- Cover Story
These seven baffling mysteries have obsessed detectives, scholars and explorers for years. Are the answers out there?
When diplomats serving in the American Embassy (1) in Cuba complained of ailments caused by sound waves, the American government accused Cuba of dirty tricks. The Cuban ambassador to the United States (2) denied the charges, and many in America believe him. So what caused the mysterious noises? Was it a malfunctioning listening device (3) or something as innocuous as crickets (4)?
In December 2016, a CIA officer checked into the American Embassy’s health office in Havana suffering from nausea, headache and dizziness. Days later, two more CIA officers reported similar ailments. By late 2018, the number grew to 26 Americans and 13 Canadians experiencing nausea, hearing loss, vertigo, nosebleeds and focusing issues. In all the cases, victims claimed that the symptoms were triggered by a strange noise they’d heard at their homes or hotel rooms. One person said the noise was high-pitched. Another described “a beam of sound, pointed into their rooms.” Some insisted that the noise more closely resembled marbles rolling along the floor.
The illnesses confounded medical experts. Doctors at the University of Pennsylvania who examined some of the victims diagnosed concussion-like symptoms but found no signs they’d suffered any. We know what you must be thinking: The Cuban government is up to something, right? The Cubans vehemently deny they’re responsible, and many American investigators believe them. That’s because they still don’t know who or what made the victims sick. Was it a new type of weapon? The CIA claims it doesn’t know of any weaponry that could cause these symptoms. What about ultrasound? One theory holds that a pair of covert eavesdropping devices placed too close to each other by Cuban agents may have inadvertently produced such a reaction, like the kind of feedback you hear when someone stands too close to a microphone. But the FBI has found no evidence to substantiate that argument. In fact, ultrasound is above the range of human hearing.
Recordings of the sounds from some of the victims only added to the confusion. Two scientists who studied the recordings believe they captured the sound of lovelorn male crickets. One of the scientists, Alexander Stubbs of the University of California, Berkeley, says the insects are incredibly loud. “You can hear them from inside a diesel truck going 64 kilometres an hour on the highway.” Still, the scientists had no idea why the sounds might lead to illness in humans.
Maybe it was just nerves. “Cuba is a high-threat, high-stress post,” a former embassy official told propublica.org. Diplomats are warned that “there will be surveillance. There will be listening devices in your house, probably in your car. For some people, that puts them in a high-stress mentality, in a threat-anticipation mode.”
True—but then how to explain what happened in China? In May 2018, an American posted in the consulate in Guangzhou was diagnosed with the very same mystery illness. Ultimately, 15 Americans were evacuated.
While the seemingly airborne cause of these brain injuries is still a mystery, the fallout is clear. The Americans removed 60 per cent of their diplomats from Cuba and expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington, DC. The mysterious sounds may well be the opening shots in a new kind of cold war.
The Bay of Jars
After hearing rumours of a sort of sunken treasure in Brazil’s Guanabara Bay (1), Robert Marx, using a sonargraph (2), made an unusual find: a cache of ancient pottery (3). Actually, they were Roman amphorae, or pots (4), from the third century. That raised a thorny question: Did the Romans cross the Atlantic (5) 1,000 years before the Portuguese landed in Brazil?
It’s not unusual to find junk in Brazil’s Guanabara Bay, but what Robert Marx unearthed there in 1982 was an unusual kind of foreign matter. In an underwater field the size of three tennis courts located 24 kilometres from shore lay the remains of some 200 Roman ceramic jars, a few fully intact. According to Marx, a professional treasure hunter, the jars appeared to be twin-handled amphorae that were used to transport goods such as grains and wine in the third century. But how did they get there? The first Europeans didn’t reach Brazil until 1500.
The Romans, who traded primarily in Mediterranean port cities and the Middle East, had little incentive to invest in ships that could cross oceans. However, they did sail as far as India. Perhaps some untrained navigator lost his way in a storm. Or maybe mutineers steered the ship westward?
We may never know, nor are we likely to uncover more evidence. Brazil closed the Bay of Jars to further research in 1983 in an effort to deter looters, it said. Marx claims the government didn’t want the area explored because finding Roman-era artifacts there would mean that, contrary to Brazil’s official history, the Portuguese were not the first Europeans to reach the country. And the truth? It’s resting 100 feet under the sea.
The Pollock Sisters
In 1957, three children—including two sisters—were struck and killed (1) by a car. A year later, the sisters’ grieving mother gave birth to twins. When they learnt to talk, the twins recounted stories about the accident (2) only the dead girls would have known. Were Gillian and Jennifer Pollock (3) the reincarnation of their sisters? Dr Ian Stevenson (4), an expert in the paranormal, thought so.
Identical twins Gillian and Jennifer Pollock were born on 4 October, 1958, into a family scarred by tragedy. On a Sunday morning in May 1957, their older sisters, Jacqueline, 6, and Joanna, 11, had been struck and killed by a car while walking hand in hand to church in their small English parish of Hexham. When the twins arrived 17 months later, their grieving father, John Pollock, was certain they were actually his dead daughters, reborn. Their mother, Florence Pollock, wasn’t so sure. But then odd things happened.
