Exploring the Darkest Corridors of the Internet

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By Jed Lipinski

When an unsuspecting researcher followed a mysterious command on a 4chan board, he found himself drawn into a scavenger hunt that led him down the darkest corridors of the internet and stretched across the globe. But in a place where no one shows his face and no one plays by the rules, how do you tell where the game ends and reality begins?

It was 10 p.m. on a Friday night in January, and Jeff Kinkle was procrastinating.

The 32-year-old cultural studies PhD was alone in his Brooklyn studio, working on a paper about institutional secrecy and the national security apparatus. His workspace offered an unobstructed view of the glittering Manhattan skyline, but the young academic, who makes his living as a writer and translator, wasn’t feeling inspired. His desk shook every time the trains rattled across the Williamsburg Bridge. The bars downstairs hummed with nightlife.

Distracted, Kinkle was scanning /b/, the infamous image-sharing board on the website 4chan. There, a curious message snagged his attention.

Kinkle had read that the National Security Agency, a U.S. government organization that engages in defensive and offensive cyber operations, was actively using 4chan to scout for hackers. Amid the thread of obscene comments that pass for conversation on /b/, some commenters were suggesting that the strange message might be an NSA recruiting exercise. His curiosity piqued, Kinkle followed the conversation as it moved to a math and science message board.

The cyberspace that most of us know and use daily is a place for connecting with friends, paying bills, and sharing funny cat pictures. But Kinkle, like others who delve into the Internet and the cultures that take shape there, knows that the Web is an iceberg: the part that shows being the smallest, least menacing piece. What lies beneath is vaster, darker, and harder to understand—a shadowy world where data and hackers and criminals hide. Some call it the “deep Web,” and Kinkle was about to tumble down a virtual rabbit hole straight into it.

Kinkle stared at the message, trying to suss out its meaning. When one commenter suggested opening the image in the simple-text editor WordPad, he couldn’t help himself. At the bottom of the text, he found the following message: TIBERIVS CLAVDIVS CAESAR says “lxxt>33m2mqkyv2gsq3q=w]O2ntk.”

And that was a code he thought he could crack.

"The id of the Web"

At first glance, 4chan looks like nothing more than a frenetic, image-based bulletin board. There is no search function and no tagging of posts. But the site’s simplicity is deceiving. Trafficked mostly by 18- to 24-year-old men, 4chan attracts more than 22 million page views per month and more than 1 million unique visitors every day—almost as much as The New York Times website. But the numbers don’t accurately reflect 4chan’s importance; what happens on the site often reverberates across the Internet.

4chan was founded in 2003 by a 15-year-old named Christopher Poole, a New Yorker known online by the handle “moot.” Poole modeled the site on a fast-paced Japanese Web forum centered on anime and porn called 2chan. “The URL for 3chan was taken at the time,” Poole told The New York Times in 2010, “so I just jumped to the next number.”

Today, 4chan’s 58 boards cover a whimsical array of topics, from the practical (do-it-yourself) to the creative (photography, music) to the shocking and pornographic (“sexy beautiful women”). Accordingly, subject threads range from the mundane to the disturbing—everything from bike-shorts recommendations to found footage of people getting hit by cars or gruesome photos of body parts found in the wreckage of the September 11 attacks. The site functions like the Wild West of cyberspace. 4chan also has no formal archive, meaning that most of its million-plus posts per day are ephemeral—they either expire or get deleted within a matter of hours. This fast-flowing river of posts is enhanced by the users’ anonymity. Because the site does not require registration, 4chan especially appeals to those who reject the increasing proof-of-identity demands and personal information requests on social networking sites such as Facebook and Google+.

The /b/ board—sometimes called the “id of the Web”—takes particular advantage of this anonymity. On /b/, offensive remarks are encouraged, both to repel outsiders and to maintain the board’s underground appeal. Longtime users, for instance, are referred to as “oldfags”; newcomers as “newfags”; and British people in general as “Britfags.” The board's Fight Club-­style rules emphasize the insular yet anonymous culture they seek to preserve: "1. You do not talk about /b/. 2. You DO NOT talk about /b/. 3. We are Anonymous. 34. If it exists, there is porn about it. No exceptions."

The site’s anything-goes mentality often leads users to overstep the bounds of propriety—and sometimes legality. In September 2008, a college student named David Kernell, the son of a Democratic state representative from Tennessee, obtained access to Sarah Palin’s personal Yahoo! account. He posted the password on the /b/ board, along with a number of screenshots of the then-governor’s email messages, which quickly went viral. (The FBI managed to track down Kernell’s IP address and IP cache records from a proxy site, and he was convicted on charges soon after.)

