Photography has only just recently developed in the grand scheme of things, and what wonders it has managed to do for us. With the advent of this wondrous invention we have gone on to record all manner of the mundane, profound wonders, historical events, and indeed even horrific tragedies. The camera has become ubiquitous in our world, its eye all-seeing, and there seems to be little that can escape the lens and be instantly sent out all over the world. Yet, as I have covered here on Mysterious Universe rather recently, there are not always clear answers to what we see on film, no understanding of what or who that image held in time eternally actually shows, despite all of out technology to capture it. Ever since we have been able to take pictures there have been shadowy people who have shown up in them to baffle and incite debate and speculation, and here are some more of the most intriguing of these.
Certainly the oldest example of an unidentified person in a photo is what is widely though to be the first photograph of a human being ever made. In 1838, French inventor Louis Daguerre, who was known for his pioneering work in photography, was testing out one of his devices called the daguerreotype. This was one of the earliest machines used for photography, and which used a unique process that utilized silver-plated copper treated with iodine and exposed to mercury vapor to capture images on film. It was a groundbreaking invention at the time, one which would herald the dawn of wide scale photography in the modern age, but one of the most noticeable drawbacks to the process was the amount of time it took to get a recognizable image.
In order to capture the light of a scene on film, it was necessary to expose the plate to an image for at least 7-10 minutes, and during this time only static objects such as buildings or trees would show up in the finished product, with people walking about on their daily business simply erased from the photograph and time itself, as they had not stayed in one place long enough for the exposure. However, during this particular experiment with his device on the Boulevard du Temple, in Paris, Daguerre happened to be aiming the camera at an area in which a person was having his shoes shined on the corner. Since the shoe shining took a bit of time, the main figure etched onto this momentous image just so happened to have been standing still long enough to show up on film, although the shoe shiner moved too much to be visible, and this is thought to be the first photograph ever successfully taken of a human being. Some people have even claimed that there is another person who can be seen sitting on a bench nearby reading a newspaper and another in a window of a building in the shot. No one knows who they are, and these people, who likely were not even aware that they were being photographed at all, will forever remain nameless people who nevertheless have the distinction of being the first photographed people in history, anonymously immortalized as such forevermore.
Also from around the same era, in the mid-1800s, is a series of peculiar Victorian-era photographs that were unearthed by the National Museum of Scotland in 2015. Scattered amongst the various photographs of the time are many that seem to show the same family, appearing to be on vacation in the town of Margate, Kent. The photos are taken over a long enough period that the kids can be seen to be growing up through the images, and it is an amazing photographic progression of a family from another era stuck in time on film. The thing is, no one has any idea of who they really were, and there are no notes or markings on the photographs to identify them in any way. Just about the only thing known about these mysterious photos is that the one who took them was a W. Colder, but other than that this seemingly well-adjusted, happy family who we see progress over the years of their annual vacation are completely anonymous, and at some point the photos just abruptly stop. Who were these people and what happened to them? Why did they stop their vacations to Margate? What were their names? We will never know, and they have become lost to the tides of history.
Another curious individual who remains unknown is what has come to be called simply “Leatherman.” From around 1857 to 1889, this strange person dressed himself in a hodgepodge of scarves, ratty old clothes, and shoes hewn from leather, and proceeded to make a never-ending 365-mile circuit around western Connecticut and eastern New York, along the Connecticut River and the Hudson River for purposes that remain unclear. Along the way of his continuous journey, he would stop at various towns along the way approximately every 5 weeks for food and supplies, living in rock shelters that would come to be known as “Leatherman caves.” He would simply keep on this circuitous route year after year, becoming a fixture of the landscape itself.
It is reported that this mysterious individual was perhaps French-Canadian, and that he could speak fluent French and a bit of English, but would choose to communicate mostly through gestures, grunts, and growls. It was said that a sure way to push him away and make him lapse into silence was to ask him anything about his background or purpose, he declined to eat any meat on Fridays, and he remained a specter of sorts during these years, almost a walking, breathing legend. People always knew his predictable route, and many were usually standing by with supplies and food to donate to this wayward enigma of a man. At one point he was detained by the Connecticut Humane Society, who deemed him to be remarkably healthy considering the harsh climate and his tenuous vagabond existence, and considered him to be “sane except for an emotional affliction.” He continued this cycle for years, no one ever really knowing what his ultimate goal was on his relentless journey, until one day on March 24, 1889 he was found near Ossining, New York, dead of cancer of the mouth, probably brought on by his heavy use of tobacco. On his body was found a French language prayer book.
The Leatherman was buried in Ossining, New York, although he has been since exhumed and reburied, which oddly turned up no remains except for some nails and scraps of clothing. His true identity has been debated ever since. His original tombstone read “Final resting place of Jules Bourglay of Lyons, France, 'The Leather Man,” but his real identity has never been ascertained, and his current headstone simply calls him “The Leatherman.” To this day no one knows who the Leatherman was or why he chose to circle continuously through his hard, harrowing, and never-ending route.
