Humans are endlessly fascinated by what we don’t understand — all the more so when the topics are macabre in nature. Maybe that’s why we keep circling round and round the numerous unexplained mysteries we’ll probably never solve that exist out in the world; we want so badly to understand them that we’ll just endlessly seek out possible explanations, even when answers to our questions will likely never be forthcoming.
A lot of unexplained mysteries remain so because of time: Too much has passed between then and now. A lack of evidence, a loss of evidence, and less rigorous record keeping often means that there are holes in each story we’ll simply never be able to fill. But even today, a shocking number of crimes happen that go unsolved; for example, as recently as 2015, one in three murders that occur each year are never solved.
Sometimes the unexpected happens. Sometimes there’s an amazing break in the case, as there was for the decades-old Golden State Killer mystery just last year. But it’s far from uncommon for murders, disappearances, thefts, and other mysteries to go unsolved—and the chances of solving them diminish with each passing year.
These seven are just scratching the surface.
1. What Happened To Bobby Dunbar — And Who Was Returned In His Place?
4-year-old Bobby Dunbar went missing during a family fishing trip to Swayze Lake, Louisiana, on Aug. 23, 1912. No one knows exactly what happened; according to one news report from the time (via Mental Floss), a family friend who had joined the Dunbars on the trip had told Bobby to get out of the way as they all made their way to the lunch table, to which Bobby laughed and made a smart comment. Then he just “disappeared like magic.”
An eight-month search commenced — and at first, it seemed to be a success: A boy identified as Bobby was located and returned to parents Percy and Lessie Dunbar. Trouble was, the boy wasn’t Bobby Dunbar.
It wasn’t conclusively determined that “Bobby” wasn’t actually Bobby until 2004, when DNA testing confirmed that samples taken from “Bobby’s” descendants didn’t match samples taken from the descendants of Bobby’s brother. “Bobby” had been found with handyman William Cantwell Walters, who claimed the boy was Charles Bruce Anderson, the son of a maid named Julia Anderson who had worked for his family. The Dunbars, who were wealthy and privileged, won custody of the boy over Anderson, who was not — but now, it seems likely that the boy who was raised as Bobby Dunbar really was Charles Bruce Anderson. It’s believed he was the offspring of Walters’ brother and Anderson.
We don’t know what his life would have been like had he not been placed with the Dunbars — and we still don’t know what happened to the original Bobby Dunbar.
2. Where Did The Roanoke Colony Go?
In 1587, a group of colonists from England led by John White arrived in North America and established a colony on Roanoke Island just a few miles off the coast of what is now North Carolina. The colonists were not, of course, the first to set foot on the land; archeological excavations performed in recent decades has found indications of occupancy by native peoples dating back as far as 8000 BCE. They were, however, responsible for bringing with them a pregnant woman — White’s daughter, Eleanor Dare — who gave birth shortly after the colonists’ arrival to Virginia Dare, the first child of English parents born in what they termed “the New World” (despite the fact that there was nothing “new” about it).
White sailed back to England in late 1587 — but when he returned three years later in 1590, he found the colony to have vanished, with only a single word carved on a tree, “CROATOAN,” leaving any indication they had ever been there at all.
In the centuries since, numerous theories have been proposed about what may have happened to the “lost” colony: Had they been killed? Kidnapped? Had they attempted to sail back to England and become lost at sea? Had they fled, or simply moved? We still don’t know — and we probably never will. Indeed, we’re not even sure that what little we do think we know is even accurate, as evinced by a “gold” ring found on the site several decades ago and thought to be linked to the Kendall family who lived at the colony recently being determined to be simply brass and of no significance at all.
3. Who Is Responsible For the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist — And How Did They Manage To Pull It Off?
As a native Bostonian who grew up in and around a lot of the area’s museums, this one hits close to home for me; I remember when it happened.
Isabella Stewart Gardner spent her entire life collecting beautiful works of art. Rembrandt, John Singer Sargent, Botticelli, Matisse… we’re talking big names and important works. She and her husband, Jack, had amassed the collection during their many travels — and after Jack’s death in 1898, she decided the thing to do with it was to build a museum around them. The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum opened in 1903 in the Fenway-Kenmore area of Boston, where it still stands as one of the city’s greatest treasures.
Its collection is incomplete, though. On March 18, 1990, two men who told security guards hey were police officers gained entrance to the museum, tied the guards up in the basement, and made off with 13 paintings valued at $500 million in total. Among the paintings stolen were Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and Vermeer's The Concert. The theft took them a mere 81 minutes to complete. The paintings have never been recovered, and although many have been investigated for the crime, no one has ever been arrested or charged.
For what it’s worth, the FBI claimed in 2013 that they thought they knew who the perpetrators were, and later said in 2015 that they were dead… but the names of these possible suspects have never been released.
The empty frames still remain.
4. WTF Happened At Hinterkaifeck?
OK, maybe “what happened” is the wrong question to be asking; we know the answer to that one already. “Why did it happen” and “who did it” are probably better questions — but, alas, ones we’ll probably never be able to answer.
In 1922, the Gruber family — Andreas, his wife Cazilia, his daughter Viktoria Gabriel, Viktoria’s daughter, also named Cazilia, Viktoria’s som Josef, and the maid, Maria Baumgarten — lived on a farm near Kaifeck in what’s now part of Bavaria, Germany. “Hinter” means “behind”; the place was literally behind Kaifeck — hence its name: Hinterkaifeck. On April 4 of that year, neighbors realized they hadn’t seen any of the Grubers for some time, so they went to check on them. They found the family massacred — Viktoria, Andreas, and both the elder and younger Cazilias were in the barn, having suffered fatal blows to the head dealt a mattock, while Maria Baumgarten was in her bedroom and Josef in a bassinet in Viktoria’s room. At least seven suspects were investigated and numerous arrests were made, but each and every one of the theories fell through. Who committed the murders — and why — has never been solved.
