7 Mysterious People Without a Past

Their pasts were shrouded in mystery.
Their pasts were shrouded in mystery. / Khosrow Rajab Kordi/EyeEm/Getty Images

History is loaded with people who have disappeared without a trace; rarer are the ones who seem to have emerged from nowhere, with no traceable past. In the era of the internet, of course, it’s getting easier to crack these cold cases, but there are still a fair number that remain unsolved. Here are some of the creepier people without a past.

1. Jerome of Sandy Cove

Although the versions of his discovery differ, the general story goes that in September of 1863, in Nova Scotia, Canada, an 8-year-old boy walking on the beach of Sandy Cove met a man who was suffering from cold and exposure. He also didn’t have any legs.

When the boy’s family took the legless man to their home, in the village of Digby Neck, they learned that he didn’t speak English. The townspeople named him Jerome, after he murmured something that sounded like that name when they asked who he was. Not only did he not speak English; he didn’t speak in words. When curious looky-loos began stopping by the house to check out the mysterious stranger, Jerome growled at them like a dog.

When Jerome was examined, the plot thickened. It seemed that his amputations were fresh, so much that they still had the dressings on them and hadn’t yet healed; it seemed that a skilled surgeon had removed the man’s legs. It wasn’t an accident.

After a while, the people of the mostly Baptist town of Digby Neck somehow decided that Jerome might be Catholic (by some accounts, because of a Mediterranean appearance), and he was shipped off to the nearby Acadian community of Meteghan. He was taken in by Corsican-Canadian polyglot Jean Nicola, who tried French on him, in addition to Latin, Italian, and Spanish. Jerome either didn’t speak them or didn’t want to.

Nicola kept Jerome in his house anyhow, caring for him for another 7 years, along with his wife, Julitte, and stepdaughter, Madeleine, for whom Jerome became a favorite. It was during his time in Meteghan that the government was notified of the unidentified double amputee and granted a $2 weekly stipend for his care. Despite living with a linguist, Jerome never learned to speak any language and could only grunt and growl.

After Julitte died, Jerome was sent to live with the Comeau family in the nearby town of St. Alphonse. Jerome stayed here for the rest of his life, allowing the Comeaus to collect admission from onlookers to view him (in addition to collecting his government stipend). Jerome died in 1912, almost 50 years after he was found on the beach. No one ever figured out who he was.

Jerome has become a favorite character in the folk history of Nova Scotia, with songs and even films telling his story, and theories on his background still abound. Some posit that Jerome was a sailor who was punished with amputation after an attempted mutiny, while others say he was an heir to a fortune who was mutilated, usurped, and then disposed of. According to a book published by Nova Scotian historian Fraser Mooney, Jr., in 2008, Jerome was an immigrant from a town in nearby New Brunswick who suffered from gangrene and was dropped off on Sandy Cove after he became too great of a burden on the town.

None of these theories have been proven—and to this day, Jerome’s identity is still a conundrum.

2. John Doe No. 24

In October 1945, a deaf teenager was found wandering the streets of Jacksonville, Illinois, unable to speak, sign, or otherwise communicate. The only thing he could write was the name Lewis. After trying for some time to locate his relatives and failing, a judge sentenced him to the state’s mental health system. He was the 24th nameless person to enter the system, so he became known as John Doe No. 24 (and not Lewis, mystifyingly). The name ended up sticking with him until he died.

After being subjected to abuse for years in the state mental institution, things got worse for John, as he eventually lost his eyesight as well, possibly as a side effect of diabetes. Once that happened, he was transferred to several different nursing homes after 30 years in the federal mental health system. He was reported to have kept his sense of humor, though, and was a cheerful guy who enjoyed dancing to music, feeling the vibrations.

When he died of a stroke at the nursing home in Peoria in 1993, no one was any closer to discovering who he was or where he’d come from. At his graveside service, when the crowd was asked if anyone had words to say about John, nobody did. Fortunately, he may not be completely forgotten; when she heard the sad story, singer/songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter commemorated him in her song, “John Doe No. 24.”

3. Monsieur Chouchani

Jewish teacher M. Chouchani, also known as Shushani, is best known for his distinguished students—one of whom was Nobel Peace Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel—and not his own works, but that’s mostly because he fervidly guarded the secret of his identity for his entire life.

