ISO: Weird, tragic, mysterious, and/or spooky history
May 12, 2017 11:24 AM   Subscribe

What are your favorite history mysteries or tragic tales of historical disasters? The creepier, odder, and more mysterious the better!

I'm working on building some online resource guides for historical mysteries and historical disasters. I've got a list going, but I'm certain there's some good ones I've missed, or maybe don't even know about!

Please share with me your favorite historical puzzles and spooky stories--bonus points if you know of any great online sources, books, or articles on the topic. Thanks!
posted by helloimjennsco to Education (47 answers total) 77 users marked this as a favorite
Mysterious: Taman Shud.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:31 AM on May 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Dyatlov Pass Incident is super weird, have you checked that out?
posted by zoetrope at 11:31 AM on May 12, 2017 [8 favorites]

Also Diatlov Pass incident.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:32 AM on May 12, 2017

posted by zoetrope at 11:34 AM on May 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

There's also a treasure trove of historical mysteries in my favorite Wikipedia list, the List of People who Disappeared Mysteriously.
posted by zoetrope at 11:36 AM on May 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

It's not exactly a mystery but also not super well known outside CT and the North East... The Hartford Circus Fire. July 6, 1944 the big top tent caught fire and 167 mostly women and children died. They never found a conclusive cause...most likely was stray cigarette though over the years more than one person has been suspected or confessed to it being arson.
posted by Captain_Science at 11:46 AM on May 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm betting you know about this one already, but just in case you don't: the Boston Molasses Disaster. Bizarre and also horrifying.
posted by holborne at 11:50 AM on May 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

Stuff You Missed in History Class is a great web and podcast resource. The Crime and Mystery topics will give you lots of rabbit holes to explore.
posted by annaramma at 11:59 AM on May 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Aberfan disaster. (Is this spooky enough? Not sure if it's the type of thing you're looking for...)The Aberfan disaster was the catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip in the Welsh village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil, that killed 116 children and 28 adults on 21 October 1966. The collapse was caused by the build-up of water in the accumulated rock and shale tip, which suddenly slid downhill in the form of slurry. More than 1.4 million cubic feet (40,000 cu metres) of debris covered a section of the village in minutes. The classrooms at Pantglas Junior School were immediately inundated; young children and teachers died from impact or suffocation. Many noted the poignancy of the situation: if the disaster had struck a few minutes earlier, the children would not have been in their classrooms, and if it had struck a few hours later, they would have left for the half-term holiday.

I first heard about this in the excellent folk song The Aberfan Coal Tip Tragedy: How many died in Aberfan / when the coal tip came rumbling down? / How many children will never grow old? / And how many lives purchased how many tons of coal?
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:02 PM on May 12, 2017

The Pied Piper of Hamelin is creepy as hell. Nobody is sure what exactly happened, except that most agree it was probably based on real events.
posted by ernielundquist at 12:04 PM on May 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I find that one of the difficult parts of researching this stuff online is that you only find OTHER stuff that is online. I like disaster stories and learned about some new ones (and more details on some old ones) by reading this book: Disaster: Illustrated 200 Years of American Misfortune by Woody Gelman (of Wacky Packs fame)
posted by jessamyn at 12:06 PM on May 12, 2017

Oh, also Kaspar Hauser. Immortalized in the Werner Herzog movie, the original title of which translated to Every Man for Himself and God Against All.

posted by ernielundquist at 12:11 PM on May 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Afterglow Vista (aka McMillin Family Mausoleum) is a spooky spot in Roche Harbor, Washington. There's a really good episode of the Lore Podcast dedicated to its history and the spooky sightings associated with it and the hotel originally owned by the family.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:25 PM on May 12, 2017

On the disaster side, WBEZ/PRI's "This American Life" featured the late, great David Rakoff's account of the tragic fire on the General Slocum, a steamship that burned and sank in the Hudson in 1904, killing over 1000 people, and which disaster had the greatest loss of life in New York until 2001.
posted by Sunburnt at 12:39 PM on May 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Amber Room.
posted by hortense at 12:44 PM on May 12, 2017

Damn Interesting is one of my fave sites for this sort of thing!
posted by The otter lady at 12:52 PM on May 12, 2017

The Oak Island Pit. An unsolved puzzle shaft back more than two centuries that has by now claimed the lives of six people trying to dig it out. Rumored to contain pirate pirate treasure or a Spanish horde, or even wilder things, like letters related to the Royal family of Denmark. No one knows to this day.
posted by bonehead at 12:52 PM on May 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

There's a newish podcast called the What If Podcast that touches on this sort of thing!
posted by sucre at 1:23 PM on May 12, 2017

I can't add a link on my phone but google Longform mystery. There are some really good ones on there.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 2:04 PM on May 12, 2017

I was JUST lying awake last night thinking of a non-fiction book about the Donner Party I'd read a few years ago -- how haunting and creepy and atmospheric and absorbing it was, and how I need to reread it, stat. It's called The Indifferent Stars Above. I didn't even know I was interested in the Donner Party until I read this book. It's AMAZING, and, yes, ultimately quite creepy.
posted by mylittlepoppet at 2:51 PM on May 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

Maybe it's still too new, but MH370?
posted by duoshao at 2:57 PM on May 12, 2017

The Villisca axe murders remain unsolved.

It's well-known, but what happened to the disappeared Roanoke Colony remains one of the enduring mysteries of American history.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:56 PM on May 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

The Ocean Ranger tragedy is relatively recent, but it has a haunting mythic aspect to it.
posted by ovvl at 5:10 PM on May 12, 2017

You may already know about this one, but just in case: Wisconsin Death Trip. It's mostly a book, but there are some good resources online. Have fun!
posted by scratch at 5:20 PM on May 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

You definitely want the following podcasts:

Weird History

None of them exclusively scratch this itch, but they all frequently do.
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:35 PM on May 12, 2017

I have a fondness for well-narrorated natural disasters, so I'm going to make some recommendations along that angle.

