Although reality is fascinating, the lives of humans are inevitably constrained by the limitations of ordinary existence. Compared to our imaginations, wherein anything is possible, the real world is often a far more mundane and less exciting place to inhabit. Coincidences, random chance, and natural misfortune play an intensely central part of our lives, even more so regarding the most momentous turning points of history. As a result, it is perhaps unsurprising that, in the absence of a seemingly rational explanation of irrational and inexplicable moments of history, that we turn to lurid and ill-thought out conspiracy theories to offer understanding. Providing us an exciting and more cinematic alternative to the conventional real-world realities, these theories, if left long enough, have the capacity to morph into fact in the minds of the ill-informed, however, harming both our collective history and our democratic public discourse.
Here are 20 (untrue) conspiracy theories from across American history that were (and in some cases still are) actually believed by people:
20. Hinckley’s assassination attempt was an elaborate conspiracy by George H.W. Bush, in cahoots with the CIA, to remove and consequently succeed President Reagan
Born May 29, 1955, John Warnock Hinckley Jr. became a household name in the United States, and indeed the world, following his failed attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. Shooting at Reagan as the American President departed the Washington Hilton Hotel following a speaking engagement, Hinckley fired six bullets, striking White House Press Secretary James Brady, Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy, and Officer Thomas Delahanty of the Metropolitan Police Department, before finally hitting Reagan himself in the chest. Arrested and charged with thirteen offenses, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was institutionalized until 2016.
After his trial, he wrote that his attack had been “the greatest love offering in the history of the world”, it is generally believed the mentally-ill Hinckley committed the act as a result of erotomania – a delusional condition resulting in obsessive infatuation. Believing he would win the affections of actress Jodie Foster, Hinckley sought to reenact the climax of Taxi Driver and assassinate a politician. Despite overwhelming evidence in favor of this motivation, alternative conspiracy theories have remained prominent. Centering in particular around the late George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s Vice President and formerly Director of the CIA, one such theory contends Bush used his connection to The Agency to brainwash Hinckley and remove his superior in an attempt to claim the Oval Office for himself.
19. The assassination of Martin Luther King remains one of the most prominent historical murders in the United States
Becoming the face of the Civil Rights Movement, winning the Nobel Peace Prize for being the “first person in the Western world to have shown us that a struggle can be waged without violence”, Martin Luther King Jr. died following a fatal shooting at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee on April 4, 1968. Assassinated by James Earl Ray, a fugitive and white supremacist, in the face of overwhelming evidence, including the responsible rifle with his fingerprints on it, Ray pleaded guilty to the deed on March 10, 1969, and was subsequently sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison for King’s murder.
Despite the available evidence clearly pointing to the confessing Ray, from the beginning conspiracy theories started spreading concerning the assassination. Aided by the support and belief of the King family, the foremost conspiracy theories involve the United States Government – who had previously spied on and persecuted King – the Mafia, and local police, who supposedly collaborated to frame Ray for their crime. Encompassing a variety of concealed events, including a hidden shooter in the bushes, inconclusive ballistics reports, and relying heavily upon Ray’s subsequent recantation of his guilty plea, there remains little to no evidence of any hidden motivation or agenda behind the tragic event.
18. Roswell, New Mexico, was not the site of a crashed spacecraft in the summer of 1947
A top-secret project conducted by the United States Army Air Forces between 1947 and 1949, Operation Mogul involved the flying of microphones on high-altitude balloons with the intent of detecting sound waves generated by Soviet atomic bomb tests. Launched on or around June 4, 1947, NYU Flight 4 subsequently crashed at a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. Requiring a military response given the nature of the top-secret device and the surrounding debris – claimed to simply be a weather balloon – the incident immediately spawned widespread interest and generated sustained conspiracy theories concerning a crashed “flying disc” and subsequent government cover-up.
Claiming the fallen object was, in fact, an alien spacecraft, Roswell became a focal point for ufologists – individuals who study alleged extraterrestrial occurrences on our planet – from the 1970s. Becoming popularized in 1980 following the publication of The Roswell Incident by Charles Berlitz and William Moore, in the years since a complicated and convoluted plot has been developed involving the United States Government. Despite the endurance of the theory – with allegedly as many as forty-five percent of Americans believing extraterrestrials have visited Earth as of 2016 – alongside similar contentions regarding Area 51 in Nevada, there remains no genuine evidence a UFO has ever crashed in New Mexico or indeed elsewhere.
17. Many mid-19th Century Protestants in the United States believed in a Catholic plot to seize the American nation and impose tyranny
Remembered primarily for his contributions to the development of the eponymous telegraph code, Samuel Morse was also a prominent exponent of anti-Catholic conspiracy theories during the mid-19th century. Running unsuccessfully for Mayor of New York in 1836 as the candidate for the Nativist Party – an extreme anti-immigration party opposed to foreigners – the year before Morse had published Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States. Claiming in his work of a Papist plot to seize control of the United States, Morse detailed an extensive conspiracy to impose the political will of the Vatican over that of the American Constitution.
Not the sole source of “Romanist” conspiracy theories, anti-Catholic sentiment gave way throughout the mid-century to wild accusations of intrigue and secret covenants. Triggered chiefly by the mass immigration of Irish and German Catholics between 1830 and 1860, Pope Pius IX’s suppression of the liberal Revolutions of 1848 provided fuel to already heightened Protestant fears in America. Resulting in the creation of several organizations, including the Order of the Star Spangled Banner and the Know-Nothing Party, these groups came to represent a surprisingly mainstream opinion in the United States that Catholics were seeking to undermine and destroy the Protestant way of life.
16. One of the biggest stories of the 1930s, the kidnapping of the son of Charles Lindbergh spawned numerous conspiracy theories
The twenty-month-old son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, on March 1, 1932, Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr. was abducted from his crib on the upper floor of the family home in East Amwell, New Jersey. Discovered on May 12, the infant’s decomposing corpse was found by a truck diver at the side of a nearby road having died soon after his kidnapping on March 2. Following a series of poorly sourced leads and employing excessive and questionable police tactics, in September 1934 Richard Hauptmann, a German immigrant carpenter, was arrested for the crime. Found guilty of first-degree murder, Hauptmann was sentenced to death despite his protestations of innocence.
Largely spurred by the policing errors surrounding the Lindbergh case, questions have persistently endured concerning the accuracy of the official account. Generating conspiracy theories involving a coverup, after independent analysis of the ladder allegedly used by Hauptmann failed to find his fingerprints, the ladder was sanitized and erased of all forensic evidence. Becoming a common trope of these unsubstantiated theories is the supposed culpability of the elder Lindbergh himself, with considerations ranging from a prank gone terribly wrong to a desperate bid for attention given his dwindling fame and status with the ascendancy of other rival aviators.
15. The murder of Senator Robert F. Kennedy as he stood poised to win the Democratic nomination generated intense focus and conspiratorial murmurings
Having been declared the victor in the South Dakota and California presidential primaries earlier the same day, Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy – the younger brother of President John F. Kennedy – was mortally wounded on June 5, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Shot multiple times following a televised celebration, the United States Senator from New York was declared dead twenty-six hours later. Arresting twenty-four-year-old Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian-Jordanian who later claimed he had been motivated by Kennedy’s support for Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967, Sirhan was initially sentenced to death before receiving commutation to life in prison.
Following just five years after the assassination of his brother, as well as the high-profile murders of several other leading public figures, Robert Kennedy’s death has since been exploited by several unfounded conspiracy theories. Supported by no credible evidence to date, as with similar alleged conspiracies the contents of these theories are wide-ranging, from assertions Sirhan was not the shooter, to that he did not work alone, or that he was secretly recruited by the CIA to perform the task. Despite the prevalence of these theories within the mainstream public, all attempts by Sirhan to use them as part of appeals processes have failed under more precise judicial scrutiny.
