Unsolved crimes and mysterious deaths are nothing new. Our history is littered with such cases, and many of them have remained ice cold through the decades. However, at least in most cases we at least know who the victims were, what their background was, something to work with. Yet there are plenty of mysterious deaths that seem to have befallen people whose identities have never been found, their true names obscured by a miasma of murky facts, foggy data, and sheer lack of any clues. These are people who must have been someone in life, yet have stepped off the earth into death with no name, no one to claim them, and no clue as to who they really are. They remain enigmatic specters wandering about the landscape of unsolved crimes, their names, identities, and histories lost to the darkness, perhaps forever beyond our ability to comprehend.
One strange earlier account of a dead person from nowhere comes to us from November of 1941, during the vicious fighting of World War II. It was then that an Australian battleship called the HMAS Sydney found itself locked in deadly combat with the German cruiser the Kormoran, which would see the Australian ship completely obliterated and the entire 645 strong crew killed, in one of the greatest maritime disasters in Australian history. None of the remains of these sailors were ever recovered, except for one. The problem is, no one really knows who the sailor was.
Not long after this deadly battle at sea, the remains of a lone sailor from the HMAS Sydney were found drifting about in a lifeboat near Flying Fish Cove, on Christmas Island, an Australian external territory located near Java and Sumatra and around 960 miles from the Australian mainland. The unknown man was simply buried in an unmarked grave at the time, but decades later was exhumed when curiosity surged over who he had actually been. The body was found through DNA analysis to to have had been Caucasian and rather tall, with red hair and blue eyes, and it was found that he had sustained a shrapnel hit to the head. There was also found that he had extensive gold fillings in his teeth, nine of them altogether, as well as two missing teeth, and his clothing marked him as not being an officer. A look at his skeletal structure showed that he had spent a lot of time squatting, which means very little, as it could mean anything from that he was a horse rider to that he did just about anything else that involves a lot of squatting, such as working fields or coal mining. Despite these intriguing clues, this is about all we know of him and a modern mystery was born.
Investigators trying to track down the mystery sailor’s identity have spent a lot of time focusing on the large amount of dental work he had had done, but this has not really led to a clear answer, although it has managed to eliminate 330 other sailors aboard the doomed vessel. Another avenue that has been pursued is trying to track down people who have a genetic link to the remains by finding some descendant or family member still alive. So far, no link has been found and the search for the mystery sailor’s identity goes on, with the director of the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, Jeremy Austin, saying:
Here we have all the scientific evidence you would ever want and it’s just a matter of tracing family down. We have the answer sitting here; it’s just finding that one person or two people in Australia who are related to this guy.
Such mysterious deaths of unidentified people more often turn up with murders, and there is no shortage of such cases. On February 19, 1971, the corpse of a woman was stumbled upon by hikers, stuffed up under the Interstate 75 bridge at the rural Lake Panasoffkee, in Sumter County, Florida, in the United States. The woman had obviously been brutally murdered, with a belt still firmly tied around her skeletal neck. Analysis of the rather decomposed remains showed that she had been a woman in her late teens or early 20s, that she had perhaps at one point been pregnant, and that she had died around 30 days prior to her discovery. Unfortunately she had not been carrying any identification, and no one came forward to claim the mystery woman, who became known as simply “Little Miss Panasoffkee.” A search of missing persons and disappearances in the region was carried out but there was nothing that could be connected to the corpse, and frustrated authorities had no other option but to have her anonymously buried.
In 1986, the mystery woman’s remains were exhumed for further testing, but there was little headway made, and the woman’s death became a notorious cold case, being featured in the media and on such shows as Unsolved Mysteries. In 2012, renewed attempts were made to delve into the mystery using more advanced techniques, such as analysis of lead isotopes in the victim’s teeth, which works on the concept that our teeth accumulate lead until we reach maturity, after which that is set into our teeth, offering a potential glimpse back into time at where we grew up, as different regions have their own distinctive lead signatures. In this case, the technique was so precise that amazingly it was able to determine that she had likely spent her youth in a small fishing village not far from Athens, Greece, called Lavrion, although this is not 100% sure and the technique is not totally fool proof.
