In the days of Law and Order and CSI, it can be hard to believe that crimes have ever gone unsolved. However, there was indeed a time before semen analysis, DNA testing, and the incredible detection skills of Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson. Here is a list of some of the most befuddling unsolved crimes from history. Some of these criminals may still be at large, so let this article also serve as a reminder to keep your wits about you.
Jack the Ripper
Perhaps the best known unsolved crimes of all time were perpetrated by one Jack the Ripper, aka the Whitechapel Murderer or “Leather Apron.” Jack murdered at least five (many believe more) prostitutes in the East End of London between August and November of 1888. The prostitutes didn’t have much in common aside from their profession and the fact that they were believed to have been drunk at the times of their deaths. After probably soliciting his soon-to-be victim for sex and waiting for her to drop her hands to lift her skirt, Jack grabbed her by the throat and strangled her until she was either dead or unconscious. Once the body was prone, he slit the throat and mutilated it in various ways, once even removing the kidney of a victim without damaging any of the other organs. Surprisingly, no evidence of sexual molestation post-mortem was ever found.
One of the main reasons the case is so infamous is because the press was a rising influence in London society, which was also fraught with political difficulties at the time, and the highly-literate citizenry followed closely the way the police handed the case was handled by the police and politicians. Hundreds of letters were sent to various newspapers and other recipients but only three of them led to any real clues. Two were signed “Jack the Ripper,” which is where the moniker comes from, and one included the line “From Hell,” which was then used as the title for a pretty awful 2001 movie about the case starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham. The movie expands on the popular and salacious theory that Prince Albert Victor, also known as Eddy, was behind the murders. Other suspects included a surgeon’s son, a cotton broker and prolific diarist, a psychopathic Polish Jewish misogynist, and a doctor arrested for homosexual activity.
Marilyn Sheppard was the wife of osteopathic physician Doctor Sam Sheppard, a prominent Cleveland-area doctor who was convicted of the 1954 murder of his pregnant spouse. Doctor Sheppard claimed he was asleep on the couch on the lower level of the house when he was awakened by his wife’s screams. He ran upstairs to help her only to be hit from behind by a man he subsequently described as “bushy-haired.” He chased the man out the door and across their lawn before being knocked unconscious on the shores of a nearby lake. When the police arrived, they were immediately suspicious of Sam Sheppard’s story, noting that the house looked ransacked in a contrived manner. He was arrested and led through a “carnival-esque” trial much like that of O.J. Simpson years later. He was eventually found guilty of his wife’s murder, but released after it was declared his trial had been unfair in 1964.
Sheppard’s family was always convinced of his innocence, particularly his son, Samuel Reese Sheppard, who later sued the state for wrongful imprisonment (he lost.) Even though Sheppard was granted his freedom, the damage to his life had been done. While in prison, both his parents died of natural causes while his in-laws committed suicide. After his release, he took to drinking heavily and was forced to abandon medicine. In some attempt at a twisted parodic version of his new life, he even took up pro-wrestling for a while, fighting under the name “The Killer.” His son’s life was also a string of PTSD-related flashbacks, low-profile jobs and failed relationships. Even though DNA evidence found later pointed to another suspect who had been doing repairs on the Sheppard house in the weeks leading up to the murder, many still believe the doctor is responsible. The story is strikingly similar to the plot of the great movie The Fugitive, but creators deny the connection.
The Borden Family
The infamous Mr. and Mrs. Borden were only axed twenty-nine times as opposed to the eighty-one cited in the little ditty about the crime, but the heinous nature of their murders rocked Massachusetts and the whole of the United States in the late 19th century. What was even more shocking to the residents of sleepy Fall River, Mass, was that suspicion soon turned to the daughter of Mr. Andrew J. Borden (and stepdaughter of Abigail), thirty-three year old Lizzie Borden, the only person aside from the maid in the house at the time of the murders. The town was soon atwitter with clues and gossip that pointed to straight to Lizzie: she hadn’t liked her stepmother, her alibi (she was in the shed looking for fishing supplies when her father was axed) was weak, she had attempted to purchase poison from the drug store the week prior to the murders. On August 9, 1892, there was an inquiry into the case at a courtroom during which Lizzie gave “confused, often contradictory” answers. On the 11th, she was officially arrested.