There are other unidentified individuals in photos in later years as well. In 1956 there was a picture taken at the height of Apartheid in South Africa. The photo in question was taken shortly after 156 members of the Congress Alliance were charged with treason, and shows a few rows of black demonstrators standing about with some in front holding placards that read “We stand by our leaders.” The photo, titled “Crowd near Drill Hall on the first day of the Treason Trial, Johannesburg, December 19, 1956,” would be a pretty typical photograph of the era if it weren’t for one odd little detail. There front in center and squeezed in between the black protestors is a young, clearly white boy of about 13 years of age, wearing shorts, sandals, and a short-sleeved shirt. This all begs the questions of what he is doing here amongst a bunch of black protestors at a volatile time of race tensions to say the least, and just who he is.
There have been theories of course. One is that he was the son of a sympathetic white, who while few and far between certainly did exist. He could have also been connected to a worker or nanny who was down with the whole movement, but there is no clue in the photo itself or any notes to go along with it of who he really is. There is the persistent theory that he was just the son of photographer, Eli Weinberg, and that he had just happened to find his way into the shot, but there has been little evidence of this and it cannot be proven. Whoever he is, the image of this unknown solitary, white boy squeezed in amongst a group of black demonstrators during one of the most racially charged moments in human history is somewhat jolting and unexpected to say the least.
In more recent times there is the inscrutable identity of a boy who appeared in a photo in 1988 of then president Ronald Reagan’s well-publicized trip to Moscow, in a dark time between nations amidst some of he greatest tensions the United States and the Soviet Union had ever seen. During the trip, Reagan went out to meet some of the locals and had his picture taken interacting with a plethora of ordinary Russian citizens, but one in particular stands out. In this picture, Reagan can be seen going to shake hands with a young boy as bystanders look on at the Kremlin. The interesting thing is, off to the side of the whole scene is a blonde young man with cream colored slacks and a polo shirt and a camera around his neck, looking very much the part of clueless tourist but who many have claimed may have been a young Vladimir Putin himself, who would have been a junior spy KGB operative at the time. The photo has caused a good amount of surprise and shock that Reagan could have possibly bumped into a young Putin, and controversy has ensued.
Although the photographer, Pete Souza, has insisted that it is indeed a young Putin, the debate has raged over the identity of the slightly dorky looking guy in the photo. For their part, Russia officials have adamantly denied that the person in the photo is a young Putin, writing off the idea as pure conspiracy nonsense. Nevertheless, there are those who are convinced that the man bears a striking resemblance to the Russian leader and could only be him. The debate rages on, and whether it is really Putin or not, the identity of the young blonde man in the photo has never been fully determined.
In 1990 there was also a teenage boy who was taken in by police who said that he had run away from home. Calling himself “Johnny Lee Mills,” he was eventually placed with a children’s shelter in Maryland Heights, Missouri, but would run away not long after and disappear off the face of the earth. Baffled authorities soon figured out that the mysterious boy had also gone under the aliases “Steve Johnson” and “Randi Smith,” but that none of these identities were real. With no other leads, no incoming evidence, and no one coming forward with information as to who he could have been, the case of “Johnny Lee Mills” was closed and no on knows who he was. He hasn't been seen since.
One mysterious individual that has turned up in puzzling photos may even arguably not be human at all. In the 1937, the Dutch magazine Het Leven published an intriguing series of photographs they turned up that seemed to show what appears to be some sort of human-ape hybrid. Supposedly found in the jungles of Brazil, the figure in question is an undeniably simian looking character, complete with a bent over gait, overdeveloped brow, and decidedly very primate-like features. The sheer bizarreness of the creature in question has posed the question of whether this is some sort of hybrid or missing link.
The controversial pictures have in recent times come under quite a bit of scrutiny, with many skeptical inquiries aimed at them. For one, it has been pointed out that the subject appears to be strikingly clean-cut and well shaven for someone who had been living rough out in the Brazilian rainforests on his own. There have also been many who have claimed that the lines of the prosthetic make-up can clearly be seen in some shots, making it an obvious fake. Other opinions are that this is likely a person suffering from severe birth defects, who has been recruited to engage in these photos for the macabre fascination of the masses. It remains unresolved as to whether this is a hoax, the images of someone with a birth defect, or a genuine new type of ape man, and not much more information is available on what is going on here.
There is another category of strange images floating about, and this is those that are linked to people with a strong connection to the murky world of mysterious deaths, disappearances, and conspiracies. One of the biggest wellsprings of conspiracy theories there is revolves around the 1963 assassination of American president John F. Kennedy. I have touched on some of the weird photos and people in them that have cropped up in the wake of this historical event here before in my previous article with the “Babushka Woman,” but this is not the only one.