14. Both benign and nefarious conspiracy theories surrounded the failed attempt by Coca-Cola to alter their recipe in 1985
Suffering a declining market share, with consumers seemingly preferring the sweeter taste of rival Pepsi-Cola, on April 23, 1985, Coca-Cola underwent a recipe change to replace its original formula with an altered version in an effort to appease fans. Triggering a hostile backlash from the American public, despite their apparent disfavor with the original taste, the Coca-Cola Company received in excess of 40,000 letters expressing anger at the change. Forced to reintroduced the original formula after just seventy-three days, the saga remains an influential cautionary tale against tampering with a well-established brand unnecessarily.
Despite being considered a major failure for the company, New Coke has since become the object of conspiracy theories alleging ulterior motives. Claiming a company as successful as Coca-Cola could not have made such a blunder, an erroneous hypothesis to begin any investigation with as human error is near limitless, the most benign but still uncorroborated theories regard the failure as a deliberate marketing ploy to increase sales once the original returned to shelves. Other more extravagant, but equally unproven theories, contend the experiment was designed to cover for the removal of illegal drugs to evade prosecution by the DEA to the inclusion of harmful chemicals to induce psychological changes upon the American populace.
13. The Philadelphia Experiment was the invention of a hoax rather than the leaked truth of a government insider
An alleged military experiment conducted by the United States Navy at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard on or around October 28, 1943, the “Philadelphia Experiment” allegedly involved unknown cloaking technology being used to render the destroyer escort USS Eldridge (DE-173) invisible. First appearing as a conspiracy theory in 1955, in letters of unknown origin sent to astronomer Morris K. Jessup, the U.S. Navy has persistently denied any such experiment was ever conducted, either in Philadelphia at the specific date or on any other occasion, whilst, at least according to the known laws of physics, the science is also impossible.
Promoted heavily by Jessup, who had recently published The Case for the UFO, following his acquisition of the series of anonymous letters Jessup became convinced also of the involvement of extraterrestrials in the experiment. Relying almost exclusively on his nameless penpal, who identified himself with the pseudonym Carl Allen, Jessup’s interpretation of events was swiftly adopted by like-minded individuals. However, lacking any corroborating evidence, recent assessments have broadly concluded “Carl Allen” was either a prankster or an imaginative loner merely writing amusing stories to an overly gullible and receptive fool.
12. The death of Tecumseh at the hands of a future Vice President has attracted several conspiratorial arguments concerning the precise circumstances behind the warrior’s demise
A prominent member of the Shawnee people of North America, Tecumseh was a Native American warrior and chief who rose to become the leader of a multi-tribal confederacy during the early 19th century. Envisioning the creation of an independent nation for indigenous peoples east of the Mississippi under British protection, Tecumseh fought hard to repel the fledgling United States from lands in the Old Northwest Territory. Allying with Great Britain during the War of 1812, following defeat during Tecumseh’s War in 1811, Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813, triggering the collapse of his confederacy.
Traditionally alleged to have been killed in battle by Colonel Richard Johnson, who would later serve as the ninth Vice President of the United States, in later decades conspiracy theories have questioned this historical assertion. Claiming Johnson’s political career was immeasurable advanced by his killing of the legendary Native, becoming a prominent slogan for his candidature in 1836, advocates of these theories hold different individuals as responsible for the death. Often claimed by the descendants of the supposedly responsible soldier, none of these declarations have reached serious historical credibility rivaling the consistent narrative of Johnson’s.
11. The “October Surprise” conspiracy theory attempts to connect the Iran hostage crisis and the Iran-Contra Affair to Reagan
Following the taking of American hostages during the Iranian Revolution in November 1979, prior to the presidential election in 1980, the Republican Party remained persistently concerned President Carter might resolve the situation at the final hour and garner an electoral boost to retain office. Failing to inflict this blow upon his adversary, the Republican candidate, Ronald Reagan, emerged victorious and was inaugurated on January 20, 1981. Merely twenty minutes after Reagan’s swearing-in as President of the United States, Iran unilaterally announced the release of fifty-two American hostages.
