Stock Unsolved Mysteries

The possibility to let your characters witness or even participate in events that actually happened, is probably one of the most appealing aspects of Historical Fiction, Flashbacks, Time Travel stories and the like. But sometimes it can be quite hard to shoehorn your characters in, if you don't want to sacrifice too much of historical accuracy. Especially if your character doesn't quite fit into the historical setting, because he is a Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot.

The solution: Take a famous historical event that is shrouded in mystery, an event of which not many details are publicly known. Then fill the gap of historical records with whatever you want, this way "revealing" what actually happened. This adds the bonus that everyone likes a good mystery (and its eventual solution).

Depending on the tone and genre of your work, your "explanation" can range from mundane, over humorous, to absolutely fantastic.

The Been There, Shaped History person likes to cause these events. Of course Historical Domain Characters as well as fictional Public Domain Characters may be involved too. Perhaps they did even use a Public Domain Artifact.

Anyway, in the end you can proudly claim that your story is Very Loosely Based on a True Story.

Closely related to Historical In-Joke. Can also overlap with Beethoven Was an Alien Spy, when the focus lies on specific historical individuals. Often happens at, and tightly involves, a Landmark of Lore. Also, at least one of this events is a must-have for any Conspiracy Kitchen Sink story worth its salt.

Note that sometimes mysteries get solved, or even debunked as not having been that mysterious in the first place. In this case the work either was written in a time before the solution/debunking, or the writer didn't get the memo, or he's just using Artistic License. For obvious reasons, solutions that are perceived as "boring" are the most likely to be disregarded by writers.

Stock Unsolved Mysteries that have their own trope pages:

Stock Unsolved Mysteries without their own pages, and examples thereof:

Mysterious Disappearances
  • The case of Benjamin Bathurst, who disappeared from his hotel one day in 1809. (The actual truth is quite prosaic: Contemporary documents make it clear that he was almost certainly just mugged. Some of his personal belongings were even found during the search for him. It only became a mysterious mystery because of one particular account that made it sound like he'd disappeared into thin air in front of witnesses.)
  • The unknown fate of author, journalist and satirist Ambrose Bierce, who vanished somewhere in Mexico in 1913 after time spent accompanying Pancho Villa's army as an observer.
    • In Dance in the Vampire Bund he turns up as a vampire, although the circumstances of his transformation and how he became a confidant of Mina Tepes remains unknown.
    • The third From Dusk Till Dawn film attributes his disappearance to a run-in with vampires.
    • Robert A. Heinlein's novella "Lost Legacy" has Bierce surviving into the future and participating in a war to control humanity's nascent psychic abilities.
    • Carlos Fuentes's novel The Old Gringo is a fictionalized account of Bierce's disappearance which was later adapted into the film Old Gringo (1989).
  • D.B. Cooper, also known as Dan Cooper, who vanished on November 24, 1971 with $200,000 after hijacking a 727 and parachuting from the stairs in the tail.
    • In an episode of Leverage, appropriately titled "The D.B. Cooper Job", a federal agent hires the team to solve the case. The agent's father, a retired agent himself, is dying of cancer, and the D.B. Cooper case is the only one of his career he was unable to solve.
    • Without A Paddle involves a group of friends who decide to fulfill their childhood fantasies of locating D.B. Cooper's loot after one of their number dies unexpectedly.
    • xkcd satirically suggests that he is none other than Tommy Wiseau, the maker of The Room.
  • Colony collapse disorder. The sudden vanishing of worker bees from their hives across the world (leaving even their queens behind), first reported in 2006. No conclusive explanation has yet been found, and most scientists now believe that a combination of factors are at work.
    • Doctor Who used it as a running joke throughout New Who series 4. It ends with the revelation that the vanishing bees were actually aliens who became aware of what the Daleks planned to do to Earth.
    • The Secret World trailers contain the Arc Words "The Bees Are Returning" (among other things), which is currently believed to have to do with the CCD.
    • The X-Files used the bees as an integral part of the Government Conspiracy's Evil Plan (to spread the deadly alien virus), about a decade before the CCD was first reported. However, the feral bee population across the world has been rapidly diminishing since 1972... and incidentally, said Government Conspiracy was founded in 1973.
    • In The Simpsons episode "The Burns and the Bees", Lisa creates a bee sanctuary to combat CCD, which Groundskeeper Willie says is caused by loss of habitat.
    • In the Elementary episode "Absconded", a symposium on CCD is used as part of a really convoluted plot to kidnap a member of a royal family from the United Arab Emirates and ramsom him.
  • The disappearance of Grand Duchess Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, of whom many people claim that she somehow managed to escape the Bolsheviks who killed her entire family
    • The film Anastasia follows the life of exactly this girl
    • At the end of one Detective Conan movie, The Last Wizard of the Century, the protagonists find her as the solution of this film's mystery
    • There's a movie named Anastasia from 1956 in which Ingrid Bergman impersonates the Duchess.
    • In the year came a German movie called 'The Story of Anstasia'. It deals with the true story of an unidentified woman being found and held for Anastasia.
  • The disappearance of the American labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa in 1975. The FBI are still looking for his body.
    • In The Adventures of Pete & Pete, when Little Pete is tunneling under his house to escape from being grounded, he finds a wallet, looks at it and exclaims, "Hoffa!"
    • In Bruce Almighty, Bruce uses his godlike powers to find the body in order to advance his journalistic career.
    • The movie Hoffa, starring Jack Nicholson, suggests that he was assassinated by one of his mob allies after Hoffa threatened to reveal their connections.
    • In Nothing But Trouble, it is discovered that Hoffa ended up in the town of Valkenvania, a likely victim of the rather cruel, unusual, and deadly punishments meted out by the local justice system there.
    • The Simpsons episode "Last Exit to Springfield" makes a nod to the mystery with Mr. Burns and Smithers mentioning that the previous head of the power plant's union "mysteriously disappeared" after vowing the clean up the union. A Cutaway Gag depicting a football player tripping over a man-shaped mound of dirt on the field references Hoffa's alleged burial under Giants Stadium.
  • The disappearance of the so-called "Jewels of Helen" excavated from the ruins of Troy was the subject of the Elizabeth Peters novel Trojan Gold. (The mystery has since been solved, but that was after the novel's publication).
  • The disappearance of the British peer Lord Lucan in 1974, shortly after his children's nanny was murdered.
    • In Jake Arnott's The Long Firm, Harry Stark is strongly implied to have been involved, but no details are revealed.
    • Spitting Image has a puppet of Lord Lucan (whom some viewers confused with Freddie Mercury) have a cameo in almost every episode as a Running Gag.
  • The mystery of the sailing ship Mary Celeste, whose entire crew did vanish in 1872 somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. The current favourite realistic theory involves an alcohol explosion.
    • In the Doctor Who serial The Chase, the crew were killed by Daleks.
    • In The Goon Show episode "The Mystery of the Marie Celeste (solved)", Neddy Seagoon investigates in order to claim a reward offered for the solution to the mystery, only for the man offering the reward to mysteriously disappear himself.
    • "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement", a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, invented a number of details to make the event more mysterious which have subsequently been frequently included as fact in accounts of the real event.
