The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day

Khalid Elhassan - January 30, 2022

The 2016 US presidential race was not the first major election marred by allegations of a dastardly plan by Russians to influence the outcome. Nearly a century earlier, in 1924, the British public was shocked just four days before they were to cast their ballots by reports of Russian interference in the electoral campaign. Below are thirty things about that plan and other bonkers conspiracies and plots that actually saw the light of day.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
The Daily Mail’s publication of the Zinoviev letter. Pinterest

30. That Other Time When a Major Election Was Marred by Russian Interference

On October 25th, 1924, The Daily Mail published a letter from Grigory Zinoviev, Chairman of the Comintern – an organization headed by the USSR to advance global communism – to Britain’s Communist Party. In it, Zinoviev directed British communists to engage in treasonous activities in order to swing an upcoming election to the Labour Party. Headed by Ramsay MacDonald, Labor was deemed friendlier – or at least less hostile – towards the Soviet Union than the Tories. Zinoviev’s directives to the Communist Party of Britain included the subversion of British soldiers and sailors and preparations for a military insurrection in working-class areas.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Cartoon published in Punch Magazine after release of the Zinoviev letter, equating a vote for Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour Party to a vote for Bolshevism. Wikimedia

Unsurprisingly, the conservative press had a field day with the revelations, and in the final days before the election, hammered MacDonald and Labour as tools of communism. On election day, October 29th, 1924, the Labour government was ousted from office, and the Tories romped to victory. The Conservative Party gained 154 new seats in the House of Commons, for a decisive majority of 412 MPs out of 650. It was then discovered – although too late to do MacDonald and the Labour Party any good – that the Zinoviev letter was a forgery.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Ramsay MacDonald. Library of Congress

29. A Plan by Partisan Intelligence Officials to Swing an Election With Fake Evidence

Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Party formed a UK government for the first time in early 1924. However, it was a minority government in a House of Commons split between Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberals. To say that the British establishment was less than happy to have a Prime Minister from a socialist-leaning party would be an understatement. So it set out to undermine him and his government at every turn. On October 10th, 1924, MI5 – Britain’s version of the FBI – received a copy of the Zinoviev letter, dated September 15th. It was determined to be a fake, and after it was shown to the Prime Minister, MI5’s chief Vernon Kell agreed that it should remain secret.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Press coverage of the Zinoviev letter sank the Labour Party at the polls in 1924. BBC

Secret, that is, until just a few days before the election. At the most damaging moment for Ramsay MacDonald, Kell or one of his subordinates leaked the letter in order to damage the Prime Minister’s electoral prospects. A review by Britain’s Foreign Office concluded that the letter was likely forged by Russian Tsarist exiles, angry that the Labour government had signed a treaty with the USSR, and agreed to extend it a loan. They saw to it that it reached MI5. Between MI5 and MI6 – Britain’s version of the CIA – conservative British intelligence officials ensured that the letter reached the press just in time shiv the Labour Party.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
British soldiers in Belfast, 1971. Irish Times

28. The British Plan to Link Irish Nationalist Paramilitaries With Devil Worship

On January 30th, 1972, British paratroopers shot 26 Catholic protesters in Northern Ireland, of whom fourteen died. An already tense situation known as The Troubles got orders of magnitude worse. Urban guerrilla warfare erupted, as Catholic and Irish nationalist hostility towards Britain skyrocketed. Many who until then had been content with protests and civil disobedience now flocked to join paramilitaries and shoot it up with the forces of the state. Before anybody knew it, the British military and police had their hands full trying to keep a lid on things. British military intelligence turned to psychological warfare in an attempt to lessen public support for the paramilitaries. As the violence spiked through the roof, Captain Collin Wallace, a British Army psychological warfare specialist, executed a plan to link the emerging armed groups with devil worship and black magic.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Coverage of black magic rituals in the Irish press. Pinterest

The aim was to create the idea that the paramilitaries and their violence had unleashed evil forces. Against the backdrop of newfound fears triggered by the release of movies like The Exorcist and The Devil Rides Out, Wallace and his men scattered upside-down crucifixes and black candles across war-torn Belfast. Simultaneously, the authorities leaked stories about satanic rituals and black masses and tied them to run-of-the-mill crimes. In the last four months of 1973 alone, over seventy articles about devil worship and the like were published, and panic about Satanism swept through Northern Ireland. As Wallace put it years later: “Ireland was very superstitious and all we had to do was bring it up to date“. The manufactured hysteria also helped keep kids home at night, and away from buildings used by the authorities for undercover surveillance.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
French marine commandos wade ashore into Vietnam in 1950. YouTube

