This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library Image from the history picture library

Subject: ‘Mystery’

All of these articles and images are available for licensing: click on an image to see further details and licensing options; contact us about licensing textual content.

The Man in the Velvet Mask still guards some of history’s secrets

Posted in Historical articles, History, Literature, Mystery, Royalty on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about the Man in the velvet/iron mask first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 598 published on 30 June 1973.

Man in velvet mask,  picture, image, illustration
English rebel, son of a king or a minor Italian nobleman — who was the Man in the Mask held in the Bastille? Picture by Neville Dear

On an early autumn afternoon in 1698, a litter, with curtains tightly drawn, was carried into the Bastille, the formidable fortress on the east side of Paris. The great gates closed behind it with that deep, resonant boom the litter’s occupant knew only too well.

Hands drew the curtains aside, and he stepped out into the courtyard.

He paused for a moment, his eyes scanning the high stone towers that reared up above him.

The heavy velvet mask that covered his face was beginning to itch: he longed to remove it, but he knew that the Sieur de Saint-Mars, his jailer for nearly thirty years, was standing too close by, and was watching him intently. If he tore off the mask to let fresh air reach his prickling skin, Saint-Mars might kill him where he stood, just as he had once threatened him with death if he attempted to tell anyone what he knew.

That evening, when the masked man was safely locked away inside his cell, Saint-Mars sent word to King Louis XIV’s Minister for War that France’s most secret, most confidential state prisoner was once more safe from curious eyes. As ordered, no one had been allowed to scrutinise or recognise him on the long journey north from the Isle de Ste Marguerite.

On that journey, a few peasants had had a glimpse of the prisoner when he and Saint-Mars had stopped at a chateau near Villeneuve. But all they had seen was a tall, long-haired man, anonymous and faceless behind his ever-present mask.

Almost two centuries passed before anyone was able to enlarge on this flimsy evidence, and give the mysterious prisoner a name. But during that time, speculation bred a whole range of ingenious theories, and also made the velvet mask into something truly sinister.

It was Voltaire who first suggested that it had “springs of steel.” From there, it grew into the cruel restricting mask of iron, of which Dumas wrote in his novel “The Man in the Iron Mask” (1848-1850).

Dumas, like Voltaire, named the prisoner as the twin brother of Louis XIV. He was also identified, however, with various French and English noblemen, the playwright Moliere, and perhaps more reasonably, with a man known to have been a political prisoner of Louis XIV.

This was Ercole Matthioli, envoy of the Duke of Mantua, who had deeply angered Louis in 1679 when he betrayed the French king’s secret purchase of a Mantuan fortress: in revenge, Louis had Matthioli kidnapped and imprisoned.

A less dramatic, but far more likely candidate than any of these was Eustache Dauger, who was named in 1890 by biographer Jules Lair. Forty years later, in 1930, the historian Maurice Duvivier pieced together Dauger’s history which, as far as official records are concerned, ended abruptly in 1668.

Read the rest of this article »

The haunting enigma of Kaspar Hauser

Posted in Historical articles, History, Mystery, Oddities on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about Kaspar Hauser first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 595 published on 9 June 1973.

Kaspar Hauser,  picture, image, illustration
The seventeen-year-old Kaspar Hauser arriving in the city of Nuremberg by Andrew Howat

Kaspar Hauser staggered into the house, moaning with pain, his hand pressed hard against his left side. There, a deep red stain was already spreading out, discolouring his padded jacket.

Appalled at the sight of his pupil in this piteous state, Dr Mayer rushed over to him. Faint words gasped disjointedly from Kaspar’s lips. All Dr Mayer could make out were “garden,” “man,” “purse” and “stabbed.”

These were among the last words Kaspar spoke. But before he died three days later, on December 17, 1833, he did manage to tell Dr Mayer that his killer had lured him into the public gardens at Ansbach with the promise that he would at last learn who his parents were.

This was a puzzle which had teased people all over Germany for more than five years.

Kaspar Hauser had appeared in a Nuremberg square on May 28, 1828, when he was found leaning against a wall dazed and incoherent. He staggered about rather than walked, could not bear strong light on his eyes, and at first could eat nothing but bread and water.

The only clues about him lay in a letter he carried and the phrases he kept repeating, “I want to be a soldier like my father” and “horse, horse.” He spoke mechanically without real understanding, something which tied in with the distinctly odd upbringing that was revealed in the letter.

In October 1812, Kaspar, then six months old, was left at the house of the letter-writer, a poor labourer, who kept him confined and alone for the next sixteen years.

The only instructions the labourer received from Kaspar’s mother were to keep him until he was 17, then send him to Nuremberg to the Sixth Cavalry Regiment in which the boy’s dead father had once served.

Kaspar was hardly the most promising of recruits. When he was taken to the Nuremberg police and imprisoned by them as a vagrant, he spent his time either sleeping or sitting on the floor staring into space.

In this state he was a fascinating exhibit for the sightseers who came in their hundreds to gawp at him in his prison cell. To them Kaspar was a curiosity more compelling than any animal in the town zoo.

Certain more humane councillors of Nuremberg were offended by this, and decided in July 1828 that the boy should be properly cared for and educated: only in this way, they felt, could anything definite be learned about him.

Read the rest of this article »

The dashing life and disappearance of Colonel Percy Fawcett

Posted in Adventure, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Mystery on Saturday, 15 March 2014

This edited article about the Matto Grosso mystery first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 590 published on 5 May 1973.

Colonel Fawcett,  picture, image, illustration
Colonel Percy Fawcett being worshipped as a white prince deep in the Matto Grosso by Oliver Frey

Everybody wanted to go. The fact that Commander George Dyott, a seasoned explorer, was planning a new expedition seemed to have taken America by storm. From doctors, actors, prize fighters and steeplejacks, the applications poured in. One would-be explorer even wrote hopefully from prison.

What was the reason for the excitement? It was simply that the news had got out that Dyott had sworn to solve the great mystery of the 1920s. He was going to Brazil to find out, once and for all, what had happened to Colonel Fawcett.

Fifty years ago, the name of Percy Harrison Fawcett was a household word. He was a legendary figure who fully justified the sensational stories newspapers were always printing about him. A one-time regular officer in the British army, he had become fascinated by South America. Between 1906 and the outbreak of World War I he had taken part in no less than five expeditions up the Amazon and into unknown parts of Bolivia and Brazil.

Huge, tireless, proof against any tropical disease, he always found it difficult to find companions who were tough enough to keep up the heart-stopping cross country pace that was Fawcett’s idea of a gentle ramble.

“What was Fawcett going to do next?” people had always asked. And it had been a good question, for the colonel was no ordinary man. Quite apart from his physical strength, he was exceptionally talented in other ways. He was a good enough artist to be shown at London’s Royal Academy, a navigator, a linguist, and a boat builder. Looking back on him today, he seems to have had only one flaw: he would believe almost anything.

This curious weakness was largely due to his own integrity. Nothing could have persuaded Fawcett to tell a lie, and he found it impossible to believe that other men could be less scrupulous. Something of this characteristic can be judged from the colonel’s hilarious meeting with a cheerful Australian rogue who wanted a job that entailed riding a horse.

The Australian swore that not only could he ride, but that for years he had been the star of a Wild West show. The fact that he subsequently fell off his horse if it even walked, made everyone roar with laughter, except Fawcett, who was just puzzled. He would never have made a false claim, so why should anyone else?

Probably nobody but Colonel Fawcett would have been prepared to believe that the survivors of the lost island of Atlantis existed in the fabled land of Eldorado, deep in the unexplored depths of Brazil’s Matto Grosso. It was too obviously a traveller’s tale, hopelessly far-fetched. But having heard the story, it was typical of the great explorer that he should rapidly convince himself that it was true. And so in 1925 he set out on an expedition to the fabled land of gold, expecting the trip to last two years. He was accompanied by his son, Jack, and Jack’s friend, Raleigh Rimmell.

Striding into the jungle, they left civilisation behind them – and vanished for good.

Read the rest of this article »

The mystery of Extra-Sensory Perception remains baffling

Posted in Historical articles, Mystery, Oddities on Thursday, 13 March 2014

This edited article about telepathy first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 588 published on 21 April 1973.

