People disappear all the time. But rarely do they appear out of nowhere—unidentifiable, strange, and mysterious. From the middle ages to the last 20 years, here are 10 of the best…
10. Kaspar Hauser
Kaspar Hauser’s famous 1828 appearance in Nuremberg remains an unsolved mystery to this day.
The confused young boy claimed to have spent his entire life in a cellar, consuming bread and water with only a toy horse for company. Although he spoke no German, Hauser presented two letters to the Nurembergers who found him. One was from the man who kept him fed, a laborer, and the other was from his mother, giving his name and birth date, as well as the explanation that his father had been killed in the cavalry. Still, questions remained about the boy.
Successively taken in by an educator and the 4th Earl of Stanhope, Hauser became a young man and was given a job as an office clerk. And we might have heard nothing about him were it not for his untimely death: he was stabbed and killed at 21. It’s unclear if this was murder or suicide. Either way, it left both his origin and his fate forever shrouded in mystery. Theories have abounded ever since, including that he was the hereditary Prince of Baden–although this has been disproved by DNA.
9. Rudolph Fentz
In June 1950, so the story goes, a 19th-century man was spotted in New York City. Wearing old-fashioned buckle shoes and other period clothing, the 30-something man appeared dazed— wandering in circles until he was run down and killed by a taxi. When police inspected his body, he was found to have been carrying pre-1870 bank notes, a letter dated 1876, a 5-cent token for beer at a saloon, and a livery bill for the care of his horse. He was also carrying a business card with his name and address. But these proved to be a dead-end. Neither was Fentz in the phone book or even reported missing. Eventually, an investigator stumbled on a listing for one Rudolf Fenz Jr in a directory from 1939. This led them to Fenz Jr’s now elderly widow, according to whom Fentz Sr had disappeared without a trace in 1876. He’d been 31 years old; Jr was still a child.
One day in 1863, Sandy Cove locals spotted a man in his 20s, both legs amputated, heaving himself down the beach. He was heading toward the Fundy Bay tide; he wanted to die. And he was just five feet from the sea when help arrived. Taken in by the locals, he was gradually nursed back to health.
The name he gave was Jerome (although it wasn’t quite clear it was his). As for where he’d come from, he just said Colombo, which may have been the name of a ship. He said very little else as the days became weeks, months, years, and even decades. The government of Nova Scotia financially supported his hosts, but during this time nothing further was learned. Jerome grunted far more than he spoke and wouldn’t–or couldn’t–write instead.
Meanwhile, his story spread around the world and the man became an attraction. To some he was a nobleman mutilated for revenge, to others a naval officer injured and abandoned. Yet others thought him a runaway immigrant. One of the most credible theories, that he was a lumberjack whose legs had frozen in the winter, was presented as true for a time. But we still don’t know the full story.
7. John Zegrus
In July 1954 a smartly dressed Caucasian man stepped off a plane in Tokyo, having flown in from somewhere in Europe. He was here on a business trip, he told customs, and it wasn’t his first in Japan. In addition to French and Spanish, he also spoke good Japanese. But there was something wrong with his passport: his country didn’t exist.
Now, there are two versions of this tale. According to one (the internet version), his passport, which contained numerous stamps from Europe and Japan, was issued in a place called Taured. When customs said there was no such nation, Zegrus insisted there was; it lay between France and Spain, as it had for 1,000 years. But when shown a map, he saw what they meant. Where Taured should be was a place called Andorra. Furthermore, the company Zegrus was to visit had never heard of the man. Neither had his hotel. On paper he didn’t exist. Suspicious officials got him a room and kept him under guard overnight. In the morning he was gone, vanished without a trace along with his passport and belongings, all of which were stored away from Zegrus.
As mentioned, this is the internet version—complete with some far-out conclusions, like that he was a time traveler or from another dimension. However, though heavily embellished and substantially altered, it’s not a complete fabrication. In 1960, a man called John Zegrus did show a strange passport in Japan; his case was discussed in British parliament. His passport’s place of issue was Tamanrosset, capital of Tuarid. And it was written in an unknown language. However, the real non-existent Tuarid, unlike the internet’s Taured, was allegedly a sub-Saharan African country. On trial later, Zegrus described himself as “an intelligence agent for Colonel Nasser and a naturalized Ethiopian.” He was sentenced to one year in prison.
6. BK Doe
One morning in Georgia in the summer of 2004, a sweating, sunburned, naked man was found by the dumpsters behind a Burger King. Being unconscious, he was thought to be dead. His skin was inflamed and crawling with fire ants. But he was alive and, according to a check-up, physically healthy enough. His problem was psychological.
At hospital, he kept his eyes tightly shut and thrashed about whenever touched. He also had no recollection of his name. Nurses just called him BK Doe. In fact, he remembered very little of his life. Although he thought he’d been living in the woods for 17 years, all he knew for certain was his birthday–August 29, 1948, two days before he was found.
Months later he chose a new name: Benjaman. It felt familiar, he said, and Kyle would do as his surname until he found out who he was. But this proved elusive. Nobody knew his identity—not the police, FBI, US Marshals, Canadian authorities, or Interpol. Neither did the media, missing persons groups, TV viewers or internet users.
Only by DNA matching more than 10 years later was he finally identified. His name was William Burgess Powell. Originally from Lafayette, Indiana, he’d simply never had many ties, either social or family. It remains a mystery how he lost 20 years to a fugue state but it’s assumed that during this time he took the name Benjaman.
5. Utsuro-bune woman
According to the Meiji Period Japanese text, Hyouryuukishuu (Tales of Castaways), in 1803 an alien craft washed ashore near the village of Harashagahama in what is now Hitachi Province. Three meters tall by five meters wide, it was hollow and shaped like a flying saucer—but it was mostly made out of wood. Inside was a pale young lady no more than 20 years old. In her arms she held a small wooden box, which she didn’t let anyone touch.
