Martha Tabram

In the early morning hours of Aug. 7, 1888, a London resident noticed a woman lying on a stair landing in his apartment building. He assumed she was a vagrant, and another hour passed before someone discovered she was dead — she had been stabbed 39 times in the body and neck.

Was Martha Tabram an early victim of Jack the Ripper? Like Jack’s other victims, she was a poor prostitute knifed in the early morning in a secluded but public area in Whitechapel. (Jack struck first on Aug. 31.) But Martha’s throat was not cut nor her body eviscerated, as Jack’s “canonical” victims’ were, and an autopsy suggested a weapon longer and stouter than Jack’s.

Martha’s murder was never solved. If Jack didn’t kill her — who did?

See also Långrocken.


One day in March 1922, German farmer Andreas Gruber told two neighbors of a curious discovery. He had found traces in the snow leading from the forest to his farm, but none leading back. He’d also found a strange newspaper. The neighbors dismissed his story, and Gruber didn’t contact the police.

Four days later, when Gruber’s granddaughter failed to appear at school, some neighbors trekked to his farm. There they found six mutilated corpses: Gruber’s entire family and a female farmhand had been murdered with a pickaxe. An autopsy showed that the 7-year-old granddaughter had been badly injured in the attack but survived for several hours. She had lain in the straw amid the bodies of her family, pulling out her hair in tufts as she died.

That’s the whole story. Police have interviewed more than 100 suspects, one as recently as 1986, but to this day no one knows who killed Andreas Gruber’s family or why.

“Bella in the Wych-Elm”
Image: Wikipedia

In April 1943, four young boys were exploring the woods near England’s Wychbury Hill when one climbed a large wych hazel in search of birds’ nests.

To his horror, inside the hollow trunk he found a human skull, hair and teeth. Investigation showed that the tree contained a nearly complete human skeleton, a shoe and some fragments of clothing. A human hand was found buried nearby.

The war effort prevented the English authorities from making a full investigation, but a pathologist estimated that the woman had been asphyxiated 18 months earlier and that her body was still warm when it was entombed in the tree.

But that’s as far as they got. The woman’s identity — and that of her killer — remain unknown.

The Somerton Man

On Dec. 1, 1948, a bather discovered a body on the beach near Adelaide, Australia. The man appeared to be European, about 45 years old, well dressed, and in excellent physical condition. Indeed, the coroner could not determine a cause of death. Still more strangely, it seemed the man had carried no money, and all identifying marks had been removed from his clothes. Apparently he had left a suitcase at the Adelaide railway station, but it contained no useful clues. Photos and fingerprints were circulated throughout the English-speaking world, but no one identified him.

And the body bore one last strange clue: In a trouser fob pocket, one of the investigators found a tiny piece of paper bearing the words “Taman Shud.” Those are the final words in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; they mean “The End.” A local doctor came forward with a copy of that book, from which the words had been clipped. He had found it tossed on the front seat of his car the day before the body was found.

But even that clue went nowhere. To this day, no one knows who the man was or how he died. He’s known only as the Somerton man.

Bad News for Counterfeiters

If you’ve tried to photocopy banknotes since about 1996, you may have found that your copier won’t cooperate — many machines will balk if they detect a pattern of symbols like the one on the left. Eight such patterns are marked on the U.S. $20 bill at right.

The authorities have been understandably mum about the details, but the pattern has been discovered on more than 30 world currencies. It’s known as the EURion constellation.

The Gävle Goats

There are good Swedes and bad Swedes. The good ones build a three-ton straw goat every Christmas, and the bad ones try to burn it down. This has happened almost every year since 1966, when the first goat went up in flames on New Year’s Eve. The forces of good have brought in police guards, webcams, soldiers, volunteers, and dogs, but the bad guys have usually won. In 1976 the goat was even run over by a car.

What all this means is a question for sociologists, but it’s become a local industry. In 1988 English bookmakers began laying odds on the goat’s prospects, and now “goat committees” stock up on flame retardant and extra straw. They’re up against a tough foe, though: In 40 years of struggle, only four arsonists have been caught.

“Singular Expedient”

A strange story is that related in a paper on ‘English and Irish Juries,’ in All the Year Round. The president judge in the case, Sir James Dyce, chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas, astonished at the verdict of acquittal in so plain a case, sought an interview with the foreman, who, having previously obtained a promise of secrecy during his lifetime, confessed that he had killed the man in a struggle in self-defence, and said that he had caused himself to be placed on the jury in order to insure his acquittal.

— Charles Bombaugh, Facts and Fancies for the Curious From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, 1905


In 1911, Argentine con man Eduardo de Valfierno found a way to steal the Mona Lisa six times over at no risk to himself.

First he made private deals with six separate buyers to steal and deliver the priceless painting. Then he hired a professional art restorer to make six fakes, and shipped them in advance to the buyers’ locales (to avoid later trouble with customs).

In August he paid a thief to steal the original from the Louvre, and when news of the theft had spread he delivered the six fakes to their recipients, exacting a high price for each. Then he quietly disappeared. The flummoxed thief was soon caught trying to sell the red-hot original, and it was returned to the museum in 1913.

05/27/2020 UPDATE: This is false but extraordinarily widely retailed. The painting was stolen in 1911 by an Italian criminal named Vincenzo Peruggia, but the original was recovered and returned to the Louvre two years later. There is no evidence that Valfierno ever existed, and none of the six supposed copies has ever surfaced. The myth was conceived by a writer named Karl Decker and retailed as fact in a 1932 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, which was still havering equivocally as to its falsity as recently as 2013.

Table for One

Last meals:

  • Ted Bundy: Steak (medium rare), eggs over easy, hash browns, coffee. (He refused it.)
  • John Wayne Gacy: Fried chicken, fried shrimp, french fries, fresh strawberries.
  • Gary Gilmore: Hamburger, eggs, a baked potato, coffee, three shots of whiskey.
  • Timothy McVeigh: Two pints of Ben & Jerry’s mint chocolate-chip ice cream.
  • Adolf Eichmann: Half a bottle of Carmel, a dry red Israeli wine.
  • Bruno Hauptmann: Celery, olives, chicken, french fries, buttered peas, cherries, and a slice of cake.

Victor Feguer, executed in 1963 for shooting a doctor, asked for a single olive.

Sorry, Wrong Fugitive

In December 1974, Australian police arrested a man they believed was Lord Lucan, a British peer who had fled a murder investigation in London.

They were mistaken. It wasn’t Lord Lucan — it was British MP John Stonehouse, who had faked his suicide a month earlier.