Category: Vanishings


The Lady Disappears

 

Not long before the opening of the French capital’s Great Exposition of 1889, a distraught young Englishwoman rushed into the British embassy in Paris and told a story that has reverberated through fantasy and fiction ever since. She and her mother were on their way home from India and, owing to the shortage of accommodations in the crowded city, had taken two single rooms in a hotel. The mother chose room 342, decorated with rose-strewn wallpaper and plum-colored velvet curtains. Then the older woman collapsed on the bed.

After examining the prostrate guest and talking excitedly in French with the hotel manager, the house doctor told the young woman that her mother was seriously ill and must have some medicine. But the proper medication could be found only in his office on the other side of town. The daughter would have to take his carriage and carry a note to his wife, who would hand her the drugs.

What should have been a simple errand consumed four hours. The driver kept the horses to an amble and seemed to steer in circles, and the doctor’s wife took a long time to produce the medicine.

 

The Lady Vanishes and Other Oddities of Nature (Five Star First Edition Science Fiction and Fantasy Series.)

 

Finally, the frustrated daughter arrived back at the hotel, only to discover that all queries about her mother were met with blank stares. “I know nothing of your mother,” said the manager. “You arrived here alone.” The doctor was similarly confused by the woman’s questions. Frantic now, the young traveler examined the hotel register. Instead of her mother’s familiar signature she saw a stranger’s beside room 342. Insisting on looking at the room itself, she found no velvet curtains, no flowered wallpaper, no familiar baggage – only the luggage of strangers. At this point she fled to the embassy, where she was received with sympathy – and general disbelief. Trapped in a nightmare, the young woman ended her days in a British mental hospital.

This chilling tale has inspired at least two novels and a film – Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. But no one has been able to verify that it ever happened, and no supporting documents have been unearthed at the British Foreign Office of elsewhere. Even the Detroit Free Press journalist who first reported this vanishing story could not remember whether he had covered or created it.

 

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Three Against the Sea

 

From the time of its completion in December 1899 on Eilean Mor, a rocky island some eighty miles west of the Scottish coast, the lighthouse seemed cursed. In its first year of operation, three keepers died, a fourth fell to his death from the lantern gallery, and several went mad. Then, on December 15, 1900, the light went out.

The lighthouse was operated by a crew of four, with three men on duty and one ashore. On December 20, Joseph Moore, the off-duty lighthouse keeper, was due to return to Eilean Mor from the nearby Hebrides to relive one of his three colleagues, but bad weather prevented his arrival until December 26. As the supply boat approached the lighthouse, the place was eerily calm. No keepers came to greet the boat, no flag was flying, and the empty provisions boxes had not been set out on the landing. Moore went ashore and mounted the steep stairs cut into the cliff on which the lighthouse stood.

 

 

He found everything in order in the lightroom except one feature: The light’s lens had been cleaned but not covered. Since the keepers would normally cover the lens soon after cleaning it, it appeared that someone had been interrupted at his work. An untouched meal of meat, pickles, and potatoes waited on the table, and one of the dining chairs was overturned. Two oilskin coats were missing.

The islands west landing showed signs of a violent storm earlier in December. A wooden box containing ropes had been torn from its place 110 feet above sea level. Gigantic waves had twisted the iron railings on the landing and torn away turf from the cliff top itself, 200 feet above high tide. But on the drizzly day of the keepers’ disappearance, the tempest had passed. “Storm ended,” read the December 15 weather log, “Sea calm. God is over all.” All, it seemed, but the three hapless lighthouse keepers.

 

 

Their disappearance was attributed variously to abduction by a sea monster; kidnapping by foreign agents, snatching by a giant seabird, and the angry intervention of a ghost said to police the island against intruders. Some believed that one of the keepers had killed his comrades before taking his own life. But the official investigation concluded that the three men must have been washed away when a monstrous wave surprised them on the landing.

 

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When Ludwig Leichhardt arrived in 1842, Australia had been thoroughly explored only along its southern fringes. There were no great river systems, as in North and South America, to lead explorers into the dry, harsh interior.

Few men were less prepared than Leichhardt to reconnoiter this wilderness. The dreamy son of a Prussian farmer, he had studied at the universities of Gottingen and Berlin, aiming to be a doctor. There is no record that he succeeded. In October 1840, he deserted from the army and fled to Sydney.

Leichhardt was known for his eccentric ways. He wore a Chinese coolie hat and carried a sword, because he was said to be terrified of firearms. His eyesight was as bad as his sense of direction. Nevertheless, he yearned to be the first to explore the land route from south to north along Australia’s Great Dividing Range from Sydney to Port Essington, a settlement near the continent’s northern tip.

He assembled a rag-tag crew and convinced well-to-do Australians to finance the trek. Ill-equipped, his troop of eight set off from the fertile region known as the Darling Downs in September 1844. Never straying more than ten miles from running water (they had not brought enough canteens), the group reached the eastern edge of the Gulf of Carpentaria in June 1845. There, naturalist John Gilbert was killed in an Aboriginal attack, and two other men were wounded. The surviving band traveled along the edge of the gulf and six months later stumbled into Port Essington. They returned by sea to Sydney, where they had been given up for dead.

The expedition made Leichhardt the most famous man in Australia. Citizens took up collections for him, and foreign geographical societies bestowed medals. The king of Prussia pardoned him for desertion. All of that stimulated Leichhardt to plan an even more spectacular journey.

This time he would start once more from the Darling Downs, head north again for Carpentaria, then strike west all the way across the continent. His route would take him through hostile tribal lands, and across some of the world’s most forbidding deserts. Once again, he recruited a group of eight followers and convinced backers to provide him with supplies. Carrying two years’ supplies and accompanied by a herd of sheep, goats, and cattle, he set out in December 1846, the hottest time of year. Eight months later, he was back. His party had wandered aimlessly and lost their livestock. According to one account, Leichhardt had given strange commands, telling his followers, for example, to cook game with the entrails left in, which led to bouts of sickness. When his own supplies ran low, he filched from others. Eventually, they gave up in disgust and despair. Despite this fiasco, Leichhardt was able to find backers for another expedition. In April 1848, he set forth with six mates, fifty head of cattle, twenty mules, and seven horses. Somewhere on their journey, the entire party, man and beast, disappeared without a trace.

Rumors about Leichhardt’s fate continued to crop up for years. It was said that he had been killed by Aborigines or drowned in flash floods. There were tales of a wild white man in the bush, living with natives, possibly a survivor of the lost expedition. At least two of Leichhardt’s camps were discovered, and at various places in the interior, trees were found marked with a mysterious L. In 1880, the Sydney Bulletin coined the term Franklin of Australian exploration, ranked Leichhardt’s final foray with Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated arctic probe.

Leichhardt himself had long since been embedded in official Australian lore. Plaques marked various sites along his first expeditionary trail. In the state of Queensland, where most of his early exploring took place, a mountain range and a river were named after him. In Sydney, a suburb earned the same distinction, and his surname identifies twenty varieties of Australian plants.

In 1938, an expedition headed by the president of the Royal Geographic Society of South Australia went to the edge of the Simpson Desert, deep in the center of the country, drawn by rumors that seven or eight skeletons were lying there. The party found only unidentifiable fragment of bone and teeth, and two coins – a half sovereign and a Maundy three-pence, both minted before the doomed expedition left Sydney.

 

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