27. A French Plan to Deliberately Trap Their Own Army as Bait

Japan seized Indochina from France in 1940, and when the French returned to resume charge after Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II, things had changed. The colonial subjects were not eager to resubmit to foreign rule and sought independence. The result was the First Indochina War (1946 – 1954). As that conflict wore on, France’s grip on her Southeast Asian colonies was loosened by the increasingly assertive Viet Minh nationalist forces. On the plus side for the French, they had a decided edge in firepower. However, they could not get the lightly armed Viet Minh to offer the type of stand-up pitched battle in which superior firepower could prove decisive.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
French paratroopers airdropped into Dien Bien Phu. Tes Teach

At wit’s end, a plan was hatched to entice the guerrillas to mass for a pitched battle: offer them an irresistible lure. That lure would be French paratroopers airdropped into an isolated base, Dien Bien Phu. The Viet Minh, unable to resist the opportunity to destroy the isolated French, would flock to the area. The garrison kept supplied by air, would resist. They would draw in more and more Viet Minh into a battle of attrition, in which they would be wrecked by superior French firepower. The paratroopers were dropped into Dien Bien Phu, whose main feature was an airstrip in a valley encircled by hills. As seen below, things did not go in accordance with the plan.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Victorious Viet Minh wave their banner over a fortress captured from the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Wikimedia

26. A Brainstorm That Morphed Into a Debacle

Things quickly turned sour for the French at Dien Bien Phu, and they discovered that many of their assumptions were mistaken. The French plan had assumed that the guerrillas lacked anti-aircraft capabilities, but the hills that ringed the airstrip were soon studded with flak guns. They formed a deadly gauntlet, through which aircraft had to fly when they took off from or landed at the airstrip. So many planes were shot down that the French were soon forced to rely on airdrops for supply. Many of the airdrops missed their targets and landed within enemy lines, instead. Another mistaken French assumption was that the Viet Minh would have no artillery. The Vietnamese commander, general Giap, organized tens of thousands of porters into a supply line to ensure that his men would have plenty of guns and shells.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
French prisoners captured at Dien Bien Phu herded into captivity. Pinterest

With sheer manpower, the porters hauled disassembled howitzers over rough terrain to the hills that overlooked the French. There, they were ingeniously dug in to render them immune from counter-battery fire, and were kept adequately supplied with ammunition. The besieged French were bombarded nonstop and began to run low and supplies and munitions. Relentless attacks reduced fortified positions one after another, and the defensive perimeter shrank steadily. Within two months, the French were forced to surrender. After they lost 4000 dead and missing, and nearly 7000 wounded, about 12,000 survivors were herded into Viet Minh captivity. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the French soon threw in the towel and exited Indochina.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Assembly of a Sticky Bomb. Wikimedia

25. An Ingenious Weapons With a Serious Flaw

The Sticky Grenade or Sticky Bomb was one of WWII’s more infamous – and hilariously inept weapons. It was developed by the British in the aftermath of defeat in the Battle of France and the forced evacuation from Dunkirk. The British Army got most of its personnel out, but most of its antitank weapons were left behind. So the British turned to a stopgap, cheap, and easily manufactured weapon, for use against tanks. The Anti-Tank Hand Grenade #74, better known as the Sticky Bomb, was a maraca-looking device with an outer metal shell that covered a bomb coated with an adhesive.

The plan was that the user would pull a pin to remove the outer metal layer and expose the sticky bomb. He would then run up to a tank, stick the bomb to it, activate a five-second fuse, then run away or dive to avoid the explosion. Alternatively, the user could throw the bomb at the tank and hope that it would stick to its surface. The first problem, and it was a major one, was that the Sticky Bomb’s adhesive had trouble sticking to dusty, muddy, or wet surfaces. Dusty, muddy, and wet surfaces are “a customary condition of tanks“, as Churchill’s chief military adviser could not help but point out. That was just the start of it.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
TNT stuck to Wile E. Coyote’s hand. Warner Brothers

24. A Weapon That Backfired in Hilariously Gruesome Ways

The Sticky Bomb had a second and even bigger problem. Not only did it often fail to stick to a tank like it should, it had an unfortunate tendency to stick to what it should not: the user. In cartoon-like fashion, the adhesive tended to leak and glue the bomb to its thrower’s hand or uniform. As a result, there were likely many situations that would have been funny had they not ended so tragically and gruesomely. A Sticky Bomb user could pull the pin to arm the five-second fuse, then attempt to stick the bomb to a tank or throw it at one, only to discover to his horror that it was stuck to his hand instead.

