As we've demonstrated before, the only things crazier than the stories concocted by the paranoid are the real conspiracies history's creepiest movers and shakers have pulled off right under our noses. Secret schemes that shaped the world around us are hiding in the footnotes of our history books, if you just know where to look. For instance ...
6Big Auto Killed the Electric Streetcar
The Conspiracy Theory:
Ask a crazy conspiracy theorist enough questions, and you'll eventually get to a dark boardroom full of evil billionaires secretly manipulating world events ... like puppeteers, but with money. They come in all shapes and sizes -- the New World Order, the Illuminati, Masons, Scientology, the Jews, the "gay mafia" that allegedly controls Hollywood. To get a nuanced understanding of how the average conspiracy theorist thinks the world runs, watch the scene in Trading Places in which two old guys ruin Dan Aykroyd's life over a one-dollar bet, and punch yourself in the part of your brain that contains a sense of humor.
Dan Aykroyd is the only man who can rant about conspiracies without sounding crazy. Because Ghostbusters.
Fortunately, modern societies reward companies that give people what they want, and we have laws designed to punish fat cats who try to gang up on the little guy. Unfortunately, breaking those laws pays extremely well in certain circumstances. While they may not be as smart or capable of weather control as we give them credit for, the extremely wealthy do occasionally meet up in dark boardrooms and make decisions that make themselves richer, and you more miserable. And that, boys and girls, is why you drove a car to work this morning.
The Illuminati's sacred goal is to make sure the world's public transit always smells like urine.
There was a time in America when even small towns hummed around on electric trains and trollies. Around the end of World War I, urban railways accounted for 90 percent of trips taken in vehicles, and there was no reason to believe they were going anywhere. Urban railways meant that the average workaday citizen didn't have to invest time and money in learning to drive, paying for gas and maintaining a car. At the time, driving a car was considered a novelty. A fun thing to do on a Sunday that allowed the moderately wealthy to feel fancy without having to buy a boat. Plus, the railways were so lucrative that the local government didn't have to pay a dime to maintain them, since small businesses did the work for them. Everyone was a winner, except for a handful of very rich people who had overestimated the demand for automobiles back when they were known as horseless carriages.
"Most expensive motor car"? Definitely onto a winner there with the poor people.
In 1921, only 10 percent of Americans owned cars, and after losing $65 million in a year, General Motors had to face the fact that cars just weren't worth it for the other 90 percent. Today, the ascendance of the automotive industry is a foregone conclusion, but at the time it seemed more like a bunch of rich guys had forgotten that not everyone was rich. Imagine if the wealthiest people in your city invested all their money in limousines, under the assumption that everyone would stop taking cabs because why take a taxi? Limos only cost a couple hundred dollars extra!
This is where less successful men would have come to terms with the fact that they'd backed the wrong horse. Capitalism had spoken, and its answer was: "We'll take the clearly superior alternative that doesn't cost half a year's paycheck up front." Instead, General Motors decided to find a way to make cars worth it to the average citizen. After waiting for the laughter in the room to die down when someone suggested that they lower car prices, the car industry looked at the people who rode electric rails to work and decided to make them what's known in the mafia as "an offer they can't refuse."
"That's some real nice infrastructure you got there, America. Pity if something happened to it."
According to a Senate report, in the 1930s, GM, Goodyear, Firestone Tire and a bunch of oil companies joined together to form a number of fake rail companies. They would buy up all the small companies that operated America's small town railway systems, then destroy the systems, and soon enough America would run on gasoline-powered tires. By the mid-1950s, the fake rail companies had replaced 900 of the 1,200 public railway systems with gas-powered buses and cars and were ready to take on the biggest electric railway system in the world: Los Angeles. Yes, the city that's famous for bumper-to-bumper traffic once hummed along on 1,500 miles of electric railways. GM bought out the local railway companies, and a few years later there wasn't a single electric streetcar operating in Los Angeles. Today, the smog over LA is so thick that most of the people who live there have no idea they that live at the foot of a beautiful snowcapped mountain range.
LA without smog.
