The 20th century saw numerous developments in the areas of forensics and crime detection. But there were still some murders that defied solution and are still unsolved today. In chronological order, here are five of the most puzzling unsolved murders that have stumped investigators.
1. WILLIAM DESMOND TAYLOR (FEBRUARY 1922)
Hollywood was in its infancy, but the city was already full of crime and drug and alcohol abuse. One man who tried to get the illegal drug trade out of the city was failed actor but successful director William Desmond Taylor. Found one morning with a bullet in his back, Taylor’s death sparked an investigation that unearthed some of Hollywood’s dirtiest secrets. Featured in the scenario were studio executives eager to hush up any sordid details of the crime, an unknown doctor who gave false information about the cause of death, drug-addicted starlets, and an unbelievable confession by an actress more than 40 years after the crime. One of the primary reasons that the crime is unsolved is that movie studio personnel flooded the scene of the crime before the police were called, destroying or tampering with evidence.
2. HALL–MILLS MURDER CASE (SEPTEMBER 1922)
New Brunswick, New Jersey, was a relatively peaceful town where a crime was not a primary concern to the residents. There was gossip about small criminal scandals, but the town law enforcement was not prepared for a puzzling murder investigation that landed in their midst.
One morning the bodies of minister Edward Hall and choir member Eleanor Mills were found beneath a crab apple tree. It was a loosely-kept secret that the couple had been having an affair. The crime scene had been deliberately staged and the bodies were lying serenely next to each other on the ground. Strange features of the crime unearthed themselves. His business card was propped up carefully against his shoe. Her tongue had been removed. He had been shot once and she had been shot three times. Various alleged eye-witnesses came forward but their testimony differed wildly. One witness, later dubbed “the pig lady” changed her story several times. Both spouses of the couple were suspects and the widow and her brothers were eventually brought to trial. They were found not guilty and the investigation never developed any other suspects.
3. THE BLACK DAHLIA (JANUARY 1947)
Twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Short was one of the thousands of young women who came to Hollywood in hopes of becoming a movie star. She aggressively tried to be discovered and pounded the pavements around the film studios in an effort to become famous. She would become famous, but not in the way she had hoped. One morning a woman found her naked body in a vacant lot, neatly cut in half at the waist and a gruesome smile cut into her face from ear to ear.
There were no initial solid suspects even after the contents of her purse were mailed to a local newspaper, presumably by her killer. Eventually, many men were questioned and dismissed. The LAPD police put together what was the largest criminal investigation to date and although many theories were developed, the crime remains unsolved. The case has been of interest to wannabe detectives for almost 70 years. Websites and informal groups are still dedicated to solving the crime.
4. THE TAMAN SHUD CASE (DECEMBER 1948)
Probably the least known case on this list, it is a fascinating mystery nonetheless.
One morning in early December the body of a middle-aged man was found on Somerton beach in Adelaide, Australia. Investigators believed it would be easy to identify the man but soon found that he had no identification on him. A suitcase found near the body di not contain any contents that could assist in making a positive identification. During the search of the body, a small piece of paper with the words “Taman Shud” was found in one of the man’s pockets. This was most likely taken from a poem by Omar Khayyam. Further investigation found a phone number of a woman who declared she knew nothing about the crime or the mysterious man’s identity. The police were frustrated at every turn and the identity of the Somerton Man (who most probably died from poisoning) has never been discovered.
5. JONBENET RAMSEY (DECEMBER 1996)
The murder of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey’s in Boulder, Colorado, continues to be widely discussed today. Initially believed to be a kidnapping, JonBenet’s father found her body in the basement of the family’s palatial home. The investigation turned up a series of bizarre clues, including the fact that the killer wrote a lengthy ransom note while he/she/they were in the house. There were no signs of a break-in. The police did not seal off the crime scene—which allowed friends and family members to inadvertently contaminate the area. The parents were aggressively pursued as suspects but were never charged. A man claimed in 2006 to have committed the crime but police later dismissed this admission. Despite the massive media coverage (which continues to this day) nobody has been charged with the crime.
There are numerous other unsolved murders of the 20th century that did not make this list including Philadelphia’s “Boy in the Box” and the murder of actor Bob Crane, but the above list gives brief glances at cases that continue to fascinate and frustrate law enforcement and amateur sleuths today.