Marilyn, JFK, and Others: Our Obsession with Conspiracy Theories

May 20, 2016

America loves a good story. Some stories, however, inspire us so much that fiction is accepted as the truth. Have you seen Elvis lately? Sadly, there are some who still report that they have spotted him. The government DID NOT create the Aids problem, and we DID land a man on the moon! A lot of energy has gone into spinning sometimes ridiculous conspiracy theories that ultimately taint a true history. Conspiracies are alternative stories about a real events. These stories develop because a part of our society refuses to accept the official explanation. The beloved iconic Elvis could not possibly be dead, and walking on the moon was unimaginable, many thought. As far as the Aids conspiracy, many citizens historically don’t trust the government anyhow. It is not a giant stretch to see how an angry tale of blame was spun. Some conspiracy theories stay in the public’s mind, and others fade away. The problem is that the ones that fade away are the conspiracies that we need to remember.

The conspiracy theories about John F. Kennedy’s assassination and Marilyn Monroe’s death are examples of alternative stories that are possibly plausible. Perhaps Lee Harvey Oswald was not alone in the murder of Kennedy, and could there also be a widespread network of conspirators involved? Did Marilyn Monroe die of an overdose as officially reported, or was she murdered by people close to JFK? Amelia Earhart’s plane disappeared over the Pacific in 1942, and officially, that was the end of the story. In 1942, however, we were at war with Japan, and Earhart’s plane was flying over enemy territory. It is not difficult to imagine a conspiracy theory connecting her disappearance with the Japanese. In fact, the strongest Earhart theory is that the Japanese either shot her plane down or it crashed, and she and Fred Noonan, her navigator, were captured by the Japanese, tortured and eventually executed. These conspiracy stories, and others, are in our recent memory and are still in the public discourse. As far as our American history, they have not been resolved.

Amelia Earhart 1937
Amelia Earhart

Conspiracy theories thrive on being unresolved. Here are a few that have surfaced in the last 150 years, and they range from pure fantasy to believable, and somewhere in between:

Roswell – In July 1947 Roswell, New Mexico was the scene of a bizarre incident. The military claimed that a crash involved a high altitude balloon, but eyewitnesses said something else. Within a few hours the news media were announcing that the Roswell crash was a legitimate UFO, and some of the bodies recovered were definitely not human. Three so-called creatures resembled humans but smaller, and with larger heads and spindly limbs. The conspiracy blames the federal government with covering up the true facts, and not releasing the bodies to be independently examined. The evidence here is thin, at best.

James Earl Ray,

Martin Luther King – In April 1968 Martin Luther King was murdered and James Earl Ray was quickly arrested and admitted to killing him. Within three days, Ray recanted his confession. Later, civil cases agreed that Ray had not murdered King, but instead pointed the finger at Lloyd Jowers, a local bar owner. King’s family also believed Ray’s story, but the government did not. The official report said that Ray was not only the killer, but he most likely had been stalking King. The King family believed that the government was involved in his murder. Other researchers suggest that a larger network of conspirators had been planning to murder King, and Ray was just the hit man. There’s not enough evidence to support that Martin Luther King’s murderer was anyone other than James Earl Ray. Ray was never released from jail and he passed away in 1994.

U.S.S. Eldridge
U.S.S. Eldridge

Philadelphia Experiment – This conspiracy is difficult to imagine, but in 1943 it was claimed that the U.S. Naval ship the USS Eldridge, became invisible. In the previous year over 1,000 Allied ships had been sunk by German U-boats, and some have argued that the U.S. Navy was trying to come up with a counter-measure to the U-boat attacks. At the time, Albert Einstein was employed by the Navy, and had been working on his Unified Field Theory. His theory had to do with the science of warping space and time, and it may have included the science of making objects invisible through an electro-magnetic field. According to the story, this field was created on the Eldridge, and it surrounded the entire ship. Witnesses’ claim that a greenish fog appeared and covered the vessel. The Eldridge then completely vanished and reappeared at the Norfolk Naval base, which was 300 miles away. It vanished again and then reappeared back at the Philadelphia Naval Yard. The ship sustained no damage, but according to eyewitnesses, some sailors caught fire and others were partially embedded in the steel of the ship. The U.S. Navy denied both the existence of the experiment, or any details related to the so-called incident on the Eldridge. This story sounds far-fetched and possibly because of its fictional nature, it has not resonated with support from this generation.

