Poisonings, strange disappearances and mistaken identities are not just the stuff of Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. As these compelling historical mysteries reveal, history is seldom what it seems to be.
12. Who or What Killed Alexander the Great?
Alexander of Macedonia was an incredible leader, but he died gagging in agony, much as Prince Joffrey in Game of Thrones. In June of 323, someone (or something) killed Alexander the Great. After feasting in honor of a friend, Alexander suddenly bent over in extreme pain. He had tremors, stiffness, hallucinations, and fevers. After 12 days of excruciating physical symptoms, the man who conquered much of the ancient world died.
Although malaria and Typhoid were theories, they are highly unlikely in the time and place, Central Iraq, where Alexander died. Some have posited that he had alcohol poisoning from drinking so much, but the symptoms of alcohol poisoning include vomiting and nausea, and no accounts suggest that Alexander had those symptoms.
Next: Was Alexander’s death an accident, or a crime?
11. Poisoned by Friend or Foe?
Modern historians believe that Alexander was poisoned. A plaint known as Veratrum album, or white hellebore, could be used to poison people. An ancient Greek historian wrote that Alexander became ill after drinking a big bowl of wine. His symptoms lineup with hellebore poisoning.
So was Alexander killed by his own Lady Olenna?
There are some recorded examples of accidental poisoning by white hellebore, but that seems unlikely during a feast. The question then becomes, who did it? Machiavelli, writing centuries later, said Alexander’s army killed him. Others say his wives or girlfriends did the deed in a fit of pique, or even the royal cup bearer. Whoever did it, Alexander’s body was strangely not decomposed several days after the death, which some believe lends credence to the idea that he was poisoned.
10. How Did Theodosia Burr Alston Disappear Into Thin Air?
Theodosia Burr is the subject of Aaron Burr’s touching song, “Dear Theodosia” in the musical Hamilton. Theodosia grew up into a complex woman who met a mysterious end. Theodosia married a wealthy South Carolina planter with political aspirations. Childbirth left her mentally and physically disabled. When her only child, named Aaron Burr Alston, died of a fever in 1812, Theodosia sailed to New York to spend time with her father. Her husband had just been elected governor, so he stayed behind.
However, the boat never arrived in New York. The ship was presumed to have been captured by pirates, and everyone aboard it, killed or drowned. But after Theodosia disappeared, conspiracy theories circulated for years. Many different pirates made deathbed confessions about taking the ship and killing her. One even claimed she “walked the plank” to her death. None of the pirates seemed to have details that fit the known evidence.
Next: Does the answer to this riddle lie within a mysterious painting?
9. The Nags Head Portrait
Rumors swirled that she moved to Texas and married a Native American. A story from Virginia says that a very ill woman arrived in 1816 with a man who was presumed to be her husband. A doctor arrived to treat her, but the woman and her companion refused to answer any questions about their identity. Some believe that Theodosia was the woman, and the man was her physician, Dr. Green.
The most fascinating rumor involves the so-called “Nags Head” portrait, discovered in 1869.William Gaskins pool and his daughter Anna were summoned to treat an old woman who lived on Nags Head. When they entered the old home, they were shocked to see a portrait of Theodosia Burr Alston. The woman said that her husband had brought the portrait home after finding the wreckage of a boat. She paid Dr. Gaskins by giving him the painting.
Today, the painting hangs at Yale University, while experts still cannot agree on whether it is Theodosia Burr Alston.
8. What if Shakespeare Wasn’t Really Shakespeare?
William Shakespeare is humanity’s most famous playwright. He started as an actor in Stratford-on-Avon and then founded the Globe Theater. He died in 1619. However, a group of scholars and readers firmly believe that everything we know about Shakespeare is wrong, starting with the idea that a William Shakespeare from Stratford ever wrote all those plays.
Shakespeare was an incredibly prolific writer, but almost no written evidence exists linking him to the plays, poems, or sonnets. The scraps of paper containing his signature spell the last name several different ways, always in a different hand.
