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Extremely Cold Case

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Victim's descendant: It's all gone now. The house, the money...
Nick Vera: ...the suspects...
Cold Case, "Torn"

A professional detective applies their crime-solving skills to an old historical mystery. Either the mystery has remained unsolved in the interim, or the detective has found reason to suspect that the original solution was flawed.

Differs from a usual situation of Revisiting the Cold Case because everybody involved in the original incidents is dead. This means the detective has no opportunity to re-interview witnesses or suspects and is forced to rely on what physical and documentary evidence remains. It also affects the framing of a successful outcome, since it's too late to make things right for the original victims (although in some cases there may be a living relative whose situation will be affected).


Often appears as the premise of a Something Completely Different episode for an established detective.


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  • In The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey's fourth novel featuring Inspector Alan Grant, he is laid up in hospital with a broken leg and passes the time re-investigating a murder from the 15th century. Famous because, rather than have him investigate a fictional case, Tey used the real incident of Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. The investigation includes examining the primary historical sources on the case and realizing the political biases of either their writers or the sources which these writers used.
  • In "The Musgrave Ritual", a young Sherlock Holmes not only resolves the disappearance of a butler but also locates a historical artifact, the crown of King Charles I. The butler had also discovered this, and got as far as the chest containing the crown, but was left to die by his accomplice/ex-lover.
  • In A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs, Ellis Peters' fourth Felse Investigates novel, George Felse goes on holiday and is invited to attend the opening of a historic tomb in the town where he is staying. It is discovered that the tomb's occupant was apparently Buried Alive, and figuring out the truth about her death becomes the B-plot to the more recent violent death that is the main mystery.
  • In The Wench Is Dead, Colin Dexter's eighth Inspector Morse novel, Morse is laid up in hospital and passes the time by re-investigating a murder case from Oxford in 1859, which he suspects resulted in three wrongful convictions. (The murder case is fictional, but it was inspired by a real 1839 case.)
  • A variation is the main plot of the Agatha Christie novel Postern of Fate (1973). Tommy and Tuppence attempt to investigate a poisoning death from the World War I era, decades following the death of most witnesses and suspects. But the killers in the case were the founders of a spy ring, and the detectives have current members of the spy ring trying to "silence" them.
  • In Arturo Pérez-Reverte's The Flemish Panel (adapted to film as Uncovered), an art restorer finds the hidden message "Who killed the Knight?" in a 1471 painting, then decides to investigate the 500-year old murder with her friends.
  • The Non-fiction book The Cases That Haunt Us (2000) by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker reexamine the cases of Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, and the Lindbergh Baby through the lens of modern profiling among others.

