The curious case of Lord Lucan + 10 other mysterious disappearances from history

Sometimes it’s the things that aren’t there that make history. Here, we explore the case of Lord Lucan, who vanished in 1974 following the murder of his children's nanny. Will we ever know what happened to him? Plus ten other notable mysterious disappearances from history...

Portrait of John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan (Lord Lucan), who disappeared in 1974 following a bloody homicide

Soon before 10pm on 7 November 1974, Lady Lucan, hysterical and blood-covered, burst into The Plumbers Arms in Belgravia, London. She was screaming of the murder of her children’s nanny and that she had barely escaped with her life. What’s more, she named her estranged husband, Richard John Bingham, Earl of Lucan, as the attacker. 

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A later inquest named Lord Lucan as the killer, but as he had disappeared, the case never went to trial.

The young nanny, Sandra Rivett, was thought to have gone down to the basement kitchen of the Lucan home at 46 Lower Belgrave Street to make tea at about 9pm. Lady Lucan claimed she went looking for Sandra, but found the basement in darkness – someone had removed the light bulb – before she was attacked by a shadowy assailant. When told to “shut up”, Lady Lucan recognised her husband’s voice, subdued him and managed to escape. Police discovered Rivett’s body in the kitchen, stuffed inside a sack with head injuries, and a bent, bloody pipe nearby.

Lord Lucan had vanished, except for letters to friends telling them of the “traumatic night of unbelievable coincidences”. In them, he made out that he had walked by the house when he saw the murder through a window and intervened – a hotly contested version of events. Days later, his car was found on the southern English coast, blood-stained and with an identical pipe in the boot. A warrant was issued for his arrest but the aristocrat has not, officially, been seen since.

Also in the news in November 1974…

16 NOVEMBER In a ceremony at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, a radio message is sent to a star cluster 25,000 light years away – it won’t reach its destination until the year 27,000.

21 NOVEMBER Bombs explode in two pubs in Birmingham, killing 21 people and injuring hundreds. Six men were arrested and sentenced for the attack, but their convictions were quashed in 1991. 

22 NOVEMBER The United Nations General Assembly grants ‘observer status’ to the Palestine Liberation Organisation – officially recognising the region and the Palestinians’ rights to “self-determination”. 


Top 10 mysterious disappearances

Nige Tassell brings to light ten other vanishings that have made the news

1

The Roanoke Colonists

The Roanoke Colony was founded in 1585 on an island off the coast of present-day North Carolina at the behest of Elizabeth I, who was keen to establish a settlement in North America. After a rocky beginning, in 1587 Governor John White was dispatched to London to request assistance. When he returned to Roanoke in 1590, he found no sign of the 117 colonists he’d left behind. Were they slain by native tribes or did they simply relocate? We may never know the answer.

2

Owain Glyndŵr

In 1400, Glyndŵr launched the Welsh Revolt against the English crown. But in 1412, with the revolt fizzling out in a series of sporadic skirmishes, he vanished. It’s believed that he spent his final years in hiding at the Herefordshire home of his daughter Alys. One historian has even suggested that Glyndŵr saw out his days disguised as an old Franciscan monk.

3

Jimmy Hoffa

The USA’s most famous labour activist, Hoffa was the leader of the Teamsters, a union with strong links to organised crime, and served time for jury tampering and attempted bribery. He was last seen one July afternoon in 1975 outside a Detroit restaurant, and was almost certainly murdered. Rumours abound about the location of his body. Some claim it was buried under a Detroit swimming pool or beneath the (now demolished) Giants Stadium in New Jersey.

Labour activist James Hoffa was last seen in 1975 outside a Detroit restaurant. (Photo by Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
Labour activist James Hoffa was last seen in 1975 outside a Detroit restaurant. (Photo by Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
4

Agatha Christie

In 1926, in a real-life mystery worthy of any of her 66 crime novels, the author disappeared. Her car was found abandoned beside a lake near Guildford, and whispers of suicide or murder abounded. Christie was missing for 11 days – then she was found in a Harrogate hotel, where she’d checked in under an assumed name. She never revealed what really happened, nor why, though recent theories suggest she had entered a fugue state – a kind of trance – when she disappeared.

5

The Princes in the Tower

In 1483, the 12-year-old King Edward V was lodging in the Tower of London with his younger brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, awaiting his coronation following the deathx of his father, Edward IV. But the coronation never happened. Instead, the boys’ uncle, Richard of York, claimed the throne – and soon rare sightings of the princes stopped altogether. Skeletons unearthed at the tower in 1674, and believed to be the remains of the boys, were interred in Westminster Abbey by Charles II. The funerary urn is inscribed with the claim that the boys were “stifled with pillows … by the order of their perfidious uncle Richard the Usurper”. 

6

Crew of the Mary Celeste

In December 1872, the American ship Mary Celeste was found drifting in the Atlantic Ocean. None of the ten people aboard, including the captain’s wife and their two-year-old daughter, were found, and the lifeboat was missing. What happened? The ship was carrying more than 1,000 barrels of commercial alcohol, and may have been abandoned when fumes from the barrels led captain and crew to fear an imminent explosion.

An illustration depicting 'Mary Celeste' in a cyclone in the Bermudas. The ship disappeared in 1872. (Photo by adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images)
An illustration depicting ‘Mary Celeste’ in a cyclone in the Bermudas. The ship disappeared in 1872. (Photo by adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images)
7

Shergar

In February 1983, Derby-winning racehorse Shergar was stolen in County Kildare by masked gunmen. The theft, commonly believed to have been carried out by the Provisional IRA, was followed by a demand for a ransom, reputedly around £5m – which wasn’t paid. Shergar is believed to have been shot and killed, though his body was never found. The IRA did not admit a role in the abduction.

8

The Minoan civilisation

Having flourished on the Greek island of Crete between 2700 and 1450 BC, this civilisation abruptly vanished. A massive volcanic eruption on the nearby island of Thera was long believed to have caused the destruction of Minoan settlements. However, later archaeological finds indicated that an invasion of Crete by the Mycenaeans finished off the civilisation – which may have been weakened by the earlier eruption.

9

Amelia Earhart

The pioneering American aviator’s attempt to circumnavigate the world ended on 2 July 1937 when she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, vanished over the South Pacific. One theory suggests that Earhart managed to land the plane, which had run out of fuel, on an atoll where the pair ultimately perished. In 1940, the skeleton of “a tall, white female of northern European ancestry” was found on the atoll.

10

Solomon Northup

The African-American abolitionist – whose 1853 memoir, Twelve Years A Slave, inspired an Academy Award-winning film – disappeared in the late 1850s. It’s been claimed that he was again kidnapped and forced into slavery, though in his late forties he’d be rather old to attract buyers. 

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This article was taken from the November 2014 issue and the January 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed