The Strangest Unexplained Phenomena in History

  • Mary Celeste ship
Mary Celeste ship
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Everyone loves a good mystery, especially when it’s real. Of the countless happenings that have confounded us through the years, decades, and centuries, some mysteries have endured longer than others. Here are four unexplained phenomena throughout history that we may never fully understand, but will always be fascinated by.

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Medieval Dancing Plagues

There have been several outbreaks of choreomania, the technical term for dancing mania, none of which has ever been conclusively explained. Among the most famous is the one that took place in Strasbourg, then part of the Holy Roman Empire and now part of France, where a “dancing plague” lasted for weeks in 1518. First on the dance floor (read: city square) was one Frau Troffea, who danced until she collapsed from exhaustion one extremely hot day in July; after recovering her strength, she resumed her rug-cutting. She and the 30 or so others who joined in over the next week in a variety of public locations seemed unable to stop, as though their movements were involuntary. The “plague” lasted until early September, by which time at least 400 people had joined in. Many were injured, and some didn’t live to tell the tale.

This wasn’t the only dance plague to occur in medieval and early modern Europe. Similar events took place throughout the Holy Roman Empire as well as in Germany, Switzerland, and France, though none were documented as thoroughly as the one in Strasbourg — it even inspired a recent novel. No one is sure, all these centuries later, why any of this happened in the first place. Many contemporary explanations were religious and/or superstitious in nature, whereas more modern theories suggest that a mold called ergot might have been responsible. As with many phenomena from ages past, we may never know the full story.

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Australia’s Missing Prime Minister

We may not know the full circumstances surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but at least we know that he was assassinated. Australians have received no such closure in the matter of Harold Holt, who served as the country’s 17th prime minister from 1966 until his disappearance and presumed death the following year — presumed, not confirmed, because no one has ever been able to definitively say what happened to him. Holt, an avid outdoorsman, swimmer, and spearfisher, went swimming in the sea near Portsea, Victoria, shortly after noon on December 17, 1967, and disappeared shortly thereafter. According to a witness named Marjorie Gillespie, with whom Holt happened to be having an affair, the rough waves took him “like a leaf being taken out… so quick and final.”

While the simplest and most likely explanation is that Holt drowned, his body was never recovered despite extensive search-and-rescue efforts. The enormity of a world leader disappearing in this fashion is difficult to overstate, and a number of theories had already emerged by the time his funeral was held days later. Some of these were relatively plausible, such as the possibility that Holt had either taken his own life or faked his death, while others were less so — some thought he had been assassinated by either the CIA or North Vietnamese, and in 1983 a British journalist named Anthony Grey even accused Holt of being a lifelong spy for China in his book The Prime Minister Was a Spy. Said tome was widely discredited, but that doesn’t mean no one believed it.

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