Did Custer really make a last stand? Who was the real William Shakespeare? Was there a Pope Joan? How did the stones get to Stonehenge?
Welcome to the online package of our Mysteries of History special double issue.
In addition to reading the full text of each article from the magazine, you can:
- Find out about our contest,
where we report on winning mystery ideas from our readers.
- Join in our forum to share your own theories.
- Test your mystery savvy with a quiz.
- Read the transcript from our live chat on Custer's Last Stand.
Begin your investigation of these mysteries with our introduction.
From the 7/24/00 issue of USN&WR
Davy Crockett and Amelia Earhart are not alive and well on Atlantis. Or are they?
BY HOLLY J. MORRIS
Television has transformed the historical mystery into
a low-budget documentary full of hokey re-enactments
and spooky music. Fat paperback bestsellers promise
the secrets of the ancientsaliens, Atlanteans (as in
Atlantis residents), or the Freemasons, depending on
the book. For those who get their unsolved history from popular culture, every scientific answer is followed by a portentous ". . .
or is it?" and the answer of choice is whatever's weirdest.
The mysteries that occupy historians, both professional
and amateur, are rarely so cinematic. Real historical detectives
are more concerned with the gritty, hairsplitting details of history. Even searching for Atlantis, as grand and quixotic as that
may be, comes down to pragmatic concerns like raising funds
and chartering submarines. There's paperwork to be handled,
red tape to slog through, and hate mail to answer. Sometimes
the results will have echoing ramifications, as in the case of
Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, but more often than not,
the mysteries people care most about don't really matter all that
much. "I don't think this has any redeeming social significance,"
says Tom King, an archaeologist searching for Amelia Earhart.
"It's an intellectually engaging form of recreation." In other
words, it's a mystery that can't be put down.
If Earhart hadn't disappeared, she'd be far less interesting. She wouldn't have been captured by the Japanese or
frolicked on an idyllic tropical island. Conventional wisdom
says she ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
Finding her earthly remains is the full-time job of Ric Gillespie and Pat Thrasher of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), the nonprofit organization the couple founded 15 years ago to search for historic
plane wrecks. Their theory is hardly romantic: Earhart and
navigator Fred Noonan landed on the Pacific island of Nikumaroro (it would have been in
the right place when they ran
low on fuel), then died of disease or starvation. Thrasher
and Gillespie, a former aviation insurance accident investigator, work out of a home
office in Wilmington, Del.,
packed with Ameliana.
The results of four journeys
to Nikumaroro and constant
archive mining by TIGHAR
members are tantalizing but
inconclusive. There are the
crumbling fragments of an
Amelia-size woman's shoe, a
sheet of aluminum that could
be from her Lockheed Electra
if only the rivet pattern were
different, and a paper trail
documenting bones found on
the island in 1940. Gillespie is
now an expert in bizarre esoterica: What he can tell you
about 1930s Cat's Paw
women's replacement heels
could fill a book. The expeditions are gruelingGillespie
lost his corneas to equatorial
sunlightbut Earhart is the
sexy poster girl that keeps
TIGHAR's 800-odd dues-paying members happy. And it has
become a matter of pride. "There's just a chance we can
come up with hard evidence," he says. The dream find is an
"any-idiot artifact"something any idiot could tell is hers,
like a plane part with a serial number or a tooth packed with nice, DNA-rich pulp.
Lincoln's prose? If TIGHAR's work seems tedious, well,
it often is. Most historians endure their share of tedium.
Michael Burlingame, a professor of history at Connecticut
College and an Abraham Lincoln biographer, spent months
unraveling the authorship of the elusive "Bixby letter"literally word by word. On learning that Boston widow Lydia
Bixby had lost all five of her sons in the war, Lincoln ostensibly sent her a brief but exquisite letter of consolation.
It extolled, among other virtues, "the solemn pride that must
be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of
Freedom." The 1864 letter, considered by Lincoln scholars to be a masterpiece on par with the Gettysburg Address,
attained even greater fame when it was read at the start of
the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan.
But Lincoln probably didn't write the letterhis secretary, John Hay, did, says Burlingame. And Bixby was a liar
(only two of her five sons died in the war), a Southern sympathizer, and the mistress of a whorehouse. Tradition says
she loathed Lincoln and tore
up the letter.
The historian compared
each word in the letter with
the words in a database of Lincoln's writings. Then he did
the same for Hay, but without
a computer: He "read everything John Hay ever wrote."
Words used often in Hay's
writings, like "beguile" (at
least 30 times), but nowhere
in Lincoln's, were clues. And
he found a copy of the letter
pasted in a scrapbook Hay
kept of his media mentions.
