10 Historical Conspiracy Theories


Conspiracy theories are very popular today, but they are not a new phenomenon. There have been plenty of significant moments in history that have spawned alternate versions of events that range from plausible, to wacky, to downright insane.

10. Jesse James Rides Again

The history books will tell you that famed Wild West outlaw Jesse James died in 1882 and now rests in a cemetery in Kearney, Missouri. He was gunned down by a member of his own gang, 20-year-old Robert Ford, who was also shot to death a decade later. Ford killed James for the reward money, but what if he actually helped the outlaw fake his own death?

Rumors of Jesse James’s survival appeared almost immediately following word of his demise. Some people believed that Ford shot a different person and intentionally aimed for the back of his head to make him harder to identify. Although historians never gave the idea much credence, it persisted, especially in James’s home state of Missouri.

The story died down for a spell, but was resurrected almost seven decades later. In 1948, a centenarian named John Franklin Dalton came forward claiming to be Jesse James. He died a few years later in Granbury, Texas. Some locals did a post-mortem inspection and claimed to have seen telltale marks that supported Dalton’s identity as Jesse James. These included old bullet wounds and a rope burn on his neck.

Scientists tried to settle the matter in modern times with DNA tests. They took samples from the body in Kearney and, although it wasn’t a resounding “yes,” the results indicated that that man was Jesse James.

There was a bungled attempt in 2000 to exhume Dalton and compare his DNA to James’s descendants. However, the people mistakenly dug up the wrong person and the order only allowed one coffin exhumation.

9. Was Shakespeare the True Shakespeare?

William Shakespeare is regarded as the greatest writer of the English language, but is he really the author of all those plays and sonnets? Most people would say “yes,” but some have doubts. The idea that someone other than Shakespeare is responsible for his body of work has been around for over 150 years and almost a hundred candidates have been put forward.

This notion appeared at a time when the adulation of Shakespeare reached a fever pitch in the English-speaking world and people started regarding him as the greatest writer of all time. The doubters, collectively referred to as anti-Stratfordians, mainly asserted that someone with Shakespeare’s working class background didn’t have the experience, culture, or education to write his plays. They also claimed that there was a lack of official documents that recorded Shakespeare’s life and his career as a playwright. Lastly, they pointed out that the surviving Shakespeare signatures look and are spelled differently.

People like Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, and Orson Welles were among those who doubted Shakespeare. Some of the most popular alternative candidates were Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, and William Stanley, Earl of Derby.

Defenders of Shakespeare point out that the Stratford man’s background was not unusual for a writer. Other successful contemporary playwrights like Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson had similar upbringings. There is also enough recorded evidence that Shakespeare was recognized, in his time and after his death, for his prowess as a writer.

8. Treasure at Rennes-le-Château

Rennes-le-Château might be just a tiny French village, but it is a popular location both with conspiracy theorists and treasure hunters. This is all due to a priest named Bérenger Saunière, who allegedly found a fortune, but took the location of the riches to his grave.

Sometime during the 1880s, Saunière started renovating the local church of Saint Mary Magdalene, which was in a poor state. He never disclosed where he got the money from and, thus, a legend was born. The most popular version claims that the priest found surplus from a gold treasure that Blanche of Castile, Queen of France, raised during the 13th century as ransom for her son, the future Louis IX. Another story alleges Saunière’s involvement with the Priory of Sion.

Historians never found any substantial evidence to support these claims. Instead, they conclude that the source of Saunière’s wealth was far more trivial and it was plain old corruption. The priest sold Masses and stole donations. An alternative, yet equally mundane hypothesis claims that a local hotelier simply made the story up to boost tourism.

7. The Origins Of Gilmerton Cove

Today a suburb of Edinburgh, Gilmerton was once a thriving mining town. Beneath its streets there is a network of chambers and passages called Gilmerton Cove. Its purpose and origins have puzzled historians and given rise to many conspiracy theories.

