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10 Historical Murder Mysteries Still Waiting For An Answer

by Radu Alexander
fact checked by Jamie Frater

The sad reality is that we will never be able to solve all crimes. Despite the best efforts of law enforcement, justice isn’t always served, and closure forever eludes some victims’ families. Sometimes, no one may even realize a crime has been committed until it’s far too late to do anything about it.

History is filled with cases that would stump even Sherlock Holmes. Often, this isn’t because they were the works of criminal masterminds but because there were almost no clues to go on. As of now, these ten murders remain mysteries, and the more time passes, the less likely they are to ever be solved.

10 The Skeleton In The Cellar

Photo credit: Chip Clark/NMNH, SI

The Lost Towns Project is an ongoing archaeological enterprise to rediscover and excavate lost settlements from colonial Maryland. In 2003, researchers were examining a site called Leavy Neck in Anne Arundel County when they discovered a skull in a 17th-century cellar that was used for trash.

As the team kept excavating, they found the rest of the skeleton stuffed inside the shallow pit with enough force to displace a kneecap and curl the toes under. It became increasingly clear that the body was likely the victim of foul play.

Eventually, archaeologists became convinced they had a colonial cold case on their hands and brought in forensic anthropologist Dr. Doug Owsley to help. He identified the remains as belonging to a 16-year-old male of European descent. There were numerous signs suggesting he was in poor health, including compressed vertebrae from prolonged hard labor.

Forensic specialists concluded that the teenager was, most likely, an indentured servant. Furthermore, his right wrist suffered perimortem fractures, as if the victim tried to block a heavy blow.[1] This, along with the quick burial, suggested murder.

Based on items surrounding the body, the boy was probably killed between 1665 and 1675. This was at a time when laws were passed to protect indentured servants from abuse. Archaeologists believe that the teenager was killed by his master, who dumped the body in the trash pit to hide his crime. The identities of both killer and victim remain a mystery for now.

9 The Wrong Archaeologist

In 1911, Michigan scholar Herbert Fletcher DeCou became part of a team of US archaeologists who excavated the ancient Greek city of Cyrene in modern-day Libya. On the morning of March 11, the camp was awakened by shots and screams. The expedition’s director, Richard Norton, was informed that DeCou had been killed while on his way to the dig site on the Acropolis. Witnesses said that three Arabs concealed themselves behind a wall, waited for DeCou to pass by, and shot him two times before making their escape on horseback.

It was widely believed that the assassins didn’t target DeCou specifically but wanted to kill a high-profile American and mistook DeCou for the director. This was shortly before the outbreak of the Italo-Turkish War, where Libya became an Italian colony, and resentment against the West was high among certain groups.

Richard Norton’s statement concurred with this notion. He also unofficially endorsed certain hearsay which was pervasive in the country at the time. The rumor was that the Arab assassins acted under Italian influence.[2] Obviously, the Italians denied this vehemently and, instead, floated the story that the Michigan archaeologist was targeted by a Bedouin man for sleeping with his wife.

For a time, the assassination had the makings of a serious international incident. No relevant diplomatic papers have ever been made public, and nobody was ever charged with DeCou’s murder.

8 The Spinster Murder

Photo credit: Wikimedia

The case of Oscar Slater is remembered as one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice. A Jewish immigrant from Germany with a criminal record, Slater was convicted of the 1908 murder of wealthy 83-year-old spinster Marion Gilchrist in Glasgow. His original death sentence was commuted to life in prison, and Slater served 19 years before being released.

The trial and imprisonment attracted the attention of many prominent members of society, most notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1912, he even wrote “The Case of Oscar Slater,” a paper outlining the evidence for the convicted man’s innocence and pleading for a full pardon.

With all the extra attention and controversy surrounding Slater and his arrest and subsequent acquittal, people tend to forget that Marion Gilchrist’s murder is still unsolved. The only solid leads were provided by Detective John Thompson Trench, who worked the case. In 1914, he revealed during a secret inquiry that certain evidence was withheld during the trial, likely at the behest of Marion’s influential family members.[3] Trench was fired and discredited and died in 1919, never getting to see justice served.

Some believe the likeliest murderer was a relative of Marion Gilchrist, such as her nephew. The rest of the family then covered it up to avoid public embarrassment.

7 The Sandyford Mystery

One of the most heinous crimes in the history of Glasgow occurred in 1862 at 17 Sandyford Place. One of the house’s servants, Jessie McPherson, was found half-naked in a pool of her own blood while the owners were away on holiday. Suspicion fell on former servant Jessie McLachlan, who was, eventually, charged with the murder. After only 15 minutes of deliberation, a jury found her guilty, and the judge sentenced her to death by hanging.

Public protest led to a court commission investigating the evidence presented during the trial. While they could not find McLachlan innocent, they commuted her sentence to life imprisonment. After serving 15 years, she was released on ticket-of-leave and emigrated to the United States, where she spent the rest of her life.

Although the court quickly convicted Jessie McLachlan, public opinion remained, generally, in her favor. A lot of the books and articles written on the case portrayed her as a scapegoat. Others simply couldn’t believe that a woman with no criminal past could kill her alleged friend with such brutality.

For her part, McLachlan always pointed the finger at James Fleming, the elderly father of McPherson’s employer. A working-class drunk with “rude and unpolished manners,” McLachlan claimed Fleming sexually assaulted the servant and then killed her to hide his crime.[4] She then admitted to taking a bribe from the man to stay quiet. Despite public outrage, nobody other than McLachlan was ever charged with Jessie McPherson’s murder.

6 The Pitchfork Murder

Valentine’s Day 1945 in Quinton, Warwickshire, England, was the setting for a particularly gruesome murder: 74-year-old Charles Walton was found by his niece, Edie, and a neighbor after he failed to return home from work. His body was badly bruised, and several ribs were broken. His throat was cut with his own slash hook, and a pitchfork was driven into the side of his neck, pinning him to the ground.[5]

The case was investigated by Chief Inspector and future crime author Robert Fabian. According to his book, Fabian of the Yard, he always suspected a man named Alfred Potter to be the culprit. He was the manager of the farm where Walton worked and gave contradicting statements to the police regarding his movements and interactions with the victim. However, Fabian could never find sufficient evidence against Potter or even establish a motive.

The main reason why the murder became so infamous, besides the brutality involved in the killing, was its alleged connection to witchcraft. Word of mouth spread that Walton had a cross carved in his chest. This led to rumors that he was killed as a blood sacrifice by a covenant of witches or that he was himself a witch, killed by someone he put a spell on.

5 The Day Brisbane Lost Its Innocence

Photo credit: The Courier-Mail

The violent murder of 22-year-old Betty Shanks rocked Australia in 1952. Betty’s brutally beaten body was found in a garden in a suburb of Brisbane on the morning of September 20. Her death sparked the biggest criminal investigation in the history of Queensland, but all efforts proved fruitless. Today, it still remains the oldest unsolved murder in Brisbane.

Police only had one solid lead to go on: the description from a taxi driver of a man he saw jump a fence toward the scene of the crime at 10:30 PM and then come back three hours later. Investigators interviewed dozens of suspects and even obtained a few confessions, but all of them proved to be false.

The case stirred up new controversy in 2014, when two authors published books around the same time, pointing the finger at different people. One of them was Brisbane academic Ted Duhs. The other was former journalist Ken Blanch, who covered the original case back in 1952.[6]

Duhs claimed the killer was a locksmith named Eric Steery, who attacked Betty Shanks when she rebuffed his advances. These details came courtesy of Steery’s own daughter Delcia, who claimed she went to the police several times before going to Duhs but was dismissed each time.

Blanch didn’t publicly name his suspect. He was a former army driver who allegedly tried to abduct another girl before Betty. The reporter is encouraging police to do a DNA test but has lost track of the suspect since 2007.

4 The Death Of A War Hero

Photo credit: Harry Colvocoresses

The 150-year-old murder of US Civil War hero George “Colvos” Colvocoresses still puzzles historians and amateur sleuths to this day. The Greek-American first came to prominence as captain of the USS Saratoga during the war. He retired in 1867 and was gunned down on Clinton Street in Bridgeport, Connecticut, five years later.

Colvocoresses was traveling to New York and had with him $8,000 cash inside a leather satchel as well as a bamboo sword cane. He was shot once in the left side of the chest, close enough for the gunpowder to set his shirt on fire. A pistol, powder horn, percussion caps, and bullets were recovered a short distance from his body. The empty satchel was found the next day a few hundred yards away.

The captain’s sword cane looked as if it was damaged in a struggle. Since the money was missing, the most obvious answer suggested a robbery. However, some witnesses reported that Colvocoresses was acting strangely prior to his death, so it has been theorized that someone specifically targeted Colvos. Unfortunately, a solid case could not be built due to police mishandling evidence, which some ascribed to incompetence and others to an intentional cover-up.

