There is very little in this day and age that can evade the lens of a camera. We have come to a point where almost everything that happened is captured on film to one extent or another, and every moment that goes by can be instantly immortalized for all of the world to study and dissect. Yet even in this day and age of the near constant presence of cameras, what is caught on film cannot always be fully explained. Indeed, some images can spin mysteries that leave us just as perplexed, or even more so, than if the picture never existed in the first place. Although our penchant for photography has escalated dynamically, there are some things that just make us scratch our heads and wonder what it all means. Front and center among these mysteries are the various images captured of strange, unknown individuals, often linked to some tragedy or crime, whose spooky visages only serve to pull us into intrigue and mystery, their identities unclear and purposes hidden in shadows.
Mysterious crimes and conspiracies have a way of turning up baffling photographic evidence featuring unidentified people. Perhaps one of the most famous such photos are those of who has come to be known as the “Babushka Lady.” On November 22, 1963, then president of the United States, John K. Kennedy, was riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, along with his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, Texas governor John Connally, and Connally’s wife, Nellie, when the president was assassinated by a former U.S. Marine and communist by the name of Lee Harvey Oswald, who would himself be assassinated later by a Jack Ruby. At least that is the official, commonly accepted scenario, but the Kennedy assassination has grown into a morass of conspiracy theories and mysteries that I do not intend to get into here, yet one curious one is the image of a mysterious woman who has shown up in numerous photos and videos of the assassination both before and after the president was shot.
In the photos, a woman wearing a long headscarf reminiscent of a Russian headwear called a babushka, from where she gets her nickname, can be seen standing across the street from the scene of the crime, and even more importantly can clearly be seen taking photos or videos with her camera. She crosses the street to join the confused and scared crowd, and as everyone is still cowering from the unseen shooter the mystery woman calmly stands there taking her photos. It is thought that the photographic evidence she took could hold crucial information about the assassination, and many conspiracy theorists who believe there was a second shooter behind a grassy knoll have pointed out that the lady at some points appears to be pointing her camera right at said knoll, possibly capturing evidence to prove the theory true.
The problem is that although she is clearly photographed and filmed, the woman's face is never completely visible at any point, with her face either obscured by her camera or facing away, meaning that we have no idea who she is. In 1970 there was a woman who came forward by the name of Beverly Oliver, who claimed that she was the Babushka Lady, that she had filmed the event, and that she had been approached after the assassination by FBI agents who had taken the film from her. However, it has never been proven that her story is anything more than a hoax or tall tale, no evidence to point to her being the Babushka Lady, and indeed her story has turned up various inconsistencies such as the fact that the camera she claimed to have used, a Super 8 Yashica, had not even been developed until years later, as well as the fact that she would have been 17 at the time, much younger than the mystery woman seems to be. To this day no one knows who the Babushka Lady was, what she managed to film, or what significance it may have in the John F. Kennedy assassination mystery.
Other mystery photos linked to crimes also potentially hold profound evidence and insights into puzzling cold cases, and feature as yet unknown individuals. One of the most chilling concerns the sadistic serial killer Dean Corll, also known as The Candyman, who along with two accomplices terrorized the Houston, Texas region of the United States between the years of 1970 and 1973. Corll was known to use candy to lure in young boys, earning him his sinister nickname, after which he and his associates would rape, torture, and kill them. The group officially killed 28 young victims during their bloody reign of violence, but there has long been the suspicion that there were more.
In 2012, documentary filmmaker Josh Vargas was allowed access to the possessions of one of the Candy Man’s accomplices, an Elmer Wayne Henley, who shot and killed Corll during a disagreement. Henley’s mother let Vargas look through an old box of his abandoned belongings that had not been touched for years, and lurking within these possessions was a single startling, chilling polaroid photograph. The rather grainy photograph shows a young boy bound with handcuffs and bent over on the floor with a face seemingly contorted into a look of pure terror, with a tool box visible in frame as well, especially chilling as Corll and Henley were known to utilize a tool box during their torture and murder sessions. Vargas went to visit Henley in prison to personally ask him about the mysterious boy in the picture, but the murderer claimed that he did not recall who the boy was, perhaps not surprising considering that decades had passed and they had killed so many. Henley also ominously suggested to Vargas that there were probably more victims that no one knew about.
The spooky thing is that when the photograph was examined by the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office it was determined that whoever is in that picture is not one of any of the known, official Candyman victims. This means that this is very strong evidence of a 29th victim to one of the worst serial killing sprees in U.S. history, yet despite wide circulation of the photograph and appeals by law enforcement for anyone who has more information to come forward, the boy in the photograph has never been identified. He remains a nameless specter, forever etched upon film in no doubt his final terrifying moments, his face forever set into that grimace of terror.