Lizzie Borden’s trial lasted for two weeks during the summer of 1893. The prosecution cited Lizzie’s inconsistent testimony and called witnesses who confirmed that her father was in the process of writing a new will. The defense’s argument was mainly centered around the presence of a dark, mysterious male presence around the house. Despite the defense’s weak, unsubstantiated argument, Lizzie was found innocent, most likely, as historians and criminologists conclude, because it was simply too much for people at that time to imagine a shy, church-going, Sunday school teaching spinster would commit parricide. After the trial, Lizzie and her sister Emma lived together for a while in a thirteen-room mansion in Fall River, then parted ways. The two died within two weeks of one another in 1927. Her legacy lives on, though, in the rhyme, the fireside ghost stories, and the Lizzie Borden B&B in Fall River, where you can sleep in Lizzie’s room on the off-season (November through April) for just two hundred bucks a night.
Mary Cecilia Rogers, who posthumously became known as the “Beautiful Cigar Girl,” led a short and tragic life. After her father died in a steamboat explosion when Mary 17, she took a job in a tobacco shop in New York City, where her good looks beguiled the likes of James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. She disappeared once in what was possibly a publicity stunt masterminded by her boss before she disappeared again one last time in 1841. Her body was pulled from the Hudson River onto the New Jersey shoreline as bystanders watched. One reporter described the young woman, once famous for her beauty, like this: “…she was laying on the bank, on her back, with a rope tied around her…. Her forehead and face appeared to have been battered and butchered, to a mummy. Her features were scarcely visible, so much violence had been done to her…she presented the most horrible spectacle that eye could see.”
The popular “penny” newspapers were quick to jump on the story of the Beautiful Cigar Girl, putting forth theories that her fiance was responsible, gangs were to blame or, indeed, Mary was not dead at all. Some of the reports inched dangerously close to straight-up fiction; Edgar Allen Poe, in fact, was so inspired by the story that he based a short story entitled “The Mystery of Marie Roget” on the case. The only real break in the case was when some bloody clothing was found in the thickets near the house of an ironically named Frederika Loss, the disciple of a well-known abortion advocate nicknamed “Madam Killer.” Mary’s fiance Daniel Payne, despondent over the loss of his love, got drunk in Hoboken and killed himself. The case was never solved, but the ghost of Mary Rogers allegedly appeared twice: once to a delirious Mrs. Loss after she was accidentally shot by her son, and again to a retired John Anderson in Paris in the years leading up to his death.
Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress and maybe-prostitute, was found naked, cut in half, badly beaten and sodomized in a vacant lot in Los Angeles on January 15, 1947. Much like the other gruesome cases listed here, the murder sparked a media frenzy: newspaper reporters harped on her “flaky and promiscuous” lifestyle and called her The Black Dahlia in honor of her jet black hair and clothing (whether or not the nickname predated her death, as many journalists would claim, remains a disputed fact.) A writer and childhood acquaintance fingered Orson Welles as a suspect, and still others purported that Short had fooled around with Marilyn Monroe.
Some time after the crime had languished in the cold case files, Gerry Ramlow, a reporter for the Daily News, stated firmly that, “If the case was never solved, it was because of the reporters.” The press, particularly the minions of William Randolph Hearst, were relentless in their pursuit of the lurid details, fabricated or not, and it was perhaps because of their “trampling” on evidence and misleading stories that the case was never solved. More than fifty people did end up confessing to Short’s murder, though none of the confessions led anywhere. Even today the case remains a point of interest for writers such as James Ellroy and filmmakers like Brian DePalma.
Jimmy Hoffa was the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner who grew to be the bullying head of the Teamsters Union after his predecessor was (shock of shocks) ousted for financial misdeeds. Hoffa was the stereotypical union leader: buddy-buddy with some politicians (i.e. Richard Nixon) and enemies of others (Robert Kennedy), a gruff man with “close friends” in the Mafia whose style he emulated (think tailored suits and Gucci loafers) and arbitrary system of morality he believed in. Hoffa was staunchly against JFK’s adulterous behavior and yet had been arrested and served time in prison for mail fraud, forgery, conspiracy and jury tampering before Nixon commuted his sentence to time served. After he was released from prison, he quickly began a campaign to assert his influence in union activities, but met with only minor success. The man he had named his successor, Frank Fitzsimmons, was well-liked by politicians and mobsters alike, very good people to have on your side.