Fortune teller, picture, image, illustration
A fortune teller reading the tea leaves

“Last call for Flight 709 to Rome! Will all passengers for Flight 709 have their boarding passes ready please!”

In the queue of passengers making their way to the waiting jetliner a man suddenly hesitates, white faced, then falls out of line.

An airline official hurries up to him. “Are you all right, sir?”

The man nods. “Yes, thanks. Changed my mind, that’s all. Think I’ll go another day.” How can he explain that he has just had a frighteningly realistic mental picture of a plane, his plane, crashing into a mountain and vanishing in a torrent of searing flame? It would sound ridiculous. Even the man himself cannot understand the strange dread that grips him, willing him to stay at home. But stay at home he does, and when he sees a newspaper placard that evening that says Jet Crashes in Alps he knows without asking that it was Flight 709. He knows because he was warned.

But how?

It is a question men were asking each other long before the jet plane was invented. For centuries men have sought to discover the explanation for the strange way that, every so often, people seem to be able to overcome space and time to know things that, logically, they can have no means of knowing. This strange gift is known today as Extra Sensory Perception, or E.S.P. And the search for the truth about it has baffled some of the best brains in the world.

For purposes of investigation, E.S.P. has been closely defined. It includes Telepathy, Clairvoyance, Precognition and Psychokinesis. Complex names for surprisingly common happenings, if reports are true.

Telepathy refers to the apparently magical manner in which one person can pass information on to another. Thus a man may look at a playing card and by means of some kind of thought wave, communicate the information to someone else.

Clairvoyance needs no second man or “agent.” The clairvoyant person simply knows what cards lie on the table in the next room.

Precognition is the knowledge of events that will happen in the future, and Psychkinesis describes the movements of objects by mental energy alone.

E.S.P. is a modern term, but in days gone by it went by a variety of names: Second Sight, Fortune Telling, Magic and Witchcraft. Plenty of men and women sought its secrets, and not a few of them ended up by being burnt at the stake for their pains.

Read the rest of this article »

The search for the ‘Abominable Snowman’ is not yet over

Posted in Adventure, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Legend, Mystery, Myth, Superstition on Saturday, 8 March 2014

This edited article about Yeti first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 586 published on 7 April 1973.

The Abominable Snowman,  picture, image, illustration
The Abominable Snowman

Only desperate men would have been wandering among the high passes of the Himalayas in winter, but Slavomir Rawicz and his handful of gaunt companions comforted themselves with the thought that the Indian frontier and freedom could not be far away. The year was 1942, and the little group of Polish officers was nearing the end of one of the epic marches of World War II. One-time prisoners of the Russians, the Poles had broken out of their prison camp and had made their way across the pitiless wastes of Mongolia until they had reached the “Roof of the World” that lay between them and their goal. Suddenly Rawicz gave a warning signal. It was unbelievable in those desolate wastes, but there were two men ahead.

Men? The escapers started wide eyed. What kind of men stood more than seven feet tall? Or tramped naked through the snow and biting wind, their huge bodies covered with coarse hair? The watchers kept silent until the weird figures moved away. Later, when they reached their destination, they recounted what they had seen.

“Those were not men,” they were told. “Those were Yeti.”

“Yeti?” Strangers to the East, the Poles had never heard the name before. Nor could they know that they may well have seen the fabled creature that some of the finest mountaineers in the world would soon be tracking in vain.

Some called the creature the Yeti. Others, the Abominable Snowman. Or Kangmi, or Bhanjakris or Rakshi. The monster had many names. But, legend apart, did it really exist?

The long quest for the Yeti has much in common with the search for Flying Saucers. A terrifying, hairy giant, whose favourite haunts are the slopes of Mount Everest, the Yeti is reputed to have been seen by scores of men, ranging from the inhabitants of remote Buddhist monasteries to British army officers. But just like the elusive Flying Saucer, it manages to avoid direct scientific observation. Yet most descriptions of the Yeti follow roughly the same pattern, even in legends that go back hundreds of years.

