Why We're Still Looking for Amelia

Reactions to a disappearance say as much about the world left behind as about the person who vanished.

Library of Congress

Seventy-five years ago, Amelia Earhart sent her last radio communication during her attempt to cross the Pacific. She was running low on fuel and unable to find Howland Island, where she was supposed to land. "We are on the line 157 337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait." These communications, received by the U.S. Coast Guard vessel Itasca, became her final recorded words: "We are running on line north and south."

Over the last three quarters of a century, the Earhart disappearance has attracted disproportionate interest, with an organization even now focused on searching for her. Newly discovered "clues" to her fate still make the news media. Other long-distance aviators of the period also vanished, so hers was hardly an isolated incident, but they have not remained as vivid as the Earhart case: the disappearance of "Lady Lindy." After World War II, the discovery of Japanese soldiers on various Pacific atolls, unaware the war was over, gave some hope that that Earhart was out there too, surviving on some tropical outpost, waiting to be rescued. The image of her, Crusoe-like, fills the seekers' accounts. They are not looking for wreckage but for signs of her survival.

Reactions to a disappearance say as much about the world left behind as the disappeared person. As a function of popular media, celebrated disappearances allow certain individuals to remain in the public consciousness. To the extent that Judge Joseph Crater is known now at all, it is as a man who vanished -- he would otherwise be one of many Tammany Hall appointees of the early 20th century, remembered only by civic historians of New York. Instead, along with other long-missing figures like D.B. Cooper and Jimmy Hoffa, he survives as a punch line ("Judge Crater, call your office") and cultural reference point.

A lingering absence begets its own mythology: the claimed sightings, the clues, the purported explanations. By disappearing, these people in a sense never die. They remain frozen in time, even as the world changes. In our collective imagination, they are still out there.

Famous disappearances are particularly striking -- celebrity didn't save these people from vanishing, and their renown leads various theories to swirl, each casting a different ending. Their disappearances allow us to create a narrative, to get much closer to them than we ever did before by creating fates for them.

Earhart's vanishing tests our fear of the environment -- of the world's unexplored corners that may swallow us whole. In the minds of the more paranormally inclined, the missing may have stepped into a time portal, been abducted by aliens, or vanished in a puff of smoke. Even TV shows like Alcatraz tempt us with the idea that someone could vanish and reappear, unchanged, years later.

Amelia Earhart was a vibrant woman whose picture was seen around the world. A celebrity of the jazz age, she captured the image of the new horizons women were reaching towards -- perhaps her disappearance, beyond the horizon, added to this mystique. (Indeed, a book has been published with the title Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism.) We project on her what we want to see. And we want her to still be out there, running on line north and south.