    Live-Action TV 
  • One episode of Bones had an anthropologist as the Victim of the Week, and he had recently discovered a collection of early Homo sapiens and Neanderthal bones, which are brought in as evidence. Brennan, assigned to modern murders but eager to participate on prestigious specimens, quickly notes that one of the injuries seems not to be accidental and petitions Cam to classify it as a murder so that she can make it her priority. Clark Edison, the anthropologist assigned to ancient remains, points out that the modern case is much more pressing, while his "murder" has only academic interest. They wind up solving it anyway.
  • Inspector Morse: In "The Wench Is Dead", Morse is laid up in hospital and passes the time by reinvestigating a murder case from Oxford in 1859, which he suspects resulted in three wrongful convictions. (The murder case is fictional, but inspired by a real 1839 case.)
  • Used as a quick gag on an episode of Monk: while playing undercover as a security guard of a museum and pondering the clues of the murder of the week, Adrian randomly points out to Stottlemeyer that a Neanderthal skeleton that is on a nearby exhibit shows signs of having been murdered, rather than the natural causes the exhibit says were the cause of death (and that none of the anthropologists or analysts or other people who have seen it in the many years since being unburied noticed).
  • New Tricks: Although the entire purpose of the UCOS team is to investigate cold cases, they cover new ground in "A Death in the Family" when Stephen Fisher of MI5 asks them to investigate a murder that took place in 1851.
  • Cold Case: A few episode cases go back to the 1930s or earlier. In these episodes the show's formula of interviews with living witnesses is largely replaced with the detectives interviewing with the witnesses' descendants, reading diaries and letters, and listening to recordings. The investigation is almost always triggered by the recent death of a relative of the victim.
    • In the series premiere, Lilly asks what the coldest case ever is and her old partner claims that it is Lucy the Australopithecus because someone bashed her head in with a rock. note 
    • In "Beautiful Little Fool", the team investigates their coldest case up to that point, the murder of a flapper in the aftermath of the Stock Market Crash of 1929. The only living witness was a little girl at the time of the murder, and getting an interview with her (now an old, reclusive socialite in her family's mansion) is an additional challenge. Solving this crime has legal effects in the present day because the murder weapon is proven to have been stolen from the victim, and the police confiscates it from the murderer's grandchild.
    • In "Torn", the team investigates their coldest case ever, the murder of a woman who was killed in 1919. They soon learn that she may have been murdered because of her activism for the women's vote. The only person from the original investigation still alive was a young child at the time.
    • In the same episode, Lilly and Scotty revisit the storage for really old cases (before World War II). Lilly reads through some files from the 1910s and pokes fun at how lacklustre they are; one only says that the suspect is a mustached man. The implication is that they could take any of them right there and get closer to the truth.
    • Averted to some degree in "Best Friends", which involves a case from 1932. Despite the age of the case (the oldest case yet at the time, and third-oldest overall), the two critical witnesses are still alive to tell their stories (although some fans believe that the final scene in the episode implies that one of the witnesses dies the same day the case is closed).
    • Downplayed also in the oldest episode of the first season, "The Letter", but at play still. The case is from 1939, 65 years before the present section and 19 before the next oldest case in the season. The main characters only look into the case because Lilly wants to. However, three witnesses are still alive, and the detectives are surprised to find that one of the perps is as well (he confesses when they tell him they'll look for DNA in the body).
  • The PBS documentary series History Detectives investigated the Austin Axe Murders of 1885-1886 using documentary evidence, psychological and geographical profiling. They concluded that the likely murderer was one Nathan Elgin who was shot by police while attacking another woman shortly after the last murder. At the time the murders took place, the idea of a Serial Killer simply did not exist, and the locals were convinced that it was the work of a gang or some kind of moral degradation driving the town's men crazy.
  • Hawaii Five-0: In "Ho'onani Makuakane"note , the team investigates the murder of a prisoner at Honouliuli Internment Camp after the victim's son accuses a guard of killing him and stealing his family's samurai sword. Every other person involved in the case at the time is dead.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The board game Mysterium is about a group of psychics performing a seance to solve the murder of a ghost, who was killed 50 years ago. One player plays as the ghost, and since they've been dead for so long, they can only communicate in mysterious visions. While all the suspects are dead, the psychics hope to put the ghost's spirit to rest.

    Web Original 
  • From Gizmodo: 9 Historical Murder Mysteries Solved More Than A Century Later:
    • The death of Antoine Mauroy, a Parisian madman who received several blood transfusions from animals in 1667. The physician who performed the transfusion was tried for murder and acquitted. The madman's wife was subsequently accused and convicted of poisoning him, but she was suspected of having help from the doctor's enemies.
    • The death of Cangrande della Scala, ruler of Verona who passed right after conquering Treviso in 1329. A 2015 autopsy revealed that he had been poisoned with foxglove.
    • The deaths of Francesco de Medici and his wife within a day of each other in 1587. A modern autopsy determined that Francesco had died of malaria.
    • The assassination of Giuliano de Medici during the Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478. An encrypted letter deciphered only in 2004 revealed the identity of another plotter, Federico da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino (1422-1482, reign 1474-1482).
    • The deaths of 17 people found in a 13th-century well in England. Identified through DNA as members of a single Jewish family, their deaths were also found to be not from natural causes.
    • The death of Zachary Taylor in 1850, confirmed to be from natural causes. Taylor's remains were exhumed and analyzed in 1991. The analysis concluded that Taylor had contracted "cholera morbus, or acute gastroenteritis", as Washington D.C. had open sewers, and his food or drink may have been contaminated.
    • The boy in the cellar, a 15/16-year-old boy buried in a 17th-century cellar in Maryland, determined to have been murdered.
    • The death of Napoléon Bonaparte in 1821, attributed to gastric cancer in a modern autopsy.
    • The death of Tycho Brahe in 1601. Suspected arsenic poisoning was ruled out by testing his beard in 2012.