On July 30, 1975, Hoffa went to meet a Detroit mobster named Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone and a New York/New Jersey Genovese capo named Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano. He called his wife Josephine from outside the Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, to tell her he had been stood up. He never came home. A number of mafiosi and teamsters, including Giacalone’s son Joe, were considered suspects, but not surprisingly, no arrests were ever made. Decades after his disappearance, DNA matched a hair from the back seat of Joe Giacalone’s car to a hair found in Jimmy Hoffa’s hairbrush. No one seems to doubt that the mob was responsible, but the big question that remains is: where is the body? The most plausible clue yet, given to police in 2006, led to a Detroit farm where the authorities found no trace of Hoffa’s remains.
The Boy in the Box
In this unsolved crime, not only the perpetrators remain unknown, but the victim himself, even more than fifty years after his death, has yet to be identified. The naked body of a small boy, aged somewhere around four to six years, was found naked and beaten in a cardboard box in a dirty, little-populated area of Northern Philadelphia in 1957. Despite appearing severely malnourished, the boy was clean, his toenails having recently been clipped and his arms folded carefully across his chest. Because the weather was cool at the time his body was found, the best estimate forensics could give as to how long the boy had been dead was somewhere between two days and two weeks. At first, the detectives had numerous leads to go on: the blanket, which was linked to a local JCPenney, and the boy’s footprints, which they compared to ones on file in local hospitals. All, however, led to dead-ends. The nameless victim became known as “The Boy in the Box” or “America’s Unknown Child.”
Seeing no hope of recognizing him, authorities eventually decided to bury the boy in a field outside Philadelphia. His grave reads, “Heavenly Father, Bless This Unknown Child.” His body was eventually exhumed in an attempt to extract mitochondrial DNA from his teeth, though the sample will be too small to make a conclusive match. The boy was reburied in a donated coffin, along with most hopes of his killer(s) ever facing justice.
The Boston Strangler
Albert DeSalvo, right? Maybe not. DeSalvo did confess to the sexual molestation and murder of thirteen women in Boston, Massachusetts, between 1962 and 1964, but even after his trial, conviction and incarceration, many doubts still remain. True, DeSalvo knew some never-released details about the crime scenes, and when his picture was released, a number of women came forth claiming DeSalvo had sexually assaulted them, but no physical evidence linking DeSalvo to the crimes was ever found. In addition to this gaping hole in the prosecution, there were differences in the methods of murder that raised the eyebrows of more than a few criminologists. Of the thirteen murders DeSalvo confessed to committing, eleven were considered “official” Strangler murders; the other two victims were stabbed. The victims, also, were of various ages and races, thus suggesting a number of different killers with different tastes in targets. DeSalvo was also fingered by a woman who was sexually assaulted and then left unharmed after her assailant apologized to her. Why would he have decided to leave this one victim alive and able to pinpoint him?
DeSalvo was assumed to be the Strangler but was never formally charged with the crime. Instead, he was found guilty of a number of other crimes, including his penchant for claiming to be fashion model recruiter and then fondling attractive women as he measured them, earning him the nickname “The Measuring Man.” For these offenses, he was sentenced to incarceration at a state mental hospital, from which he escaped. He was later transferred to Walpole Prison. He allegedly telephoned a doctor begging to visit him in prison in 1973 but was stabbed to death in the infirmary the next day. His murderers were never named.
The Zodiac Killer
The date night did not end so well for the two teenagers found in a parked car the night of December 20, 1968 near Benicia, California. Teenage sweethearts David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen were shot once and five times respectively. Almost eight months later, another two teenagers were shot nearby, though this time, one of them survived the attack, though he was shot in the face, chest and neck. A little while later, someone placed a call from a pay phone to the police precinct. The monotone voice announced, “I wish to report a double murder. If you will go one mile east on Columbus Parkway to a public park, you will find the kids in a brown car. They have been shot by a nine-millimeter Luger. I also killed those kids last year. Good-bye.”
