There have been countless mysterious people over the ages that have left enigmas in their wake and have served to puzzle us from beyond the grave. Such individuals run the range across the board from strange magicians, to odd recluses, to those who have managed to just vanish off the face of the earth. At time there have been those who seem to have intentionally vanished to escape their binds or bondage, and here we will look at some of the stranger of these bizarre disappearing acts.
Perhaps one of the most spectacular disappearing acts one could hope to pull off is that of escaping one’s own death and burial. In November of 1856, a criminal by the name of John Wilhelm Gebhard was hanged in Paarl, Cape Province, South Africa. He had been accused of murder, a crime he swore he had not committed, vehemently proclaiming his innocence right up to the very end. Even as he stood upon the gallows he proclaimed his innocence, and when he was sure that his pleas were falling upon deaf ears and that he was doomed, Gebhard spat forth curses and vitriol, and stated that no grave would ever hold him. These were his last words, the hanging was carried out and the corpse placed in a sealed coffin within an especially deep grave in unconsecrated ground, covered with heavy stones and guarded night and day to prevent vengeful grave robbers from defiling the body.
Some months later, it would turn out that perhaps Gebhard had been right, as another man came forward and was proven as the actual killer, and Gebhard’s name was cleared. It had turned out that he actually was innocent after all, and as a concession to Gebhard’s mourning widow she was offered a large sum of money and her dead husband’s coffin was moved to consecrated ground. Before this, it was planned to move the corpse to a better, more elegant casket for reburial, but this was to be more easily said than done. Although the coffin was completely sealed, when it was opened in front of many witnesses, it was found to be completely empty. It was utterly baffling, as he had been in the coffin when it was buried, witnessed by many, the coffin was well sealed, the ground of the grave was undisturbed, and it had been under 24-hour guard the whole time. Where had the body possibly gone? Had he made good on his promise before hanging?
Making the tale of Gebhard’s coffin escape even more bizarre still is that it has been claimed that a full century later there was found in the mountains near Paarl a gravestone just sitting by itself out in the middle of the wilderness that purportedly read, “Sacred to the memory of John W. Gebhard. Blessed are they that rest in the lord.” What does this all mean, if anything? No one really knows. Over the years the story of Gebhard’s mysterious vanishing, first covered in a 1958 issue of Fate Magazine, as well as Frank Edwards' 1959 book Stranger Than Science, has been added to and embellished, such as adding in tales of the dead man’s ghost haunting the gallows where he died and the grave he was originally buried in, to the point that it is hard to separate fact from fiction. There are also no reliable records to prove that the hanging and burial ever even happened at all, so it is difficult to know how true it all is. However, it is still a curious and spooky historical tale.
From the 1920s we have another story of an escaped criminal, this time one who apparently really did do it. This equally mysterious case revolves around a man named Joseph Bowne Elwell. A wealthy socialite, professional card player, and playboy, Elwell’s playground was New York City in the early 1920s, but this would all come to an end on June 11, 1920, when his housekeeper let herself in to the locked room and found him dead with a bullet hole to his forehead. Elwell was found sitting upright in a chair in his living room as if he had just been relaxing, and there was some unopened mail beside him and an open letter in his lap. On the side table next to him was the bullet itself, carefully placed up there as if on display.
When police arrived they quickly learned that the door to the room had been locked from the inside, as had been the house itself, and a search of the premises turned up no sign of the murder weapon, which had been a .45 automatic Elwell had kept for defense. Although the opulent house was full of cash and all manner of valuables nothing appeared to have been stolen, there was no sign of any struggle, and there was no indication of a break-in, nor any foreign fingerprints. Neighbors also reported not having heard anything out of the ordinary nor had they seen any suspicious individuals about. The state of the body was also quite strange, as Elwell seemed to have been murdered there as he sat relaxing in his living room. There was no sign that he had tried to fight someone off, and he had been killed by a single perfectly placed bullet hole from about 3 to 5 feet away and at an angle placing the weapon as lower than his head, as if someone had just sat there, had a pleasant chat with him, and then suddenly blown his head off, after which they had bizarrely fetched the bullet to place it up on the table.
Motive was not particularly hard to find, as Elwell had made enemies all over the city by cheating people out of their money in high stakes card games and unrepentantly running around with married women. In fact, there were so many potential suspects that police barely knew where to begin. That he was murdered was a given, but the who of it all remained a mystery. The best lead they could come up with was that the person must have been a fairly familiar and trusted individual to have not raised any alarm and put Elwell at ease enough that he would just casually look through his mail while they were there. As to who this could be, no one has a clue, and no suspects were ever arrested. There was also the how of it all. How had the culprit managed to get into that apartment, kill Elwell as he calmly sat in his chair, and then leave the place locked from the inside, all while not being detected? Also, why had the killer picked up the bullet to put it on display on the table? Police had no idea, and still don’t. The murder of Joseph Elwell has never been solved, how the criminal got in and escaped that room never fully explained, and is such a mysterious case that it was the basis of the famous locked-room detective novel The Benson Murder Case, which is credited with helping to jump start the detective genre of the “impossible murder.”
