6 Unsolved Murder Mysteries Involving Historical Figures

It seems that no one is immune to crime, no matter how famous they are. Despite their prominence, these historical figures found themselves connected to murder.

Mar 17, 2024By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History

murder mysteries unsolved historical figures


The world has an ongoing fascination with murder; the popularity of true crime in television, novels, and media is a testament to this. This obsession is nothing new, but unfortunately, it’s based on reality. Murders have haunted humankind from the beginning, illustrating that evil does truly exist within some individuals. Murder is not simply reserved for the lower echelons of society but has the ability to affect anyone regardless of status. Despite their places in the annals of history, these celebrities, nobles, and other dignitaries were drawn into murder cases, whether intentionally or otherwise.


 1. The Lindbergh Baby

Lindbergh and his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis. Source: Zazoo Fine Art Gallery


Riding high from the success of his solo transatlantic airplane flight in 1927 (he was the first to do so), Charles “Lindy” Lindbergh was an international celebrity by 1932. He had written a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, toured the globe, and became a colonel in the Air Corps Reserve. He had married Anne Morrow in 1929, and the pair were enjoying time on their estate in Hopewell, New Jersey with their 20-month-old son, Charles Jr., in March 1932.


Charles Lindbergh, Jr., shortly before he was kidnapped and murdered in 1932. Associated Press Photo. Source: New Haven Register


In the late evening of March 1st, the absence of Charles Jr. from his nursery was discovered by his nurse, Betty Gow, and reported to Charles and Anne. The home and grounds were searched, uncovering a ransom note on the nursery windowsill. The town and state police were called, and an investigation ensued. Mud was found on the nursery floor, along with disheveled muddy footprints outside under the nursery window. Sections of a ladder, one of them broken, were found.


One of the Lindbergh ransom notes, photo by NBS/NIST. Source: National Institute of Standards and Technology

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More ransom notes were received, and exchanges between the alleged kidnappers and an intermediary for the Lindberghs persisted through April, with $50,000 eventually exchanging hands, though the baby was not recovered in the exchange as promised. On May 12th, the body of the baby was found partially buried about four and a half miles from the Lindbergh estate, just off the highway. The autopsy showed that the child had been dead for about two months, leading investigators to believe he had been likely killed the night of the abduction. The cause of death was determined to be a blow to the head.


Bruno Hauptmann’s mugshot, right, and a rendering by a police sketch artist, left. Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation


The police investigation, now a murder inquiry, continued for the next two years and was eventually turned over to the FBI. Eventually, the man who demanded and received the ransom, Bruno Hauptmann, was located and arrested. He was charged with extortion and murder and would be executed.


However, there is some disagreement among modern crime theorists and historians that Hauptmann was responsible for the actual kidnapping and murder, and perhaps he just took advantage of the situation to extort the family.


No credible evidence was ever located placing Hauptmann at the kidnapping scene, and he never confessed. Others postulate that others had to be involved, as it would be impossible for one man to orchestrate such a detailed scheme alone.


Some have even suggested that Lindbergh himself might be responsible, as he demonstrated odd behavior that evening, including skipping an event at which he was supposed to speak without notifying the hosts, which was very out of character for the man who loved to be adored by the public. He also called home, instructing that no one should enter the nursery between 8-10 PM so as not to “coddle” the child. Later, he would threaten to shoot any officer who didn’t follow his protocol for dealing with the kidnappers – he sent FBI agents away initially and chose to use an intermediary rather than the police.


2. Johnny Ringo

John Ringo, from the True West Archives. Source: True West Magazine


Though his name sounds like it must be an alias, John Peters Ringo came by his name rightly, both into the Ringo family of Green Forks, Indiana. The charismatic young man attended college and then headed to Texas in 1869, where he promptly got himself into trouble. He made friends with a corrupt Texas Ranger named Scott Cooley, and the two got involved in a local feud that became known as the Mason County War. The two were arrested but were sprung from jail by their comrades. They escaped to Arizona, where Ringo fell in with a gang known as the Cochise County Cowboys. These weren’t true cowpokes but a group of cattle rustlers and outlaws who tended to find themselves on the wrong side of the law almost constantly.


Wyatt Earp (mid-1870s) and Doc Holliday (1880). Source: History Net


It just so happened that Cochise County was also home to the famed town of Tombstone, the stomping grounds of the legendary lawman and gambler Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and his close compadre Doc Holliday. There was a great deal of tension between the two factions, and when Morgan Earp was gunned down, some believed that Ringo was one of the triggermen.