Read the rest of this article »

The lost treasure of Lima is hidden on Cocos Island

Posted in Historical articles, History, Mystery, Ships on Thursday, 27 February 2014

This edited article about Cocos Island first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 572 published on 30 December 1972.

Mary Dear at Lima,  picture, image, illustration
In 1823, the Mary Dear was filled with gold from Peru and Spanish nobles – only to be murdered by William Thompson, the captain of the ship, and his crew, by Barrie Linklater

An island bristling with hidden pirate treasure has been the target of adventurers for over a hundred years. It’s Cocos island in the Pacific which was the bolt hole of countless pirate ships whose spoils were buried on this haven of wealth off the west coast of South America.

Sailors, convicts, admirals, a racing driver, aristocrats and even a president of the United States have tried to find the treasure.

Lives have been ruined, possessions lost and maps and charts re-drawn in the eternal quest for the island’s riches.

But, still the lonely and uninhabited reef keeps the bulk of its treasure. This is not surprising, for it is a nightmare island with torrid heat, incessant rain and plagues of ants.

For most of the coastline, sheer rock faces make access impossible. There are only two small bays, where the jungle comes right down to the shoreline. Cocoa trees, climbing plants and tall wiry pampas grass make journeys into the interior painfully slow.

Yet, despite the constant failure of the treasure hunters, people are still drawn to this island, only eight miles in circumference. They are lured by the prospect of riches somewhere within the jungle, and encouraged by the fact that it is only 350 miles from the American mainland. This made it a convenient refuge for people wishing to escape the bloodthirsty fighting in the rich South American colonies as they strove for independence from Spain.

The first treasure cache is said to have been made in 1684 by the remarkable pirate Edward Davis. He was the supreme commander of more than 1,000 pirates and, apart from plundering many Spanish ships, he led a series of daring raids on rich South American cities, capturing and looting several. Seven boat loads of bullion, jewels and pieces-of-eight were hidden on the island by Davis, but when, 18 years later, he returned to Cocos to recover it he disappeared, and was not heard of again.

An equally enterprising Portuguese rogue, called Don Pedro, next appears on the scene, and the year 1820 saw his greatest triumph.

He and his men sailed from Cocos to Central America in good time for the annual gold shipment from Mexico to the port of Acapulco. Disguised as muleteers, they gradually joined the teams already helping the convoy over the difficult, mountainous roads until their comrades were ready to waylay them. The surprise was complete and, with enemies apparently on all sides the escorting soldiers were soon overcome. Even then, the convoy was worth the staggering sum of eleven million dollars.

Don Pedro and his crew made good their escape and returned to Cocos Island. There the treasure was divided into three parts – for officers, crew, and Don Pedro himself. The latter hid his in a cave, but within weeks he was captured by the Spanish and he hanged himself rather than be taken alive.

Yet, the biggest and most valuable hoard was yet to come. Only a year or so after Don Pedro’s visit to the island, the great city of Lima, in Peru, was besieged by rebels, and the Spanish viceroy had to consider what to do with the city’s wealth.

Lima was the richest city in the whole of South America. Inca gold, sackfuls of jewels, the produce of the silver mines, church treasures; all these and more, said to be worth twenty million pounds, needed to be safeguarded. So great was the wealth of the area, that the local nobility had carriages with silver-rimmed wheels and mules shod with silver shoes.

Who could be trusted with such an immense hoard? Providentially, as the guns thundered nearer, an answer to this question seemed to be at hand. The English two-masted brig from Bristol, the “Mary Dear”, anchored in the bay and her Captain, William Thompson was known to be an upright and reliable man.

Read the rest of this article »

Captain Kidd took the secret of his buried treasure to the gallows

Posted in Historical articles, History, Mystery, Sea, Ships on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about Captain William Kidd first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 570 published on 16 December 1972.

Kidd and his treasure,  picture, image, illustration
Captain Kidd's treasure was said to have been buried on a rocky island in the Salvage Group, off the west coast of Africa, by Roger Payne

One of the world’s most mysterious and baffling treasure hunts started on a dull May evening in the grim surroundings of the condemned cell at Newgate prison.

