Katrina Gulliver: Why We're Still Looking for Amelia

Roundup: Talking About History

Katrina Gulliver, a historian living in Munich, is the author of Modern Women in China and Japan: Gender, Feminism and Global Modernity Between the Wars.

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....

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