But 4chan also fosters a strange and uninhibited kind of creativity. While the posts are fleeting, users tend to re-post the images they find the most affecting—whether they’re funny, political, or unsettling. And that can spiral into zeitgeisty memes and all sorts of Internet phenomena. LOLcats, the ubiquitous meme featuring pictures of cats with kitten-speak captions, such as “U Seez What I’z Put Up With,” originated on 4chan. So did Rickrolling, a bait-and-switch meme in which a user clicks a hyperlink only to be redirected to a YouTube video of pop star Rick Astley singing his 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up.” (The video has received more than 65 million hits to date.) More significantly, 4chan helped spawn Anonymous, the amorphous global network of hacktivists, trolls, and Web savants that has waged attacks on major corporate and government websites since sometime around 2004, pursuing an unusual breed of cyber vigilantism.

Still, as Kinkle well knew, so much of the material in the 4chan stream is either inane or meant as a prank that he questioned how to handle the message. As he monitored the 40 or so commenters discussing the image, he realized that many of them were taking it seriously. He decided to play along. “The idea that this was a recruitment exercise was definitely seductive,” he recalled. “I mean, I don’t have any esoteric knowledge the NSA would actually want. But the thought of engaging with people who are on the cutting edge of this stuff—that was exciting.”

Following the Breadcrumbs

Kinkle recognized the garbled text—TIBERIVS CLAVDIVS CAESAR says “lxxt>33m2mqkyv2gsq3q=w]O2ntk”—as a Caesar cipher, a simple encryption technique in which each letter is replaced by another letter a fixed number of places away in the alphabet. Since Tiberius Claudius was the fourth Roman Emperor, Kinkle tried shifting the text back four letters. It worked: The text revealed a URL. But when Kinkle pointed his browser to the site, the page showed an image of a plastic duck and the words: “WOOPS just decoys this way. Looks like you can’t guess how to get the message out.”

The phrasing struck Kinkle and the other commenters as odd. Before long, someone realized that the words guess and out might have something to do with the decryption software OutGuess. Running the image through OutGuess, it turned out, extracted a link to a subreddit—one of the many boards within the social news website reddit. When Kinkle clicked the link, suddenly the page bore a new mystery: a row of Mayan numerals, several lines of garbled letters, and two images labeled welcome and problems?

It was then that someone posted a link to an anonymous room on the chat website Mibbit.com, where users adopted screen names and the conversation continued without the threat of 4chan’s disappearing archive. “That’s when I started to feel a bit creepy,” Kinkle recalls. Here he was, at 11 on a Friday night, obsessing over a riddle inside a chat room with dozens of strangers. Before this night, Kinkle had interacted with a total of three people on 4chan, a site he characterized as a “flow of smut and jokes and weird stuff that vanishes.” He saw the site as a playground for trolls, the kind of people who post deliberately distracting or provocative messages in the hope of starting an argument. “But most trolls don’t put nearly this amount of energy into what they’re doing,” Kinkle says.

He decided to walk back to his apartment. When he arrived, his roommates were heading out to a bar and invited him along, but Kinkle mumbled an excuse and retreated to his bedroom instead. There, he got to work unraveling a series of cyber clues involving book codes, King Arthur, and the quest for the Holy Grail. Scribbling madly on index cards, he finally uncovered a message: “call us on us tele phone number two one four three….”

“I’m getting a phone number!” he blurted into the chat room. The more advanced commenters doubted it; the less advanced insulted him. Kinkle believed he was onto something, but no one believed him. Then he received a private message—“You’re way ahead of the others”—and an invitation to a smaller, private chat room within the same network. Once inside, he dialed the number using Google Voice. A recording welcomed him: “Very good. You have done well. There are three prime numbers associated with the original final .jpg image. 3301 is one of them. You will have to find the other two. Multiply all three of these numbers together and add a .com on the end to find the next step. Good luck. Good-bye.”

The pixel dimensions of the first image, Kinkle realized, were 509 and 503, both primes. He multiplied the numbers and got a URL. An image of a cicada appeared onscreen, above a countdown set to expire in three days. Opening the cicada in OutGuess unveiled yet another message: “You have done well to come this far. Patience is a virtue. Check back at 17:00 on Monday, 9 January 2012. UTC.”

Kinkle slumped in his chair. It was 2 a.m. He had reached the next level of the game—but what had begun as an online lark was about to breach the walls of the Web and enter real life.

Getting to Know Anonymous

The subversive digital network known as Anonymous found its footing in virtual mischief, but the way the group has wielded influence and power in real life (IRL, in Internet-speak) has made agencies like the NSA pay close attention.

Anons, as members call themselves, emerged from the juvenilia and nihilism of 4chan’s /b/ board around 2004. Over time, the group has become known less for Rickrolling and pranking radio DJs than for real-life attacks against institutions that try to suppress information online. In the winter of 2008, when the Church of Scientology tried to make the gossip site Gawker remove a leaked video of Tom Cruise delivering a diatribe, Anonymous got its first taste of mainstream attention. Vowing to “destroy” Scientology, thousands of Anonymous supporters protested outside Scientology centers and churches around the world, wearing Guy Fawkes masks and holding signs like “don’t worry, we’re from the internet.” The group continued its war online, releasing viral videos decrying Scientology practices and crashing Scientology websites.

