History is filled with mysterious events and occurrences. Many mysteries have been solved by historians, while solutions to others have remained elusive. Here are some of history's most famous mysteries. Three of them remain conundrums, while two were finally solved by modern forensic technology.
Grand Duchess Anastasia was a member of the Romanov family, a rich and powerful dynasty that ruled the Russian Empire for centuries. Unfortunately, the country suffered a fall from grace during the reign of her father, Tsar Nicholas II. After Nicholas became emperor, Russia suffered disastrous defeats in the Russo-Japanese War and World War I. It also experienced severe economic hardships. Nicholas II’s unpopularity led to massive political protests, which he brutally suppressed. His inept, rudderless leadership created conditions that led to civil war, the end of the monarchy, and the creation of the Soviet Union.
In 1917, Nicholas II acceded to demands that he abdicate his throne, and he and his family (his wife, four daughters, and son) were imprisoned. The Romanovs hoped that their remaining supporters would eventually rescue them, but the conditions of their imprisonment became increasingly harsh. The Soviets also feared that the family might eventually be saved by royalists, which would have given their enemies a major morale boost. In July 1918, Anastasia and the rest of her family were woken up in the middle of the night and told that they were being transferred to a different location. They were led into a basement, where they were shot and stabbed with bayonets. After massacring the entire family, the Soviets buried their corpses in a secret location. But did one member of the family somehow manage to escape?
Rumors of Anastasia’s survival began in the 1920’s. While a number of women claimed to be the Grand Duchess, the most famous claimant by far was Anna Anderson. Anderson claimed that she had fallen to the ground and pretended to be dead after the rest of her family was shot. She was supposedly later rescued by a guard who took pity on her. Anderson continued to argue that she was Anastasia until her death in 1984. She had many supporters who were convinced that her claims were true, but Anderson was never able to provide any proof.
Of all the mysteries in this article, this one is the most conclusively solved. By 2007, the graves of all members of the Romanov family had been discovered. DNA testing proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Anastasia died with the rest of her family in 1918. The only mystery remaining is whether Anna Anderson actually believed her own claims. Anderson had a history of mental illness, so maybe she genuinely believed that she was the Grand Duchess. Or perhaps she was simply a cunning con artist.
The real Anastasia died at the age of 17. Like a young boy who will be discussed later in this article, she was a tragic victim of circumstances outside of her control.
The Disappearance of Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart was one of the world’s first female pilots. Her accomplishments, including becoming the first woman to fly solo over the Atlantic Ocean, made her a well-known celebrity throughout the globe. Earhart also wrote several bestselling books about aviation. She established an organization for women pilots and encouraged young girls to pursue a career in aviation. Today, Earhart is remembered as a feminist icon.
In July 1937, Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan embarked on a quest to fly around the world. Several hours into their flight, Earhart and Noonan were running low on gas over the Pacific Ocean and needed to refuel. They were attempting to land on tiny Howland Island when radio communication was cut off. After an hour of silence, the first rescue mission was launched. The investigators were unable to find Earhart, Noonan, or their plane. Several further investigations also failed to solve the mystery. Earhart was declared legally dead in 1939. No trace of her or her aircraft has ever been found.
Several theories have been proposed to explain what happened. The most common hypothesis is that Earhart and Noonan died after their plane ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Earhart mentioned that they were having difficulty finding Howland Island in her last radio communications. Another popular theory is that Earhart was able to make an emergency landing on nearby Gardener Island before running out of fuel. However, if so, she was likely stranded on the island, and may have eventually died there. Like other famous people who have died or disappeared under mysterious circumstances, there are several fringe theories about Earhart’s disappearance. Some theories have claimed that Earhart was captured and executed by Japanese soldiers after they discovered that she was secretly working as a spy. An even more outlandish theory posits that Earhart faked her disappearance, returned to the United States, and lived the rest of her life under an assumed name.
