Tales of mythical lands, lost cities, and hidden treasures have regaled generations of eager listeners in nearly every society on the planet throughout the course of history. As the number of legendary locales grew over the centuries, so did the number of explorers bent on finding them. Many were tantalized by visions of gold, jewels, and various treasures, while others wanted to cement their names in the pantheon of history. These things proved to be strong motivators for some, they also proved to be deadly. While many real people have sought out these whimsical worlds, more than a few have lost their lives, either directly or indirectly, as a result.
Philipp Von Hutten
Philipp von Hutten, born in 1505, was a German adventurer and significant figure during the mid-16th century colonization of the Americas. As chatter of El Dorado, hit a fever pitch in the 1530s, von Hutten joined with a troop of more than 600 explorers under the command of Georg von Speyer to find the hidden treasure somewhere deep in the jungle. He soon encountered a large contingent of Omagua natives, engaged in battle with them, and was seriously wounded.
Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh was an English writer, poet, soldier, and explorer, not to mention perhaps one of history’s most famous treasure hunters and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I in 1585. By 1594, word had reached him of an elusive “City of Gold” somewhere in South America
In 1595, he set off with collaborator Antonio de Berrio in search of the equally mythical Lake Parime in the highlands of Guiana, the alleged location of El Dorado during this time, He came up empty. In March 1603, Queen Elizabeth died, and by July, Raleigh was arrested for conspiring against her successor, James I. He spent the next 13 years imprisoned in the Tower of London but was released in 1616.
Longtime friend of Rayleigh Lawrence Keymis on their second expedition to find the lost city, attack a Spanish outpost in defiance of Raleigh’s orders, resulting in death of Rayleigh’s son; Walt and causing a distraught Raleigh to head back to England. The Spanish ambassador demanded Raleigh be executed for violating their countries’ peace treaty, and as a result, a fed-up King James finally obliged in October 1618.
Juan Ponce De Leon
Juan Ponce de Leon was a Spanish explorer and conquistador who has long been associated with his quest for the legendary Fountain of Youth. Rumor has it that the mysterious life-giving fountain, which Europeans had been whispering about long before Ponce de Leon, served as the impetus for his trip. On his final trip to Florida in 1521, Ponce de Leon and his followers were attacked by Calusa warriors, and he was killed when a poison-tipped arrow struck his thigh.
Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett was a British surveyor, archaeologist, geographer and cartographer who has served as the inspiration for many of Hollywood’s most famous adventurers, including Indiana Jones. In 1914, Fawcett had begun to formulate ideas, based on his research, about a legendary lost city he named “Z.” In 1925, he led a three-man team that included his son Jack and Jack’s longtime friend Raleigh Rimell into the uncharted Mato Grasso jungle region of Brazil to find the Lost City of Z. Unfortunately, the trio mysteriously disappeared and were never seen again.
Admiral Richard E. Byrd
United States naval officer Richard E. Byrd Byrd was a world-class explorer and aviation pioneer who led expeditions across the Atlantic Ocean, Arctic Ocean, and Antarctic Plateau. In 1926, he was the first to fly over the North Pole and returned home a hero, where he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Calvin Coolidge and promoted to the rank of commander. Later, Byrd would go on to lead three expeditions to the South Pole—in 1928, 1934 and 1939—demonstrating an uncanny fascination with the ends of the Earth.
In the 1960s, Dr. Raymond Bernard wrote a bizarre book called The Hollow Earth that claimed the poles actually served as entrances to a subterranean realm filled with undiscovered continents and inhabitants. He and his fellow theosophists say that Byrd searched for and perhaps found the entrance to Hollow Earth but died shortly after from congestive heart failure induced by cold temperatures.
The Naxi People
The Naxi (also known as Nakhi or Nashi) are an ethnic group living in the Himalayan foothills of China’s Yunnan province. A cable car takes tourists 4,506 meters (14,784 ft) above sea level, where they’re treated to an expansive view of the surrounding terrain. Somewhere in the nooks and crannies of this rippling landscape is alleged to be hidden the secret paradise of Shangri-La, first described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton.
The Naxi have their own traditional lure about how to find Shangri-La. According to legend, young couples who commit suicide by jumping from Yulong Snow Mountain will enter Shangri-La and receive eternal happiness. Apparently, many over the decades have met their fate trying. News reports as recent as 2015 have people riding the cable car up the mountain only to jump to their deaths.
Robert Restall was an excavator lured to Nova Scotia’s enigmatic Oak Island in 1959 after hearing about a legendary pirate’s treasure buried there. Restall signed a contract with the property owner to excavate and arrived shortly after with his partner Karle Graeser, his teenage son, and his team. On August 17, 1965, he was working to seal a storm drain when a faulty engine on a piece of equipment began filling the shaft with poisonous hydrogen sulfide fumes, knocking him out. Robert’s son tried to save him but lost consciousness as well. Graeser and two other workers went down to rescue them, but only one of the workers came out alive. Restall, his son, his partner, and the other worker all died. Local legend has it that seven people must die before the Oak Island treasure will be revealed. Restall and his team made six. No one else has died there since.
Adolph Ruth was an East Coast veterinarian with the US Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Husbandry and an amateur explorer who was obsessed with locating the storied Lost Dutchman Mine, holding 19th-century prospector Jacob Waltz’s hidden riches. He set off alone in 1931 with the new map but subsequently vanished without a trace. The following winter, his body was found with two bullet holes to the skull, and local authorities speculated that he was murdered for the map, which was not on him.