The following year, in keeping with the collective’s love of cats, Anonymous supporters hunted down the creator of a YouTube video in which a domestic cat named Dusty is shown being slammed against a wall. Based on the creator’s other YouTube videos, posted under glennspam1, members of 4chan’s /b/ board were able to locate and identify him as Kenny Glenn, a 14-year-old from Lawton, Okla. Shortly after the teen was outed, local police stepped in. Meanwhile, hundreds of cat photos flooded 4chan, with captions like “ill see you in jail kenny glenn.”

In the years since, Anonymous has grown more political. In December 2010, core Anons recruited thousands of volunteers to orchestrate what’s called a distributed denial of service—flooding a website with traffic until it crashes or slows considerably. The group targeted the sites of MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal, all of which had effectively prohibited financial contributions to WikiLeaks. Anonymous (and in some cases, its splinter groups) also made trouble for Interpol, the CIA, German neo-Nazi groups, child-pornography servers, the Tunisian government, News Corporation, and others. It even bugged a conference call between the FBI and Scotland Yard about a global cyber crime investigation. The 16-minute call was later posted on YouTube under the headline hacked for the lulz—“lulz” being Web slang for laughs. The nihilism of 4chan, after all, is part of its DNA.

Considering its contradictory impulses, observers of Anonymous have struggled to define the group as either political or criminal in nature. Parmy Olson, Forbes’s London bureau chief and author of the book We Are Anonymous, says the group’s supporters are “unpredictable.” “They could be trying to take down the website of a repressive African government one minute and harassing someone on Facebook for fun the next,” she says. And while some self-identify as hacktivists, using the resources and reputation of Anonymous for social-political causes, others remain true to the anarchic culture of /b/. “What matters more,” Olson says, “is that Anonymous has provided a process for anyone to pool together to cause some sort of stir online. The more creative the better.” That sort of 4chan-inspired mentality is responsible for attacks on Mexican drug lords and British government websites, but it’s also the same incubator—or at least, the same type of thinking—that inspired the cicada mystery in which Kinkle found himself steeped.

Locating the Cicada

At 4:59 p.m. on Monday, Kinkle and his Venezuelan office mate were staring at the countdown on his laptop. When the clock hit zero, the website reloaded. Fourteen GPS coordinates popped up, their locations fanned across the globe: Warsaw, Seoul, Paris, Sydney, Hawaii, Miami, New Orleans, Seattle. Until then, none of the still-anonymous participants had provided any personal information. But suddenly, as they traced the coordinates to specific addresses, these same participants began volunteering their whereabouts. “Like, ‘I’m in Oakland,’ ‘I’m in Sweden,’ ‘I’m in South Korea,’?” Kinkle said.

The problem? None of the commenters were near any of the coordinates. “Everyone was deflated,” Kinkle said. He was convinced this was a decoy, but others in the chat room turned paranoid. What if someone had planted a bomb at the coordinates? What if a kidnapper was lying in wait?

Over the next week, people paid visits to the addresses in Paris, Warsaw, Miami, and Sydney. They posted pictures inside the chat room of what they’d found: sheets of white paper taped to streetlights, each featuring a QR code and a red-stenciled image of a cicada. The codes linked to unique URLs, which, when opened with OutGuess, revealed two new messages.

Kinkle couldn’t figure out what they referred to, but someone else did: a 300-line poem by the science fiction writer William Gibson called “Agrippa (A Book of the Dead).” By using the poem to decode the content of the messages, commenters extracted a Tor address. Tor, short for the Onion Router, is an obscure routing network that hides a user’s IP address by redirecting Internet traffic through proxies. In effect, Tor enables users to anonymously explore the Internet—including its darkest regions—without the risk of being traced. It’s in these secret spaces, buried deep in the deep Web, where the remaining clues lay in wait.

Diving Into the Deep Web

Sometimes called the “invisible web” or “dark net,” the deep Web represents the portion of the Internet that cannot be indexed by standard search engines such as Google, Yahoo!, or Bing. Search engines work through a process known as “spidering” or “crawling.” Crawlers roam across the Web collecting pages and keywords, following the hyperlinks on each page to amass more and more data. The results are filed into indexes of keywords; when you type a search query in Google, the search engine returns results from the appropriate index. The surface Web, or the part of the Internet that most people use on a daily basis, consists of Web pages that are linked to this giant mass. But since the majority of content on the Web isn’t linked to anything, it remains hidden from the crawlers. Researchers say it’s impossible to measure the size of the un-indexed Internet, though it’s estimated to be between 4,000 and 5,000 times larger than the surface Web.

“People don’t have an accurate way of measuring the deep Web, because it’s hard to define what it is,” says Juliana Freire, a computer science professor at New York University who studies the topic. To that end, much of the unindexed material is banal: peer-to-peer file-sharing services, scientific and governmental databases. But deep Web mythology—born out of 4chan, reddit, and other online forums—abounds with rumors of human-trafficking rings, weapon depots, and terrorist networks that dwell in its belly like unclassified sea creatures, squatting on abandoned websites, then leaving without a trace.

