Jason F. Collins
It might seem counterintuitive to call someone a famous historical figure when we don’t actually know their name. But in these strange cases, people managed to make their mark on history even while their true identities remained unknown. Some used aliases, purposefully keeping their actual identities a secret, while others’ anonymity was less of a choice and more of a case of lost history.
In recent years, with advancements in science and technology, many historical figures whose identities were a mystery have been uncovered. Yet, there are still a few historical figures whose identities remain unknown despite the best efforts of scientists, researchers, and historians. While many of these enigmatic figures passed before anyone could uncover answers, theories still abound today as to who they actually were, and in some cases, what happened to them.
Vote up the figures from the past you’re still wondering about in the present.
Amnesia Patient Mary Doefour Couldn’t Remember Who She Was
In March 1978, an elderly woman known as Mary Doefour passed in Queenwood East Nursing Home. But Mary Doefour wasn’t her real name. In fact, no one knew who she was, when she was born, or of a single friend or relative to inform of her passing. About 50 years earlier, Doefour had been found wandering along a roadside in Northern Illinois, disoriented and beaten. She’d been sexually assaulted and was later found to be pregnant. When asked who she was, she couldn’t remember her name, but later remembered that she had been a school teacher.
Despite not being mentally unstable, she was placed in a state hospital for the criminally insane, and no one tried very hard to uncover her identity. Her child was likely put in an orphanage. On multiple occasions, she reportedly tried to argue that she did not belong in the hospital, but each attempt left her medicated. Additionally, Doefour was subjected to electric shock therapy on many occasions, which likely damaged her mind. After 10 years, she was transferred to a state mental hospital in Bartonville, where her mental and physical state slowly degenerated.
For 30 years, Doefour was in the Bartonville mental hospital without visitors. In 1972, she was sent to a nursing home in El Paso and then to one in Morton. For more than four decades, no one could determine who she was. But after hearing the vague details of her story in 1978, a reporter named Rick Baker began investigating who she might have been.
Baker ran a 14-page story in the Bloomington Pantagraph about Doefour, hoping that someone would recognize her story. When no one came forward with any ideas about her identity, Baker ran another story in the Peoria Journal Star, which also ran in a few other notable papers. From the story’s printing, a clue arose. A woman wrote in stating that she remembered a teacher who had disappeared in Iowa.
Baker followed up on this lead by calling a school in Mount Vernon, IA, where he eventually learned that about 50 years earlier, a teacher had gone missing by the name of Anna Myrle Sizer. After further investigation, he discovered Sizer had a brother, Harold Sizer, who was still alive. From him, Baker learned that Sizer was last seen getting off a train in Marion, IA. A later suspected sighting of Sizer placed her wandering, dazed, on a highway between Cedar Rapids, OH, and Chicago, IL. The more he learned about Anna Myrle Sizer, the more Baker became convinced she was Mary Doefour.
Baker showed a photograph of Sizer as a young woman to people who knew Doefour, who believed them to be one and the same. Baker tried to get Sizer’s brother to look into the case further, by going through the court to gain access to Doefour’s medical records and hopefully prove she was his sister. But Harold wouldn’t agree. His family had already made peace with Sizer’s disappearance, concluding that she’d perished long ago. And the possibility that she’d been trapped in a mental hospital for 50 years wasn’t one that Harold seemed to want to accept. Baker eventually had to close his investigation without ever knowing for certain if he’d found the real Mary Doefour.
The FBI Has Never Discovered What Happened To The Money D.B. Cooper StolePhoto: US Federal Bureau of Investigation / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
The FBI Has Never Discovered What Happened To The Money D.B. Cooper Stole
“D.B. Cooper” is the now infamous alias for an airplane hijacker who took over a Northwest Orient Airlines flight in 1971. Cooper, a quiet man estimated to be in his mid-40s, wearing a business suit, boarded the short flight from Portland, OR, to Seattle, WA, and ordered a bourbon and soda. He then passed a note to a flight attendant telling her he had a bomb onboard.
Cooper showed her what appeared to be an incendiary device in his briefcase, and then gave his demands: He requested four parachutes and $200,000 in $20 bills. The plane circled Seattle as Cooper’s ransom was readied. Upon receiving the money and requested equipment, he let the unsuspecting passengers disembark, but forced several crew members to stay onboard and take him to Mexico City. Another odd request? They were to fly the plane under 10,000 feet.