Another very strange case has to do with a criminal that managed to somehow escape from captivity through means that are beyond bizarre. This particular tale supposedly happened in the 1950s in the subnational kingdom of Buganda, located within the African nation of Uganda. The story begins in 1953, with the exile of the king of Buganda, Kabaka Edward Muteesa II, for opposing the integration of East Africa. During this exile a mysterious man who called himself Kibuka Kiganira Omumbale, more commonly known to everyone as Mathias Sewanyana, set up camp at the top of Mutundwe Hill, near Nateete. Sewanyana was locally known as a powerful sorcerer, who was claimed to be possessed by the spirit of the great Kibuka, Buganda’s ancient king, whose name he had taken for himself. He apparently had a long history of being possessed by various magical spirits, and his brother would say of this ability in a 1965 interview in Drum Magazine:
Well, the ghosts originally possessed his great-grandfather and, as you are well aware, in Buganda, when the old people die the spirits pick up one of the young grandsons. In the case of our family, they [spirits] chose Mathias Sewanyana to be their priest and gave him the name Kibuka Kiganira Omumbale.
From this camp at the top of the hill, Sewanyana proclaimed that he had arrived to deliver the king from exile, and he began to amass supporters and followers, who congregated at the hill and performed mystical rituals to invoke the power of the spirits to use towards their goals. The group became so large and unruly that Bugandan police orchestrated a raid on February 13, 1955, during which they met stiff resistance from a violent and armed mob, ending in the death of a Constable Samuel Nsubuga. The police were so overwhelmed by the fierce crowd that they retreated, only to return on February 28, 1955, along with reinforcements in the form of Capt Anderson, a British officer, and a company of 100 soldiers.
This seemed to do the trick, and the mob was dispersed and Sewanyana arrested. He was later sentenced to hang, and was imprisoned at the notorious Maximum Security Prison Luzira, in Kampala. There he was kept on constant high-alert guard night and day, yet one evening when his locked and secured cell was opened Sewanyana was nowhere to be seen. The cell showed no signs of tampering, no broken locks no tunnels, nothing. Likewise, none of the guards stationed at his cell 24-hours a day had seen anything suspicious or strange and security footage showed nothing. He had simply vanished into thin air. A subsequent investigation turned up no solution as to how Sewanyana had managed to escape, and it continued to baffle officials. In the meantime, rather than fading away the sorcerer had taken up camp at another location to continue his mad crusade, and on September 23, 1955 he was rearrested. When asked how he had escaped, Sewanyana told police that the powerful spirit within him, Kibuka, had used his supernatural powers to teleport him out. Powerful spirits or not, there would be no second teleportation, and Sewanyana would stay in prison until October 8, 1962, when he was released under the Uganda Independence Amnesty, after which he would be found dead floating in Lake Victoria in 1972. The cause of his death was never determined.
Very strange, indeed. In 1956 we have another tale of a disappearing artist claiming to have magical powers. In August of that year, a travelling circus of sorts came to the town of Sulmona, Italy, and among them was a man named Raoul Hinay, who claimed that he possessed vast supernatural powers he had learned from mystics and yogis during his travels in India. He offered to prove this by having himself buried alive in front of many high-profile witnesses, including the local police chief, a magistrate, and a doctor, as well as a throng of curious onlookers. He was tied up and bound, then placed within a sealed coffin and lowered into a very deep, 18-foot deep hole and buried. The witnesses then waited a full 8 hours before digging up the coffin, half expecting to find Hinay either dead or in very bad shape. What they didn’t expect was that the coffin would be empty, the only thing left there being the ropes that had bound Hinay’s hands and feet, eerily still tied tight as if he had just phased through them.
It was very odd, as the coffin had been untampered with and the seal unbroken, everyone had seen the man placed inside and lowered into the pit, and the hole itself was found to have no tunnels or anywhere the man could have gone, so where could he have possibly gone? Police extensively searched the entire area to no avail, and a full investigation turned up nothing. Furthermore, it seems that Hinay never did return to his troupe, so where did he go? Was this a true demonstration of magical powers or simply a very amazing magic trick? Did it ever even really happen at all? Who knows?
In an even more recent case, the Canadian Press reported in April of 2008 on the odd story of a dangerous criminal who seems to have just teleported out of his restraints and then vanished. According to the report, 30-year-old Jermaine Carvery, who was in prison due to a string of robberies and an attempted murder charge, was being escorted by two armed guards to a medical appointment from Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in nearby Dartmouth, while securely locked in double-locked leg irons and handcuffs. At some point, Carvery suddenly exited the back of the corrections van they were traveling in as they pulled up to the hospital and made a run for it, his handcuffs still on but his leg shackles gone.
The guards gave chase, but after a 10-minute pursuit they lost their quarry and Carvery disappeared. An examination of the leg irons showed that they were unlocked, and video footage showed that they had been put on properly, baffling authorities as to how he could have actually gotten out of them. Fred Honsberger, the province’s executive director of correctional services, said of the puzzling escape, “It’s a mystery, I’ve never heard of anyone getting out of leg irons before.” Did he somehow phase through his restraints or was this just a very clever and gifted escape artist? It is hard to say. Indeed, it is hard to know what to think about any of these cases. Where did these people go and how did they manage to just vanish like that right under everyone's noses? What was their secret and how did they do it? Was this due to mysterious forces or mere trickery? They remain curious oddities, and a peek into a strange corner of the paranormal.