The Lost Colony
In 1585, England attempted to establish a permanent colony on the island of Roanoke off the coast of present day North Carolina. The colonists were led by a British painter named John White, who had been named the governor of the area. His daughter and granddaughter lived in the colony as well. The colony was running low on goods by 1587, so White journeyed back to England for supplies. His return to Roanoke was delayed due to England’s war with Spain. When he finally returned three years later, the colony was deserted and eerily quiet. The only clue was that the word “Croatoan” had been carved into a tree. There was a nearby island with that name, but no proof of the settlers has ever been found there. There was also nothing to indicate foul play or duress. It appeared that the colonists had simply decided to move on, for reasons unknown.
Exactly why the colonists left Roanoke, and what happened to them afterwards, remains a mystery. Some historians have theorized that the colonists were killed by Spanish settlers or Native Americans. Or perhaps the settlers tried to return to England on their own but died somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. Another more optimistic proposal suggests that the settlers assimilated into friendly Native American tribes.
The Lost Prince
France was a very dangerous place to be in the 1790’s, especially for anyone with royal bloodlines. The French Revolution had spun out of control, and people were losing their heads on an alarmingly frequent basis. King Louis XVI fell under the guillotine in 1792. His wife, Marie Antoinette, suffered the same fate a year later, leaving their son, Louis Charles, an orphan. The leaders of the new Republic were faced with a conundrum. What were they to do with this eight year old boy, who had essentially been an uncrowned king since the night that his father was executed? Should they kill him? Or perhaps he could be re-educated to forget about his royal heritage. They were unable to come to an immediate decision, and Louis Charles was left to rot in a prison cell. Suffering from severe neglect, disease, and malnourishment, Louis Charles died in prison in 1795 at the age of ten. Or did he?
For many years, some historians and writers have claimed that the prince escaped from prison and lived the rest of his life under an assumed name. Meanwhile, these theories state, another boy was put in the prince’s place and it was he who died in the cell. Karl Naundorff, a Berlin clockmaker, was one of several people who later claimed to be Louis Charles. A French-American ornithologist named John James Audubon was also suspected of being the prince. He had been adopted at about the same time that Louis Charles supposedly died. However, Audubon himself did not claim to be the lost prince. Yet another claimant was the eccentric Eleazer Williams, who had been raised by a Mohawk Indian tribe in New York and later became a pioneer on the Wisconsin frontier. He wrote an autobiography in which he claimed to be Louis Charles, but did not provide any proof to support his claims.
The mystery was likely solved in 2000. DNA tests on preserved remains from the boy who died in the cell matched DNA from Marie Antoinette. Although this does not prove conclusively that the boy who died was her son (and not just some other relative) the evidence was enough for most historians to consider this case closed. Louis Charles likely died in 1795 under horrific circumstances, a tragic victim of political forces that were far beyond his comprehension.
Jack the Ripper
A gory series of murders took place in the poverty-stricken Whitechapel district of London in 1888. A mysterious man was cutting prostitute’s throats and then performing his own demented brand of surgery on his victim’s bodies. The killer would sometimes send his victim’s organs to the police with a letter boasting about his crimes. The London newspapers had a field day. The details of the murders were so grisly and grotesque that they didn’t have to sensationalize them (although some did anyway). Hysteria over the horrific killings reached a fever pitch. Any gruesome murder that took place in London during that time was blamed on the Ripper, including many that he was likely not responsible for. Theories about his identity proliferated, with some investigators suggesting that he was a surgeon or a butcher. The killings all occurred in the same general area, indicating that the killer likely lived nearby. A vigilance committee composed of local businessmen was created to patrol the streets. The police investigated hundreds of suspects, but were unable to solve the case.
The fascination over the Jack the Ripper mystery has endured for well over a century. It continues to make an impact on popular culture today. Countless different suspects have been named over the years, but unfortunately modern investigators seem to be no closer to cracking the case. This is one mystery that may never be solved.
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