Lon Chaney’s ability to transform himself using makeup techniques earned him the nickname ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’. Today he is regarded as one of the most versatile and powerful actors of early cinema, renowned for his characterisations of tortured, often grotesque and afflicted characters, and his groundbreaking artistry with makeup – as well as being the father of The Wolfman (1941) star, Lon Chaney Jr. Whilst Chaney senior is best known for his starring roles in such silent horror films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), it is one of his lesser-known films that remains perhaps his most infamous: London After Midnight (1927). The movie is now lost and remains one of the most famous and eagerly sought of all lost films, the last known copy having been destroyed in the 1967 MGM vault fire. The reason it is so infamous (and perhaps also the reason why it was destroyed) is that, according to urban legend, anyone who watches the complete, original cut of the film is doomed to become suddenly, incurably insane. This defence was most famously used in the 1928 murder trial of a man accused of murdering a woman in Hyde Park, London – unsuccessfully in that case.
London has been the capital of England, more or less, for almost a thousand years. Much of the capital’s history is either hidden or forgotten, and this is especially true of the London beneath the feet of its residents. London’s sewers, tunnels and underground network stretch for uncounted miles deep below the bustling city, home to millions, which exists on the surface. Within those hidden depths lurk all manner of mysteries – the source of rumours, legends and nightmares down the centuries. There was a sensation in the 1860s, when it was feared, following the death of a well-known politician, that a band of criminals were stalking the capital, garroting anyone unfortunate enough to come into their path, then disappearing below ground. Then there was a string of news stories around the turn of the twentieth century, concerning reports of archaeological discoveries of hidden subterranean habitats and strangely large human remains found in the city’s sewers. But there is perhaps no story more terrifying than the persistent rumours over the years that the sewers of London are full of monstrous pigs that will one day free themselves from their foetid home and run riot through the city. The Black Swine in the sewers of Hampstead is one Victorian urban legend that has proved to be horrifyingly resilient.
It’s fair to say that, during World War I, Herbert Kitchener’s face was just about the most famous in the country. His commanding image, appearing on recruiting posters demanding “Your country needs you!”, remains recognised and parodied in popular culture to this day. Before the First World War, Kitchener won fame for the imperial campaigns, most particularly in the Sudan and South Africa, which made him a national hero. This made his unexpected and bizarre death in the middle of the war a demoralising shock. The official story is that Kitchener was killed in 1916 when the warship taking him to negotiations in Russia was sunk by a German mine of the coast of Scotland. But some suspected that this was a cover-up – a convenient explanation put out to appease a puzzled public who were in need of some sort of closure. Locals spoke of mysterious events that took place on the night of Kitchener’s apparent death. A variety of rumours, speculation and conspiracy theories have since then refused to be dismissed entirely. A further investigation was requested by many who remained unconvinced by the official version of events. This was impossible at the time due to the ongoing war effort but, in all the years since, the call for the case to be re-opened has never quite gone away. The question of what actually happened to Lord Kitchener has still to be answered definitively.
Ludwig van Beethoven remains one of the most famous and influential of all composers, a household name even for non-musicians. He was a virtuoso pianist and composed 9 symphonies, 5 concertos for piano, 32 piano sonatas and 16 string quartets. What he is lesser known for, perhaps, is the Unsterbliche Geliebte (German for ‘Immortal Beloved’) – the mysterious addressee of a love letter which he wrote on 6–7 July 1812 in Teplitz. The apparently unsent letter, written in pencil and consisting of three parts, was found in the composer’s estate after his death. At the time even an exact dating of the letter and identification of the addressee was speculative, since Beethoven did not specify a year or a location. It was only in the 1950s that an analysis of the paper’s watermark yielded the year, and by extension the place. To this day, however, scholars have been divided on the intended recipient of the Immortal Beloved letter. This intriguing musical mystery inspired a Hollywood adaptation, 1994’s Immortal Beloved, starring Gary Oldman as Beethoven, which focuses on the efforts of the great composer’s biographer Anton Schindler to ascertain the identity of the intended recipient of the famous letter. While the film, and the many theories put forward in the years both before and since, have identified some likely candidates, a definitive solution to this particular mystery remains somewhat elusive.
Pope John Paul II – the second-longest serving Pope in history – remains a familiar figure even almost a decade after his death. How many, however, remember his immediate predecessor Pope John Paul I, who only served for a matter of weeks back in 1978? Born Albino Luciani, this pope was a humble, almost timid man, without any prior high-profile career in the Vatican hierarchy – a surprising choice in many ways. Catholics all over the world responded warmly to his modesty, however, and he soon acquired the nickname ‘The Smiling Pope’. At his coronation on 26 August 1978 he refused the customary papal tiara and only reluctantly agreed to be carried aloft on the traditional gestatorial chair. His reign was to last only 33 days, however; shortly after 5am on 28 September Pope John Paul I was found dead in the papal lodgings. The Vatican claimed initially that his body was found by his papal secretaries but afterwards it was revealed that he was discovered by a nun who had brought him his morning coffee. The papal doctor declared him dead of a heart attack and there was no autopsy. For any pope, let alone such a popular one, to die just a month after his election was unimaginable. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, conspiracy theories have abounded ever since. Rumours of foul play have circulated, implicating a bizarre triumvirate of Vatican conservatives, Mafia bankers and right-wing Italian Freemasons. What really happened to the Smiling Pope?
