Conspiracy Theories About Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance

The aviator Amelia Earhart disappeared on July 2, 1937, while attempting to circumnavigate the globe. What happened to her remains a mystery, but that doesn't stop the conspiracy theorists from weighing in.

Amelia Earhart, 40, stands next to a Lockheed Electra 10EAP/REX/Shutterstock

On July 2, 1937, the celebrated American aviator Amelia Earhart departed New Guinea en route to Howland Island, a tiny uninhabited coral island in the middle of the Pacific. Accompanied by her navigator, Fred Noonan, Earhart was already 22,000 miles into her ’round-the-world flight, which had begun in Oakland, California on May 21, and had just over 7,000 miles left to go before she was set to land once again in Oakland, triumphant. Howland Island was to have been a refueling pit stop along the way.

But something went awry. The U.S. Coast Guard, which had been in sporadic radio contact with Earhart, received messages that she was lost and running out of fuel. In the week that followed, another 57 credible distress messages were heard around the world (many others that were reported have since been deemed hoaxes). Then…radio silence. Learn some facts about Amelia Earhart even history buffs may not know.

Eighteen months later, Earhart was declared legally dead, and to this day, no one knows for certain what happened to her. The most generally accepted theory is that Earhart had trouble spotting the tiny island where she and Noonan were supposed to land, ran out of fuel, and plummeted into the ocean. The problem with that theory, however, is that it doesn’t take into account the messages heard in the week that followed, including the one heard on July 7 by a woman using a short-wave radio in eastern Canada: “Can you read me? Can you read me? This is Amelia Earhart. This is Amelia Earhart. Please come in,” began the message, which went on to say, “We have taken in water, my navigator is badly hurt. We are in need of medical care and must have help. We can’t hold on much longer.”

It was this message that led The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) to conclude in a report published in 2018 that Earhart had landed not on Howland Island, but on another remote, uninhabited island in the Central Pacific, Gardner Island (now called Nikumaroro). And there she and Noonan died as castaways. “This theory has gained ground in recent years due to the discovery on Nikumaroro of artifacts that could be related to Earhart,” writes History, including an empty jar of skin cream Earhart was known to use, some bones that may or may not have been identified as a woman of around Earhart’s height, and a piece of plexiglass similar to the kind used in the Lockheed Electra airplane Earhart was flying.

But when a woman as famous and beloved as Amelia Earhart disappears off the face of the planet, tragically simple explanations such as these just don’t seem to satisfy. Instead, there’s a very human desire to conceive of more complicated and far-fetched explanations that deny that Earhart died in a plane crash, as a castaway, or even that Earhart died at all. Some of the most popular are:

Earhart was a spy

In his book Amelia Earhart: Beyond the Grave, author W.C. Jameson claims that Earhart was actually a spy recruited by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to take aerial photographs of Japanese military installations in the Pacific. Under this theory, the Japanese shot down the plane and took Earhart and Noonan captive.

In some versions of this theory, President Roosevelt disavowed all knowledge of Earhart and Noonan and let the Japanese execute them. In other versions, Earhart remained a prisoner in Japan throughout World War II, after which she returned to the U.S. and lived the rest of her life in witness protection.

Earhart was captured by the Japanese

In the 1960s and again in 2015 and 2017, some began to theorize that Earhart crash-landed in the Marshall Islands, was then captured by the Japanese military, and died a political prisoner on the island of Saipan. Some of these theories are based on a photo supposedly depicting Earhart and Noonan on a Japanese aircraft carrier. Some are based on metal fragments found on an atoll in the Marshall Islands that would be consistent with the metal used in building Earhart’s plane.

Earhart became a nurse on Guadalcanal

During World War II, some Allied servicemen thought they saw Earhart working as a nurse on Guadalcanal, one of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. In all likelihood, the woman was Merle Farland, a New Zealand nurse who was said to resemble Earhart.

Earhart crashed on New Britain Island

In 1943, an aircraft engine was discovered on New Britain Island, which lies at the eastern edge of Papua New Guinea. The engine was consistent with that of Earhart’s plane. That said, it’s consistent with a lot of planes. In any event, it’s unlikely Earhart’s plane was anywhere near New Britain Island when it went down.

The Tokyo Rose theory

In another theory involving Japanese capture, this one has Earhart being forced to spread Japanese propaganda over the radio (the English-speaking women who did so were collectively referred to as “Tokyo Rose”). But Earhart’s husband, George Putnam, ruled this out after listening to hours upon hours of recorded Tokyo Rose broadcasts and not recognizing his wife’s voice.

We may never know what really happened to Amelia Earhart, which means the conspiracy theories about her disappearance will continue indefinitely. That said, you never know—no one ever thought these 12 crazy conspiracies would turn out to be true.

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Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York–based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest and in a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction, and her first full-length manuscript, "The Trust Game," was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.