    • Sapphire And Steel referred to the Mary Celeste affair as a past assignment, in Assignment 1. Sapphire, Steel, and Lead were apparently involved.
    • In 1990, the Gibraltarian author Sam Benady published Sherlock Holmes in Gibraltar, a set of two short stories set in the pre-Watson days. In the first one, The Abandoned Brigantine, Sherlock Holmes solves the mystery of the Mary Celeste.
  • The disappearance of "The Princes in the Tower", the children of Edward IV whose uncle and Lord Protector Richard III had them declared illegitimate to clear his way to the throne. (If you think you've spotted a likely suspect already, you're not alone, although "Ricardians" point the finger at his successor, Henry VII.)
    • Shakespeare's Richard III has them murdered by assassins sent by Richard.
    • In Kim Newman's Anno Dracula short story "Vampire Romance", Richard himself, who happens to be a vampire, emphatically denies having sent assassins to kill the Princes — he did the job personally.
  • The disappearance of the Roanoke Colony, an English colony in what is now North Carolina, a generation before the sailing of the Mayflower. An additional point of interest is that among the disappeared colonists was the child Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America. The cryptic word "Croatoan", inscribed on a tree in the colony, is frequently expounded upon. The most likely result was that the colonists, facing harsh conditions, melded with a nearby Indian tribe; various reports over the following decades made reference to Indians with European features, such as gray eyes, living in the area.
    • 100 Bullets has the disappearance of the Roanoke Colony be the work of The Trust, as the colonists refused to cede to the Trust's plans of pulling the strings of the American experiment.
    • Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter reveals it as the result of a vampire attack. The sequel, The Last American Vampire, goes into more detail, since protagonist Henry Sturges is one of three survivors of that attack, the other two being Virginia Dare and the vampire who wiped out the colony and turned Henry. Both of these play a significant role in the plot.
    • A Crossover between Batman and Spawn uses this as the backstory of the Big Bad, a demon called Croatoan who intends to circumscribe Gotham with a massive pentagram pattern like he did the Roanoke colony (which nobody noticed because nobody flew a weather balloon up there) and condemn all its souls to Hell.
    • The Doctor Who Missing Adventures novel The Empire of Glass offers an alien-abduction explanation.
    • The short story "Ezekiel" by Desmond Warzel explains where they went, and why.
    • The Roanoke Colony mystery was a significant part of the Myth Arc of the TV series Freakylinks.
    • The Roanoke Colony features in Marvel 1602, and Virginia Dare is a significant character.
    • Old Virginia, a Cthulhu Mythos short story by Laird Barron, had the colony fall victim to an Eldritch Abomination.
    • Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers features the present-day descendants of the colony living in an underground town. The reason for their disappearance: an immortal, dethroned, time-traveling king from a future Earth mated with their women and got them to hide underground, so that his former wife (the current monarch of the future Earth) wouldn't notice them, and that their descendants would one day help him overthrow her. Also, the underground town is inexplicably located close to a New York City Subway tunnel.
    • Andre Linoge, the Big Bad of Stephen King's Storm of the Century, claims to have caused the disappearance and death of the Roanoke Colony by forcing all its citizens to drown themselves in the sea when they would not "give him what he wants", and intends to repeat the tragedy on Little Tall Island. The word "Croatoan" is invoked by a later Driven to Suicide member of the town, but is never fully explained.
    • Supernatural attributes it to a demonic-originated Hate Plague.
    • The backstory of Werewolf: The Apocalypse has Roanoke wiped out when the Eater of Souls woke up. The word "Croatoan," famously found etched into a tree, was the name of the Native American werewolf tribe that gave their lives to put the thing back down.
    • Paris Burning'' offers no new explanation for the disappearance of the colonists, but identifies "Croatoan" as the name of an Eldritch Abomination that had taken an interest in the colony. The famous etching was done by the personification of the colony, whom the entity had chosen as its servant, as an invocation and prayer for help.
    • In L Jagi Lamplighter's Rachel Griffin series, the island was magically moved and is in fact in New York State now, and the site of the magical school, and Virginia Dare was a powerful magician; the Wise (those who know about magic) hid this from the Unwary (those who don't). As best we know. Though that piece of history has not been doubted in series, it has been established that just as the Unwary's history has been rewritten for them by the Wise, someone has been likewise hiding things from the Wise.
    • Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony reimagines The Colonial Period on Mars rather than in America, including the eponymous Lost Colony of Roanoke which has been destroyed by the local wildlife Brainwashed and Crazy. Sir Walter even finds Virginia Dare among ruins!
    • In the Blue Bloods novels by Melissa de la Cruz, the Roanoke colonists (all Blue Bloods, fallen angels who live on earth as vampires) were killed by the Silver Bloods (former Blue Bloods who rejected the Code and now feed on the remaining Blue Bloods).
  • Michael Rockefeller, son of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, disappeared in New Guinea in November 1961 after his rowboat capsized. After spending some time adrift on the wreckage with his partner, Rockefeller decided to try swimming to shore and was never seen again. Theories range from headhunters to crocodile attack to simple drowning. There are even claims that Rockefeller survived and joined a local tribe. Most recently, a 2014 book claims that natives killed and cannibalized Rockefeller, but met with considerable controversy.
    • The 2007 found footage film Welcome to the Jungle is about a group of modern tourists in New Guinea investigating stories that Rockefeller is still alive. As is par for the genre, the search doesn't end well for them...
    • The novel The King of America is a Roman Clef based on Rockefeller's disappearance.