At this height, over Southwestern Washington, Cooper jumped off the back of the airplane with the money. The FBI believes Cooper probably didn’t survive the jump because he would have parachuted into remote wilderness in poor weather conditions without proper equipment, and his use of the equipment he did have led them to conclude he wasn’t an experienced skydiver. Those who believe he did survive point to the fact that none of Cooper’s equipment (nor his body) have ever been found despite extensive searches.
Adding to the mystery, in 1980, about $6,000 of Cooper’s ransom money was found buried in the banks of the Columbia River. It’s the only money of the $200,000 that has ever been located. An amateur crime historian named Eric Ulis believes that the remaining money is located in the same vicinity, and that the FBI was actually looking for Cooper (and any evidence from his jump) in the wrong area.
After 45 years, the FBI still hadn’t managed to solve the case of D.B. Cooper, or even identify him. In July 2016, the FBI officially decided to suspend active investigation of the case due to insufficient evidence pointing to his identity or the missing money.
Still, many people have come forward over the years claiming to know Cooper’s true identity. Some theorize that Cooper was a former Boeing employee, giving him a knowledge of airplane mechanics. Others have suggested Cooper was Robert Rackstraw, a former Army helicopter pilot. Alternatively, many believe the woman who came forward stating Cooper was her uncle and that he had plotted the whole thing at a family gathering in 1971. Though the list of potential suspects is long, no one has been able to definitively prove which one (if any) was Cooper.
‘Tank Man’ Became A Symbol Of Revolution, But Nobody Knows What Happened To HimPhoto: Jeff Widener / AP / Wikipedia / Fair use
‘Tank Man’ Became A Symbol Of Revolution, But Nobody Knows What Happened To Him
One of the most recognized photographs of the 20th century is that of “Tank Man,” whose picture was captured directly after the Chinese government campaign to clear Tiananmen Square of protesters. The 1989 protests were student-led pro-democracy demonstrations that ended violently when troops descended upon the area with assault rifles and tanks. For years, historians have tried to identify the lone man, carrying shopping bags, who dared to stand in front of the tanks in the face of governmental wrath.
Although more than 30 years have passed, Tank Man’s identity is no closer to being uncovered, and nobody knows what happened to him after the protest. Film from the incident shows that after the tanks stopped, the man climbed up onto the front of the leading vehicle and briefly stood on it while speaking to a crew member. As he continued to move to block their path, he was eventually forcibly removed and taken away by two men.
A British tabloid reported at the time that Tank Man was Wang Weilin, a student arrested for “political hooliganism.” But Chinese officials have never confirmed a name, and later said they were unable to locate the man. Some believe he was executed days after the protest for his insubordination, while others think he could have been saved and is now in hiding.
In a 1990 interview, former President Jiang Zemin suggested that Tank Man had not been killed despite his actions. But whether anyone in the Chinese regime knows his fate, all images of his act of defiance continue to be banned in China. It’s possible that the censorship means Tank Man was never made aware of his international fame.
The ‘Drowned Mona Lisa’ May Not Have Drowned At AllPhoto: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
The ‘Drowned Mona Lisa’ May Not Have Drowned At All
One of the most popular Victorian-era masks in the world belongs to that of an unknown young woman with closed eyes and the hint of a smile on her lips. What not everyone realizes is that this mask is thought to have been made after the young woman had passed.
It is commonly believed that the young girl was around 16 years old when she was supposedly found floating in the Seine river in the late 1800s, leading to her original nickname “L’Inconnue de la Seine” (the unknown woman of the Seine). Her body was taken to be put on display at the Paris mortuary for all to see, in the hopes that someone would be able to identify her. Unfortunately, no one came forward, so her identity has been open to speculation and theories for decades.
The story goes that when the pathologist on duty saw the young woman’s face, he was entranced by her ethereal beauty and requested a plaster mold be made of her face. Shortly after, masks cast in the girl’s likeness became incredibly popular with many people. Yet, although it was believed she drowned, many have questioned this story.
There’s little doubt that the girl existed, but some believe her face and body were too well preserved for her to have drowned. If she’d perished in the river, she likely would have been bloated, which is not how she appeared, according to historical accounts.
Some believe the girl took her own life, while others believe she was never a dead girl but instead a highly trained model who didn’t drown until after she’d posed for the mask. Moreover, according to an Oxford-based artist, the “Drowned Mona Lisa” was actually a Hungarian actress named Ewa Lazlo who had been murdered by Louis Argon, who was her lover.
Regardless of her identity, the unknown woman’s face took on a life of its own after her passing. In 1955, toymaker Asmund Laerdal saved the life of his young son who nearly drowned, clearing the water from his airways. This led to Laerdal’s creation of “Resusci Anne” (AKA “Rescue Anne” or “CPR Annie”) the mannequin used around the world for CPR training. For the face of his mannequin, Laerdal selected that of the “Drowned Mona Lisa.”
