How Unsolved History Works

What really happened at the Battle of Gettysburg and the Boston Massacre? Are the conspiracy theories about JFK's death even possible? See how the "Unsolved History" crew gets to the bottom of some lingering mysteries. See more TV show pictures.
Photo courtesy The Discovery Channel

If NASA engineers invented a time machine tomorrow, you can be sure historians would be shelling out top dollar for just a few minutes at the wheel. History books are filled with mysteries, hotly debated issues and questionable stories, and if you could just get a look at the real scene of the event, you could finally answer a lot of these big questions. Imagine witnessing the beginnings of the American Revolution, the historic battles of the Civil War or any of the major events that have defined the past 100 years.

Discovery Channel's weekly series "Unsolved History" set out to do the next best thing. Using the most advanced investigation tools modern technology has to offer, the "Unsolved History" researchers attempt to reconstruct a famous event by piecing together any hard evidence that remains. Instead of relying on what the history books say alone, the investigators take a fresh look at the available facts.


The basic idea is to approach these historical mysteries in the same way criminal investigators approach modern ones. By looking at each historical event as a crime scene (the producers refer to it as a "time scene"), the show's researchers can scientifically devise the most likely scenario for the historical event in question. So far, their conclusions have been both surprising and enlightening.

What does it take to do all this? It turns out you need a large staff of historians, scientists and investigators, and a lot of sophisticated equipment. Just as in a real criminal case, investigators bring hard evidence and human intuition together to come up with the most likely explanation of what actual happened.

The result is an interesting, highly unique show. It's part history, part detective story and part technological showcase.

In this article, we'll find out what "Unsolved History" is all about, and we'll learn how the producers approached some specific episodes. As we'll see, this new show has a little something for everybody.



The Premise

"Unsolved History" asks what really happened at "Custer's Last Stand."
"Unsolved History" asks what really happenedat "Custer's Last Stand."
Photo courtesy The Discovery Channel

"Unsolved History" revolves around interesting stories from history that have an element of mystery about them. The producers' first challenge for every episode is to come up with a suitable subject. They are generally drawn to three types of episode subjects:

  • Topics with a certain amount of controversy surrounding them
  • Topics that are misunderstood by the general public
  • Topics with big lingering questions

In the first episode, for example, the producers investigate "Pickett's Charge," a fairly controversial event, at least among Civil War buffs. Was Confederate Major General George E. Pickett's infamous attack in the Battle of Gettysburg a desperate, last-gasp failure from the out-manned Confederates (as the Northern version of events reports), or was it a valiant, heroic last stand, as the Southern army claimed? The "Unsolved History" crew concludes that neither version is accurate. In another controversy-driven episode, the researchers attempt to separate folk mythology from fact in reconstructing what actually happened in the battle of the Alamo.


In a later episode, the research crew gets to the bottom of a widely misunderstood subject, the Boston Massacre. The common view among most Americans is that British soldiers fired upon a crowd of innocent civilian colonists, in an act of inexcusable oppression. The evidence, according to the "Unsolved History" crew, paints a very different picture -- they assert that the British soldiers, backed into a corner by an angry mob, fired in self defense.

In another episode, the crew investigates a different kind of "police incident," the famous shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. In the popular Old West mythology, four lawmen, led by Wyatt Earp and gunslinger Doc Holliday, valiantly protected the town of Tombstone from a gang of villainous outlaws. The Unsolved History crew approaches the event just as they would a police shooting today, using modern forensic tools to determine if it was "clean" police work or an abuse of power. Just as with the Boston Massacre, the investigators conclude that this was not a prudent use of police power.

The "lingering question" topics include an investigation into the last months of Adolph Hitler's life, with a reconstruction of his infamous underground bunker, and an analysis of the destruction of the USS Maine. The researchers have also explored the life and death of the Red Baron, the infamous World War I fighter pilot, pieced together the most likely scenario for "Custer's Last Stand," and explored some famous mysteries associated with the White House.

