1. Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?
On 18 April 1943, in Hagley Woods in Worcestershire, England, four young boys who were looking for birds' nests found a human skull inside an elm tree. They shouldn't have been on the land – so they put the skull back. However, the youngest boy told his parents what he'd seen; they told police, who found a human skeleton, a shoe, a wedding ring, and fragments of clothing, along with a severed hand buried nearby.
According to author Brian Haughton:
The task of examining the body fell to Prof. James Webster, then head of the Home Office Forensic Science Laboratory in the West Midlands, who, just prior to World War II, had set up the West Midlands Forensic Science Laboratory at Birmingham University. After a detailed examination at the lab at Birmingham, Professor Webster ascertained that the woman was probably about 35 years old, five feet tall, with mousy brown hair and irregular teeth in the lower jaw. She had also given birth at least once. He estimated that she had been dead for at least 18 months before she was found.
In other words she had died in about October 1941. There were no marks of disease or violence on the body, but her mouth had been stuffed with taffeta. The coroner declared it murder by asphyxiation, and stated that the woman was probably murdered and then pushed into the hole while still warm, as the body would not have fitted into the hollow trunk after rigor mortis had set in.
Then graffiti began to appear. It started around Christmas that year. As The Independent reported:
"Who put Luebella down the wych-elm?" said the first one, in nearby Old Hill. "Hagley Wood Bella", said another, in Birmingham. Gradually, the messages – which seemed to be written by the same hand – took what was to be their settled form: "Who put Bella in the wych-elm?" they asked.
The Wolverhampton Express and Star received a letter in 1943 claiming that the woman was part of a spy ring who'd been giving out information about munitions factories to the Germans, while a London academic thought the death was due to a black magic ritual. A Radio 4 programme in August this year suggested two possible victims: a Dutch woman who'd got drunk and been left in the tree by her drinking companions, and a Birmingham sex worker.
Eventually, the graffiti stopped. And then, half a century later, someone asked the question again. It has still not been answered.
2. D.B. Cooper
On November 24, 1971, an unidentified man wearing a white shirt, narrow black tie, dark suit, raincoat, and sunglasses and carrying a briefcase arrived at the airport in Portland. He identified himself as Dan Cooper and boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 305, a Boeing 727 flight to Seattle that contained 36 passengers. As The Guardian said in 2007:
Once the plane was in the air, headed for Seattle, he lit a cigarette and ordered a bourbon and soda. Then he passed a note to the 23-year-old stewardess, Florence Schaffner, who at first assumed he was flirting, and didn't bother to read it. "Miss, you'd better look at that note," Cooper said. "I have a bomb." She unfolded the piece of paper. "I have a bomb in my briefcase," it read. "I will use it if necessary. I want you to sit beside me." Schaffner sat down, and Cooper opened his bag, revealing a mass of batteries and wires.
He told the plane's captain, via Schaffner, that he would set it off if he wasn't given $200,000 in ransom money and four parachutes. When the plane landed in Seattle, Cooper's demands were met and the passengers were let off the plane. The plane, now only containing Cooper and some crew members, took off for Portland. Cooper gave each of the crew $2,000, and then jumped out of the back of the plane into a heavy rainstorm with 21 pounds of $20 bills strapped to his torso.
The mysterious man has not been seen since.
His crime seems to have been elaborately planned. He specified the bills should have random, not sequential, serial numbers (the FBI quickly photographed each one so a microfilm record was created). It's believed he asked for four parachutes so the FBI would think he was going to make one of the crew jump with him and wouldn't give him a dud.
He also seemed to have knowledge of the area and of flying, recognising Tacoma from the air and showing awareness of the specs for wing flap angles, refuelling times, and the fact that the aft stair could be lowered. While the accounts vary, he seems to have been polite to the plane's staff, paying his drinks tab and requesting meals for them when the plane was in Seattle. There are various opinions on the likelihood of a man in his 40s surviving a 10,000 foot jump into sub-zero temperatures while wearing a business suit; many believe he didn't even manage to open his parachute.
