25 of the Most Mysterious Deaths in History

In the case of some of these deaths, we might never definitively know what happened.
What happened in these deaths is far from clear.
What happened in these deaths is far from clear. / CSA Images/Getty Images (skull); Photo illustration by Justin Dodd

We may not know what happens after we finally shuffle off this mortal coil, but in many cases, cause of death is often fairly cut-and-dry (at least these days it is, thanks in large part to scientific advancements). This isn’t always so, of course, and the further we go back into history, the more mysterious many deaths become, sometimes leading to rampant speculation, vicious rumors, or modern conspiracy theories about what really happened. When it comes to the deaths on this list—of explorers who vanished; conquerors, composers, and scientists who expired from strange illnesses; people tantalizingly close to power who disappeared or wound up dead; and figures whose larger-than-life legends simply refuse to die—questions linger to this day.

1. Alexander the Great

Macedonia’s Alexander the Great died on June 13 in the year 323 BCE after a two-week-long illness that left him weak to the point of losing his power of speech. It was strange enough that the previously healthy 32-year-old king would expire so suddenly. Stranger still was that for about six days after his death, Alexander’s body reportedly showed no signs of decomposition—which his supporters took as proof of his divinity.

Modern hypotheses about Alexander’s cause of death run the gamut from malaria and typhoid fever to West Nile encephalitis contracted from birds. As for the mystery of the non-decaying corpse, Katherine Hall, a senior lecturer at New Zealand’s University of Otago, has a compelling—and horrifying—theory: Maybe it wasn’t a corpse. In other words, maybe Alexander was still alive for days after he was pronounced dead. As Hall explained in a 2018 journal article, Alexander could have had Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that can cause progressive paralysis. Eventually, Alexander would have been completely immobile, and his reduced metabolism would have caused his body temperature to drop and his breathing to become so shallow it was effectively imperceptible. If Hall is correct, it’s possible that Alexander’s embalmers inadvertently killed him, though “it is very likely Alexander was in a deep coma by this stage and would have had no awareness when they began their task,” Hall wrote [PDF]. —Ellen Gutoskey

2. Grigori Rasputin

Grigori Rasputin in a red frame with question marks on it.
Grigori Rasputin. / Laski Diffusion/Getty Images Rasputin), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

Whether he was a mystic or a charlatan, Grigori Rasputin was successful in gaining the confidence of the Russian royal family—but his rapid rise to power created deadly enemies. The story of Rasputin’s assassination in 1916 has become legendary (and was even the subject of a 1978 disco song by Boney M.) due to how difficult he was to actually kill. He was fed cyanide-laced cakes and wine, and when that failed, he was shot multiple times. But he still wouldn’t die, so his murderers tied his wrists and threw him into the Neva River. Although his dead body was found under the ice, Rasputin had apparently managed to free himself from his bonds before finally succumbing to death by drowning.

The problem with this story of Rasputin’s paranormal ability to defy death is that it’s just that—a story. Prince Felix Yusupov, a member of the group of noblemen who killed the Mad Monk, crafted the chain of events to bolster his own reputation by turning his victim into a supernatural figure. The autopsy report clears things up: Rasputin wasn’t poisoned or drowned; he died when he was shot in the head. —Lorna Wallace

3. Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe on a green background surrounded by question marks.
Edgar Allan Poe. / © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images (Poe), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

If Edgar Allan Poe wanted to perpetuate one last enduring mystery before he died, he succeeded. The moribund writer (whose works included “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven”) was found disheveled and seriously ill in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, at age 40. Gripped by delirium, he was unable to tell anyone what his affliction was or where he’d been for the previous six days. He had been staying in Richmond, Virginia, and had left on a journey bound for Philadelphia—but he never made it. 

When Poe was discovered, he was wearing clothes that did not appear to be his own; his condition never improved, and he expired on October 7. The attending physician declared that Poe had been suffering from phrenitis, or brain congestion, a term that was sometimes used as a euphemism for excessive drinking. 

Ever since, historians have batted around ideas on his fate that have ranged from the mundane (alcoholism, tuberculosis, or a random physical assault) to the sensational: Poe might have been plied with drink and forced into repeatedly voting in an election scheme, a fraud known as “cooping” that was common in Baltimore at the time. Or perhaps he was felled by rabies after petting an infected cat. The fact that Poe’s medical records disappeared only added to the mystery. 

Poe couldn’t articulate his woes, save for one word: Reynolds. Who or what he was referring to and what role it played in his death has never been uncovered. —Jake Rossen

4. Agnès Sorel

Agnès Sorel on a purple background surrounded by question marks.
Agnès Sorel. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images (Sorel), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

Agnès Sorel is remembered for three things: Being King Charles VII of France’s officially acknowledged mistress; supposedly wearing dresses which exposed her favorite breast (which likely isn’t true, but a misconception that stemmed from a posthumous portrait that depicted her as the Virgin Mary breastfeeding baby Jesus); and her mysterious death in 1450 while she was pregnant with her fourth child.

Sorel’s death was initially attributed to dysentery, but it was suspected that she was actually poisoned—a theory that was proven true in 2005 by paleopathologist Philippe Charlier, who tested her remains and found lethal levels of mercury. This indicates that she was probably murdered; the most likely culprit was the Dauphin (later Louis XI), who rebelled against his father and may have wanted his influential mistress out of the way. But emphasis needs to be put on probably murdered: There’s a chance that she ingested the mercury herself—at the time, quicksilver was an ingredient in both medicines and makeup. —LW

5. Abby and Andrew Borden

On June 20, 1893, a jury found that Lizzie Borden had not taken an ax and given her father, Andrew, and her stepmother, Abby, any whacks when they were murdered in the Borden home in Fall River, Massachusetts, on August 4, 1892. But if not Lizzie, then who? 

Russell Aiuto writes at Crime Library that “a number of accusations were made” at the time about who the murderer could be, including Lizzie's uncle, John Morse, who was staying with the Bordens when the murders occurred; the Bordens’ house maid, Bridget Sullivan; and their neighbor, Dr. Seabury Warren Bowen. Other suspects, according to Aiuto, were “a madman in a straw hat” and “one of Lizzie's Chinese Sunday School students.” In more recent years, theories have posited that Emma, Lizzie’s sister, was the killer, despite the fact that she was cleared at the time because she was on vacation 15 miles away. There’s also a bizarre theory involving Andrew’s supposed illegitimate son, William. (While there was a man named William Borden living in Fall River, it’s not known how he was connected to Andrew, if he even was at all.) 

Police arrested a Portuguese immigrant before inconsistencies in Lizzie’s account—not to mention her lack of emotion about the murders, among other oddities—caused police to turn suspicion her way. The general consensus after the verdict was that Lizzie did do it and got away with murder. She claimed innocence for the rest of her life, but was generally an outcast in Fall River until her death in 1927. The crime remains unsolved to this day, and we’ll probably never officially know whodunit. —Erin McCarthy

6. Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis on an orange background surrounded by question marks
Meriwether Lewis. / Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images (Lewis), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

From May 1804 to September 1806, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the Corps of Discovery from St. Louis, Missouri, to the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific Ocean and back again. They traveled more than 8000 miles, gathered an unprecedented body of knowledge of the Louisiana Purchase and the American West, and lost only one crew member—an incredible feat of survival against the odds. Which makes Meriwether Lewis’s unexpected death in a Tennessee tavern all the more odd.

In September 1809, after serving as the governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory, Lewis left St. Louis on a trip to Washington, D.C. As he floated down the Mississippi River, he contracted malaria, and his traveling companion for a later part of the trip, James Neelly, believed Lewis to be “deranged in mind.” Neelly, Lewis, and their two servants left the river near present-day Memphis and then turned onto the Natchez Trace. On October 10—with Neelly somewhere behind him, searching for missing horses—Lewis and the two servants arrived at Grinder’s Stand, a small inn operated by Priscilla and Robert Grinder. Lewis’s erratic behavior worried Mrs. Grinder, whose husband was away, and she let Lewis stay in one cabin while she, her children, and maid slept in the other. Lewis’s two servants stayed in a barn about 200 yards from the cabins. 

Neelly recorded Mrs. Grinder’s account of what happened next. She said she heard two gunshots at about 3 a.m. and something “fall heavily on the floor.” She peeked out of her window and—despite the moonless night—allegedly spied Lewis crawling across the room and asking for water. Too afraid to investigate, she waited until morning to enter Lewis’s cabin, where she found him with mortal wounds.

Some historians believe Lewis, despondent over his illness and troubles with the governorship in Louisiana, took his own life. Others suggest Mrs. Grinder, the only adult witness to hear Lewis’s last moments, murdered him for a reason she did not reveal. Some local people figured that Robert Grinder had come home to find Meriwether Lewis in bed with Mrs. Grinder and shot him, so she made up the rest of the story to cover for her husband. Other theories include a political assassination or murder by an unknown bandit. We may never know the truth. —Kat Long

7. Amelia Earhart

In 1937, accomplished aviator Amelia Earhart attempted to circumnavigate the globe with navigator Fred Noonan. Near the end of their journey, on July 2, they took off from New Guinea en route to Howland Island, but they never arrived. The most popular—and plausible—theory is that the plane ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean, killing both Earhart and Noonan.

A huge search was conducted, but the plane and its occupants were never found (although sonar technology has recently detected an aircraft-shaped object in the location where they are believed to have crashed). The uncertainty surrounding Earhart and Noonan’s fates has led to widespread speculation about what might have happened.

One theory proposes that the duo wound up on Nikumaroro (a.k.a. Gardner Island), roughly 350 miles southeast of Howland, where they died as castaways (perhaps by being feasted upon by coconut crabs), but who the skeletal remains on the island actually belonged to is a matter of considerable debate. Another says that Earhart was actually a spy who was captured by the Japanese and then returned to the U.S. to live under an alias. Yet another suggests that the pair died in Japanese captivity. There’s no conclusive proof for any of these theories. —LW

8. The Somerton Man

The dead man found under the esplanade on Australia’s Somerton Beach in 1948 was not dressed for a trip to the beach; in fact, he wore a full suit with its labels removed—and that was just the beginning of the mystery. The man carried no ID, though he did have a ticket for both the bus and the train. Local authorities connected the man with an abandoned suitcase, but could not identify him. Later, a piece of paper ripped from a book with the words tamám shud (“it is ended” in Persian) printed on it was found in his pocket.

All attempts to name the Somerton Man met dead ends. He had several distinct physical features that should have made him recognizable, but no one identified him, or claimed his body. An autopsy revealed extensive internal bleeding and an enlarged spleen; the coroner speculated he may have been poisoned. Any motive to kill the man remained unknown. 

Police were eventually able to track down the book they thought the paper in the Somerton Man’s pocket had been torn from; inside, a phone number was written that led to a nurse named Jessica Thomson. (The book was also marked with a strange code they couldn’t crack, which remains unsolved.) She told them she had given a copy of the book to a man … who was still alive and well, and had his copy of the book. She claimed to not know the Somerton Man, though she apparently fainted when she saw a cast of his face, and she had a son with the same unusual dental and ear characteristics as the Somerton man, whose body was found not far from where she lived. 

In 2022, an Australian professor named Derek Abbott analyzed DNA from hair found in the Somerton Man’s death mask and suggested he was actually a person named Carl Webb, who shared no DNA with Thomson’s son. The Australian government has yet to confirm his identity and close the case. —Kerry Wolfe

9. Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe on a teal background surrounded by question marks
Christopher Marlowe. / Keystone/Getty Images (Marlowe), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

On May 30, 1593, Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, just 29 years old, was stabbed to death by one of his companions, Ingram Frizer. As the story goes, the two couldn’t decide who should pay the tavern bill and the argument came to blows. (Technically, they weren’t in a tavern, but at the house of Dame Eleanor Bull.)

Plenty of people think that story is too simple to be plausible, though. For one thing, Marlowe happened to be awaiting trial on charges of atheism—a crime punishable by death—at the time. For another, some historians believe he had worked as a spy for Queen Elizabeth’s administration. It also seems a little fishy that Frizer, claiming self-defense, was fully pardoned for the murder.

So if Marlowe wasn’t felled in a mere garden-variety brawl, what actually happened? According to one theory, Marlowe had evidence that members of Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council were also atheists, and they had him assassinated to keep him from spilling the beans. In an era abounding with espionage and treachery, it’s also possible that the hit was ordered by one of Marlowe’s other haters. Some people believe that his murder was faked to save him from being sentenced to death for atheism—which has given rise to the conspiracy theory that after his escape, Marlowe continued writing plays under the name William Shakespeare. —EG

10. Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor on a red background surrounded by question marks
Zachary Taylor. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images (Taylor), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

Shortly after a Fourth of July celebration in 1850, President Zachary Taylor’s health suddenly declined. He was stricken with severe cramps and diarrhea. His condition left him dehydrated, and no amount of water could quench his thirst. The swampy summer heat only intensified his discomfort. After four days of agony, the 12th president succumbed to gastroenteritis. He had been in office just 16 months.

Taylor’s mysterious death has bred competing theories. Historians often link his deadly stomach problems to a bad batch of cherries and iced milk. Others blame arsenic poisoning by pro-slavery Southerners. When his body was exhumed in the 1990s, no significant traces of the substance were found on his remains, quieting the theory’s most vocal supporters. Recent research points to contaminated drinking water at the White House. Washington, D.C. didn’t have modern sewers in the 1840s, and the water at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue came from a spring downhill of a sewage dump. The water may have also caused the deaths of two other presidents inaugurated in the 1840s: William Henry Harrison and James K. Polk. Though their deaths were blamed on pneumonia and cholera, respectively, both suffered from gastroenteritis in their final days. —Michele Debczak

11. The Princes in the Tower

The Princes in the Tower on a purple background surrounded by question marks.
Edward V and Richard, the Princes in the Tower. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images (princes), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

Richard III is usually thought of as a villain, a reputation that isn’t helped by his possible involvement in the disappearance of his nephews: 12-year-old Edward V and his younger brother Richard, together known as the “Princes in the Tower.” Too young to actually rule after the death of his father in 1483, Edward V was placed under the protection of the Duke of Gloucester. The tumultuous War of the Roses was raging, so the duke sent both boys to the Tower of London, supposedly for their safety (it was also tradition that new heirs stayed at the tower before their coronations). But while there, Parliament declared both Edward V and his brother illegitimate and the duke was crowned King Richard III.