"I've been like a dog with a
bone on this one. I knew controversy existed, but I never
thought it was something I'd
spend much time on," he says.
Burlingame continues to
pursue Lincoln arcana. He's
now using similar stylistic
analysis to find anonymous
satirical newspaper articles
that Lincoln wrote when he
was a journalist in his youth.
"It's kind of a minor footnote,"
he says. "But I love detective
work like this."
Burlingame's theory didn't cause an outcry or damage
Lincoln's literary reputationafter all, he still wrote the
Gettysburg Address. But historians can and do strike
nerves when they challenge cherished myths. Since its
translation into English in 1975, an account of Mexico's
1836 campaign in Texas has caused outrage and anxiety
among worshipers of Davy Crockett. The account, by Mexican Army officer José Enrique de la Peña, says that Crockett did not die fighting on the ramparts of the Alamo but
was executed on the order of Mexican Gen. Antonio López
de Santa Anna. "How dare you degrade Davy Crockett? . . .
This is one of the Communists' plans to degrade our heroes. He's still king of the wild frontier," wrote a fan to Dan
Kilgore, whose 1978 book, How Did Davy Die?, gave credence to the theory.
Before the 1950s Disney tv show seared Crockett's
macho death into millions of baby boomer brains, there was
no debate, says Don Carleton, director of the Center for
American History at the University of Texas-Austin, which
owns the de la Peña document. Scholars are more interested
in the evolution of Alamo history than in the specifics of
Crockett's death. Even the mystery of why people care about
the mystery is subject to studyBrian Huberman, a professor of art and art history at Rice University in Houston,
just wrapped a documentary
on the topic. "What this whole
controversy has done is show
the way in which history
works, in the sense that it has
to be revitalized regularly for
each generation," he says.
The debate was revitalized
in 1994, when New York City
firefighter Bill Groneman
wrote Defense of a Legend. The
book asserted, based on stylistic, factual, and other inconsistencies, that the de la Peña
account was fake. Scholars
fussed and fumed, and Groneman was accused of being an
obsessive fan unable to accept
his hero's ignoble death.
"Don't write that I'm obsessed!" he says. (And his heroes are his father and John
Steinbecknot Crockett.) Despite the flak, Groneman enjoys his role in the controversy. "I don't really feel like
sitting back and letting someone else get the last word."
Guesswork. The University
of Texas-Austin is now testing
the manuscript for authenticity anyway. But even if the paper and ink are the right age,
de la Peña might have liedit would have behooved him
to make Santa Anna, who lost the war in Texas, look incompetent. "People want clear-cut answers," says Carleton.
"But history's really messy."
The story of Atlantis makes de la Peña's account look neat
and tidy. The destruction of the island is based solely on a
Platonic account of a utopia gone bad. Most scholars think
it's a fable. Yet the search for Atlantis is the historical mystery cottage industry. There are hundreds of books on the
subject, and it's been "found" in dozens of locations.
Scientists allow that Plato could have been inspired by
the Minoan civilization of Crete, which declined rapidly
after a nearby volcanic eruption. The rest, most say, is
hooey. Ken Feder, professor of anthropology at Central
Connecticut State University and author of Frauds, Myths,
and Mysteries, surveys college students every few years,
and the results are always
the same: About 1 in 3 believes in Atlantis. The grand
unification theories that cluster around Atlantis beliefsthat superhuman or extraterrestrial Atlanteans seeded
civilization and built the
Great Pyramids and everything elseannoy him. "Was
there nothing interesting in
the past?" asks Feder. "You
look at a place like Stonehenge or Gizathe beauty
and awe and majesty of those
placesthere, but it's entirely human."
So is the urge to keep
looking for something that
can never be found. Most determined are the Bimini
searchers, spending copious
amounts of their own money
and vacation time on their
quest. (Psychic Edgar Cayce
once predicted that Atlantis
would be found in the Bahamas, off the coast of Bimini.) "People say, 'No, you'll
never find anything,' but that
feels like a really dogmatic
approach," says Douglas Richards, a veteran of several
Bimini expeditions. Joan Hanley, a retired elementary
school principal who has led seven Bimini missions since
1989, cites evidence such as shark- and cat-shaped
mounds and place names using the letters "ATL." But
there's nothing conclusive. There probably never will be.
But even if not, it's fun, says Richards. "It's much more
interesting than diving to look for fish."
Credits for rotating image in title graphic:
STONEHENGE: RICHARD BAKER - IPG MATRIX;
CIVIL WAR: ALEXANDER GARDNER - NATIONAL ARCHIVES;
MARCO POLO: MUSEO CORRER, VENICE, ITALY - GIRAUDON/ART RESOURCE;
PORTRAIT OF DR. GACHET: ERICH LESSING - ART RESOURCE