3. Roberto Calvi – God's banker
On 18 June 1982, Roberto Calvi, dubbed "God's banker" because of his work with the Vatican, was found hanging from the scaffolding under Blackfriars bridge in London. Calvi was chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, Italy's second-largest bank, which was found in 1978 to have been illegally exporting lira. On June 5 1982, Calvi wrote to Pope John Paul II warning of "a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions in which the Church will suffer the gravest damage". Banco Ambrosiano collapsed that month with debts of up to $1.5 billion. The Vatican would tacitly acknowledge some responsibility in 1984 when it agreed to pay $224 million to the 120 creditors of the failed bank.
On June 10 Calvi fled to Venice before heading to London on a private plane. He had been missing for nine days when his body was found with bricks in his pockets and £10,000 of cash on his person. An inquest found that he had killed himself, but 20 years later, in 2002, the fact he was murdered was confirmed by an independent forensic report that found no evidence of the damage usually caused to a person's neck by hanging.
In 1991 it was alleged that Francesco "Frankie the Strangler" Di Carlo, a mafia godfather who had lived in England since the late 1970s, was the killer. He admitted being approached for the job, but said that by the time he'd been contacted, Calvi was already dead.
The order to kill Calvi apparently came from mafia boss Giuseppe Calò and financier Licio Gelli, Grand Master of the powerful P2 masonic lodge. Calvi was a member of P2, as, incidentally, was future Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
In 2005, The Independent reported:
Two Roman investigating magistrates, Judge Maria Monteleone and Judge Luca Tescaroli, sent Mr Gelli a judicial letter informing him that he is formally under investigation on charges of ordering the murder along with four other people – Flavio Carboni, a shadowy businessman with secret service contacts, his girlfriend Manuela Kleinsing, the Cosa Nostra boss Giuseppe Calo and an entrepreneur, Ernesto Dioatallevi. The four other suspects were indicted on murder charges in April and are to stand trial in October.
The indictment said their motive had been to stop Calvi "from using blackmail power against his political and institutional sponsors from the world of Masonry, belonging to the P2 lodge, or to the Institute for Religious Works [the Vatican Bank], with whom he had managed investments and financing with conspicuous sums of money, some of it coming from Cosa Nostra and public agencies".
Gelli wasn't tried in the end, but Carboni, Kleinsing, Calo, Dioatallevi, and Calvi's bodyguard Silvano Vittor were. All were acquitted. In 2012 Di Carlo gave an interview to The Observer in which he said:
I was not the one who hanged Calvi. One day I may write the full story, but the real killers will never be brought to justice because they are being protected by the Italian state, by members of the P2 masonic lodge. They have massive power. They are made up of a mixture of politicians, bank presidents, the military, top security and so on. This is a case that they continue to open and close again and again but it will never be resolved. The higher you go, the less evidence you will find.
4. Jack the Stripper
Between 1964 and 1965, an unknown serial killer stalked the streets of west London murdering sex workers and leaving their bodies in or near the Thames. There were six confirmed victims, and two that were unconfirmed because they didn't fit the killer's MO.
The first victim, Hannah Tailford, was found naked, floating by a pontoon in the Thames in February 1964. Her underwear had been stuffed in her mouth as a gag, and some of her front teeth were missing. A couple of months later, in April, Irene Lockwood was found near where Tailford's body had been seen. Police immediately linked the cases. A serial killer was on the loose. Helene Bathelemy's body was found in an alley nearby shortly afterwards. The body of Mary Fleming was found in July. Flecks of paint had been found on the bodies of Barthelemy and Fleming. As the Murder Map website explains:
Detectives were still trying to track down motorcar spray-painting premises when Margaret McGowan, alias Frances Brown, was found dead on November 25. Her body was hidden under rubble and a dustbin lid in a Civil Defence car park in Hornton Street in Kensington.
