On Discovery News here, new evidence suggests that Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan landed and eventually died as castaways on Nikumaroro (formerly Gardner Island), an uninhabited tropical island in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati, near Australia and Papua New Guinea.
The news reminded me of my meeting, a week or so before, with Amelia Earhart biographer Susan Wels, author of Amelia Earhart: The Thrill of It. The occasion had been one of Diane Middlebrook‘s writers’ salons, at the San Francisco home of Marilyn Yalom. At that time, Wels told the small group of about 40 how she made the book happen: “Finding a good biography subject is very challenging. It’s not enough for a person to be famous or fascinating. The life has to a have a dramatic arc, a really compelling narrative, if it’s going to be published as a trade book. It’s difficult to find a new biography subject, and if it’s not a new subject, you have to have new information.”
There have been dozens of books about Earhart, of course — the most recent published in 1997. Since then, said Wels, new documents have become available that add context and nuance to Earhart’s story. One example: in the late 1990s, diary entries by Dorothy Putnam were published. Dorothy was Earhart’s friend; she was also the first wife of Earhart’s husband, G.P. Putnam.
“Dorothy’s diary entries are amazingly frank and give intimate insights into the relationship between the two women and their 1928 love triangle,” said Wels — actually a love quadrangle, since Dorothy was having a simultaneous affair with her son’s tutor, a man 19 years younger. Also, in 2002, Purdue University acquired the George Palmer Putnam collection of Amelia Earhart Papers.
The journalist-turned-author also promised to showcase less familiar aspects of Earhart — as a poet, as a social worker, and even as a psychic. Less than two years after she disappeared, in 1939, her husband told a reporter that Earhart “had a fragile psychic quality, some strange susceptibility to conditions beyond understanding. She rarely mentioned it to friends, never discussed it publicly. But whenever [she] participated in mental telepathy or other psychic experiments to further her curiosity, observers were astonished at the results.” Earhart never tried to psyche out her own adventures: “She believed she would go when her number was up and not before, so there was no use worrying about it,” according to Wels.
Wels said her thing is joining image with word — particularly appropriate here, because Earhart was a visual icon. Wels’ book has more than 300 full-color images, including photographs and documents that have never been published before.
So what does Wels think of the new theory? It’s not new, she says. Her email to me below:
In October 1937, three months after Earhart disappeared, a small British expedition to Gardner Island noted unexplained “signs of previous habitation” along the shore, “like someone had bivouaced for the night.” Then, in 1940, a member of a native work party found a human skull. That September, a British colonial administrator, Gerald Gallagher, came to live on the atoll. At the site where the worker came across the skull, Gallagher discovered a campsite and some scattered bones, along with evidence of a campfire, bird and turtle remains, and artifacts. British government records confirm and document the 1940 discoveries on Gardner Island.
Since Gallagher suspected the remains could be Earhart’s, he shipped the bones and artifacts to British headquarters in Fiji for “strictly secret” examination. In April 1941, a colonial doctor analyzed the bones and concluded that they probably came from a muscular middle-aged male of European descent. The bones themselves have since disappeared, but TIGHAR researchers discovered the doctor’s measurements and notes. In 1998, forensic investigators reanalyzed them and found them consistent with a white female of northern European extraction who was about five feet seven inches tall.
Since then, on 10 archaeological expeditions to the island, TIGHAR [The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery] investigators have found additional artifacts, including a piece of a woman’s powder compact, a civilian zipper, and the bottom of a broken hand-lotion bottle, all manufactured in the U.S. and dating from the mid-1930s. According to a forensic anthropologist at the University of Alabama, the fire area, littered with more than a thousand bones and shells, is consistent with campsites of western castaways who subsisted on anything that they could find to eat.
In the absence of a smoking gun—a DNA sample or an airplane part marked with a serial number—all of TIGHAR’s evidence to date has been circumstantial. The new findings, if they yield DNA, could potentially provide conclusive proof.
We don’t know what happened to Earhart, but we do know that she had contemplated survival on a desert island. She may have practiced landing on a beach. And months before she disappeared, according to Gore Vidal—who knew and adored Earhart when he was a child (because his father was having an affair with her)—she explained that it’s possible survive on an island without fresh water by making a sun-still to extract salt from seawater. Perhaps Earhart did, for a little while…
UPDATE 6/6: Another article about new evidence on Earhart’s last days at the New York Daily News today; it’s here.