Although he is occasionally mentioned in writings of his contemporaries, none refer to him as playwright – only actor. The plays showed great depth of knowledge about political and historical matters, and some of the assertions made by the plays were scandalous at the time.
Next: Is Shakespeare the greatest fraud of all time?
7. Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford
One group of Shakespeare non-believers firmly believe that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, a poet and confidante of Queen Elizabeth I, was was the true author, and that Shakespeare was merely his nom-de-plume. Others, Baconites, believe that Sir Francis Bacon secretly wrote the plays and poems.
6. What Happened to The Princes in the Tower?
Britain’s greatest mystery is the fate of 12 year old Edward the V, and his 9 year old brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, who were imprisoned in the Tower of London by by Richard III. The assumption is that the Plantagenet King killed the nephews shortly after their father Edward IV died, which prevented Edward V from becoming king. Speculation is that they were killed in 1483.
But only one account of the boys’ time in the tower has been found, and no one knows what happened to them.
Next: Why is Queen Elizabeth hiding the truth?
5. Tower Bones
Some people believe they escaped. Imposters were common in the late 15th century, with one, Perkin Warbeck, surfacing 15 years after the disappearance, claiming to be Richard Shrewsbury.
Skeletal remains were found in 1674, when workmen found a box inside the tower containing two human skeletons. The bones and box were buried near the White Tower, where some believe the boys were buried. Despite repeated requests to examine the bones for forensic testing, England’s ruling monarchs, including Elizabeth II, have refused to allow the analysis.
4. Who Did The 1920 Wall Street Bombing?
On September 16, 1920, a wagon carrying 100 pounds of concealed dynamite parked itself outside the New York Stock Exchange. It detonated, killing 38 people and injuring hundreds more. It remained the biggest terrorist attack on American soil until the Oklahoma City Bombing of 1996. The attack remains unsolved. Authorities immediately pursued anti-government anarchists and communists, based largely on fliers which had appeared one day before the bombing.
“Remember, we will not tolerate any longer. Free the political prisoners, or it will be sure death for all of you. American Anarchist Fighters.” However, no group took responsibility for the bombing, and leads to the fliers’ creators did not turn up evidence the men did the bombing.
Next: Did the FBI blow it?
Over the years many theories were investigated, including one linked to tennis champion Edward Fischer, a mentally ill man who had warned people to stay away from Wall Street leading up to the attack. But Fischer had frequently issued warnings about Wall Street, and police committed him to a psychiatric ward.
In 1944, the FBI reopened the case, centering on suspicions about Mario Buda, an Italian anarchist who was friends with Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Buda could have planned the attack as revenge for the Sacco and Vanzetti indictments, which were handed down on September 11, 1920. But Buda had long ago fled to Italy. No one has ever been charged with the crime.
2. Was There a Pied Piper of Hamelin?
One of the most enduring and scary folk tales is that the Pied Piper of Hamelin led hundreds of children to their death. Scholars believe that there is some aspects of the tale that may be real. The story began when the people of Hamelin put a stained glass window in their church, depicting a scrappy man surrounded by children. The inscription read “On the day of John and Paul 130 children in Hamelin went to Calvary and were brought through all kinds of danger to the Koppen mountain and lost.” The inscription does not mention a piper. However, it certainly seems that something traumatic happened in Hamelin.
One hundred years after the stained glass, a monk wrote a description of the event, saying a man came to the town with a flute. He played it, children followed and disappeared. Since rats are mentioned in his account, some scholars and historians believe the children all died from an illness, like bubonic plague or black death, and they were then buried in a mass grave. The problem with this claim is that it seems strange that only the children would be struck by the illness. Some believe the children perished on a Children’s Crusade, which was common during the era of the Crusades.
Next: Is the history of vampires related to the missing children?
1. Transylvanian Colonists
Fairy tale researcher Jack Zipes has another theory: that the children were recruited to start a colony in Transylvania. Zipes has documentation showing that someone went to Hamelin around that time looking for people willing to colonize parts of eastern Europe. Some children were actually kidnapped for this purpose in the 12th century.