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Historical Mysteries

Updated on March 15, 2016

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.

Anastasia as a young girl, when her family was still in power.
Anastasia as a young girl, when her family was still in power. | Source
Anastasia in captivity.
Anastasia in captivity. | Source
Nicholas II's downfall led to the brutal murder of his entire immediate family.
Nicholas II's downfall led to the brutal murder of his entire immediate family. | Source
Anna Anderson claimed to be Anastasia.
Anna Anderson claimed to be Anastasia. | Source

Anastasia

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.

Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart | Source
Howland Island, where Earhart and Noonan were attempting to land.
Howland Island, where Earhart and Noonan were attempting to land. | Source

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.

John White and his compatriots find the "Croatoan" carving.
John White and his compatriots find the "Croatoan" carving. | Source
A map of Roanoke Island
A map of Roanoke Island | Source

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.

Louis Charles was technically King Louis XVII after his father's execution, but he was never officially acknowledged as such in his lifetime.
Louis Charles was technically King Louis XVII after his father's execution, but he was never officially acknowledged as such in his lifetime. | Source
Another portrait of Louis Charles.
Another portrait of Louis Charles. | Source

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.

The media sometimes portrayed Jack the Ripper as a supernatural, demonic figure.
The media sometimes portrayed Jack the Ripper as a supernatural, demonic figure.

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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    • nanderson500 profile image
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      nanderson500 2 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Thanks for reading, alexadry! I agree, Amelia Earhart's story is definitely fascinating. It would be nice to know what happened to her.

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 2 years ago from USA

      I was always fascinated by Amelia Earhart's story. I admired her courage and watched the movie of her life several times before a flight to help me cope with my fear of flying. Even though her story has a grim ending, her passion helped me see flying from her perspective so travelling felt more like an adventure rather than something to fear. The other stories you portrayed are also quite intriguing. Voted up and interesting.

    • RachaelOhalloran profile image

      Rachael O'Halloran 3 years ago from United States

      Ooops, my goof. It's been a few days since I read this hub and forgot about your inclusion about the DNA testing. I didn't believe the reports that there was no one that survived. It seemed Anna's story was very plausible despite claims of her mental illness. I guess it is a fairy tale, one that will live on in history.

    • RachaelOhalloran profile image

      Rachael O'Halloran 3 years ago from United States

      Yes, it would. I was also enthralled with the newspaper accounts (and later movies) of the person they tried to prove was Anastasia, although there was never enough proof. I wonder since there is DNA now, if anyone ever thought to reopen the allegations about that young woman. Now, that would be interesting and fascinating! lol

    • nanderson500 profile image
      Author

      nanderson500 3 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Thanks Rachel! I agree, it's a fascinating story, although it would be even more fascinating if she really had survived.

    • RachaelOhalloran profile image

      Rachael O'Halloran 3 years ago from United States

      I have always been fascinated by Anastasia's story. Voted up.

    • nanderson500 profile image
      Author

      nanderson500 4 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Thank you JPS0138! Yes, history has many interesting unanswered questions!

    • JPSO138 profile image

      JPSO138 4 years ago from Cebu, Philippines, International

      You certainly have aroused my interest. I have heard some of these and was wondering myself what happened to them. Great hub and very interesting.

    • nanderson500 profile image
      Author

      nanderson500 4 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Thanks Mike! I agree about Roanoke.

    • Mike Robbers profile image

      Mike Robbers 4 years ago from London

      An interesting and well written hub. The Roanoke mystery is such an amazing and fascinating story.

    • nanderson500 profile image
      Author

      nanderson500 4 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Thank you ziyena! Glad you enjoyed it. I love history. Take care!

    • ziyena profile image

      ziyena 4 years ago from ... Somewhere Out There ...

      Awesome stuff ... keep up the great work! UP

    • nanderson500 profile image
      Author

      nanderson500 4 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Exactly, billybuc! I had been wracking my brain trying to think of another idea for a hub and finally came up with this. Fortunately, football season is almost here! I'm going to watch the Seahawks at training camp in a few days. Thanks for stopping by!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      To this day the story of Roanoke amazes me. How does an entire community disappear without a trace?

      Great stories here my friend. A little warm-up for you before football season begins? :)