Every May since 1981, parties unknown have run a cryptic, full-page ad in the University of Arizona’s student newspaper. Locals call it the May Day Mystery.

Arizona’s da Vinci Code

Written by Douglas Towne Category: History Issue: May 2017
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The May Day Mystery ad of 2008

Snail mail from the mysterious “Orphanage”

The 1989 ad

Sleuths love Arizona for its mysteries, from the Lost Dutchman gold mine to the otherworldly Phoenix Lights. Less known, but just as worthy of Sherlock Holmes for its perplexing weirdness, is a perennial headscratcher in Tucson that has stumped residents with a 35-year trail of bizarre clues.

Dubbed the May Day Mystery, because new clues always appear on May 1, the Old Pueblo’s signature intrigue is propelled by newspaper messages that some believe herald a path toward untold riches. Others think they reveal a global conspiracy, future social turmoil or entrance to a secret society. A few scoff, dismissing the posts as an elaborate prank. One thing’s for sure: There are as many theories as there are devoted detectives, and no one has yet solved the complex riddle.

“When I first started, I thought I was going to crack this mystery in a year, make a victory post, and stick a fork in the site,” says Bryan Hance, who founded MayDayMystery.org in 1997. Two decades later, he’s still at a loss to explain what’s going on. “I used to have lots of theories, and I’ve blown through them all with nothing concrete to show for it.” Hance discovered the mystery innocently enough when he read the May Day issue of The Daily Wildcat – the University of Arizona’s campus newspaper – as a freshman in 1995.

Hance, a journalism major, noticed a full-page, thousand-dollar advertisement in the student-run periodical. Seemingly composed of intellectual gibberish, the intricate collage featured historical figures and references, symbols, various languages, maps, musical notes, scientific diagrams, dates and mathematical calculations. “I chalked it up to an obscure campus organization or some fraternity,” he says. “Or drugs.”

It took Hance two years to piece together the extent of the mystery. By the time he saw the third full-page advertisement on May 1, 1997, he was the paper’s webmaster. On a whim, he began digging into back issues, looking at the dates referenced in the advertisements for additional past clues.

“The Wildcat archives are these massive, bound, full-size books, absolute beasts, about 20 pounds each,” he says. “They had been tossed in a closet with no organization whatsoever. So I’d pull a date from the ad I was looking at, physically go dig in the closet for half an hour, pull the archive I needed, find an ad, and then repeat the process.”

After two hours, Hance had found enough mysterious ads to realize he had stumbled onto a previously unknown enigma of immense proportions. Hance’s research uncovered a large ad published every May Day since 1981, along with smaller unscheduled ads of less complexity. Each ended with “Smiley Guy,” a large-eared smiley face signature.

To help crack the case, Hance set up his May Day Mystery website and began receiving e-mails from the “Orphanage,” which claimed to be the source of the ads. They wrote that the announcements were not a game but led to a culminating event in the form of a revolution. One message ended with the statement, “The day you can see the door, you will be welcomed inside.”

Hance obtained a post office box for the site and began receiving unusual correspondence. Many had a Las Vegas postmark, and all had Hance’s P.O. box as the return address. “Some of the mail was covered with crazy world stamps and routed through Pakistan or some other bizarre country,” he says. “I’m not sure why the U.S. Postal Service hasn’t put me on a ‘watch list’ of some sort, given the wild things they’ve held for me.”

The parcels contained alerts from the Orphanage and odd items like Middle Eastern coins and cash, which Hance meticulously archived.

These gifts came with strings. “One time Bryan got an electronic missive admonishing him for not posting the latest communiqué on the website,” says Mariah Freark, who was the copy editor for The Daily Wildcat in 2002. “He then posted something like, ‘Sorry, I’m behind on my scanning, I’ve been sick,’ and they sent him a get-well card.”

Things only got weirder. Hance began receiving phone calls from people apparently reading from scripts. “I’d try to give them a hard time, make them laugh, anything to elicit a response – and get nowhere,” he says. “They’d deliver their message, which was usually advance notice of an upcoming ad or incoming package, and hang up.”

Hance became a celebrity to some clue seekers, including one who insisted on meeting him. “They very calmly, and with extensive documentation, tried to convince me it was the work of the Zodiac Killer,” he says. “That made for an entertaining evening, but it was certainly not the last.”

Hance, now a computer engineer in Portland, Ore., can’t pinpoint who is behind the messages. “There’s the ‘lone gunman’ theory, which I’ve discarded as too long-running, expensive and complex,” he says. He rattles off other possibilities: secret societies, radical groups, tricksters and performance artists. “They’re all totally valid and wildly invalid, is what I’ve found. I think that’s why it’s still so damn fascinating.”

Despite 20 years of investigation, Hance has found only one connection to the May Day Mystery: Robert Truman Hungerford, a Tucson attorney who places the ads in the paper. Hungerford, a UA alumnus, serves as legal counsel for and is a member of the Orphanage. He contacted Hance via e-mail after Hance started his site. Hungerford is also a member of Mensa, with interests in philosophy, theology, math, history and linguistics. “The mystery is a work of art,” Hungerford says. “There’s a society behind it, and this is the unveiling of the program that deals with future events.”

Hungerford, who has been tight-lipped over the years about the Orphanage, provided some clues in an exclusive interview with PHOENIX. “All you need to uncover the mystery is the text on Hance’s website,” Hungerford says. “I would suggest to anyone who is interested that they start with the theological content.” He says the 2008 ad, with its financial theme, is the most compelling message. Another big clue is the 1989 message featuring Oliver Cromwell, the 16th century English military and political leader.

Hungerford also revealed the puzzle’s roots. “The May Day Mystery arose out of a group formed in August 1969,” he says. “There were earlier messages than the first one printed in 1981, but they were in a different medium, which I’m not at liberty to disclose.” Hungerford says there’s no need to find the previous messages to solve the mystery.

Of course, there’s the possibility that Hungerford is the sole initiator behind the May Day Mystery, a question that the attorney declined to comment on.

At The Daily Wildcat, the mystery remains an oddity, though it’s more folklore than subject of debate, says current editor-in-chief Sam Gross. “The running conspiracy theory is that it’s some new world order or Illuminati group, but that’s more office joke than actual theory,” Gross says.

For the foreseeable future, The Daily Wildcat will continue to run these ads, which the newspaper has never received a complaint about. “College publications are professional, but I’ve never for a second thought they shouldn’t push the envelope and be a little bit daring,” says Brett Fera, director of Arizona Student Media. “Maybe running these ads is another way for a student paper to have that personality.”
For those who dare explore the compelling conundrum, Hance offers a caveat: “I’ve ruined a lot of people’s productivity by introducing them to the May Day Mystery.”

On the upside, those who venture down the rabbit hole may be the recipients of some interesting correspondence.