From Jack the Ripper to Amelia Earhart: 17 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? And what if some of history’s most famous tales – the cases of Dr Crippen or Joan of Arc – were not quite as we suppose? Here we share 17 facts written by Dr David Clarke and Megan Westley, charting the greatest unsolved puzzles of modern times…

In 1937, Amelia Earhart, one of the world’s most famous aviators, apparently disappeared without a trace during an attempt to circumnavigate the globe. (Photo by SSPL/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’.

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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.

By Dr David Clarke


2

Jack the Ripper

Dr David Clarke: 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 one 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.

Megan Westley: The identity of Jack the Ripper, who terrorised the streets of Victorian London, is arguably one of the most hotly disputed historical mysteries of all time. The case seemed to have been solved in 1992, when the diary of Liverpool cotton merchant James Maybrick surfaced. The diary, though not stating Maybrick’s name, contained references to his life and family, along with descriptions of the Ripper’s crimes that no contemporary – aside from the killer himself – could possibly have known.

The document caused a sensation, and many people today still believe Maybrick was the killer. However, Michael Barrett, the man who ‘found’ the diary, admitted to its forgery only three years later, in 1995.

A dispute over authenticity still rumbles on, but there are certainly considerable doubts about Maybrick’s guilt.

A 19th-century engraving depicting Jack The Ripper. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A 19th-century engraving depicting Jack The Ripper. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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.

By Dr David Clarke

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”.

By Dr David Clarke

5

The Shroud of Turin

The 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.

By Dr David Clarke

The 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. (Photo by Marco Destefanis/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
The 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. (Photo by Marco Destefanis/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
6

Richard III and the Princes in the Tower

Dr David Clarke: 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.

Megan Westley: Detractors of this most infamous king claim that when Richard III was granted guardianship of his brother Edward IV’s sons in 1483, he repaid him by declaring the boys illegitimate, stealing the crown, and having his charges killed.

Interestingly, the case is not as two-dimensional as it seems. It’s likely that Richard acted according to his conscience by taking the throne from his nephew. There was strong evidence suggesting Edward IV’s marriage may have bigamous, making the future king illegitimate: something Richard’s religious principles couldn’t tolerate.

Having firmly removed his nephews from the throne, there is little reason for Richard to have ordered their deaths. A far more likely candidate was his successor, Henry VII, whose own claim was tenuous.

Richard III's precise role in the fate of his two nephews – popularly known as ‘The Princes in the Tower’ – remains a subject of enduring mystery. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Richard III’s precise role in the fate of his two nephews – popularly known as ‘The Princes in the Tower’ – remains a subject of enduring mystery. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
7

A lost Romanov princess

When Tsar Nicholas II and his family were brutally murdered by Bolshevik soldiers in 1918, the world looked on in horror. After the shootings, however, rumours surfaced that the tsar’s youngest daughter, Grand Duchess Anastasia, may have escaped.

Several women later came forward claiming her identity, most famously Anna Anderson, on whom the 1956 film Anastasia was based. Escape seemed possible when the bodies of only three of the four daughters were discovered in a mass grave in 1991.

Even today, theories as to Anastasia’s fate persist. Sadly, what many don’t realise is that the body of the fourth Romanov daughter was discovered in 2007, finally putting to rest any hope of survival.

By Megan Westley

8

Dr Crippen, the ‘doctor of death’

Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen became one of Britain’s most infamous murderers when his wife Cora’s body was discovered in the basement of their home, in 1910. He was later arrested, tried, found guilty, and executed.

So far, so familiar. What very few people realise, however, is that 2007 DNA testing on the body in the basement proved not only that the victim wasn’t Cora, but that it was male. The evidence showed that Crippen was innocent of the crime he was hanged for. Interestingly, two weeks before execution, he wrote: “I am innocent and some day evidence will be found to prove it”.

By Megan Westley

9

Lizzie Borden and a trial by public opinion

Lizzie Borden, who famously “took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks”, has been labelled a murderer for more than 120 years.

