5 Details That Make Famous Conspiracy Theories Seem Legit
I love conspiracy theories. I've said time and again that, in my version of a perfect world, every conspiracy theory would be true. That can't be possible, of course, because most conspiracy theories are built firmly upon a foundation of misinformation and insanity. However, there are certain conspiracy theories that, because of one or two seemingly minor or otherwise obscure details, sound slightly more credible than most. We talk about some of those theories, and the details that make us love them, on this this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... where I'm joined by comics David Huntsberger and Mon Rok. It's also what I'm talking about in this very column right here today. Imagine that!
MLK's Family Sued The Federal Government For Conspiracy To Commit Murder (And Won)
Given all the talk about "minor details" just now, this seems like a weird place to start, right? The family of the most famous civil rights leader of all time suing the federal government for conspiring to murder him is no small thing. So why has history treated it that way? For example, did you know it happened? Not a single person I've asked so far had even the slightest idea, and I've asked a lot of people.
It did happen, though, back in 1999. Even more interestingly, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s family not only sued the federal government, but also the man they suspected of being the actual killer ... Loyd Jowers. You'll note that doesn't even sort of read like "James Earl Ray," which you might recognize as the name of the man who was eventually convicted of killing Dr. King. He always maintained that he was innocent and that his confession was coerced.
Do cops really do that kind of thing?
Over the years, a number of conspiracy theories popped up that made that very same claim. There's nothing unusual about that -- almost every assassination has a slew of accompanying conspiracy theories to go along with it. What makes this one different is that even King's family thought there might be some truth to the story that James Earl Ray was framed. In fact, they believed it enough to hold a joint press conference with the accused killer to publicly state their belief that he was innocent.
Two years later, they were in court, suing the federal government and the aforementioned Loyd Jowers, a restaurant owner in Memphis, for conspiracy to commit murder. The trial lasted four weeks. The jury deliberated for just one hour before deciding that the government was indeed liable.
Granted, this happened in civil court, where the burden is lower, making it far easier to get the verdict you're after. Still, sometimes that's what it takes. If you're skeptical about this actually casting any guilt on the government, I'd ask you this: Do you feel the same way about OJ?
He's still surprised they said "not guilty."
Does the fact that he was only found responsible for murder in civil court make you feel like he's less guilty? If so, I guess I commend your strict adherence to the principles of the American justice system. I also don't believe you in the slightest. And before you argue that civil court implies some kind of financial motivation, please note that the family sued for all of $100 in damages. They didn't want money; they just wanted it entered in the historical record that the government was complicit in the killing of Dr. King.
They got that, which is a huge deal, thus making it all the more inexplicable that, even while the trial was happening, almost no news outlets covered it. Remember, we aren't talking about some distant point in the past, when television news coverage wasn't the beast that it is now. This was 1999. People had lots of different means to get news to the masses by then, and for the most part, they weren't used to tell the world anything about this trial.
Again, let's use OJ for comparison purposes. You sure as shit know that civil trial happened, right? CNBC covered it just as enthusiastically as the criminal trial, as you can see in this trip down memory lane.
Keep in mind that this coverage is for the families of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman suing a former football player. The family of one of the most iconic and important historical figures of all time filed the exact same kind of lawsuit for the exact same reason against the federal government just a few short years later, and almost no one gave a shit.
Good luck making sense of that, America. This is one of those rare instances where "the government doesn't want you to know" actually seems like the most plausible explanation.
The Only Forensic Evidence Of Hitler's Suicide Was Proven To Be Fake In 2009
I don't care whom it offends, I'm just going to come right out and say this: Hitler was kind of a shitty person. That's right, no target is safe when I'm on the job, ladies and gentlemen.
It's probably that very reputation for evil which makes the thought of Adolf Hitler spending his final moments committing suicide in an underground bunker so comforting. Sure, he escaped justice, but whatever. Go die in a hole, you monster. That's what history has told us happened, but almost immediately after the end of the war, rumors abounded that Hitler actually escaped Berlin and fled to live out his life in South America.
People have plenty of good reasons to suspect this might be the case. Several of the details of his alleged death leave wide open the possibility that maybe there was some deception afoot. His body was burned immediately, for example, and only identified when his dentist confirmed that the teeth inside the charred skull in front of him "looked like" Hitler's. No x-ray, no exam -- just visual confirmation that the teeth looked right. The only picture of the body that was ever released was this one:
I trust all your doubts have been laid to rest.
