Some events capture the imagination and become legends, with fanciful (and often incorrect) anecdotes. Unsolved mysteries, disappearances, murders…society loves a good story, and there’s something about an unsolved case that seems to keep us hooked.
Mysteries are so beloved that some events considered “unsolved” are actually…solved. Or maybe sort of solved. such as the case with the Missing Roanoke colony or the Marie Celeste. The truth can be stranger than fiction, and facts won’t keep us away from a good story. Is that contradictory? Perhaps, but it seems fitting for this collection of real life mysteries.
Jack The Ripper
Chris: It has been 125 years and the Jack the Ripper killings still fascinate so many of us. The murders themselves were brutal and gruesome enough to bring notoriety to the case, but with the added features of letters from the killer sent to the papers and a high profile investigation featuring early criminal profiling, this became the first example of media frenzy over a crime.
And now so many years later Jack the Ripper still draws interest. The case remains unsolved, and likely will remain unsolved, though not for lack of trying by a wide assortment of people. Even Sherlock Holmes gave it a shot. The murders have inspired and/or been referenced by over a dozen films, as well as books, songs, video games, comics, and about anything else you can think of.
JFK Assassination Conspiracy Theory
Christina: Catastrophic, tragic events will inevitably make people quite emotional, especially if questions remain unanswered years after the fact. The JFK assassination (which we mentioned in a previous blog) is still raw for those who lived through it, and it has served as a point of interest to conspiracy theorists and probably always will.
So much has been discussed about the possibility of a government cover-up and the potential use of multiple assassins that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by it all. Luckily, there are tons of books written about the subject (and of the Kennedy family itself), so anyone interested in learning more has quite a bit of material to go through.
Chris: The Lost Colony of Roanoke was one of the first mysteries that engaged me as a child. In the 1580s an English colony was founded on Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now North Carolina. The colony experienced a variety of problems. Governor White returned to England for supplies, leaving behind 115 colonists, including baby Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World.
Various delays meant White was not able to return until three years later. When he got back to Roanoke he found it deserted, with the only viable clue the word “Croatoan” carved into a fence post. He was unable to conduct a search of nearby Croatoan Island at the time, and the English never managed to mount a true search expedition.
The ultimate fate of the colonists is unknown. There are many theories, the most plausible being that the colonists integrated into the native population. Research continues into the disappearance to this day, including a DNA project that is attempting to prove the integration theory.
Christina: On August 6, 1930, Judge Crater stepped out of a restaurant, went into a taxi, and was never seen or heard from again. His mistress, wife, and friends had no idea what had happened to him, and while shady business deals certainly led to speculation that he was murdered, no one has ever truly cracked the case. Crater had moved money around and destroyed business documents before he disappeared, but according to friends and witnesses, he was in a good mood on the night he went missing and he had plans for the future. He’s been dubbed “the missingest man in New York” and his disappearance made for fodder in popular culture for decades. In fact, Stephen King lends an explanation for the judge’s disappearance in the short story “The Reaper’s Image”, but of course it’s a rather…bizarre one.
The Bermuda Triangle
Chris: In 1974 Charles Berlitz’s book The Bermuda Triangle was released. He didn’t coin the term, but he brought into the mainstream. I got this book from the library as a child and was instantly smitten by the mystery of disappearing ships and planes.
The largest non-combat loss of life in the US Navy occurred when the USS Cyclops vanished in 1918. Flight 19, a Navy training flight in 1945 in which five torpedo bombers vanished is one of the more famous cases. One of the search planes disappeared looking for them. There are many other accounts of disappearances.
So what is happening? Aliens? Atlantis? Something else? Or maybe nothing at all? Well, things are clearly happening. Boats and planes have and do still disappear, and we get confirmation bias. But they don’t disappear at a rate higher than anywhere else in the world. In other words, there are some neat (and tragic) stories, but they are just stories. Nothing to see here, folks.
Christina: “Where’s Jimmy Hoffa buried?” is one of the biggest mysteries of the twentieth century. Growing up in New Jersey, I’d hear a lot of jokes about where he might be buried (Giants stadium was a popular guess). Officially, no one knows what happened to Jimmy Hoffa or where his remains are, although it’s safe to assume that the Mob got to him. The notorious Mafia assassin Richard Kuklinski (aka “The Iceman”) confessed in an autobiography that he was behind Hoffa’s murder and handling of his remains. With no evidence, however, people still speculate and probably always will.
