The sighting is the most recent in a series stretching back 80 years.
For those of you who don’t believe in ghosts, please don’t stop reading quite yet. The most recent sighting of the ghost of Amelia Earhart was perhaps the most moving one yet.
By now you’ve surely read the analysis of the major disaster that was the History Channel’s coverage of the breaking news of the latest Amelia Earhart discovery. The cable network ran a heavily hyped prime time special about the discovery of a photograph that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, didn’t die in 1937 after running out of fuel and crash landing in the wide Pacific. Instead, the photo proved definitively that they survived, only to be captured by the Japanese and taken away as spies, never to be heard from again.
The only problem was, the photo was a canard. An online sleuth spent half an hour tracking down the reputedly top secret photo and traced it to a Japanese publication that dates to 1935, two years before Earhart and Noonan went missing. The photo was silly to begin with. It showed “Amelia” with her back to the camera, sitting at the edge of a dock, I’m sure dangling her legs over the edge of the pier thinking about what lovely day it was while Japanese soldiers, who are present nowhere in the scene, keep an eye on her from afar. Fred Noonan is kind of facing the camera, though his face is in deep shadow. Nonetheless, the History Channel’s facial recognition expert pronounced it was Noonan with a very high degree of confidence. Amelia, the documentary’s experts said, was easily identifiable by the shape of her back and her distinctive haircut.
The History Channel, in a statement on Wednesday, said they were looking into the matter. What they’re looking into, I can only guess. Are they now looking to see how Amelia and Fred travelled back in time from 1937 to 1935 so they could appear in that photograph to give searchers a clue as to their whereabouts? If so, it would make a great second installment to the documentary.
The whole sad and funny episode is proof that the ghost of Amelia Earhart continues to cast a spell on the popular imagination. Even after all these years, when the real Amelia would be long dead anyway, people yearn to learn that, beyond all hope, she and her underperforming navigator somehow survived getting lost over the wide, tractless Pacific low on fuel. The truth is, it’s nearly impossible to imagine that any fate but a crash landing into the ocean below could have awaited the pair.
The lure of the thought that Amelia might have survived the ordeal is strong. There’s even an organization that every few years rounds up funds from hopeful donors, heads out to a remote Pacific Island and invariably returns from the expedition with a piece of bone or a shard of metal that inspires new hope that the discovery of the true fate of the flight at last has been found.
It’s hard to say what the effect of this loop of hope and disappointment is. One could argue that it cheapens the memory of Amelia, a remarkable woman who took impossibly big risks and paid the ultimate price. But one might also say that the media circus that springs up every few years in support of the cottage industry that is false hope in the quest to find the fate of Amelia Earhart keeps the aviation pioneer in our hearts and our minds. That’s the way I prefer to think about it, because no matter what we skeptics say, for unscrupulous peddlers of history-lite, vain hope is a commodity that pays off again and again.