There's also the fact that the last flight out of Berlin before it fell was pulled off by a woman whom Hitler described as his "favorite pilot." This happened shortly after she visited the bunker where he supposedly died. She wrote a book about her experience flying Nazi planes during World War II, and while she didn't confirm it, there was nothing that resembled a denial that she helped the Fuhrer escape.
If there was, it probably would've been written in German, so I wouldn't have understood anyway.
It doesn't matter, though, because it was all put to rest in 2000 when, lo and behold, the Russian government magically produced a fragment of Hitler's skull which clearly showed a bullet had passed through it. The question had been answered. There was no conspiracy. Hitler didn't flee to South America. He died right where everyone said he died, in the exact manner history has always claimed.
Except there's one problem: That wasn't Hitler's skull. In 2009, a team of researchers at the University of Connecticut analyzed it and determined that, not only did it not belong to Hitler, it didn't even belong to a male. It was the skull of a woman who, at the time, would have been under the age of 40. Hitler was 56 when he's alleged to have died. In other words, the only forensic evidence of Adolf Hitler's suicide is meaningless.
Does this prove that he escaped to live a comfortable life in Argentina until sometime in the early '80s? No, of course not. But it doesn't prove he died in that bunker, either. At this point, nothing does.
The Documentary That Introduced The Ancient Alien Theory Was Nominated For An Academy Award
Did society evolve thanks to intervention from alien beings from distant galaxies? Are all of those bizarre cave drawings and sculptures of what look like spaceships or men in space suits actually artists' depictions of visits from extraterrestrial beings? That's the gist of what the History Channel show Ancient Aliens is all about.
Anyone who's watched the show knows that it's jam-packed with interesting facts and evidence, some of it delivered and/or confirmed by people who do actual science stuff for money. Nevertheless, it's also one of the most routinely mocked programs on television. A lot of that has to do with having produced one of the most meme-worthy talking heads in pop culture history.
They're the answer to all of life's questions.
That's Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, the reigning Neil deGrasse Tyson of information about visitors from other planets. If the theories he supports never gain mainstream traction, that hair should get at least half the blame.
Crazy hair aside, the bigger problem is that in this country, we've relegated the idea of intelligent life on other planets to the science-fiction section of our consciousness. People who suggest they've seen or been in contact with aliens are automatically written off as crazy.
However, we weren't always so skeptical. The basis for Ancient Aliens comes from a 1968 book called Chariots Of The Gods?, which spawned a documentary of the same name two years later.
Buy it wherever musty-ass used books from the '60s are sold!
Was the theory and the man who concocted it, Erich von Daniken, immediately shit upon by every doubter on the planet? Nope. Not only was the book not laughed out of existence, but the documentary was actually nominated for an Academy Award.
Listen, I know that's pretty weak in terms of facts that make a theory seem legitimate, but it does speak to the fact that, at one point in time, we didn't think any of this sounded all that crazy. This was 1970. We were just a year off of finally reaching the moon. Science was promising us that we'd be living there in no time, at which point we would set our sights on conquering Mars. As it pertained to outer space, everything seemed possible, including visits from extraterrestrial beings who passed down to us the very building blocks of life as we know it.
We're way too jaded and cynical to let something as wacky as the idea of aliens visiting our ancestors register as award-worthy today. It's not like Ancient Aliens has been racking up Emmys or anything. But it's nice to know that, at least at the start of the '70s, we still believed.
Kurt Cobain's Overdose a Month Before His Death Was Not a Suicide Attempt
About a month before his death, Kurt Cobain tried to commit suicide in Rome by swallowing 50 Rohypnol pills (yes, the date rape drug). He survived, but it turned out just be a preview of the much worse things that were still to come. A month later, he was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Well, either that or Courtney Love had him killed because he was planning to divorce her, and she stood to lose a ton of money if that happened. It's one of those "depends on who you believe" kinds of things. For me, this has always been one of the more believable theories. There are countless reasons for that, but in keeping with the spirit of this article, let's talk about just one: that first failed suicide attempt in Rome.
Sounds like fun! Let's do it!
What's interesting about this detail is that, aside from Courtney Love, no one has ever been comfortable calling what happened in Rome a suicide attempt. The most notable opponent of that theory is the doctor who treated Cobain after he was rushed to the hospital. As stated in the recent documentary Soaked In Bleach and various books on the subject, he's always been adamant that, at best, it was an accidental overdose.
