Can a person be famous when we don’t even know who they are? Absolutely. In fact, some of the most legendary figures in history are either unidentified or, in some cases, may never actually have existed at all. The stories of these unlikely personalities remind us of how much we still don’t know about history. From Jack the Ripper to the true story of Nicolas Flamel, these 7 mysterious historical figures will surprise you, and send you down a rabbit hole of fact and fiction…
Count Saint Germain
In the middle of the 18th century, a figure appeared in the highest societies of Europe. He went by many names, including the Comte de Saint Germain, Count Weldon, Chevalier Schoening, and the Marquis de Montferrat. He claimed to be over 500 years old, and astounded the nobility with his achievements in science, alchemy, philosophy, and the arts. Voltaire once called him, “A man who does not die, and who knows everything.” Yet we know surprisingly little about him, including his real name. In the years before his apparent demise, he claimed to be the son of Prince Francis II Rakoczi of Transylvania. Since then, he has figured prominently in innumerable stories and video games, which often imply that he was a vampire. Among these are the Castlevania video game series and anime and a long-running series of novels by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro in which Saint Germain is the primary character.
An Athenian philosopher who lived circa 470 BCE, Socrates has been credited as the founder of Western philosophy. Despite this, he left no written records, and almost everything we know of him comes not from Socrates directly, but from the writings of his students, forcing us to posthumously attempt to reconstruct a life from the portrait of him left behind in the writings of later figures such as Plato and Xenophon. Making matters more difficult, the accounts from Socrates’ students and contemporaries do not always agree and are sometimes even contradictory—a fact that has become known as the “Socratic problem.”
Dandara dos Palmares
During Brazil’s colonial history, which spanned from 1500 to 1815 CE, much of the work was performed by slaves brought over from India and Africa. In this time, there was a place called Palmares, where escaped slaves could live in freedom. And the last queen of this free nation was a mysterious warrior known as Dandara. She is said to have been an expert in capoeira, a hunter, and a farmer. Though not much is known about her life, she and her husband, King Zumbi, are regarded as folk heroes for their resolute defiance of slavery. It is said that, when Palmares fell to the Portuguese, Dandara committed suicide rather than returning to a life of slavery.
No, he wasn’t just a character in Harry Potter, although his presence there is actually a good microcosm of why he’s on this list. Something of an oddity, we actually do know quite a bit about the life of this 14th-century scribe. The mysteries surrounding Flamel come only after his demise. While the real historical figure lived in Paris until around 1418 CE, he attained fame posthumously, when several 17th century writers claimed that Flamel was not merely an alchemist, but that he had actually discovered the legendary philosopher’s stone and achieved immortality. Though these claims were questioned as soon as they began, Flamel became a major figure in alchemical circles, with several important works ascribed to him, despite the fact that he was not only long dead, but had probably never been an alchemist at all. So, the mystery around Flamel is less about who he really was than about where the legends about his alchemical accomplishments came from—and why.
Jack the Ripper
We know him by his bloody deeds, but despite considerable speculation and “gull chasing” over the years, we may never know the truth about the identity of the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper. He claimed at least five victims, but who was he? Were his crimes even the work of a single person, or several? What were his motives—and why did his slayings cease? These crimes, which occurred in 1888 in and around London’s Whitechapel neighborhood, have become the stuff of legend, thanks in part to extensive media coverage at the time, and the persisting mystery of Jack the Ripper’s identity remains perhaps the most notorious unsolved crime in history.
The Man in the Iron Mask
Like Jack the Ripper, the Man in the Iron Mask is a figure whose fame is rivaled only by his mystery, since we still don’t even know who he really was. In fact, his mask probably wasn’t even made of iron, though odds are this prisoner during the reign of King Louis XIV probably did have his face covered whenever he was seen, so as to preserve the secret of his identity. What we know is that a single male prisoner was held for some 34 years, across several prisons, and even buried under a false name when he died behind bars. Was he a failed assassin? Louis XIV’s twin brother? No one knows, and the mystery of the prisoner’s identity has led to countless instances of speculation, both among historians and in fiction, most notably in the stories of Alexandre Dumas.
D. B. Cooper
In 1971, a man identifying himself as Dan Cooper boarded a flight from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington. Along the way, he told the stewardess that he had a bomb, hijacking the plane and demanding $200,000 in ransom money. Once he had the cash in hand, however, he parachuted out of the plane and was never seen again, making his legendary hijacking the only unsolved piece of air piracy in the history of commercial aviation. Despite an extensive manhunt, and even the recovery of some of the ransom money, no trace of the man who called himself Dan Cooper was ever discovered. Even his name is buried in layers of mystery, for while the moniker of Dan Cooper was almost certainly a pseudonym to start with, reporters at the time misunderstood the name, leading to his being called D. B. Cooper in the press, a misnomer that has stuck ever since.