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On a remote Pacific atoll, a high-tech hunt is under way to find out what happened to a doomed aviator in 1937. But does finding out how famous people died smother our curiosity about how they lived?

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July 5, 1937: A front-page headline from The Globe and Mail reports on the search for aviator Amelia Earhart, last seen leaving Papua New Guinea three days earlier, never to be seen again.The Globe and Mail

Charlotte Gray is the author of 10 biographies and books on Canadian history. Her latest, Murdered Midas: A Millionaire, His Gold Mine and a Strange Death on an Island Paradise, will be published next month.

When I read last week that we might learn what happened to Amelia Earhart, I was disappointed. As a curator at Washington’s National Air and Space Museum said recently, Earhart “is our favourite missing person." Her disappearance in 1937 led to decades of wild conjectures. I asked myself if I was ready to know the truth.

I wonder: Are some historical mysteries best left unsolved? When a disappearance remains baffling or a brutal murder unsolved, is the lack of resolution simply exasperating? Or is the (often crackpot) speculation it generates a source of entertainment, as well as a glimpse into the mindset of the times?

Earhart was a feminist icon, bestselling author and friend of Eleanor Roosevelt – and one of the very first female pilots in the world. Earhart, who was 39 years old when she vanished, had planned a spectacular trip that would make her the first female flyer to circumnavigate the globe. She had already been flying for 40 days and had made more than 20 stops (including Miami, Fla.; Natal, Brazil; Dakar, Senegal; Khartoum, Sudan; Kolkata, India and Darwin, Australia) when she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off from Lae, in Papua New Guinea, on July 2. Their Lockheed Model-10 Electra airplane was headed for tiny Howland Island, over 4,000 kilometres east on the other side of the International Date Line. It was the longest, most dangerous leg of the flight. This was before radar, GPS or weather satellites; below her was only the vast ocean.

She never made it. The plucky, freckle-faced aviator (or “aviatrix,” as she was called back then) disappeared somewhere in the Pacific.

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Earhart, shown between 1925 and 1930.Library of Congress

Earhart joined the pantheon of doomed heroines, who had dared to challenge the conventions of their times and are destined to remain forever youthful in the public imagination because they died too young. You know the list: Joan of Arc, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Di.

But Earhart was special. Perhaps she cultivated her feminine appeal in order to raise funds for her flights, but her achievements and ambitions were thrilling by any standard. She set records flying solo across the Atlantic, nonstop across North America and from Honolulu to Oakland. And her disappearance has fascinated pilots, writers, filmmakers and conspiracy theorists for nearly a century.

Now, no less a hunter than Robert Ballard, who located the scattered remains of the Titanic in 1985, is on the job. He has taken his ship, the Nautilus, which is equipped with high-definition cameras, a 3-D mapping system and remotely operated underwater vehicles, to the tiny coral atoll of Nikumaroro (once known as Gardner Island) in the Pacific’s largely uninhabited Phoenix Islands, part of the tiny nation of Kiribati.

The impetus for this expedition has Jules Verne undertones. Dr. Ballard was persuaded to join the hunt by something called “the Bevington Object,” a tiny speck on the edge of a grainy black-and-white photograph taken by Eric Bevington, a British colonial officer, in 1937, three months after Earhart disappeared.

The main subject of Bevington’s photo is a British freighter that had run aground years earlier on the northwest corner of Nikumaroro. But decades after the photo was taken, a forensic imaging expert noticed the mystery object, and concluded that it could be the landing gear of a Lockheed Electra. Intelligence analysts at the Pentagon confirmed his conclusion – and who dares challenge the Pentagon boys? This is what has sent Dr. Ballard off to the tiny atoll, which is a mere 7.5 km long and 2.5 km wide – one-10th the size of B.C.’s Salt Spring Island. Dr. Ballard will search the ocean bed for Earhart’s plane.

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A 1937 photo by Eric Bevington shows, at left, a tiny smudge that intelligence analysts said resembled the landing gear of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra on the Nikumaroro atoll.TIGHAR/Eric Bevington/Reuters

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A photo provided by TIGHAR in 2010 shows Nikumaroro and the 'Seven Site,' where researchers said they found bone fragments that could help prove Earhart's final whereabouts.TIGHAR/The Associated Press

The Ballard expedition is just the latest episode in the Earhart search, which rivals the search for Sir John Franklin’s missing ships in the Arctic in the number of decades it has spanned and the money it has cost. Two years ago, National Geographic sponsored four sniffer dogs (Berkeley, Piper, Marcy and Kayle) to snuffle out human remains on Nikumaroro. Many of the Earhart expeditions have been sponsored by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, a non-profit organization known by its acronym TIGHAR (website tag-line: “Science Changing Mystery to History.” TIGHAR is also investigating the 1944 disappearance of Glenn Miller, in a plane over the English Channel.)

I wish Dr. Ballard luck, but my reservations are twofold.