Yet there’s enough truth out there to feed worries. Take the Russian Business Network—an elusive cyber-crime conduit originally based in St. Petersburg that began as a service provider for websites devoted to identity theft, child pornography, and spamming. Thought to have been created in 2006 or earlier by a 24-year-old known only as Flyman, the network was linked to a stunning 50 percent of all credit-card phishing schemes. But the shadowy provider has since vanished from view.

In recent months, Silk Road, a black market website that uses Tor to enable users to anonymously sell illegal drugs including heroin, cocaine, and Ecstasy, has come to the attention of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The website, which employs a digital currency called Bitcoins to further disguise the identities of buyers and sellers, has enabled about $22 million in sales, according to a Carnegie Mellon report. A handful of recent discussions have tried to suggest that some users—including the site’s administrator, who goes by the handle “Dread Pirate Roberts”—are becoming increasingly less visible in the wake of media scrutiny. However, as Gawker has noted, someone is clearly still investing; in July 2012, the Silk Road site underwent a major redesign.

In the realm between academic accounts and crime-facilitating organizations lie those who use Tor for work. Journalists, for example, employ Tor to communicate with dissidents, whistle-blowers, and environmental activists concerned about government surveillance. One tech blogger, writing about the cicada mystery after the fact, suggested that a tech company or intelligence agency might have been using Tor for similar means.

Unsolved Mystery

After downloading TOR software, Kinkle visited the appointed address, which instructed him to create an anonymous Hotmail account. Minutes later, he received what the sender claimed was a personalized message. It contained a riddle Kinkle had to solve on his own.

“It required all this complicated decryption software,” he says. “I just couldn’t figure it out.” He emailed his programmer friends and anyone he thought might provide a lead, but they too came up empty. And so 10 days after his quest began, it was over.

“I never heard anything again,” Kinkle admits. He adds that he was extremely curious to know who was behind the game and why it was created. “If I thought it was just a complex puzzle with a clever answer, I don’t think I’d have been as captivated as I was.”

Weeks after he abandoned the quest, the mystery was still nagging at him. While idly Googling “cicada” and “3301” one day, he discovered a Wiki page about the puzzle that revealed a new development. Another mysterious message had appeared on 4chan in February. It read: “We have now found the individuals we sought. Thus our month-long journey ends.”

But the day after that message was posted on 4chan, yet another strange note cropped up on a temporary text-storage site called Pastebin. It seemed to be a letter of congratulations to the winners of the puzzle, acquired and re-posted by a member of Anonymous. “DO NOT SHARE THIS INFORMATION!” the re-posted letter began. It continued: “You are undoubtedly wondering what it is that we do we are much like a * think tank * in that our primary focus is on researching and developing techniques to aid the ideas we advocate liberty privacy security.” The letter offered the winners membership in the group, as long as they answered a few questions, including “Do you believe that information should be free?”

It’s a frustrating, enigmatic ending to a saga that, throughout, showed signs of careful craftsmanship and ingenious orchestration. It was a hunt that swept a room full of curious minds from an idle board on 4chan down the Internet’s most anonymous corridors, then spit them out into the real world. But today, Kinkle feels like he’s back where he started. He knows no more about “cicada 3301” than he did on that January night.

“It’s actually pretty crazy that there’s so little about that final message online,” he says. “A decent amount has been written about the hunt itself, so it’s odd that there’s barely anything about its conclusion.”

In 10 days, Kinkle traveled across more of the Web than most people will in a lifetime. The journey stoked his curiosity. Today, he spends his days poring over the underbelly of the Internet. He keeps a Tor browser on his phone, and he stays vigilant, occasionally dipping into 4chan’s boards, holding out hope that somewhere, flowing in this massive river of smut and depravity and cat jokes, he just might catch a glimpse of the answer.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Now go download our new iPad app! Or get a free issue of mental_floss magazine via mail.

Bielefeld, Germany, Is Offering $1.1 Million If You Can Prove the Conspiracy Theory That It's Not Real

WaldemarMilz, iStock via Getty Images
WaldemarMilz, iStock via Getty Images

There are numerous conspiracy theories attached to specific locations. Area 51 is more famous for its association with aliens than as a U.S. Air Force facility, and the Denver Airport has inspired rumors of illuminati ties since it opened. But the theories attached to Bielefeld, Germany, aren't quite as disturbing or complex: Truthers simply assert that the city doesn't exist. Now, Bielefeld's marketing group is offering €1 million ($1.1 million) to anyone who can prove that Bielefeld isn't a real place, BBC reports.

Like many conspiracy theories, this one got its start on the internet. In 1994, when misinformation online spread much more slowly and there were fewer places for it to go, a student named Achim Held posted a brief message on the discussion platform Usenet. "Bielefeld? There's no such thing," he wrote. Held had just heard of the city for the first time at a party, and it turned out he wasn't the only person unaware of it. His message went viral (or viral for the early 1990s, anyway) and sparked a rumor that Bielefeld still isn't able to shake.

