The 30 Most Fascinating Unsolved Mysteries in America
Where is Sherlock Holmes when you need him?
Everybody loves a good mystery—and unsolved mysteries are all the more captivating. (After all, The Da Vinci Code didn't make a bazillion dollars because people are really into the Mona Lisa!) With that in mind, here are just a few of the top unsolved mysteries in North America—ones that just may stay that way forever. Unless some sleuth finds that one missing piece to the puzzle that will reveal the truth. Who knows, maybe you're that someone. There's a Sherlock Holmes born every day.
Sometimes called the "American Stonehenge," the granite monument was built in 1979 in Elbert County, Georgia, in a field off Highway 77. It contains ten commandments for "an Age of Reason," written in eight languages — English, Spanish, Swahili, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese and Russian.
But these aren't commandments like you'd find in the Old Testament. Some of the messages written on these four granite slabs, each almost 20 feet tall, are controversial, like this one: "Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature." Wha?
Stranger still, nobody is sure who paid for all this. The man claiming responsibility went by the pseudonym "R.C. Christian," and even the crew that built the monument for him know nothing about his true identity. There are plenty of wild conspiracy theories, like that the monument was commissioned by a Luciferian secret society announcing the beginnings of a new world order, but the truth remains elusive—and for now, it's one of the most impressive unsolved mysteries of the world that you can find on the side of the road.
Boston Heist Paintings
The world's biggest unsolved art heist happened almost thirty years ago, and we're still no closer to finding what happened to all that priceless art.
It happened on the night of March 18th, 1990, when two art thieves, disguised as police officers, tricked security guards at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum into letting them inside late at night. They handcuffed the guards and made off with thirteen famous paintings by artists like Rembrandt ("Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee"), Vermeer (" The Concert"), and Flinck ("Landscape with an Obelisk"), for a total value estimated to be around $500 million.
There have been a lot of crazy ideas about who masterminded this unsolved mystery, from mobsters to a California screenwriter to the Irish Republican Army to South Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger. But so far, there've been no promising leads. However, the museum hasn't given up hope of finding the lost art. In January, they extended indefinitely their $10 million reward for anyone who helps recover the missing masterpieces. Until then, it remains one of the art world's top unsolved mysteries.
Bird Deaths in Arkansas
On New Year's Eve in 2010, in the small town of Beebe, Arkansas, 5,000 blackbirds freaked out and slammed into buildings, telephone poles, and trees, dying instantly. It was disconcerting when it happened, but at least there was a plausible explanation. Celebratory fireworks had spooked the birds, according to Arkansas officials, causing them to "fly all over the place." It was a one-time occurrence that would never happen again.
Except it happened the very next year, on New Year's Eve 2011, despite the ban on fireworks in Beebe to make sure there weren't any more mass bird casualties. Only 200 bird died this time, but that didn't make it any less bizarre. Theorists developed crazy ideas—as they usually do for unsolved mysteries—that the bird deaths were an ominous omen about the Mayan calendar, signaling the end of the world, which of course turned out not to be true. (Hey, the apocalypse didn't come, did it?) But no explanations that really made sense.
If birds were freaked out by fireworks, why weren't New Year's Eve bird deaths more common? And how to explain the second year in a row of birds falling from the sky? It hasn't happened since, but the mystery of what killed all those Beebe remains a chilling riddle and one of the grimmer mysteries of the world.
Outside CIA's headquarters in Langley, Virginia, there's a peculiar-looking statue, 12 feet tall and made of curved copper, that was first unveiled in 1990. Named Kryptos—an ancient Greek word for "secret" or "hidden"—it contains 1800 characters on four encrypted messages, three of which have already been solved, but one that remains one of the top unsolved mysteries.
Jim Sanborn, the sculptor who created it, revealed another clue in 2014, something to do with BERLIN and CLOCK. We don't get it either, but thousands of professional and amateur cryptographers are still trying to decode the final unsolved mystery, which is just 97 letters long.
It sounds like one of those Old West legends that should probably be taken with a grain of salt.