In other cases such mysterious photographs point towards evidence of the identity of the actual killers. Take the strange story of cocktail waitress and former model Eva Kay Wenal. On May 1, 2008, Eva had lunch with her husband, millionaire Hal Wenal, after which Hal went off to work. When he returned home that evening he was welcomed to the gruesome sight of his wife’s dead body sprawled out in their home. Eva showed signs that she had been severely beaten and she had also had her throat savagely cut open. The obvious suspect at the time was her husband, but he was quickly cleared of any wrongdoing. A mysterious letter received by the newspaper The Atlanta Journal Constitution seemed to point to the possibility that the culprit had been a jilted lover who Eva had had an affair with. The letter read:
I loved her. She said we could be together. She told me she hated her house and that fat miserable lying [expletive] husband. She said she loved me, but that was a lie too. I told her this would happen if she didn’t keep her [expletive] promises to me. His money was more important than our love. We could have been so happy together.
Other than this, the only other evidence was a police sketch made following the descriptions of witnesses who had seen a strange man wandering about the Wenal home on the night before and of the murder, and the case soon went cold. Then, in a bizarre twist, an odd photograph was found among Eva’s possessions that seems to show a man with a striking similarity to the police sketch. However, no one in the victim’s family, nor any of her friends, knows who the man in the picture is. Is he the killer? Does he know something that could help break open the case? Does he have any connection to the murder at all? No one knows. As of yet, the identity of the man in the photo remains mysterious, and he has not been found despite extensive police and FBI efforts to track down his whereabouts.
In the same year was the very unsettling case of a series of disturbing photographs that were uncovered in 2008 by the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children, showing a young blonde girl being brutally sexually assaulted by a man whose face is not visible. Among these sickening images is a photo of another man holding the same young girl, and in this case the man’s face is clearly seen, indeed he seems to be posing for the photograph. On the man’s finger can be seen a ring, which is oddly similar to a ring on the sexual assailant’s finger as well. The man posing with the girl has been nicknamed John Doe 29, and is a man in his 30s or early 40s, with shoulder length dark hair. The FBI has widely released the picture to the public, looking for any clues as to his identity, yet so far they have not been able to ascertain the individual’s identity nor even where the picture was taken. One thing that does seem certain is that the girl has never been found and is either dead or continues to be abused, with FBI Special Agent Amanda Strickland saying:
We're trying to stop further, continued sexual abuse of this child. We believe it is still ongoing. The more widely we can get this picture disseminated, the more likely it is we will be able to find this individual
Some mystery individuals have died under strange circumstances but have remained elusive as to just who they are. Such was the case when a tent was found in the wilds of Pacifica, California, upon which was scrawled the cryptic message “No Go, No Eat, No Drink, Murder.” When authorities entered the tent, they found the body of a woman lying within a large pile of various books including the Bible and Harry Potter. An autopsy concluded that the woman had starved to death, and a search was made to try and find out who she was. It was also found that she had recently had a lot of expensive dental work done.
A hit was found while putting the woman’s fingerprints through a database, but this would only serve to further deepen the mystery. The person who popped up was named Sam Smith, along with a mugshot from a previous arrest of what was obviously the same woman, yet when police looked into it further they realized that all of the information, including place of birth and birthdate, were false, and none of them led to a real person matching this data. This means that the woman had given falsified information and could be anyone. No one has been able to figure out who she was, why she was out there camping with all of those books, why she had starved to death, or what the meaning of the bizarre message written on her tent means.
Besides assassinations and other crimes, there are also the various mysterious individuals immortalized on film from our species' numerous wars, massacres, and tragedies, and here we have some of perhaps the most truly haunting of these photos; nameless faces who were there front and center for some of our greatest atrocities. First up we have a photograph that was turned up in a scrapbook owned by a German officer during World War II. The soldier in question had been part of the “death squad,” called the Einsatzgruppen in German, who were those tasked with the systematic extermination of the Jewish people, and he had been stationed in the town of Vinnitsa, in Ukraine, where around 28,000 Jews were eventually brutally wiped out in 1941.
The photograph in question shows a single man kneeling over the ghoulish sight of a mass grave of dead bodies and looking forlorn but intensely and almost defiantly at the camera as a German soldier looms behind him with a pistol to his head, surrounded by other death squad soldiers milling about the gruesome scene. It is undoubtedly the final haunting image of this man in the last moments before he joins the tangled mass of corpses below him, and on the back of this photo were found written the words “Last Jew of Vinnitsa.” Neither the man about to be shot nor his executioner have ever been identified, and they remain nameless faces of the horrors of war and genocide.
