PBS: History Detectives

For 10 seasons our viewers asked us to solve the puzzles behind their historic objects and artifacts. Did a silicon chip bring art to the moon? Do we have the guitar Bob Dylan used to start a rock and roll revolution? Can we return a Vietnam War diary to its author’s family? The investigations have taught us so many things about our nation and ourselves. 

Revisit these past investigations featuring detectives Elyse Luray, independent appraiser and art history expert; Gwendolyn Wright professor of architecture and history, Columbia University; Eduardo Pagán, the Bob Stump Endowed Professor of History at Arizona State University, Wes Cowan, independent appraiser and auctioneer, and Tukufu Zuberi, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of the Center for Africana Studies.

Highlight Episodes


When the SS Sultana exploded on April 27, 1865, more than 1,800 died —outnumbering the death toll from the Titanic disaster. Why, then, do so few people know about one of the worst maritime disasters in U.S. history? And what caused the explosion that took so many lives?

The Civil War was finally over, and most of the passengers aboard that night were Union soldiers returning to their families from Confederate prison camps. But the number of people on board far exceeded the ship’s capacity—they barely had room to stand.

At 2:00 a.m. a mysterious explosion below deck set the Sultana ablaze and catapulted passengers into the frigid Mississippi.

Can the History Detectives solve the mysterious explosion of the SS Sultana? Was it an act of Confederate sabotage? Faulty machinery? Dangerous conditions?

Meeting with descendants of rebel boat burners and Sultana survivors, uncovering government records, and hunting for the wreck site, the team reveals a tale of incompetence, bribery, politics and nepotism that leads all the way to President Lincoln and the White House.


As Glenn Miller’s musical career soared, he traded in his commercial success for a military uniform to entertain US troops during World War II. Then, on a foggy afternoon, December 15, 1944, he took off from England heading for France. His plane vanished over the English Channel. Glenn Miller was never seen again.

Since that fateful day, Glenn Miller’s disappearance has remained a mystery. Did friendly fire destroy the plane? Was Miller involved in espionage? Was he on a secret mission to end the war?

Recent discoveries—including an intriguing entry in an aircraft spotter’s log—give the History Detectives fresh leads and new clues to explore. Along the way, they learn of the unusual role Glenn Miller and his music played in winning hearts and minds during World War II. Can they find out what happened to this beloved bandleader once and for all?


In 1884, a string of gruesome murders terrorized the people of Austin, Texas. Three years before Jack the Ripper struck London, a killer—or possibly multiple killers—brutally attacked and murdered eight women in their beds. The heinous crimes stopped as abruptly as they began, and the slayings have remained unsolved for over a century.

Could this be one of the first known serial murders in the United States? Why were those responsible never brought to justice? Six of the eight victims were African American—were the crimes racially motivated?

Armed with modern forensics, the History Detectives interview descendants of the murdered women and enlist the help of modern-day experts in an effort to solve this historical whodunit. Can they finally crack the case?


On July 30, 1975, teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa disappeared without a trace. At the time, he was one of the most powerful men in the country. Because of his union leadership, many working Americans considered Hoffa their hero, but Hoffa also had powerful enemies.

For decades, investigators have searched for clues about what happened to Hoffa and why. Was he murdered? If so, who wanted him dead? After serving prison time for conspiracy and fraud, Hoffa was pardoned by President Richard Nixon. What interest did the White House have in Jimmy Hoffa?

Recently declassified government files reveal shocking evidence of corruption at the highest levels. Interviews with a former mob lawyer, a murder witness, and an FBI agent are among the sources History Detectives unearth as they track Jimmy Hoffa’s final hours and answer the question: “Who killed Jimmy Hoffa?”