We live in a culture that doesn't exactly value anonymity. It's difficult to grab lunch at a drive-through without having to check in on at least three social media sites, for example.
To get an idea of how much things have changed, there are some people who have become world-famous icons, but whose names no one knows. We only know them as ...
In June 1989, the world was cleaning up the Exxon Valdez spill, waiting for the Berlin Wall to fall down, getting ready for the career of M.C. Hammer to start and watching China protest communism. The protests for democracy started in April in Beijing and went on until early June, when Chinese authorities realized, "Wait, aren't we China? We don't tolerate this shit."
"Holy balls, we have an army? Guys, I know what to do about those protests."
Thus, authorities immediately ordered an end to the protests, and China cracked down firmly on all the protesters, with troops and tanks storming Beijing and its focal point, Tiananmen Square. Protesters fled from the carnage. Except for one lone bystander.
This man is either an enduring symbol of the human spirit or tragically nearsighted.
The bystander, holding shopping bags, blocked a line of tanks heading into the square, and then climbed onto a tank and started talking to the crew. This happened for a few minutes until two random people ran up and dragged him away before the tank crew could contemplate how they would clean their tank treads of protester.
That man, who briefly stopped the government tanks all by himself and appeared in one of the most iconic photos and pieces of video in world history, was never heard from again.
So Who Was He?
After the incident, reports were incomplete and contradictory. British newspapers reported that the man was possibly a 19-year-old student named Wang Weilin. Others said he wasn't. The paper went on to claim he was arrested for trying to subvert communism and for "hooliganism" (China apparently having a completely different idea of what "hooliganism" is). However, no man by the name of Wang Weilin, outside of a number of Guitar Hero avatars, is known to exist.
Frontline: Tank Man
"I don't care about politics, I just want to be known as Tank Man."
When the Communist Party of China checked his name out, they claimed to find no records of him ever existing. Many Western officials have maintained that the man was executed a few weeks after the incident, while people who were at the protests claim that he is alive and well somewhere in China.
In 1990, during an interview with Barbara Walters, the General Secretary of the Communist Party said he didn't know whether the man was arrested, but he reassuringly said, "I think never killed."
"Plus I forgot my wallet today. I'm just so flaky!"
We may never know who he was, but the man did what many others could not: walk up to a column of moving tanks and live to tell about it. For a while, at least.
V-J Day, or Victory over Japan Day, brought worldwide joy (well, except in Japan) and signaled the end of World War II in 1945. Many images of V-J Day are downright iconic, such as the "Dancing Man of V-J Day in Sydney" picture.
Seconds before the rest of town joined him in an unrehearsed yet weirdly well-choreographed performance.
The best known, though, is Alfred Eisenstaedt's picture of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square. Since the photo was taken in 1945, the identity of the kissers in one of the most iconic photographs of all time has remained huge in public debate.
So Who Were They?
The lengths to which people went to prove they were the couple in the photo were so over-the-top ridiculous you'd think there was some kind of major cash prize involved.
"That giant plaster G.I. Joe was me, dammit!"
The real controversy is about the male sailor -- the woman in the photo is generally agreed to be a former nurse named Edith Shain, who claimed that she had been working and heard on the news that the war was over. She ran out into the street and a sailor embraced her and kissed her. Feeling gratitude for the services rendered by the U.S. armed forces, she let him do it. Plus, he was trained to kill people, so there's that. There's still some debate about this, but not nearly as much as the debate surrounding the guy.
For example: How much pepper spray is appropriately patriotic?
At least a dozen men have made prominent claims to being the sailor in the photograph, and they've gone to great lengths to prove it. One gentleman had a distinctive birthmark that apparently matched up with the man in the picture, and he and Shain actually briefly dated after a "reunion" set them up with each other afterward. Another man named Glen McDuffie took and passed 10 polygraph tests to prove his identity. McDuffie also posed while kissing a pillow for 100 photos taken by a criminal consultant who specialized in facial recognition techniques.
"I don't care what creepy fetish you have, just please stop pocketing those photos."
The one with the best story, however, has to be George Mendonsa, who had his picture analyzed by the Mitsubishi Electric Research Lab (MERL) in Cambridge, Mass., to prove his identity. He claimed to have been drinking fairly generously on V-J Day and was on a date with the woman he would later marry. They left a movie and saw crowds of people in the street screaming that the war had ended. He saw a nurse walking by, and he kissed her. The kicker: according to Mendonsa, his wife is actually in one of the pictures in the background. And she's apparently into "open relationships," because she's smiling pretty broadly.
"Look honey, we're on camera! Feel her up!"
In the late 1960s, California had two plagues: hippies and the Zodiac Killer. Named after the pseudonym he used in letters he sent to area police, he is one of the most notorious serial killers in modern history. His victims were couples in areas outside of San Francisco in 1968 and 1969; authorities were able to confirm at least five people killed and two people injured, but Zodiac claimed to have killed dozens more. He also left a series of cryptic notes and was seen twice -- once wearing a strange hood, and once without it.
He ran out of evil-looking clothing after the hood and the sunglasses.
Since the killings ended, the Zodiac murders have become one of the best-known not only in the U.S., but around the world. Zodiac's use of cryptic letters and his penchant for leaving bizarre, encrypted clues have inspired many movie and TV serial killers' modus operandi.
As long as their M.O.s consist of wandering around wearing silly glasses and old bed sheets.
So Who Was He?
To this day, the Zodiac Killer has never been caught. A prime suspect wasn't even found until 1991, when one Arthur Leigh Allen was arrested. He was a match for the appearance of the killer, and even owned the same type of typewriter used for the infamous notes. Also, he had conversations with coworkers at a gas station about an idea for a book about a killer called Zodiac who would murder couples on lovers' lane, just like the real Zodiac did. And he had numerous bombs and weapons in his basement. And a survivor identified Allen as the killer.
Well, shit, why is this a mystery? There's your man.
Actually, no. Allen's fingerprints did not match Zodiac's. The man was never even charged. In case you think the cops just blew it, in 2002, his DNA was tested against that collected in 1968, with a soundly negative match. Despite all those weird connections, he's not the guy. And while a few others have come forward, they have been cleared as well.
Clearly the culprit was Jack Skellington.
Now, to be clear, lots of people get away with murder. Hell, there are other serial killers who were never caught. But this guy not only was the subject of a nationwide obsession and a furious, expensive investigation, but he also wrote numerous letters to the police. How long do you think you'd evade capture for jaywalking if you did such a thing? You've got potential DNA, fingerprints, writing style analysis, psychological profiling from your letter content, witnesses watching you mail it, tracking on the letter-writing equipment and supplies, tracking back to places your letters were mailed from, DNA and fingerprints at those locations ... need we go on? You'd think the guy would have been booked that same freaking afternoon.
"Hi, is this the Zodiac Killer? It is? Cool. Hold for a moment, please."
Instead, the case is still open, but the police are no closer to finding the killer than they were over 40 years ago.