Also from 1941 is the disturbing image of an unidentified woman, this time in the city of Lviv, Ukraine, where Ukrainian nationalists brutally annihilated Jews by the thousands, and over 120,000 others suppressed and locked away in filthy, disease-ridden ghettos, from which they were doomed to be sent off to extermination camps. This active genocide of Ukrainian Jews by other Ukrainians was called the Lviv pogroms, and consisted of two main massacres. In this photograph, a Ukrainian Jewish woman is seen being chased by ruthless club wielding men, who doubtlessly bludgeoned her to death shortly after this was taken. Sadly, the woman’s identity has never been found, and she too remains an anonymous reminder of the darkness and utter evil that was creeping and slithering across the earth at the time.
In later years violence was certainly not gone from our world when the the notorious Tiananmen Square Massacre broke out in China in June of 1989. At this time, thousands upon thousands of student led pro-democracy activists had gathered in Tiananmen Square for demonstrations seeking basic rights, culminating in a vicious crackdown enacted by the Chinese government. After declaring martial law, heavily armed troops descended towards the square, arresting and killing indiscriminately as protestors attempted to block their progress.
These shockingly violent tactics employed by the Chinese government brought about outrage and worldwide condemnation, yet even then the killings and arrests continued virtually unabated. Amongst all of this mayhem an image emerged which seemed to perfectly encapsulate the strife that was rocking the area at the time. Called the “Tiananmen Square Tank Man,” the image shows a lone, unarmed man defiantly and bravely standing in the path of an incoming Chinese tank, which is followed by a whole procession of other tanks. Video footage of the incident shows the unnamed individual sidestepping and remaining in its way even when it tries to go around him, and even jumping up onto the tank to apparently have a short chat with the tank’s driver before dropping down and taking up his defiant position once more.
This continues for several minutes before the man is swept away by a group of people. The iconic photograph of this incident, taken by Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener, has become one of the most potent, famous, and instantly recognizable images of the century, yet to this day no one knows who he was, what became of him, or who the group of people was who ushered him away from the tense scene. It has been theorized that the people who pulled him away were with the government, and that the fearless man was executed shortly after, but no one knows, and he remains a faceless, unsung hero of one of the most important tragedies of the 20th century.
Finally we come to one of the greater and more resounding recent tragedies of modern times, that of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, when two planes were hijacked and sent into a suicide run straight into the World Trade Center towers to collapse them with ominous finality. It was an unprecedented act of terrorism on American soil which shocked the world, killed thousands, and sends out ripples which still reverberate around the world today. Among all of the plentitude of grim imagery of the attacks and the devastation they left in their wake are those photos of people who provide a glimpse into the sheer, mind boggling horror of it all. One of these is a series of photos that show a lone woman standing forlornly within one of the gaping holes carved into a tower by the planes, appearing to wave and shout out for help at one point. Although the woman obviously survived the initial attack, it is uncertain what became of her after this bleak immortalized moment, and her identity has never been conclusively determined.
One of the more iconic and indeed haunting of the 9/11 photographs has come to be called simply “The Falling Man.” Considered one of the most influential photos ever taken, it was shot by Richard Drew moments after the attacks, and shows a man plummeting to his death from dizzying heights towards the ground head first from the North Tower. It is estimated that up to 200 people chose to leap from these towers in such a way rather than face the inexorable approach of the smoke and fire that was threatening to consume them, but although some of these were captured on film none of them seem to have the incredibly potent effect that “The Falling Man” has.
Perhaps it is the way he was so clearly captured diving headfirst towards his doom, or that he doesn’t seem to struggle, merely resigned to his fate, but it definitely struck a chord with the public, with some even complaining that it was too graphic to be published. Behind all of the gasping and controversy surrounding the Falling Man photo, nobody has ever been able to identify who the man actually is. Some theories suggest that he was a maintenance worker washing the windows, while others think it is a man named Jonathan Briley, who worked at a restaurant in the tower and whose body was never recovered, but there has been no conclusive identification, and the subject of one of the most powerful images from the 9/11 disaster remains with no name other that “The Falling Man.” Why did he jump from the tower in those last terrifying moments? What was going through his head as the ground rushed up to greet him? Who was he? We will never know, and his last moments of life remain perpetually suspended there in midair on film.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes none of these words lead to any understanding of who the picture is of. Here we have moments trapped in time, etched into eternity, but offering no clear understanding of the mysteries they represent. While the people in these photographs will live on forever frozen in their last poses, so will their myriad mysteries and enigmas. As strange, mesmerizing, horrific, or iconic as some of these snapshots might be, they only hint at some greater world beyond what the camera has managed to ensnare and hold in suspended animation. We can look and prod at these photos all we want, but beyond what we see there are vast sea of questions, wonder, and befuddlement. Who were these people? What became of them and what brought them to these moments? Are there any clues or knowledge to be mined from these images? Is there any insight or enlightenment to be gained through peering into these sometimes haunting pictures? For now we can only speculate and puzzle over their significance and the stories behind them, perhaps forever doomed to view these events through the limited scope of what the camera has picked up, moments in time forever held in suspension, offering many mysteries but few answers.