He would probably spend the last moments of his life frantically shaking his hand like Wile E. Coyote with a stick of TNT glued to his paw. As recounted by a British Home Guard member: “It was while practicing that a Home Guard bomber got his sticky bomb stuck to his trouser leg and couldn’t shift it. A quick-thinking mate whipped the trousers off and got rid of them and the bomb. After the following explosion, the trousers were in a bit of a mess — though I think they were a bit of a mess prior to the explosion.” Despite the shortcomings, the weapon was issued to the British Army and Home Guard in 1941 and remained in the stocks until it was declared obsolete in 1941.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Nelson Bunker Hunt. O Explorador

23. The Ambitious Plan to Control the World’s Stock of This Precious Metal

Haroldson Lafayette Hunt Jr. (1889 – 1974) was one the richest men on Earth, with a lock on much of the East Texas Oil Field, one of the world’s biggest oil deposits. His sons Nelson, William, and Lamar – the last a founder of the American Football League and Major League Soccer – were also super-rich. Especially Nelson Bunker Hunt, whose Libyan oil exploration and development made him even more fabulously wealthy. However, Nelson became a crackpot and feared that the US government planned to steal his wealth. So to protect his fortune, he decided to buy a whole lot of silver, and hoard it in Switzerland. Then he decided to buy all the silver.

Nelson Hunt eventually persuaded his siblings to join him in a bid to corner the global market on the precious metal. The Hunt brothers went on a silver buying spree in the 1970s. When they ran out of money, they borrowed heavily to buy more silver. By 1979, they had accumulated about 100 million troy ounces – almost 7 million pounds – of the stuff. That was almost half the world’s transportable supply of silver. Then, as seen below, they discovered that they had made a bad miscalculation.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Silver prices and the 1979 spike caused by the Hunt brothers’ plan to corner the global market. Wikimedia

22. The 1970s Was a Good Decade for Silver

The Hunt brothers’ silver speculation caused its price to spike by over 800%, from $6 an ounce in early 1979, to over $50 by early 1980. The siblings made about $4 billion in paper profits, but in reality, they had simply created a huge asset bubble that was bound to burst sooner or later. Their speculation created a global silver craze. As that precious metal’s prices doubled, trebled, quadrupled, and continued to rise, people around the world began to melt silverware, and thieves went on a silver stealing spree.

Tiffany’s even ran ads that attacked the Hunt brothers’ speculation for making silver unaffordable to consumers. The Hunt brothers had created a bubble market for silver. It was a bubble in which the Hunts themselves, as the world’s biggest hoarders of silver, were most at risk. The Federal Reserve, whose mission includes the avoidance of such bubbles, stepped in and issued a rule specifically targeted against the Hunts. It banned banks from lending to precious metal speculators. As a result, the bubble swiftly burst, and the brothers’ plan took a disastrous turn for them.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
The bursting of the silver bubble. The New York Times

21. The Collapse of a Plan to Control the Global Supply of a Precious Metal

The bubble market created by the Hunt brothers burst on March 27th, 1980, which came to be known as “Silver Thursday“. Prices collapsed, and the Hunts almost immediately lost over a billion dollars. Their family fortune survived, however, and the brothers pledged most of it as collateral for a rescue loan package. Unfortunately for them, the value of their family assets declined steadily throughout the 1980s. By 1985, their net wealth had dipped from over $5 billion just before Silver Thursday, to less than a billion.

Then things got worse, especially for the genius behind the silver hoarding plan, Nelson Bunker Hunt. The Hunt brothers managed to hang on for much of the 1980s, but their luck ran out in 1988. That year, they lost a lawsuit that accused them of conspiracy related to their silver speculation. They were hit with hundreds of millions in liability and fines. Nelson Hunt was hardest hit, and he broke the record for the biggest personal bankruptcy in America’s history. His assets were seized and sold to satisfy creditors. They included his oil fields, house, bowling alley, and a coin collection valued at $12 million.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Prussian troops retreat after their defeat at the twin battles of Jena-Auerstedt. Wikimedia

20. An Audacious Plan to Capture a City

After the French victory over the Prussians in the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt in 1806, Napoleon ordered a vigorous pursuit of the defeated foe. As the Prussian field forces retreated, they were constantly harried. Simultaneously, their static garrisons were rounded up, lest they link up with and reinforce their Russian allies, who still posed a threat. The once-proud Prussian army, less than two decades removed from its glory days under Frederick the Great, was demoralized after its disastrous defeat. It was against that backdrop that a French cavalry brigade under General Antoine Lasalle approached the Prussian port city of Stettin.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Antoine Lasalle. Painting and Frame

Lasalle had about 500 hussars under his command and two light field guns. Stettin was a well-fortified port city with a garrison of nearly 10,000 men, protected by 281 cannons. They were under the command of a General Friedrich von Romberg, a veteran with over half a century of experience. His military career stretched back to the Seven Years War, in which he had fought under Frederick the Great. Stettin was well provisioned by the British Royal Navy, whose supply-laden ships sailed in and out of the port with no hindrance. Given the disparity in numbers, Lasalle could not seize the city by force. So he improvised a plan to bluff Romberg into surrender.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
The French capture of Stettin in 1806. Wikimedia

19. Audacity Forced the Surrender of a Powerful Garrison to a Tiny Force

On the afternoon of October 29th, 1806, General Antoine Lasalle sent a subordinate under a flag of truce to demand the surrender of Stettin. He promised to treat its defenders with all the honors of war. The garrison’s commander, General Friedrich von Romberg refused and vowed to defend the city to the last man. An hour later, the emissary returned, this time with a more ominous message: “If by 8 AM you have not surrendered, the town will be bombarded by our artillery and stormed by 50,000 men. The garrison will be put to the sword, and the town will be plundered for 24 hours“. An alarmed von Romberg consulted with the town leaders. They urged capitulation, and that night, the details of the surrender were negotiated and finalized.

When the sun came up the next day, the garrison marched out in perfect order and filed past the French to throw their arms down at their feet in a pile. It did not take long before von Romberg discovered just how tiny was the force he had surrendered to. Instead of 50,000 men, the Frenchman had barely 500. By then, it was too late, however, and the Prussian general had little choice but to stick to the negotiated agreement. Lasalle became a national hero, while von Romberg became a laughingstock. Stettin’s erstwhile commander was tried by court-martial in 1809, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment for his shameful surrender without a fight. He died two months later.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
James Reavis discovered that the real life of soldiers, like these Confederates, was not as glamorous as he had imagined. Fine Art America

18. The Man With the Plan – to Steal a US Territory

James Addison Peralta-Reavis (1843 – 1914), better known as “The Baron of Arizona“, might be the greatest conman that you have never heard of. He defrauded thousands of people, and literally stole most of the US Territory of Arizona from its legal owners. Reavis’ father was a Welshman who arrived in America in the 1820s, and his mother was part Spaniard, and proud of her Iberian heritage. He grew up in Missouri, and in his childhood, Reavis’ mother fired up his imagination and filled his head with Spanish romantic literature. As a result, he grew up with grandiose notions of himself as a hero in a melodramatic novel.

That was reflected in how he spoke and how he wrote, both of which were reportedly overly grandiloquent and bombastic. When the Civil War broke out, an eighteen-year-old Reavis enlisted in the Confederate Army. He served in the 8th Division of the Missouri State Guard, and it did not take long before he realized that the military was not as glamorous as he had imagined. The tedium and travails of a soldier in real life were not remotely close to his idealized image of war. It was right around then that Reavis discovered he could make a perfect reproduction of his commanding officer’s signature. So he came up with a lucrative plan.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Vincent Price as James Reavis in 1950’s ‘The Baron of Arizona’, a fictionalized version of what took place. Western Cinema

17. A Confederate Private’s Shady Side Hustle

Private James Reavis began to issue himself passes with a forged signature, to escape the drudgery of soldiery and visit his relatives. When other soldiers noticed that Reavis seemed to get a whole lot of passes, he modified his plan and killed two birds with one stone: give them an incentive to stay mum, and make some money while he was at it. He began a sideline business and sold forged passes to other soldiers. When the chain of command grew suspicious and began to investigate, he finagled a quick leave, ostensibly to get married. Reavis then promptly fled Confederate territory and surrendered to Union forces. He even switched sides and served for a while in a Union Army artillery regiment.

After the Civil War, Reavis traveled to Brazil, and upon his return to the US, he got into real estate. In that line of business, he discovered that the talent for forgery that he had discovered and honed in his Confederate Army days could come in real handy. Especially to clear up messy paperwork, and fix vague property titles for clients who found it difficult to sell land because they were unable to establish clear ownership. Reavis established a reputation for his unrivaled ability to produce some document, as if by magic, that everybody else had somehow “missed” before, and that cleared up ownership in no uncertain terms.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
The Peralta Grant claimed by James Reavis. Arizona Sonora News

16. A Forger’s Path to the American West

The “discovered” documents that cleared the titles of James Reavis’ clients had simply been forged by him, of course. Then in 1871, a prospector named George Willing sought Reavis’ help with a large Spanish land grant – 2000 square miles, about the size of Delaware – in the Arizona Territory. Reavis partnered up with Willing in a plan to develop the grant. In 1874, the duo decided to head to Arizona and make it happen. Willing got there first, filed a claim in the Yavapai County courthouse, and was found dead the next day. Foul play was suspected.

Reavis had made it to California by then and was there that he received news of his partner’s death. Low on funds, he got a job as a journalist, and in the course of his new occupation, he came in contact with some railroad magnates. He also came into contact with the Public Lands Commission – an entity established per the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. Its mission was to determine the validity of Mexican and Spanish land grants in the territories won by America in the US-Mexico War. The Commission was corrupt to a fare-thee-well – something that suited Reavis quite well.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
A forged Peralta Grant document prepared by James Reavis. Wikimedia

15. A Corrupt Public Lands Commission Was This Conman’s Dream Come True

James Reavis learned that the Public Lands Commission approved most claims submitted to it, even frivolous ones. So long as a filer paid the examination expenses, coupled with a bribe, he was good to go. That was good news, because the land claim of Reavis’ deceased partner, George Willing, was weak. Willing claimed that in 1864, he had paid $20,000 in gold dust, mules, and other goods, to a Miguel Peralta for the land in question. Unfortunately, the deed of transfer was highly irregular, made on a sheet of greasy and marked-up paper, without a notary or justice.

