5 Literary Mysteries That Have Never Been Solved — Like What Killed Edgar Allan Poe

by Charlotte Ahlin

Unexplained disappearances, strange and otherworldly manuscripts, deaths with no known cause — these are the mysteries that have been staples of literary fiction for centuries. But they've also been staples of literary fact: the history of writing is littered with the inexplicable and the just plain weird. Usually, when we're reading a mystery book or watching a mystery show, we can count on some kind of ending that ties up most of the loose ends, even if the conclusion isn't totally satisfying (I'm still mad about that finale, Lost). With real life mysteries, though, sometimes we have to accept that we'll just never know what really went down. Here are some of the true literary mysteries that have yet to be solved.

And when I say "true mysteries," I don't just mean unfinished mystery novels. These are frustrating questions that book nerds have asked for generations, without getting any closer to a conclusive answer. The tough pill to swallow with all of these mysteries is that they may never be solved. But if you're looking for inspiration for your next historical fiction novel and/or time travel film, here you go. Sometimes the truth is stranger (and a whole lot messier) than fiction:


Why can no one read the Voynich Manuscript?

This book has been around since the early 15th century, and we still don't know what it says — or even what language it's written in. Wilfrid Voynich purchased the book in 1912, and since then it's been studied by cryptographers for years. The writing is from left to right, and the book is filled with scrupulously labelled illustrations of plants, women, castles, dragons, and so forth, but the alphabet used is totally unknown. Some have theorized that it's full of secret knowledge about herbal medicine and science, written in code to avoid accusations of witchcraft. Other theories range from magic to aliens to time travelers, and we may never know the truth.

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What killed Edgar Allan Poe?

He penned many a creepy story in his lifetime, but perhaps the creepiest story of all is how Edgar Allan Poe died: Poe left Richmond, Virginia for Philadelphia in order to edit a collection of poetry. One week later, he was found lying in the street in Baltimore, delirious and wearing someone else's clothes. He had apparently never made it to Philadelphia, and no one knows where he spent that fateful week. He was taken to a doctor in Baltimore, but it was already too late. Poe never fully regained consciousness, and died four days later, still delirious and gripped by hallucinations, crying out the name Reynolds, and we still don't know why.

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Where is Shakespeare’s missing play?

There is at least one Shakespeare play that we've just straight up lost. There have been multiple claims of people finding the script to William Shakespeare's Cardenio over the years, but none of them can be conclusively declared to be authentic. What we do know is that a publisher in 1653 owned the rights to “The History of Cardenio, by Mr. Fletcher & Shakespeare,” and that Shakespeare's troupe was paid for performing something called "Cardenna" and "Cardenno." The play almost certainly existed, and it was almost certainly an adaptation of Cervantes' Don Quixote, but as for the actual script, it might just be lost to time.

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Why did Agatha Christie disappear for eleven days?

So Agatha Christie just disappeared this one time for eleven days. Honestly, I guess we can't be too surprised that these mystery authors are so good at being mysterious. But on Friday 3rd, December 1926, Agatha Christie got into her car and drove off into the night. Her disappearance sparked an enormous search effort by officials as well as her fellow mystery authors, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers (asking Doyle for help may have been a mistake, because he decided to try to contact Christie's ghost via one of her gloves, which did not prove to be a fruitful line of questioning). Her car was found, abandoned, but there was still no sign of Christie, nor of any struggle. Then, 11 days after she vanished, Christie turned up again at a luxury hotel in the town of Harrogate, claiming that she remembered nothing of her disappearance. She had apparently checked into the hotel under the name Theresa Neele, which was the name of her husband's mistress. She returned to her regular life, never regained her memories of those lost eleven days (or at least, she never spoke of them again).

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Who Wrote Beowulf?

One of the most famous epic poems in the history of literary was authored by... anonymous. Seriously, no one knows who wrote Beowulf. Was it one author? Multiple authors? Was this an attempt to rewrite Anglo-Saxon history with a bunch of added monsters or a totally made up story? It's likely that whoever wrote the poem down was recording oral tradition, and it's quite likely that they were also quietly saving ancient, pagan myths by giving them a Christian top coat. The oldest existing manuscript is a solid 1,000 years old, so it's unlikely that we'll ever know who this mystery author was, or why they took on the longest poem after written in Old English.

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