Chouchani’s disheveled, mendicant-esque appearance is often mentioned in accounts of his life. Wiesel wrote that Chouchani was “dirty,” “hairy,” and “looked like a hobo turned clown, or a clown playing hobo,” while according to another pupil, the Lithuanian-French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, “his external appearance was quite unpleasant, some say even repugnant.” But he left a strong impression on his students, who called him a master of philosophy, mathematics, and the Talmud. Both men credit him with being one of their most influential teachers ever.

Extremely little is known about Chouchani’s origins. Just after WWII, between 1947 and 1952, the rabbi lived in Paris, then vanished for several years, popping up in Israel for a while. Then he was hanging out in Paris again briefly. Finally, he moved to South America at some point, where he lived until he died. Beyond that, all that’s really known about the guy is that he was born in 1895, and even the location is unknown.

So is his real name. Chouchani and Shushani are thought to be nicknames, and possibly puns; Shushani is a demonym for someone from the Biblical city of Shushan, now in modern-day Iran. But no one’s even clear on why he was called that, or when he started being called that—or what the pun is, if there is one.

We do know that Chouchani died in 1968 and that he’s buried in Montevideo, Uruguay. Wiesel paid for his headstone and penned his epitaph, which reads: “The wise Rabbi Chouchani of blessed memory. His birth and his life are sealed in enigma.”

4. Bella of the Wych Elm

In 1943, in the thick of WWII, four boys were playing in Hagley Wood outside of Stourbridge, England, when they made a grim discovery: a human skull in the hollow trunk of a witch hazel tree. When police returned to the scene, they found more—a nearly complete skeleton of a middle-aged woman along with some bits of clothing, a shoe, and a cheap wedding ring. A severed hand was subsequently discovered buried nearby. The corpse was found to have a piece of taffeta in its mouth, suggesting the woman had been asphyxiated, and she’d been dead about a year and a half. It’s surmised that she was stuffed into the tree while she was still warm, as rigor mortis would have prevented it.

The second World War was raging, so the process of identification was stymied—people disappear all the time during a war, often on purpose. Authorities could roughly discern what the woman looked like, but they had no idea where she was from. All they had was her approximate age (35), her height (5 foot), hair color (mousy brown), and the fact that she had messed-up teeth. A search of 3000 missing person cases did no good, and although the press covered the story, no one came forward with information. The war surged on, and people forgot about the incident.

To add to the creepiness, strange messages started appearing around Christmas of 1943 or 1944 (sources differ). In the West Midlands town of Old Hill, not far from Hagley, a graffito in white chalk appeared on the side of an empty building, inquiring: WHO PUT LUEBELLA DOWN THE WYCH-ELM. (Witch hazel and wych elms are easily mistaken for one another.) Other similar phrases soon showed up in nearby locations, always including the name Bella or Luebella and frequently the name of Hagley Wood.  After a week or two, the phrase became more consistent, taking the form of: WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WYCH (sometimes WITCH) ELM?

Despite the messages, the case remained as cold as ever. The best lead the police ever came up with was that a Nazi spy ring had been operating in the Midlands area during the war, and one of the women connected to the spies was named Clarabella Dronkers (or possibly Clara Bauerle), who was in her thirties and had irregular teeth. They didn’t have enough information, though, to confirm she was the Bella they were looking for.

No one ever managed to work out the identity of the graffiti artist (or artists) either. The phrase kept appearing in and around the Midlands for decades after the murder. Many of the instances found it spray-painted in white, all caps, on the base of the 250-year-old Wychbury Obelisk in Birmingham; that location seems to have first been chosen in the 1970s, and the question last appeared there in 1999.

5. Man of the Hole

He has a slew of nicknames, including the Last Tribesman and the Loneliest Man on Earth. But his real name, like his backstory, isn’t known. Usually called the Man of the Hole, he was first discovered to be living alone in the Amazon rainforest in 1996, on a patch of land surrounded by cattle ranchers, and it’s thought that he was the last living member of his Indigenous tribe. Which one? That’s unknown too, as is the language he spoke.

MofH’s most common nickname derives from his practice of digging narrow 6-foot-deep chasms inside of each of his homes—which were made of straw, thatch, and giant leaves, and each of which he eventually discarded to build a new shelter, leaving the hole behind. It’s thought that the purpose of the holes was to trap animals, or perhaps were a place for him to hide. He also had a garden, where he grew manioc, corn, and paw-paw fruit, among other produce.