One Of These Two Men Was Probably ‘The Man In The Iron Mask’Photo: Anonymous / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
One Of These Two Men Was Probably ‘The Man In The Iron Mask’
In fact, the “Man in the Iron Mask” was actually a man in a velvet mask (the iron myth was popularized by later accounts). For years, historians have been trying to uncover the man’s identity and have managed to narrow the suspect pool to two likely suspects.
The mysterious masked man spent several decades imprisoned in the Bastille and other French prisons during King Louis XIV’s reign (1643-1715). Supposedly, no one ever caught a glimpse of the man’s face, or knew why he was imprisoned, though he has inspired countless legends and stories.
There have been many theories about the prisoner’s identity, with some believing him to have been a member of a royal family or a disgraced French general. But only two men were kept in long-term custody during the timeframe of the Man in the Iron Mask: Ercole Matthiole and Eustache Dauger.
Matthiole was an Italian count who betrayed King Louis XIV during political negotiations. His name is strikingly similar to the alias the prisoner was buried under – Marchioly – and Louis XV and Louis XVI supposedly said that the masked man was of Italian nobility. But according to some historians, Dauger is more likely to have been the man in the velvet mask because Matthiole likely perished in 1694, while the anonymous prisoner supposedly passed in 1703. As for Dauger, many are still undecided if that was even his real name, although most agree that he was taken into custody and transferred to numerous French prisons.
A popular theory is that Dauger was a valet who was implicated in a political scandal. Yet, some believe he was a debauched nobleman, the twin brother of Louis XIV, or a failed assassin.
One Investigator Claims To Know Who Jack the Ripper Really WasPhoto: R. Taylor / The Illustrated London News / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
One Investigator Claims To Know Who Jack the Ripper Really Was
Although several investigators believe they’ve uncovered Jack the Ripper’s true identity, many remain unconvinced. The notorious serial killer was active from August to November of 1888 and killed women in unspeakable ways, though even his list of victims is hotly debated. The case was officially closed in 1889 when authorities could not uncover his identity despite their extensive efforts.
There have been countless theories, some less credible than others, about Jack the Ripper’s true identity, ranging from Winston Churchill’s father to author Lewis Carroll to Prince Albert Victor (the grandson of Queen Victoria). Some believe that Jack the Ripper wasn’t actually a man but instead was a woman by the name of Mary Pearcey. Pearcey was executed in 1890 for crimes against her lover’s wife and child, but no evidence has linked her to Jack the Ripper.
In 2011, a forensic genealogist was hired by “armchair detective” Russell Edwards to conduct DNA testing on a shawl he had purchased that was found at the Catherine Eddowes crime scene in 1888. The genealogist used the mitochondrial DNA obtained from the shawl to try and find a match to one of the suspects from the original case. This genealogist was able to match the DNA found to direct descendants of both Catherine Eddowes and Aaron Kosminski, a Polish immigrant who was a prime suspect during the original investigation.
Despite this match, many don’t believe it’s proof that Kosminski was Jack the Ripper, in part because the DNA report was not published in any reputable peer-reviewed scientific journals.
Additionally, most find the claim hard to believe because mitochondrial DNA is not the best identifier. Other experts say that the genealogical testing had an “error of nomenclature” that would make the match much less specific than is required to be conclusive.
Still, Edwards has been adamant that he’s cracked the case, stating,
I’ve spent 14 years working on it, and we have definitively solved the mystery of who Jack the Ripper was… Only non-believers that want to perpetuate the myth will doubt. This is it now – we have unmasked him.
Though The Zodiac Killer’s Cypher Was Cracked, We May Never Know Their NamePhoto: San Francisco Police Department / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
Though The Zodiac Killer’s Cypher Was Cracked, We May Never Know Their Name
Since the cracking of the Zodiac Killer’s cipher, many have hoped that his identity, which has remained a mystery for more than 50 years, will finally be discovered. Comprising at least five unsolved killings between 1968 and 1969 in the San Francisco Bay Area (which many believe were carried out by one man), the Zodiac case has become one of the most famous unsolved crime mysteries in American history.
Unlike other serial killers, it’s believed that the Zodiac Killer stopped before he was caught after a close call, perhaps an indicator that he was after fame rather than someone with a compulsive need to slay. It could be why he continued to send letters after he had stopped his crime spree.