There was a long-held claim that Gilmerton Cove had been hewn by a blacksmith named George Paterson between 1719 and 1724. Records indicate that he used one of the rooms as a pub, which once got him in trouble because he sold alcohol on the Sabbath.

This version of events was accepted for almost 200 years until the start of the 20th century. A historian inspected the underground passages and concluded that parts of them were, at least, a hundred years older than the rest. He also calculated that Gilmerton Cove had around half a million cubic feet of displaced rock. Definitely not something that Paterson would have done on his own, in five years, using a chisel or pickaxe.

Since that origin story had been debunked, there has been no shortage of new theories on how and why Gilmerton Cove came to be. Some claimed it once served as an ancient Druid temple or that it was used by the Scottish Presbyterian movement known as the Covenanters. Maybe it was a secret stash used by smugglers. Whatever the version, they all agree that Gilmerton Cove had been hidden or filled in and Paterson simply stumbled upon it.

6. The Lost Dauphin

King Louis XVI of France and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were sent to the guillotine in 1793. Although the French Revolution brought about the fall of the monarchy, there were still loyalists in the country who considered the young Dauphin of France, Louis-Charles, to be the rightful ruler. Therefore, the heir apparent was imprisoned where he seemingly died of scrofula in 1795, aged 10.

Not everyone was convinced that this actually happened. Rumors soon sprouted that crown sympathizers successfully broke Louis out of prison and that somebody else was buried in his place. This idea became particularly commonplace two decades later when the monarchy was briefly restored. Dozens of men came forward claiming to be the “Lost Dauphin.” Their descendants continued their claims for centuries that they were part of the House of Bourbon.

Modern technology invalidated those claims. Philippe-Jean Pelletan was the surgeon who performed the autopsy on the young body purported to be that of Louis-Charles. He smuggled and preserved the heart of the boy in the hopes that it would be given a royal burial later. The relic has been in the same crystal urn for almost 200 years. DNA tests in the early 2000s showed that it really belonged to Louis and the “Lost Dauphin” was nothing more than a legend.

5. How Did Zachary Taylor Die?

The 12th President of the United States, Zachary Taylor, died on July 9, 1850, after serving only 16 months in office. Cause of death at the time was cholera morbus, or what we call gastroenteritis. However, conspiracy theories suggest that Taylor may have been the victim of an assassination plot, most likely at the hands of pro-Slavery interests.

Taylor was president at a time of rising tensions so there were plenty of people who wanted him out of the picture. He fell ill suddenly and died a few days later, so it would not be completely unreasonable to suspect a poisoning. The idea became prevalent enough that, in 1991, one of his descendants gave permission to have Taylor’s body exhumed and extract a tissue sample. A panel of medical examiners tested it but found no signs of poisoning. Even so, the idea still persists with people who argue that the procedure was faulty.

If anything, Taylor might have been done in by a combination of incompetence and overzealousness on behalf of his doctors. They went with a shotgun approach in regards to their treatment and gave the president generous amounts of ipecac, opium, calomel, and quinine, as well as bleeding and blistering him. It is possible that, if they left him alone, Taylor may have recovered.

4. The Ultimate Fate of Butch Cassidy

Like his contemporary Jesse James, there were whispers that Butch Cassidy had survived his shootout with the Bolivian army and returned to the United States where he lived peacefully for decades more.

Officially, Cassidy fled to South America alongside the Sundance Kid once the rest of the Wild Bunch was either dead or in prison. In 1908, the outlaws seemingly returned to their old ways and robbed a courier carrying a mine’s payroll. Bolivian soldiers stormed their hideout and a gunfight ensued. Contrary to the movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid did not go out in a blaze of glory. After Sundance was fatally injured, Cassidy shot him and then turned the gun on himself.  

The bodies were recognized as the two Americans who robbed the courier and this was good enough for the Bolivian authorities. They never conclusively established their identities as Cassidy and Sundance. No photos were taken and they were buried in an unmarked grave. Unsurprisingly, some people believed the outlaws made it out alive.