In 2007, Brazil’s Fundação Nacional do Índio, the country’s governmental protection agency for natives, made it illegal to develop on—or even trespass on—the Man of the Hole’s land, beginning with cordoning off 31 square miles around his territory and later expanding it by 11.5 more. He’d already been granted rights to his traditional land, per Brazil’s constitution. Sadly, the man died in 2022.

6. Kaspar Hauser

A contemporary depiction of Kaspar Hauser by Johann Georg Laminit. 
A contemporary depiction of Kaspar Hauser by Johann Georg Laminit.  / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This one is almost certainly a hoax, but what an elaborate hoax it is.

In May of 1828, a teenaged boy in peasant clothes was found roaming the streets of what is now Nuremberg, Germany, affecting such a helpless and confused air that passers-by stopped to assist him. He carried on him two letters, one from his caretaker, who said he had raised the boy from infancy and tutored him in reading, writing, and religion, but never allowed him to “take a single step out of my house,” and the other from his mother, stating that he was born on April 30, 1812, that his name was Kasper Hauser, and that his cavalryman of a father had died. The letters were in the same handwriting. He was taken to the home of Captain von Wessenig, where the only things he would say were that he wished to be a cavalryman, as his father was, and “Horse! Horse!” If he were asked any further questions, he would burst into tears and shout “Don’t know!”

When Hauser ended up in custody of the police, jailed as a vagrant in Nuremberg Castle, he said a little more. He claimed to have been held in a dark cell for as long as he could remember, with only a wool blanket, two wooden horses and a toy dog, and fed nothing but bread and water. (As such, he refused to eat any food he was given except bread and water, displaying a special disgust for meat.) He added that he never saw the face of his custodian, only that he’d occasionally drink bitter-tasting water and then wake to find that his hair and nails had been cut.  As well, he seemed obsessed with horses, lighting up with joy after someone gave him a toy horse, petting it, talking to it.

However, the boy seemed in good health, climbing 90 steps up the tower to the jail cell, and he didn’t display any signs of rickets or other malnourishment that would come along with being raised in a dungeon. He said he’d been taught to walk recently by a mysterious man with a blackened face who taught him the phrase, “I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was” (in an Old Bavarian dialect), but he had no idea what it meant. He said the same man was the one who dropped him off on the street in Nuremburg.

Hauser was an object of great curiosity, and people began to visit him in his jail cell, including the city’s mayor, who spent many hours talking with him. Rumors began circulating that he was possible nobility, maybe even one of the princes of the House of Baden.

After two months, Hauser was released and a schoolmaster, Georg Daumer, eventually took the boy into his home and began instructing him on writing, reading, and drawing—which Hauser showed a strong skill for, especially for somebody who’d allegedly never had the occasion to practice.

After about a year, Hauser started getting mysteriously injured.  He was found one day in Daumer’s cellar with a head wound, saying he was attacked by a man in a hood who told him, “You still have to die ere you leave the city of Nuremberg.” He claimed it was the same man who took him to Nuremberg—he recognized the voice.

This resulted in his being moved to the home of a municipal authority. About six months later, a pistol went off in Hauser’s bedroom and he was found with another bleeding head wound. He explained that he’d accidentally knocked the pistol from where it was hanging on the wall. The problem was that the wound was pretty minor and certainly not consistent with a gunshot wound. His caretakers accused him of lying and sent him to the house of Baron von Tucher, who also complained of Kasper’s lies as well as his vanity. The boy continued to burn bridges as he was shuttled around to different caretakers and summarily kicked out after a few months. One patron wrote, “Hauser is a smart scheming codger, a rogue, a good-for-nothing that ought to be killed.”

In 1833, five days after a huge fight with another schoolmaster who’d taken the teen in and then found out he was a giant liar, Kasper showed up with a serious chest wound. He claimed he was lured to the Ansbach Court Garden and a stranger had given him a bag and then stabbed him in the left breast. When police searched the boy, they came up with a violet purse containing a letter written in Spiegel schrift (German mirror writing). In English, it said:

“Hauser will be
able to tell you quite precisely how
I look and from where I am.
To save Hauser the effort,
I want to tell you myself from where
I come _ _ .
I come from from _ _ _
the Bavarian border _ _
On the river _ _ _ _ _
I will even
tell you the name: M. L. Ö.”

Nobody believed him this time, saying the wound, like the previous ones, was likely self-inflicted and he probably just punctured his chest more deeply than he’d meant to. The letter was also folded in a peculiar triangle shape that Hauser himself was known to use, and it contained some grammatical errors that were typical of his writing.