General George Patton (raising his hand); March 1945; General's Eisenhower, Bradley.
General George Patton (raising his hand); March 1945; General’s Eisenhower, Bradley, Hodges.

General George Patton – The flamboyant general of World War II was mysteriously killed in a vehicle accident shortly after the war ended. Patton had demonstrated his careless streak many times, but in this situation, he was not even driving. Some suggest that the outspoken general was silenced because of his Anti-Soviet views, or because he might publicly divulge war secrets. He had loudly suggested that the U.S. should continue the war and invade the Soviet Union. Official reports about the accident have disappeared. Patton’s driver said the Army truck that slammed into them had been waiting. Patton suffered a broken neck and later died of a blood clot in the hospital. The three other passengers were not injured, and an autopsy was never performed on his body. There are a number of interesting facts surrounding Patton’s death, but no clear definitive proof that his death was anything other than an accident. However,the conspiracy theory continues to persist.

Civil War – The claim that England started the war is another theory with thin, or no, credible evidence. Apparently, since the Revolutionary War, England had been plotting to take their colony back. By starting a Civil War the North and South would each shatter the other physically and economically. Once this was done the English military would easily invade the nation and take over.

Russian (Bolshevik) Revolution – It is widely accepted that the government takeover, and the execution of Tsar Nicholas and his family, was done by radical Bolshevik revolutionaries. The alternate theory is that the Russian revolution was planned and financed by American and British banks, and that Lenin and Trotsky were front men used by the two nations. The two countries wanted communism, which was known as an economic loser, to be installed. The theory is difficult to grasp, but there is growing research to support this theory.

Attack on Pearl Harbor; December 7, 1941
Attack on Pearl Harbor; December 7, 1941

Pearl Harbor – Sunday, December 7, 1941 is the day the Japanese attacked an unsuspecting U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet which was stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation later that day, saying about the attack “a date which will live in infamy,” and then asked Congress to declare war with Japan. The alternative story is that FDR and others in his administration were well aware of the Japanese intent to bomb Pearl Harbor, and did nothing. According to the conspiracy, the Roosevelt administration wanted war, and the American public was not ready to support our involvement. The Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor would assure that the American public would support our involvement in the war.

There is some proof to support this conspiracy. Our military had cracked the Japanese code two months prior to Pearl Harbor; they had deciphered a number of Japanese messages suggesting the attack. Based on research obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, researchers also suggest that FDR’s administration had intentionally provoked the Japanese to attack by freezing her assets in the United States, closing the Panama Canal to Japanese ships, and halting important exports to Japan. Research also suggests that America had entered into a secret alliance with Great Britain to defeat Germany, and this alliance was made before we had even entered the war. This makes for an interesting story, but it seems unlikely that FDR’s administration wanted to go to war, especially since the nation was unprepared militarily.

The interesting thing about conspiracy theories is that they balance between fiction and non-fiction, and just simply leave us wondering. There are two conspiracies, one in the 19th, and the other in the 20th century, that are probably factual, at least in part. Their stories are far more sinister than the death of Marilyn, or the whereabouts of Elvis, or even the murder of JFK. They present believable plots about the takeover of our nation’s government.

In April and May 1865 our nation’s capital was gripped by fear surrounding Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Just weeks before the war officially ended Lincoln was murdered and his Secretary of State was nearly beaten to death. Nine conspirators were caught and tried. The assassin, John Wilkes Booth was hunted down and shot to death in a barn in Caroline County, Virginia. Four of the conspirators, including a female, were hanged in July 1865. The rest of the gang quickly spilled the beans that the plan had included murdering Vice President Andrew Johnson and General Ulysses Grant. That is the official story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and then there is the conspiracy of the Knights of the Golden Circle.