Sometime in the 1800s, the story goes, a Virginian named Thomas J. Beale discovered a fortune in gold and silver while hunting for buffalo north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. He took the treasure back to Virginia and buried it there, somewhere near Bedford County. As a sort of treasure map, he wrote three encrypted messages, which held the secrets to finding his massive fortune (worth an estimated $43 million in 2018 dollars).
He left the letters with a friend, and after Beale died (taking the secrets with him), they were published in 1885 as "The Beale Papers." The search has been ongoing ever since. So far only one of the ciphertexts has been cracked, which revealed the contents of Beale's treasure but not where to find it. There are plenty of theories floating around, including that the whole thing might've been a hoax by Edgar Allan Poe.
The Knights of the Golden Circle, or KGC for short, were a secret society of wealthy Southern loyalists formed just before the Civil War, devoted not just to defending their values (i.e. owning all the slaves they wanted) but conquering parts of Mexico, Central America, and Cuba to create a Confederate empire. Their members had an abundance of gold and weapons, and purportedly some infamous members, including Jesse James (whose robberies may have contributed to the KGC secret stash) and John Wilkes Booth.
In fact, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln may have been a KGC plot from the beginning, at least according to word-of-mouth legends. The KGC disappeared just a few decades after the war ended, or so it appeared, leaving behind one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the world. There's still speculation that they just went deeper into hiding, and continue their plots to overthrow the US federal government. Oh, and they may have buried treasure somewhere, waiting to be discovered (or used to fund a second Civil War, whichever comes first). It's possible that gold coins discovered by a California couple in 2014 were originally hidden there by the KGC.
The Wow! Signal
It was 1977, and astronomer Jerry Ehman was using a radio signal detector from Ohio State University to scan the stars around the constellation Sagittarius. He picked up a 72-second radio frequency that seemed to be coming from deep space. He wrote "Wow!" in the margin of his computer printout, which is probably the most breezy reaction ever to thinking you may've just made contact with extraterrestrials.
There've been attempts at debunkings the story in recent years, like a 2017 theory that it was just a pair of comets passing near our planet. But the "no way it was aliens" explanations have been just as quickly refuted. Have aliens been trying to make contact since the first Star Wars was released? Nobody knows for sure!
The Treasure of Dutch Schultz
Dutch Schultz was a gangster in the 20s and 30s, who made his fortune by bootlegging alcohol and the numbers racket. But like all gangsters, he was pretty sure somebody was going to try and shoot him. Also like a lot of gangsters, he had boatloads of money. So he hid it, somewhere in the ballpark of $5 to $9 million in cash, gold, and jewels.
He put it in an iron box or steel suitcase, drove it out to the Catskill Mountains, near Phoenicia, New York, with his bodyguard "Lulu" and buried it. He may've even marked a nearby tree with an "X." Sure enough, he was murdered not long after, gunned down in a New Jersey chophouse in 1935. His treasure, if he ever existed at all, is still out there. It's just waiting for somebody to notice a tree with a big X marked on it.
The Phoenix Lights
What exactly did people see over the skies over Phoenix on March 13, 1997? Was it a secret military spacecraft? A natural phenomenon? Or perhaps alien visitors from another galaxy? Whatever it was, thousands of Arizonans saw the unusual lights in the sky, which looked like a huge upside-down V that moved slowly overhead, made no sound, and occasionally stopped to hover in one location. It was either the size of several football fields or, depending on who you asked, a mile wide.
Even Escape From New York actor Kurt Russell saw the strange light show while landing his private plane in Phoenix. Whatever all those people witnessed — the official explanation is that it was just military flares — it had such a profound effect that many of those who saw… whatever it was they saw… gather together every year in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains outside of Phoenix to talk about their experience and try to figure out, "What the heck was that?"
On Nov. 24, 1971, a guy known only as DB Cooper boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 305 for a short flight from Portland to Seattle, and hijacked it using a briefcase that he claimed contained a bomb.
In Seattle, he released all 36 passengers and demanded that authorities give him $200,000 and several parachutes. Then he instructed the pilots to fly to Mexico and remain slow and low to the ground, with the rear door unlocked. That was the last anybody saw of him.