This odd clue suggested to authorities that the woman may have had some connection to the rather large nearby Greek community in the area, about a 2-hour drive from where the body had been found, meaning that this could be a lead in what had happened to her, who had killed her, or at least who she was. Pamphlets and posters with composite sketches of what the dead woman was estimated to have looked like in life were distributed throughout Tarpon Springs and other adjoining areas that lie within this Greek community in the hopes that someone would come forward with more information, but so far nothing has emerged, and the woman’s identity remains shadowy and unknown.
A few years later, two more such cases came in in 1976. The first was on August 9, 1976, when the bodies of a young couple were found sprawled out on a bleak, secluded rural road in Sumter, South Carolina. Both victims had been shot to death, and were estimated to be of around 18 to 22 years of age, with similar facial features that led investigators to think that they may have been related somehow, perhaps even bother and sister. Expensive jewelry, clothing, and extensive dental work done on them suggested that they were fairly wealthy. An autopsy of the corpses showed that they had not been under the influence of any drugs or alcohol, and it was speculated that they may have been hitchhiking in the area and had come across a nefarious party.
Intriguing, but ultimately useless leads began to trickle in over the following days. One local witness claimed that he had heard gunshots and then a car speeding of at around the time of the deaths, although he had not seen any crime himself. Another claimed to have seen a couple matching the description at a fruit stand nearby, and yet another reported meeting them at a campground in Santee, South Carolina, claiming that the man had introduced himself as “Jock,” or “Jacques,” the son of a doctor in Canada, after which the couple had allegedly said they were on their way to Florida. The case has been featured on a 1995 episode of Unsolved Mysteries, and despite appeals to the public for more information no one knows who “Jock” or his female companion are.
In December of that same year, a grisly discovery was made under a bridge in Carbon County, Pennsylvania, in the form of the horrifically dismembered parts of a corpse stuffed into three separate, bloodied suitcases. The unidentified woman, who was called “Beth Doe,” was determined to be 16 to 22 years old, and had apparently been strangled and shot to death before being cut up and put into the suitcases within 24 hours of when she had been found. It was unknown why all three suitcases had been unceremoniously left there under the bridge, but it was suspected that the killer had perhaps trying to lob them into the Lehigh River, which was hundreds of feet down below the bridge and had failed, leaving the suitcases and grisly contents strewn about on the riverside below. Chillingly, her breasts, ears, and nose had been cut off, and among the gory mishmash of body parts was found a full-term fetus, meaning that the ravaged woman had been very pregnant at the time of her death.
One strange clue that was found was a series of letters and numbers scrawled in pen upon her left palm, but the meaning of these remain unclear. In the meantime, there was no missing person report filed for anyone fitting the woman’s description, no new leads or information, and no further evidence of her identity at all could be ascertained. She has proven to be a specter, her murky identity and the grim circumstances surrounding her gruesome death perhaps forever a perplexing mystery. One investigator on the case named Thomas McAndrew has said of the Beth Doe case:
It’s as cold as cold can be, unfortunately. The killer’s never been caught, and never will be until we find out who she is. It’s amazing that no one has identified her, that somebody out there isn’t missing her.
Moving on to 1979 we come to the strange case of who has become known as “Caledonian Jane Doe.” On November 9, 1979, a motorist was driving past a rather remote cornfield close to Caledonia, New York, when they noticed the body of a woman lying upon the ground. The dead woman was later found to have been 13 to 19 years old, and had been shot twice in the head with a handgun from close range, execution style. The pockets of her clothes had all oddly been turned inside out, and a deluge of rain that had hit the region at the time had washed away most potential evidence. Autopsy reports determined that she had died not long before she had been discovered, but this was about all that was known. Some witnesses came forward to say that they had seen the woman hitchhiking in the area, but the case nevertheless grew quite cold. The only new lead was in 2006, when some grains of pollen found on her clothing were found to have originated in Florida, Arizona or Southern California, yet this helps little, and the identity of the dead young woman has never been found.
In September of 1988 there was the case of a so-called “Julie Doe,” whose body was found lying in the marshy wilderness of Lake County, Florida. The corpse was highly decomposed, but was thought to be a woman in her 20s, yet this was hard to ascertain as the victim seemed to have a good amount of male DNA and was thought to be perhaps transgender. She was thought to have had breast implants done, and to have been pregnant at some point in the past, but this was unclear. Despite the fact that Julie Doe is believed to have been undergoing gender reassignment surgery to become a man at the time of her death, and that this was a rather rare procedure at the time, there have been no clues from the plastic surgery community as to her identity, and she is still a nameless, shadowy victim who could be anyone.