The execution of four of Lincoln's conspirators. August 1865
The execution of four of Lincoln’s conspirators.
August 1865

The KGC began before the Civil War began and was initially established to support and expand slavery and slave territories. The confederation of slave’s states would include the Southern states, Cuba and Nicaragua. According to the conspiracy, hundreds of thousands of Americans, not just Southerners, were members of the KGC. Some reports suggest that in addition to John Wilkes Booth, and all of the conspirators, several of Lincoln’s own cabinet and Jefferson Davis himself were members of the organization. The initial plan of the group was to push the South to secede from the Union, intentionally starting the war. The KGC was convinced of the invincibility of the South. In the election of 1860 the KGC placed their bets on Lincoln, simply because they thought that he was incompetent and illiterate. Lincoln, as President of the Union, would pose no problem to the South’s plans of seceding from the Union, they thought.

When the war went sour, the KGC decided that it was worth a last ditch effort to take out the Union leadership. There is a growing amount of work that supports that John Wilkes Booth was not the man killed in the Caroline County barn. It is also difficult to ignore the legitimacy of the KGC network, and its relationship to the Confederacy. Some researchers have argued that the KGC was also well financed, but offered little credible evidence. It is plausible, however, that the KGC was involved in both Lincoln’s death, and a larger conspiracy to develop a new nation based on a slave economy.

There are numerous Lincoln conspiracies. The most logical one was that the Confederacy, in some fashion, was behind his death. Another theory suggested that Edwin Stanton was the mastermind. Stanton was in Lincoln’s Cabinet and served as Secretary of War, and disagreed with the President over many issues, but particularly Lincoln’s Reconstruction plans. As a lawyer he had lost a major case when he represented the Catholic Church. Some felt that the church was so troubled by Lincoln’s poor handling of the case that they could have conspired to murder him. Lincoln’s own Vice President, Andrew Johnson has even been the focus of some conspirator researchers. Johnson and Booth were friendly, even sharing the same mistresses. Booth had even visited Johnson on several occasions just prior to Lincoln’s death. These theories all make for good stories, but fall short in evidence.

Gen. Smedley Butler

Major General Smedley Butler was the highest ranking U.S. Marine Corps officer in the service, and, at his death, was the most highly decorated Marine in the history of the United States. So, when Butler testified before Congress that a group of businessmen had approached him about leading a military coup to overthrow FDR’s administration, that got the attention of the entire nation.

In 1933 the nation was in the grips of the Great Depression. Germany was also facing severe economic hardship and their unemployment rate was at 33%. In that same year Hitler’s Fascist regime came into power and made many promises about improving the lives of its citizens. These promises impressed certain people and groups. Hitler pledged that he would quickly reduce the numbers of unemployed, and he kept that promise. His government, however, was also rounding up Jews, closing their businesses, and confiscating their personal possessions. These actions may have also impressed the elite group of American businessman. All of those accused denied the charges and the media called Butler’s accusations a colossal joke, fantasy and “no truth in the story at all.” The New York Times went further and in an editorial characterized it as a “gigantic hoax.”

The House of Representatives, however, did not agree. After two months of investigating, the House Committee admitted that much of what General Butler had said was alarmingly true. There was even proof that a military march on Washington had been planned. Despite this, no one was prosecuted and no one’s reputation was destroyed, or even damaged, including General Butler. The entire matter, referred to as the Business Plot, was simply forgotten and allowed to go away. World War II was on the horizon and Americans began to focus on the war, and probably never looked back.

The American public is fascinated with conspiracies. Many of us are driven to find the truth, while others simply enjoy being entertained by a new twist in an old tale. A constant spinning of an interesting story will do that. There are certain conspiracy theories from our past, whose larger meaning we need to reconsider and analyze. If the North had lost the Civil War and the KGC and its mission were real, the result would have been unimaginable. Equally, it is difficult to imagine World War II America without Franklin D. Roosevelt. There is much that we can learn from the past, and some conspiracy theories may provide valuable insight into our society.


Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War, by David C. Keehn

The Plot to Seize the White House: The Shocking TRUE Story of the Conspiracy, by Jules Archer

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart,
by Candace Fleming

Philadelphia Experiment: Project Invisiblity, by
William L. Moore, Charles Berlitz

More about Allen Cornwell

Allen Cornwell is a self-employed business owner and an adjunct American History professor at a small college. He lives in rural Virginia and enjoys history, sports, old movies and visiting all types of museums. Cornwell has had a number of American history articles published and he earned his M. A. degree in American History from Virginia Commonwealth University. He can be contacted at:


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