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It is a sad fact of life that people do go missing and sometimes there is a sad ending, sometimes many unanswered questions and occasionally a happy ending.  But the most peculiar of all disappearances are those where people literally vanish, often before someone’s eyes.  Whether a single person or a whole group, history is filled with strange accounts of vanishing people.


One of the most famous large-scale disappearances has to be that of the colony of Roanoke.  In 1587, over 100 men, women and children travelled from Britain to America and landed on an island off the coast of what is now North Carolina.  They named the island Roanoke Island and their fate is one of the most well known mass disappearances.  The colony was led by one John White, whose granddaughter Virginia Dare, was the first person born on this new land.  But life was tough and White was forced to return to England just ten days after his granddaughter’s birth for supplies.  He arrived in the middle of a war with Spain and was unable to return to the colony for three years.

When he did arrive, he was baffled by what he found – no people were anywhere to be found.  There were no bodies or signs of remains and all the personal belongings of the colonists were in place.  Carved in a tree were the letters CRO, which White took to be referring to another island nearby called Croatoan, so sailed there but no-one was found.  To this day, no trace of the colonists was ever discovered.

Vanished into thin air

The phrase ‘vanish into thin air’ seems to date back to Shakespeare who used it to describe various disappearances in his work.  But it is rarely used in connection with people because, thin air or not, people don’t normally simply vanish.  Yet that is apparently what happened to a man named Orion Williamson.  He lived in Selma, Alabama and one day in 1854, was walking across his property in full view of his wife and son as well as two neighbours when he literally vanished into thin air.

Another couple were driving along the road and saw him go, rushed straight to the scene thinking he had fallen or slipped but was nowhere to be found.  Searchers were soon brought in and a geologist and his team even dug up the field searching for hidden abnormalities.  They found none – nor any trace of Williamson.

A similar case came from Warwickshire, England where a man named James Burne Worson was challenged by two friends to prove his boasts about his distance running prowess.  This was in 1873 and he agreed to run 40 miles from Leamington to Coventry.  He began running with his friends in a horse drawn cart following along.  Just a few yards ahead of them he suddenly fell forward, gave a terrible cry and vanished completely.  The area was extensively searched but Worson was never seen again.

Louis Le Prince

Louis Le Prince

Louis Le Prince was a French inventor and the creator of the first moving picture, earning him the nickname of the Father of Cinematography.  He was also the subject of a disappearance that would do a modern movie script proud.  In September 1890, he was boarded a train in Paris to visit his brother in Dijon but when the train arrived at destination, Le Prince was nowhere to be seen.  He had been seen entering his cabin after checking his luggage in a separate compartment but he was nowhere to be found.  There were no signs of foul play or even evidence that he had committed suicide in a bizarre manner by jumping from the train window as he was already planning to trip to American to get patents for his invention.  Because of his disappearance, Thomas Edison filed patents and was given credit for creating motion pictures while of Le Prince nothing else was ever heard.

Recent disappearances

With all the modern technology and sniffer dogs at our disposal today, vanishing into thin air would seem to be much harder to do.  Yet it still happens.  One such came is of Barbara Bolick, a 55 year old from Montana who was walking in the Bitterroot Mountains with her friend Jim Ramaker.  Jim stopped to admire the view of Bear Creek Overlook for around one minute, with Barbara around six-nine metres behind him.  When he looked back to see how she was doing, she was nowhere to be seen.  Authorities investigated the case and were convinced that Jim was telling the truth.  Yet all these years later, no trace of Barbara has ever been found.

CCTV would seem to prevent such disappearances but did little to solve the mystery of Brian Shaffer.  The 27 year old went into a bar called the Ugly Tuna Saloona in April 2006 after talking to his girlfriend.  He had been drinking and was last seen chatting to two girls then between 1:30 and 2am he vanished.  The most pressing question was how did he leave the building without showing up on the CCTV footage?  He could be seen entering the building but no sign of him leaving was ever seen and no trace of Brian ever turned up again.


From the Roanoke colony to vanishing acts from crowded bars, people really can vanish into thin air.  There are plenty of ideas about how this happens ranging from cleverly constructed abductions to trans-dimensional portals appearing before the person and swallowing them up.  But until one of the disappeared come back, we may never know the truth.