Did he jump successfully from the plane and escape with thousands? Nobody knows for sure. In 1980, a boy in Portland uncovered bundles of cash in a sand pit, worth around $5800 and matching the serial numbers of the missing cash. The FBI has claimed that Cooper couldn't have survived the jump, but they issued a new composite in 2017 of what he may look like today, which doesn't sound like something you do if a suspect is assumed deceased.
The Zodiac Killer
San Francisco police have investigated 2,500 suspects since the 1960s, but they're still no closer to finding the so-called "Zodiac Killer," who terrorized the San Francisco Bay area for several decades, murdering at least seven people (although he claimed to have at least 37 victims.) He sent taunting letters to the police and the press, with encrypted messages that promised clues to his identity, and chilling messages about his victims (claiming they "went to the slaughter like a lamb") and his own mental health ("I am not sick," he wrote in one letter. "I am insane.") It's been 44 years since the killer last made contact, and there've been no leads. A man claimed in 2014 that his deceased dad was the killer, but the case remains cold and one of the most chilling unsolved mysterious of the world.
Escaped from Alcatraz
For almost 30 years, from 1934 to 1963, the federal prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay had a reputation as the most inescapable penitentiary in the U.S. Everybody who tried to escape were either caught or died, except for three convicted bank robbers—Clarence Anglin, John Anglin, and Frank Morris—who escaped the prison in 1962, digging their way to freedom with spoons and sailing away in a raft made out of raincoats.
But did they drown in the frigid waters, or get swept away to sea? Their bodies were never found, so it's anybody's guess. A letter from one of the escapees (allegedly) was discovered earlier this year, which read: "My name is John Anglin. I escape from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris. I'm 83 years old and in bad shape. I have cancer. Yes we all made it that night but barely!" Is it real, or a forgery? Nobody knows for sure.
Bugsy Siegel's unsolved murder
The only thing we know for sure about the murder of notorious gangster "Bugsy" Siegel, who helped create the Las Vegas Strip, is that it involved bullets. Lots of them, riddled into his body in Beverly Hills, California, on June 20th, 1947.
The conventional wisdom is that mob boss Meyer Lansky had Siegel offed because he was annoyed at how much the gangster was spending to build his Flamingo resort. (The original budget was $1 million, but Siegel's expenses had ballooned to more than six times that amount.) But in recent years, the family of a deceased Slavic truck driver named "Moose" (this is true) claimed he pulled the trigger on Siegel, to stop him from murdering the husband of the woman he was sleeping with. (Wait, what? It's a long story.) But the police aren't so sure. According to a Beverly Hills Police Department spokesman, Siegel's death is "still an open case"—meaning its one of those unsolved murders we might still an answer to.
You could say Area 51 is the pinnacle of unsolved mysteries. Just how famous is it? Ask anyone what they think it is and most people will probably tell you, "Oh, that's where the governments keeps all the space aliens."
This remote Air Force base in the middle of the Nevada desert—it's about 150 miles from Las Vegas—has been the subject of some weird rumors over the years. There's the alien conspiracy, of course, which dates back to 1947, when an extraterrestrial craft supposedly crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, and the ship and alien bodies were brought back to the base to be studied. But that's the least of the secret goings-on at Area 51.
There are rumors that this is where the government is secretly controlling our weather, where time travel machines are being developed, and perhaps the most insane story, where they keep the mutant midgets caught flying Soviet planes. Peter Merlin, the historian and author who's been investigating Area 51 for over three decades, says, "The forbidden aspect of Area 51 is what makes people want to know what's there."
The Disembodied Feet
On August 20th, 2007, a disembodied human foot, still in an Adidas tennis shoe, washed up on a beach near Vancouver, British Columbia. A week later, another foot washed ashore, this one in a white Reebok. In the eleven years since, a grand total of thirteen feet, usually in sneakers, have been found on the beaches of British Columbia.