In an attempt to prove itself to the world once and for all, the city came up with a competition: If someone can find irrefutable evidence of Bielefeld's non-existence, that person will receive €1 million. The evidence can come in many forms—photos, videos, or documents—but it has to stand up to the scrutiny of the contest's organizers. The fact that the prize is coming from the very city in question is a strong indication that it will go uncollected, but on the off-chance they find a winner, Bielefeld marketing's sponsors will pay the bill.

Bielefeld, Germany, has more going for it than an internet conspiracy. It's home to major companies, a university, and a population of 340,000. But if you're certain that all of the above is a lie, you can submit your evidence proving otherwise to kommunikation@bielefeld-marketing.de with the subject Bielefeldmillion.

[h/t BBC]

The Mysterious Deaths of 6 Historical Figures

A portrait of Napoleon by Antoine-Jean Gros
A portrait of Napoleon by Antoine-Jean Gros
Photos.com via Getty Images

You might think that dying while famous means a well-documented death proceeding from an obvious cause, but nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout history, notable figures have spent their final hours in situations clouded with uncertainty, rumor, and suspicion. Whether the deceased is an ancient emperor or a modern aviator, the potential culprit arsenic or a faulty radio, the circumstances surrounding these six strange historical deaths may never be fully understood.

1. Napoleon Bonaparte // May 5, 1821

On the surface, Napoleon's end seems clear-cut: His death certificate listed stomach cancer as the cause of his demise. During the last weeks of his life in exile on the remote island of St. Helena, the former emperor of France had been complaining of stomach ailments, including pain and nausea, but Napoleon himself hinted something much darker than cancer was at work. In a will written three weeks before he died, he said: "I die before my time, murdered by the English oligarchy and its assassin."

There has been some potential evidence to support his poisoning theory. In 1840, when Napoleon's corpse was exhumed in St. Helena for a more dignified reburial in Paris, the body was reported to be in remarkably good condition. Some scientists have theorized that this could have been a side effect of arsenic exposure, which they argue could have had a preservative effect. In 1961, tests on samples of Napoleon's hair did find elevated levels of arsenic, leading to a few decades of fevered speculation about a potential arsenic poisoning. However, a 2008 analysis of hairs taken at four periods of Napoleon's life showed arsenic levels consistent throughout that time, as well as levels consistent with hairs taken from his son and wife.

If that makes it sound like everyone in the 19th century was being slowly poisoned with arsenic, that's because they sort of were. Back then, the stuff didn't need to be administered with malevolent intent to get into your system. Not only was it a common component of weed killers and rat poison, but it was often added to beauty products and medicinal tonics. It was also part of a popular green pigment used in paintings, fabrics, and wallpaper—including the wallpaper in the house where Napoleon died. (A sample nicked by a visitor in the 1820s survived for decades in a scrapbook and tested positive for arsenic in the 1990s.)

In addition to arsenic, Napoleon had been exposed to a number of other toxic substances as part of questionable medical treatments. His doctors were giving him tartar emetic (antimony potassium tartrate, which is poisonous) for his gastrointestinal issues, and two days before he died, Napoleon received a large dose of calomel (mercurous chloride) as a purgative. The stew of dubious chemicals in his system led an international team of toxicologists and pathologists to conclude in 2004 that Napoleon's death was a case of “medical misadventure,” in which the drugs he'd been exposed to, combined with his already weak health, led to a disturbance of his heart's rhythm that ultimately produced his death.

That doesn't mean the stomach cancer idea has been put to rest, however. In 2007, a study based on the autopsy reports and memoirs from Napoleon's physician as well as other documentation compared descriptions of the lesions found in Napoleon's stomach during his autopsy with modern images of benign and cancerous gastric lesions. The paper concluded that the dead emperor's lesions were most likely cancer, which had spread to other organs. The cancer was likely a result of Helicobacter pylori, bacteria that damages stomach lining; the salt-preserved foods Napoleon consumed on his extended military campaigns may have also contributed. In truth, it's highly possible that a number of factors contributed to Napoleon's death, with or without the interference of the English.

2. Amelia Earhart // July 2, 1937 (Disappeared)

Amelia Earhart with her navigator, Fred Noonan, in the hangar at Parnamerim airfield, Natal, Brazil, on June 11, 1937, before departing for their round-the-world flight
Amelia Earhart with her navigator, Fred Noonan, in Brazil, on June 11, 1937, before departing for their round-the-world flight
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Amelia Earhart is probably best known for two things: becoming the first woman to fly alone across the Atlantic in 1932, and disappearing five years later.

On July 2, 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were on one of the last and most difficult legs of their attempt at a round-the-world flight—a nonstop trip from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island in the South Pacific, where the pair planned to refuel before continuing to Hawaii. Around 6 a.m. that day, her plane radioed the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, which was anchored off Howland to provide them with guidance. But there were communication troubles: The ship was using bandwidths Earhart wasn't able to receive, and some key radio equipment on the Itasca had run out of batteries. For hours, the ship transmitted messages Earhart couldn't hear, and her messages back to them were worrying—she mentioned running low on fuel, and not being able to see land. By 8:45 a.m., ship and plane had lost contact.