Amongst the many photos orbiting the scene of the tragedy there have been other unknown individuals captured on film who have only served to add to the whole veneer of seemingly perpetual intrigue and mystery spinning about the assassination. One is who has come to be known as simply “The Umbrella Man,” who takes the form of a bystander visible in the footage who happens to be opening up a black umbrella right about at the time of the shooting, despite the fact that the weather at the time was clear, with no rain. The man can then be seen holding his open umbrella up in the air, which has led to the theory that this was an accomplice in the shooting that was somehow signaling others in some way on the gruesome work.
Adding to all of this conspiracy is the idea that the Umbrella Man is not signaling so much as utilizing his own concealed weapon in the form of some sort of dart shot out of his umbrella. In this version of events, a paralyzing dart was shot forth to incapacitate the president and make him more susceptible to being assassinated. It is a notion steeped in dark conspiracy to be sure, and unfortunately there is not a shred of evidence to support it. However, we are left with the questions of what was the Umbrella Man doing and why was he there? In 1978 a man named Louie Steven Witt claimed that it was him in the photos and that he had only meant to heckle the president, but there is little to back up this bold claim. Whoever he is and whatever his inscrutable agenda was, The Umbrella Man remains unidentified, his true purpose obscured by shadows.
Also linked to the JFK assassination is yet another unknown individual picked out in photos of the event. In this case, it is a perhaps African American man seen to be sitting down beside the previously mentioned Umbrella Man in some images. The so-called “Dark Complected Man” can at one point be seen to be seemingly talking into a radio of some sort before putting it back in his pocket, leading to the idea that he was in on the whole thing as well, with some even saying that the dark complexion marks him as a Cuban spy. The identity of the Dark Complected Man, his role in the Kennedy assassination, and his relation to the Umbrella Man all remain cloaked in murky clouds that we will likely never penetrate.
Perhaps even creepier than this are the various unknown individuals who have been captured on film lingering about or partaking in strange murders or crimes. Starting in 2002, an unidentified individual went about a spree of bank robberies throughout the area of Wheaton, Illinois, not far from Chicago. Called the “Wheaton Bandit” by the media, the brazen robber managed to eventually rob 16 banks and make off with around $100,000 without being caught, becoming one of the most notorious and elusive bank robbers in the state’s history. Interestingly, the mysterious robber was caught on camera on many occasions during his spree, always wearing a ski mask and brandishing a semiautomatic handgun. Although there have been some who have claimed to have seen the robber without his mask, the identity of the masked bandit has never been determined.
There is also the morbid case of the American serial killer Lonnie David Franklin Jr., more widely known by his sinister nickname the “Grim Sleeper,” who from the 1980s to 2002 killed 10 people and quite possibly more in the Los Angeles area of California, taking a 14 year break in the midst of it all. The killer would eventually be found to be a Lonnie David Franklin Jr, and in 2010 a gruesome discovery was made at Franklin’s home which could significantly raise the killer’s death toll. Police were able to seize 180 assorted photos taken by the killer, of women of all ages ranging from teenage girls to young women, to to others in their 60s, mostly fully or partially nude and in various states of duress, with many of them beaten, unconscious, or seemingly sleeping, perhaps dead.
Authorities believe that these photos could represent possible new victims of the serial killer, but the problem is that many of them remain unidentified. Although there have been individuals amongst the photographs who have been tracked down, there are 38 of them who remain specters. The police have compiled these photos and put together a slideshow of the unidentified individuals in an effort to find out whether they are alive or more victims, with one investigator saying of these efforts:
I don’t think there is a case where this many photos were displayed. He has been collecting pictures for 25 and 30 years. Some people will be upset that we are putting their picture in the paper. What they need to realize is we are obligated to do this… We aren’t the ones who took the picture—he is.
Even more recently is the case of two young girls who were ruthlessly murdered in 2017. 14-year-old Liberty German and 13-year-old Abigail Williams were found dead by an abandoned railroad bridge near a northern Indiana trail in February of 2017, after being declared missing after going out on a hike. In the aftermath of this gruesome crime, a grainy photograph turned up that showed a man in jeans and a blue jacket walking along the same bridge at around the time of the killings, and although authorities released the image they remained silent as to how they had actually obtained it or who took it, leading to speculation ranging from that it was taken by one of the victims to that it was picked up by a trail cam. All police seem to say is that he is a person who is wanted for questioning in the case, and it remains unclear who he is, or whether he might be the murderer or just someone taking a hike.
Although in all of these cases we have people etched into images forevermore, it seems that sometimes this does little to enlighten us as to who they really are. These people have flickered across the lens of history, been captured in time, yet we haven't a single clue as to who they truly are. In time we may get to the bottom of some of these and peel back the layers to reveal their identities, but others will likely be doomed to remain frozen in mystery, stuck in those suspended moments to be studied and talked about but ultimately never fully understood.