Michael Biehn played Johnny Ringo in 1993’s Tombstone. In the film, Ringo is shot and killed by Holliday in a gunfight. Source: Hollywood Pictures


On July 14, 1882, a teamster found Johnny Ringo at the base of a tree, a clean bullet hole through his head. A revolver was clenched in the dead man’s hand, and he appeared to have been scalped. A coroner’s jury ruled his death a suicide, but the circumstances of his outlaw life and the scalping made this a doubtful circumstance to many. In the years that followed, several made claims to have killed the outlaw, and others posited that Earp or Holliday may have done the deed. To this day, the true details behind Ringo’s demise remain a mystery.


3. Harry Oakes

Harry Oakes. Source: Historic Places Days


Sir Harry Oakes, the largest landowner in the Bahamas, rich from a Canadian goldmine fortune, was found bludgeoned in his bedroom early in the morning of July 8th, 1943. His beautiful estate in Nassau did nothing to protect him from a horrible murder, evidenced by blood-stained walls and a desecrated body that appeared to have been set on fire.


Wallis Simpson and former King Edward VIII. Source: New York Post


The list of suspects was long, as Oakes had made many enemies due to his ruthless way of doing business and sometimes cruel methods of dealing with other people. He flaunted his wealth and buddied up to the governor of the Bahamas, former King Edward VIII, who had given up the British throne to marry American socialite Wallis Simpson.


Unfortunately, “Eddy” would do no favors for his late friend and is often credited with bungling the murder investigation that followed. He personally came to believe that Oakes’ son-in-law, Freddy de Marigny, whom he and Oakes both loathed, was responsible and set the police on him. De Marigny was arrested and essentially framed but was later found not guilty due to a lack of evidence. Oakes’ death remains an unsolved mystery.


4. Giovanni Borgia

John Doman played Rodrigo Borgia in the television show Borgia from 2011 to 2014. The first season finale depicts Giovanni’s, or “Juan’s”, death. Source: IMDB


Before he became Pope Alexander, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia had several children, the eldest of whom was Giovanni, born sometime between 1474 and 1476 in Rome. Giovanni held several titles, including two dukedoms and a governorship. He was married and had twins with his wife Maria (another daughter was born after his death).


On June 16, 1497, his body was pulled from the Tiber River, riddled with stab wounds. He had a purse containing cash still on his person, so robbery was ruled out as a motive. However, Borgia and his extended family were powerful and had been accused of everything from murder to bribery and buying elections, and he had no shortage of enemies. He also had numerous mistresses and was believed to be sleeping with his brother’s wife, causing tension within the family itself. Rumors multiplied, but little evidence was sourced, and the murder is still left unsolved centuries later.


5. Lord Darnley

Lord Darnley, right, and his younger brother Charles painted by Hans Eworth, 1562. Source: Royal Collection Trust


As a new day dawned on February 10, 1567, Kirk O’ Field House in Edinburgh, the location of the residence of Lord Darnley, second husband of reigning Mary, Queen of Scots, was rocked by an explosion. Not long after, the body of the lord, Henry Stuart, and his servant were located, though they hadn’t been killed in the blast–they appeared to have been strangled. 


Mary Queen of Scots and Lord Darnley by Richard Westall, R.A. Source: Period Portraits


At the time of his death, Mary and the king consort were estranged, as she knew him to be involved in the 1566 murder of her favorite adviser, David Rizzio. Public suspicion for Darnley’s death immediately turned to Mary and her lover, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. Painted placards, handbills, and ballads accused the pair publicly despite Mary’s immediate order of an investigation. Bothwell was tried and acquitted of the crime, and the pair married three months after the funeral. Despite public opinion, the killer(s) was never brought to justice.


6. The Mayerling Incident

Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, Koller, 1885. Source: Royal Collection Trust


On January 30, 1889, the bodies of Crown Prince Rudolf, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his lover, Baroness Mary Vetsera, were discovered inside a hunting lodge home owned by the prince. It was reported that the prince had killed his seventeen-year-old mistress and then, several hours later, appeared to have turned the gun on himself. However, those closest to the prince didn’t believe it. He had a bright future ahead of him and had been in good humor the day before, according to friends who were spending time at the lodge.


Baroness Mary Vetsera of “Mayerling,” Adele, mid to late 1800s. Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art


Theories began to rise as to the true nature of the deaths. As a high-ranking political figure, many people stood to benefit from the prince’s death. One in particular was the prime minister, Edward Taaffe, who reportedly showed “extraordinary elation” at news of the prince’s passing.


Suspicion also fell on household staff or a jealous husband (the prince had many affairs). The truth of the incident would never be pinned down, and Franz Ferdinand instead became the heir to the throne. It was his death in 1914 that would ignite the flames of World War I, leaving Austria to ponder if the outcome might have been different if the original heir had survived.

Author Image

By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”