When the twins began talking, they would ask for the same toys their sisters had played with—toys they could not have known existed, because they had long been stored away. Although the Pollocks had left Hexham when the twins were less than a year old, when they brought them for a visit—their first—at age four, the twins pointed out locations that had been meaningful to their sisters but which the twins had never seen, such as the school the deceased sisters had attended and their favourite playground.
Even more chilling were the twins’ apparent 'memories' of the deaths of their sisters. Up until the age of five, each suffered recurring nightmares of being run over by a car. These nightmares sometimes evolved into daytime terrors. “The car! It’s coming for us,” the twins would shriek at the mere sound of a car engine firing up in a small alleyway.
Florence, a reincarnation skeptic, couldn’t think of any rational explanation for how the twins had come to act out their sisters’ agonizing final moments with such apparent accuracy: “The blood’s coming out of your eyes,” Gillian would cry, cradling her sister’s head tenderly in her arms as John and Florence looked on in horror. “It’s where the car hit you.”
In 1963, Dr Ian Stevenson, an expert on reincarnation at the University of Virginia, began to study the Pollock sisters. Finding no evidence that the twins’ apparent past-life memories had been manufactured or suggested by their parents, he concluded it was virtually impossible not to believe they were living proof of reincarnation.
The twins’ 'memories' gradually faded as they reached adolescence. Then, for a brief period in her early 20s, Gillian experienced a series of visions of herself as a young child playing in a sandbox surrounded by gardens and an orchard. The Pollocks immediately recognized that as their home in Whickham, the village where they’d lived with Joanna in the years before Jacqueline had been born. The catch? Gillian had never been to Whickham.
Missing on a Mountain
Sixty years ago, 10 Russian hikers (1) set out on a 21‑day winter trek. Nine were never seen alive again (2). The circumstances leading to their deaths remain a mystery—odd, since the group photographed much of the journey (3). Some think the government is covering up radiation from an atomic blast (4); others blame Bigfoot. Today, a memorial stands at the friends’ last campsite (5)
On 23 January, 1959, nine college students and their tour guide, Igor Dyatlov, set out on what was to be a 21-day hiking excursion through the Ural Mountains, in the former USSR. On 2 February, the group skied down Mount Otorten—English translation: Mount Don’t Go There. On 12 February, when the group was scheduled to return home, only one student, 21-year-old Yuri Yudin, had arrived, and he had left the group early because of illness. When none of the others came home, a search party was organized. What the searchers found would haunt them. On 26 February, they discovered the hikers’ tent. It had been sliced open from the inside. There were multiple pairs of snowy footprints—some made with bare feet—leading away from it.
The bodies of the first two hikers were found wearing only underwear beneath a tall cedar tree, the flesh on their hands raw and pulpy from attempting to scramble up the trunk. The next two were found one day later and another hiker six days later, all showing signs of hypothermia. One had a fractured skull.
It wasn’t until the spring thaw began in May that the remaining four were discovered under 13 feet of snow in a ravine 82 yards from the cedar tree. Three had clearly died of severe internal injuries consistent with a tremendous physical impact comparable to a car crash (including skull and rib fractures), yet none bore visible external injuries. It was as if a deadly force had crushed them without having actually touched them. They had all apparently died on the eleventh day of their trip, 2 February, the last day on which any of them had written in their journals.
The investigation continued—and in late May it took a shocking turn: Some of the hikers’ clothing tested positive for radioactivity. On 28 May 1959, one day after the Soviet military got wind of the results of the radiation testing, the investigation was summarily closed. The official conclusion: The hikers had met with an unnamed “overwhelming force.”
Of course, that abrupt announcement just intensified public speculation. Theories have included an explosion of a Soviet test missile, a UFO attack, hallucinogenic drugs and even a Bigfoot-like monster.“If I had a chance to ask God just one question,” said Yudin, the one surviving skier (who died in 2013 at age 75), “it would be, ‘What really happened to my friends that night?’”
Their memory, at least, lives on at the spot where they died. It is now called the Dyatlov Pass.
From 1917 to 1928, half a million people were afflicted with a ghastly condition that could be part of the plot line of a horror film. The victims—very much alive and conscious—found themselves in inexplicably frozen states, their static bodies prisons for their minds.
Encephalitis lethargica (EL), aka 'the sleeping sickness', first appeared in Europe and quickly spread around the world, reaching epidemic levels in North America, Europe, and India by 1919. About a third of those stricken with the illness died. Of the survivors, nearly half eventually found themselves unable to physically interact with the world around them, all the while fully aware of their surroundings. Though occasionally capable of limited speech, eye motion and even laughter, they generally appeared as living statues—totally motionless for hours, days, weeks, or years.
The cause is unknown, but one theory is brain inflammation triggered by a rare strain of streptococcus, the bacteria responsible for many sore throats each year. Science’s best guess is that the bacteria mutated, provoking the immune system to attack the brain, leaving the victim helpless.
None of this explains why the illness disappeared only to resurface sporadically, be it in Europe in the 1950s or in China 10 years ago, when a 12-year-old girl was hospitalized for five weeks with the disease.
