A Brief History
On December 20, 1968, the killer later known as “The Zodiac Killer” shot and murdered 2 victims in Vallejo, California, the first confirmed victims of this still unidentified killer. Along with a few other murderers, Zodiac remains unidentified and is the topic of numerous articles, books and speculation. Today we list a few of those perplexing murders and murderers that have not been solved definitively. What other crimes and criminals would you add to this list? (Tupac and Biggie?)
Zodiac murders, 1960’s-1970’s.
At least 5 deaths are attributed to this mysterious and taunting murderer, with an additional 2 victims that survived, but an additional 37 victims are claimed by the still unidentified killer and authorities suspect 10 to 28 other murder victims could be attributed to the Zodiac. Described as a white man with short hair and glasses, this maniac taunted police by sending cryptic messages calling himself Zodiac. Some of the ciphers have still not been decoded, so who knows what other information this killer may have divulged about himself. His victims were male and female couples, usually between 16 and 29 years old. His area of operation was Northern California, and he demanded that his letters be published, or he would increase his killing spree. The last confirmed letter from the Zodiac came in 1974, and later letters purporting to be from this enigmatic cryptographer and murderer are quite possibly fakes. The case was closed by law enforcement in 2004 but reopened when an old Christmas card (1990) that had been sent to a newspaper was looked at in 2007 and was found to have a message possibly from the Zodiac. The case was reopened at that time, and in 2018, forensic attempts to recover the killer’s DNA from the back of stamps he presumably licked when sending his cryptograms could conceivably produce some new evidence. (As of this article, December 20, 2019, the DNA results are not in.) Zodiac’s method of murder was shooting with a pistol. Movies, books and television episodes have been based on this unsolved case.
Black Dahlia, 1947.
A particularly gruesome crime, Elizabeth Short, age 22, an unsuccessful aspiring actress, was found murdered in Los Angeles in a vacant lot by a mother walking her young child. Her body had been horribly mutilated, but curiously also washed clean before being staged in a macabre posing on the ground. She had been cut in 2 at the waist, her face slashed with a “Glasgow smile” (mouth cut ear to ear), her hands posed above her head and her legs spread. Her guts were placed under her buttocks (she was face up) and her breasts and thighs were slashed. Her blood was drained from her body. Ligature marks were found on her wrists and ankles, and time of death was calculated to have been about 10 hours prior to her discovery at 10 am. False confessions and numerous theories were offered as to the identity and motive of the killer, but all without definitive conclusion. Books, films and television shows have used the case as their plot line, some purporting to be factual accounts and others fictionalized accounts, notably the 2006 film, The Black Dahlia starring Josh Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson. Conspiracy theories regarding the case abound, but still no confirmed killer.
Jimmy Hoffa, 1975.
On July 30, 1975, Teamsters leader James R. Hoffa was last seen outside a suburban Detroit restaurant. He has not been seen since, and as of July 30,1982 has been presumed dead. Ever since, speculation about what happened to the fiery 62 year old union leader has run wild. Rumors about who killed him and why have abounded, as have a plethora of places his body is alleged to have been hidden or disposed of. Is he buried under the Giants stadium at the Meadowlands? Or under tons of concrete at a Detroit building site? Eaten up by acid, sunk in the ocean or Lake Huron? If anyone knows, no proof has been found yet. Rumors of Hoffa’s involvement with the assassination of John and Bobby Kennedy just will not go away, and rumors of the Kennedy family having something to do with Hoffa’s disappearance will not disappear either. A self described hit man, Richard Kuklinski, has claimed to have murdered Hoffa, burned his body in a drum, put the drum in a car and had the car compacted into a small block, then shipped to Japan to be melted into scrap metal. Other reports of alleged burial sites have been investigated and no trace of Hoffa’s body has been found. As with the other cases listed here, the Hoffa disappearance and presumed murder has generated numerous books, movie and television treatment, notably the 2019 film, The Irishman, starring Robert DeNiro in the title role and Al Pacino as the ill-fated union leader.
Torso Murders, 1935-1938.
A minimum of 12and as many as 20 murders from 1935 to 1938 by the same murderer, dubbed by the press as “The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run,” where the victim was decapitated and often dismembered remain unsolved. Male victims were also castrated, adding to the gruesome cachet of the crimes. Cleveland Safety Director Eliot Ness (yes, the one from the Untouchables) was dogged by pressure to catch the murderer but the murders have never been solved. It has been speculated that another dozen or two murders in Pennsylvania and other places may be attributable to the same maniac. Plenty of books and cultural references have been made to these gruesome killings of hoboes and poor people. The Cleveland Police Department Museum has a display about the crimes and you can find photos on the internet of some of the victims. A 2018 movie about the crimes, The Kingsbury Run, is on this author’s list of films to see.
