Not many people can claim the title "pirate biographer," but Captain Charles Johnson certainly meets the criteria. His 1724 book, which bears the truly spectacular title A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, has become the definitive reference guide for pirate culture in the 17th and 18th century Caribbean. His writings influenced pretty much every famous pirate character in history, from Long John Silver to Jack Sparrow. If you close your eyes right now and picture a pirate, Charles Johnson is responsible for the image in your mind.
And your deviant Jack Sparrow fantasies.
And not only does nobody know who he was, but nobody is even sure if any of the shit he wrote was actually true.
Charles Johnson makes it very clear on the cover of Notorious Pirates that he is a pirate captain, and the book's text maintains this assertion throughout. In a time when fake biographies were circulating the world like counterfeit postage stamps, his was the first authentic account of daily pirate life that anyone had ever seen (in the book's bizarre third-person introduction, Captain Johnson more or less dares anyone reading to call him a liar). And he provides stories, anecdotes, and insights that only someone with firsthand experience would be able to relate. He even had candid woodcuts of piratical life -- the lonely sea captain equivalent of photographic evidence.
National Science Foundation/MilitaryTimes
"Keep the boat steady while I whittle this. Nobody will believe us otherwise."
The problem is that there were no pirates named Charles Johnson operating during that time period. Also, and perhaps more incriminating, there's the fact that virtually no pirate in the history of time had any kind of higher education. Illiteracy was so emphatically the norm among pirate crews that we are surprised none of them used pictographs to label their booty, and yet whoever was responsible for Johnson's book clearly knew how to read and write.
"Arrrrr ... is a letter I can neither write nor recognize."
The most popular theory is that Captain Charles Johnson was actually Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe, doing an undercover buccaneer expose. However, if that's the case, we're disappointed in him for having selected the most unimaginative pirate name in recorded history.
B. Traven was one of the most prominent writers of the early 20th century, in a time when much of the world was so desolately broke that people were more likely to eat books than read them. He was responsible for the Western epic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a novel arguably more famous for its movie adaption, in which a gold-crazed Humphrey Bogart is murdered by a band of giant machete-wielding mustaches with Mexican accents. However, despite his literary stature, no one knows for sure who B. Traven actually was.
Also known as the "I don't have to show you any stinking badges!" movie.
For some inexplicable reason, Traven went to incredible lengths to keep his identity a secret. In fact, B. Traven wasn't even his real name, which shows you how serious he was about the deception. It was a pen name he selected before beginning his writing career in Europe -- most of his books were published in German first, then translated into English later. Understandably, this has led many people to believe that Traven was German, despite the fact that during the first half of the 20th century, Germans were primarily occupied with killing people and not writing things.
Utilizing his fake name of make-believeitude, Traven wrote in Europe for several years before relocating to Mexico, which, considering the European climate at the time, was probably a smart move. He avoided going out in public as much as possible and would submit his manuscripts either via mail or through a proxy/human decoy, as if he was fearful of being struck down by assassins' bullets at any given moment. He was so good at this that only a handful of photos of Traven are known to exist, one of which was taken when he was arrested in London for forging travel papers because he didn't want to give out any personal information.
If you're going to be weird, just do it honestly.
Even after B. Traven died in 1969, reporters continued hounding his longtime associate and translator Hal Croves to reveal the author's true identity, even going so far as to ask if Croves himself was the famous recluse (in fact, "Traven Croves" was the alias Traven was using at the time of his death, so this wasn't exactly a leap of deductive reasoning). So who was he?
One theory points to a German actor named Ret Marut, who changed his name to the less G.I. Joe-sounding B. Traven to escape imprisonment during the German Revolution, which, contrary to popular belief, was a thing that happened. Other theories claim that Traven was an illegitimate son of Kaiser Wilhelm, that he was actually two or more people joining forces as a literary Voltron, or that he was an alter ego of the famous novelist Jack London, because Jack London liked to write a bunch of weird bullshit about being outside, too.
Yup, the guy with the Hitler mustache might have had this guy as a father. Seems appropriate somehow.
WARNING: This is going to be the weirdest goddamn story you've heard all week.
In the 1880s, a young woman was found floating in the Seine River in Paris. It was exactly like the beginning of The Bourne Identity, if that movie had been 10 seconds long and about drowning. The police fished her body out of the water and sent her off to the coroner, because the 19th century was a time when investigative techniques went about as far as checking the immediate area for evil spirits and then going back to the police station to wait for someone to confess to the crime. The coroner became smitten with the corpse and took her body straight to a molder to have a plaster cast made of her dead face, because everything was terrifying back then.
"This was actually the third least terrifying thing we could have done with her body."
Before the coroner could come back to pick up his plaster corpse mask, random customers in the molding shop took notice of the piece and began requesting duplicate casts of their very own. Because money often helps you ignore the pleas of your conscience as it is torn apart by foul wrongness, copies of the anonymous dead girl's face were soon mass produced. By the turn of the century, the mask was a must-have across France and Germany, which are a pair of countries that know a thing or two about horrifying craziness.
The fad mercifully waned, but the masks could still be found all over Europe. So when the first CPR dummy was created by a Norwegian toy maker back in 1960, he decided to base its face on the Woman of the Seine's famous lifeless fear helmet, because why the fuck wouldn't he? Every single rescue dummy manufactured since then has had her face, which means that if you've ever been a lifeguard or had to take CPR training in high school, you have wrapped your lips around the mouth of a 130-year-old dead girl. And to this day, nobody has any idea who she was, so odds are she's haunting at least one of us right now.
Scientific Equipment Liquidators
Hey, look at the bright side, mystery lady -- you've probably gotten more mouth action than anybody else in history.
Evan V. Symon is a moderator in the Cracked Workshop. When he isn't trying to find the real identity of Banksy, he can be found on Facebook, and be sure to bookshelf and vote for his new book, The End of the Line.
For more unusual tales, check out 6 People Who Just Fucking Disappeared and The 5 Creepiest Unsolved Crimes Nobody Can Explain.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out The New Movie That Is Clearly a 'Men in Black' Rip-Off.