HISTORY DOES NOT ALWAYS TELL US what we want to know; sometimes it does not even tell us the names of those persons whose actions, words, and achievements comprise its substance. Much of ancient history is utterly anonymous. No one knows how the pyramids were built or the names of the architects of Stonehenge, or whether Homer actually lived or not. The lifestory of Jesus of Nazareth, although spelled out in four Gospel accounts, is shrouded in considerable mystery and speculation, as shown by the phenomenal success of Dan Brown's thriller The Da Vinci Code.
Even in relatively recent times, the identities of some well-known historical characters remain opaque and the subject of endless debate. Writers since the time of Voltaire have speculated over the identity of the 'Man in the Iron Mask', imprisoned by Louis XIV off the coast at Cannes in the south of France. Like all such mysteries, speculation has fanned what may have been a mundane sequence of events into something of far greater significance: in Napoleon's day, the Emperor's supporters spread a rumour that the masked man had actually been Louis XIV himself (an imposter having taken his place in Versailles), and that he had fathered a Bonaparte ancestor during his captivity.
Rumours about the identity of the anonymous author of the vitriolic Letters of Junius electrified the political scandalmongers of eighteenth-century London. The sixty-one letters, published in the Public Advertiser between 1769 and 1774, bitterly attacked the Grafton and North governments and the King, but the journal's proprietor, Henry Sampson Woodfall, claimed never to have met the writer, and did not know who he was. Junius's identity remains unknown to this day despite the many theories that have been put forward over the years.
On an entirely different plane, of course, was the shockwave caused in 1888 by the horrifying 'Jack the Ripper' murders. The fact that the perpetrator of these crimes remained uncaught sparked endless speculation about the killer's identity, which has never stopped. Dozens of potential 'Rippers' have been fingered, from dukes to dustmen, by a stream of researchers and historians who claim to have penetrated the secret of the killer's mysterious identity. Three years ago the crimewriter Patricia Cornwell wrote a bestselling book, Case Closed, naming the artist Walter Sickert as the serial killer; in April this year Tony Williams published Uncle Jack, which claimed the dubious honour for Sir John Williams, a distinguished gynaecologist and book collector. Had Jack the Ripper been caught and hanged in 1888 (and had he been known as the 'Whitechapel murderer' rather then by his ever-memorable title), it seems certain that far less interest in either the killer or the killings would have arisen. Interest in Jack the Ripper continues at fever pitch precisely because his murders remain unsolved.
That there is nothing like a mystery to attract attention is clear from the continuing interest in the identities of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Men of the notorious Cambridge Spy Ring. From the 1950s on, whenever the British Sunday newspapers had nothing else to write about, they could be relied upon to discover new revelations. It is still safe to say that any discoveries about the identities of anyone associated with this story--such as the so-called Sixth Man--would make headlines today even though anyone involved must by now be dead. Had the whole Spy Ring been quietly arrested and jailed in 1947, it seems likely that interest in them would now be far less, perhaps minimal. The mystery itself keeps the case alive.
Arguably the most hotly debated case of questioned identity in history is that of the actual author of the works of William Shakespeare. Needless to say, for the great majority of Shakespearian scholars there is no 'authorship question'. To them it is absolutely certain that William Shakespeare, the actor, theatre-sharer, and property owner who was born in Stratford in 1564 and died there in 1616, wrote the plays and poems that bear his name. …