Daniel James Brown, who wrote The Indifferent Stars Above, also wrote Under a Flaming Sky, about the Hinckley firestorm in 1884.

When it comes to historical (natural) disasters, two other books worth reading are Isaac's Storm (about the Galveston hurricane) and The Last Days of St. Pierre (about the Mount Peleé volcanic eruption). (I assume you've read The Perfect Storm?)
posted by steady-state strawberry at 10:06 PM on May 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Isdal Woman, a 46-year-old mystery which has recently attracted new interest, thanks to DNA analysis and the Norwegian habit of stashing away body parts and tissue samples in case they might come in useful some day.
posted by verstegan at 1:41 AM on May 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Architectural/structural engineering related:

Hyatt Regency walkway collapse

Rather than buy one long threaded bolt/rod to support two stacked balconies, two shorter rods were used. While the shorter rods were the same size and strength, the load was doubled on the upper rod, and the structure failed during a tea dance when hundreds of guests were celebrating in the atrium floor below.

If you are looking for maritime/seagoing there's lots to be had.

The Grey Seas Under is a non-fiction book by Canadian author Farley Mowat about the Atlantic Salvage Tug Foundation Franklin, operated by the firm Foundation Maritime in Canada's Maritime provinces from 1930 to 1948.

While vacationing in Michigan next to the great lakes I would obsessively read this, and other nonfiction books at the local library, about great lakes shipping disasters. I'd then tell them to my dad while we were out on the water and he was trying to unstick the centerboard on the sailboat.
posted by sol at 5:17 AM on May 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

The Halifax Disaster, the largest man-made explosion before the nuclear bomb era. Between this and the fact that Halifax became the refuge for most of the survivors rescued from the Titanic make that city interesting and creepy as hell.
posted by Brittanie at 9:12 AM on May 13, 2017

Also, the Houston Candyman Murders.
posted by Brittanie at 9:18 AM on May 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Ohhh, and I just heard this one on NPR: the Osage Murder Conspiracy.
posted by Brittanie at 9:20 AM on May 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Pitcairn, from the mutiny on the HMS Bounty to the sex scandal to the present day and the residents' efforts to keep it going, makes for fascinating reading.

The Big Book Of series has quite a lot of unexplained mystery stuff (including a volume devoted solely to that, but a lot of others have weird stories). They are enjoyable reads -- a tad fluffy, but a great jumping-off point to find things you'd like to read more about (especially from more thoroughly researched sources).

Ditto with Fortean Times.
posted by kmennie at 10:30 AM on May 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

A little-known disaster is the Peshtigo fire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, which happened on the same day as the better-known Chicago fire and killed five times as many people. There actually is a mysterious element: in addition to the Chicago and Peshtigo fires, there were major fires on the same day in Holland and Manistee, Michigan, where are across Lake Michigan from Peshtigo, and in Port Huron, Michigan. It seems unlikely to have been a coincidence that all of those deadly fires happened on the same day, but nobody has been able to come up with a satisfactory explanation.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:07 AM on May 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

The death of Elisa Lam. A perhaps-unstable person recorded in a weird hotel elevator video, found later inexplicably inside a water tank at the top of the hotel.
posted by ldenneau at 11:09 AM on May 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Aberfan isn't really creepy or mysterious, just terribly tragic, and its effect can be felt on the village to this day.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 11:34 AM on May 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'd add the website and podcast Futility Closet to the list. Many of the incidents referenceed above, I heard there first.
posted by condour75 at 5:42 PM on May 13, 2017

The podcast Astonishing Legends covers so many of these with great research, empathy, and insight.
posted by moons in june at 6:49 PM on May 13, 2017

The Mary Celeste was an American merchant brigantine, discovered adrift and deserted in the Atlantic Ocean, off the Azores Islands, on December 5, 1872. There is much speculation about why she was abandoned.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 10:16 PM on May 13, 2017

Why did so many American microbiologists die under mysterious circumstances after 9/11?

At 11:57 p.m. on March 12, 1928, [the St Francis dam] catastrophically failed, and the resulting flood took the lives of an estimated 431 people. The collapse of the St. Francis Dam is considered to be one of the worst American civil engineering disasters of the 20th century and remains the second-greatest loss of life in California's history, after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. The disaster marked the end of [William] Mulholland's career.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:57 AM on May 14, 2017

The death of Diane Whipple was tragic and lurid... the San Francisco press could not get enough of it at the time.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:11 AM on May 14, 2017

YOU ARE ALL AMAZING. I hadn't heard of half of these before, and they are all perfect! Thank you!!
posted by helloimjennsco at 6:08 AM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

The boy Adam, whose torso was found floating in the Thames in 2001, believed to be a victim of a ritual killing. This is a good book about the case.
posted by plep at 3:15 AM on May 17, 2017

Skeleton lake, India. Skeletons of hundred of people killed by a sudden hailstorm.
posted by plep at 4:54 AM on May 17, 2017

The Winchester Mystery House!
posted by mermaidcafe at 7:31 PM on May 20, 2017

Donald Crowhurst (1932–1969) was a British businessman and amateur sailor who died while competing in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a single-handed, round-the-world yacht race. Crowhurst had entered the race in hopes of winning a cash prize from The Sunday Times to aid his failing business. Instead, he encountered difficulty early in the voyage, and secretly abandoned the race while reporting false positions, in an attempt to appear to complete a circumnavigation without actually circling the world. Evidence found after his disappearance suggests that this attempt ended in possible insanity and suicide.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:35 PM on June 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

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