Many strange things have occurred in the United States. From mystifying murders to hair-raising hauntings and vexing vanishings, there is no shortage of the bizarre and the unexplained.
A lot of these stories have begun fading away from memory. It’s understandable in some ways. They happened a long time ago and they seem to be destined to go on without answers. However, today we are going to bring 10 of them back into recollection.
10. The Impossible Murder of Isidor Fink
Criminal investigators often say that there is no such thing as a perfect murder, but the death of Isidor Fink might come as close to it as possible. The man was a Polish immigrant who came to New York City in the early 20th century and opened a laundry inside a large ground floor apartment where he also lived.
On the night of March 9, 1929, a neighbor heard screams coming from his living quarters and summoned a policeman. What the officer found still puzzles criminologists and amateur sleuths to this day. There was the body of Isidor Fink, dead from three gunshot wounds, alone in an apartment which appeared to be completely boarded up from the inside.
Because Fink lived in a dangerous neighborhood, he was always careful about security. Both the front and back doors were locked from the inside. The windows had been nailed shut, also from the inside and, even if they weren’t, they were too narrow for a full-grown adult to squeeze through. In fact, to gain access, police had to break one of the windows and asked a local boy to climb through and unlock the door.
Investigators obviously suspected suicide at first, but there was no gun to be found. There were no fingerprints other that Fink’s and nothing had been stolen. They even searched for hidden panels or passages, but found nothing. They looked for a motive, but the landlord said that the laundry operator was a quiet tenant who never caused trouble or associated with dubious characters. The NYC Police Commissioner Edward Mulrooney dubbed the case an “insoluble mystery” and, so far, he has been right.
9. The Rock Island Wreck
On August 9, 1894, a train traveling on the Rock Island railroad in Lincoln, Nebraska, was derailed off a 40-foot tall trestle, killing 11 people. This turned out to be an act of sabotage, as spikes had been pulled from the structure while a crowbar had been used to pry the railroad ties apart. It remains, to this day, the deadliest act of mass murder in the state’s history, tied with the 1958 killing spree of Charles Starkweather. But the question is – who caused it?
The blame quickly fell on a black man named George Washington Davis. There was no hard evidence against him, but he was still convicted of second-degree murder after two trials. He spent a decade in prison, time during which Davis had several groups lobbying for his innocence. Eventually, in 1905, then-Governor John Mickey paroled Davis, citing “grave doubts” regarding his guilt.
Nobody else was convicted of the crime so the question remains – who caused the Rock Island wreck?
8. The End of Al Swearengen
Fans of the western TV show Deadwood will be familiar with Al Swearengen, the foul-mouthed, cutthroat owner of the Gem Theater saloon and brothel. What they are probably not aware of, though, is the mystery surrounding his death.
The real Al Swearengen left Deadwood in 1899, after his beloved Gem burned down for the second time. Afterwards, details of his life become blurry but, allegedly, he died a penniless vagrant in an accident while he was trying to hop onto a freight train.
That was the story of Swearengen’s demise for over 100 years. It changed in 2007 when historian Jerry Bryant, who also served as advisor for the Deadwood TV show, found Swearengen’s obituary. It said that Swearengen died on November 15, 1904, near his home in Denver, Colorado. He had been hit in the head with a blunt object.
This alone was not enough to declare that he had been murdered. It could have been an accident. However, something strange happened a month before his death. Al Swearengen’s twin brother, Lemuel, had been attacked, as well. He was hit in the head and shot five times, but the killer didn’t take the $200 that Lemuel was carrying.
That was definitely murder, and modern historians came to believe that poor Lemuel died in a case of mistaken identity – the killer wanted Al Swearengen dead, but targeted the wrong twin. A month later, they corrected their mistake. As to their identity, that will likely remain a mystery, but it wouldn’t be too hard to imagine them being someone looking for revenge.
7. The Haunting of St. James
If you are passing through New Mexico and need somewhere to stay the night, there are few places with more historical value than the St. James Hotel in Cimarron. That is, of course, if you don’t mind staying in a place that is allegedly haunted.
The hotel was first built in 1872 by Henry Lambert, a man who previously served as personal chef to Abraham Lincoln. In need of a new career, Lambert headed out west to look for gold, but his prospecting wasn’t very successful so, instead, he opened a saloon and restaurant.
His place proved popular with travelers along the Santa Fe Trail so Lambert added guest rooms to his building. A veritable who’s who of the Wild West stayed at his hotel: Wyatt and Morgan Earp, Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley, Bat Masteron, Doc Holliday, Pat Garret, Billy the Kid. Jesse James stayed there several times, always in Room 14. His future killer, Robert Ford, also stopped by at St. James.
Due to the hotel’s popularity with cowboys, gunslingers, and outlaws, it wasn’t exactly the safest place in the world. In fact, during those rough-and-tumble days of the Old West, as many as 26 men were killed in fights at St. James. During a renovation in 1901, over 400 bullet holes were found in the bar ceiling. Like with many other places of violence, people began reporting instances of unearthly activity.
The epicenter seems to be Room 18, which is kept locked at all times and never booked by customers. It is said to hold the angry spirit of Thomas James Wright, a man who was shot at a poker table and then crawled to his room, where he bled to death.
6. The Origins of Dighton Rock
There are many mysterious ancient objects in America that have yet to reveal all their secrets and one of these is Dighton Rock. For over 300 years, the giant boulder covered in petroglyphs has puzzled researchers regarding the origins and purpose behind its images.
The earliest surviving description of the 40-ton rock comes courtesy of Reverend John Danforth in 1680. Ten years later, puritan author Cotton Mather gave a more detailed account, opining that it depicted an earlier, unknown group of people who sailed to America.
Who exactly these mysterious travelers were has been debated for centuries. In 1767, founder of Brown University Ezra Stiles believed that the drawings were made by Phoenicians who visited North America over 2,000 years ago. Others said it was the Armenians traveling through Siberia or perhaps the Japanese or the Chinese. Danish historian Carl Christian Rafn claimed the markings were Norse, indicating that 1,000 years ago, Thorfinn the Icelandic explorer visited those parts.
In 1912, Professor Edmund Delabarre claimed not only to know the origin of the Dighton Rock, but also what the inscription meant. According to him, the markings were made 500 years ago by Portuguese explorer Miguel Cortereal in a type of Latin shorthand and they said “I Miguel Cortereal, 1511. In this place, by the will of God, I became a chief of the Indians.” His account remains as controversial as all the others and the true meaning of Dighton Rock is still a puzzle.
5. The Identity of the Shotgun Man
Throughout the 1910s, Chicago had its own boogeyman who terrorized the inhabitants of Little Sicily, also aptly called “Little Hell.” He was simply known as the Shotgun Man and he was allegedly an assassin associated with extortionists known as the Black Hand. It is said that everyone in the neighborhood knew who the Shotgun Man was, yet he walked the streets with impunity because nobody would dare identify him.
He particularly liked to prowl the intersection of Oak Street and Milton Avenue, an area fittingly designated as “Death Corner.” He would lie in wait at the bottom of a stairwell and, when his target came into view, would fire a load of buckshot. Afterwards, he would walk away without a care in the world.
It is hard to say exactly how many people fell victim to the Shotgun Man. He attained such mythical status that, for a while, most murders committed in the area were ascribed to this one individual. It is generally considered that he was responsible for around 15 killings, but that number grew to hundreds with subsequent retellings of the Shotgun Man story.
Nowadays, his legend has evolved in such a way that we aren’t even sure anymore that he was a real person and not just some figure dreamt up by the Black Hand to scare the locals. Who he was, how many victims he had and what happened to him are questions that will probably never get an answer.
4. The Spirits Inside Eastern State Penitentiary
In 1829, the Eastern State Penitentiary opened in Philadelphia. It was the first prison in the country to employ the separate system of incarceration where individual confinement was the primary priority. Prisoners could serve their entire sentence without ever seeing another inmate.
Besides the isolation, the penitentiary had a lot of extreme punishments reserved for problem prisoners – outdoor ice baths in the middle of winter, iron gags, and something called “the mad chair” where inmates were bound so tightly that circulation was cut off to their limbs. To put it mildly, the penitentiary has seen more than its fair share of misery during its 142-year existence.
The Eastern State Penitentiary closed down in 1971. Since then, it has developed a reputation as one of the most haunted places in America. Not surprising, given that over 1,000 people died inside those walls, many of them after experiencing huge amounts of despair and torment. Stories of such restless spirits have been around since the 1940s, corroborated by inmates, guards, visitors, and prison staff. You’ll hear screams and footsteps follow you on long, empty corridors. In some cell blocks you’ll hear wails of anguish; in others, evil cackles. Shadowy figures are sometimes seen on the walls while the ghost of a particular guard has been spotted multiple times in the same tower.
The penitentiary operates as a museum now, but it doesn’t look like its furious phantasms plan on going away anytime soon.