"Frances Brown" had been in the newspapers the previous year when she gave evidence at the trial of osteopath Stephen Ward, one of the central figures in the Profumo affair. She had last been seen getting into a car – believed to be a Ford Zephyr or Zodiac.
The final victim, Bridget "Bridie" O'Hara, was found behind a shed on the Heron Trading Estate in Acton in 1965. A security guard who worked on the estate who took his own life in 1965 was heavily suspected, but never confirmed as the killer, despite being linked to the killings by the flecks of paint found on three of the bodies.
The killer was dubbed Jack the Stripper by the press. One book claimed that the murderer was the light-heavyweight boxing champion Freddie Mills, who died of a gunshot wound to his head in his car (believed to be suicide, though his family thought he was murdered). In 2010, a local author said he believed the perpetrator was a man who had been convicted of murdering two children in the 1920s.
5. The Oakville blobs
On 7 August 1994, translucent, jelly-like blobs, reportedly half the size of a grain of rice each, fell at a farm in Oakville, Washington. According to this report from a local paper, a preliminary analysis by Washington State Department of Ecology scientists found they had once been alive. A hospital lab technician said they appeared to contain human white blood cells, but this was disputed by the first set of scientists.
The paper also said that the owner of the farm, one Sunny Barclift, was trying to find out what the blobs were after her kitten died and some members of her family felt nauseous. It also reported some of the townsfolk thought the blobs were caused by the US Navy dropping live bombs into the sea 10–20 miles off the coast: "The idea was that jellyfish remains might have been blown up into the clouds where they were later dispersed in rainfall." Other theories include military biological weapons testing, leaking airplane waste, or some sort of scam on the part of the town's residents.
6. The Tamám Shud case
In December 1948 an unidentified man was found dead on Somerton beach in Adelaide, Australia. Early attempts to identify him failed; there was no dental record match, and he was only carrying paraphernalia such as cigarettes and some change. The autopsy raised suspicions: His spleen was enlarged, his liver distended, and there was blood in his stomach. This, along with the fact that he'd been seen slumping on the beach prior to his death, suggested he'd been poisoned, but no trace of poison was found. A number of false identifications were made, but by the middle of 1949 little progress had been made.
Then things got really weird. Here's how Smithsonian Magazine told it:
The police had brought in another expert, John Cleland, emeritus professor of pathology at the University of Adelaide, to re-examine the corpse and the dead man's possessions. In April, four months after the discovery of the body, Cleland's search produced a final piece of evidence – one that would prove to be the most baffling of all. Cleland discovered a small pocket sewn into the waistband of the dead man's trousers. Previous examiners had missed it, and several accounts of the case have referred to it as a "secret pocket," but it seems to have been intended to hold a fob watch. Inside, tightly rolled, was a minute scrap of paper, which, opened up, proved to contain two words, typeset in an elaborate printed script. The phrase read "Tamám Shud."
These two words (misprinted by newspapers as "Taman Shud" at the time, and the name has stuck) are the last words of the Persian poetry collection known as The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; they mean "it is completed". It had been torn from a copy of the book that had been thrown into a car near the beach, and that book contained a phone number belonging to a former nurse, along with a cipher the police could not solve.
The former nurse told the police she'd given the book to a man named Albert Boxall: the case appeared to be solved – right up to the point they called at Boxall's house and found him alive and well, with the book the nurse had given him. The words "Tamám Shud" were still in it: the piece of paper didn't come from that book.
The case has never been solved. One curious detail is that another man died in Australia following the war having – it is said – committed suicide by poison. He had a copy of the Rubayat by his side. In 2013 60 Minutes claimed the former nurse (who had somehow managed to get the police to respect her wishes to conceal her name) was Jessica Thomson, and that her daughter believed she may have been a Soviet spy who had a son with the man. This year a former UK detective said he believed the code may have referred – at least in part – to a British post-war aircraft.