Although perhaps coincidental or benign, the timing unsurprisingly generated intense focus and has since spawned related conspiracy theories alleging collusion between the Reagan campaign and Iran. Asserting Iran was persuaded to hold onto the hostages during the election to ensure Carter’s approval continue to dwindle, the theory contends Reagan promised in return for the assistance to supply Iran with embargoed weapons – an act allegedly fulfilled by his administration until being exposed as the Iran-Contra affair years later. Lacking supporting evidence, with only a handful of individuals testifying in the affirmative and no corroborating material discovered despite multiple congressional inquiries, the unsubstantiated conspiracy theory remains an interesting, if unlikely, question of history.
10. Elvis Presley’s death at just forty-two resulted in the belief the singer faked his death to escape stardom and retire in peace
Becoming the “King of Rock and Roll”, Elvis Presley shot to sudden and unprecedented musical fame in 1956 following the release of “Heartbreak Hotel” at number one. Quickly becoming the face of American music and having a transformative effect on the industry, Elvis’s work garnered widespread critical and commercial success. Sporadic in output, with his career interrupted by his two years of military service in the late-1950s, as well as a seven-year break from live performances during the 1960s, in later life Elvis became increasingly addicted to prescription drugs. Overdosing twice on barbiturates in 1973, inducing a three-day coma on one occasion, the increasingly overweight Elvis struggled to maintain the image he had produced in his younger years.
Finally, following years of ill-health and drug use, on August 16, 1977, Elvis died at the age of just forty-two as a result of a drug-related cardiac arrest. Despite this terminal conclusion to his life’s story, a sizable proportion of the American population – approximately an incredulous eight percent at the time of last polling – believe Elvis did not die as reported but instead went into hiding. Alleging “The King” felt he could not retire peacefully, adherents to the theory claim Elvis instead faked his death using a wax dummy and adopted a new identity. Since 1977, there have been numerous alleged sightings of Elvis around the world, often quickly proven to be nothing more than instances of similarly looking persons.
9. Many theorized Vice President Andrew Johnson was responsible fo the death of his superior, Abraham Lincoln
The sixteenth President of the United States, responsible for overseeing the victory of the Union against the Confederate States of America in the American Civil War, just days after the conclusion of the vicious conflict, on April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln attended a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater. Shot in the head during said performance by actor John Wilkes Booth, who subsequently leaped onto the stage to proclaim his famous affirmation – “sic semper tyrannis” – Lincoln became the first American head of state to be assassinated, dying the following morning without regaining consciousness from the gunshot wound.
Although the endeavor itself was naturally part of a proven conspiracy intended to revive the lost Confederate cause, involving the planned simultaneous murders of the three most important individuals in government – Lincoln, Seward, and Johnson – only the attack on Lincoln succeeded. Seward was merely wounded by his assailants, whilst Johnson’s would-be attacker did not even attempt his assignment. This latter aspect of history has resulted in an enduring conspiracy theory suggesting the involvement of the Vice President, claiming, without evidence, Johnson sought to take advantage of the post-war situation to eliminate his boss and supplant him in the White House.
8.The sinking of the USS Maine in Havana has remained a focal point for believers in false-flag incidents
Commissioned in 1895, built in response to an increase in naval forces in Latin America, the USS Maine was designed to serve as an armored cruiser capable of reasserting American prestige at sea. However, due to a protracted development process, by the time Maine entered service she was already vastly out of date. Stationed by the United States Navy in Havana Harbor on the evening of February 15, 1898, positioned to protect American interests during the Cuban revolt against Spain, the ship suddenly exploded. Killing almost three-quarters of her crew, totaling 266 individuals, Maine quickly sank.