In 2021, a team of intelligence officers, journalists, and former law enforcement officials calling themselves “The Case Breakers” claimed they had solved the mystery and uncovered the identity of the Zodiac Killer. This team believed him to be deceased former Air Force pilot Gary Francis Poste, whose name they claim is incorporated into the Zodiac cipher. However, according to the FBI, the case remains open, and the claim is little more than another theory.
Other theories over the years have claimed that a man named Arthur Leigh Allen was the Zodiac Killer because he wore a Zodiac watch, owned the same caliber gun, and made a few questionable comments about wanting to harm people. Although he was the main suspect, there was never enough proof to charge him.
Additionally, a few other names have been put forth as the Zodiac Killer. The list of suspects includes Ross Sullivan, a library assistant who was linked to another murder; Lawrence Kane, a former Navy reserve who worked at the same hotel as a potential Zodiac victim; Richard Marshall, who lived close to the scenes of the murders; and Jack Tarrance, who was accused by his own stepson.
‘Babushka Lady’ May Hold Key Information About The JFK AssassinationPhoto: Walt Cisco Dallas Morning News / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
‘Babushka Lady’ May Hold Key Information About The JFK Assassination
The identity of US president JFK’s assassin isn’t a mystery, but since his assassination in 1963, rumors have swirled about how it all went down. The aftermath was pure chaos, but investigators at the time hoped that someone had taken a picture or filmed the assassination. Investigators seized all cameras they could find from anyone who’d been filming the president. Though none appeared to catch the image of the culprit, many captured the image of a woman in a headscarf, also called a babushka.
It appeared that the mysterious woman’s camera had been pointed in the direction where the assassin was thought to have been. Authorities quickly began to search for the woman, who was dubbed “Babushka Lady.” For the next five decades, the FBI tried to uncover the identity of Babushka Lady, with many women coming forward claiming to have been her. Each of these women’s claims was dismissed because they had no proof.
However, one suspect stands apart from the others. Beverly Oliver claimed that she was Babushka Lady and that she had filmed the assassination, but before she could develop the film, it was confiscated by two men she believed were FBI agents. She claimed that they said they would return the film within 10 days, but she never got it back. While Oliver was adamant about her story, many doubt she was Babushka Lady because the camera she claimed to have used wasn’t even produced until 1969.
Those who don’t believe that Oliver was Babushka Lady have put forth a slew of other theories as to the mystery woman’s identity. Some think that the Babushka Lady was a Russian spy, a Secret Service member, or a dirty government official.
Villagers Were Confused By The Appearance Of The Green Children Of WoolpitPhoto: Randolph Caldecott / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
Villagers Were Confused By The Appearance Of The Green Children Of Woolpit
Many are well aware of the folk tale of the green children of Woolpit, the two mysterious children who appeared in the English village with inexplicably green skin. But contrary to popular belief, the story likely has some basis in truth. Although many don’t believe that two children appeared from an underground world inhabited by green people, many historians believe that they existed and had green skin. The first sighting of the green children of Woolpit was in the mid-12th century during the reign of King Stephen.
According to historical texts, two children appeared in 1150 in a village in Suffolk. These children had green skin and were talking gibberish while acting nervously. Since the villagers were nervous about the appearance of these children, they were taken to Sir Richard de Calne. For days, Calne reportedly tried to convince them to eat to no avail.
For years, the children lived with Calne and slowly began to eat what he gave them. According to historical accounts, the children began to speak English and slowly lost the green color of their skin due to the diet they were being fed.
When they could speak English, they were asked who they were and where they had come from. The children reportedly said that they were from the land of St. Martin and that they did not know how they had arrived in the village where they were found.
One theory is that the children were the descendants of immigrants whom King Henry II or King Stephen had slain. Others put forth that the children were extraterrestrials or that they hailed from another world. Additionally, the green tint to their skin could have been due to malnourishment or “green sickness.”
In 1982, L.W. Wright Fooled NASCAR By Impersonating A DriverPhoto: NASCAR / Youtube
In 1982, L.W. Wright Fooled NASCAR By Impersonating A Driver
One of the biggest reported mysteries in NASCAR history is the identity of the man who managed to fool racers, sponsors, and competition officials and escape with gear and money that wasn’t his. In 1982, a man going by the alias “L.W. Wright” quickly rose through the ranks to earn himself a spot racing at the prestigious Winston 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway.
Wright managed to trick NASCAR officials into believing that country music stars had sponsored him. This clever publicity trick earned Wright a racing sponsorship that gave him a car and a full racing team. Although he wasn’t actually a qualified race car driver, he miraculously managed to get through the qualifying race and earn a spot racing at the Winston 500.