Husband and wife Andrew and Abby Borden were found dead in their Massachusetts home by Andrew’s daughter, Lizzie, in 1892, having each been struck several times with a hatchet. Lizzie, a seemingly respectable Sunday school teacher, soon became the prime suspect due to her hatred of her step-mother and desire for financial freedom. Her trial in 1893 caused a media sensation.

Though Borden was acquitted, her local community showed a level of suspicion that has never abated. Certainly, she looked guilty, but we forget she is technically innocent.

By Megan Westley

10

What happened to Amelia Earhart?

In 1937, Amelia Earhart, one of the world’s most famous aviators, apparently disappeared without a trace during an attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Though searches began only an hour after Earhart’s last recorded message, nothing was ever found, and her fate remains one of the greatest historical mysteries of all time.

Or does it? In fact, a woman’s body was located on Gardner Island, part of the Phoenix Islands, Kiribati, in the western Pacific Ocean, in 1940. With it were a campfire, a navigational sextant, and the remains of shoes. The body was later judged to be that of a white female of northern European descent, around Earhart’s height.

Expeditions carried out since 2001 have found other evidence suggesting the presence of an American woman alive in the 1930s. It’s possible that Earhart lived as a castaway after an emergency landing.

By Megan Westley

11

Adelaide Bartlett and an impossible murder

In 1886, Adelaide Bartlett stood trial accused of killing her husband, Edwin, who had been poisoned by ingesting chloroform. Remarkably, the jury was forced to find her innocent when no convincing explanation could be put forward as to how the poison was administered. Chloroform, when swallowed, would cause vomiting and leave traces in the oesophagus, neither of which had occurred.

Many still consider the means of the murder a mystery, despite the fact that the crime writer Christianna Brand later found an explanation. Brand proved that chloroform poured into brandy would hang suspended within it, meaning that the poison could be swallowed whole without leaving a trace. The real mystery is whether the case was that of murder or suicide.

By Megan Westley

12

Why did Joan of Arc die?

Ask most people why Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, and the answer “heresy” will be usually be offered. The so-called Maid of Orleans was distrusted for claiming that God had guided her to fight as a soldier during the Hundred Years’ War. While this is technically true, the real reason for her execution in 1431 is more unusual.

In May 1430, Joan was captured and imprisoned by her English and Burgundian enemies. A trial for heresy began in 1431, with questions focusing on her faith and visions. The offence of wearing male clothing – also a heresy – was pursued. Joan had repeatedly done this, first as a soldier in armour, and later during her imprisonment as a defence against rape.

Remarkably, it was for cross-dressing that she was ultimately executed after once again donning male clothes, despite promising to give them up.

By Megan Westley

13

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.

By Dr David Clarke

14

The ‘unavoidable’ Titanic collision

Films about the demise of Titanic show lookouts caught by surprise as an iceberg looms out of the night. While this portrayal is fairly accurate, the collision between the ship and the iceberg was not as unavoidable as it seems.

The truth is that the iceberg may have been avoided with a pair of binoculars. These were part of Titanic’s equipment, and were locked inside a box on the crow’s nest. The key was held by Second Officer David Blair, who was replaced in a last minute crew reshuffle before the ship sailed. Blair took the key with him, meaning the crew had no opportunity to spot the iceberg in time to avoid it.

By Megan Westley

15

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.

By Dr David Clarke

16

The Salem witch trials

The trials of supposed witches in the American village of Salem during 1692 have given rise to one of history’s biggest misconceptions. Though it is popularly believed that those found guilty were burned to death, this method of execution was never actually used.

In total, 19 men and women were convicted of witchcraft, while hundreds of others were accused. The ‘guilty’ were actually all hanged, while one man was crushed to death for refusing to be tried.

A final mystery, that of the ‘bewitchment’ of young women, which sparked the initial hysteria and arrests, can also be easily explained. This was almost certainly caused by ergot poisoning, which resulted from eating ergot-infected rye, and caused vomiting, hallucinations, and a crawling sensation under the skin.

By Megan Westley


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

Megan Westley is the author of Living on the Home Front, which was published by Amberley Publishing.

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These facts were first published by History Extra in 2014