Unsolved mysteries

Drake's Plate

As a teenager I didn’t find the transition from children’s books to adult reading material especially easy. I owe a great deal to the authors of detective stories and science fiction: Conan Doyle, HG Wells, and Arthur C Clarke could always be trusted to provide reliable sources of prose excitement. As far as non-fiction was concerned my main interest was medical history. Since my enthusiasm for this topic, along with every other aspect of medicine, waned about a decade ago I shall turn here to the second standby of my adolescence – unsolved mysteries.

I was introduced to the world of the mysterious by a writer called Rupert Furneaux. I now appreciate that he had a long career of 25 years or so. In the early 1960s I remember reading Fact, Fake or Fable, Myth & Mystery and Legend & Reality. I’m certain that he wrote other publications in a similar vein and I eventually read another called Ancient Mysteries. For many years the life of Rupert Furneaux was about as mysterious as the events he described; no information about the author was ever included with the books I collected. In fact I had long decided that his name was a nom de plume for another author when the power of the internet finally enabled me to research his career and learn a little about him.

To the best of my knowledge Rupert Kenneth Furneaux (1908-1981) was born in Glamorgan and died in Portsmouth. His father was an electrical engineer who probably introduced him to technical subjects. From electoral registers and phone books it would appear that he lived in Kensington before the last war and Rustington, Sussex after it. He married in 1947 and certainly had one daughter who would now be about my age. Furneaux’s career as a writer, as evidenced by the dates of publication of his books, was between 1953-1978. As well as mysteries he wrote on military history and true crime. If any reader knows anything else I should be happy to learn more.

You can still obtain many of Furneaux’s works second-hand from Amazon; if you wanted to assemble a definitive collection your main expense would now be postage I imagine. I doubt if, in writing his accounts, Furneaux generally investigated original sources and documents but his descriptions were easy to read and always entertaining. As far as I can see, and I hope I am not being unfair, his research methods consisted of reading several existing publications, fusing them plausibly together, and then providing his own views. Were these views entirely consistent with known facts? Not everybody thinks that they were. You may wish to read the comments of the blog ‘Cocktails with Elvira‘ on Furneaux’s account of socialite Elvira Barney, who in 1932 was found not guilty of shooting her lover:


Be that as it may, and leaving his life story aside, what actually are unsolved mysteries? One example is unexplained disappearance. Several hundred thousand ‘missing person reports’ are filed in the UK each year, although after 12 months this number drops to not much more than a couple of thousand. Many of the missing are people who, finding their lives intolerable, wish to vanish. Others sadly, Suzy Lamplugh is an obvious example, are almost certain to be the victims of violent crime. Since the fate of these people, while being unknown to the general public, is known to someone I cannot consider their disappearance to be unsolved exactly. The ‘disappeared’ do occasionally resurface after many years. The fate of novelist and poet Rosemary Tonks was revealed recently when she died after being ‘absent’ from the literary world for several decades. It seems that she simply wished to live quietly and obscurely, for religious reasons; this fact was always known to members of her family who saw no reason to share it with the wider world.

A modern example of a mystery that is not universally mysterious is the fate of Malaysian flight MH17, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine resulting in the deaths of all on board. Both the Ukrainian government and eastern Ukrainian separatists have blamed each other for this atrocity. Recently a photograph, purporting to show a Ukrainian fighter shooting down the civil aircraft with a missile, has been released by a Russian broadcaster. The broadcaster called it a sensational photograph but others label it a clumsy fake. Clearly I don’t have the knowledge to make a determination but I am sure that the truth will eventually be revealed since the actual facts are quite obviously known by many people.

There are historical mysteries that spring into existence because of permanent lack of evidence. Books about the ‘real’ King Arthur or the original Robin Hood will never lack readers or publishers, but the truth is that reliable evidence is almost entirely lacking. Fortunately it is quite possible to study the British Dark Ages, or the medieval period, without involving oneself in their most famous myths. Views about whether King Richard III did or did not have his nephews murdered in the Tower of London are sharply, you could say bitterly, polarised; again definitive evidence is lacking. Historians of the period have to reach their conclusions on partial evidence imperfectly recorded, which of course is exactly what historians are trained to do.

The idea that particular figures who historians have cheerfully killed off have actually survived are examples of another category of unsolved mystery. Rupert Furneaux was quite interested in this topic although today we might regard them as examples of conspiracy theories. He described the case of John Wilkes Booth, murderer of Abraham Lincoln, who some believe fathered a child after his notional date of death. I really don’t know enough US history, much less detailed knowledge of the plot against the president, to take this idea any further. I do know enough French history to rather admire Napoleon’s marshal Michel Ney. He was a brave and capable soldier whose courage was demonstrated on a score of battlefields. After the failure of the ‘hundred days’ campaign history relates that Ney was judged too dangerous to live, and was shot by the Bourbon monarchy for high treason. Furneaux related an alternative theory which had the popular hero escaping to the US and living under the name of Peter Ney in South Carolina for another thirty years. It seems improbable to me that the hero of Waterloo would be content to live as a schoolmaster and I cannot understand that, wishing to escape the authorities, you would only see the need to change half your name. The truth must be, as they say, out there but I fear that in reality Elvis has left the building.