Investigated by a board of inquiry, the precise cause remained unclear as did the persons responsible. Nevertheless, public opinion in the U.S. blamed Spain and, fanned by inflammatory rhetoric printed by newspaper magnates William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, the incident became a rallying cry for war. In the absence of clear causation – with expert opinion divided between a magazine explosion and a fire in the coal bunker – conspiracy theories have alternatively proposed the event was a false-flag attack committed by the U.S. to provide necessary pretext for an otherwise controversial war. Despite no supporting evidence, this theory remains the consensus opinion in modern-day Cuba, with monuments in Havana blaming American “imperialist greed” for the attack.
7. The death of Marilyn Monroe produced lurid conspiracy theories involving affairs with both John and Robert Kennedy
One of Hollywood’s foremost stars, Marilyn Monroe quickly rose to stardom as among the most popular sex symbols of the 1950s, becoming emblematic of the United States during this period. However, behind her successful acting career, Monroe’s private life – the focus of sustained and intrusive press attention – revealed a troubled existence. Struggling with substance abuse, anxiety, and depressing, all three of Monroe’s marriages broke down within only a few years. Within a year of her third and last to playwright Arthur Miller, Monroe died at the age of only thirty-six on August 5, 1962, following an overdose of barbiturates.
Ruled a probable suicide, given Monroe’s previous history of mental illness and substance abuse, in the years since several conspiracy theories have claimed an alternative series of events behind the actress’ untimely death. Beginning in 1964, claims started being made linking Monroe with Robert Kennedy, implicating the politician in her death as part of a cover-up for an alleged affair between the pair. Becoming the staple centerpiece of subsequent conspiracy theories, involving parties ranging from communists to the FBI, these assertions, lacking in evidence, typically contend Monroe was planning on going public and the Kennedy’s sought to silence her.
6. The death of Zachary Taylor just sixteen months after taking office has persistently been twisted into an assassination allegedly by pro-slavery factions
A career officer in the United States Army, serving during the War of 1812 as well as the Mexican-American War, Zachary Taylor rose to the rank of major general and became a national hero for his victories. Becoming the twelfth President of the United States in March 1949 on the back of his military service, Taylor’s core platform was the preservation of the Union and settling the inflammatory issue of slavery. However, just sixteen months into his term of office, on July 9, 1850, the sixty-five-year-old Taylor died after a short but brutal contraction of an unknown illness. Succeeded by Millard Fillmore, his replacement quickly signed the Compromise of 1850 which permitted the expansion of slavery into the Southwest.
Believed to have been the product of the over-consumption of large quantities of raw fruit and iced milk during a fund-raising event at the under-construction Washington Monument, inducing a digestive ailment similar to dysentery, several other cabinet members were afflicted with a comparable illness around the same time. In spite of this, almost immediately following Taylor’s demise rumors began spreading regarding an assassination. Alleging he had been poisoned by pro-slavery Southerners to achieve a more receptive White House, such conspiracy theories became sufficiently prevalent in the late-20th century to warrant an exhumation which proved beyond doubt poison was not involved.
Widely accepted Morgan either was murdered and dumped in the Niagara River, or alternatively was paid to disappear and stop his attacks on the Masonic order, his death sparked a series of conspiracy theories across North America. Protests against Freemasons, who quickly became regarded as a sinister organization working against liberty, became commonplace, whilst the Anti-Masonic Party gained mainstream support and contested the presidential elections of 1832. Today, Masonry continues to be regarded with supreme suspicion in the United States, with a substantial proportion still believing in a harmful ulterior motive.
4. Without proof, theorists alleged that Roosevelt and his commanders were aware in advance of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and deliberately did nothing
Striking the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Operation AI was a surprise military strike launched by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service designed to cripple the American Pacific Fleet. Resulting in the deaths of 2,403 Americans, as well as 1,178 wounded, in addition to the loss of four battleships and several damaged vessels, the attack, although destructive, failed in the intended objective of preventing American involvement in Southeast Asia. Occurring without a formal declaration of war, nor with any explicit warning of military action, the attack was consequently regarded as a war crime by the Tokyo Trials in the aftermath of the war and resulted in Congress declaring war itself upon Japan the following day.