7. The locked-room murder
At 10:30pm on 9 March 1929, his neighbour, Mrs Locklan Smith, heard screaming and the sound of a struggle. A policeman arrived, but the door was locked from the inside and the windows nailed shut. He found an open transom window above the front door and boosted a boy through it.
Fink was found lying dead at the back of the laundry, shot twice in the chest and once in the left hand. The close-range gunshot wound on his hand confirmed he had not been shot through the transom window. It was deemed an "insoluble mystery" by New York police commissioner Edward P. Mulrooney.
Here are two possible solutions: One, Fink was shot by a very small and agile killer who managed to climb back out of the room via the transom window. Highly unlikely, but not impossible. Two, the one proposed here: that he was shot outside, staggered inside, and locked the door, creating his own mystery. Less unlikely, but still improbable.
8. The Wydecombe Storm
This is not so much an unexplained mystery as one whose precise details are clouded by the distance of time. We know something happened in Wydecombe, Devon, in 1638, and we know it involved a storm – it's just that we don't know exactly what. It appears that lightning, in some form, hit the village's church.
In this contemporary account we hear of:
A most prodigious and fearefull storme of wind, lightning and thunde, mightily defacing Withcomb church in Devon, burneing and slayeing diverse men and women all this in service-time, on the Lords Day Octob 21 1638.
In another account we hear about a man whose money, in his purse, was melted by the lightning – and yet the purse was only damaged with tiny holes, as if made by a needle.
Another retelling from the Victorian period describes how "a strange darkness fell" that stopped the congregation reading; then, after thunder, there was "terrible strange lightening", and "a great ball of fire came in at a window" and bounced around the church, scraping "lime and sand" off the walls, killing three men before tearing out the chancel door. It goes on to say (brace yourself):
Robert Mead, warrener to Sir Richard Reynolds, (he probably lived at Warren House Pit, near the Dart, on Spitchwick Common), had his head cloven into three pieces, his brain thrown whole to the ground and the hair stuck to the pillar which was indented as though with cannon shot.
Of course, the accuracy of these accounts must be called into question. What really happened at Widecombe? Was this a rare example of ball lightning, which despite numerous dubious eyewitness sightings for centuries, was only (and even then arguably) captured on video for the first time this year?
Needless to say, of course, there's also a fun local myth that suggests it was all the work of the devil, who came to claim the soul of an idle gambler called Jan Reynolds who'd fallen asleep in church. The best bit of the story is at the end:
The last anyone ever saw of Jan Reynolds was when they passed over the moor by the Birch tor mine, the Devil was holding the figure of the lad and the horse was climbing higher into the sky. As the horse ascended four of the playing cards fell from Jan's pocket and fluttered down to earth. When the cards hit the ground they left four imprints which serve as a warning to all potential "soul sellers" and anyone who dared to play cards in church.
9. The Dyatlov Pass incident
On February 2, 1959, nine ski hikers died in the northern Ural mountains. Nothing particularly surprising about the fact that ski hikers, even experienced ones, should meet their ends in such inhospitable sub-zero conditions.
Until you hear further details. It appeared they'd ripped their tent open from the inside, five of them froze to death near it, and most troubling of all, four of them (only found two months later), bore significant injuries, including fractured skulls and broken ribs. One was missing her tongue and eyes. There were no external injuries to the bodies.
The first set of bodies were only wearing what they wore to bed while the other four were partially clothed in garments belonging to the others. When the clothing was tested, high levels of radiation were found.
One of the most popular theories is that the hikers were caught in an avalanche – but some researchers have raised doubts about the likelihood. Though there are any number of others: The St Petersburg Times reported:
Declassified files contain testimony from the leader of a group of adventurers who camped about 50 kilometers south of the skiers on the same night. He said his group saw strange orange spheres floating in the night sky in the direction of Kholat-Syakhl.
Aliens? Weapons testing? A freak lightning strike? No one knows.
All illustrations by Jack Noel.
Sunny Barclift, who encountered the Oakville Blobs, is a woman. An earlier version of this post implied she is a man.