Five Classic Conspiracy Theories

I wrote an article for Publishers Weekly pegged to the release next week of my book The United States of Paranoia. The essay lays out five popular conspiracy theories from American history, starting with the most ludicrous and steadily getting more empirically accurate. You'll have to click through to read my comments on each story, but here are capsule descriptions of the five tales:

I DON'T WANNA BE A PINHEAD NO MORE.Bill GriffithTheory #1: Native Americans are minions of Satan.

Theory #2: A southern cabal killed presidents Harrison, Taylor, and Lincoln, and it tried to kill presidents Jackson and Buchanan.

Theory #3: White doctors are conducting covert experiments on blacks.

Theory #4: Working in secret, a conspiracy replaced the country's original constitution with a document that concentrated more power in the national government.

Theory #5: The U.S. government deliberately undermined protest movements in the 1960s.

Spoiler alert: The first two are fantasies; the next two are sometimes accurate and sometimes fantasies, depending on which version of the story you hear; the last is just plain true.

Publishers Weekly has also named The United States of Paranoia one of the best new books of next week. And the Los Angeles Times has published the book's first newspaper review. The reviewer is kind.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • fish_remote||

    Theory #4: Working in secret, a conspiracy replaced the country's original constitution with a document that concentrated more power in the national government.

    That's just crazy talk.....nobody wrote anything down!

    FIST!

  • John||

    But it is true. They did it in secret and the group was called the Supreme Court.

  • Zeb||

    Seems like they've done most of it out in the open.

  • John||

    But the votes were in secret

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Dear Jesse Walker,

    Amazon doesn't have a preview of your book. Do you cover ex-President John Quincy Adams' return to politics as an anti-Mason?

  • Jesse Walker||

    Yes.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Awesome.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    It would have made *Amistad* more interesting.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

  • Outlaw||

    You should've posted some interesting conspiracies rather than this stuff.

    No offense.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Buy the book, moocher.

  • Outlaw||

    These riveting conspiracies have convinced me that I must have this book right now!

    SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY, JESSE!

  • Sevo||

    Jesse,
    When were those "popular"? I've barely heard of two of them.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Not necessarily popular today, but popular in their time.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Working in secret, a conspiracy replaced the country's original constitution with a document that concentrated more power in the national government.

    If by "a conspiracy working in secret" you mean "Congress and the Supreme Court, flagrantly and in plain view"...

  • CE||

    No, he means the Constitutional Convention that was tasked with updating the Articles of Confederation of the united States, which instead overthrew the sovereign States and created one nation, so yes, centralizing power, but no, not in secret.

  • Archduke Trousersenthusiast||

    If you want a good conspiracy theory, read Umberto Eco's "The Prague Cemetary". It covers all the conspiracies.

  • Swiss Servator - past LTC(ret)||

    Who? I seem to remember an author by a name similar to that...but HE BECAME DEAD TO ME for the ending of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

  • ||

    Well #3 is pretty well founded. Tuskegee was a decades-spanning atrocity that affected hundreds of black men.

  • SIV||

  • Jesse Walker||

    Well #3 is pretty well founded. Tuskegee was a decades-spanning atrocity that affected hundreds of black men.

    From the article:

    In the 19th and 20th centuries, rumors in African-American communities held that "night doctors" would capture blacks, kill them, and dissect their corpses. Sometimes scientists were said to use the bodies' blood to make medicine. During the Atlanta child murders of 1979 to 1981, when at least 21 black children and teenagers were kidnapped and killed, a particularly gruesome version of the tale held that the government was harvesting the kids' genitals to make aphrodisiacs.

    Such stories are often obviously false. It's hard to dismiss the entire genre, though. In the antebellum South, according to the medical historian Todd Savitt, scientists really did take "advantage of the slaves' helplessness to utilize them in demonstrations, autopsies, dissections, and experiments." The abolition of slavery didn't end the abuses. In the Tuskegee experiment of 1932 to 1972, the federal Public Health Service offered free medical care to several hundred black sharecroppers. It didn't tell the patients that they had syphilis, which the doctors deliberately left untreated in order to study whether the disease affects blacks and whites in different ways.
  • John||

    It is just amazing how evil people can be.

  • SIV||

    Why do you hate the science of public health?

  • PapayaSF||

    Night Doctors would be a good band name.

  • John||

    Number 5 is funny, as if the protest movements needed any help being undermined.

  • Zeb||

    Which protest movements? Civil rights protests were effective in many ways, despite many people in and out of government trying to undermine it. Anti-war protests, on the other hand, never seem to accomplish much.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    Modern day crazy conspiracy theories:

    The federal government is secretly providing guns to narco terrorists in Mexico to influence domestic American politics.

    The IRS and federal regulatory bureaucracies are harassing political opponents of the president and his party.