However, Reavis had discovered just how easy it was to get the Public Lands Commission to approve a claim, no matter how iffy, provided that the right palms were greased. So he decided it was time to head to Arizona. As a start, he “tipped off” his railroad tycoon acquaintances to the deceased Willing’s land. Of course, he did not disclose his personal interest in that land. He told them that he could negotiate right-of-way privileges for their proposed Southern Pacific line through Arizona. He then traveled to Kentucky, where he met the deceased Willing’s widow and bought his late partner’s interest in the land. Next, Reavis used his newspaper connections to hype the land grant, and exaggerate the supposed “solidity” of the title claim.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
James Reavis’ wife, Dona Sophia Micaela Maso Reavis y Peralata de la Cordoba, 3rd Baroness of Arizona. Arizona Memory Project

14. To Strengthen His Fraudulent Plan, This Forger Traveled to Mexico to Tinker With its Official Archives

To buttress the solidity of the land claim sold by Miguel Peralta to Reavis’ partner George Willing, Reavis fabricated a family history for Peralta out of whole cloth. He went about it in a highly creative way. Reavis knew that the way claims worked, people would check the archives. So to further his plan, he went to Mexico, befriended people in its government, and inserted forged and artificially aged documents into the official archives. They established a fictitious family lineage of an eighteenth-century Don Nemecio Silva de Peralta de la Cordoba.

The documents inserted into the Mexican archives asserted that Peralta was granted the title of Baron Peralta de los Colorados by Spain’s King Ferdinand VI in 1748. Along with the noble title came a huge grant of land in Arizona – the Peralta Grant out of which Reavis intended to make a bundle. He added more fictitious documents in the Mexican archives, and created a family tree of the descendants of “Baron Peralta”. They eventually included an impoverished great-grandson: the Miguel Peralta who sold the claim to George Willing, from whom James Reavis acquired the huge chunk of territory in central Arizona.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Depiction of Don Miguel Nemecio Silva de Peralta de la Cordoba, the fictitious 1st Baron of Arizona. Wikimedia

13. The Forger Who Became An American Baron

James Reavis put in a lot of time and effort to create the documentary trail of the aristocratic Peralta family. He traveled to Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Spain, where he spent days on end in museums and archives to learn the style and feel of old documents. He experimented tirelessly with various inks and chemicals and papers, to figure out the best materials and processes to produce forgeries that would seamlessly fit in with original old documents. He even scoured Spanish flea markets, where he bought old portraits of random people. He then designated them – with the requisite forged documentary support – as members of the Peralta family. After he created the fictional family, Reavis decided to hedge his bets and executed a plan to create a close connection between himself and the Peralta land claim.

He married into the aristocratic Peraltas. The fact that the baronial brood was fictional was no insurmountable barrier for Reavis. He came across a sixteen-year-old orphaned Mexican girl named Sophia and convinced her that she was a descendant of the noble Peraltas. By then, Reavis had honed his skills to such a degree that he was no longer a mere forger, but a master forger. It was thus child’s play for him to alter church records, and insert documents that made Sophia the “last surviving” member of the fictional but illustrious Peralta family. Once he had made Sophia the “Baroness of Arizona”, Reavis married her, and through that marriage, he became the Baron of Arizona.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Movie poster of 1950’s ‘The Baron of Arizona’. Internet Movie Database

12. The Fake Aristocrat’s Execution of His Plan to Steal Arizona

Once he had carefully laid the groundwork, James Reavis finally sprang into action and began to execute his plan in 1883. One fine morning that June, the inhabitants of central Arizona woke up to discover that their land had been stolen from under their feet. Notices plastered all over public places and printed in newspapers warned all and sundry: “to communicate immediately with Mr. Cyril Barratt, attorney-at-law and agent-general, representing Mr. James Addison Reavis, for registering tenancy and signing agreements, or regard themselves liable to litigation for trespassing and expulsion when the Peralta Grant is, as it must be, validated by the U.S. government“.