If you've seen the Montage Of Heck documentary that aired on HBO recently, you know why this matters. In it, Courtney Love explicitly says that Cobain tried to kill himself in Rome because she almost cheated on him at a music festival. In other words, the only person who says it was a suicide attempt is also the person a lot of people think ultimately had him killed.
Also, what do you picture when you read that someone tried to commit suicide using drugs? Does it involve them gagging on the massive pile of pills they're trying to cram down their throat? Yes, you and everyone else, because that's what suicide by pills looks like. That's not what happened in Rome. The pills, according to the medical report, were dissolved in a bottle of champagne. Dissolving pills in a person's drink is far and away the most Investigation-Discovery-show-about-scorned-lovers way possible to kill your spouse.
Damn right she does.
Again, this was not referred to as a suicide attempt by anyone until Courtney Love started calling it that in the days after Cobain actually died. That she's so insistent about what happened, even though doctors say she's wrong, seems important to me. Yes, I get that she was married to the guy and all, but understand that you're asking me to believe the word of Courtney Love over that of a trained medical professional. I promise you that will never happen. I'd be more inclined to let Jenny McCarthy dictate my kid's vaccination schedule.
There's a lot more to the theory that Courtney Love was somehow complicit in the death of Kurt Cobain, but those pills dissolved in that champagne in Rome make me more suspicious than anything else.
The Man Who "Proved" Lee Harvey Oswald Could've Acted Alone Spent The Next 25 Years Proving He Didn't
When it comes to conspiracy theories, none have generated as much controversy or debate as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The official story is that a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, fired the fatal shots from the sixth floor of a nearby book depository. After his arrest, he claimed he'd been set up, but he didn't get to protest for long. Oswald himself was assassinated by Dallas bar owner Jack Ruby not long after being arrested.
A lot of theories about what really happened have surfaced in the years since, but what most of them have in common is their insistence that Lee Harvey Oswald could not possibly have acted alone. If nothing else, given the type of weapon he was using, there's no way he could've gotten off three shots in the 5.6 second window of time he had to work with.
From this vantage point, no less.
In the name of proving or disproving this, CBS set up an experiment in 1967 wherein several sharpshooters and ballistics experts attempted to recreate the shooting under conditions similar to those on that day in Dallas. And guess what? Someone was able to do it! That man was Howard Donahue, one of 11 participants, and he was only able to do it after three tries. Despite his success, the experience left him convinced that there was no way Oswald could have fired all three shots.
With that, he set about conducting an investigation of his own that eventually produced one of the most compelling theories yet: The shot that hit Kennedy in the head wasn't fired by Oswald, but instead was an accidental shot fired from a secret service vehicle two cars back. Specifically, the shot came from the rifle seen in this photo.
I feel like this picture should be more famous.
The thinking is that, upon hearing Oswald fire the first two shots, a secret service agent grabbed an AR-15 rifle and stood to return fire. At that moment, the car he was riding in accelerated, causing him to fall backwards and accidentally discharge his weapon. That accidental shot hit President Kennedy in the head.
It sounds crazy, but keep in mind that Howard Donahue was a ballistics expert who went into painstaking detail to recreate the trajectory of the shots that hit Kennedy. His research was deemed sound enough that two major media outlets went to the trouble of covering it. The first was the Baltimore Sun, which covered his findings in a two-part series in 1977.
The next was St. Martin's Press, one of the largest and most respected publishers in the nation (they also make textbooks). In 1992, they released a book called Mortal Error that laid out in great detail the facts behind Donahue's theory.
Ha! The guy who wrote it is named Bonar.
It wasn't some obscure conspiracy wing of St. Martin's Press, either. This was a major book release, complete with appearances on national news show and everything.
The point is that the theory had some support, and not just from tinfoil hat types. Unfortunately, and to the surprise of almost everyone involved, the book generated almost no interest or attention from anyone. There are probably a lot of reasons for that, but I think the most likely is that, in the long run, this theory makes for a really unsatisfying conclusion to the mystery of what happened to JFK. It proves those who think Lee Harvey Oswald couldn't have pulled off the killing alone were correct, but not really in the way they're hoping. There's no mysterious second gunman on the grassy knoll. It's just math and human error. Who wants to believe something so mundane when it takes all of the way more interesting options off the table? Blaming it all on a tragic mistake isn't nearly as fun as insisting George Bush did it.
Adam is on Twitter. Follow him there @adamtodbrown.