Jack the Ripper, 1888-1891.
Probably the most infamous murderer in history, Jack the Ripper, architect of “The Whitechapel Murders” remains the topic of an incredible amount of speculation and conspiracy theories, providing fodder for untold numbers of books, movies and television episodes. His habit of slicing and dicing his victim’s and perhaps even engaging in some cannibalism fuels the fires of the public imagination. The Ripper is believed to have killed at least 5 women, although speculation about other murders of the time and vicinity have been attributed to him as well. (We are assuming the “him,” but of course, it could well have been a “her,” as we do not really know.) Without any doubt, Jack the Ripper has been for over a hundred years now the world’s most well-known unknown serial killer. The number of books, graphic novels, and films on the murderer far surpass any other, although his real identify remains a mystery. The number of suspects offered are legion and tickle the fancy of professional and popular historians alike. The reason for such interest almost assuredly stems from the brutal nature of his crimes and the infamous letters with which the alleged killer apparently taunted the press, the police, and the public. Jack taunted authorities by sending letters, providing clues but never enough information to identify the killer, the most famous of which follows:
Jack sent his famous letter to George Lusk, thus the alternate name of the letter, “The Lusk Letter.”
I send you half the Kidne I took from one woman prasarved it for you tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise. I may send you the bloody knif that took it out if you only wate a whil longer
Catch me when you can Mishter Lusk”
The police had received numerous, hundreds, of letters and cards claiming to be from the infamous murderer, but this one in particular has more credibility than the others because of including the half of a human kidney from victim Catherine Eddowes, the other half kidney he claimed to have eaten! This particular letter of the 1000 or so received is different than the others, although 2 other letters in particular are often given some credibility as possibly being from the actual murderer, namely, the “Dear Boss” letter” and the “Saucy Jacky” postcard. Was there actually more than one murderer given credit for being Jack the Ripper? Did the Ripper kill more than the 5 women usually considered the “canonical 5?”
JonBenet Ramsey, 1996.
A child beauty queen of only 6 years of age, her unusual name and haunting beauty have captured the American attention like few other single murders. Found dead in her family’s home on Christmas morning only adds to the terrible aura surrounding the murder. After reporting the girl missing, her father allegedly found her body in the basement of the family home (why did he not look there prior to reporting her missing?). She had been strangled with a garotte, with a fractured skull as well. Odd circumstances and rampant speculation have fueled the fires of conspiracy theories, mostly concerning the victim’s own family and their cozy relationship with the local law enforcement authorities. The creepiness of painting up and dressing a little girl like an adult fashion queen has certainly added to the distrust of the parents of the little victim. Suspects range from JonBenet’s 9 year old brother (at the time) to her mother or father, to unknown intruder(s) to a sexual predator that may have been living in the area of the Ramsey home (as at least 38 known sexual predators lived within a 2 mile radius!). John and Patsy Ramsey, the parents of the victim, were hounded by an insatiable press and conspiracy theorists to the point that numerous lawsuits were filed over harassment and slander/libel. Patsy Ramsey died in 2006 at the age of only 49, the victim of ovarian cancer. The case has received the expected flood of books, articles, movie and television treatment.
Question for students (and subscribers): What case do you consider the greatest murder mystery? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Badal, James. In the Wake of the Butcher: Cleveland’s Torso Murders. The Kent State University Press, 2014.
Brandt, Charles. I Heard You Paint Houses. Steerforth, 2016.
Eatwell, Piu. Black Dahlia, Red Rose: The Crime, Corruption, and Cover-Up of America’s Greatest Unsolved Murder. Liveright, 2018.
Graysmith, Robert. Zodiac: The Shocking True Story of the Hunt for the Nation’s Most Elusive Serial Killer. Berkley, 2007.
Singular, Stephen. Presumed Guilty: An Investigation of the JonBenet Ramsey Case, the Media, and the Culture of Pornography. Amazon Digital Services, 2016.
Sugden, Phillip. The Complete History of Jack the Ripper. Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2002.
The featured image in this article, a sketch of the Zodiac Killer by the San Francisco Police Department, was created by a government unit (including state, county, city, and municipal government agencies) that derives its powers from the laws of the State of California and is subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act (Government Code § 6250 et seq.). It is a public record that was not created by an agency which state law has allowed to claim copyright and is therefore in the public domain in the United States.