William Kidd had been pacing up and down furiously all afternoon, his brain scheming away until finally he came to a decision. He had been condemned to death for piracy and had only two days to live. It was time to play his trump card – he would offer his hoard of buried treasure in exchange for his life.

Calling for pen, ink and paper, he sat down to compose the letter on which his life depended. “In the Indies, I have lodged goods and treasure to the value of one hundred thousand pounds,” he wrote, and went on to plead for a ship to be sent to rescue the treasure, whose location was known only to himself. “If I fail,” he added, “I desire no favour but to be forthwith executed according to my sentence.”

Kidd’s last, desperate attempt failed and he was hanged at Execution Dock, Wapping, on May 23, 1701. But his letter, which can still be seen at the British Museum, started a mammoth treasure hunt which has seen false clues misleading seekers all over the world. Some of his treasure had been hidden at Gardiner’s Island, off the coast of North America, and this was swiftly recovered; 200 bars of gold and silver, hundreds of diamonds, 1,000 ounces of gold dust and other valuable items were, in fact, returned to the Government. But did Captain Kidd have an even greater hoard, which is still waiting to be found? Many people believe that he did, and the answers can perhaps be found in his exciting and adventurous career as the Captain of a Privateer.

William Kidd is believed to have been born in 1645 at Greenock in Scotland. He was the son of a parson but his longing for adventure soon took him to sea and over the years he gained a fine reputation as a brave man and an adventurous seaman. He had married a widow in New York and apparently settled down to the life of a prosperous seaman and merchant when suddenly he decided on the venture which was to end in disaster.

Kidd accepted the offer of leading a voyage to the pirate-infested waters of the Indian Ocean, but he was to go there with the authority of the British Government to try to rid the area of some of its pirates. To do so, he obtained a special warrant from William III and set off from Plymouth as Captain of the privateer “Adventure.”

Read the rest of this article »

Joshua Slocum saw a spectral Pilot on board the Spray

Posted in Historical articles, History, Mystery, Sea, Ships on Tuesday, 18 February 2014

This edited article about maritime mysteries first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 556 published on 9 September 1972.

Joshua Slocum,  picture, image, illustration
Joshua Slocum claimed to have seen a spectre on board the sloop, Spray, in 1895 by Graham Coton

He was not a man given to fantasies. Not the sort of man, for an instance, likely to imagine that he had seen a ghost. Rather the reverse. Master mariners who spend most of their lives on the sea are generally practical sort of men, whose only acquaintance with spirits is usually with those found in a bottle in some tavern ashore: Joshua Slocum certainly belonged to this breed, which makes it all the more strange that he saw what he did while sailing single handed around the world.

As a sailor, Slocum had done it all, from being a lowly deck hand to becoming the master of his own barque. But the barque had been shipwrecked, leaving him penniless. After that he had toiled quietly away in a Boston shipyard until a friend, the captain of a whaler, had made him a present of a sloop called the Spray. The gift was not as generous as it might seem, for the Spray had been beached for seven years and was now practically falling apart.

It didn’t matter. Slocum now had a sloop of his own, or at least, enough of one to make it a seaworthy vessel. And he didn’t even need money for that. All that he needed were his two strong arms and time. First he personally felled a great oak tree to make a new keel and ribs for the rotting hulk that was in the shipyard.

Thirteen months later the Spray was as good as new. But that perhaps is an exaggeration. What Slocum now had was a perfectly seaworthy vessel with years of good service ahead of it, but for all that it was not really the sort of boat that any sensible man would have thought of setting off in to sail around the world.

And that is precisely what Slocum did. On July 1st, 1895, he put forth from Newport, Rhode Island, U.S.A., to make a journey that no man had done before alone, although a Spanish crew had sailed around the world in the 16th century.

It was a lonely as well as a dangerous venture, even for a stolid man like Slocum, who was used to his own company. Not that he was completely cut off from social intercourse all the time. Calling at the island of Fayal in the Azores, he was greeted like visiting royalty. Plums as well as other fruit and an enormous white cheese were ceremoniously presented to him, and a young woman offered to accompany him as his cook and general help for the rest of the voyage. Politely declining the offer, Slocum took on board his gifts and sailed away – next stop Gibraltar.

