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The strange case of disappearing people

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

In a world of 7.9 billion people, is it possible to disappear without raising an alarm? Mobile phones, internet companies and even business corporations are constantly tracking you and your whereabouts. If you disappeared, they’ll notice. And yet, every year, thousands of people disappear.

The world wasn’t always so connected though. In the 18th century, French astronomer Guillame Le Gentil had travelled to India to study the transit of Venus. He wanted to use that information to calculate the distance of the sun from the earth. Unfortunately for him, he was trapped in a boat on the day of the Venus transit. The next transit would happen eight years later – so he decided to wait and build an observatory. When the ultimate day came, Le Gentil was once again unsuccessful because the sky was overcast.

Le Gentil returned to France 11 years after leaving the country and he was surprised to find that he was already declared dead. His wife had remarried, his family had seized his belongings and his job was given to someone else.

If you want to disappear

Strangely, there are people who disappear on their own to escape their present situation and relocate with a new identity.

If you’re interested in doing something similar, remember to keep a few of these points handy. Don’t leave by creating a lot of drama that can involve the police. Minimize your social connections so that no one notices your absence until it’s too late. Have no presence on social media long before you plan to disappear and stop using any other form of payment other than cash. If you’ve told your immediate family about your disappearance, forget about contacting them from traditional phones. Use anonymous and temporary email accounts instead.

You can also read Frank M. Ahearn and Eileen C. Horan’s book How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, And Vanish Without A Trace.

Premature obituaries: Declared dead when alive

It’s pretty unbelievable how these things can happen, but a lot of media publications have mistakenly published fake obituaries of famous people including Steve Jobs and Britney Spears.

Alfred Nobel, who invented the dynamite, was declared dead when his brother Ludvig died. Nobel read his obituaries and was so ashamed of himself for leaving a negative legacy. One newspaper read, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”

In order to compensate for this, Nobel decided to donate most of his wealth posthumously. He even laid the foundation for what is now known as the Nobel Prize.

It’s common practice for newspapers and magazines to prepare obituaries in advance. Sometimes, these obituaries get accidentally published and that’s what happened with CNN and Bloomberg. The latter published an obituary of Steve Jobs and sent Apple’s investors in a tizzy. They later apologized with the message, “An incomplete story referencing Apple Inc. was inadvertently published by Bloomberg News at 4:27 p.m. New York time today. The item was never meant for publication and has been retracted.”

Gone without a trace

A lot of children without parents go missing from the face of this earth and their disappearances are never recorded. They can get embroiled in human trafficking and other dangerous activities.

According to National Crime Records Bureau’s data (2016), 63,407 children went missing in India. Around 50 % of them have still not been traced. “The longer the police takes to investigate, the less likely the child will ever be found. Trafficking is a structured nexus where the child changes hands, travels between States,” Soha Moitra (director of CRY) told The Hindu.

“Missing children cases are often dismissed, families are told they have ‘run away’ and ‘will come back’. Precious time is wasted; the child could well be out of the State before investigation begins,” she added.

Twins switched at birth

It’s not a concept reserved for overdramatic Bollywood films. In real life too, twins have found each other years into their lives. Not many of us get maternity and paternity tests done so we don’t know if we were switched at birth. In Spain’s Canary Islands, Begona and Delia realized that they were twins when they were already 28 years old. Begona was mistaken as Delia in a sales store and a meeting was arranged between the two. DNA tests confirmed that they were twins. For 28 years, Begona had thought that Beatriz was her twin and Delia didn’t exist.

“Imagine a mother raising a child for 28 years and suddenly finding out that it's not her child. Eventually the (twins' biological) mother did find out, and this was shocking, horrifying — just really so difficult to accept. In the other family, they didn't find out for eight to nine years, and that was because that single twin was really, really afraid to let them know. The reaction when they did find out was completely devastating,” Nancy L. Segal, author of Someone Else’s Twin: The True Story of Babies Switched At Birth, was quoted as saying by NPR.


1. How People Disappear (Vsauce)

2. How to Ditch Big Brother and Disappear Forever (Lifehacker)

3. World Population Clock

4. Alfred Nobel (Wikipedia)

5. India’s missing children: The story WhatsApp forwards don’t tell you (The Hindu)

6. Steve Jobs's Obituary, As Run By Bloomberg (Gawker)

7. Learning Your Sister Is 'Someone Else's Twin' (NPR)

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