The Voynich Manuscript
Chris: The Voynich Manuscript is a mystery that I only heard about a few years back. Dated to the early 15th century, it came to modern attention in 1912 when Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book dealer, purchased it. Voynich uncovered evidence that points towards Roger Bacon once owning the book.
The manuscript is about 240 vellum pages, containing text and a variety of illustrations. What makes this interesting is that it is written in an unknown language. Additionally, many of the illustrations are of unidentified plants.
Many professionals (and amateurs) have taken a crack at deciphering the tome, including military code breakers and modern cryptographers with sophisticated computer programs. To date no one has come close to translating it. The “word” patterns don’t seem to fit that of a constructed language.
The first thought that comes to mind then is hoax. If so it would be a hoax of astounding complexity, especially for the time that is believed to have been written. Perhaps a cipher is needed to translate it, or it is a code. A recent theory is that it is a long dead Mexican dialect, and that the plants drawn within are not European, leading to confusion. This theory hasn’t proven to be any more viable than the rest, and at this point the best answer to the Voynich Manuscript is: we haven’t got a clue what it is.
The Zodiac Killer
Christina: What makes it so terrifying to know that a serial killer hasn’t been identified in decades is the idea that he will strike again. The public is safe from Charles Manson, David Berkowitz, and countless others, but what about the Zodiac Killer? To this day, the murderer remains unidentified.
Like the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer sent letters to the police, taunting them with confessions and threats of further violence. What makes the case fascinating, however, is the killer’s use of a cipher and his manipulation of the media as well as the police department.
Recently Gary L. Stewart released a book titled “The Most Dangerous Animal of All: Searching for My Father… and finding the Zodiac Killer” claiming that he has evidence that his biological father was the notorious serial killer. The police are looking into it, and maybe we’ll finally see this case solved soon.
Chris: Ah, ghost ships! From the Flying Dutchman to the Black Pearl, literature and film is filled with them. But there are many, many examples of real life ghost ships, abandoned vessels found with their crews gone missing. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Mary Celeste (fictionally called the Marie Celeste by Arthur Conan Doyle and others).
The Mary Celeste departed Staten Island in 1872, bound for Genoa, Italy. Almost a month later she was discovered some 600 miles off the coast of Portugal. All ten people on board (including the captain’s wife and young daughter) were missing. She was still perfectly seaworthy. Her lifeboat was missing, as were most of the ship’s papers and navigational equipment. Food supplies were still abundant, and many of the crew’s valuables were still on board.
An inquiry failed to discover what had befallen the crew. There were no signs of piracy or foul play, and no trace of the crew was ever found. The ship herself was put back into service, and lived an unhappy life before finally burning and sinking in 1885 in a failed insurance fraud scheme.
So what happened to the crew? No one knows for sure, and again there are many theories, but the leading one is that alcohol is to blame. A drunken revelry gone awry? Hardly. There were 1701 barrels of alcohol in the cargo hold of the Mary Celeste. Nine of those were found to be empty, and those nine were made of red oak, which is more porous than the white oak normally used. The thought here is that those barrels leaked, and the resultant fumes caused the crew, fearing an explosion, to evacuate to the lifeboat while the ship was aired out. Something went wrong and the line connecting the lifeboat to the Mary Celeste failed, and the crew was unable to regain the ship, condemned to a slow death on the high seas. We’ll never know for sure, and there are some flaws in this theory, but it seems it is the best answer we will ever get.
The Lindbergh Baby
Christina: You’d be hard-pressed to find a story quite as tragic as the kidnapping and subsequent murder of the Lindbergh Baby in 1932. While his parents and their friends had a party downstairs, someone abducted 18-month old Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr. using a ladder to get to his nursery on the second floor. A frantic search ensued, but tragically, the baby’s body was found two months later.
While Bruno Richard Hauptmann was found guilty and was subsequently executed for the crime, some doubts still linger as to whether he was truly the culprit. Another strange aspect of the case is that various people have claimed to be the deceased toddler, insisting that the body found was not in fact that of the Lindbergh baby.
Ten mysteries from the pages of history. We only gave you a brief glimpse into them. You’ll have to do your own investigating to find out more. Tell us what you uncover, and let us know what other mysteries you would like us to explore!
See all of the books and DVDs mentioned in this blog in our library ctalog here: https://fontana.nccardinal.org/eg/opac/results?bookbag=26674;page=0;locg=155;depth=0
(Edited 12/5/14 to fix/replace broken links and to correct typos.)