It was then that Slocum did something foolish. Instead of carefully conserving his fruit for as long as he could, he settled down to gorge himself on plums and cheese. Inevitably he was soon bent double with the most agonising stomach cramps.

To make matters worse a strong breeze blew up and it was clear to an experienced sailor like Slocum that a major storm was in the offing. Falling about the deck, bent double with pain, Slocum adjusted his sails and then lashed the helm. Feeling more dead than alive he then staggered down to his cabin, where he collapsed on the floor in a dead faint.

Read the rest of this article »

The sea-serpent of Gloucester was sighted far and wide

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Legend, Mystery, Sea on Monday, 17 February 2014

This edited article about sea monsters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 555 published on 2 September 1972.

Sea serpent,  picture, image, illustration
A sea-serpent wreaks havoc by Graham Coton

Visitors to Scotland often make their way to Loch Ness, not only to gaze upon the beauty of the scenery but tempted there by the thought that they might be fortunate enough to see the now-famous monster that is thought by some to inhabit the dark waters of the best known of the Scottish lochs. By all accounts many visitors do see the monster. Some claim to have photographed it and the pictures they have produced as evidence have caused considerable controversy. Not only visitors to the Loch claim sightings of “Nessy,” but the locals, too, can claim this honour. Some even are said to have observed it many times.

It would seem by the many sightings reported in the past that the Loch Ness monster has or has had cousins the world over. But judging by descriptions perhaps the creature that most deserves the honour of being Nessy’s closest relative would be the Gloucester sea serpent of America. According to historical records a monster serpent was seen in the harbour of Gloucester in Massachusetts about 30 miles to the north of Boston as well as in the nearby Nahant Bay, from as early as the middle of the 17th century and at various intervals for about the next two hundred years.

The first recorded account of this creature’s appearance occurs in the writings of a Mr. John Josselyn, a visitor to Nahant Bay in 1638. Mr. Josselyn tells of a creature that was seen coiled up on a rock and of an adventurous Englishman who, being on a passing boat at the time, prepared to shoot the beast but was prevented from doing so by an accompanying Indian, who informed the gentleman that to do so would bring them both bad luck.

It was not until 1817 that the Gloucester serpent really drew attention to itself. It would seem that in the summer of that year the monster stayed in the vicinity of Gloucester and Nahant Bay long enough for many people to see it, and even to instill considerable fear into the hearts of the inhabitants of the local towns and villages.

Read the rest of this article »

New Zealand’s most famous jail-breaker simply disappeared

Posted in Historical articles, History, Law, Mystery on Saturday, 15 February 2014

This edited article about New Zealand first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 553 published on 19 August 1972.

New Zealand,  picture, image, illustration
A typical pastoral scene in New Zealand

Some say it was that old lumber jacket valued at no more than £2 which made Dick Humphrys the man he was. This may or may not be true. A man’s character, after all, is formed by many things in his life. But certainly it was that lumber jacket which made him a hunted man who was given no peace until the day he disappeared. It was the lumber jacket, too, which made him a sailor, capable of taking single-handed, a 27 foot auxiliary launch on a voyage of 1,500 miles across one of the most treacherous seas in the world.

On the other hand one must bear in mind that Humphrys had always been a restless man with wild ways that were always landing him in trouble. Not that there was any harm in him. His actions had always been governed by nothing more than a desire to be free of the shackles imposed upon him by a society for which he had little time. He was, in short, the type of man who is known today as a “loner,” a man who prefers his own company to that of others.

So perhaps we can’t blame that old lumber jacket too much for his misfortunes.

The story of Dick Humphrys really starts in the late 1920′s when his family went to make a new life for themselves farming in New Zealand. It was here that he began showing his dislike for authority by playing truant. Some might say that this merely showed that he was lazy. But Humphrys’ truancy was not of the sort which makes a boy stay away from school so that he may fish or play or just laze the hours away. When Humphrys played truant he simply disappeared from home for several days.

The beginning of World War II found him unchanged. Before then he had spent his youth drifting from farm to farm like some restless wanderer looking for some place where he might settle for once and for all. He was never to find that place. As far as we know.

Read the rest of this article »