Leading theories about D.B. Cooper and 30 other unsolved mysteries
Thanks to the American fascination with confounding unsolved cases, mystery is among the most popular genres of books, movies, and television. From heists and capers to murders and robberies, the world’s greatest unsolved mysteries spark media frenzies that grab headlines around the globe. Some cases compel so much public intrigue that the facts and theories surrounding them become the basis of books, movies, plays, and documentaries decades or even centuries after the cases go cold.
The internet breathed new life into many of the world’s great unsolved mysteries, giving amateur detectives and self-directed sleuths the tools they needed to scrounge for new clues and fresh leads long after official authorities stopped searching for answers. Along the way, public fascination inevitably led to wild speculation, fantastical theories, and a hazy blur between facts as they actually happened and outrageous rumors that the media and public adopt as reality.
Stacker used a variety of sources to summarize 31 of the most enduring and perplexing unsolved mysteries, from grisly murders and ghost ships to great escapes and entire colonies of people disappearing without a trace. In some cases, the information came from law enforcement agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who have been working directly on solving the case the whole time. Other times, the source material was news reports surrounding new developments in the cases. Occasionally, organizations or individuals like authors or amateur detectives came up with the best information after dedicating years or even decades to studying and researching these baffling and unsolved scenarios on their own.
If the facts and fictions surrounding the most salacious and unbelievably true whodunnits pique your interest and stir your passions, you are not alone. Keep reading to learn about some of the world’s greatest unsolved mysteries and the leading theories about what really happened.
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On Nov. 24, 1971, a man in a business suit calling himself Dan Cooper (the media invented the popularized “D.B.”) boarded a plane from Portland to Seattle, told a stewardess he had a bomb, and showed her a briefcase with a device inside that convinced her it was real. He then demanded $200,000 and four parachutes, which the crew gave him, and when the plane landed, he released the passengers but held some crew hostage for his second demand—a flight to Mexico. When that plane was in the air, “Cooper” astonished the crew by jumping out of it into the night sky. He was never seen again. The case has baffled the FBI and the public ever since. The FBI closed the case in 2016, but there is still plenty of speculation that far exceeds the popular assumption that Cooper died during the jump that would have landed him in a remote wilderness. Some say Cooper was actually a former Army helicopter pilot named Robert Rackstraw who died in July 2019, while another theory revolves around one Lynn Doyle Cooper whose niece came forward in 2011 to say her late uncle plotted the hijacking at a family gathering in 1971.
On June 12, 1962, a headcount at Alcatraz—the most secure, remote prison in America—revealed that three inmates were missing. In their beds were dummies fashioned out of plaster and human hair, which fooled the guards the night before—all part of an ingenious and elaborate ruse that included life vests and rafts made from raincoat rubber. Despite one of the most exhaustive investigations in the FBI’s history and endless public speculation, no one knows the fate of Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin to this day, although authorities believe they likely died in the treacherous waters of the San Francisco Bay.
The Sims Family
In 1966, the grisly murder of a prominent family rocked Tallahassee, Florida, when 17-year-old Norma Jeannette Sims returned home from a babysitting gig to find her mother, father, and 12-year-old sister bound, gagged, shot, and stabbed to death. The case, which changed the previously quiet community forever—Ted Bundy would commit his most infamous murders at a Florida State University sorority house in the city in 1978—remains unsolved. Although a local pastor was long suspected, Leon County Sheriff Larry Campbell, who was a 24-year-old deputy and early responder that night, has said he knows of two suspects who he believes did it, although he refuses to name them to this day.
Jack the Ripper
The mysterious man known as Jack the Ripper, who terrorized the Whitechapel district of London in 1888, is still the most famous serial killer in history. According to Science magazine, forensic analysts published genetic analysis evidence in 2019 that could finally reveal the long-anonymous murderer who killed and mutilated London prostitutes so long ago. They believe Jack the Ripper was a 23-year-old Polish barber named Aaron Kosminski, one of the main suspects at the time of the murders, though evidence isn’t quite strong enough to mark the case officially closed.
More than a dozen people have claimed to have killed Jimmy Hoffa since the powerful Teamsters union boss went missing in 1975 and was listed as “presumed dead” in 1982. Most recently, Martin Scorsese’s blockbuster “The Irishman” stoked new interest in a credible claim made by the movie’s namesake, mafia hitman Frank Sheeran. Even the skeptics who doubt Sheeran’s claim believe that if it wasn’t him, it was a different killer for the Bufalino crime family, with which both Sheeran and Hoffa were long associated.
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Aviation pioneer, feminist icon, and American hero Amelia Earhart made her final radio transmission on July 2, 1937, when she and her navigator disappeared while attempting to circle the globe across 30,000 miles in an airplane. In the decades since, there has been no shortage of speculation, with some theories backed up by fairly compelling evidence, including one that she was captured by the Japanese military and another that she was marooned and lived on a remote Pacific island. The most likely and widely believed scenario, however, is that she crashed during bad weather and sank in the vast Pacific Ocean near where her last broadcast was transmitted.
[Pictured: Amelia Earhart with her navigator, Captain Fred Noonan photographed on June 11, 1937.]
Few murder mysteries have remained ingrained in the public imagination longer or more deeply than the 1892 axe murder of upper-crust Massachusetts residents Andrew and Abby Borden. Andrew’s daughter Lizzie Borden was 32 and unmarried (a minor scandal for the upper class at that time) when she immediately became the main and only suspect, only to be acquitted a year later in 1893. Alternate theories have been pitched for more than a century, but Lizzie—who was home at the time and had plenty of motives—remains the only true suspect with any real evidence pointing to her as the killer.
The Phantom Barber
In 1942, one of the strangest unsolved crime sprees understandably terrified the town of Pascagoula, Mississippi, when a man dubbed “The Phantom Barber” broke into homes, cut locks of hair off women and children, and left without stealing anything or otherwise harming anyone. Fifty-seven-year-old William Dolan was soon arrested and convicted—he had human hair in his home, and some victims were likely incapacitated with chloroform while he was a chemist by trade. His sentence, however, was later suspended when he passed a lie detector test and police were accused of mishandling the case in a rush to find a suspect. He remains, however, the only credible suspect.
The Mary Celeste
The ship Mary Celeste left New York City for Genoa, Italy, in 1872, only to be discovered at sea partially flooded and missing a lifeboat, but otherwise intact, seaworthy, packed with supplies, and empty. The disappearance of the 10 people on board remains one of history’s greatest maritime mysteries. Books, plays, and movies were written about the many theories surrounding the ghost ship, including pirate takeovers, mutiny, waterspouts, sea monsters, and deadly rampages by former slaves. In 2007, however, Smithsonian magazine outlined exhaustive research that revealed the most likely scenario: Coal dust fouled the boat’s pumps, which led the captain to order the crew and passengers to abandon ship in the belief that he was closer to land than he really was.
Lost Colony of Roanoke
The Lost Colony of Roanoke, founded in present-day North Carolina in 1587 and discovered empty in 1590, is the oldest mystery in American history, considering it took place two decades before the founding of Jamestown. Volumes have been written about what might have happened to the 100-plus English settlers who lived there, including massacres by Indians or the Spanish, enslavement, starvation, cannibalism, and failed attempts to return to England. In 2018, however, National Geographic reported on compelling research that revealed the most likely scenario: The desperate colonists assimilated into a local Native American tribe.
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