There are many great unsolved mysteries – the identity of Jack the Ripper – the location of Cleopatra’s tomb – or why Yak milk isn’t more popular. None of these can be explained… not yet, at least. And that’s not all. Look at history and we see a handful of people whose lives seem to defy logic. They were walking talking mysteries, ultimately giving us more questions than answers. In short, they are people who can’t be explained.

The Sleeping Girl of Turville

Doctors across Europe were once baffled by the case of Ellen Sadler. The exact nature of her story has been much debated by researchers, but history remembers her as The Sleeping Girl of Turville. According to the story, she once fell asleep and did not wake for nine long years. Now I know what you’re thinking – that’s surely not possible – but just here me out. It was 1871 and the girl was 11 years old. As she came from a poor family, she was sent away to work as a nursemaid. Weather by stress or infection, she soon began to feeling drowsy all the time, to the point she struggled to do anything. When awake she had a terrible headache, and as her condition worsened, she spent less and less time awake. It got so bad her employment was terminated, and Ellen sent home. Doctors had no answer.

They had no clue what was happening to the girl, but speculated it might be some kind of spinal disease. After 18 weeks in hospital, they declared her incurable, and once again Ellen was sent home. But at home she began having seizures, and lost all ability to communicate. Then one day the girl fell asleep – a deep sleep from which she could not be awoken. She was very much alive, doctors made that clear, but was unable to be woken. Word spread and the family were visited by all kinds of medical workers, journalists and religious leaders. None of them had any answers to the girl’s condition. To me it seems obvious she was a vampire, but it was another 2 decades before Dracula was released. Curious members of the public even paid to see her, and the family home came to be known as Sleepy Cottage.

One journalist told of her legs and feet being “like those of a dead child, almost ice cold…” But also stressed that she had a pulse. She really did appear to just be asleep. Yet many were skeptical, especially as the family accepted donations. Some claimed it was all a hoax – that the mother gave Ellen sleeping pills before any visitor arrived. She did have a habit of not letting doctors examine her for too long. And when one doctor suggested running an electrical current through the girl’s body, she strongly objected. Now maybe she was just fearful of the effects of electricity, it being the 1870s. But to many this was deeply suspicious.

Then one day in 1880, Ellen Sadler woke up. She claimed to remember nothing of the last 9 years, despite being older. Little health issues were apparent either, apart from slightly stunted growth. In fact, she would later marry and have children. No clear explanation has ever been established, but doctors swore she was really asleep the whole time, and Ellen is remembered as the Sleeping Girl of Turville.

Fasting Girls

The most amazing part of her story is that she was able to survive on such little sustenance. But in the context of the time, this was not so unique. A number of Victorian people claimed similar abilities. Known as Fasting Girls, they were usually young girls, allegedly able to survive long periods of time with no food. They became famous, with many believing they held magical powers. One of the most infamous was Molly Fancher, better known as the “Brooklyn Enigma”. After falling ill in the mid 1860s, she was taken to bed, where she would remain for the next 50 years. This in itself was not too unusual. In the days before modern medicine, many were bedridden.

Having lost the ability to see, touch, taste, and smell, she somehow gained a reputation for psychic powers. As with other Fasting Girls, this came with claims she did not need to consume food – at least not for several months at a time. There has always been debate over whether Fasting Girls were total frauds, or if they were somewhat truthful. In the case of Sarah Jacobs, a team of nurses was sent to observe her at all times. After just a week under their watch, the girl died. While it was unclear what exactly happened, her parents were put on trial, and found guilty of manslaughter.

Jerome of Sandy Cove

In 1863 something strange happened on a beach in Nova Scotia. While playing, an eight year old boy discovered a barely conscious man. Both of the man’s legs had been amputated, and he was suffering from the cold. So he was taken back to the boy’s village to recieve medical care. The amputation of his legs appeared to be recent. The bandages were fresh and his wounds still bleeding. Yet they had clearly been done by a skilled surgeon. But if so, why was he abandoned on a beach?

He spoke little, and seemed to not understand any of the languages the locals attempted – not English, French, Italian, Spanish, or Latin. When asked his name, he mumbled what sounded like Jerome. For this reason, and with lack of any other name, he was known as Jerome of Sandy Cove. Various community members helped out in caring for Jerome, and he was moved from various homes over the years. As far as we know, nobody could get him to speak, or even teach him a language. In fact, when he was angry, he would growl like a dog. So ever since his death in 1912, word of the mystery has continued to grow beyond that small community.

Even to those who cared for him, Jerome was unknowable. All they could do was make assumptions, like judging he was educated by the softness of his hands. All kinds of theories were put forward by locals. Some said he was the captain of a ship – but for some reason his crew mutinied, cutting off his legs and abandoning him on the closest shoreline. This would not explain his reluctance to speak, but perhaps he was deeply traumatized by it. Such a betrayal could easily warp a person’s mind. But as with other theories, there is no actual evidence for any of this. No first hand account of his story survives, so it is hard to settle on any explanation. It’s just a truly bizarre mystery.

Unknown Identities

Jerome of Sandy Cove is just one of many cases of unknown identities. A more recent is this man, who gives his name only as Emmanuel. Since 2013 he was been imprisoned in Canada for fraud. But since he refuses to identify himself, he has not been given a trial. And so he remains locked up, his true identity a mystery after a decade of captivity. Generally speaking, a suspect would only do this if they’re hiding a much worse crime in their past.

Ted Bundy briefly used the same strategy in 1978. After breaking out of jail in Colorado the year before, he fled to Florida and almost immediately commit a triple murder, and I can’t help but be kind of impressed by his dedication to crime. He was like the Bruce Lee of murder. But anyway, on being arrested, he panicked and refused to identify himself. It wasn’t a great strategy, and even he eventually gave his real name.

The Man in the iron mask

One person whose true name we don’t know is the Man in the Iron mask. Made famous by numerous novels and movies, he was a real prisoner, a political prisoner in 17th century France. Even his jailers at the time did not know his name, or why he was locked up, but he was clearly important. A special cell was constructed just for him, as to be soundproof, and guards were only allowed to check on him once per day. If they were to even attempt to learn the man’s identity, they would be put to death. He was also forced to wear a mask, just in case anyone were to recognize him. For 34 years he was locked up under the highest secrecy, only ending when he died in the infamous Bastille fortress. That was in 1703, but we have no idea how old he was.

You’re probably wondering why they didn’t just kill him. That’s what I would have done, but maybe that’s why I’m not a 1600s king. In the centuries since, many great minds have debated the prisoner’s identity. Voltaire believed him to be an older brother of the French king, who for obvious reasons, had to be disappeared. This would explain why keeping the man’s identity secret was so important At one point the French king’s sister in law mentioned the man in a letter. She wrote that he was under constant threat. That two musketeers were constantly at his side, ready to take his life if the mask was ever removed. Yet she said he was well treated and was given all he desired.

Even for French people, this situation was weird. But the tactic worked. So much secrecy surrounded the Man in the Iron Mask that not even now do we know his identity. And we probably never will.

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