Even though the perpetrators or victims of these whodunit tales might be long gone, scientific understanding has now caught up with many of history's greatest tales of crime or suspicious activity (although it does make you appreciate how easy crime must have been before the days of CCTV, DNA and fingerprint evidence, and 21st-century medicine).
Here's a bunch of fascinating cold cases from centuries-gone-by that science has helped to answer.
What Happened To The Boy in The Cellar?
The skeleton of a 16-year-old was discovered in the cellar pit of a Maryland house back in 1991. Curious experts descended on the scene and worked out that the remains once belonged to a Caucasian male from the 17th century.
Further analysis showed a deeply depressing story behind the remains. His spine and teeth were damaged from either hard labor or disease, and his wrist appeared to have been fractured sometime before his death. The researchers strongly believed that the boy was an abused house servant who died after a short, extremely harsh life.
"They were burying him in secret so they would not have to report the death,” Kari Bruwelheide, who studied the body, told Smithsonian Magazine.
Was The President Assassinated?
Zachary Taylor suddenly died while serving as the 12th President of the United States on July 9, 1850. During his short 16-month presidency, the issue of slavery was threatening to rip the States in two and hostility began to approach breaking point. While doctors at the time reported his death was caused by ailment, these deep national tensions led historian Clara Rising to speculate whether Taylor was actually arsenic poisoned by anti-abolitionists who were angered by his opposition to the extension of slavery to Western states.
In 1991, forensic pathologists exhumed his body in a bid to find out whether this really was a juicy assassination. Using scientific methods that were unavailable at the time, they discovered no traces of arsenic or any other poison in Taylor's remains, suggesting it was indeed just a commonplace stomach problem.
Helene Rufty, President Taylors great-great-great-great-granddaughter was pretty happy with the findings, saying: "The good thing about it is that history has been brought to life. At least it has for the family, and I hope for so many people across the nation," reported The New York Times.
Ok, But Was Napoleon Assassinated?
People have cried foul play about Napoleon Bonaparte's death ever since he passed away in exile on the lonely island of St. Helena in 1821. Although the official autopsy said he had stomach cancer, many pondered whether the former French Emperor had been poisoned by the British, out of fear he might return to Europe with vengeance.
In 2007, a team of scientists re-examined the case. They applied modern scientific understanding to interpret the old medical records left by Napoleon's doctors. High levels of arsenic had previously been found in Napoleon's hair, however, this is believed to be the result of dodgy 19th-century medicine. By all accounts, they found no indication of arsenic poisoning. However, they did find extensive evidence of a 10-centimeter-long (4-inches) lesion in his stomach.
They concluded, just like many other studies before and after, that it was most likely an aggressive form of stomach cancer that killed the controversial general.
A Family of Skeletons Down The Well
Archaeological excavations in 2004 revealed the skeletons of 17 people, 11 of which were children, in the remains of a Medieval water well in Norwich, UK. As you can imagine, they probably had an especially horrific last few moments.
Using a combined approach of DNA analysis, carbon dating, bone chemical studies, and historical evidence, researchers believe that these people might have been the victim of Jewish persecution.
The data showed the majority of the group had a fairly similar, closely related DNA sequence, indicating they were likely to be members of a single Jewish family from the 12th or 13th centuries.
From around 1135 CE onwards, Norwich was a hub of the Jewish community. It was also a time when Jewish people faced widespread discrimination, often being accused of poisoning city wells any time an illness broke out, due to their poor understanding of communicable diseases, This led the researchers to believe the well was actually the crime scene of some kind of violent ethnic-based persecution.
The Big Botticelli Swindle
Authenticity means big bucks in the art world, although the prevalence of art forgery is alarmingly high. The “Madonna of the Veil,” a painting believed to have been created by the old master Botticelli, darted between art collectors and museums in the UK throughout the 20th century. However, by WW2, experts were beginning to grow suspicious of this smirking woman.
By 1994, a scientific investigation used electron-beaming EDX analysis on the painting, revealing it contained opaque chromium oxide green, a pigment that didn't become widely available until 1862, some 350 years after Botticelli died. The final nail in the coffin was when researchers also noticed that the wormholes in the frame had been made using a drill.
It turned out, this painting was actually the work of a notorious Italian forger called Umberto Giunti, who worked extensively around the 1920s.
Probably Pee, Not Poison, Killed The Astronomer
The 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe was best known for his work on celestial bodies and the cataloging of over 1,000 new stars. Around the turn of the 20th century, people become fascinated with the idea that he had been poisoned, perhaps as a result of his affair with the mother of Christian IV of Denmark – it’s always risky business fooling around with the King’s mom, I suppose. The assailant was thought to be his own assistant, Johannes Kepler, using mercury.
Scientists exhumed his body in 2010 and worked out that the chemical composition of his bones indicates he was not exposed to any high doses of mercury during his final few years.
Another legend says that Tycho died of a burst bladder because he was too embarrassed to leave his table at a royal feast and go the bathroom. It now looks most likely that he did actually die of a bladder or kidney infection, perhaps from holding in his pee for too long.