A CIA Mystery


This is a little embarrassing — the CIA is having trouble decrypting a sculpture on its own grounds.

The piece, called Kryptos, was dedicated 15 years ago by American artist James Sanborn. It’s inscribed with four different messages, each encrypted with a different cipher. Sanborn would say only that the sculpture contains a riddle within a riddle, which will be solvable only after the four passages have been decrypted. He gave the complete solution to CIA director William H. Webster, who has passed it on to his successors.

The first three messages have been solved by CIA analysts, but the fourth — and the final riddle — remains open.

If you don’t want to work on this yourself, you can wait for Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown — reportedly it’s the subject of his next book.

Balloon Mail


Besieged by Prussians in 1870, Paris found a clever way to get mail to the outside world. For 20 centimes you could write a letter on a thin piece of green paper; these were collected and sent hopefully upward on unguided mail balloons. Each 4-gram postcard carried an address; the Parisians hoped that the balloons would drift to earth somewhere and that whoever found the messages would forward them.

It worked. During the four-month siege they sent up 65 balloons, and only two went missing.

“The Eye of Africa”


Early space missions that passed over the featureless Sahara were surprised to see a 30-mile eye staring up at them. No one’s quite sure what it is. It’s too flat to be a crater or a volcano. If it’s simply an uplift laid bare by erosion, why is it so nearly circular? For now they’re just calling it the Richat Structure.

“The Witch of Wall Street”


If Ebenezer Scrooge were a woman, he’d look like this. Hetty Green (1834-1916) amassed more than $100 million as a shrewd businesswoman, but today she’s remembered mostly for her breathtaking stinginess.

Born into a Massachusetts whaling family, Hetty was reading financial papers to her father at age 6 and keeping the family books at 13. She inherited $7.5 million on her father’s death, and reportedly married only to keep her relatives at bay (she made her fiance sign a prenup). When her husband divorced her and then died, she moved to Hoboken and basically went nuts.

Legends say she never heated her house or used hot water; that she wore one old black dress; that she rode in an old carriage. Rather than pay rent, she sat on the floor of New York’s Seaboard National Bank and ate only oatmeal heated on the office radiator, and she would travel thousands of miles to collect a debt of a few hundred dollars.

Almost no expense was worthwhile. Her son’s leg had to be amputated when she tried to treat him at home. She herself refused treatment for a hernia because it cost $150.

When she died, at age 80, she may have been the richest woman in the world. Unfortunately, you can’t take it with you.

The Ultimate Murder Mystery

On New Year’s Day, 1963, two bodies were found in a lovers’ lane in Sydney, Australia. They belonged to Gilbert Bogle, a top research physicist, and his mistress. Both were partially undressed and covered with clothes and cardboard. Police could find no trace of poison; their hearts had simply stopped beating.

To this day, no one has determined whether they were murdered, and if so, how or why. It is a perfect mystery.

Yap Stone Money

Image: Wikimedia Commons

“The great affair, we always find, is to get money.” So wrote Adam Smith, but he might have been surprised to visit the Micronesian island of Yap, where a coin’s value is determined by its size. If a native pays you a large debt, you might find yourself with a limestone coin 12 feet in diameter and weighing several tons. You might display it outside your home, as a status symbol — or you might just leave it where it is (even underwater) and agree that ownership has been transferred. Easier on the back.

Belated Surrenders

For most Japanese, World War II ended in 1945. But not for some:

  • Shoichi Yokoi, a soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army, was discovered in a remote section of Guam in 1972. He had been hiding in an underground jungle cave for 28 years, refusing to believe leaflets that said the war had ended.
  • 2nd. Lt. Hiroo Onoda hid in the Philippines jungle for 29 years. He finally gave up in 1974, when his old commanding officer convinced him the war was over. He surrendered in his dress uniform and sword, with his Arisaka rifle still in operating condition, 500 rounds of ammunition, and several hand grenades.
  • The last holdout, Capt. Fumio Nakahira of the Japanese Imperial Army, was discovered on Mindoro Island in the Philippines in April 1980 — 35 years after V-J Day.

“It is with much embarrassment that I have returned alive,” Yokoi said on returning to Japan. He got $300 in back pay.

MV Joyita

In 1955, the merchant vessel Joyita disappeared en route from Samoa to the Tokelau Islands, about 270 miles away.

A search and rescue mission found nothing, but five weeks later she was sighted more than 600 miles from her scheduled route. The ship was partially submerged and there was no trace of her 16 crewmembers or 9 passengers, including two children.

An inquiry found that the disappearance of the passengers and crew was “inexplicable on the evidence submitted.” But the Fiji Times and Herald quoted an “impeccable source” saying that the Joyita had passed through a fleet of Japanese fishing boats and “had observed something the Japanese did not want them to see.”

What was it? No one knows.