Less than a month later, the first letter penned by the Zodiac (well, allegedly) was delivered to three San Francisco newspapers. The author demanded that the letters be published on the front pages of the San Francisco Examiner, Chronicler and Times-Herald. He continued to send letters, most often to newspapers but occasionally to private citizens, up until mid-year 1974. Some letters included cryptograms and were signed by a circle with a line through it. He named himself “The Zodiac Killer,” and despite theories about this self-assigned moniker, the real reason for this name is a mystery. One favorite suspect emerged throughout the course of the investigation: a pedophile and sometimes-mental patient Arthur Lee Allen. In the end, though, Allen’s fingerprints didn’t match those left at the scene and he was never charged. To this day, the murderer was never found, despite the valiant efforts of Jake Gyllenhaal and leads provided by many a fame-mongerer.
The story of D. B. Cooper reads like the plot of a James Bond book, if Bond were more a villain and less of a womanizing do-gooder. On December 24, 1971, a man traveling under the name of Dan Cooper boarded a plane at Portland International Airport bound for Seattle. He was wearing a black suit, raincoat, and sunglasses and he sat in the back of the plane. After the plane took off, he handed a flight attendant a note claiming he had a bomb in his briefcase. It went to say that Cooper wanted two sets of parachutes and $200,000 in unmarked bills when the plane landed in Seattle. The FBI had the flight attendant glance at the bomb, and when she confirmed that there were in fact wires sticking out from his briefcase, they agreed to cooperate. The plane landed in Seattle, where Cooper sipped a bourbon cocktail and waited for his money. When all was delivered, the plane took off again, this time headed toward Reno, Nevada, to refuel before a trip to Mexico City, but over the southern part of Washington, Cooper strapped on a parachute and jumped out of the plane.
The case has baffled and excited citizens of the Northwest and Americans alike since the hijacking. In 2009, a group of amateur detectivesincluding “a fossil hunter who works with the Burke Museum of Natural History in Seattle, a well-known scientific illustrator, an Egyptologist who speaks 12 languages, a metallurgist, and an Arkansas man who discovered $5,800 of the loot in $20 bills while throwing a Frisbee on the banks of the Columbia River when he was 8 years old” teamed up determined to solve the mystery. They scoured a French comic book series starring a skydiver named D. B. Cooper, took detailed measurements of soil samples of the Columbia River, and decided (using intuition) that Cooper was probably dead.
Oscar Romero was born in Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador in 1917. Determined to enter the priesthood, he left his childhood home at fourteen years old and headed toward San Miguel on horseback. Throughout the early years of his priesthood, his views on the Church and its role toward its devotees were very conservative. He was critically of any liberal leanings in the Church, which usually aligned themselves with the most downtrodden of believers and their agendas. But after a priest who had attempted land reform was murdered and the peasants of El Salvador looked to Romero to lead them, he experienced a change of heart. As he took up unofficial leadership duties, however, violence raged even greater throughout his native land. He begged foreign powers to help, but his cries went mostly unheard.
Romero was murdered on October 24, 1980 at a hospital chapel in El Salvador’s capital of San Salvador. He was shot while raising the chalice at the end of the Eucharist, and his blood and the chalice’s contents spilled over the altar. Just a few days before his death, he gave a sermon in which he urged the citizens of El Salvador that it was their Christian duty to fight their government’s violations of human rights. He also told a reporter, “You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it.” His funeral, held in the main square in San Salvador, was marred by tragedy and violence;dozens of people died during these uprisings. His assassin was never caught, but the campaign to canonize him continues.
Olof Palme was born in January of 1937 in Stockholm, Sweden, attended college on scholarship in the United States, and eventually became Prime Minister of Sweden. An outspoken leader of the Swedish Social Democrats, Palme regularly decried the politics and actions of other nations, most notably the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. In an emotional radio broadcast, the Prime Minister referred to the United States’ bombing of Hanoi as akin to such atrocities as “Guernica, Oradour, Babi Yar, Katyn, Lidice, Sharpeville, Treblinka.” He also was a strong critic of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, whom he once called “a sadistic murderer.” He was voted out of office but reelected in 1982, at which point he tried to reestablish Socialist economic policies.
In February of 1986, Palme was walking home from the Grand Cinema in central Stockholm with his wife Lisbet (the pair were not accompanied by bodyguards) when he was shot in the back by a .357 magnum. He died almost instantly. The gunman fired off a second shot, which grazed Lisbet Palme, then escaped into the night. For many Swedes, this was the end of their nation’s innocence, a national tragedy that was equated with the assassination of JFK in the United States. Two suspects emerged from the sordid investigation, but both were let go due to insufficient evidence. Over the years, people have wondered if maybe the CIA or Israeli intelligence agency Moussad may have been responsible, but neither theory has ever been confirmed.