Mysterious Documents
  • The Voynich manuscript, a manuscript dated to the 16th century, of unknown origin and written in an unknown script.
    • Rather bizarrely, the writing from the manuscript appeared in an obscure casual videogame called Blood Oath. It seems to imply that whoever created the manuscript was a vampire, because in the game vampires write letters to one another with these letters, even though one might suspect it was used because the developers didn't want to create a new alphabet and borrowed one no one held copyright to.
    • In Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon, one of the characters deciphers the Voynich manuscript and promptly gets killed, since it contains the key to waking the Sleeping Dragon.
    • Codex Seraphinianus, created by Luigi Serafini in the 1970s, was inspired by the Voynich manuscript. Written in an indecipherable script, it appears to be an encyclopedia of an alien world. It was created in order to inspire in its readers the feeling of impenetrable mystery.
    • xkcd posits that the Voynich Manuscript is actually... A centuries old tabletop RPG.

Mysterious Fires

Mysterious Monumental Damage
  • How did the Great Sphinx of Gizeh lose its nose?
    • Asterix and Cleopatra has Obelix accidentally de-nosing the Sphinx while sightseeing. (In the movies, he goes on to deprive the Venus de Milo of her arms in The Twelve Tasks of Asterix and knock a great big hole in the Colosseum in Asterix Versus Caesar — the latter a particularly impressive feat considering that the Colosseum wasn't built until over a century after Caesar's reign.)
    • In Aladdin, the Sphinx's nose is knocked off when the sculptor applies his chisel too strongly, because he's surprised by Aladdin and Jasmine flying past on their date.
    • The Prince of Egypt shows the Sphinx getting its nose knocked off.
  • What happened to the left eye of the bust of Nefertiti?
    • In Anatolia Story, the bust of Nefertiti only has one eye because the eye was made out of a piece of jewelry that had sentimental value to Nefertiti, and there was only enough material for one eye. When the sculptor points this out, Nefertiti replies "Who cares? It's just a bust, it's not like it's very valuable anyway."
  • What happened to the rest of the Athenaeum portrait of George Washington?note 
    • In The Simpsons, Jebediah Springfield is responsible for damaging the portrait.

Mysterious Murder Cases
  • The Axeman of New Orleans, an unidentified serial killer present in New Orleans in the late 1910s.
  • Bible John, unidentified serial killer active in Glasgow in the late 1960s.
    • The Grant Morrison/Daniel Vallely comic book Bible John: A Forensic Meditation is a surreal, hallucinogenic speculation on the unidentified Serial Killer's possible motivations.
  • The death of Mary Rogers, found floating in the Hudson River in 1841.
  • There was some controversy between the police and coroner at the time, but five-year-old Elsie Paroubek was almost certainly murdered. Dredged from the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal a month after her disappearance in the spring of 1911, her killer was never found. Miss Paroubek's story, and her photo, published in the Chicago Daily News, were among the inspirations for Henry Darger's monumental amateur novel In The Realms Of The Unreal.
  • The gruesome unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, nicknamed "Black Dahlia", 1947 in Los Angeles.
    • The book Black Dahlia, and the 2006 movie adaptation.
    • In the '90s adventure game Black Dahlia, it turned out to be part of an ancient magical ritual carried out by Nazis.
    • "The Black Dahlia", an episode of Hunter, has Hunter and McCall investigate after new evidence comes to light; it aired on the anniversary date of the original murder.
    • Is a major part of the plot in L.A. Noire. (It turns out that the killer was the half-brother of a very highly-placed politician, so after you find and kill him, the whole matter is sealed up and quieted down.)
    • In the ninth episode of American Horror Story: Murder House, Elizabeth Short is shown to be one of several victims of the "Murder House".
  • The Zodiac Killer, unidentified serial killer active in northern California in the 1960s and 1970s; sent cryptogram messages to the press, some of which remain unsolved.
    • Dirty Harry was heavily inspired by the Zodiac Killer; its murderer is named Scorpio (and is never explicitly identified), and shares the real-life Zodiac's penchant for mailing newspapers and even copies some of his threats (eg., hijacking a school bus). Of course, the movie has a happier ending than real life.
    • David Fincher's film Zodiac strongly suggests that a real suspect in the officially unsolved Zodiac Killings was the guilty party.
    • Seven Psychopaths reveal that three serial killers who were never caught (the Zodiac Killer, the Phantom Killer and the Cleveland Torso Murderer) were in fact killed by a couple of Serial Killer Killers.

Mysterious SCIENCE!
  • The Philadelphia Experiment, allegedly conducted by the US Navy in 1943, involving the destroyer escort USS Eldridge turning invisible and being teleported.
    • In the novel The Astounding, the Amazing and the Unknown by Paul Malmont, Pulp Magazine sci-fi writers are tasked by the US Government in World War II with creating Death Rays and other such miracle weapons. Robert A. Heinlein creates the experiment as an all-done-with-mirrors (and a model) illusion in order to get an Obstructive Bureaucrat off his back. Meanwhile the crew of the real Eldridge gets drunk, leading the bureaucrat to assume from their vomiting and odd behaviour on their return that the experiment has driven them mad. This gives Heinlein's team the excuse to say that further tests will be aborted until they've fixed the problem.
    • The appropriately titled movie The Philadelphia Experiment.
    • Part of the backstory of RASL.
    • In Command & Conquer: Red Alert, the Philadelphia Experiment is revealed in the Allied campaign to be a test run for the Chronosphere project.

Works dealing with more than one example of this trope: