeared, it remains yet another eerie unsolved vanishing.
On July 18, 2007 there was another case of someone who seems to have just stepped off the face of the earth. 55-year-old Barbara Bolick was out on a hiking trip with her friend Jim Ramaker in Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains, with Barbara walking about 6-9 meters (20-30 ft) behind him. At one point along their scenic hike, Jim claimed that he stopped to admire the scenery, and when he turned to look behind him after a mere minute, Barbara was nowhere to be seen. A complete search of the surrounding area would turn up no trace of what happened to the woman, and although Jim Ramaker had been the last person to see her, police never found any reason to suspect he had done anything to her. No new leads in the case have ever been found.
Yet another creepy recent case happened in 2008. On the evening of May 14, 2008, 19-year old college student Brandon Swanson was on his way to visit his family in Marshall, Minnesota, when he lost control of his car and crashed it into a ditch. Brandon was not injured, but without a ride he decided to call his parents to have them come pick him up. He called them on his cell phone and tried to explain to them where he was, but they were not able to find him. His father then called Brandon’s cell phone to ask for more details on where they could find him, and his son told him that he was headed toward the town of Lynd. As they talked, Brandon reportedly suddenly cursed and the line went dead. Subsequent efforts to call him back went unanswered and police were called in, who were able to locate the car but could find no trace of Brandon or his phone. It remains a mystery as to where he went and why he abruptly swore when talking to his father on the phone before disappearing without a trace.
On rare occasions, there has even been video evidence put forward purportedly showing people disappearing in the blink of an eye. One such piece of weird video footage uploaded to YouTube seems to show a man walking along a dark street in Jackson, Wyoming, which seems rather normal enough until he seems to steadily fade until all that remains are two white dots where his feet should be. These white spots continue right along until they are off camera. There is a good chance this is some sort of video glitch or even a hoax, but it is certainly a bizarre piece of footage. The video can be seen here.
What are we to make of these cases of people just vanishing within seconds? There have been many theories seeking to explain this phenomenon, ranging from the scientific to the decidedly fringe. Some of the more far out theories have revolved around alien abduction, stumbling through spontaneous interdimensional portals, and time slips. Those subscribing to the alien theory point out that the few spontaneously vanishing people who have later been found often exhibit what are considered classic signs of alien abduction, such as disorientation, lost memories, and missing time. Author and researcher David Paulides has explained on this further, saying:
In the vast majority of the cases that are chronicled, if people are found, they are located unconscious or semi-conscious and many times in areas that were previously searched. In The vast majority of these incidents, the people are so young they cannot speak or they have a disability that prohibits them from speaking, or they can’t remember what happened. In the rare incident where they do remember facts, they are baffling.
Others have proposed that there are certain areas in the world that just seem to suck people in and never let go. In his book Missing 411, David Paulides investigates 411 cases of bizarre missing person reports with baffling clues. One of the theories he shares is that there seem to be around 30 geographical “cluster points” where most of these vanishings occurred, and that these disappearances often happened within moments, and in areas full of witnesses. In many of the cases of people disappearing in these areas, baffling clues were left behind, such as clothes removed and neatly folded. Are there truly places in the world that for reasons we may never know simply make people vanish?
Of course there is also the long list of reasons for why someone might choose to disappear, such as to escape problems, start fresh, or otherwise get away from their life. The problem is that in most of these cases, the individual was well adjusted and happy with their life. This same reason tends to discount ideas that they may have went off to commit suicide. Abduction by kidnappers is a possibility, but how could this be done so suddenly, quickly, and completely, often with other people around and with no evidence left behind? There is also the fact that in the reports I’ve been listing here, the person has vanished within seconds or even faded away in full view of observers. This seems to be something weirder than people just running away from home or being abducted in the conventional sense.
Perhaps the most likely answer for some of these cases, in particular the older ones, is that they have been exaggerated over the years, are mixed with elements of fiction, or are even downright made up. This has already been shown to have been the case with several such cases of supposed spontaneous vanishings. Perhaps the most notable example would be the infamous mysterious disappearance of David Lang. For those who have never heard the tale, the story goes that on September 23, 1880, a farmer named David Lang was strolling across a field near Gallatin, Tennessee, when he suddenly just blinked out of existence as his wife, children, and two men passing nearby in a buggy all looked on in disbelief. When the whole area was checked, they could find no sign of where David had gone. Making things even weirder was a fifteen-foot diameter circle of yellowed, dead grass where David had disappeared, and faint ghostly voices heard by his children seven months later in the exact spot where he had vanished, which they claimed belonged to their father.
It all seems like such an amazing story, and for years it was treated as a genuine case of unexplained phenomena, but over time it has become apparent that it probably never happened. Although the original mention of this story, the July 1953 issue of Fate Magazine, as well as a 1958 book by Harold Wilkins called Strange Mysteries of Time and Space, both treat the account as an authentic account of high strangeness, it is most likely not true. Researchers who have investigated the case found that there is absolutely no record of a Lang family in Gallatin, Tennessee at that time, no news reports from the era mentioning the case, and no missing person reports filed at the time for a David Lang. It is now mostly thought that the story was a fiction created by the writer of the original Fate Magazine article, Stuart Palmer, as a journalistic hoax, and who likely got the idea from a story called "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field," which was written by a well-known but eccentric writer fascinated by the unknown named Ambrose Bierce. And so a long beloved staple of many works on Fortean phenomena and the unexplained turns out to be almost certainly based on a fictional account.
Some other famous “real” accounts are also probably at least a little tainted by fiction. Another famous case often listed as genuine in Fortean literature is the story of Charles Ashmore. In this account, on a cold, snowy November night in 1878, in the town of Quincy, Illinois, a young man by the name of Charles Ashmore allegedly left his house to go get water from a nearby well. When he did not return to the house as expected, his father and sister became concerned that something might have happened to him out in the icy weather. Thinking that Charles might have tripped or even slipped and fell into the well, they went out to investigate. When they got outside, there was no sign of Charles anywhere, and he did not respond to having his name called out into the night. Bizarrely, the only clue left behind were his clear footprints in the snow, which abruptly stopped halfway to the well. The surrounding snow was pristine and unmarked by any tracks or signs of a fall. It seemed as if Charles Ashmore had simply vanished into thin air halfway through his chore.
This is interesting because it is strikingly similar to the tale of a young boy variously called Oliver Lerch, Oliver Larch, or Oliver Thomas, and which happens on a Christmas Eve usually described as being in 1889. As with the Ashmore case, Oliver goes out to get water from a well during a Christmas party at his house. In this story, Oliver’s family suddenly hears screams from outside the house and rush out to see a strange light in the air. They then notice that the boy’s tracks stop in the snow halfway to the well and his terrified voice can be heard shouting from the air “Help! It’s got me! It’s got me!”
The reason why the two accounts are so similar is that the story of Oliver Lerch is most likely based on the story of Charles Ashmore, which was also an account written by none other than Ambrose Bierce, who just so happened to have an obsession with missing person cases and is also the source of the story which influenced the David Lang account. In fact, the story of Charles Ashmore, titled “Charles Ashmore's Trail," was published in the same short story collection as the story which seems to have influenced the David Lang account, an 1893 book called Can Such Things Be? Although Bierce had a genuine interest in the paranormal, and unexplained vanishings in particular, and also wrote many of his stories in a way that made them seem as if they were based on real events, they were probably totally fabricated or at best fact mixed with good amounts of fiction, as many of his stories were known to be. The reason his work was first treated as a credible source was probably due to the fact that he wrote in such a realistic, convincing way, claiming to have done interviews with families of the victims and other witnesses, and to have gone to these sites to investigate such disappearances. It is hard with Bierce's work to tell where the line is between the real and the fantastical. This has caused many of his stories to be picked up as real disappearances that actually occurred, often changing slightly over the years, and muddying the waters for those looking for the genuine article with real sources, blurring the line between what is reliable information and what is not.
This sort of thing shows that a simple fiction or exaggeration can take on a life of its own and become treated as fact. Indeed, Bierce’s work was often sourced in many other articles, journals, and books without anyone being none the wiser that it was all based on a source that was questionable at best and bogus at worst. The fact that so many books on the paranormal and unexplained have frequently mentioned these stories that are based on fictional accounts does not bode well for the other myriad similar cases of people vanishing into thin air, and one wonders if a lot of these tales are similarly colored with fiction or even complete hogwash. With these strong indications of unexplained phenomena being treated as real based on fictional sources, it is hard with these bizarre accounts of spontaneous vanishings to separate what might have actually happened from what is pure fancy. At the very least some of these cases must be taken with a grain of salt.
So when dealing with these missing person cases, what are we looking at? Aliens? Interdimensional portals? Time slips? Strange zones that erase people from existence? Simple crime or foul play? Are these people who just decided to make themselves disappear? Or is it all exaggeration and fiction? Perhaps in the end the explanation for these strange cases involves a mixture of all of the above, and that they should not be clumped together but rather be each treated almost like a separate phenomenon to be looked at on its own. It seems that each case must be looked at and analyzed separately on its own merits and evidence if we are to come to any understanding of what truly happened. Until we do, such stories are likely to continue to capture our imagination with their simple and chilling premise; the idea that we can just suddenly disappear into thin air at a moment’s notice, to blink out of existence without warning and never be heard from again.