The latest foot was discovered just this past December, when a man and his dog happened upon a tibia and fibula attached to a left foot in a black running shoe. Where the heck are all these feet coming from?
There are many theories, everything from the feet being decomposed body parts from a plane crash to a serial killer who likes cutting off the feet of his victims and throwing them into the Salish Sea. A handful of the feet have been identified through DNA testing, and they were usually people who died from suicide. (Two of the feet belonged to the same woman, who jumped off a bridge in New Westminster, BC, in 2004.) But what about the rest? And will more feet wash ashore this year? Time will tell.
Who (or What) Actually Killed Harry Houdini?
The official cause of death in 1926 for famed escape artist Harry Houdini was complications from a ruptured appendix. But in the days after his death, newspaper headlines screamed, "Was Houdini Murdered?"
In a 2006 biography, The Secret Life of Houdini, authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman make a case against the Spiritualist community—who believed they could communicate with ghosts, and vice-versa (although Houdini regularly mocked them for these claims)—as possible assassins.
"If one were to suspect Houdini a victim of foul play," they write, "then the section of organized crime that was composed of fraudulent spirit mediums must be considered likely suspects." Especially damning was a letter from Sherlock Holmes author and devoted Spiritualist Arthur Conan Doyle, who promised that Houdini would "get his just desserts very exactly meted out…I think there is a general payday coming soon."
What Happened to Judge Crater?
When it comes to nicknames, the one you really, really, really don't want is "the most missingest man in New York." But that's what happened to 41-year-old Joseph F. Crater, a Supreme Court Justice who was last seen leaving a restaurant on August 6, 1930.
What happened to him is anybody's guess. He could've been killed—he had plenty of enemies, and there were rumors for awhile that he was buried under a section of the Coney Island boardwalk — but there were also rumblings that he'd fled the country with a mistress. His disappearance became such a huge topic of public speculation that for a brief time, the phrase "pulling a Crater" was a popular slang term for disappearing. As in, "why didn't you tell me you were gonna leave the party early? I turned around and you were gone. You pulled a Crater on me!"
Nixon's Missing 18 and Half Minutes
There's so much we still don't know about the Watergate scandal that rocked the presidency of Richard Nixon, which forced his resignation on August 8th, 1974. The biggest mystery might be those missing eighteen and a half minutes from Nixon's tapes, the secret recordings he made of every conversation that took place in his Oval Office. Nobody knows for sure what was on the tapes—they may've been conversations between Nixon and his chief of staff Bob Haldeman—or what they revealed.
Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, claimed responsibility for at least some of the erasure, claiming she accidentally hit the record button while transcribing the tapes, but only admitted blame for five minutes of missing tape. Various possible culprits include Nixon's lawyer, and even former Chief of Staff Alexander Haig, who blamed the whole thing on a "sinister force."
When a wealthy couple in Fall River, Massachusetts were butchered in their own home with an axe, in 1892, there was only one plausible suspect: Their 32-year-old daughter Lizzie, who lived with the couple. The entire town assumed she was guilty, and indeed she wasn't her best ally, giving inconsistent answers to investigators and choosing an odd time (after the death of her parents) to suddenly start burning her old clothes. (Sure did seem like somebody was hiding evidence.)
Prior to the murders, she was also upset with her parents, her stepmother in particular, for being especially frugal with their finances. When Lizzie was acquitted, the town turned against her, treating her like a murderer who had somehow escaped justice. She was scorned in public, and became the subject of children's rhymes ("Lizzie Borden took an axe/ And gave her mother forty whacks/ When she saw what she had done/ She gave her father forty-one"). To this day, it's one of the most enduring unsolved mysteries of the world: Did she do it? Did Lizzie get away with murder?
Jimmy Hoffa's disappearance
It's not really a surprise that Jimmy Hoffa, the infamous labor leader and Teamster president—who went to prison for jury-tampering, mail fraud, and bribery, among other crimes—would be murdered. You can't be that corrupt without making a few enemies. But the real mystery is, where's his body? Is it buried someplace? Hidden in cement, or at the bottom of a lake? Nobody knows (or at least nobody's talking) and it's been one of the most enduring unsolved mysteries of the world.