Are such occurrences the new normal, or are they signs that EL could be planning something bigger any day? A 2004 analysis of 20 patients with symptoms remarkably similar to EL concluded that whatever ailed them “is still prevalent.” As such, history’s so-called 'sleeping sickness' remains the stuff of nightmares.
The perfect crime
D. B. Cooper
Flight attendants noted that Cooper was very well dressed and never took off his sunglasses (1). Before announcing he had a bomb in his attaché case, he calmly ordered a bourbon (2), then later asked for a second one. After his ransom demands were met, Cooper removed his tie (3), opened the door at the rear of the plane (4), and parachuted into the night (5), never to be seen again.
On the night before Thanksgiving 1971, a middle-aged man wearing a business suit boarded a commercial flight headed from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle in the US. He ordered a bourbon and soda, then calmly informed a flight attendant that he had a bomb in his attaché case. Having gotten her attention, he dictated the following message to the cockpit: “I want $200,000 by 5 p.m. in cash. Put it in a knapsack. I want two back parachutes and two front parachutes. When we land, I want a fuel truck ready to refuel. No funny stuff, or I’ll do the job.”
His boarding pass read “Dan Cooper,” but thanks to a communication error, the newspapers identified him more cryptically as “D. B.”. Over the next two hours, D. B. Cooper never took off his dark glasses. He nursed a second bourbon and waited patiently while the plane circled Puget Sound. (“He seemed rather nice,” one of the hijacked flight attendants later said.) On the ground, authorities scrambled to assemble the cash, parachutes and fuel truck while the 36 passengers on board were led to believe the delay was entirely routine.
Upon landing in Seattle and receiving a knapsack full of $20 bills and four parachutes, Cooper released the passengers and all but four of the crew. He demanded to be flown on to Mexico City, but first he had one final instruction: He was to be left alone in the cabin.
As the plane took off at about 7:40 p.m., the four-person crew huddled in the cockpit. Per Cooper, the plane flew below 10,000 feet at a speed slower than 200 knots—too low and slow for military jets to follow closely. Just 20 minutes later, a warning light flashed, indicating that the rear door had been opened and its staircase deployed. When the plane landed in Reno, Nevada, for refuelling, the cabin was empty. Cooper had taken his knapsack and parachuted off into the night. Not a single witness saw him jump. He was never seen again. The ransom money, identifiable through serial numbers, was never used.
Did Cooper plummet to his death? Did he survive only to somehow lose the knapsack? Or had the money been merely an afterthought, more of a means of spinning a story for the newspapers—and for history?
The FBI spent the next nine years trying to find the answers. Then, in 1980, a boy camping in rural Washington discovered three wads of cash along the banks of the Columbia River, which the FBI later identified as a portion of the ransom. But the trail remained cold until 2018, when a man named Carl Laurin presented the FBI with an audio tape of his deceased friend Walter Reca confessing to being D. B. Cooper. Around the same time, a documentary film-maker named Thomas Colbert was building a case that Cooper was actually 74-year-old Robert Rackstraw. Rackstraw, a former Special Forces paratrooper with 22 different aliases, had been a person of interest early on, but he was cleared in 1979. Colbert based his claim in part on a letter Cooper allegedly sent to the Washington Post that included the number 717171. In Vietnam, Rackstraw was in the 371st regiment—or three 71s.
Neither of those stories was enough to convince the FBI, which is why the case of D. B. Cooper remains the only unsolved skyjacking in the history of American aviation.
The New World’s Lost Colony
In March 1590, John White finally left England on a rescue mission to Roanoke Colony, the first permanent English settlement in North America. White was Roanoke’s governor, but he had been away gathering food and supplies to bring back to the struggling colony almost since its founding in 1587. The fate of Roanoke’s residents had weighed heavily on his mind, and for good reason. Among those he’d left on the island (part of what is now North Carolina’s Outer Banks) were his wife, his daughter and his infant granddaughter, who was the first English child born in the New World.
White returned to Roanoke on 18 August, 1590, and found—nothing. The entire settlement was abandoned, its homes and battlements dismantled. It was as if the entire colony of 115 had vanished.The only hint of Roanoke’s fate was the word CROATOAN carved onto a fence post and the letters C‑R-O carved onto a tree. Since White had instructed his colonists to carve a Maltese cross on a tree if they were moved by force, the absence of one gave White hope that the settlers had relocated to nearby Croatoan Island, which was inhabited by the friendly Croatoan tribe.
Unfortunately for White, he never did discover what happened to the colony. Soon after he arrived in Roanoke, a series of storms battered his ships, forcing his team back to their boats and, eventually, back to England. With an ocean once again between him and his family, a devastated White surrendered Roanoke to its unknown fate.
So what happened to the lost colonists? Perhaps they were abducted by Native Americans or moved inland to join a friendly tribe. Maybe they were slaughtered by Spaniards marching up from Florida or tried to sail back to England on their own and got lost at sea. Archaeologists have yet to come up with any sign of the lost colony, and time is running out: Shoreline erosion threatens the island, making the lost colonists’ outcome more of a mystery each passing day.