First, I’m afraid that if he is successful, science will not only have given us a grisly conclusion to the story, but will also smother interest in Earhart’s life. She will lose her aura of mystery, and interest will fade in the larger narrative of her extraordinary accomplishments during the early days of aviation, before flying became a largely male sport. Once the aviation industry got organized, from the 1940s onward, gender roles hardened and the daring female pilots for whom Earhart was a hero were pushed out of the cockpit. Women were forced to don pinafores and plastic smiles so they could fulfill more traditional service roles, as flight attendants. They took a long time to get their hands back on the throttle. (Just listen to the lyrics of Me and the Sky, sung by the female pilot character in Come From Away, to feel their frustration.)

I’m also reluctant to let go of the wilder guesses about Earhart’s fate. When a mystery has no neat resolution, speculation rushes to fill the vacuum – and the theories, no matter how nutty, say much about the preoccupations of the day. The official U.S. Navy explanation for Earhart’s disappearance was simple: “crash-and-sink.” Earhart and Noonan had planned a flight path to Howland Island, where a Coast Guard cutter was stationed to guide her in. But according to official sources, Noonan’s calculations were off, the Electra’s receiving antenna was broken, and Earhart plummeted into deep water northwest of her destination. The cutter’s telegraph operators had even heard her increasingly frantic calls for directions.

However, such a simple explanation has attracted derision from those who prefer their history complicated. A popular conjecture immediately after Earhart vanished proposed Japanese involvement. One theory was that she and Noonan had been captured and executed by the Japanese because she was a spy. In a period when Japan’s imperial ambitions were challenging American power, the country was a magnet for conspiracy theorists who expected the worst from it. Then there was the widely discussed theory that Earhart had survived, and begun a new life under a pseudonym in New Jersey. Where did this bizarre idea come from? Hard to say – except that the life of a New Jersey housewife was, at the time, seen as a much more suitable career choice for a woman.

But these glimpses into the 1930s American imagination will evaporate if the Earhart mystery is solved.

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The Illustrated Police News from Oct. 27, 1888, details the police search for Jack the Ripper, a serial killer of women in London's Whitechapel neighbourhood.British Library/Reuters

Brutal, unsolved murders from years ago also breed elaborate explanations that reflect the ghoulish interests of the time. Take Jack the Ripper, the unidentified serial killer who strangled and disembowelled at least five women in London’s East End in 1888. According to Wikipedia, there are more than 100 hypotheses about the Ripper’s identity, and the enduring interest has spawned the term “ripperology.”

The murders took place during a period of intensifying social stress within a growing underclass, in a district of desperate poverty where alcoholism and violence were rife. But various armchair investigators spun elaborate theories that a blue-blooded toff was involved – maybe even one of Queen Victoria’s sons. Why did suspicion fall on the royal family? Because it was losing its lustre during these years. Since Prince Albert’s death, Queen Victoria had shrouded herself in black and, on the rare occasions she appeared in public, scowled at her subjects. At least two of her sons were known libertines. Amateur sleuths were eager to connect the dots.

One of the great unsolved murders in Canadian history is that of Sir Harry Oakes, a prospector who spent 15 hard-knuckle years looking for gold all over the world until he finally hit paydirt in Northern Ontario in 1912. Lake Shore Mine, in Kirkland Lake, was a gusher of a gold mine, producing tons of rich ore and (along with other mines in the vicinity) making mining the backbone of the Canadian economy between 1920 and 1940. Oakes was described in the North American media as “the richest man in the British Empire.” But the tough little prospector was outraged by Canadian tax levels, and decamped to Nassau, in the Bahamas, a sunny place for shady tax avoiders such as him. There, he was bludgeoned to death in his bedroom during a tropical rainstorm in 1943.

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Sir Harry Oakes, circa 1938.Wide World Photos

Oakes’s murderer has never been identified. But as I discovered when I researched Sir Harry’s life for my new book, speculation on the murderer’s identity and motive erupted within weeks of his death. There would be waves of Oakes obsession in future years, each illustrating how the past is always seen through a contemporary lens so that it echoes current fixations. In the 1970s and 1980s, when the post-Godfather market for books about the Mafia exploded, several books were published that suggested that American organized-crime kingpin Meyer Lansky was involved. Lansky wanted Oakes dead, suggested a couple of authors, because Oakes resisted his plans to develop casinos in the Bahamas. There is no evidence to support this supposition.

A titillating detail for crime writers was that the Duke of Windsor was the governor of the Bahamas at the time of the murder, and behaved suspiciously at the scene of the crime. After the Duke’s death in 1972, information about his Nazi links surfaced and disillusionment about the former king intensified. Speculation arose that he was trying to remove money from British-controlled territories, in case of the Nazi victory he would welcome, and Sir Harry, now a British citizen, was abetting him in this treacherous scheme. In this version of the Oakes story, the Canadian millionaire was killed in order to cover up illegal currency dealings between the two men and other seedy Nassau businessmen. Again, lack of evidence did not bother the speculators, and the continuing mystery persuaded me to explore other aspects of his life.

Science has solved so many mysteries, but it did not solve Sir Harry’s murder and, so far, it has not ended the Amelia Earhart saga. And I’ll admit that I am happy to have a few mysteries left on which we can exercise our creativity. I want Amelia Earhart, in her boyish check shirt and leather flying helmet, to remain in the popular imagination. I want to hold onto the possibility that she’s still out there, somewhere beyond the clouds.

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Earhart waves goodbye before takeoff in Los Angeles on March 10, 1937.

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