From curious corpses to cryptic ciphers, here are a few of this century’s most intriguing unsolved mysteries to puzzle even the most ingenious aspiring Nancy Drew or Sherlock Holmes.
The Voynich Manuscript
In 1912, Polish antique book collector Wilfred Voynich purchased a mysterious book containing 250 pages of elaborate hand drawn illustrations and writings in an unknown script without any kind of visible punctuation. Filled with indecipherable paragraphs and labeled drawings on various subjects from unidentifiable plants to strange apothecary jars to astrological diagrams, the manuscript has been studied by the world’s best code-breakers and cryptographers, with none of them able to extract any kind of meaning from it. Some researchers speculate that it was created as an elaborate fraud or hoax, while others have suggested explanations ranging from delusion and mental illness to channeling and speaking in tongues.
A carbon dating test in 2009 confirmed that it was created between 1404 and 1438, but that’s all we know for sure about the book or its author. With several missing, torn-out pages, the Voynich manuscript sits today in Yale University’s rare book library, still waiting to be decoded.
Another source of great interest (and frustration) to modern cryptologists is Kryptos, an enormous encrypted sculpture on the grounds of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Created by artist Jim Sanborn in collaboration with retiring CIA Cryptographic Center chairman Ed Scheidt in 1990, the sculpture contains four coded messages, of which three have been deciphered (though it took over ten years and the combined efforts of CIA and NSA cryptanalysts to do so). The first message read, “Between subtle shading and the absence of light lies the nuance of iqlusion,” (intentionally misspelled for difficulty), the second included the coordinates of the CIA’s headquarters and alludes to something buried beneath its grounds (while noting that only former CIA chief William Webster knows the exact location), and the third solution quoted the account of Egyptologist Howard Carter as he opened King Tut’s tomb.
The fourth and final message remains unsolved, though Sanborn has provided two clues to its meaning: that the first three sections contain clues to the fourth section, and that the Berlin Clock is somehow involved.
An additional opportunity for any would-be codebreakers to prove their mettle is provided by Cicada 3301, a mysterious secret society that releases a complex new puzzle on the internet every year to recruit “highly intelligent individuals” from the general public. Clues to the puzzles involve obscure references to literature, art, philosophy, mathematics, technology, and cryptology, and also incorporate clues popping up at the same time at physical locations all across the world (seemingly implying that the Cicada 3301 organization is both expansive and expensive).
No one who has made it to the final stage of solving the puzzles has ever come forward, leading some to speculate that it is a recruitment tool for either an intelligence organization or a shadowy cyber crime group.
On the morning of December 1, 1948, an unidentified man in a suit was found dead on a beach in Australia. The only clue to his identity was a piece of paper found in his pocket reading tamam shud, the Persian phrase for “finished” or “the end”. That piece of paper was found to be torn from a page of a rare first edition of poems by a medieval poet, with the rest of the book found nearby on the day that the man’s body was found. To make the case even more baffling, the back of the book had a secret uncrackable code and two unidentified telephone numbers written on it. An autopsy and international attention to the case revealed no answers. There was blood in his stomach, consistent with poisoning, but no traces of poison were found in his system, potentially suggesting a rare, untraceable poison.
When the investigation proved impossible to solve, the man was buried and the case was effectively closed. Until 1978, flowers would be found at random times on the grave, though no one could determine who had left them. Cause of death? Still unknown. Identity? Also unknown. Occupation: Probably spy. I mean, right?
Another mysterious corpse/probable secret agent whose identity and death remain a mystery to this day is known only as Isdal Woman, found dead in the Isdalen Valley in Norway in 1970. Her partially burned body was found in a remote hiking trail, surrounded by a dozen pink sleeping pills and empty bottles that smelled of gasoline. She had died from a combination of burns and poisoning, with injuries to her head and neck and over fifty sleeping pills in her body. The labels had been removed from all of her clothing, and her fingerprints had been sanded off. An investigation eventually found that the woman had traveled around Europe with at least nine different false identities, wearing various different wigs. Her teeth revealed dental work from Latin America, and witnesses reported that she spoke several languages, including English, German, and French. An encoded diary was found in her hotel room, listing dates and places that she had been. One witness in the Norwegian hotel she was staying in reported overhearing the woman telling an unidentified man “I am coming soon” in German.
The case was eventually closed as a suicide, but in 2005, a local Norwegian man who was in his twenties at the time the body was found came forward to reveal that he had seen the Isdal woman walking on the hiking trail where she was found. According to this hiker, she was about to speak to him, but seemed afraid of two men dressed in black who were following her at a distance. When the hiker reported this incident to the police after hearing about the discovery of the body, he was told, “Forget her, she was dispatched. The case will never be solved.”