All that is freaky enough as it is. The really creepy thing, though, is this: Six months prior to the murders, the previous maid — the one before Maria Baumgartner, voluntarily left the position; she said she heard strange noises and felt like she was being watched, so, fearing that the house was haunted, she quit. During these six months, items the family knew they owned often went missing, while others they didn’t think were theirs sometimes appeared in the house. And at one point, Andreas Gruber found footsteps in the snow leading from the forest to the house — but didn’t ever find any matching prints leading away.
It’s possibly — likely, even — that whoever committed the murders was living in the family’s house without their knowledge for at least six months before the killings occurred.
5. What Happened To The Sodder Children After The Fire?
In December of 1945, Jennie and George Sodder had 10 children: Sylvia, Betty, Jennie (who shared a name with her mother), Louis, Martha, Maurice, George Jr., Marion, Joe, and John. At 2 years old, Sylvia was the youngest, while John, 23, was the oldest. That Christmas Eve, nine of the children were home with the family in Fayetteville, West Virginia — Joe being the absent one; the second oldest Sodder child was away in the Army.
In the wee hours of the morning on Christmas Day, a fire broke out in the Sodder home. The two parents, Sylvia, Marion, John, and George Jr. all made it out safely. But Maurice, Martha, Louis, little Jennie, and Betty didn’t.
The mystery, though, isn’t just about the fire itself, although it’s true that whatever caused it has never been satisfactorily identified. The official ruling was “faulty wiring,” although questions about why the family’s Christmas lights stayed on throughout the fire if wiring was the blame remain — as do a wide variety of other questions surrounding oddities from that night.
The real mystery is about what happened to the missing Sodder children — because their remains were never found anywhere in the wreckage.
Officials eventually ruled the missing children to have died in the fire, with the assumption being that the blaze cremated them, accounting for the lack of remains — but the Sodders were never convinced that was what happened. They suspected their children were still alive — that they had somehow been removed from the house prior to the fire starting. What’s more, many years later, Jennie Sodder received a photograph in the mail of a young man along with a puzzling note suggesting the photograph was of Louis as an adult.
But nothing came of it. Nothing came of any investigations at all. We still don’t know what happened to the Sodder children — whether they survived or not. And we probably never will.
6. Who Were All These Serial Killers, Really?
There are so many serial killers that were never caught — or even unmasked. Jack the Ripper is the big one, of course; he (she? They? We don’t know!) killed at least five sex workers in London’s Whitechapel neighborhood in 1888 — and possibly many others, too.
But there’s also the Servant Girl Annihilator, who terrorized Austin, Texas between 1884 and 1885 and remains similarly unidentified — although interestingly, some have theorized that after these killings stopped, the perpetrator moved across the ocean and actually became Jack the Ripper. The Axeman of New Orleans targeted immigrants and killed at least six and injured at least six more between 1918 and 1919; his weapon of choice was — you guessed it — an axe. Atlanta had a Ripper, too; in 1911, he killed at least 15 black women and women of color by slashing their throats.
More recently, we have the Zodiac, who operated in California during the 1960s and ‘70; the Doodler, who preyed on gay men in San Francisco in the ‘70s; the perpetrator(s) of the Family Murders in Adelaide, Australia in the ‘70s and ‘80s; and so very many more.
Although there are a lot of reasons serial killers might evade capture, including “linkage blindness.” According to Live Science, since each case is usually covered by individual homicide detectives, a lot of the time, links between cases go unidentified — that's what we man by "linkage blindness.” Additionally, only about 59 percent of murders in the United States results in an arrest, let alone a conviction, per the FBI’s clearance statistics.
But many of these unsolved cases will remain unsolved for one reason, and one reason alone: They’re just too old. In the case of centuries-old killers like Jack the Ripper and the Servant Girl Annihilator, there’s also so little usable forensic evidence that we just lack what we need to fill in the blanks.
7. Who Was The Mad Gasser of Mattoon — And Was There Really A Mad Gasser Of Mattoon At All?
In 1944, the town of Mattoon in Illinois was struck by a horrible set of gas attacks. More than 20 reports rolled in over the course of the late summer and early fall; victims said that they had suddenly smelled something sweet in their homes, then fallen prey to vomiting or temporary paralysis. Few had spotted the perpetrator, but a small number of victims said they had seen someone fleeing the scene they believed to be responsible: A tall, thin man or perhaps a woman dressed in men’s clothing. A lack of evidence made it difficult to investigate the gassings, and no other crimes — robbery, assault, nothing — occurred at the times the gassings happened. The “Mad Gasser of Mattoon,” as the perpetrator became known, was never caught.
But that’s not the weirdest thing about the whole case. The weirdest thing is the fact that we’ve never even figured out whether there was actually a “Mad Gasser” at all.
There are arguments that there was, of course. Town outcast Farley Llewellyn was pointed to by some residents who had lived through the events that unfolded in Mattoon in 1944 as a likely suspect in a 2003 book; he matched the physical description some victims said their assailant had had, and he had both a chemistry degree and a home lab.
Was he really responsible, though? Or was the “identification” of Llewellyn an example of prejudice (and is there even any evidence of a Farley Llewellyn living in Mattoon at the time of the attacks at all)? Because according to other researchers, it’s more likely that the “gassing attacks” were actually the result of pollution — or even simply a collective anxiety attack.
Who knows. We sure don’t. And we probably never will.