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8 Iconic Figures Whose Identities Remain a Mystery

There are more theories about these people than there are facts.

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Closeup Of A Businessman Holding leather Briefcase Going To Work

D.B. Cooper

Dan or D.B. Cooper is the alias for a hijacker who is infamous for taking over a commercial plane leaving Portland, Oregon the day before Thanksgiving in 1971. The 40-something-looking man gave the fake name Dan Cooper and, during the flight, told the flight attendant of a bomb in his briefcase. He demanded four parachutes and $200,000 in $20 bills, about $1.2 million in today’s dollars, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. After the plane landed and let out passengers, they refueled, and Cooper forced the pilots and flight attendant to keep the aircraft flying under 10,000 feet at slower than 200 knots. Then he parachuted out of the plane with the ransom money in hand. No one ever identified, caught, or even heard from him again. And although he used the name Dan Cooper, a reporter misheard this as D.B. Cooper thus starting his false but popular nickname. Of course, some people claim they know the real identity of Cooper—like this former FBI agent—but the case is still officially unsolved.

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Sotheby's Unveils Banksy's 'Love is in the Bin', London, UK - 12 Oct 2018
Ana Cross/Shutterstock


An anonymous British graffiti artist who goes by “Banksy” has remained a mystery since he came onto the art scene in 1993. His art—with displays often on public bridges, tunnels, and walls—has dark humor and comments on political and social issues, too. His creativity extends to the screen, also, in his documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop. But even with all the notoriety for his work, the true identity of Banksy remains a mystery. Although he rarely does interviews, they’ve always been through email or sent via an altered voice tape recording. His identity is just one of the 13 strangest unsolved mysteries of the art world.

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Historical Collection 9 Cagliostro's Interview with the Comte De Saint-germain at Holstein circa 1785

Comte de Saint-Germain

The Comte de Saint-Germain is an 18th-century adventurer who’s true identity is unknown, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. His accomplishments—including his musical talents, chemistry knowledge, and ability to speak of nearly all European languages—lend him the second nickname, “the Wonderman.” It’s a wonder, then, why his real name, parentage, or place of birth are speculative at best. His travels took him from France to England to Russia and he most likely died in 1784, but some say people saw him in Paris in 1789.

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Alley of Prague (located in the Nový Svět area, part of the Hradčany district) with a silhouette of a man walking and several street lights on.
Giorgio Bianchi/Shutterstock

Jack the Ripper

One of the most famous unsolved mysteries of all time is the identity of Jack the Ripper, a notorious serial killer that terrorized London’s East End neighborhood in 1888, Biography.com reports. Despite investigations of the five murders, the identity and motive of “Jack” are still unknown. Theories on the real identity of the murderer are just as inventive. Some theorists claim a famous Victorian painter, Walter Sickert, is guilty, while others say it could have been Queen Victoria’s grandson. Still, there were more than 100 potential suspects. More recent investigations point to a Polish immigrant as a highly possible suspect, but there are disputes about DNA results, according to Biography.com. That’s why so many movies, TV shows, and books on the Ripper always pop up. Some people can’t help but fill in the blanks, but for these 10 creepy urban legends, people didn’t have to—because they turned out to be true.

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Tiananmen Square Protest Aftermath 1989, Beijing, China
Sadayuki Mikami/AP/Shutterstock

Tank Man

In 1989, an unknown man stood in front of tanks ordered to shoot and kill student protesters during a pro-democracy demonstration in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. British tabloids nicknamed the lone protester “Tank Man” as he continuously blocked the tanks’ paths that day. Afterward, they forcibly removed the man, and the tanks proceeded. His identity is still unconfirmed, but he has received recognition for his actions from the likes of Time referring to him as the “unknown rebel” in a list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century. These are 19 of the strangest unsolved mysteries of all time.

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Historical Collection 135 (almost Certainly) Ercole Antonio Mattioli (1640-1703) an Italian Diplomat Imprisoned by Louis Xiv For 24 Years Dying in the Bastille late 17th century

The Man in the Iron Mask

French king Louis XIV had an infamous prisoner with no name—and a mask covering his face. Some reports claim he was forced to wear it. Although the prisoner died and was buried in the Saint-Paul Cemetery in Paris in 1703, his unknown identity sparked countless theories, tall tales, and artwork. In fact, his mask likely wasn’t made of iron at all, but became a popular myth thanks to writings by Voltaire and Alexandre Dumas, History.com reports. Historians do agree that the man did exist. He was probably really wearing a black velvet mask to keep his identity a secret when moving him in or outside of the prison, according to National Geographic. People believe the man could have been anyone from a nobleman or a failed assassin, to even the twin brother of Louis XIV. Think those ideas are far out there? People thought the same thing about these crazy conspiracy theories that turned out to be true.

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The True Crime Museum, Hastings, Britain - 07 Jan 2015
Richard Gardner/Shutterstock

The Unknown Woman of the Seine

In the late 19th century, people recovered an unknown woman’s body from the River Seine in France. They displayed her at the Paris mortuary with the hopes of someone recognizing and identifying her, according to the BBC. And although nobody knew her, she did catch the eye of a mortuary worker who made a plaster mask of her face. The mask, which some refer to as the “drowned Mona Lisa” or “L’Inconnue” became a cultural phenomenon that would inspire artists, poets, and novelists, as well as one particular toy maker. Still doesn’t sound familiar? Here’s how you recognize her: a Norwegian toy manufacturer specializing in soft plastic created the first CPR mannequin—using the unknown woman’s face. The toy maker drew inspiration from the L’Inconnue mask hanging in his parents’ home. His creation became the standard CPR dolls or “Rescue Annies,” per the BBC. Many people who know CPR don’t realize the face of the safety doll belongs to a woman who drowned years before the existence of those techniques.

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TV-Memorable Moments, DALLAS, USA

Babushka Lady

There are many still-unanswered questions about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. That’s why the mysterious identity of the woman who people call the “Babushka Lady” is so interesting. The woman seen wearing an overcoat and scarf, resembling a Russian babushka, is seen in documentary footage holding a camera while facing the motorcade at the time of Kennedy’s assassination, History.com reports. Although there was one unsubstantiated claim, the true identity of the woman remains a mystery. Not only has she never been identified, but any potential footage she might have from that day is lost as well, Mental Floss reports. She’s just one of the 15 other mysterious disappearances no one can figure out.

Emily DiNuzzo
Emily DiNuzzo is a former staff writer at Reader’s Digest. There’s a 90% chance Emily is drinking tea right now, but when she’s not writing about food and health with a cuppa by her side, you can find her lifting at the gym, listening to murder mystery podcasts and liking one too many astrology memes.