Cassidy’s sister, Lula Parker Betenson, claimed her brother survived and even returned to the family home at one point. He died in 1937 and his true resting place is known only to the family.

Even stranger was the situation involving William T. Phillips. Decades after Cassidy’s demise, he wrote a biography about him titled The Bandit Invincible. Phillips claimed to have known the gunman since boyhood, but there was no evidence of their alleged friendship. Since his book contained numerous personal anecdotes, some people started believing that Phillips was, in fact, Butch Cassidy. It wasn’t until 2012 that a historian who was an ardent supporter of this theory tentatively identified William T. Phillips as William T. Wilcox, an inmate who served time with Cassidy in the Wyoming Territorial Prisons.

3. The Sinking of the Lusitania

The sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915 was one of the most pivotal and most controversial moments of World War I. A German submarine sunk the British ocean liner off the coast of Ireland. Over 1,100 people were killed and 128 of them were Americans. This soured American-German relations and preceded the United States entering the war in 1917 against Germany.

For decades afterwards, a debate has raged on over whether the Lusitania was a legitimate military target or not. Germany always maintained that the vessel entered a declared war zone and was carrying huge amounts of undeclared munitions, including explosives which caused the vessel to sink rapidly and exacerbate the loss of life. Official British position was that the Lusitania was only carrying rifle ammo and artillery shells without fuses or propellant. It wasn’t until a few years ago that declassified papers from the Foreign Office showed that the vessel, indeed, had explosives aboard.

Conspiracy theorists go a step further and claim that the British government wanted the Germans to attack and sink the Lusitania to get the US on its side. They argue that British intelligence were well-aware of the dangers in that area. In the past, they had taken precautions with other ships but not the Lusitania which was traveling at reduced speed and in a straight line, thus making it an easy target. They also question why the vessel was not provided with a destroyer escort even though multiple were available.

2. What Happened to Amelia Earhart?

The disappearance of Amelia Earhart is, perhaps, aviation’s greatest mystery. Unsurprisingly, it has led to the appearance of numerous theories and notions regarding her fate following her doomed 1937 flight around the world.

Typically, the most accepted view is that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, died after crashing their Lockheed Model 10 Electra. Whether this happened somewhere over the Pacific Ocean or on an island is unknown.

Some believe that Amelia Earhart perished at the hands of the Japanese because she was, actually, an American spy enlisted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Japanese military either killed her when they downed her airplane or captured Earhart and held her prisoner on the island of Saipan for the rest of her days. There was even a notion that the aviatrix was forced to become a Tokyo Rose – an English-speaking woman who spread Japanese propaganda to the Allies during World War II. Her husband, George Putnam, investigated this claim. He listened to numerous such recordings but never recognized his wife’s voice.

There have also been several notions that Earhart survived the crash and lived under a new identity. One book alleged that she became Irene Bolam from New Jersey. Bolam sued the publisher, settled out of court and got the book withdrawn.  

1. The Phantom Time Hypothesis

Without a doubt, one of the strangest historical conspiracy theories is the phantom time hypothesis. It asserts that part of the Middle Ages never actually happened and was manufactured in order to advance time a few centuries and place the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Otto III in the year 1000.

According to this hypothesis, the time period between AD 614 and 911 never took place. Charlemagne never existed and neither did the Carolingian Dynasty. The year is actually 1722.

As far as motivation goes, it is usually presented as a conspiracy plot masterminded by King Otto III and Pope Sylvester II. However, some believers assert that those extra centuries could have been added by mistake or by misinterpretation of documents. If this was all an accident, it likely happened during the Gregorian reform when Pope Gregory XIII enabled the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.

There are many ways to debunk this idea, but astronomy seems to work just fine. We have historical observations of cosmic events such as solar eclipses and the passing of Halley’s Comet. Astronomers can calculate with certainty when they have taken place and would notice if they were off by a few centuries.

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