    Real Life 
  • Speaking of Lucy, she was claimed to have died after falling from a tree in a 2016 paper, but other scientists disputed that conclusion.
  • Atapuerca's "Skull 17" has been lauded as the oldest unambiguous instance of murder, some 430,000 years ago. The owner of the skull, a male Homo heidelbergensis, was hit with the same hard object, likely a rock, on two different areas of the skull shortly before his death, which excludes an accidental impact. A little more ambiguous is "Skull 5" from the same site and era, who received a single blow to the face and died months or years later from an infected broken tooth. Atapuerca itself has instances of cannibalism going back over 800,000 years, but it can't be excluded that those were eaten after their natural death.
  • The non-fiction book Cold Case Homicides: Practical Investigative Techniques (2006) argues that the coldest criminal case ever investigated is the death of Ötzi the Iceman ca. 3300 BCE. He was found 5,000 years later in 1991 and initially believed to be a dead tourist. Once dated, he was speculated to have died in an accident or a ritual sacrifice (which would make his death not a crime under the law of the "jurisdiction" it was committed in), but further testing, using the same techniques employed in modern crime investigation, found unambiguous evidence that he had fought for his life against several people before being murdered. Now we know where he was before his murder, what he ate, how many people were involved in his killing, that they were all men from the area, and that he carried another wounded man over his back before he met his fate.
  • The death of the "Boy King" Tutankhamun has been debated ever since the discovery of his tomb in The Roaring '20s. An assassination by his vizier was a favored theory for years, only to be replaced later by malaria, inbreeding, and an accident involving a war chariot.
  • Alexander the Great's death has been even more intensely debated, not the least because his body has actually never been found.
  • Spanish criminologist Francisco Pérez Abellán investigated three magnicides from the 19th and early 20th century in the 2010s:
    • He found that Juan Prim (Spanish PM shot in an ambush in 1870) was strangled in his bed while he was recovering from the shooting, concluding that he was victim of a more elaborate conspiracy than commonly believed.
      • However, a second autopsy by Madrid's Complutense University denied these conclusions and attributed the supposed ligature marks on Prim's neck to marks left by his burial clothes.
    • He ruled that Mateo Morral, the anarchist that tried to kill King Alfonso XIII during his wedding day in 1906, was murdered while in police custody and could not kill himself as historically recorded.
    • He confirmed that José Canalejas, Spanish PM murdered in 1912, was indeed murdered the way he is said to have been in History books, but also found that his killer, the anarchist Manuel Pardiñas, did not kill himself to evade arrest. Instead, he was beaten and then shot twice in the head by Canalejas' bodyguard.
  • The Saskatoon Police Department accepts tips leading to the identity of an unidentified woman nicknamed "The Lady of the Well", even though her murder has been dated to the 1910s according to the items found with her. The body was found in 2006.
  • In 2007, the students at the police academy in Fürstenfeldbruck investigated the unsolved Hinterkaifeck family murder of 1922 as if it was a new case. They agreed on a prime suspect but did not make his identity public out of respect for his still-living relatives.
  • The disappearance of a 16-year-old servant girl named Emma Alice Smith in rural Sussex in 1926 was reinvestigated as a murder in 2009 after a short film was made about her. A dying man had allegedly confessed the murder to Emma Alice's sister on his deathbed in 1953, but she had herself died without reporting it and the man's name was unknown. After the investigation, however, the police accepted a different theory about her disappearance (that she had eloped with a married man to Ireland) and closed the case.
  • The dismembered, headless remains of a man were found in a cave in Lewiston, Idaho in 1979. He was speculated to be a hiker murdered a couple of decades before at most... until 2020, when he was identified through family DNA as Joseph Henry Loveless, a bootlegger who had disappeared after fleeing from jail in 1916. In a real-life example of Meaningful Name, Loveless was jailed for the murder of his wife, and it is speculated that he was found and lynched by her relatives, as he was known to be dead and even had a cenotaph to his name. Nevertheless, his is still listed as an open case by the Clark County Sheriff's Office.
  • Another skeleton was found by hikers in October 2019, buried under some rocks in Mount Williamson, California. Family DNA identified him as Giichi Matsumura, a fugitive from a WW2 Japanese-American internment camp in Manzanar. As it turned out, Matsumura was known to have died in a snowstorm after escaping Manzanar, but his burial site had been lost.
  • The oldest entry in The Charley Project missing person database is Dorothy Arnold, who disappeared in New York City in 1910.


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