Several people confessed to the murder over the years, including a Danish soldier who admitted on his deathbed to killing Colvocoresses during a robbery gone bad.[7] And yet, one of the most pervasive ideas claims that the war hero killed himself. This hypothesis was enthusiastically supported by insurance companies, which didn’t want to pay out the multiple policies Colvocoresses took out, totaling almost $200,000.

3 The Ruislip Murder Mile

On the evening of September 14, 1954, 21-year-old Jean Mary Townsend was returning to her home in the London suburb of Ruislip from a party in the West End. She was last seen leaving South Ruislip Station at around midnight, and her body was found the next day, strangled with her own scarf. There were no signs of sexual assault, even though Jean’s shoes and stockings were removed and subsequently found nearby with her handbag.

The case started out with a few good leads. A man working at the US embassy came forward saying he chased away a “Peeping Tom” a few days prior. A woman who lived close to the murder scene claimed she heard a woman’s scream that night and, shortly after, two men arguing, one with an American accent.[8] Investigators believed the killer could have been an American serviceman, most likely stationed at the nearby South Ruislip Air Station. They also considered the possibility that this wasn’t his first murder. Earlier that month, a prostitute named Ellen Carlin was strangled in Pimlico, shortly after being seen with a US Air Force sergeant. However, this murder was subsequently ascribed to Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel.

Despite the promising start, detectives never found a viable suspect for Jean Townsend’s murder. 16 years later, another woman named Gloria Booth was killed in the same way as Jean in the same area, now dubbed the “Ruislip Murder Mile.” Police considered the idea of it being the work of the same culprit but never found anything to substantiate the claim. Gloria’s sister became convinced that Gloria fell victim to the Yorkshire Ripper.

2 The Shooting At Portencross

On October 13, 1913, Mary Speir Gunn was sitting in front of the fire along with her sister and her husband, Jessie and Alexander McLaren, in their cottage outside Portencross, Scotland. Suddenly, gunshots started ringing out, and bullets came flying through the window. All three were hit, but Alexander and his wife recovered from their injuries. Mary was killed instantly with a shot to the heart.

Initially, authorities believed that Alexander McLaren was the intended target. The first shots went through his chair and missed him by inches.[9] He had just retired from farming and had sold his livestock at auction. Anyone aware of his affairs could have assumed the family kept a tidy sum on hand. Robbery looked like a likely motive, but the shooter made no attempt to enter the cottage. Perhaps he saw he failed to kill Alexander and, having run out of bullets, didn’t want a direct confrontation.

Afterward, investigators opined that it could have been a spurned lover who wanted Mary dead. She was well-known for her good looks and was affectionately nicknamed “the Beauty of Beith.” Police made inquiries all the way to Canada, where Mary Gunn previously lived with another sister, but they couldn’t find any solid leads.

All authorities knew was that the killer was, most likely, a stranger. Several locals claimed that an unknown man approached them that day, asking for directions to Portencross. Over a century later, he still remains unidentified.

1 The Death Of A Nobleman

Photo credit: Borde Carlo

For almost 700 years, the death of Italian nobleman Cangrande della Scalla was considered accidental. However, in 2004, a modern autopsy confirmed long-held suspicions that he had, in fact, been poisoned. Of course, this begged the question: Who killed him?

Part of the ruling family of Verona, Cangrande first served in the military during the Guelph-Ghibelline Wars. He became sole ruler in 1311 and conquered several nearby city-states. In 1329, after multiple campaigns, Cangrande finally took control of Treviso. During his state entry, he fell ill, took to bed, and died a few days later.

Contemporary accounts said that Cangrande became ill after drinking from a polluted spring. However, modern historians pointed out that his symptoms could have also been indicative of poisoning. When his body was exhumed in 2004, scientists found that it was naturally mummified, and several organs could still be examined. They performed a full autopsy, but it was palynology which gave them their biggest clue. Samples were taken from the colon and feces, and an analysis revealed spores of the toxic plant Digitalis purpurea, also known as the common foxglove.[10]

The results were further supported by the toxicological analysis of feces, liver, and hair samples, which found toxic concentrations of digitoxin and digoxin. While Cangrande’s death was almost certainly murder, the culprit’s identity will likely remain a mystery. Historians have one obvious suspect: Cangrande’s nephew, Mastino II, who took power after his uncle’s death.

fact checked by Jamie Frater