Another "lingering question" episode takes a fresh look at one of the most important events in recent history: the assassination of President Kennedy in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, on November 22, 1963. In this episode, the crew uses cutting edge computer technology to examine twelve amateur films of the assassination, revealing four different perspectives of the fatal shot. Some of this footage has never before been seen on national television. The crew also revisits Abraham Zapruder's famous 8mm film of the shooting, examining a breathtaking new transfer recently completed by the National Archive. By cross-referencing this photographic record with eyewitness accounts and a 3-D recreation of Dealey Plaza exactly as it was on that day, Unsolved History investigators rule out some prominent conspiracy theories related to the assassination.

The show's host, Pearl Harbor historian Daniel Martinez, walks the audience through the investigation process. Martinez holds a degree in history from California State University, and has worked as a ranger at various parks around the country. He has served as an adjunct professor at Hawaii Pacific University, and as a technical consultant for documentaries and the Michael Bay film "Pearl Harbor." His most important job is to be the face and personality of the show, but he is also one of the lead research historians for the series.

In the next section, we'll find out how the producers put together each episode after they've decided on an interesting subject.


On the Case

On a previous episode, the "Unsolved History" crew investigated the infamous Red Baron.
On a previous episode, the "Unsolved History" crew investigated the infamous Red Baron.
CONFIRM CREDIT BEFORE USING THIS IMAGE Photo courtesy The Discovery Channel

Once the producers arrive at a suitable subject for each episode, they consult history experts to get a full understanding of the relevant facts and theories. Then they put together a list of lingering questions and, given the available evidence, figure out how to arrive at potential answers.

The show is largely driven by high-tech investigation tools. To piece together the true story of the Boston Massacre, for example, the researchers figured out the exact dimensions of the old State House at the scene of the event with the aid of laser measuring devices. By matching this data with a 1770 diagram by Paul Revere, they were able to put together a model of the massacre, including the positions of the soldiers and four of the five victims.


A high-powered laser system also figures prominently in the Red Baron episode. The researchers positioned the laser on a tripod at the exact spot in Vaux-Sur-Somme, France, where machine gunners finally took down the flying ace. Next, they put a single-engine plane in the air, following the Baron's exact route, and gauged the difficulty of hitting the moving target with the laser beam.

Additionally, the crew worked with the Canadian Air Force to build a special chamber recreating the cold, low-oxygen conditions of a World War I era fighter plane flying at 20,000 feet. In these conditions, a highly trained fighter pilot in top physical shape experienced hypoxia, a shortage of oxygen to the brain, which caused total disorientation. The recreation clearly demonstrated the immense difficulty of even the simplest maneuvers in a World War I plane, let alone the dogfight acrobatics of the Red Baron and other fighter pilots of the era.

The USS Maine, destroyed in 1898
The USS Maine, destroyed in 1898
Photo courtesy The Discovery Channel

Ballistic recreations also figure prominently in the series. For the episode investigating the destruction of the USS Maine, the crew built an exact replica of part of the ship and recreated the 1898 explosion that sank the original. For the "Pickett's Charge" episode, they experimented with live ammo to figure out how well a wooden fence on the battlefield would have blocked the Confederate attack.

In the O.K. Corral investigation, the team calculated the exact range of a vintage 10-gauge shotgun in order to pinpoint the positions of many of the gunfighters. Additionally, they used a state-of-the-art police training simulator to shed light on the psychological experience of a gunfight, as well as a "life shirt" monitoring vest to estimate the physical stress (increased heart-rate and respiration) of a gunfighter under fire. To fully understand what happened that day, they reconstructed the gunfight on a Wild West movie set and also created a detailed computer map of the town. Finally, police investigators supplemented all this high-tech data with good old-fashioned detective work -- a step-by-step walk-through of the shoot-out, culled from recorded eyewitness testimony.

In future episodes, the show's creators plan to bring in a wide variety of different technologies, including fingerprinting, DNA evidence and computer modeling -- whatever is most suited to the case at hand. If you love science or history, or you just love a good mystery, this is definitely a show to mark on your calendar.

For more information about "Unsolved History" and related topics, check out the links on the next page.