The land claimed by Reavis amounted to about twelve million acres. It extended from the vicinity of Sun City, Arizona, to Silver City, New Mexico, and included Phoenix. Throughout that territory, people were bewildered and incredulous at first. Incredulity turned to panic, however, when they read that the wealthy owners of the Silver King Mine, Arizona’s richest and most powerful mining corporation, had paid Reavis $25,000 to avoid litigation. That was quite the princely sum back in those days. If such big shots had believed Reavis enough to pay him that much, it stood to reason that his claim really was solid. Suddenly, the threat that their land might get taken from them by this James Reavis seemed a distinct possibility.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
James Reavis. Wikimedia

11. Even Uncle Sam Nearly Fell For Reavis’ Audacious Con

James Reavis did not plan to actually evict the occupants of his “barony”. His plan was to simply extort as much money as he could out of them in rent or quit claim fees, in order to support himself and his “noble” wife in a manner that befitted an aristocratic land magnate. Surprisingly, as it turned out, the large and wealthy landowners proved to be the easiest marks. From their perspective, it was cheaper and safer to simply pay the Baron of Arizona.

The alternative was to fight in court and run the risk of litigation that might end in the loss of their valuable properties. As seen above, Arizona’s biggest mining company, the Silver King Mine, paid him $25,000. He also got the Southern Pacific Railroad to cough up $50,000. Thousands of others paid smaller fees. Together, they added up to a nice bundle. At some point, even the US government fell for the con and considered paying Reavis millions of dollars to settle the claim. All in all, Reavis collected about $5,300,000 in cash and promissory notes – the equivalent of roughly $170 million today.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Stock certificate in a company created by James Reavis to cash in on his fraudulent plan. Wikiwand

10. The Baron of Arizona Lived it Up – For a While

James Reavis’ illicit plan worked, and the money poured in. The ill-gotten loot allowed him and his wife, “Baroness” Sophia, to live it up in style. In addition to various ranches, they maintained nice homes in Arizona, New York City, Washington, DC, San Francisco, St. Louis, Madrid, and Chihuahua City. They traveled throughout Europe and mingled with the Spanish aristocracy. That, despite the fact that many in Spain saw through the Baron of Arizona’s scam, and realized that he and his wife were just a pair of fraudsters.

However, the Spaniards got a huge kick out of the brazenness of it all, and how Reavis was tweaking the yanquis’ noses. So they went ahead and feted the “Baron and Baroness of Arizona”. Life was great for Reavis, but all good things come to an end. Even as he lived it up and enjoyed his existence as a nineteenth-century version of a rich jet setter, the law was on his trail. The wheels of justice ground slowly, but steadily until they ultimately exposed his fraud and brought it all crashing down.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
James Reavis. Wikimedia

9. A Great Plan, That Eventually Crashed Down

For years, an official named Royal Johnson had conducted an investigation into James Reavis’ claim. In 1889, he released a detailed report that labeled the Peralta Grant and all that was related to it a fake. Reavis had gone to great lengths to perfect his forgeries, but he had not been meticulous enough. Some of his documents used print styles different from those of the period they supposedly came from. Steel-nibbed pens – which did not come into use until the 1880s – were used instead of the quills that would have been employed in documents back in the 1700s. There were basic Spanish spelling and grammatical errors, unlikely to have been made by a government official. There was even a watermark from a Wisconsin mill in one of the supposedly historic documents. Reavis tried to brazen it out and even sued the US government for $11 million.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
James Reavis behind bars. Pinterest

He lost the lawsuit. The court noted that Reavis’ claim was “wholly fictitious and fraudulent“, and that his documents had been forged and “surreptitiously introduced” into the records they supposedly came from. As he left the court, he was arrested and hit with a 42-count indictment that included charges of fraud, forgery, the presentation of false documents, and conspiracy to defraud the US government. Tried, he was found guilty on June 30th, 1896, and sentenced to two years behind bars, plus a $5000 fine. After his release, Reavis drifted around in poverty and pitched investment ideas that found no takers. His wife divorced him in 1902, and he eventually ended up in a Los Angeles poor house. He died in Colorado in 1914 and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Mao Zedong. Wikimedia

8. China’s Unique Plan for Rapid Industrialization

After a long slog against the Nationalist government, as well as Japanese foreign occupiers, Mao Zedong’s communists finally seized control of China in 1949. They then set out to restore the country’s status and prestige after a stretch of weakness termed “The Century of Humiliations”. To accomplish that required a massive and swift industrialization program, in order to transform a backward agrarian society into a global powerhouse. One theoretical route was the example of other countries that had industrialized gradually. Such countries had started with the accumulation of capital, then spent that on industrial machinery.

China had neither the money nor time to emulate that example, however. Its population had already begun to rapidly outstrip the available resources, and it was too poor to accumulate enough capital anytime soon for massive industrialization. So Mao opted for an industrialization plan that relied on the mobilization of China’s vast population. The idea was to use labor-intensive means of industrialization that emphasized manpower, of which China had plenty, instead of machinery, of which China had little. As seen below, things did not go smoothly.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
A 1958 Chinese poster urges people to “Exterminate the Four Pests”. Imgur

7. The Campaign to Wipe Out a Small Bird

Chairman Mao’s labor-intensive plan for rapid industrialization gave birth to the Great Leap Forward in 1958. It was intended as a revolutionary modernization campaign to leapfrog China from a peasant economy into an industrial giant. To kick off the modernization and increase efficiency, “The Four Pests Campaign” was launched, to exterminate flies, mosquitoes, rats, and sparrows. Flies, mosquitoes, and rats spread diseases, and rats ate and ruined grains on top of that. Sparrows were included because they also ate grains and fruits.

The Chinese government calculated that each sparrow ate about four pounds of grain per year, plus an indeterminate amount of fruits eaten or ruined by their pecking. Multiply that by hundreds of millions or billions of sparrows, and that is a whole lot of lost grain and fruits. So sparrows were designated as one of “Four Pests” slated for extermination, and a merciless eradication effort was launched against them. The campaign succeeded in what it had set out to do, and sparrows were all but wiped out in China. However, as seen below, their extermination backfired in a big way.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
‘There, there’ – a Chinese poster urges children to be vigilant and exterminate sparrows. Pinterest

6. Sparrows Were Nearly Exterminated in China

China’s communist government described birds as “public animals of capitalism“, and posters were plastered all across the country to encourage the masses to wipe out sparrows in particular. Millions of young and old, armed with sticks, stones, slingshots, and noisemakers, fell upon birds in general, and upon sparrows in particular, and went after them with a will. In what the authorities termed the “Smash Sparrows” or “Eliminate Sparrows” campaign, the birds were slaughtered wherever they were found, on the ground, in trees or bushes, or in the air.

The public responded with enthusiasm to the Chinese government’s propaganda campaign. Sparrow nests were destroyed, their chicks killed, and their eggs smashed. To keep them from any rest, groups were organized throughout China to loudly beat drums, gongs, pots and pans, until the tiny birds dropped dead from exhaustion. The relentless campaign brought sparrows to the brink of extinction. Only then was it realized, way too late, that the plan to wipe them out might have been a bad idea.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
A 1959 Chinese poster celebrates the extermination of the last few sparrows. Chinese Posters

5. The Chinese Government Was Not Exactly Big on Environmentalism

At the heart of the “Eliminate Sparrows Campaign” is the fact that Mao Zedong simply did not understand the natural world. In many ways, he actually despised nature and thought that it should give way to human needs and wants. Notions such as the need to live in harmony with the natural world and refrain from doing it harm were not popular or even known in his circle. To the extent that such ideas were even acknowledged, they were dismissed as backward spirituality and superstition harmful to progress, or decadent Western fru fru. The Maoist worldview, which was disseminated to the masses via propaganda, indoctrination, repression, censorship, and utopian promises, actively pitted humans against nature.

China’s communist government repeatedly urged people to “conquer nature“, and in 1958, Mao famously declared: “Make the high mountain bow its head; make the river yield the way“. In short, Mao was not exactly an environmentalist or conservationist. The notion that sparrows might have an important role in the maintenance of an ecological balance that benefitted people was alien to him and his acolytes. Mao’s subjects paid a dear price for the Chairman’s failure to grasp that. As seen below, implementation of the plan to exterminate sparrows was a significant factor in a disaster that killed tens of millions.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Locusts turned out to be far worse than sparrows. McLeod County Historical Society

4. The Plan to Wipe Out These Birds Contributed to the Deaths of Tens of Millions

While it is true that sparrows eat grain and fruits, it is also true that they eat insects as well – a whole lot of insects. Especially locusts, whose chief predator, the one that keeps their population in check, happens to be sparrows. Without sparrows, China’s locust population exploded, and they fell upon the country’s crops in massive swarms that blanketed the sky and obscured the Sun. The locusts ate up far more of China’s crops than sparrows had ever done. Rather than increase crop yields, the extermination of sparrows led to a huge decline in China’s available rice. In 1960, Mao ordered the removal of sparrows from the “Four Pests”, and had them replaced with bed bugs.

By then, it was too late. The locusts ate up so much grain that catastrophe ensued. Between the huge insect swarms and the mismanagement, incompetence, and turmoil that accompanied the Great Leap Forward, the country was plunged into what came to be known as The Great Chinese Famine. By the time it was over, tens of millions – some estimates go as high as 55 million – had starved to death or perished amidst the chaos and hardships. Eventually, after it had all but wiped out China’s native population of sparrows, the Chinese government was forced to import 250,000 of the small birds from the Soviet Union to replenish its stocks.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
A Chinese propaganda poster extols The Great Leap Forward. Chinese Posters

3. The Chinese Government’s Plan for Rapid Modernization

As seen above, the plan to exterminate sparrows was part of a wider and vast modernization campaign pushed by Chairman Mao, the Great Leap Forward. The aim was to drag China from its status as an overwhelmingly backward peasant society and transform it into a modern, industrialized, and powerful first-class great power. Unfortunately, Mao’s understanding of economics turned out to be just as faulty as his knowledge – or lack thereof – of the environment and the ecology. The results were disastrous.

A key factor in the catastrophe that unfolded was Mao’s wildly unrealistic expectations of just what could be accomplished with his rapid modernization program. A hallmark of the Great Leap Forward was the Chairman’s brainstorm that increased steel production – a benchmark of industrialization – need not wait for the development of infrastructures such as steel plants, or the training of a skilled workforce. Instead, intrepid Chinese could produce steel from blast furnaces in their communes – literal backyard furnaces. As seen below, that did not work out as well as the Chinese authorities had hoped.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Propaganda posters extol the production of steel during The Great Leap Forward. Pinterest

2. The Plan to Produce Steel in Backyard Furnaces Backfired

People went out of their way – or more accurately were forced to go out of their way – to satisfy the Great Leap Forward’s expectations of communal steel production. To meet the quotas demanded by the Chinese authorities, citizens used whatever fuel they could get their hands on to power the furnaces, from coal to wooden furniture to the wood of coffins. When they lacked iron ore, they melted whatever steel objects they could find in order to produce steel girders.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Peasants tend backyard furnaces during The Great Leap Forward. Alpha History

However, the manufacture of steel is complicated, and the artisanal girders produced were of low quality and cracked easily. What came out of the backyard furnaces was actually not even steel, but pig iron. It had to get its carbon removed in order to become steel. In some regions where there was little metalworking tradition or knowledge of metallurgy, the pig iron produced was too useless to get turned into steel. Still, that was not the worst part of the Great Leap Forward.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Chinese peasants toil on collectivized farms during The Great Leap Forward. Alpha History

1. A Modernization Plan That Backfired and Killed Tens of Millions

Mao and his followers sought to revolutionize China’s countryside, where most of the population toiled as peasants. So they prohibited private farms, and ordered mandatory agricultural collectivization. Private farm plots were combined into big fields that belonged to the entire community. The theory was that economies of scale would come into play, and the big collectivized fields would prove more efficient and productive than the small plots. However, poor planning led to poor implementation of collectivization, and the yield of the big fields turned out to be less than that of the private plots.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Famished Chinese clamor for food amidst the famine caused by The Great Leap Forward. Pinterest

Additionally, the Great Leap Forward emphasized ideological purity and fervor, rather than competence. So collectivization was led by enthusiastic and zealous overseers, instead of capable and competent managers. A series of natural disasters from 1959 to 1961 made things worse. The result was history’s greatest manmade disaster. By 1960, it was obvious that the plan for the Great Leap Forward had not been well thought out, but by then it was too late. The diversion of labor from farms to ill-advised industries such as backyard furnaces, plus the disruptions of collectivization, combined to produce a catastrophe. Between 1959 to 1962, up to 55 million Chinese starved to death or otherwise perished because of the screw-ups caused by the Great Leap Forward.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Becker, Jasper – Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine (1998)

Business Insider, May 17th, 2016 – Here’s the Story of How the Hunt Brothers Tried to Corner the Silver Market

Cookridge, E. H. – The Baron of Arizona (1967)

Cracked – 6 Flat-Out Crazy Conspiracy Theories (That Really Happened)

De Blecourt, Willem, and Davies, Owen – Witchcraft Continued: Popular Magic in Modern Europe (2004)

Discover Magazine, February 26th, 2014 – Paved With Good Intentions: Mao Tse Tung’s ‘Four Pests’ Disaster

Encyclopedia Britannica – Great Leap Forward

Fall, Bernard B. – Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (1967)

Guardian, The, February 4th, 1999 – Zinoviev Letter Was Dirty Trick By MI6

Guardian, The, October 9th, 2014 – Satanic Panic: How British Agents Stoked Supernatural Fears in Troubles

History Collection – Conspiracy Theories About Our Founding Fathers

Imperial War Museums – Grenade, Anti-Tank, No 74 Mk I (‘Sticky Bomb’)

Independent, The, February 4th, 1999 – Official: Zinoviev Letter Was Forged

New York Times, December 15th, 2010 – Mao’s Great Leap to Famine

Powell, Donald M. – The Peralta Grant: James Addison Reavis and the Barony of Arizona (1960)

Petre, Francis Loraine – Napoleon’s Conquest of Prussia, 1806 (2004)

Priceonomics – How the Hunt Brothers Cornered the Silver Market and Then Lost it All

Shapiro, Judith – Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China (2001)

Spartacus Educational – Zinoviev Letter

True West Magazine, November 21st, 2017 – The Great Swindler James Addison Reavis

Weeks, John – Men Against Tanks: A History of Anti-Tank Warfare (1975)

Wikimedia – James Reavis