3. The Vanishing of Dorothy Arnold
Dorothy Arnold was a young New York socialite who disappeared without a trace on December 12, 1910. She was last seen on Fifth Avenue, one of the busiest streets in the world, and was apparently headed for a stroll in Central Park.
The 25-year-old was an aspiring writer who came from a very wealthy household. Her father, Francis Arnold, was your stereotypical patriarch of an influential family. At first, he was most concerned with avoiding any bad publicity. He told a family friend, John Keith, about what happened and he began searching local hospitals and morgues for Dorothy discreetly. He then hired Pinkerton detectives who scoured the state looking for her and traveled as far as Europe, but it wasn’t until six weeks later that he finally alerted the police to Dorothy’s disappearance. When this also yielded no results, the Arnolds reluctantly went public and offered a reward for information. This produced multiple leads, but none ever panned out.
Pretty much every conceivable scenario has been put forth regarding the fate of Dorothy Arnold including, among the loonier ideas, that she hit her head, developed amnesia and started a new life somewhere else.
The frontrunner theories were that Dorothy either ran away on her own or she was kidnapped and murdered. She did have a lover that her parents disapproved of, George Griscom Jr., but he joined the search effort for her and, eventually, moved on and married someone else. The police also looked into a few ransom demands, but they were all dismissed as frauds. Some, like John Keith, believed the young lady committed suicide because publishers rejected her writings. All plausible ideas, but none have ever been proven and the disappearance of Dorothy Arnold is just as much a mystery today as it was 100 years ago.
2. The Massacre at Wickenburg
On November 5, 1871, eight people, driver included, boarded a stagecoach from Wickenburg in the Arizona Territory and headed for San Bernardino, California. Only two of them made it out alive: a man named William Kruger and the only woman on-board, Mollie Sheppard. They claimed that they were attacked by over a dozen Yavapai warriors who killed the rest and even scalped some of them. However, their story raised a lot of eyebrows.
The Wickenburg Massacre received a lot of attention because it happened at a time of incredibly tense relations between the government and Native American tribes. Several months prior, 144 Apaches had been murdered in cold blood during the Camp Grant Massacre.
While Kruger was quick to blame the Yavapai, Sheppard wasn’t as sure and she mentioned the possibility that they could have been Mexicans in disguise. This alone was enough to raise doubts, but there were a few other curious details. If the attackers were truly Yavapai, why would they leave behind valuables such as horses, ammo, and jewelry? More to the point, why would they kill six people and allow two to get away? They were on horses while their victims were on foot; they could have easily caught up to Kruger and Sheppard.
Inevitably, alternative theories arose. Some were suspicious of the timing. An indigenous tribe happened to commit a heinous atrocity soon after the Camp Grant Massacre, which had shifted public sympathy in the favor of Native Americans. They believed that, regardless of who did the deed, the goal was to put the blame on the Yavapai. That would also explain why they allowed two witnesses to escape and why Mollie Sheppard had difficulty identifying her attackers as Native American.
Alternatively, some believe that the attack was actually a robbery and that Sheppard and Kruger (or at least one of them) were on the inside.
1. The Missingest Man in New York
On the evening of August 6, 1930, New York Supreme Court Justice Joseph Force Crater met two acquaintances for dinner at Billy Haas’s Chophouse in Manhattan. He left them in good spirits, not indicating that anything was wrong, but he was never seen again. His disappearance triggered a massive investigation that became the talk of the whole nation, but all police managed to uncover were the bizarre actions of a man with something to hide and nothing that would indicate what had happened to him.
Days before Crater vanished, he was with his wife Stella at their cabin in Maine. According to her, the judge received a phone call which prompted him to return to New York. Whatever matters he had to deal with, they could wait. When Crater arrived back in the city, he immediately left on a multi-day trip to Atlantic City with one of his mistresses. As it was later revealed, the judge had a thing for showgirls.
When he returned to New York (again), the judge visited his chambers. He destroyed some files and had his secretary send other files to his home. On the day of his disappearance, he withdrew a large sum of money from the bank and bought a ticket to a Broadway show he didn’t attend. Then he went to the aforementioned dinner and vanished off the face of the Earth.
Consequently, Judge Crater became known as “the missingest man in New York” and was eventually declared dead in absentia in 1939. Some believe that he ran away with a mistress while many others have the feeling that he was the victim of foul play. The story took a twist in 2005 when a woman named Stella Ferucci-Good passed away and left behind a letter, claiming that she learned from her husband that a corrupt policeman named Charles Burns and his brother killed Judge Crater and buried him under the boardwalk at Coney Island.
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