Some mysteries essentially pit eye-witness statements against scientific plausibility. Occasionally the eye-witnesses have it. I think that the giant squid has passed from the speculative to the real and several species of known fish could reasonably explain the ‘sea serpent’ legends. Personally I cannot believe in the Loch Ness monster because of the absence of bodies, the apparent lack of a food source for a breeding population of huge creatures, and the fact that during the last period of glaciation Loch Ness was frozen solid with many metres of ice on top of it. Sorry. In the absence of a final solution some people have no compunction in producing fraudulent pieces of evidence to demonstrate what they ‘know’ to be true. The Loch Ness monster, crop circles, and UFOs are examples of phenomena whose factual basis has been made questionable, and probably unresolvable, by wholesale fraud.

In some frauds the unsolved mystery lies in the name, or the motive, of the perpetrator rather than the reliability of the evidence. The famous Piltdown Man skull may have confused the scientific world for several decades but in reality it was a fairly clumsy fake. For many years the originator was an unsolved mystery although the smart money is now very much on the original finder, the ‘Sussex wizard’ Charles Dawson. His motive seems to have been the desperate desire to be considered a serious scientist rather than a talented amateur.

Dr V J Gupta was Professor of Geology at Punjab University and India’s most celebrated fossil scientist. For 25 years he amazed the geological world with fossil finds allegedly from the Himalayas. But in 1989, writing in the British journal Nature, Prof John Talent accused Dr Gupta of fakery. His fossils, Talent said, were spurious: either bought, stolen or received as gifts. The total number of publications affected by Dr Gupta’s deceit included seven books and no less than 458 papers. Subsequently he was moved by his university to less controversial courses, such as engineering and groundwater geology. It also seems likely that a distinguished botanist JW Heslop Harrison, who believed that some plants survived the last ice-age in Britain, fraudulently planted such species in the Hebrides to support his theory (A Rum Affair, Karl Sabbagh, Penguin 1999). Are misrepresentations of this type common? Unfortunately it appears that they may well be.

Occasionally modern science can resolve a mystery. As reported by Rupert Furneaux Sir Francis Drake undertook his circumnavigation of the world between the years 1577-1580. The voyage was described in the book ‘The World Encompassed’ published in 1628. Apparently he set up a brass (or possibly lead) plate claiming New Albion (California) for Queen Elizabeth I. (So, my dear daughters, you are still really living in Britain!) A brass plate was indeed found in California in 1936 by Beryle Shinn & Prof Herbert Bolton. Even at the time it wasn’t accepted by everyone as genuine; for example the lettering and spelling were criticised. Recent metallurgical study has demonstrated that the plate’s brass has a high zinc content. This is most unlikely to be of Tudor origin, and was probably not producible until the modern era. So, sadly, it’s a fake.

More interesting perhaps is the pious fake, of which the Turin Shroud is perhaps the best known example. I say ‘perhaps’ but in reality I have little doubt that the artefact was produced in medieval times, and this was indeed the finding of recent radiocarbon studies. Radioactive 14C (radiocarbon for short) is produced in the upper atmosphere and is believed to have been incorporated, as a fairly constant percentage, in the carbon in atmospheric carbon dioxide. In this form radiocarbon is taken up by all living plants during photosynthesis, and will then pass to the herbivores that eat the plants or the carnivores that eat the herbivores. Once plants or animals die the radiocarbon slowly decays away, losing half its radioactivity approximately every 5000 years. This progressive decline in activity can be used as the basis for a scientific dating system. Several laboratories found that radiocarbon dating of cloth samples from the Shroud of Turin gave a medieval date. Supporters of the authenticity of the shroud have criticised the accuracy of these results but the radiocarbon date, the first recorded date of the Shroud’s public appearance, and what one might call ‘the golden age of pious faking’ show a suspicious temporal congruity. In the Middle Ages ‘relics’ formed an essential aid to Christian worship and were unquestionably manufactured for that purpose. Clearly the producers of such relics had complete faith in the existence of, for example, a saint and were not above producing an artefact which gave physical form to that faith. Those of you with less forgiving natures might also reflect that the possession of a famous relic might enormously increase the number of profitable pilgrimages to a cathedral or abbey.

Does all this matter? I have to say that I consider that it does matter very much. Scholars and the public, well the concerned public at least, have to reach conclusions about many difficult and complex issues. In science and archaeology we surely deserve to be provided with the best and most honest evidence available. If you want to investigate an unsolved mystery, fine, but go back to original sources and try to get the fundamental facts straight before offering an interpretation. As the American author Alison Lurie has written:

If nothing will survive of life besides what artists report of it, we have no right to report what we know to be lies.’


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