9 unsolved historical mysteries

Who was Jack the Ripper, what happened to the Mary Celeste, and did Richard III really murder the princes in the Tower? These are some of the biggest historical mysteries of all time. Here, after scouring 1,000 years of public records at the National Archives in search of answers, Dr David Clarke, the author of Britain’s X-traordinary Files, charts nine of the greatest unsolved puzzles of modern times.

This article was first published in September 2014

The princes in the Tower in an 1878 painting (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The princes in the Tower in an 1878 painting (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

1) The Mary Celeste

What became of the crew and passengers of this British-American brigantine remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the sea. The name has since become synonymous worldwide with derelict ‘ghost ships’.

The Mary Celeste was found drifting 400 miles east of the Azores by the crew of another cargo-carrying vessel, the Dei Gratia, on 5 December 1872. The leader of the boarding party told a British board of inquiry at Gibraltar he found the ship was “a thoroughly wet mess”, with possessions left behind and the lifeboat missing.

No trace of Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs, his wife and their young daughter or the seven experienced crew members has ever been found. Many ingenious theories have been put forward by writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle to explain what happened to them. My favourite comes from a 1965 episode of the BBC series Dr Who, where the frightened crew jump overboard when the Daleks materialise on the ship while chasing the occupants of the TARDIS.

 

2) Jack the Ripper

The true identity of this Victorian serial killer continues to elude us 126 years after the gruesome killing spree in London’s East End in 1888. In the latest development, an ‘armchair detective’ claims DNA evidence from the shawl of one of the five known victims has identified Polish émigré Aaron Kosminski – one of a list of key suspects – as the man also known as ‘Leather Apron’, or ‘the Whitechapel Murderer’. 

A small cottage industry, Ripperology has grown up around the murders with investigators such as Patricia Cornwell and Russell Edwards sifting through surviving evidence in search of a ‘prime suspect.’ Among the wild theories that have become legends is one that depicts Jack as a deranged surgeon who killed the women as part of a conspiracy to protect a member of the royal family.

Professor William Rubinstein describes this story as “palpable nonsense from beginning to end”. He believes it is the very elusiveness of the solution that continues to make the Ripper mystery so attractive to writers and historians.

 

3) Kenneth Arnold’s ‘flying saucers’

The birth of the modern UFO phenomenon can be traced to a sighting by private pilot Ken Arnold of nine peculiar-shaped flying objects over the Cascade Mountains of Washington on the afternoon of 24 June 1947. Arnold told newsmen the bat-wing shaped objects moved like a saucer would “if you skipped it across the water”. He calculated their speed as faster than the most advanced jet aircraft of that time.

A sub-editor came up with the phrase ‘flying saucers’, and the media coverage that followed triggered off an epidemic for seeing things in the sky that continues to this day. Two weeks after Arnold’s sighting, the US Army Air Force announced that wreckage from a ‘flying disc’ had been recovered from a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico.

A modern myth was born, but ever since controversy has raged about what it was that Arnold actually saw. In my opinion, the most likely explanation is a flock of American white pelicans flying in echelon formation. But no one will ever know for sure.

 

4) The Devil’s Footprints

Early on the morning of 9 February 1855, people in towns across southern Devon awoke to find a single line of hoof-like marks in the deep snow as if they had been branded with a hot iron. The Times said the marks were found over a distance of 40 miles on both sides of the Exe, as if “some strange and mysterious animal endowed with the power of ubiquity” had created them during the night.

Explanations ranged from an escaped kangaroo, badgers and mice, to a balloon trailing a horseshoe-shaped grappling rope. Superstitious people preferred to believe they were the work of the devil himself. In its summary of the popular theories at the time, a writer in The Illustrated London News said “no satisfactory solution” had been found, and “no known animal could have traversed this extent of country in one night… neither does any known animal walk in a line of single footsteps, not even a man”.

 

5) The Shroud of Turin

This piece of linen cloth kept in the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Turin, northern Italy, is one of the most closely investigated objects in human history, yet it retains its secrets. The sacred relic is believed by many Christians to be the shroud in which Jesus of Nazareth was buried.

There is no doubt that it bears a negative imprint of the face and outline of the body of a man who has suffered injuries consistent with crucifixion, but scientists have been unable to reach a consensus about how it was created. Radiocarbon testing by three laboratories in 1988 dated the cloth to the Middle Ages, and this was proclaimed by some as proof it was a medieval fake. But this interpretation remains the subject of intense debate, leading a former editor of Nature, Philip Ball, to declare that the relic remains shrouded in mystery.

 

6) Richard III and the princes in the Tower

In 2012 the skeleton of the last Plantagenet king of England, Richard III, was unearthed from beneath a council car park on the site of Greyfriars in Leicester city centre. The dig that unearthed his remains was instigated by Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society as a direct result of a “strange feeling” she had when visiting the site.

This apparent example of psychic archaeology is not the only mystery that surrounds Richard’s life and death. His precise role in the fate of his two nephews – popularly known as ‘The princes in the Tower’ – remains a subject of enduring mystery. The 12-year-old Edward and his nine-year-old brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, the sons of King Edward IV, were lodged in the Tower of London by their uncle, Richard, at the time of their disappearance in 1483.

No one knows exactly what happened to them, but a box containing two small human skeletons was found near the White Tower in the 17th century and, at the time, was widely believed to be the remains of the princes.

 

7) The Solway Spaceman

On the afternoon of 23 May 1964, an employee of the Cumbrian fire service, Jim Templeton, took photographs of his wife and daughter during a day out at a local beauty spot on the Solway Firth. When he collected the photographs from a chemist, the assistant told him it was a shame one was “spoiled by the man in the background wearing a space suit”.

Sure enough, one image of his youngest daughter Elizabeth clearly shows an enigmatic ‘figure’ floating behind her head. The ‘spaceman’ is dressed in a white suit that resembles those worn by NASA astronauts at the time.

The photograph was examined by Kodak and scrutinised by detectives from the Cumbrian police, who were unable to explain it. Jim Templeton died in 2011 without learning the true identity of the ‘Solway spaceman’. The image remains one of the most perplexing in the history of anomalous photography.

 

8) Mothman

One dark night in November 1966, four American teenagers claimed they saw a huge bird-like monster with glowing red eyes while cruising along a back road near Point Pleasant in rural West Virginia. They claimed it rose into the air, unfolded its bat-like wings, and pursued them as they sped away in terror. The next morning the sheriff’s office held a press conference, and the media dubbed the creature ‘Mothman’ after the Batman series that was showing on TV.

Encounters with the demonic ‘bird’ inspired the 2002 movie The Mothman Prophecies, directed by Mark Pellington. The film was based upon journalist John Keel’s book that chronicled an outbreak of uncanny experiences in the Ohio Valley. He believed the creature was linked in some mysterious way with the collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant in December 1967 that killed 46 people, including some mothman witnesses.

 

9) Monsters of the Deep

Do the depths of our oceans hide undiscovered species of animal such as the great ‘sea serpent’ that was sighted by the captain and crew of HMS Daedalus near the island of St Helena in 1848?

Among the files at the National Archives and the Natural History Museum I found first-hand reports of similar creatures in records from the late 19th to the early 20th century, including one by Arthur Conan Doyle, author of The Lost World. Could it be that, as the museum’s former keeper of zoology, William Calman, told a puzzled witness in 1929: “…we are not so rash as to suppose that we yet know all of the inhabitants of the sea and it is within the bounds of possibility that you saw some animal that has never been captured or described”.

If so, where have they all gone?

Dr David Clarke is the author of Britain’s X-traordinary Files (Bloomsbury 2014). To find out more, click here.

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