The only evidence ever found was a single three-inch brown hair, which matched Hoffa's DNA, in the back seat of a car that may have been his last ride alive. Even Hoffa's daughter, a retired judge in St. Louis, isn't hopeful anymore. "I guess it won't be solved," she says. "It would be a comfort to find his body, but I don't think we will."
The Max Headroom TV Hacking
Long before the word "hacking" was a part of our national vocabulary, two Chicago television stations in 1987 were briefly taken over by a mysterious hacker, who interrupted broadcast signals and appeared on screen wearing a Max Headroom mask and sunglasses. The first attack happened during a news segment and lasted just 25 seconds, in which the Headroom character said and did nothing.
But in the second intrusion during an 11 pm broadcast of a Doctor Who broadcast on PBS, the guy dressed like Max mooned the audience and was spanked by a fly swatter. What did it all mean? Who was responsible, and what in the world was the point? Watch the video for yourself and tell us if any of it makes sense.
The Taos Hum
In the small town of Taos in north-central New Mexico, there's a buzzing sound, or maybe a low-frequency drone, that's been annoying and/or fascinating people since at least the early 1990s. What the heck is it?
The townspeople complained to Congress in 1993, and various studies have been conducted trying to figure out what's actually going on. Attempts to find a source have come up empty-handed. Is it a high-pressure gas line? Industrial equipment? Low-frequency electromagnetic radiation? Or maybe top-secret military experiments that the government doesn't want us to know about? So far, nobody's been able to find the culprit, and the mystery endures.
The Black Dahlia
This case from 1947 remains one of Hollywood's most intriguing unsolved murders, and its most gruesome. A 22-year-old actress named Elizabeth Short was found murdered in a vacant lot in Los Angeles, her body sliced in half and three-inch gashes cut into each corner of her mouth, giving her a creepy, clown-esque smile.
The mystery deepened as numerous people took credit for the crime (none of them were charged) and more tragic details unfolded about the victim, who got the nickname "Black Dahlia" ostensibly because she enjoyed stylish black dresses. A recent book, "Black Dahlia, Red Rose," claimed that one of the prime suspects, a bellhop and one-time mortician's assistant, who was interviewed and later released, may have been the real murderer. But so far, this case is far from closed.
Billy the Kid's grave
For one of the most infamous gunslingers in the Old West, Billy the Kid sure does have a lot of graves. The first one is in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where he was (allegedly) shot down at age 21 by Sheriff Pat Garrett on July 14, 1881. The grave is surrounded on all sides by a cage, and for a good reason—the headstone has been stolen twice by fans. But is Billy the Kid actually buried at that spot?
Another man, Texas native Ollie "Brushy Bill" Roberts, claimed he was the real Billy, and even asked the New Mexico Governor for a pardon. He died in his 90s in 1950, and there's now a Billy the Kid Museum in his hometown of Hico, Texas, and a gravesite that promises it's where the actual gunslinger is buried. Wait, it doesn't end there. Another guy, John Miller, who also insisted he was Billy the Kid, is buried in Prescott, Arizona, and yes, his grave is open to visitors.
Three graves, but only one of them can be the real Billy. Unless the legendary criminal fooled everybody yet again and is buried somewhere else entirely.
The Ghost Road
Weird floating lights have been seen all over the country, but there's something different about the mysterious light floating near the railroad tracks in Gurdon, Arkansas. For one thing, it isn't elusive. It's not part of local legend because some kids saw it once and everybody had to take their word for it.
The Gurdon Light has appeared for hundreds of people, and some townspeople have seen it so many times that it's become an ordinary part of their life. There's no rational explanation for the light, but there are legends. One has it that a railroad worker was hit by a train and decapitated, and the light comes from a lantern as his ghost continues to walk the tracks, looking for his disembodied head. Or it may be the ghost of a railroad foreman, murdered by one of his employees with either a railroad spike or a hammer. (The light started appeared shortly after the crime, which is why this story continues to be a popular one.) Either way, the Gordon Light proves to be one of the enduring unsolved mysteries of the world.
Who Fired the "Shot Heard Round the World"?
The American Revolution officially began on April 19, 1775, with the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The badly-outnumbered Colonists clashed with British troops, trying to stop them from destroying the guns and ammunition they'd confiscated from nearby Concord.
Somebody's weapon was fired—the "shot heard 'round the world," as coined by poet Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1837 poem "Concord Hymn"—and the war was underway. To this day, nobody is entirely sure who deserves the credit. Some claim it was an American who shot first, while others insist it was one of the British soldiers. Whoever fired that infamous shot, one thing is clear. (Warning: SPOILER ALERT.) The British were gonna lose.
Babe Ruth Calls His Shot… Maybe
Don't tell a Yankee fan that it didn't happen, but there really isn't any proof that Babe Ruth called his shot during game 3 of the 1932 World Series against the Chicago Cubs. As legend has it, the Great Bambino went up to bat during the fifth inning and pointed towards the bleachers, indicating exactly where he planned to hit the ball. And then he did just that.
The footage shows that he did indeed point, but was he pointing to center field (where he ended up hitting his historic home run), or to the pitcher or even the Cubs bench? There's no definitive proof. But whatever the reality, it was a big run for Babe Ruth and one of the most historic home runs ever. "As I hit the ball, every muscle in my system, every sense I had, told me that I had never hit a better one," Ruth himself remembered. "That as long as I lived nothing would ever feel as good as this."
Legends of Bigfoot—a lumbering, hairy, ape-like creature that leaves gigantic footprints everywhere he goes—has been told in North America long before our descendants showed up, and they continue to be wildly popular, with supposed Bigfoot sightings happening in every U.S. state except Hawaii. (Bigfoot doesn't like volcanoes apparently.)
The creature, assuming he (or she) exists, really likes the Pacific Northwest, although he's notoriously camera shy. For such a big animal, nobody has been able to get a non-fuzzy photo of him yet. Although he's yet to be caught (or proven to exist), there have been numerous hoaxes, including most recently in 2014, when Bigfoot hunter Rick Dyer claimed he'd shot and killed the hairy beast and was planning to take the body on tour. Turns out, it was a prop made from latex, foam, and camel hair.
If Bigfoot exists, why can't anybody find him? And more importantly, why are so many people obsessed with finding an animal that, if it was housed in a zoo, 98% of visitors would skip because it's just like an ape but with better posture, let's go see the penguins instead?
The last time anybody saw pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart was during the summer of 1937, when she boarded her Lockheed Electra 10E plane and attempted to fly around the world, just her and her navigator Fred Noonan. She vanished without a trace, and U.S. authorities speculated that she probably crashed somewhere in the Pacific. But the rumors have persisted that she survived whatever happened to her plane. There have been photos of her allegedly alive and well, years after she supposedly perished, on a dock in the Marshall Islands. (The story was soon debunked.) Recently, bones found on a remote Pacific island back in 1940, which were originally thought to belong to a man, have been re-tested and are very likely Earhart's remains. In a few years, this favorite of unsolved mysteries of the world could very well be case closed.
The Moon Landing
OK, so this one's definitely way out there in crazy conspiracy theory land. But hey, why not? Just for fun, we'll bring it up.
We all take it for granted that when Neil Armstrong took his "giant leap for mankind" on July 20th 1969, he was actually walking on the lunar surface. But there are many people who claim it was all an act, that we never landed on the moon, much less walked on it. The theory is that the whole thing was staged, filmed in a Hollywood studio by director Stanley Kubrick, who had wowed audiences a year earlier with his pretty realistic outer space epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. So what's the supposed evidence?
There are many questions, from the source of mysterious shadows to why there's a rock labeled with a "C" (the same way props are labeled on movie sets) to how the American flag, placed on the moon by Armstrong and fellow Apollo 11 pilot Buzz Aldrin, seems to ripple in the breeze. NASA, of course, continues to deny a moon-landing hoax, and Aldrin once punched a guy in the face for bringing up the conspiracy theory.
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