In his address to the US Congress following the moon landings of 1969, Neil Armstrong said that mysteries ‘create wonder and wonder is the basis for man’s desire to understand’. Who knows what mysteries will be solved in our lifetime, he added, and what new riddles will become the challenge of future generations?
The National Archives at Kew contain records of many unsolved mysteries from Britain’s past and I drew upon these for my 2013 book Britain’s X-traordinary Files (Bloomsbury). Three unsolved mysteries of the last two centuries are featured in the fourth episode of Michael Portillo’s State Secrets, broadcast on BBC 2 on 26 March.
In past centuries unexplained events helped to sell newspapers and today they drive millions of people to seek answers on the internet. In cases of mysterious deaths and disappearances the very absence of evidence encourages speculation about dark conspiracies. At the height of the First World War in June 1916 news of the death of Lord Kitchener when the battle cruiser HMS Hampshire sank west of the Orkney Islands shocked the nation to its core. Kitchener was en route to Russia with more than 600 officers and men to attend secret war negotiations when his ship struck a German mine.
The fact that his body was never found encouraged all sorts of unlikely rumours including one that he had been assassinated by a Boer solider spy. Another claimed that he, like King Arthur, was alive and well and waiting the call for him to return and save his country from peril. The broadcaster Jeremy Paxman has compared these stories with those that followed the death of Princess Diana but, he said, ‘the banal is always more likely than the bizarre’.
The most notorious was ‘the Kitchener Coffin Hoax’ (MEPO 2/2469) perpetrated by a freelance journalist, Frank Power, in the pages of the Sunday Referee newspaper in 1926. Power claimed the body of Kitchener had been found by a Norwegian fisherman and arranged for it to be brought back to London in a coffin for internment at St Paul’s Cathedral. The hoax unravelled when the police seized the empty coffin and opened it in the presence of the famous pathologist, Sir Bernard Spilsbury. Despite the public outrage, Power escaped prosecution but the exposure of his hoax did nothing to halt the rumours of a cover-up.
Scotland Yard also suspected that a well-informed journalist may have been responsible for sending the infamous ‘Dear Boss’ letter during the Ripper murders in Victorian London. The handwritten letter was received by the Central News Agency just a day before the bodies of two women –the killer’s third and fourth victims – were found murdered and horribly mutilated. Signed by ‘Jack the Ripper’ the letter was just one of hundreds sent to the authorities and the press during the reign of terror in 1888 (other examples can be seen in MEPO 3/3153). The arrival of a second letter, smeared with blood, that referred to specific details of the murders, persuaded detectives the same person was responsible for writing them. But was the writer really the killer or just someone who wanted to generate a sensational headline?