So they did nothing, and Hauser died from his wound three days later. He’s buried in Ansbach, and the epitaph reads: “Here lies Kaspar Hauser, enigma of his time … mysterious his death.”

Although historians seem to agree that Hauser was full of it, none of them ever figured out where he came from in the first place, and the idea that he was a lost prince of Baden prevailed for over a century. Finally, in 1996, a blood sample of Hauser’s was compared to samples from living members of the House of Baden. No dice.

7. Green Boots

It’s one thing to die shrouded in mystery, your identity never discovered, but it’s another for your anonymous, frozen body to serve as a landmark for the next 13 years.

To be fair, it’s not such an uncommon thing to do when you’re dealing with bodies on Mt. Everest. Obviously, it’s hard enough to climb the thing, much less to retrieve dead people and drag them down the mountain, especially if they’ve fallen into difficult-to-access places. That was the situation with the corpse known as Green Boots, who lay on his right side, with his face obscured from view, on the world’s highest mountain from at least 2001 until 2014.

Although there are approximately 200 frozen human bodies on Everest at any given time, it was the location of Green Boots in combination with his bright lime-green footwear that made him so memorable. At around 27,900 feet, all expeditions coming in from the north side could plainly spot Green Boots curled in his final resting place, a limestone cave. He’s so well known that another climber, David Sharp, died in Green Boots’ Cave (that’s its name) in 2006, after lying there in a hypothermic state for hours, while at least two dozen other climbers passed him. It’s believed that the other climbers saw him and thought he was Green Boots, already dead, and therefore didn’t stop and help.

There are lots of ideas out there as to who Green Boots is. He’s most commonly thought to be Indian climber Tsewang Paljor, who was known to have been wearing green boots the day he disappeared on Everest in 1996. Other people think it’s the body of his climbing partner, Dorje Morup. Both men died in the Everest disaster of 1996, along with six others. There have been many deaths on Everest—more than 200—and it seems unlikely that Green Boots’ identity will ever get pinned down. In 2014, he (or she) disappeared, presumably removed and buried.

SOLVED: Lori Erica Ruff

September 2016 update: The case has now been solved—Lori Erica Ruff was Kimberly McLean, a Pennsylvania woman who left her family at age 18.

Lori Ruff had been acting bizarrely in the months prior to her death in 2010, but it wasn’t anything new—her husband Blake had recently separated from her for that reason. Lori had always been a weird one, refusing to let any members of his family hold their baby daughter, for starters. Although she was in her forties, she’d asked for an Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas. She also had a strange habit of abruptly leaving family gatherings to go take a nap. Lately, it had gotten worse—after Blake filed for divorce, Lori had been sending harassing emails to his family and even stole a set of their house keys.

But even after she died by suicide in Longview, Texas, neither her husband nor any of her in-laws saw the final bombshell coming.

Throughout their marriage, a lockbox had been stashed in the couple’s closet—a lockbox that Blake had been instructed to never touch—and when it was pried open, it was found to contain a series of documents pointing to a very convoluted past. Lori had always been evasive about her background, saying her parents were dead and she had no siblings, and it turns out she had good reason to be cagey: Prior to marrying Blake and becoming Lori Erica Ruff, she had been Lori Erica Kennedy, having legally changed her name in July of 1988. But only a few months before that, it seems her name had been Becky Sue Turner—and according to an investigator the family knew, Becky Sue Turner was a 2-year-old who had died in a fire in Fife, Washington, in 1971.

That where the trail stopped. Ruff had also gotten herself a new social security number after she changed her name to Lori Kennedy, which basically wiped her identity clean. What name she used before she was Becky Sue, wasn’t known; in fact, not much about her was known, only that she got a GED and a degree in business administration from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1997 and may have once worked as an exotic dancer, according to an old acquaintance.

The lockbox also contained fake letters of reference from an employer and a landlord, as well as scraps of paper with illegible writing on them—only the words North Hollywood police, 402 months, and the name of attorney Ben Perkins were made out. It was thought she might have been facing possible jail time—402 months of it—at some point. It was also suspected, due to some of the documents, that she might have been older than she’d purported to be.

The case remained unsolved until September 2016, when authorities determined that Lori Erica Ruff was Kimberly McLean, a Pennsylvania woman who left her family at age 18.

A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2023.