One of the (many) strange things to come out of the 1960s was the bizarre rumour that, before George and John died, the first Beatle to pass away was Paul McCartney. Weird? Yes. In bad taste? Almost certainly. According to the main source, an article written by a Michigan University student in the Daily newspaper in 1969, Paul died in a fiery car crash in 1966, the only survivor of which was his then girlfriend Jane Asher. According to the rumour, as this would have finished off the Fab Four, a lookalike replacement named Billy Shears (or William Campbell) was found. With a little plastic surgery and the growth of some scar-covering facial hair – matched by George, Ringo and John for the sake of fashion consistency – The Beatles kept on rocking. The ongoing aversion of McCartney (or Shears, or Campbell, depending on whom you believe) to spontaneous photography is said to be owing to his fear that the cover-up will be rumbled. However, The Beatles could not keep the truth hidden, and their post-Paul songs and albums are riddled with hints of McCartney’s ‘death’. Let’s look at the so-called ‘evidence’.
The organisation known as the Knights Templar has presented two faces to history: one is the historians’ history, based on documents and contemporary descriptions; the other is a shadow history, which blends in a potent mixture of conspiracy theory, pulp fiction and occult knowledge. The crucial event that both versions of this history have in common is the date of 1312, when Pope Clement V officially dissolved the Templar Order in the infamous papal bull Vox in Excelso. For the historians, this was the date on which the Templars ceased to exist as an order. According to the conspiracists, however, the Templars and their secrets survived in hiding and not only that, they continue to wield great power from the shadows to this day. Needless to say, the colourful history of the Templars (both real and imagined) has been made full use of by a succession of writers of fiction – most famously in books like The Da Vinci Code and films like National Treasure. For those with more than a passing interest, however, this has only made the task of separating fact from fiction, when it comes to these knights of the shadows, all the more difficult. What do we really know about the Knights Templar?
Grigory Yefimovich Novych, the man who would come to be better known to history as the ‘Mad Monk’ Rasputin, is a figure shrouded in mystery, intrigue, conspiracy theories and the darkest of legends. He came to prominence as the Siberian peasant and mystic whose uncanny ability to improve the condition of Aleksey Nikolayevich, the hemophiliac heir to the Russian throne, made him an influential favourite at the court of Tsar Nicholas II. He was also reputed to be a murderer, sorcerer, libertine and chronic womanizer – his eventual moniker of Rasputin literally means ‘debauched one’ in Russian. Unsurprisingly, Rasputin made many enemies in the course of his relentless rise to power. Several attempts were made to take the life of Rasputin, culminating in the events that led to his ‘death’ in 1916. I have used quotation marks because in the opinion of many – conspiracy buffs and historians alike – the life of Rasputin may well not have ended there. Even during his lifetime, there was considerable uncertainty over Rasputin’s actions and influence, as accounts have often been based on dubious memoirs, hearsay and legend. Despite the fact that Rasputin’s body was discovered after he was killed by conspirators, rumours persist to this day that his death was faked and that somehow, bizarrely, the Mad Monk may have survived his apparent execution.
The 7th Earl of Lucan, Richard John Bingham, better known as Lord Lucan, is one of the most infamous fugitives in British criminal history. Born in the 1930s, he was a charismatic man with expensive tastes: he raced power boats and, like James Bond, drove an Aston Martin. In 1963 he married Veronica Duncan, who bore him three children, and for a time his life seemed perfect. Then, at the start of the 1970s, Lucan’s marriage collapsed, he moved out of the family home and a bitter custody battle with his wife over the children ensued. This dispute seemed to change Lucan fundamentally – he spent most of the money he had on drink and gambling, became obsessed with regaining his children and began to spy on his family. Things came to a head in 1974 when the Lucans’ nanny was found brutally bludgeoned to death, apparently by Lord Lucan. Lady Lucan, who had also been present during the attack, indicated that her estranged husband was the murderer. Almost immediately, one of the largest manhunts ever organised in Britain began – one that to this day has still not resulted in an arrest. The last confirmed sighting of Lord Lucan was a few days after the body of the nanny was discovered, when he left a friend’s house in Uckfield, Sussex, never to be seen again. Since then, there have been almost as many alleged sightings of Lord Lucan as there have been of Elvis, Bigfoot or Jimmy Hoffa. Lucan’s true fate remains a fascinating mystery for the British public. Hundreds of reports of his presence in various countries around the world have been made following his initial disappearance, although none have been substantiated. Despite a police investigation and huge press interest, Lucan remains missing (presumed dead?).
The Voynich Manuscript has been described as ‘the most mysterious manuscript in the world’. It was bought by Wilfred Voynich, an American dealer in rare books, in 1912. Before that it had been discovered in an old chest in the Jesuit school of Mondragone, in Frascati, Italy. The manuscript is a simple octavo volume, written in what at first glance looks like ordinary medieval writing. However, closer inspection reveals that it is in fact written in cipher. Not only that, the pages are covered with strange little drawings of female nudes, astronomical diagrams and all kinds of strange plants in many colours. The Voynich Manuscript is a baffling mystery largely because it looks so straightforward: with its drawings of plants it seems at first to be an ordinary medieval ‘herbal’ i.e. a book describing how to extract healing drugs from plants. The unusual thing is that, up until its purchase by Voynich, no one appears to have been able to decipher it. Voynich was fairly certain, however, that the manuscript would not remain a mystery once modern scholars had a chance to study it. Unfortunately this is one historical mystery which has proven difficult to solve in the century plus that has passed since 1912.