Nothing haunts the mind and stirs the imagination like a real-life whodunit. Gory details, large sums of money or sexual overtones pique the public's interest, while authorities struggle, sometimes for decades, to crack the case. Who killed the beauty queen? Where is the body buried? How did the heist unfold? Such questions might never be answered, but here's a mystery resolved below: What are history's 10 greatest unsolved crimes?
Everyone knows who murdered five (maybe more) prostitutes during 1888 in London's Whitechapel district: Jack the Ripper. The mystery is his real identity. In 2002, crime novelist Patricia Cornwell concluded a $4 million investigation by fingering painter Walter Sickert. Other suspects include Queen Victoria's grandson Prince Albert Victor, royal physician Sir William Gull, and even "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" author Lewis Carroll, who most Ripperologists conclude was a weird guy, but probably not a killer.
The 1947 slaying of 22-year-old aspiring starlet Elizabeth Short, dubbed the Black Dahlia for her dark hair and wardrobe, unfolded like a film noir. In an empty Los Angeles lot, Short's body was found mutilated, sliced in two and drained of blood, all with surgical precision. The LAPD dismissed many suspects, including a handful who confessed, and never cracked the case. Several books have claimed to name the murderer, including 2003's "Black Dahlia Avenger," in which author Steve Hodel convicts his own father, a former L.A. doctor.
Cleveland neurosurgeon Dr. Sam Sheppard was charged with the July 1954 murder of his 31-year-old pregnant wife, Marilyn, while their 7-year-old son slept in the next room. Sheppard maintained his innocence and implicated a dark-haired intruder — the "one-armed man" of "The Fugitive" TV series and movie this case inspired. Nonetheless, Sheppard was found guilty. He appealed, and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction on the grounds that excessive publicity unfairly influenced his trial. He was acquitted at a retrial. Until his death in 1970, Sheppard sought to find his wife's killer, a mission his family continues to this day.
The Zodiac Killings
Creepiness incarnate, the Bay Area's Zodiac Killer shot to death two teens in December 1968 who had parked on a rural road to make out. Six months later, he fired at another couple. Although one victim survived that attack, his witness account failed to yield a suspect, and the Zodiac would kill seven people before ending his spree in October 1969. (He might also have slain others in years before and after his attributed crimes.) But he would taunt police for a decade with coded, clue-laden letters to San Francisco newspapers. His final note arrived in 1978, although there’s debate over its authenticity. Some investigators believe the Zodiac Killer might still live in California.
On Thanksgiving Eve, 1971, D.B. Cooper, the passenger in seat 18E on Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305 from Portland, Ore., to Seattle, threatened to blow up the plane unless he received $200,000 cash. Cooper collected his ransom at Seattle's airport, and demanded the pilot fly back toward Oregon. Just north of Portland, Cooper opened the rear door and parachuted into the dark from the airborne 727 with 21 pounds of $20 bills strapped to his torso. Neither he nor the money (except for $5,880, found years later along the Columbia River) was ever seen again. The case remains the FBI's only unsolved airplane hijacking.
Deposed Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa vanished in July 1975 from a Detroit restaurant. Guessing the whereabouts of his corpse (Hoffa was declared dead in 1982) has since been a national pastime. Under Giants Stadium, down a Pennsylvania mineshaft or buried in Northern Michigan are popular options. Thanks to his strong-arm tactics, Hoffa had many enemies, including government officials, labor leaders and mobsters, who presumably rubbed him out. The 2004 book "I Heard You Paint Houses" claimed that the late hit man Frank Sheeran shot Hoffa outside Detroit, and left the body there.
This past July in Juaréz, Mexico, authorities found the body of Alma Brisa Molina Baca, a 34-year-old factory worker who had been raped and strangled. She was the latest victim in a decade-long pattern of killings that has claimed, by some estimates, 370 women — most of them poor workers at nearby maquiladoras, most of their bodies dumped in the desert. That staggering statistic, plus outrage with what human-rights advocates call half-hearted law enforcement, has sparked Amnesty International and other worldwide groups to urge authorities to find the killers.
Art historians have been cringing since St. Patrick's Day, 1990, when two men stole 13 paintings worth an estimated $300 million from Boston's Gardner Museum. Cringing because the artworks were hacked from their frames. Cringing because the museum was uninsured. Cringing because the unarmed thieves, dressed as policemen, simply knocked on the door late at night, and security guards let them in. Cringing because a $5 million reward and an investigation that has touched upon the Massachusetts mob and even the Irish Republican Army has failed to crack the world's biggest art heist.
Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls
A drive-by shooter killed 25-year-old rapper Tupac Shakur in September 1996, in Las Vegas. Six months later, March 1997, rival Biggie Smalls, 24, was gunned down in Los Angeles. The victims were former friends who became entangled in hip-hop's East Coast (Smalls) vs. West Coast (Shakur, who'd switched teams) feud. In 2002, a Los Angeles Times investigation suggested Smalls paid the Southside Crips gang to assassinate Shakur, while documentarian Nick Broomfield implicated Shakur's record-label chief, Suge Knight, who allegedly had Smalls erased to confuse authorities. Both cases remain open.
A murder made in tabloid heaven: Six-year-old beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey, daughter of a wealthy Boulder, Colo., executive and his socially ambitious wife, was found dead in the basement of the family home after Christmas, 1996. An odd ransom note left at the scene and clashes between family, police and district attorney fanned the media frenzy, while public speculation centered on parents John and Patsy Ramsey. Eight years later, still no arrest. (Side note: John Ramsey ran unsuccessfully this year for a seat in Michigan's legislature.)
Ian Hodder is a freelance writer living in New York.