Jack the Stripper
In the Autumn of 1963, the collective unconscious of London rumbled with memory. Once again, prostitutes were turning up dead. By May of 64, scores of female police officers were sent undercover into shady areas of London trying to nab the killer playfully dubbed “Jack the Stripper,” who was thought to be responsible for four murders collectively known as “the nude murders,” “the Hammersmith murders” or “the Hammersmith nudes.” By the time the Stripper was satiated, a number of bodies were found strangled, naked and floating in the River Thames.
The Stripper was active over the course of six years (compared to the Ripper’s ten weeks) during which he is thought to have murdered seven women, though their bodies were disposed of in ways different enough that some thought the crimes to be the work of more than one person. One of the victims was four months pregnant. Another three victims were missing their front teeth, leading Inspector John Du Rose to think that maybe they had actually been choked to death by oral sex. Numerous suspects were named but none were ever arrested, and the case remains open.
Tupac Shakur, aka 2Pac, Pac, or Makaveli, was born in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York City in 1971. He was raised by members of the Black Panther Party and began studying poetry, jazz, and ballet dancing after the family, sans jailed stepfather, moved to Baltimore when he was in high school. He began his career dancing back-up for Digital Underground but by 1992, had gone solo and released his first album entitled 2paclypse Now. By this time, Tupac was twenty years old and had already been arrested eight times on charges varying from sexual abuse to wrongful death after a child was killed during gang warfare. This was the height of the feud between the East Coast and West Coast hip hop artists, and Tupac was deeply involved in this strife.
In early September of 1996, Tupac traveled to Las Vegas to see a boxing match between Mike Tyson and Bruce Seldon. He sat ringside with the owner of his record label, “Suge” Knight. After the fight (which lasted all of two minutes,) Shakur and his crew went to Knight’s house and from there, started off toward Club 662, where Shakur was set to perform with Run DMC and hang with Tyson, who was supposed to make an appearance. When they stopped at a red light near the strip, a white Cadillac pulled up aside them and fired thirteen bullets into their car. That Friday, the 13th, Tupac was pronounced dead. A witness to the murder, friend Yafeu Fala, was murdered two months later, AFTER he said he’d testify. His friend-turned-rival, Notorious B.I.G., was murdered less than a year later, though many believe the two to be living happily off royalties on a tropical island somewhere.
Tiny 5-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey’s life was a golden one. She was the beloved child of John, a successful businessman, and Patsy, a former beauty queen who doted on her towheaded daughter. All that was to come to an end, though, in the wee hours of Christmas morning, 1996, when JonBenet’s body was found in the basement of her family’s large suburban Boulder, Colorado home. The story goes that Patsy Ramsey found a ransom note demanding $118,000 in exchange for the child on the stairs of the home around 5 am. She quickly called the police, who arrived 7 minutes later and conducted a rather hasty search of the Ramsey abode. JonBenet’s body was soon found beneath a white blanket in the basement, and thus began a highly publicized case with the media focusing largely on the little girl’s painted pageant get-up and the popular suspicion of the parents.
The investigation fumbled on through the nineties and the early part of the twenty-first century, the culprit in many people’s eyes being the parents or JonBenet’s older brother Burke, who was nine at the time of her murder. Like with many widely known cases, many people stepped forward claiming to know who the killer was. An email was sent to Boulder PD in 2001 by someone who claimed an AOL user had posted writing on the Internet stating they had witnessed JonBenet’s murder. The police followed the lead –– right to a 14-year-old Ohio girl playing a prank. Most notably, John Mark Karr, creepy former teacher and pedophile, confessed to the crime while living in Thailand in 2006, but charges were never filed as it was clear to all that the man was quite simply insane. Recently, he’s the subject of new suspicion as a former pupil of his claims he has been trying to help him recruit little blond girls with small feet to join a cult he wants to form and name “The Immaculates.” Coincidentally enough, JonBenet Ramsey’s murder case has been reopened last month, with brother Burke Ramsey, now 23, among the witnesses to be called.