    The federal government is secretly spying on American citizens, vacuuming up enormous amounts of data on everyone.

    Federal prosecutors use data discovered by said spying to prosecute non terrorist, and commit perjury by fabricating alternative sources for that information.

    The president lies to the public about the cause of a terrorist attack. Blaming an obscure internet video and vowing to get whoever was responsible for that 'disgusting' video.

    The democrats 'free healthcare' program contains hidden provisions that will lead to millions of people having their work hours cut to less than 30 per week, will deny tens of thousands of families the ability to care for disabled family members at home and incenting employers to stop providing health insurance to their employees.

    People that mock the president will be subject to official harassment, investigation and be prevented from earning a living.

  • sarcasmic||

    Manufactured outrage!

  • John||

    Phony Scandals. Rightwing outrage machine!!

    RACIST!!

  • ||

    No mention of Roswell?

    Sheeesh!

  • Ken Barber||

    Did you see this morning's news? They declassified it just now... turns out it was a Soviet aircraft.

    And here I always thought the people of Roswell made the whole thing up to draw tourists.

  • Outlaw||

    I demand a link!

  • Archduke Trousersenthusiast||

    no 9/11?

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Theory #4: Working in secret, a conspiracy replaced the country's original constitution with a document that concentrated more power in the national government.

    The Federal Reserve and the Civil Service aren't exactly secret, but they have managed to usurp the Constitution and concentrate more power in the hands of the federal government.

  • Swiss Servator - past LTC(ret)||

    "He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance."?

  • Mick Kraut||

    What about these that have been rampant in the black community over the years?:

    Church's chicken is laced with saltpeter to render black males impotent

    Snapple is a KKK front company as evidenced by the (k) symbol and drawing of a slave ship on the label?

  • Jesse Walker||

    The Church's Chicken story is in the book. The Snapple one isn't.

  • Brett L||

    Popeye's is better anyhow.

  • Acosmist||

    Ha! Never heard the Snapple one before. Why would the KKK use a slave ship as their symbol, unless that slave ship is making a return voyage with the people the KKK doesn't want here?

  • Enough About Palin||

    #6 Reason had Lucy killed because she had incriminating evidence regarding Suderman and three teenage boys.

  • CE||

    Theory #2: A southern cabal killed presidents Harrison, Taylor, and Lincoln, and it tried to kill presidents Jackson and Buchanan.

    I'm pretty sure it's well established that there was indeed a southern conspiracy to kill Lincoln, along with other high administration officials. There were even multiple hangings.

    Theory #3: White doctors are conducting covert experiments on blacks.

    Sad but true.

    Theory #4: Working in secret, a conspiracy replaced the country's original constitution with a document that concentrated more power in the national government.

    Except it wasn't secret. They convened in Philadelphia and call the new constitution "The Constitution".

    Theory #5: The U.S. government deliberately undermined protest movements in the 1960s

    Are you saying it didn't? What about Kent State? What about spying on Martin Luther King, Jr. and other protest leaders?

  • Acosmist||

    What about Kent State?

  • Jesse Walker||

    Except it wasn't secret. They convened in Philadelphia and call the new constitution "The Constitution".

    They convened behind closed doors, and...oh, just read the article, it's all in there.

    Are you saying it didn't?

    What part of "the last is just plain true" do you not understand?

  • CE||

    I understand all of it. I just don't read the articles.

  • ||

    just read the article

    There is an article?

    God damn those 5 Jews at the center of the earth!!!!

  • ||

    Theory #4: Working in secret, a conspiracy replaced the country's original constitution with a document that concentrated more power in the national government.

    So what version of this is true?

  • CE||

    Theory #1: Native Americans are minions of Satan.

    So who was conspiring? Satan and his minions?

    I heard they were originally believed to be one of the lost tribes of Israel, or perhaps Martians or other extraterrestrials. Of course, modern DNA testing debunked both theories.

    There are still theories (not necessarily conspiracy theories) that some American Indians are descended from Vikings or other Europeans, but it's difficult to test now.

  • Jesse Walker||

    So who was conspiring? Satan and his minions?

    Yep:

    English theologian Joseph Mede believed that the devil settled the New World before the Christian colonists got here, recruiting "some of those barbarous Nations dwelling upon the Northern Ocean" and promising them "a Countrey far better than their own." Some of the leading Puritans took up this idea and ran with it. William Hubbard, an influential clergyman, believed hostile tribes were controlled by Satan—in Hubbard's words, "actuated by the Angel of the bottomless pit." After the Salem witch trials, another prominent minister—Cotton Mather—suggested that the alleged spiritual attacks originated "among the Indians, whose chief sagamores are well known unto some of our captives to have been horrid sorcerers."
  • Johnrambo||

    The government is paranoid.

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