Despite an extensive air and sea search by the Itasca and the U.S. government, neither Earhart nor Noonan were ever heard from again. The official explanation is that Earhart's plane ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific, but since no one is certain where the plane went down, finding the wreckage has proved difficult. However, some researchers think Earhart and Noonan may have briefly survived as castaways on a nearby island before eventually succumbing to the elements.

The castaway theory has gained acceptance in part because of efforts by a nonprofit called the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). Its executive director, Richard Gillespie, believes that Earhart and Noonan ended up on Nikumaroro, about 350 nautical miles southeast of Howland, in the Republic of Kiribati. The island's location fits the line of flight that Earhart identified in her last radio message, and researchers think they've uncovered photographs that show landing gear amid the coral reefs, as well as distress calls from the castaways. Several TIGHAR expeditions to the island have also uncovered plexiglass and aluminum fragments that could be part of Earhart's plane, plus pieces of what may be a jar of freckle cream and leather shoe parts that could have belonged to a woman [PDF].

To make matters even weirder, the castaway speculations also involve a skull and other bones found on Nikumaroro in 1940, which have since been lost. Initial analysis said the bones belonged to an elderly man, but more recently TIGHAR announced that a new analysis showed they likely belonged to a woman around their same height as Earhart and most likely European. However, in 2015 forensic researchers questioned TIGHAR's conclusions. Since the skeleton is both missing and incomplete, the matter seems unlikely to be resolved soon. Nevertheless, in July 2019 marine geologist Robert Ballard—the man who found the Titanic wreck in 1985—announced that he would make an expedition to Nikumaroro to search for clues both on the island and offshore, as part of a National Geographic special called Expedition Amelia airing in October.

If the castaway theory seems unlikely, it's far from the most bizarre in circulation. Some allege that Earhart was captured by the Japanese after her plane was crashed (or deliberately shot down), and then held captive—some even say because she was a spy hired by the Roosevelt administration to keep tabs on Japanese military installations in the Marshall Islands. In this version of events, her disappearance was part of a cover-up by the U.S. government, and Earhart was supposedly freed in 1945, after which she lived out the rest of her days under a different name as a banker in New Jersey.

3. Edgar Allan Poe // October 7, 1849

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Photos.com via Getty Images

In 1849, Edgar Allan Poe disappeared for six days. When he turned up on October 3, near a pub in Baltimore, he was slurring his speech and wearing someone else's suit. A good samaritan noticed Poe acting oddly and sought help, summoning a friend of the writer's to the tavern. But by the time the friend arrived, Poe was delirious and had to be taken to the hospital. He lingered there for a few more days, wracked by a fever and hallucinations, and occasionally calling out the name Reynolds. When the attending physician, Dr. John J. Moran, tried to ask Poe what had happened before he got to the tavern, Poe’s “answers were incoherent and unsatisfactory," Moran later wrote. Four days after having mysteriously arrived in Baltimore, Poe just as mysteriously died.

The official cause of Poe's death is sometimes listed as phrenitis, or inflammation of the brain, but there was never any autopsy, and the medical records have disappeared. Newspapers of the day tied Poe's death to his drinking habits, but postmortem hair analysis has shown no trace of the lead commonly added to wine in the 19th century, suggesting that Poe was probably steering clear of drink at the end of his life (indeed, he had sworn to a new fiancée to give it up). A 1996 article in the Maryland Medical Journal blamed rabies, arguing that Poe suffered classic symptoms of the disease: tremors and hallucinations, a coma, and delirium that made him combative. Yet other accounts have posited the flu, a brain tumor, syphilis, or some kind of poisoning—even murder at the hands of his fiancée's brothers, who allegedly opposed his impending marriage.

Yet one of the more accepted explanations concerns a vicious type of voter fraud known as cooping. In 19th-century America, it was not unusual for gangs to kidnap men and force them to vote multiple times for one candidate, wearing different clothes each time as a disguise. The location where Poe was found on October 3 lends weight to the theory: The pub, Gunner's Hall, was then serving as a polling station in the 1849 Congressional elections. Voters at the time were also given alcohol in reward for doing their civic duty, which would explain Poe's drunkenness; the stranger's cheap suit could have been a disguise provided by a gang. Poe reportedly reacted badly to alcohol, so if he was dragged to multiple polling places and fed liquor each time, not to mention beaten as cooping victims often were, the combination may have been too much for him. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, however, points out one flaw in this theory: Poe was "reasonably well-known in Baltimore and likely to be recognized"—even in someone else's soiled clothes. We may never know the full story behind Poe's death, which seems not inappropriate for the master of the macabre.

4. Alexander the Great // June 323 BCE

One of the most powerful conquerors the world has ever known, Alexander the Great claimed to be a son of the gods. Unfortunately, he was mortal, and died a few months short of his 33rd birthday. His final illness began during a feast at a commander's house in the summer of 323 BCE, when he is said to have developed a high fever and abdominal pain. For a few days he bathed, slept, and sacrificed, but then the fever grew worse. By the fourth day, he was losing strength, and by the seventh, couldn't get out of bed. His powers of speech failed, and when his troops asked to see him on the 10th day of his illness, he could do little but follow them with his eyes. On the 11th day, he died. It's said that when the embalmers began work on Alexander's corpse, after being delayed for six days, they found the body fresh and uncorrupted—a remarkable event given the summer heat.

Alexander the Great was just one of the famous historical figures considered during the annual Historical Clinicopathological Conference at the University of Maryland, in which medical experts convene to take a fresh look at the final days of famous dead folks. Philip A. Mackowiak, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, is both the director of the conference (which considered Alexander's death in 1996) and the author of the book Post Mortem: Solving History's Great Medical Mysteries. In Post Mortem, he explains that attempts to understand Alexander's death are complicated by the fact that no contemporary accounts of the events survive, and the descriptions we have are secondary accounts written several centuries later. Furthermore, these descriptions conflict: Plutarch, writing in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, says that Alexander didn't have any pain, and that other accounts added that symptom to make Alexander's death seem as moving as possible. But other ancient sources maintain that Alexander did experience significant pain, which started right after he downed a massive goblet of wine, leading some—notably the Roman historian Justin—to suggest that Alexander was poisoned.

Alexander had made many enemies, not the least with his whole "I am the son of the gods" thing. Mackowiak writes that Alexander also offended his fellow Macedonians by dressing like the vanquished Persians, and the latest military campaign he was planning—through the Horn of Arabia and North Africa—"must have been greeted with alarm by his exhausted army." When it comes to who dared to poison the great Alexander, Mackowiak notes that some suspect Antipater, an ambitious Macedonian regent, or even at the philosopher Aristotle, who had once tutored Alexander the Great—and apparently feared for his life after a relative was embroiled in an assassination plot. Once again, arsenic has been mentioned as a possible culprit; Mackowiak writes that it's known to cause abdominal pain and progressive weakness, and in some forms is water-soluble as well as practically tasteless, making it easy to hide in wine or food. Fever, however, is not usually a sign of arsenic poisoning, and most historians doubt that arsenic was used as a poison in that time period.

A tropical illness seems more likely. According to Mackowiak, an especially malignant type of malaria caused by the Plasmodium falciparum parasite could have caused Alexander's fever, weakness, stomach pain, and death, but not his loss of speech, or the daisy-fresh look of his corpse. Others have suggested West Nile virus encephalitis, which can produce paralysis, but is not usually fatal. In Post Mortem, Mackowiak suggests typhoid fever with ascending paralysis as the most likely killer. Before the importance of clean water and sanitary sewage systems were well understood, typhoid was a scourge, as food and drink often became contaminated with feces carrying Salmonella typhi, the typhoid-causing bacteria. Typhoid usually involves a gradually increasing fever and weakness, abdominal pain, and other awful symptoms, but in rare cases, it's accompanied by an ascending paralysis that begins with the legs and moves up to the brain. Known as Guillain-Barré syndrome, it's almost always fatal when due to typhoid. Mackowiak suggests that if Alexander suffered from Guillain-Barré, the paralysis would have caused him to lose his power to speak once it reached his higher nerve centers. Disturbingly, Mackowiak also suggests that the paralysis could also have caused the fresh look of Alexander's corpse—because he might not have been dead all that long when they arrived, and merely paralyzed. In that case, it's a good thing the embalmers were delayed.

5. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart // December 5, 1791

Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart circa 1789
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart circa 1789
Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Was Mozart's death caused by a pork chop, a sexually transmitted disease, poisoning by a jealous rival—or none of the above?

The famed composer first began showing signs of his final illness in the fall of 1791. Overworked, underfunded, and depressed, he was working on the Requiem commissioned by a mysterious benefactor that July when he began having what some have described as stomach and joint pain. By November 20, he took to his bed. His body began to swell badly, and emit a foul odor; his wife and sister-in-law made him a special garment with an opening at the back just so he'd be easier to change. By the evening of December 4, he was starting to show signs of delirium. His doctor was summoned, and when he arrived bled Mozart (standard practice for just about any ailment back then) and applied a cold poultice to his forehead. The composer fell unconscious, and died five minutes before one in the morning on December 5. He was 35. The last sounds he ever made were an attempt to mimic one of the drum parts from his unfinished Requiem.

The official diagnosis was acute miliary fever (miliary refers to a rash with spots the size of millet seeds). But within a week, a Berlin newspaper reported that Mozart might have been poisoned. In fact, Mozart's wife said that her husband had lamented months before his death, "I know I must die, someone has given me acqua toffana [a compound of arsenic and other toxins] and has calculated the precise time of my death, for which they have ordered a requiem, it is [for] myself I am writing this."