Of course, you can't just form an illegal monopoly and get away with it. In 1947, the government convicted 10 of the biggest corporations in America of conspiracy, and fined GM $5,000. GM was able to survive the fine, since the illegal conspiracy had made it one of the most successful companies of the 20th century. And all they had to do was destroy the infrastructure of some of America's biggest cities and screw the next dozen or so generations who lived there out of clean, affordable transportation.
Sure, but it was probably all worth it to play streetcar Jenga.
5The Insane Government Scheme to Get Rid of MLK
The Conspiracy Theory:
You can usually tell an insane conspiracy theory by asking what the bad guy's motivation was. Woodward and Bernstein uncovered an actual conspiracy by knowing to "follow the money." Less sane conspiracies answer the question of motive by screaming "Everybody's lizards!" So you can be forgiven if you're a little skeptical when someone claims that there was a conspiracy to destroy the life and career of Martin Luther King Jr., one of the great heroes of the 20th century. It's like learning that Henry VIII sexually assaulted Martha Washington in order to sire a son, or that terrorists conspired with Karl Malone and John Stockton to poison Michael Jordan before the flu game. The good guy is too good. The bad guy's too pointlessly evil. Vast government conspiracies need a motive beyond just being villainous creeps, right?
The FBI just hasn't been as menacing since they installed those "No Smoking" signs.
For reasons that range from outright racism to paranoia in the face of a powerful revolutionary, the FBI secretly made Martin Luther King Jr. an unofficial enemy of the state. Reading the details of the FBI's response to King's famous rise to power makes you wonder why it hasn't been made into a movie, while making you simultaneously realize that it would be impossible to make the truth not seem like an over-the-top exaggeration.
We always rely on our perfect memory for life-changing events.
For instance, King's "I Have a Dream" speech was the defining moment of the civil rights movement. It brought the struggle of African-Americans into stark focus for white Americans while giving the oppressed black community a reason to hope. It is considered by many to be the most important speech given in the 20th century, but at FBI headquarters, it was considered a sign that King was the "most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country." That's from a memo that went around the FBI right after King's speech.
This wasn't just idle, water cooler racism, either. The heads of various departments met to "explore how best to carry on our investigation ... to produce the desired results." While that might sound sinister, later memos cleared up that they were only interested in "neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader." OK yeah, we're definitely getting a sinister vibe over here.
Our Hoover-sense is tingling.
The meetings produced a many-pronged approach involving all the basic stuff that bad guys are only supposed to do in movies, like bugging every room he stayed in and every phone conversation he had. Records reveal thousands of discussions inside the agency, tens of thousands of memos discussing his every action, and FBI head J. Edgar Hoover's raging hate-boner for one of the most important moral leaders of the 20th century. The FBI files give historians unique insight into Hoover's motivation, like the article about King receiving an award, on which Hoover personally scrawled "disgusting," or the article about King meeting with the Pope, on which he wrote "I am amazed the Pope gave an audience to such a degenerate," or the article about King being nominated for a Nobel Prize, on which he wrote "King could well qualify for the 'top alley cat' prize!"
In case you're not up on your casual 1960s-era racism, "alley cat" is a term for an urban street cat that has multiple sexual partners. The FBI's extensive wire-tapping had revealed that King, unlike any person in a position of power in the history of the United States, was carrying on an extramarital affair. We like to imagine that Hoover scrawled his disapproving references to King's embarrassing sexual indiscretions while dressed as a woman, and that his boss, Robert Kennedy, read them while having sex with one of the three women he and his brother bragged about needing to sleep with to prevent headaches.
Oh stop it, you terrible racist tease.
The culmination of the FBI's operation -- at least the part that made it into their official records -- was an anonymous letter to King in which they called him a fraud, compared him to Satan and told him that if he didn't want his affair to be revealed, he knew what he had to do. The celebrity hate mail was found in the FBI files long after an assassin had taken care of the FBI's problem for them, but analysts believe they were suggesting that King should kill himself if he didn't want to be disgraced.
MLK here, looking really disgraced at the signing of the Civil Rights Act.
So if you thought King was heroic before, try to imagine the balls it would take to continue going out in public after the FBI tried to blackmail you into offing yourself, and then realize that your mind's eye doesn't have the bandwidth to imagine balls that big.