Before the event began, it became clear that Wright didn’t know anything about racing. Mechanic and future NASCAR driver Sterling Marlin, who was Wright’s crew chief, later reported that in strategy discussions, Wright was asking fundamental racing questions and “didn’t seem like he had any idea what was going on.” A few laps into the race, Wright blew his engine, disqualifying him, and seemingly disappeared from the speedway in the team’s semitruck.
Shortly after, Wright’s sponsors (who had given him approximately $37,000), companies that had sold him gear, and his race team began looking for him and the money he owed them, particularly after all the checks he’d written had bounced. Many private investigators were hired to try and find him, but all they could uncover was that Wright wasn’t who he said he was.
To this day, no one has been able to identify L.W. Wright’s real name. Most believe him to have been a con man, while others think he was merely a thrill-seeker trying to live out his greatest dream.
The Count Of Saint-Germain Was Also Known As ‘The Wonderman’ – But He Never Revealed His True NamePhoto: Nicolas Thomas / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
The Count Of Saint-Germain Was Also Known As ‘The Wonderman’ – But He Never Revealed His True Name
One of the oldest identity mysteries belongs to the Count of Saint Germain, who was nicknamed “The Wonderman.” The Count of Saint Germain was an avid adventurer who achieved prominence in European high society during the mid-1700s. He is believed to have held interests in the arts, alchemy, and science, though some of his abilities have taken on a legendary quality.
Not much is known about the Wonderman – not even his place of birth or his parentage. One theory holds that he was from a disgraced noble family, leading him to hide his identity. He could reportedly speak nearly all European languages, was a capable violinist and musical composer, had a vast knowledge of history, and was an accomplished chemist. One common belief is that he was a Portuguese Jew who was arrested as a Jacobite spy. Even more mysterious were the accounts that he always seemed to look the same age, in his mid-40s. Voltaire described him as “a man who knows everything and who never dies” – though seemed to harbor doubts.
Additionally, the Count supposedly rubbed elbows with a lot of famous figures over the years. Some assert he was placed in St. Petersburg in Russia to play an important role in the conspiracy against Tsar Peter III. However, despite the popular belief that he was a spy, some other theories put forth that the Count was the founder of Freemasonry, the son of Prince Francis II Rakoczi of Transylvania, or a talented conman who looked young for his age.
While many stories (including his own) suggest he was immortal (or at least lived for hundreds of years), he likely passed in Schleswig in 1784.
Banksy Is A World-Famous Artist, But His Identity Remains A SecretPhoto: Fruit Monkey / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0
Banksy Is A World-Famous Artist, But His Identity Remains A Secret
Interestingly, one of Britain’s most famous graffiti artists has never publicly revealed his identity, nor has he come forward to claim his fame. People only know him by the name “Banksy.” Since the early 1990s in Bristol, Banksy has been spray-painting public places in his distinctive stencil art style. Many people interpret his artwork as political messaging, and some have interpreted certain pieces to be referencing pollution and homelessness.
For years, Banksy has largely kept his identity a secret, perhaps in part because he could be arrested – graffiti and street art are considered criminal acts in the UK. In the 2000s, Banksy’s art began to appear not only across the UK but also in other parts of the world, such as Paris, Bethlehem, and New York. He quickly became an unknown icon whose art can fetch well over 1 million pounds.
In an anonymous interview, Banksy gave a bit of insight into his origins as an artist:
I came from a relatively small city in southern England. When I was about ten years old, a kid called 3D was painting the streets hard. I think he’d been to New York and was the first to bring spray painting back to Bristol. I grew up seeing spray paint on the streets way before I ever saw it in a magazine or on a computer.
Although there are a few popular theories about his identity, one of the most popular is that he is a man named Robin Gunningham. Many former schoolmates of Gunningham believe him to be Banksy because he was known as a talented illustrator during his school career.
Another theory purports that Banksy is Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja, a prominent graffiti artist who used to go by 3D, the same person Banksy named as an inspiration. Could 3D and Banksy actually have been the same artist all along? Others suggest that Banksy is actually multiple people, with Del Naja as the leader. Del Naja has refuted claims that he is Banksy.
Further suspicion arose when a British musician known as DJ Goldie was interviewed on a podcast. While discussing Banksy, Goldie commented, “No disrespect to Rob, I think he is a brilliant artist. I think he has flipped the world of art over.” Some listeners think that Goldie inadvertently used Banksy’s real name. Unfortunately, “Rob” could still refer to either of their prime suspects, Robin or Robert.