In April of 1990 there was an unidentified woman that turned up dead after being tragically struck by two different vehicles near Huntington Beach, California. The woman, who was around her early 20s, carried no identification of any sort, and nothing came up in database searches, leaving authorities scratching their heads as to her identity. An unusual clue found on her was a ring made of human hair, its purpose just as inscrutable as her identity. Further investigation would turn up some leads, but they only served to make things more mysterious.
Some people who came forward claimed that they had met the mystery woman and that she had said her name was Andrea, with one witness even saying that she had stayed with them for a time. A few of these witnesses said she was just a homeless vagrant, but others said that she had told them she well off and was looking for her birth parents, who by her own admission were rather famous. One of these leads told police that they had seen the woman suddenly chop off a portion of her hair and make the odd ring she had been found with, although why she would have done this is anyone’s guess. In some cases “Andrea” was claimed as saying she had been from New York, but in other cases she had reportedly said she was from Virginia, and in the end nothing seemed to add up. To this day no one knows who the “Huntington Beach Jane Doe” was.
In that same year, on September 10, 1990 a motorist in Brazoria County, Texas came across a human skull stuffed within an old tire when he pulled over to relieve himself by the side of the road. Nearby was the rest of the skeleton, thought to be from a woman in her late teens or early 20s. Other than that, not much could be made of the decomposed skeletal remains, and even the cause of death was not apparent, but there were certainly some intriguing hints found on her person. The woman was found to have a total of 6 rings on her fingers, one of which was a class ring from Robert E. Lee High School in Houston for the class of 1975. This was odd, since the woman would have been too young to have graduated at that time, and authorities have been stumped as to why she would have it. All attempts to track down who might have given it to her or lost their class ring from that year have turned up absolutely nothing. The identity of the woman, nicknamed “Princess Blue” due to the blue stone that had been set in the ring, remains unknown.
More such mysterious deaths and unidentified people followed in 1991, the first of which came on July 9, 1991, when a woman was found dead in a room of the Whitehall Motel in El Dorado, Arkansas. The young blonde woman had been ruthlessly beaten and shot, and this time authorities were lucky enough to find identification on the body, which said she was a Cheryl Ann Wick. This would prove not to be the open and shut murder case that it appeared to be, as it turned out there was a woman with this same name living in Minneapolis, who was very much alive and who had apparently had her identity stolen by the dead woman.
It would later come to light that the mysterious blonde woman had been murdered by her boyfriend in cold blood, but even then the enigma of her identity would not be resolved. The boyfriend, a James Roy McAlphin, was very cryptic and unhelpful with who the woman actually was, perhaps he didn’t even know, and it was also found that the woman had gone under other aliases as well, including “Kelly Lee Carr”, “Shannon Wiley”, and “Mercedes,” and it turned out that she had had a rather colorful record of being arrested for prostitution and writing bad checks. Even with all of this, the woman’s identity has never been uncovered, and no one really knows who “Cheryl Ann Wick” really was.
One of the more gruesome and depressing is a case that would come just a couple of weeks later, of who would come to be known as “Baby Hope.” On July 23, 1991, a cooler was found lying unceremoniously discarded near the Henry Hudson Parkway, in New York City, but perhaps no one could have been prepared for what horrors lay inside. Within the cooler was found cans of cola and beneath those the decomposing body of a young girl of around 3 or 4 years old, wrapped up in a black plastic garbage bag. An autopsy showed that she had been sexually abused before death, and that she had probably been killed by asphyxiation a few days before her body was found.
Nicknamed Baby Hope, the grisly discovery would lead to one of the most massive murder investigations the city of New York has ever seen, and sketches of the girl were widely circulated at the time. Various tips and leads came in, most of them useless, but one that was seen as promising was a witness calling herself “Judy Brown,” who claimed that she had sighted the girl walking along with a Hispanic looking couple in a nearby park who had eerily been carrying a cooler fitting the description of the one the girl would be found dead in a little over a week later. The lead was pursued, but the mystery woman who had contacted authorities dropped off the radar before any headway could be made, and it is uncertain of how genuine her chilling story was. Three months after this, a series of polaroid photos showing a naked girl very similar looking to Baby Hope being sexually abused were uncovered, but they turned out to be of yet another young girl, rather weirdly also named Hope. Baby Hope would later finally be identified as be as Anjelica Castillo in 2013, but it is still not totally clear as to what happened to her, and the case still has mysteries surrounding it.