The boys were last seen playing in the tower’s garden on June 16, 1483. At some point after that, it’s thought that they were probably murdered. In 1674, workmen renovating the tower discovered a chest containing the skeletons of two children. It’s assumed that they are the princes, but the bones have never been DNA tested. And while Richard III is the prime murder suspect, he wasn’t the only one who might have wanted the princes dead: Richard’s right-hand man Henry Stafford may have wanted to curry favor with the king, while Henry VII, like Richard before him, may not have wanted competition for the crown.

There’s also the possibility that the boys weren’t murdered at all. Philippa Langley, who found the remains of Richard III under a parking lot, believes that they lived and, as adults, tried—and failed—to reclaim the throne under the names Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck. But this claim isn’t backed up by any concrete evidence. —LW

12. Natalie Wood

Natalie Wood on a green background surrounded by question marks.
Natalie Wood. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images (Wood), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (Getty Images)

In some ways, actress Natalie Wood’s death seems like the stuff of Hollywood thrillers, not real life. Yet the Splendor in the Grass star’s tragic drowning around midnight on November 28–29, 1981, was all too real—and cast lingering questions as to how Wood, who was afraid of water, ended up in the ocean in the first place.

All the theories surrounding what really happened that night start with how Wood spent the weekend leading up to it. With actor Christopher Walken (her co-star on the film Brainstorm, which was shooting at the time), she and husband Robert Wagner were spending time aboard their yacht, Splendour. The night before her passing, the trio—alongside the yacht’s skipper, Dennis Davern—had dinner and drinks at a restaurant, then returned to the yacht while visibly intoxicated. Wood supposedly went to bed first, while Walken and Wagner stayed up. When Wagner went to their cabin expecting to see Wood, he discovered she wasn’t there, or anywhere else on the yacht; the boat’s inflatable dinghy was also gone. Wagner was believed to have been the last person who saw her alive that night. 

The following morning, Wood was discovered about a mile away from the yacht, floating in the water and wearing a flannel nightgown, down jacket, and wool socks. The dinghy was found nearby too, in an area known as Blue Cavern Point; the key was still in its ignition and in the off position, and the oars of the dinghy were still tied down. Although her death was ruled an accidental drowning in 1981, a coroner noted that there were “numerous bruises to [the] legs and arms” and an abrasion on her left cheek, which at the time were believed to have been caused after she tried to board the dinghy from the yacht, then slipped and fell into the water. The toxicology report also showed that the star had a blood alcohol content of 0.14 percent at the time of her death, leading to the theory that she likely fell overboard while under the influence. 

Yet, in 2011, officials with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reopened the case after receiving “additional information” from unidentified sources. Two years later, the coroner’s office changed Wood’s cause of death to “drowning and other undetermined factors,” citing a new report that paid closer attention to the wounds she had on her body, which included a scratch on her neck, an abrasion on her forehead, and the bruises on her arms and knee, noting that they were “unable to exclude [a] non-accidental mechanism causing these injuries.”

The yacht’s captain at the time, Dennis Davern, revealed in a 2011 interview that he lied during the initial police investigation. He claimed that Wood and Wagner reportedly got into a fight that night (allegedly over Walken, whom Wagner also argued with that evening) and at Wagner’s request, he didn’t initially disclose this information to investigators. Davern later outright claimed that Wagner—who was identified as a “person of interest” in 2018—was responsible for the tragedy. For his part, Wagner maintains that he had no involvement in Wood’s death. In his memoir Pieces of my Heart, Wagner said he had an argument with Walken but that Wood left to go to bed while Wagner and Walken were still arguing, and that was the last time he saw her. In 2022, detectives told Page Six that all the leads were exhausted, but the case remained open and unsolved. —Shayna Murphy

13. Roopkund Lake Skeletons

Roopkund Lake is located in a remote valley in the Indian Himalayas, and though it may look serene from a distance, up close, it reveals its macabre secret: The bones of hundreds of people pepper the water and are scattered along the shore. Initial theories proposed that the bones belonged to soldiers or traders; no weapons have been found amongst the bones, however, and the lake isn’t on a trade route. It is on a Hindu pilgrimage route, though, and this information—combined with forensic analysis conducted in 2004 that revealed injuries to the skulls of the skeletons—led to the theory that the bones once belonged to pilgrims who were killed by giant hail stones in the 9th century.

Although unusual, the theory was plausible until a 2019 study threw a spanner into the works. After examining DNA from 38 of the skeletons, scientists discovered that the lake was home to at least three distinct groups of people. A South Asian group wound up in the waters sometime between the 7th and 10th centuries, followed by the remains of eastern Mediterraneans and one person with southeast Asian ancestry between the 17th and 20th centuries.

Why so many skeletons of different ancestry ended up in the same mountain lake during different time periods continues to confound scientists—and unfortunately, the area is frequently disturbed by trekkers, which may well impede the discovery of the truth. —LW

14. Vincent van Gogh

Self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh on a teal background with question marks.
Self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh. / VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images (van Gogh), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

It can be hard to separate the art from the artist when the artist has separated himself from his own ear. While Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) is one of the most celebrated in history, his personal travails have often overshadowed his canvas works. In 1888, van Gogh used a sharp tool to cut off his ear, possibly due to an undiagnosed mental health condition. On July 27, 1890, van Gogh—who had been painting in a wheat field more than a mile away—stumbled into the inn where he was staying in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, with a gunshot wound in his torso. He died two days later. 

As with his head mutilation, many believe van Gogh’s fatal injury was self-inflicted: His doctor, Paul Gachet, wrote to van Gogh’s brother that the artist had “wounded himself.” Van Gogh—who had previously tried to die by suicide via poisoning—also said that he had shot himself.

Others aren’t convinced. In 2011, authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith (Van Gogh: The Life) suggested that a 16-year-old boy named René Secretan (who said in a 1950s interview that he and his brother had been harassing the artist that summer) shot van Gogh by accident. According to this theory, van Gogh claimed he shot himself so the teen wouldn’t face prison. The gun wasn’t recovered.

That particular theory was met with criticism, but doubt about the artist’s cause of death remains: A 2020 paper in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology and co-authored by prominent pathologist Michael Baden asserted with “a reasonable degree of medical probability” that van Gogh probably could not have shot himself without suffering a powder burn. And though Leo Jansen, a curator at the van Gogh exhibit, didn’t put much stock in Naifeh and Smith’s theory, he did acknowledge that “There’s no proof” that the artist died by suicide: “We just know what he said, and that’s what people always went by.” —JR

15. Hinterkaifeck Killings

Towards the end of March 1922, Andreas Gruber noticed some strange incidents around his family’s Bavarian farm: He found an unfamiliar newspaper, saw a set of footprints in the snow leading from the forest, and a key went missing. Andreas brushed off these irregularities, just as he had done months earlier when the maid quit after hearing noises in the attic that she attributed to a haunting.

On March 31, a new maid named Maria Baumgartner arrived. After that, there was radio silence from the house. On April 4, townsfolk decided to investigate and found the dead bodies of Maria and all five members of the Gruber family—Andreas, his wife Cäzilia, their daughter Viktoria, and Viktoria’s young children, Cäzilia and Josef. They had all been brutally hit in the head with a mattock. The murderer (or murderers) then stayed in the house for a few days, cooking meals and tending to the farm.

Investigators considered many suspects, including Lorenz Schlittenbauer, who had been in a relationship with Viktoria until her father intervened. Not only did he have a personal connection to the family, he was also a member of the initial search party and had felt comfortable handling the bodies.

But police didn’t find hard evidence to tie the gruesome murders to anyone, and the following year, the farm was demolished. In an attempt to solve the crime, the six victims were decapitated and their heads sent to a clairvoyant in Munich—but it was all for naught. In 2007, Fürstenfeldbruck Police Academy looked into the cold case and although there isn’t any definitive proof, they all agreed on a theory about who committed the murder (which has not been made public out of respect for the suspect’s living relatives). —LW

16. Sir John Franklin

Sir John Franklin on an orange background surrounded by question marks.
Sir John Franklin. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images (Franklin), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

We know when the Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin died: June 11, 1847. Everything else about his death is a mystery that may never be solved. 

Franklin and a crew of more than 100 men, in two well-prepared ships, left England in May 1845 to find the Northwest Passage. The hopes of a nation rested on his success, and the British people expected complete victory within three years. But it wouldn’t be until 1859, 14 years after the ships’ departure, that they learned of Franklin’s fate from a single note discovered in a stone cairn.

Franklin had led the expedition into Lancaster Sound, the largest of the passages through Arctic Canada, and spent the winter on a small island. The following summer, they headed south along the western edge of King William Island, a triangular land surrounded by icy channels. The ships were beset in ice in September 1846 and remained stuck through the winter, spring, and early summer of 1847, yet the crew was healthy and their quest was proceeding as planned.

Then, a series of disasters unfolded. Franklin died in June of an unknown cause, and no trace of his remains has ever been found. Nine officers and 15 sailors died, also for unknown reasons. The ice refused to release the ships, and the remaining crew were forced to spend another winter immobilized. On April 22, 1848, they abandoned the ships and began marching to mainland North America, and ultimately to their deaths. 

The scant details of Franklin’s and the expedition’s ends were pieced together after dozens of search parties had combed nearly every inch of the Northwest Passage between 1847 and 1859. Information gleaned from campsites, debris, skeletons, and the rust-stained note filled in the story. And while modern archaeologists still uncover clues and artifacts illuminating the sequence of events, nothing—no body, grave, journal, ship’s log, or oral history—has explained the circumstances of Sir John Franklin’s mysterious death. —KL

17. John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy in a blue background surrounded by question marks
John F. Kennedy. / National Archive/Newsmakers/Getty Images (Kennedy), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

To some people, the details of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s death are straightforward: On November 22, 1963, he was in a motorcade driving through downtown Dallas, Texas, when he was shot by lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald. But for others—including 65 percent of Americans, according to a 2023 Gallup poll—JFK’s assassination is full of inconsistencies that point to a conspiracy.

The footage of the shooting, filmed by Abraham Zapruder, has fueled theories about there being a second gunman. Skeptics point to Kennedy’s head snapping backwards (suggesting that he was not shot from behind, as the Warren Commission concluded) and the lack of time between the shots for a lone gunman to reload and re-aim. Theorists are also suspicious of the “umbrella man” on the sidelines. And they doubt the trajectory of the bullet that went through Kennedy’s throat and then hit Texas Governor John Connally—who was sitting in the front seat of the car—critically calling it the “magic-bullet theory.” Then there’s the fact that some eyewitnesses thought they heard at least one shot come from the nearby grassy knoll.

All of these arguments have faced pushback. For instance, pinpointing the origin of gunshots via hearing is tricky. And the “umbrella man” was Louie Steven Witt, who admitted that he was heckling the president after hearing that “the umbrella was a sore spot with the Kennedy family” (it was a symbolic nod to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whom Kennedy’s father supported).

As for who was really behind the assassination? Well, there are numerous suggestions, including Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Fidel Castro, and the CIA (a theory supported by JFK’s nephew, Robert Kennedy Jr.). Actor and filmmaker Rob Reiner and journalist Soledad O’Brien recently teamed up to explore this question in a podcast, Who Killed JFK?, pegged to the 60th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. —LW

18. Charles Francis Hall

Cincinnati newspaper publisher Charles Francis Hall was an unlikely polar explorer. With zero navigational experience or survival skills, Hall led two multi-year personal expeditions to the Canadian Arctic to investigate the Franklin expedition’s demise. Then, in 1871, Hall set up an expedition to conquer the North Pole. 

With $50,000 from the U.S. government, Hall had his own ship, the Polaris, and hired a scientific staff and ship’s crew. Almost as soon as they left the Brooklyn Navy Yard, however, rifts formed among the personnel. About half of the crew were German and the other half American (along with some Inuit families, who joined the expedition later), and neither got along with the other; disagreements arose between the ship’s captain and assistant captain, and egos clashed—particularly those of Hall and the German physician/zoologist Dr. Emil Bessels. By the time they prepared to spend the winter in a harbor in northwest Greenland, tensions were threatening to boil over [PDF].

In late October, as Hall returned to the Polaris from a two-week scouting journey, he drank a cup of coffee and fell extremely ill with delirium, hallucinations, and partial paralysis. He accused crew members of poisoning him and declared he would not eat or drink anything besides that served by Second Mate William Morton or Taqulittuq, his trusted Inuit guide. Hall seemed to improve. He then relented and allowed Bessels to resume treatments, after which Hall sank into a coma and died on November 8, 1871.

A naval inquiry into Hall’s death concluded he had died of natural causes, but many believed Bessels (who always claimed innocence) or other crew members had murdered him. In 1968, Chauncey C. Loomis, an American historian, exhumed Hall’s body from the Greenland permafrost and took samples for analysis. Loomis found high levels of arsenic in Hall’s hair and fingernails, suggesting that he had been poisoned. 

But arsenic was a common and accepted treatment for various ailments at the time. Bessels would have had it in his medical kit, and it was possible that he or Hall himself had accidentally administered a fatal amount. Loomis could not conclude definitively that Hall had been murdered. This case remains cold. —KL

19. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on a red background surrounded by question marks
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images (Mozart), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

In the fall of 1791, renowned composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was feeling unwell and declared to his wife, “I am sure I have been poisoned. I cannot rid myself of this idea.” He soon recovered and dismissed the notion, but by November 20 he was so ill with a fever, rash, swelling, and vomiting that he became bedridden and on December 5, he took his last breath.

The parish register records his cause of death as “severe miliary fever,” a vague term that referred to a bumpy rash and left the door wide open for speculation. Soon after his death, a rumor spread that he had indeed been poisoned, potentially by fellow composer Antonio Salieri—but the speculation was likely baseless. Over the years, many potential causes of the composer’s death have been suggested—strep infection, subdural hematoma (bleeding in the brain typically caused by trauma to the head), kidney disease, trichinosis from eating undercooked pork, and lack of sunlight, to name just a few—none of which has been definitively proven. —LW

20. The Paste Eater

A strange headstone stands in Goldfield, Nevada’s Pioneer Cemetery. Its epitaph, scrawled out in red paint, reads “UNKNOWN MAN DIED EATING LIBRARY PASTE. JULY 1908.” According to local lore, it marks the final resting place of an unhoused person who, while scouring a library’s trash for food, found and ate a jar of book paste. Noshing on the concoction of flour, water, and alum proved fatal. It’s unclear who the man was—or if he ever existed at all. Some insist the mysterious paste eater was real, while others claim the headstone is simply part of a prank. —KW

21. The Hikers at Dyatlov Pass

In 1959, a group of nine Russian hikers were found dead after setting up camp in the northern Ural Mountains. The nature of their remains raised many questions: How did their broken bodies end up so far from their tent? Why did some corpses have an orange hue, and why were they missing eyes, and in one case, a tongue? 

A study published in 2021 attempted to answer the biggest questions surrounding the chaotic scene. The official explanation for what came to be known as the Dyatlov Pass incident has always been a “compelling natural force,” and using CGI, researchers were able to model what that may have looked like. According to the simulation, a slab avalanche would have been capable of breaking the campers’ bones without immediately killing them. This would explain how and why they would have fled the camp before ultimately dying of their injuries. After that, scavengers may have claimed their eyes and tongue, and their skin may have partially mummified after being exposed to the elements. Despite new research into the topic, many armchair sleuths continue to blame supernatural events and government conspiracies.The incident was one of the historical mysteries that inspired True Detective: Night Country—MD

​​22. Tycho Brahe

Tycho Brahe on a green background surrounded by question marks.
Tycho Brahe. / Apic/Getty Images (Brahe), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe lived a colorful life (he had a pet elk and wore a metal nose after his was sliced off during a math-inspired duel!) and died a mysterious death. In 1601, Brahe attended a banquet during which he refused to pee because doing so would have been a social faux pas. He was in excruciating pain by the time he was able to use a toilet, but he then found himself unable to urinate. Eleven painful days later, Brahe was dead. 

Rumors that Brahe had been poisoned arose soon after he died, but the official story was that he died of a burst bladder. But in the 1990s, scientists tested some of his facial hair (which had been removed when his body was exhumed in 1901) and concluded that mercury was the culprit. Had Brahe taken the mercury medicinally or had he been poisoned? Some fingers pointed to Brahe’s assistant, Johannes Kepler, who was angry that his boss would only share morsels of his celestial findings with him (in Brahe’s defense, he had previously been a victim of plagiarism).

In 2010, Brahe’s remains were exhumed again, and further tests showed that the mercury present in his body wasn’t enough to be deadly. Theories about his cause of death did a 180-degree turn, with his urinary tract once again being blamed, though in what capacity remains uncertain—it could have been a burst bladder, uremia caused by an enlarged prostate, or another urine-related problem. —LW

23. Karen Silkwood

Karen Silkwood on a teal background surrounded by question marks
Karen Silkwood. / Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images (Silkwood), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

On November 13, 1974, a tragic one-car accident claimed the life of plutonium lab technician and whistleblower Karen Silkwood. After swerving off the road on Oklahoma’s State Highway 74, her Honda Civic hatchback crashed into a concrete abutment, resulting in fatal injuries. Traces of both alcohol and Quaaludes were found in her bloodstream during the autopsy, leading the state’s highway patrol to conclude that she must have fallen asleep at the wheel. 

But there were signs of foul play from the outset. The 28-year-old activist, who had been on her way to Oklahoma City for a meeting with a New York Times reporter and union representative when the crash occurred, reportedly had a manila folder with her that contained photos and documents outlining the safety problems at her plant. The folder and its documents—which Silkwood believed would reveal the full extent of the Kerr-McGee Corporation’s negligence surrounding worker health and security at the Cimarron River nuclear facility where she worked—were never recovered. 

Shortly after her death, union officials hired a former police officer turned auto accident specialist to investigate the incident. He uncovered significant evidence—including skid marks at the scene and a freshly made dent in her car’s rear bumper—which suggested Silkwood had been forced off the road by another car. Although the FBI did launch an investigation into the death, the agency sided with the findings of Oklahoma City’s medical examiner at the time, who believed Silkwood’s death had been brought on by her alcohol and Quaalude usage. 

Her autopsy also revealed that she had been exposed to very dangerous levels of plutonium; the substance was found in her lungs and digestive tract, suggesting she had directly ingested it prior to her death. Even her apartment had traces of plutonium: The kitchen and bathroom were contaminated, as was a bologna and cheese sandwich in the fridge. 

Silkwood’s exposure to plutonium, however, was not a total surprise. On November 5, she discovered that she had been exposed to it when an alpha detector—a device used to monitor exposure to radioactive materials—went off. The device had been mounted on her glove box, and traces of plutonium were found in the parts of the gloves she’d been wearing that came into direct contact with her hands [PDF], although how it had gotten on the gloves seemed unclear, as there were no holes in or on them. No traces of significant plutonium contamination were found in the air or along any of the areas where Silkwood had been working, which only added to the mystery. After conducting decontamination measures on her at the plant, the company continued to collect urine and feces samples from her for five days to measure any and all plutonium exposure. Significant levels of exposure were detected throughout that time, and by November 12, she was even expelling contaminated air from her lungs.

While Kerr-McGee suggested that Silkwood had intentionally taken plutonium home in order to contaminate herself, friends and family believed that someone had intentionally exposed her to it as a way of intimidating her into silence. Her death would ultimately galvanize fellow nuclear safety activists, and she's been remembered as a martyr for worker-safety rights. In 1976, the Cimarron River plant where Silkwood had worked was closed down. While no one was ever explicitly charged with her death and many questions surrounding it remain unresolved, her estate would later sue the company and in 1986, was awarded a settlement of around $1.38 million. —SM

24. Elisa Lam

The Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles has long had a dark reputation: Along with the many deaths that have occurred there, Night Stalker Richard Ramirez reportedly called it home during his killing spree. The best-known of these deaths is that of 21-year-old Elisa Lam, who was last seen alive in the Cecil on January 31, 2013.

Two weeks after her disappearance, police released security footage of her acting strangely in the hotel’s elevator—she was pushing numerous buttons, using odd hand gestures, and peering into the hallway and then hiding. Her body was found on February 19 in a water tank on the roof after guests complained about low water pressure (later, some of the guests said that the water had been discolored and tasted odd).

An autopsy determined that Lam’s cause of death was an accidental drowning—there was no evidence of foul play or suicidal ideation—and the toxicology report revealed that she may not have been taking her bipolar medication, leading to speculation that she had a psychotic episode, which could explain her odd behavior and may have contributed to her death. But questions still remain about how exactly she managed to get onto the locked roof and then into the tall tank, with some theorists believing that dark supernatural forces were at play. —LW

25. Amy Robsart

On September 8, 1560, the staff of Cumnor Place returned from a day off at the fair to find the lady of the house dead at the foot of what was said to be a short set of stairs. Amy Robsart, wife of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, was just 28 years old; she had been alone in the home, her husband away at court. Her neck was broken and there were two deep wounds on her head, but no other marks on her body. 

The questions—and conspiracy theories—started immediately: Had she merely tripped and fallen, or thrown herself down the stairs on purpose? Or had she been murdered at the behest of Dudley, a favorite (and, it was whispered, lover) of Queen Elizabeth I?

Rumors had been circulating since late 1559 that Dudley had been attempting to poison his wife; the Spanish ambassador to England, Álvaro de la Quadra, supposedly heard him bragging in March 1560 that he would be in a “new position” before the year was out. In Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart, Chris Skidmore writes that de la Quadra “believed that both Dudley and Elizabeth had arranged a pact whereby they would marry after Amy had died.” 

Testimony given by one of the servants at Cumnor Place seemed to suggest that Robsart—who insisted that her staff go to the fair and got angry when some suggested they stay behind—may have been experiencing suicidal ideation. Robsart was also said to have been ill with “a malady in one of her breasts,” which was apparently the reason why she rarely came to court with her husband. But according to William Cecil, the queen’s private secretary, that was a rumor spread by Dudley himself. De la Quadra recounted in a letter that Cecil told him “they intended to kill the wife of Robert and now published that she was ill, although she was not but on the contrary was very well and protected herself carefully from being poisoned.” Robsart’s death was apparently announced the day after de la Quadra wrote that letter (he included the detail in a postscript). When he heard the news, Dudley knew he’d be the number one suspect, writing, “I have no way to purge myself of the malicious talk I know the wicked world will use.” 

Ultimately, the coroner’s inquest absolved him, concluding that Robsart’s death was caused by an accidental fall down the stairs. But that did nothing to quiet the rumors, which ultimately sounded a death knell for Dudley’s relationship with the queen: There was no way she could feasibly marry someone so mired in controversy.

Though hundreds of years have passed, people have not stopped speculating about Robsart’s mysterious death. In 1956, surgeon Ian Aird suggested that Robsart may have had breast cancer that metastasized in her spine, which would have weakened the bones to the point that even a short fall would have broken them. In her book The Life of Elizabeth I, Alison Weir posits that William Cecil may have orchestrated Robsart’s death: “He could foresee that if she died in suspicious circumstances, as many people expected her to do, then the finger of suspicion would point inexorably to her husband … Cecil also knew that Elizabeth, who was very conservative at heart, would be unlikely to risk her popularity and her crown to marry a man whose reputation was so tainted.” Cecil was apparently “swiftly restored to favor” after Robsart’s death and Dudley’s banishment from court. 

Modern historians have also suggested Sir Richard Verney, a supporter of Dudley’s who was also suspected in the 1560s, as Robsart’s killer. According to Susan Doran in her book Monarchy and Matrimony: The Courtships of Elizabeth I, “On the whole, however, historians have judged Dudley innocent … or at least found the case against him both unproved and unlikely.” And so the mystery around Robsart’s death lingers. —EMC 

Read More Articles About Historical Mysteries: