Occasionally, people will go down in history for some great deed or misdeed without anyone ever knowing who the hell they were. Some went out of their way to remain anonymous, others died before they could leave any contact information, and still others fell victim to the fact that we, as a species, really only started keeping reliable records about a hundred or so years ago. Which is too bad, because we would love to know the real identities behind ...
#6. The Man in the Iron Mask
Believe it or not, the bucket-headed French prisoner made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Man in the Iron Mask (and, to a lesser extent, Alexandre Dumas) was actually a real person. Despite what the movies might have you believe, nobody has any goddamn idea who he was. We just know that he was apparently a high-level prisoner who for some mysterious reason had to have his head covered at all times in that iron helmet. Which is kind of bizarre, if you think about it.
It gets even more bizarre when you consider that the guy apparently looked like this.
It started in 1698, when a prisoner using the pseudonym Eustache Dauger (which on paper looks heroically similar to "Mustache Danger") was transported to the Bastille, the 17th century French equivalent of a maximum security prison. He had already spent between two and three decades (old-timey records are, at best, imprecise) rotting in various jails across the country. According to legend, he showed up already locked in the iron mask (which looked like an Iron Man Mark I helmet) and was immediately tossed in a cell, forbidden to speak to anyone except to ask for food, water, or a pot to make poopies.
"OK, I filled the pot. Now can I have my stale bread and water?"
And ... that's all we know. Nobody discussed who the hell he was or what he had done or why he needed to be dressed like a very lazy knight. He was listed in the Bastille records as "Prisoner 64389000," which, in addition to being difficult to fit into a song, is a completely sterile piece of information. He was forbidden to ever show his face to anyone, and some prisoners claimed he had two armed guards with him at all times should he ever try to take the mask off. In that event, we assume they would aim for his chest, or shove their musket barrels into his iron eyeholes.
Dauger (or whatever his name truly was) died in 1703, which, as keen-eyed readers may notice, means he sat in the Bastille with his head in a fucking crock pot for four dick-punching years. The subsequent 300 years have done nothing to uncover the mystery of his identity, either -- there were few solid facts about the man to begin with, and three centuries of retellings laced with spirited embellishments have seriously diluted what little we had to go on.
At least they permitted him the dignity of shoe and knee bows.
The popular theory is that he was some kind of high-level political prisoner, hence the need to conceal his identity. However, nobody can quite agree on exactly who that famous inmate might have been, with some of the wilder guesses ranging from Oliver Cromwell's son to the older brother of King Louis XIV himself (Dumas' novelization of the DiCaprio movie is based on that second idea). All we really know about him is from letters written by the Bastille's governor and from his fellow prisoners spreading the story, and those testimonies are contentious about whether his mask was even made of iron to begin with. To be fair, "The Man in the Black Velvet Vanity Veil" doesn't carry quite the same level of mystery and intrigue.
#5. The Isdal Woman
In 1970, a group of hikers outside of Bergen, Norway, suddenly came upon the charred, naked corpse of a woman in the middle of the Isdalen Valley. The body was nicknamed the Isdal Woman, presumably because "Joanie Storm" was considered too disrespectful to her memory, and the investigation that followed was so bizarre and surreal that it was more like a television series by David Lynch than actual police work.
Maybe it's time to take Detective Lynch off this case.
First, the items scattered around her body might as well have been arranged to spell "ambush murder" on the ground next to her. Bottles of gasoline and liquor, a mostly incinerated passport, and enough sleeping pills to kill a Hollywood screen legend were found close enough to have been hastily dropped by a stab-bandit upon hearing the echo of approaching footsteps. But the Isdal Woman herself was difficult to identify, immolated remains notwithstanding -- her fingerprints had been sanded away, and apart from evidence of some work that might have been done in Latin America, her dental records returned no matches.
It seemed like investigators had caught a break when two of her suitcases were discovered in a safety deposit box at a train station, but all of the clothing packed inside had been stripped of their labels. There was a prescription bottle, but the identifying label that might have contained her name and address had been peeled off. In addition, the police found several fake passports adorned with entrance stamps from Moscow (this was back during the Cold War, so fake passports from Russia were highly suspect), and there were 500 deutschemarks sewn into the lining of one of the bags. She also apparently wore a collection of wigs and wrote notes to herself in code. Either she was James goddamn Bond or her murderer was playing an elaborate practical joke.
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A woman who travels the world under an assumed name with a collection of wigs? Sounds mighty suspicious.
Furthermore, despite a pool of over 100 eyewitnesses who all claimed to have seen her on the days leading up to her death, nobody could agree on anything except a general description of what she looked like, which usually boiled down to some variation of "an attractive foreign lady in her 30s or 40s." She might have been German, or Italian, or French, or she just might have known how to speak those languages. She used a handful of different names, all fake, during her stay in various hotels around Norway, and the primary witness, an Italian photographer who had dinner with the Isdal Woman before she died (and who had previously been questioned in an unrelated rape case), said she was an antiques collector from South Africa on a sightseeing trip, but he couldn't remember any useful details.
"She liked dousing herself in lighter fluid and smoking cigars. D'ya think that might be relevant?"
She was last seen hiking in evening wear (which, generally speaking, is not the attire one selects to go traipsing through a rocky forest of mystery in the middle of the night), being closely followed by two large men in black clothing. Her body was discovered a few days later, burned to a cinder, laced with alcohol and sleeping pills, and with evidence of blunt force trauma on the back of her neck. The police were so baffled by every single facet of the case that they literally gave up, ruling the Isdal Woman's death a suicide because, hey, why not.
#4. Perseus, the Soviet Spy in the Manhattan Project
In the 1940s, the United States was hip-deep in the Manhattan Project, a top-secret research program into melting our enemies with righteous waves of screaming atomic fire. Plenty of other countries were curious as to what in the savage bulldog farts the Americans were doing with an army of scientists in the middle of the goddamn desert, the Soviet Union chief among them. Fortunately for the Soviets, one of the top scientists involved in the project was actually working for them, feeding them sensitive information the whole time. Unfortunately for the USA, they never found out which scientist it was.
Who wants to bet it was this weird-looking guy?
All we know is that he went by the code name Perseus. He was in place from 1943 to 1946, nearly the entire duration of the Manhattan Project. And unlike other Soviet moles, who were quickly discovered once World War II came to an end, the Americans had no idea that Perseus even existed until some former KGB officials spilled the beans in 1991. The man stole some of the most sensitive secrets the U.S. government has ever kept and went tap dancing off into the sunset for almost 50 years before anybody realized he'd taken anything.
According to secret KGB documents that were decrypted during a code-breaking project known as Venona (because cryptographers specialize in nonsense words), Perseus was among the high-level scientists at the White Sands missile testing site in New Mexico, as well as the main research facility in Los Alamos, which means he had firsthand access to pretty much everything. The information he gathered (along with that collected by the three spies who eventually got busted) not only gave the Soviet Union an extra year's head start to develop their own nuclear program, but also gave Josef Stalin enough time to practice his "I'm totally surprised" face for when President Truman revealed the atomic bomb to him at the Potsdam Conference in 1945.
"I knew about nuclear superweapons before they were cool."
Several prominent scientists have been accused of being Perseus, but every one of them was able to categorically prove his innocence. In addition, the Russians suddenly blocked access to all of their declassified archives almost as soon as they had granted it, and the records have remained closed ever since. Whoever Perseus was, he must certainly be dead by now. The only possible reason to keep his identity a secret is if he's some kind of deathless nuclear supermutant who's spent the past half-century maneuvering his way into the highest levels of Russia's political infrastructure.