It’s never been more difficult to withdraw from the public eye without being seen or heard from again. Technology, social media, and strict government surveillance and regulations can now easily track down a missing person at record speed, especially if they’re already a celebrity. But it wasn’t always like that. In past centuries, people used to vanish permanently—at sea, on battlefields, in the night on a foggy street, or onto a train that carries them away to a new life—leaving behind a trail of confusion and unanswered questions to fascinate future generations.
Here are five historic figures who mysteriously disappeared and whose ultimate fates have never been discovered. It’s all left to educated speculation.
On December 12th, 1910, 25-year-old New York City socialite Dorothy Arnold failed to appear at her family’s dinner table after leaving home for a day of shopping and leisurely activities. The prominent importer family, fearing a scandal, delayed contacting the authorities for six weeks, instead recruiting a private investigator to find their missing daughter. Neither the investigator nor the police ever succeeded in rescuing the young woman and returning her back home. The case became a nationwide media phenomenon, rife with false sightings and imposters claiming to be Arnold.
Theories about Arnold’s disappearance have been circulating for over a century. The most popular theory is that she secretly eloped with engineer George Griscom Jr., a suitor her family disapproved of because of his passive and inconsistent character. Further investigation points to the possibilities of a fatal abortion, abduction and murder, or suicide, as Arnold was known to be depressed over her failure to jumpstart a writing career, a path which her family also did not support. Could she have run away, and published her work under a pseudonym until her death? In 2019, the popular YouTube channel BuzzFeed Unsolved dedicated an episode to deciphering this case. Their results were also inconclusive.
Sebastian of Portugal
It’s easy to lose a body in the bloody chaos of a war, even the body of the penultimate monarch of the Portuguese House of Aviz. Sebastian of Portugal was the son of João Manuel, Hereditary Prince of Portugal, and the Spanish-Hapsburg Infanta Joanna of Austria. Notorious for excessive inbreeding, which caused hereditary damage to their offspring, the ruling families of Portugal and Spain were desperate for healthy male heirs that survived infancy. Sebastian’s birth, which placed him in the lines of succession for both kingdoms, was considered a miracle.
He succeeded his grandfather, King John III of Portugal, as king in 1557. As monarch, one of Sebastian’s many duties was to serve as an inspiring military leader to his army. He desired to establish himself as a gloried Catholic king by initiating a crusade against the neighbouring Muslim country of Morocco. This venture was immensely unsuccessful, and the overly zealous Sebastian may or may not have perished in the Battle of Alcácer Quibir in Northern Morocco. The body presented to and buried by his maternal uncle Philip II of Spain—who would later inherit Portugal and absorb it into his empire—was widely rumoured to have really belonged to a common soldier around the same age as Sebastian, who was 24 at the time of the battle.
Sebastian had been loved and respected by his people. Among the heartbroken Portuguese, a cult of faith in his survival gained prominence. Known as “Sebastianismo,” believers clung to the hope that Sebastian would one day reappear with an army and liberate Portugal from Imperial Spanish rule. He never did.
Archduke Johann Salvator of Austria
Is the Hapsburg bloodline cursed? Here is the disappearance of another Austrian royal. Archduke Johann Salvator of Austria was born in 1852 into wealth and prestige as the son of Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Leopold’s second wife, Princess Maria Antonia of the Two Sicilies. From the union between his parents, Leopold could claim royal titles from Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, and Tuscany. His connections also enabled him to pursue a career in the Austrian army and secure him command of a division. He had talent as a soldier, and particularly distinguished himself during the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1878.
But the Archduke eventually became disillusioned with both his royal and his military life. What he craved was a simpler existence with the woman he loved, not a dutiful, arranged marriage like his parents. 1889, his presumed last year of life, was an eventful one. Not only did he renounce his army commission, but he also gave up his string of titles, adopting the name Johann while severing himself from his shocked family. He married opera singer Ludmilla "Milli" Stubel, and the two disappeared together, boarding the steamer Santa Margareta for a long adventure across South America. They were last spotted on July 12, 1890, at Cape Tres Puntas, Argentina. After that, they were never seen again. Perhaps it was all an elaborate scheme to escape the web of the Austrian royal family once and for all.
Nothing attracts danger like incredible wealth. Being a notorious gambler and profligate doesn’t help matters either. When Canadian millionaire and theatre magnate Ambrose Small went missing on December 12th, 1919, murder was on everyone’s minds first. It could have been anyone—from a deranged, spurned lover to a hitman hired to assassinate Small for an unpaid debt. Small’s famously degenerate lifestyle opens the door for every possibility.
The day before his disappearance, Small had successfully sold his theatre holdings for a profit of $1.7 million. The next day, he met with his lawyer F.W.M. Flock to finalize and celebrate the sale at Toronto’s Grand Opera House. Flock was the last person to see Small, who vanished that very evening after leaving his office. The authorities were flummoxed. Small’s body was never found, nor was any of his money withdrawn from the bank. At one point they even tried to recruit Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes book series, to help solve the case, but Doyle declined participation. Real-life mysteries were not the writer’s business, though the disappearance of Ambrose Small continues to enthrall true crime enthusiasts even to this day.
Theodosia Burr Alston
Theodosia Burr’s name is recognizable to a modern audience thanks to Hamilton. “You will come of age with our young nation. We'll bleed and fight for you, we'll make it right for you,” sings a depiction of her father, the third U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr, in a scene of the popular Broadway musical. Indeed, the real-life Burr loved his daughter deeply, and raised and educated her according to the progressive principals of feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. Theodosia became an accomplished scholar and intellectual hostess, revered among Burr’s wide circle of acquaintances. She seemed destined from birth to make an impact on American history.
She would make an impact on history, but not in the way her doting father intended. On December 31st, 1813, Theodosia stepped aboard the Patriot in Georgetown, South Carolina, a journey that was meant to reunite her with Burr in New York. This much-anticipated reunion—Burr and his daughter remained devoted to each other even after her marriage to Governor Joseph Alston—would never take place. The ship vanished at sea, and Theodosia vanished with it. Did she drown, or was she captured by pirates? Did she disembark at an unknown location and begin a new life, inspired by her father’s belief in personal freedom and liberty? Aaron Burr reportedly always believed she had perished in a shipwreck, despite rumors to the contrary. His daughter’s disappearance devastated him.