Tuesday would have been the 115th birthday of Amelia Earhart, the legendary aviator who disappeared while trying to fly around the world. This year, Amelia Earhart Day, as it’s known by her fans, has special resonance: It falls soon after the 75th anniversary of her vanishing act and coincides with an expedition to Nikumaroro, a speck of land in the South Pacific previously known as Gardner Island—where, some believe, she and her navigator Fred Noonan may have spent their final days.
Undertaking the journey to Nikumaroro—with Discovery Channel cameras in tow—is The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery. For more than 20 years, TIGHAR, as it is known, and Executive Director Ric Gillespie have investigated the possibility that after being driven off-course en route to Howland Island, Earhart and Noonan landed their Lockheed Electra plane on Nikumaroro and then lived as castaways on the island before dying.
TIGHAR investigates other historical aircraft mysteries, but the bulk of its resources seem to go to Earhart. The quest to prove that hypothesis demonstrates how difficult it can be to balance scientific evidence with obsession.
As potential evidence, Gillespie and TIGHAR say that skeletal remains found on the island in the ‘40s, since lost, likely belonged to a woman of European descent. They’ve also found debris: the heel of a shoe, for instance, was recovered on an expedition in the ‘90s. A photograph could show the wreckage of a Lockheed Electra on the shore of the island. The most recent item to ignite the public’s excitement: fragments of a jar that may have contained a 1930s-era freckle cream. “We do know that Earhart had freckles and she was conscientious about them," Gillespie told ABC News. “It’s not an unreasonable thing to think.”
It’s tempting to say, “Case closed—how else could American freckle cream have ended up in the middle of the South Pacific?” But take the shoe heel. As NPR reported in 1998:
The heel was indeed manufactured in the 1930s; it was the same kind of shoe Earhart was wearing in a photograph taken in Indonesia just days before her fatal flight.
But the heel and sole fit a size 9 shoe—which experts argued would have been too big for Earhart.
It’s also not definite that the “freckle cream” jar actually held Dr. Berry’s Freckle Ointment—and we don’t have any evidence to say that Earhart used the product, either. Nor was Earhart exceptionally vocal about hating her freckles. I was able to find only one recorded instance: When asked to pose without a hat in the sun, she said, “Here’s where I get sixty more freckles on my poor nose, I guess,” according to Amelia: A Life of the Aviation Legend. A light self-deprecating remark doesn’t necessarily mean that Earhart would have bothered to bring freckle cream on her journey.
On a recent episode of the podcast Skeptoid, host Brian Dunning said that TIGHAR has fallen into the X-Files trap: The group’s members want to believe.
Even though they meticulously document and preserve every artifact, they exhaustively research each one to find matches with real objects from the 1930s, and they look exactly like what such an expedition should look like, their overall methodology is fundamentally, fatally unscientific. It's unscientific in that it's done completely backwards. TIGHAR begins with the assumption that Amelia Earhart crashed, camped out, and died on Nikumaroro. They take everything they find—every anomaly in a photograph or in a story, every piece of bone or manmade artifact found on the island—and try to match it to their assumption, rather than trying to objectively assess its origin.
Some of the 1930s-era items, Dunning says, could also have been left by pearl divers known to work in the area, though there’s not much information about how frequently pearl boats visited.
I spoke with Jennifer Mass of the Winterthur Museum in Delaware to learn more about TIGHAR’s approach to evidence. For several years now, Mass, a senior scientist in the Winterthur’s Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory, has tested objects brought back from Nikumaroro to determine whether they are consistent with 1930s-era items that Earhart and Noonan may have carried with them. She writes:
Is TIGHAR too emotionally invested in being proved right? I can only speak for Ric Gillespie, with whom I have had almost all of my interactions. Ric comes to me with items that he thinks might have a 1930s origin, and if elemental or molecular analysis demonstrates that they do not, he readily accepts this conclusion. When elemental or molecular analysis determines that they could be, this adds to the body of evidence for a 1930s presence on the island. Whether that presence is due to Amelia Earhart or to Pearl Divers may be difficult to conclusively answer. TIGHAR would of course be more excited to discover the former, but care must be taken not to "overinterpret" one's data to fit this explanation.
Freckle cream makes for great headlines, but the reality is that short of finding human remains, the wreckage of the airplane, or other conclusive proof, it’s impossible to conclude that Earhart and Noonan landed on Nikumaroro.
But maybe that’s OK. The truth is paramount, but as someone always entranced by the Earhart story, I don’t want to think that this remarkable woman and her navigator died scared, lonely, and thirsty on a remote island. She almost certainly didn’t live out her life in New Jersey under the name Irene, as a 2003 book claimed. But as long as a jar that may have contained a freckle cream that Earhart may have used is our most conclusive piece of evidence, I can think that maybe she survived—or at least died a quick, painless death.