The Most Famous Unsolved Crimes in History

Everyone loves a good mystery. Some crimes are so baffling, some criminals so elusive, that they are never explained. Here are five of the world’s most famous unsolved cases:

Killings by Jack the Ripper

Quite possibly the most famous unsolved case in history is that of Jack the Ripper–an unidentified person (most serial killers are men) who killed five prostitutes in the Whitechapel district of London between August 7 and November 10 in the year 1888. The killer slashed the womens’ throats, mutilated their bodies, and then taunted police with notes signed “Jack the Ripper.” He even sent them the liver of one of his victims. The story of Jack the Ripper has made its way into books, made-for-TV movies, and even the story of a follow-up killer dubbed “Jack the Stripper,” who killed at least six prostitutes in a similar manner in the 1960s. The killing spree of both Jacks ended on its own, and the perpetrators were never identified.

Killings by the Zodiac

As might be expected, unidentified serial killers continue our list of the top 10 most famous unsolved mysteries, given both the press and the fear they generate. Like Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac is known for taunting the police with notes–though some of the Zodiac notes went directly to newspapers, threatening more murders if they weren’t published, and continued for five years after the last known victim was found. Some of the intended victims survived the attacks, but he succeeded in at least five murders in the span of 10 months in 1968 and 1969. He is famous both for the notes and for the four cryptograms he sent along with the notes–one of which was definitively solved and contained a 408-character message that began with, “I like killing people because it is so much fun,” and concluded with the suggestion that the Zodiac (which he had dubbed himself in a previous letter) was “collecting…slaves for my afterlife.” Unlike Jack, the Zodiac used more than one method to kill, incorporating both guns and knives, and he even dressed up as an executioner. The case of the Zodiac was the premise for a number of movies, books, and TV productions, including a 2007 film called, aptly, “Zodiac.” To this day, three of the cryptograms remain unsolved and the killer’s identity was never discovered.

Hijacking by D.B. Cooper

We’ll take a break from murderers for a notable oddity in U.S. aviation crime history. In 1971, the night before Thanksgiving, a passenger who purchased a ticket under the name Dan Cooper boarded a plane in Portland, Oregon. During the 30-minute flight to Seattle, the man lit a cigarette, ordered a bourbon, and handed the flight attendant a note that said, “I have a bomb in my briefcase. I will use it if necessary. I want you to sit next to me. You are being hijacked.” He demanded $200,000, four parachutes, and a fuel truck to refuel the plane upon landing in Seattle. He received his ransom and released the passengers but retained the two pilots and the flight attendant. He ordered the pilots to fly to Mexico at an altitude of 10,000 feet. But shortly after takeoff, Cooper grabbed the money and a parachute and jumped out of the plane over the mountains. He was never heard from again, though many assume he didn’t survive the jump. The flight attendant described him as “nice,” “thoughtful,” and “calm.” He even paid his drink tab and offered to order the crew meals during the stopover in Seattle. His success spurred a flurry of 15 copycats in 1972 alone, but none were successful. Universal luggage searches were instituted in 1973.

Art Heist at the Gardner Museum

The world’s biggest art heist occurred in Boston, Massachusetts, in the wee hours of St. Patrick’s Day, March 18, 1990. At 1:24 a.m., two men dressed as Boston policemen were let into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Art Museum by museum guards. (The guards broke protocol by letting them in through the security door.) The alleged policemen said they were investigating a reported disturbance, but they caused one themselves when they subdued and handcuffed the museum guards. Less than 90 minutes later, the men left the museum with 13 pieces of art, valued at well a combined $300 million. The security guards were found the next morning, handcuffed and duct-taped in the basement of the museum. The stolen pieces included works by Manet, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Degas, as well as a Chinese vase and the finial from the top of a pole support for a Napoleonic silk flag, all of which have never been recovered. The thieves also took the surveillance videotape. The museum still offers a $5 million reward for “information leading to the recovery of these works in good condition.”

Murder of JonBenet Ramsey

On the day after Christmas, 1996, the beaten and strangled body of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was found by her father in the family’s basement. Eight hours earlier, the Colorado family had received a ransom note on their kitchen staircase asking for $118,000–almost the exact value of the bonus that JonBenet’s father had received earlier that year. The investigators failed to conduct a proper search of the house, allowing the family and their friends to walk through the crime scene as the family and police waited for a ransom call. But no call ever came. Suspicion circled around the three family members who were known to be home when JonBenet was killed–her 9-year-old brother and her parents. The case brought massive press attention immediately and to this day, especially in light of JonBenet’s career as a pint-sized beauty queen. Her brother was questioned by a grand jury in 1999 but cleared, and the parents published a book in 2000. In 2006, a man was arrested after admitting to the killing, but later cleared by the DNA evidence. Recently, prosecutors also cleared JonBenet’s parents, also based on DNA evidence. Her killer is still unknown, and the case remains open.

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