Thinking Critically About Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance

Amelia Earhart posing on the fuselage of her Lockheed 5B Vega amidst a crowd of people at Culmore, North Ireland after her historic solo flight across the Atlantic from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, c. May 21, 1932.

The disappearance of Amelia Earhart during her around-the-world flight attempt in July 1937 provides a “teachable moment” about critical thinking and the historical method. Despite an exhaustive search, no signs of Earhart were found. The comprehensiveness of the search should have put the matter to rest. Instead, its inconclusiveness created a longstanding mystery accompanied by outlandish speculation.

Mythologizing about Earhart’s disappearance began in earnest with the appearance of Flight for Freedom (1943) a popular film that starred Rosalind Russell. Its heroine, a famous woman pilot, sacrifices herself on a trans-Pacific spying mission for the U.S. government. Later, books like Paul Briand’s Daughter of the Sky (1960) and Fred Goerner’s, The Search for Amelia Earhart  (1966) contributed to the idea that the government had conspired to deceive the public about Earhart’s disappearance. Since then suggestions of a conspiracy have spread to the Internet.

Curators Tom Crouch and Dorothy Cochrane discuss the circumstances of Earhart’s disappearance and the use of critical thinking and the historical method. Students learn how historians work and learn to distinguish between historical fact and historical fancy.

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