One very spooky and well circulated story in recent times comes from June 26, 1995, when a van crashed and killed its two passengers. The driver of the vehicle was identified as a Michael Eric Hager, but the passenger would prove to be more of a mystery. It turned out that none of Hager’s friends or family knew the dead passenger, and it was assumed that he had been a hitchhiker that the driver had picked up. The unidentified victim himself was a male thought to be around 20 years of age, and he had been wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt with the Grateful Dead’s 30th anniversary concert emblazoned upon it. He must have been quite the Grateful Dead fan, because he was also found to have had a ticket stub for one of their concerts from the previous night in his pocket at the time of death. The only other potentially useful clue was a scrawled note that read, “To Jason, Sorry we had to go. See you around. Caroline O. and Caroline T.,” along with a phone number without an area code. Although investigators have looked into these leads, they have come back with nothing, and no one knows who the unidentified Grateful Dead fan is or why he was in that van. (UPDATE: It has come to my attention that this one was actually finally solved. However, I think it is still weird enough to keep it in here!)
Some cases of these mysterious people and their deaths are probably not murders, but still just as inexplicable and often every bit as creepy. On March 31, 2005, a man in his 60s 0r 70s was at a thrift store in San Angelo, Texas, when he slumped to the floor, after which he died of a heart attack at the Shannon Medical Center. On his person was identification that said he was a “Harold Frysinger,” but this was soon discovered to be a fake ID and name. Also suspicious was the fact that his fingertips had been deliberately smoothed down so as to erase any sort of substantial fingerprint scan and make it impossible to figure out his identity through those means. It was found that the man had gone under other names as well, including Roger Smith, Peter Turner, and Gerald Brown, meaning that he was evading something or someone. It was suspected that whoever the man was, he probably had some sort of criminal record, and it was even thought for a time that he was actually an Australian murderer named Elmer Crawford, who had killed his wife and three children before vanishing off the face of the earth, but DNA tests proved this to be false. No one has ever been able to figure out who the “San Angelo John Doe” really is.
Then in December of 2015 we come to the curious case of a body that was stumbled across by a cyclist on Saddleworth Moor, a part of the Peak District National Park, not far from the Dovestone reservoir, near Greenfield, England. The corpse was laid out right in the open, wearing clothing that was wholly inappropriate for the terrain and the weather at that time of year. An autopsy would find that he had died from ingesting strychnine, most likely a suicide, and that there was an empty bottle of thyroxine sodium, a thyroid gland medication, lying nearby, which was thought to have actually held the poison used to kill him. Oddly, there was writing on the side in Urdu, and the bottle was traced as having come all the way from Pakistan, although this is a lead that has not gotten very far.
The man had carried no form of identification whatsoever, and the only things he had in his pockets were some train tickets and £130 in cash. A search was made of missing persons reports in the area but turned up not a thing. It was found that the last person the mystery man had spoken to was the owner of a pub in Greenfield, a Melvin Robinson, who said that the strange old gentleman had come to establishment to ask for directions to the “top of the mountain,” and would say of the weird meeting:
He just asked for directions to the top of the mountain. Just the top of the mountain. I told him there’s not enough daylight for him to get there and back today. He just thanked me and asked me again for the directions, which I repeated to him. And he just set off.
Analysis of closed circuit TV cameras managed to find him at Manchester and Piccadilly stations, but after that it is all a complete mystery, and it is not known for sure how he had actually managed to wind up at that pub or where he really gone after that. No one knows how he got there, why he wanted to go to the top of the mountain, why he would go out in the clothing he was in, or why he died of strychnine out on that moor. Indeed, no one has come forward to claim to know the man, authorities have been unable to identify who he is at all, and the case of the “Dovestone John Doe” all remains a deeply perplexing mystery.
Who were these people? How could they evade any possible identification even when widely circulated in the news? How did they get to that point where they just became nameless “John” or “”Jane” Does? How could someone who presumably have had friends and family looking for them fall so completely off the map? These are people who seem to have come from nowhere, only to sow bafflement, intrigue, and unsolved mysteries. These cases remain open, but it is unlikely that we will ever have the answers we seek unless more evidence or someone who knows them comes forward. Until then, these are more or less shadow people, inhabiting a world beyond our own and their deaths taunting us from the grave.