How Unsolved History Works

The Premise

"Unsolved History" asks what really happened at "Custer's Last Stand."
"Unsolved History" asks what really happened at "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.