New Evidence in Amelia Earhart Disappearance

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by James Buchanan

This year will mark the 80th anniversary of the disappearance of American Earhart in the south Pacific Ocean, and researchers are accumulating more and more evidence that points to Amelia Earhart, dying as a castaway on a remote island.

An article from WBIR notes “Without the bones – or the plane itself – it’s hard to state definitively that researchers really have solved the mystery of what happened to aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart on her last flight across the Pacific Ocean.”

“But University of Tennessee anthropologist Richard Jantz and a group of self-appointed explorers are tantalizingly close.”

That article goes on to talk about details of the bones, but first, let’s go over some other details:

In 1940, a British colonial officer, Gerald Gallagher found the bones of a castaway on Gardner Island. A Forbes article notes “A new theory put out this week provides one additional link between bones recovered on a Pacific atoll in 1940 and pilot Amelia Earhart. But since the partial skeleton mysteriously disappeared more than 75 years ago, will we ever know if it was indeed the most famous aviatrix in history?”

“Some time in the spring of 1940, a local living on Nikumaroro, an island in the nation of Kiribati in the south Pacific, found a skull and a bottle. On Sept. 23 of that same year, Gerald ‘Irish’ Gallagher, the officer in charge of the Phoenix Islands Settlement… sends a telegram to his administrative office in Tarawa urging them not to talk about a skull which he noted was quite possibly that of Amelia Earhart….”

“Gallagher further notes in his Sept. 23 correspondence that additional bones had been found, along with a woman’s size 10 shoe and a sextant box. But Gallagher wasn’t convinced the bones were recent…”

“Vaskess telegrams Gallagher asking for more information about the skeleton. Gallagher responds on Oct. 17 that it isn’t a complete skeleton — just a skull, lower jaw (with no dental work), one vertebra, half a pelvis, part of a scapula, a humerus, radius, tibia and fibula and two femora. He further notes that the bones were found under a tree and that coconut crabs have scattered the smaller ones. Gallagher says that he is quite certain the bones are more than four years old but notes that, based on the shoe found nearby, the remains are female….”

“Vaskess forwards Gallagher’s description of the bones to Dr. Duncan Macpherson, the central medical authority in the Western Pacific High Commission. On Oct. 23, Macpherson tells Vaskess that it is unfortunate only half the pelvis exists and that there is no evidence of dental work, both of which would help establish identity of the skeleton. He notes that age and sex can be established from bone, but that unless some identifying characteristic can be found, the skeleton is of little value in direct identification.”

“For a couple months, telegrams ping back and forth, and eventually Sir Harry orders the skeleton and associated artifacts to be sent to the High Commission Office in Suva, Fiji. Gallagher packages them up and sends them off on Dec. 27, 1940. The bones arrive on Feb. 3, 1941.”

“On Feb. 11, Dr. Lindsay Isaac, the acting senior medical officer on Tarawa sends a telegram to Gallagher, informing him that the remains he sent were of an elderly man of Polynesian descent and that the bones were outside for at least 20 years. Gallagher thanks him for the information and calls it anticlimactic.”

“But then, oddly, the principal of the Central Medical School on Suva, Fiji — Dr. D.W. Hoodless — gets involved to further assess the bones, presumably at the behest of Sir Harry.”

“On April 4, 1941, Dr. Hoodless sends Sir Harry a telegram with loads of specific information about the bones, including the sides of each. Hoodless also notes the weathered condition of the bones. Using long bone lengths, he puts the person at about 5’5.5″, [Earhart’s height was 5′ 7″ or 5′ 8″ according to available records] and based on the half-pelvis and leg bones, he estimates the skeleton as male. Age-at-death he puts between 45-55 years old. Hoodless can’t determine ancestry, except to say that the person could be Polynesian, European, or mixed ancestry.”

“Fast-forward to July of 1941, when the artifacts found with the skeleton were reassessed. The sextant, it seems, was actually just a box in which there might have once been a sextant, and the shoe leather found may have belonged to a man’s and a woman’s shoe. Gallagher sends Vaskess a telegram on July 3, 1941, suggesting the skeleton was that of a native castaway.”

“And that’s it.”

“After Hoodless’s telegram of April 5, 1941, saying he’d take charge of the bones until someone told him otherwise, there’s nothing — no further correspondence, and more importantly, no bones.”

Gallagher died in 1941 of a tropical disease, and war broke out with Japan in December ’41 throwing the whole area into chaos. Fiji was just outside of the Japanese-occupied territory. Gardner (aka Nikumaroro) Island was well outside of the war zone.

Finding bleached-out human bones on an island was presumably not an everyday occurrence, so the initial impression that the bones were older than four years by Gallagher may not be valid. The fact that only half the pelvis was found casts some doubt on the accuracy of the gender of the skeleton since it would be best to have the whole pelvis for comparison as noted here. The first doctor to examine the remains said he used the pelvis and leg bones to determine the gender, suggesting that he may have used the height in part to decide the individual was male since a height of five feet six to five feet eight would be more typical for a native man than a native woman.

Getting back to the WBIR article, it makes an interesting new observation about the bones, whose dimensions were recorded by Dr. Hoodless: “…the doctor’s written records turned up in 1998 in archives found miles outside of London, England. And researchers began to ask questions anew.”

“In 1998, Jantz said he was contacted by colleague and renowned forensic anthropologist Karen Burns. She thought he could lend his expertise to the Earhart project…”

“Jantz said he could do statistical analyses, which Burns thought could be helpful in the investigation.”

“The anthropologists announced, after looking at Hoodless’ measurements, that the bones actually appeared to be consistent with that of a woman of European origin.”

“Last fall came word of another development: Jantz’s analysis indicated the skeleton had distinctive arms. The ratio of the lower arm was relatively large compared to the upper arm. A forensic photographer did his own study of Earhart’s arms based on past photos of her.”

“‘He got the same answer we got from the bones,’ Jantz said.”

So, Amelia Earhart had unusually proportioned arms and the forensic details of the remains of a castaway on Gardner Island seem to match.

The island’s crest is only five meters above sea level which raises the question: How often does a wave higher than that hit the island? Every five years? Every ten years? This would limit how long human remains would remain together on the island. Also, the survivors of the SS Norwich City were stranded on that island for several days and would have likely explored the island to some extent, but failed to find the remains, which is an interesting detail although not conclusive.

Other interesting details are that a woman’s cosmetic jar popular in the 1930s was found near the remains. There were over a hundred alleged ham radio signals attributed to Earhart in the week after her disappearance with 47 being recorded by professional operators. Curiously, the timing of the transmissions corresponds to low tide periods, suggesting the plane was landed on a tidal flat. The radio could only be operated while the right engine was running, and the engine could only be run when the propeller was clear of the water.

The search effort for Earhart was concentrated north of Howland Island on the assumption that she went down in the water near that island. Some Navy seaplanes flew over Gardner Island at a height of 400 feet a week after Earhart’s disappearance. Her plane may have been washed off the island by then. One pilot said he saw signs of possible recent habitation, but no additional search was done at the time.

Complicating, the search for evidence of Earhart is the debris left by others on the island before and after Earhart’s disappearance. There was a coconut plantation in 1892, that failed within a year. A cargo ship, the Norwich City, ran aground on the island in 1929, and the survivors were stranded there for several days. A native population was moved to the island in December 1938 until a severe drought in 1963. A U.S. Navy LORAN station was on the island from 1944 until 1946. Earhart disappeared in July 1937.

Additional possible evidence has been found by the organization TIGHAR and can be found here.

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