The truth behind 10 historical mysteries

History is full of dramatic tales that are well known and oft repeated. But what if some of the most famous – the cases of Dr Crippen, Joan of Arc, or Jack the Ripper – were not quite as we suppose? Here, Megan Westley revisits 10 historic mysteries we get wrong…

This article was first published in November 2014


1) 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.


2) 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”.


3) 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.

4) Richard III: kindly king or treacherous uncle?

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. 

5) 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.


Amelia Earhart (born 1897) standing in front of the Lockheed Electra in which she disappeared in 1937. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)


6) 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.

7) 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.

8) 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.

9) The diary of Jack the Ripper

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.

10) 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.