Judging by her red hair and strange language, she was not from Japan. After discussing the matter, locals put her back out to sea. They assumed she must be an exile, and this was therefore her fate. Perhaps she had cheated on her husband, they said, and, being a princess, had escaped death for exile instead.
In fact, this wasn’t the first time an utsuro-bune (hollow craft) had washed ashore. A nearby beach had a similar encounter, in which a woman was accompanied by a man’s severed head. Maybe this time it was inside the box.
4. The Isdal Woman
Early on November 29, 1970, a family out hiking at Isdalen, Norway stumbled upon the corpse of a woman. Badly burned, it was surrounded by objects: jewelry, a watch, a broken umbrella, and bottles. These, said forensic investigators later, had been placed in such a way as to suggest “some kind of ceremony”. However, it was the removal of identifying evidence that mystified authorities the most. Labels had been cut from her clothes and her name was scraped off belongings—not only at the scene but in a couple of suitcases too. These were recovered from a train station and fingerprint-matched to the woman. Evidently, she’d traveled widely in Europe. In fact, she was beginning to look like a spy. This was, after all, the Cold War. And according to the Norwegian Intelligence Service her movements were far from random; they followed the development of Norway’s top secret Penguin missile system.
Ultimately, however, the case was closed. There wasn’t enough evidence to solve it and her death was written off as a suicide. Only in the last few years has hope resurfaced of identifying the Isdal Woman. Based on isotope analysis of her teeth, it looks like she was born in Germany, close to the border with France, around 1930. It’s a start…
3. Gil Perez
In October 1593, sentries marching back and forth before the Palace of the Plaza Mayor in Mexico City noticed someone strange among their number. Although marching, turning, and saluting correctly, he was dressed in an unfamiliar uniform. Not only that but he also looked utterly confused. As it turned out, his uniform was that of Manila–14,000 kilometers to the west. Questioned by the Captain of the Guard, he confirmed he was stationed in the Philippines. But he had no idea how he got to Mexico.
Stranger still, he’d gotten there in less than a day. He was sure of this because he knew the Governor of the Philippines had been murdered on the previous day. Assumed to be in league with the Devil, Gil Perez was locked up to await the Inquisition.
It was clear, however, that his teleportation across the Pacific was as much a mystery to Perez as to anyone. He certainly didn’t seem to be a sorcerer. Months passed and news finally came on a ship from the Philippines that the Governor had been murdered—exactly when Perez had said. Not knowing what else to do, Inquisitors released the strange soldier and allowed him to travel back home.
2. The Green Children of Woolpit
Some time in the mid-12th century, the English village of Woolpit received into its midst two small children–a boy and a girl. Alone and bewildered, they had apparently emerged from the “wolf pits” that gave the village its name. Their language was unrecognizable and their clothes were unusual, especially in color. But strangest of all was the color of their skin: an otherworldly shade of green. Not knowing what to do, the peasants of Woolpit took the children to a knight, Sir Richard de Calne.
The children wouldn’t eat for days. In fact, they looked at food as though it was alien until one day, by chance, they saw some freshly cut bean plants and hungrily wolfed them down. In time they were encouraged to eat other foods too and eventually lost their green coloring. Although the boy grew sick and died, the girl flourished. Baptized and taught to speak English, she could finally explain where she’d come from: Saint Martin’s Land, she said, a land of permanent twilight where everything is green and from which, across a river, a much brighter land could be seen. What she didn’t know was how she’d got to Woolpit. Versions of the story differ on the last thing she remembered, but it was either a loud noise while herding her father’s cattle with her brother or following the cows through a cavern and emerging (without them) into this world.
The girl continued to live with the knight and grew into a “very wanton and impudent” young woman. Then she married and moved 40 miles from Woolpit. Centuries later, writers and thinkers returned to the story as evidence of the “plurality of worlds.”
1. Jophar Vorin
In 1850, a man appeared in a village in Brandenburg, Germany. Not being used to strangers, authorities took him in for questioning. His name, he said, was Jophar Vorin and he came from a place called Laxaria—a country in “the portion of the world called Sakria.” His German was poor, but it was the only European language he knew. His mother tongue, he said, was Laxarian; but if it helped he could write in Abramian–the written language of the clerical order of his homeland. His questioners made do with German. As for why he’d come to Europe (or “Euplar” as he knew it), he claimed to be looking for a long-lost brother.
Baffling as it was, Vorin’s story was believed. And there’s been very little follow-up since. All we know is that he was taken to Berlin for further questioning.
One theory suggests he was from another timeline on which the Ottoman Empire never fell. Vorin’s Sakria, for instance, could have been a misspelled Sakarya, a region in Turkey. He also said his religion was similar to Christianity but known as Ispatian—perhaps linked to Hamza of Ispatian who wrote about Alexander the Great’s invasion of Iran, which bordered the Ottoman Empire.
It’s an interesting theory but it leaves out some details. For example, Vorin said he was shipwrecked crossing the vast ocean between Sakria and Euplar, which, if Euplar is Europe as his German suggests, obviously rules out Turkey as his homeland. Also, his names for other “portions [or continents] of the world” map onto ours pretty neatly; in addition to Euplar and Sakria, he listed Aflar, Aslar, and Auslar. The Americas’ notable absence suggests Sakria was the North and South combined. But why Sakria and not “Amerilar”? Maybe in this alternate timeline it wasn’t Amerigo Vespucci who discovered the New World but someone from Turkey’s Sakarya. We may never know.