Amelia Earhart disappeared July 2, 1937 during the longest and most dangerous leg of an around-the-world flight. She was a pioneer aviatrix, as she would have been called in former times, and a media sensation of her day. She was also very brave and a true pioneer. She learned to fly in California and was the first to fly from Honolulu to Oakland. The most likely explanation for her disappearance is that she ran out of gas and ditched in the Pacific very close to Howland Island, a postage stamp sized island she knew she needed to reach in order to survive. Her entire trip rested on a razor thin margin of safety, and the 2.500 mile flight from New Guinea to Howland pushed that envelope too far. Low fuel leading to disaster is the conclusion drawn by most of the investigators in the case.
Yet ever since July 3, 1937 there have been “alternate histories” and conspiracy theories. Was she a spy caught by the Japanese on Saipan? Did she become Tokyo Rose and make broadcasts for the Japanese? Did she actually survive and live out a quiet life as another woman? Or did she actually make it to the Phoenix Islands and die a miserable death? That last option is the theory of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) which has mounted a determined search on Nikumaroro (formerly Gardner Island) the site they think she reached before dying a lonely death. Recently they announced the finding of what may be a human bone on the island and what may be personal effects. Those claims are being tested.
Few people are truly passionate about Earhart’s fate these days, many are curious because most folks love a mystery. In fact, most people probably subscribe to one or more “alternate histories” or conspiracy theories. It would be unusual if anybody really cares that you think Billy the Kid was actually a woman, John Wilkes Booth escaped, The Abominable Snowman lives, Bigfoot visited your house or aliens built the pyramids. Conspiracy theory and alternate history are so mainstream now that much of History Channel programming is turned over to odd and, some would argue, crackpot theories. The point critics seem to under value is the persistent reevaluation of evidence. If a recent documentary on the evidence in Adolf Hitler’s suicide is to be believed, the surviving forensic evidence doesn’t completely support the version of events told by survivors of the bunker and by Joseph Stalin’s minions. But the forensic evidence in the murder of Czar Nicholas II’s family seems to have put to rest any “alternate histories” in which some member of the family escapes murder. So it cuts both ways.
And there are a few issues, the incidents surrounding 9/11 and the debate over President Obama’s Birth Certificate, about which people get passionate. Espousing alternate theories can result in a screaming match when you touch a nerve on certain subjects.
The trick is for both sides in any of these arguments to remember that most alternate theories eventually are tossed. These days few think Amelia was Tokyo Rose or that Edwin Stanton had Abraham Lincoln murdered. There is lots of Bigfoot programming but no skeletons or scats. But once in a while, the alternate theory is proven true. The trick is you can’t know which one will be found to be true. I used to believe the “experts” when they said Thomas Jefferson had nothing to do with Sally Hemings. I won’t bore you with the detailed arguments I once made, but DNA tests have convinced all but a few holdouts that he was the father of one of her children. It took roughly 200 years, but it came to pass. I am sceptical about all alternate history/conspiracy theories and in particular about TIGHAR and their evidence but if they prove that the bones are hers (or find her AE monogrammed makeup kit) I have some crow in the freezer for just such occasions.