The main culprit in the supposed poisoning scheme is often said to be the composer Antonio Salieri, one of Mozart's rivals. Though the theory faded after Mozart's death, it resurfaced with new energy in the 20th century thanks to Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus and the 1984 film adaptation. In some versions of the tale, Salieri is said to have commissioned the Requiem himself, with plans to pass it off as his own after murdering Mozart. But Salieri strongly denied any involvement, telling a pupil of Beethoven's who visited his deathbed, "I can assure you on my word of honor that there is no truth in that absurd rumor; you know that I was supposed to have poisoned Mozart." Others have accused the Freemasons, who supposedly poisoned Mozart—one of their own—because he revealed their secret symbolism in his opera The Magic Flute.

Mackowiak, however, considers a Masonic involvement unlikely, in part because others involved in The Magic Flute lived for decades, and because Mozart's lodge held a ceremony for him after his death and supported his widow. Furthermore, the most likely poisons in use at the time wouldn't have caused the kind of severe, general swelling Mozart experienced, which is known as anasarca.

Others have suggested syphilis, which was an epidemic in Mozart's day, and sometimes included a low-grade fever and rash. That disease also attacks the kidneys, and was frequently treated with mercury, which would have led to further kidney deterioration and could have caused anasarca. But Mozart was a workaholic who had no time to play around, and by all accounts loved his wife Constanze dearly. According to Mackowiak, there's no credible evidence either partner ever had an affair. A less-salacious theory argues that Mozart was killed by an undercooked pork cutlet, or more specifically, trichinosis. It's known that Mozart consumed a pork meal shortly before falling ill. But trichinosis—which comes from the parasite Trichinella—usually causes muscle pain, which Mackowiak thinks family members would have remembered and included in their descriptions of the composer's last days.

Whatever the illness, Mozart wasn't the only one in Vienna to suffer it—Mackowiak notes that there was a cluster of similar cases at the time. One plausible diagnosis, Mackowiak and other researchers argue, is post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis, an inflammatory disorder of the glomeruli (a network of capillaries in the kidneys) that follows infection with the Streptocococcus bacteria. It can appear as part of an epidemic, and cause the kind of swelling Mozart suffered from. While not normally fatal with the more common Strep bacteria (the type that causes Strep throat), glomerulonephritis that follows infections with Streptococcus equi—which normally affects horses, and sometimes cows—can cause kidney failure and death. Humans often get it from consuming milk or milk products from infected cows, which explains the epidemic nature. Kidney failure would also explain Mozart's stench, likely caused by the waste products that build up in the blood, sweat, and saliva when kidneys stop working. Sadly, since both medical records and Mozart's skeleton (well, most of it, probably) have been lost, it's once again likely that a full understanding of Mozart's death will remain forever out of reach.

6. Christopher Marlowe // May 30, 1593

The maverick English poet, playwright, and spy Christopher "Kit" Marlowe is said to have been murdered at age 29 after a day of eating and drinking with some friends at a dining house. According to the coroner's report, when the time came to pay the tab, a fight broke out between Marlowe and one of the men present, Ingram Frizer, over who would foot the bill. "Divers malicious words" were spoken, and as things got heated, Marlowe grabbed Frizer's dagger, wounding him twice on the head. Frizer then grabbed it back, stabbing Marlowe over the eye and killing him instantly.

That's been the story around Marlowe's death for years, but the tale has long seemed suspicious. In fact, one of the most dangerous things about Marlowe might not have been his spying, his street brawls, or his reputed affairs with men. It might have been his religious beliefs—or the lack thereof. Shortly before his death, a warrant had been issued for Marlowe's arrest on charges of atheism, after a former roommate and fellow playwright claimed under torture that heretical papers found in his own room belonged to Marlowe. Some, such as Stanford University's David Riggs, say that Frizer wasn't motivated by rage over any bill, and the real force behind the dagger was Queen Elizabeth I, who was angry enough about his heretical religious beliefs that she ordered his murder. Those who believe this theory note that Elizabeth pardoned Frizer just one month after Marlowe's death.

That's just one of the many theories surrounding Marlowe's untimely end. Others say he ran afoul of powerful members of the Elizabethan spy world. M.J. Trow, author of Who Killed Kit Marlowe?: A Contract to Murder in Elizabethan England, thinks that Marlowe used his play Edward II to hint that four members of the Queen's Privy Council (her top advisors) were atheists too. Trow maintains that the council members decided to silence Marlowe by ordering a hit, and that they promised his friends at the dining house immunity. In fact, Trow told The Guardian, " all were cleared after a short trial and granted titles and positions of wealth and influence shortly afterwards."

Frizer and friends aren't the only ones who have been suspected in Kit's murder, though. Some think Sir Walter Raleigh, having heard of Marlowe's arrest, grew worried about what might come out at his trial and ordered him killed rather than be incriminated as a free-thinking associate. Another theory points the finger at Audrey Walsingham, whose husband employed Marlowe, and who was apparently jealous of their (possibly sexual) relationship. Others, of course, think Marlowe faked his own death to get out of trouble—then continued to write plays from a secure location and send them back to England, possibly with Walsingham's assistance. The person who got credit for those new creations? William Shakespeare, of course.

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