Despite the devastation caused by the attack, in the decades since several conspiracy theories have formed accusing the American government of possessing prior knowledge. Alleging officials were aware of Japanese intentions and designs, but deliberately choosing not to act to force the divided U.S. to finally enter the Second World War, these theories possess noticeable similarities to assertions Churchill permitted Coventry to be bombed to disguise the successful cracking of the enigma code. Although garnering moderate interest and belief, these theories rely heavily on circumstantial evidence, including Roosevelt’s decision to move the bulk of forces to a single location, and are rejected by mainstream historians.
3. The assassination of Malcolm X has spawned several conspiracy theories alleging the covert participation of other organizations and individuals
Serving as one of the most prominent faces of the Civil Rights Movement, following a prolonged period of preaching the separation of black and white Americans, Malcolm X concluded his career supporting the integration of the races. An activist for the rights of persecuted minorities in the United States, in contrast to his contemporary Martin Luther King, Malcolm X was not opposed to the use of violence in pursuit of his political objectives. Eventually facing the same tactics in response, on February 21, 1965, as Malcolm X was planning to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan, he was assassinated by three members of the Nation of Islam.
Riddled with twenty-one gunshot wounds, the three individuals responsible for the attack – Thomas Hagan, Norman Butler, and Thomas Johnson – were convicted and sentenced to life in prison in March 1966. Akin to the assassination of King three years later, conspiracy theories offering alternative versions of events immediately began being proliferated. Accusing a range of individuals and organizations, from government officials, the NYPD, FBI, or the CIA, to drug dealers, none of these theories have obtained legitimate proof verifying any aspect of their wild claims. Nevertheless, pressure continues to be applied for the “truth” to be released by advocates of these conspiratorial speculations.
2. Many still believe in conspiracy theories involving the Moon landings remain nevertheless widely subscribed to
The first spaceflight to land on the surface of the Moon, Apollo 11 made history when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, to become the first humans to walk on another celestial object. Spending two and a quarter hours together wandering the Moon, collecting materials and performing various tasks, the historic mission fulfilled the national goal set by Kennedy in 1961 and effectively ended the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Despite the fact the latter never once suggested trickery by their enemy, in the years since the momentous achievement the Moon landing has become the center of one of the most widely believed conspiracy theory.
Alleging man did not walk on the Moon, these collective theories assert the entire mission was a hoax perpetrated by NASA. Claiming all the events depicted were instead staged on film, these wild and absurd conspiratorial allegations are incredulously believed by an estimated twenty percent of Americans. Purporting to demonstrate through vague and incorrect assertions regarding lighting, shadows, and other technological explanations how the saga was faked, these theories have consistently failed to offer a single shred of evidence supporting their claims whilst the landings themselves enjoy an overwhelming array of third-party evidence supporting their veracity.
1. The assassination of John F. Kennedy remains one of the most widely disputed historical events
Serving as the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy exploded to popularity in the 1950s following a glowing performance in the Pacific Theater during the Second World War. Elected at the age of just forty-three, becoming the second-youngest individual to win the Oval Office in 1960, Kennedy’s tenure was marked by a period of dangerous escalation in the Cold War which culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. During a visit to Dallas on November 22, 1963, however, whilst riding in an open-top motorcade, Kennedy was shot in the head by former Marine Lee Harvey Oswald.
Arrested seventy minutes after the shooting, Oswald was charged with murder before himself being assassinated by Jack Ruby the following day. Whilst the Warren Commission concluded Oswald acted entirely alone, as did a subsequent House investigation, sustained belief in a wider conspiracy remains prevalent. Believed by as many as eighty percent of the American public, despite an absence of evidence supporting these assertions, it has been widely alleged additional shots were fired, that bullet trajectories fail to match up, and that additional organizational support, often involving the CIA or sometimes organized crime syndicates, were responsible for motivating Oswald.
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