6 Conspiracy Theories That Turned Out to Be True

Barney Wayne/Getty Images
Barney Wayne/Getty Images

Humans love conspiracy theories, and always have—there’s even evidence that ancient Romans had a few. Today, with the advent of the internet, they seem to be everywhere. But even though the term is generally pejorative, that doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you. What follows are some conspiracy theories that turned out to be (at least partially or presciently) true.

1. It wasn't a weather balloon that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico.

In 1947, the Army Air Forces announced that a mysterious object that had crashed in the desert outside Roswell, New Mexico, was not a flying saucer but in fact a weather balloon. As the years went on, interest in the crash site waxed and waned, but from the late '70s to the '90s, interest surged, and many believers alleged that the government was covering up what really crashed at Roswell. As the Los Angeles Times noted in 1994, “The ‘Roswell incident’ has been repeatedly dismissed by the Defense Department as nothing more than UFO fantasies triggered by the discovery of a downed weather balloon.”

As it turned out, there was a cover-up: What had crashed in the desert wasn't a weather balloon. But it wasn't a UFO, either. Instead, it was probably a balloon from Project Mogul, a Cold War attempt to spy on Soviet nuclear weapons development that used balloon-borne acoustic detection.

The cover-up came to light in the early ‘90s, after a New Mexico representative asked the General Accounting Office to pressure the Pentagon into declassifying documents related to Roswell. According to The New York Times, that led to an Air Force report on the subject, which was released in 1994. It concluded that the Roswell find was “most likely from one of the Mogul balloons that had not been previously recovered” [PDF]. According to a journal maintained by one of the people working on Project Mogul in New Mexico, one of the balloons launched in June '47 was never recovered after its mission. The Air Force report considered it probable that it was this balloon, battered by surface winds, that landed on a ranch in 1947. (Also, according to the report, "Air Force research efforts did not disclose any records of the recovery of any 'alien' bodies or extraterrestrial materials.")

The report also speculated that the weather balloon story could have been chosen as the official line either because the relevant authorities actually thought it was a weather balloon or perhaps because they knew of the highly classified Project Mogul and were trying to cover it up. The military would not have wanted its spy activities or technology to come to light, so even UFOs would have been a better option than the truth.

Of course, some think that the cover-up remains.

2. American scientists militarized the weather.

As part of their 2014 book, American Conspiracy Theories, Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent trawled through thousands of letters to the editors from over a century of newspapers to determine which ones had a conspiratorial slant to them. The letters either proposed a conspiracy or argued against a conspiracy that seemed to be in the air at the time. They found writers proposing or debunking conspirators as diverse as the Boers, conservationists, both Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and even the Prime Minister of Malta. One of the letters they discuss is a 1958 comment about “American scientists trying to find [a] method for controlling the weather.”

In the 1950s, controlling the weather was a major topic of discussion: There were Congressional hearings and articles in major publications about how such a thing might be possible. In 1963, Fidel Castro accused the United States of weaponizing Hurricane Flora, which killed at least a thousand people in Cuba. According to an article in a 1958 issue of Popular Science, American scientists worried that “[t]he Russians may be ahead of us in weather control.”

Publicly, weather modification was moving merrily along—and the threat of weather warfare was being downplayed. One expert during this time reassured a Senate Select Committee, “I would like ... to emphasize again that I consider it highly improbable that advances in the science of weather modification will make possible any extensive use of 'weather warfare.’” The expert cautioned that it couldn’t be completely ruled out, however, and said more research was needed.

Years later, rumors began emerging of weather warfare in the Vietnam War, with a 1972 Science article saying, “For the past year, rumors and speculation, along with occasional bits of circumstantial evidence, have accumulated in Washington to the effect that the military has tried to increase rainfall in Indochina to hinder enemy infiltration into South Vietnam.” But Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, flatly told a senator “we have never engaged in that type of activity over North Vietnam.”

It didn’t take long for people to recognize that this was not a denial of potential activity in Laos, Cambodia, or South Vietnam. While the senator didn’t follow up with Laird, reporters asked a Pentagon spokesperson, who also denied rain-making over North Vietnam. But when pressed about other regions, the spokesperson responded, "I can't enlarge on that.”

In 1974, they were forced to. That year, the government admitted to attempting to make it rain to slow down movement along the Ho Chi Minh trail, and Laird apologized for misleading Congress, saying that he had “never approved” the efforts. The New York Times also reported he wrote a 1974 letter to a subcommittee saying, contrary to his earlier denials, he had “just been informed ... such activities were conducted over North Vietnam in 1967 and again in 1968.”

3. The U.S. government has investigated UFOs for years.

What could be a more definitive conspiracy theory than the U.S. government spending millions of dollars on UFO research? As the Washington Post’s Cleve R. Wootson Jr. put it in 2017, “For decades, Americans were told that Area 51 didn’t really exist and that the U.S. government had no official interest in aliens or UFOs. Statements to the contrary, official-sounding people cautioned, were probably the musings of crackpots in tinfoil hats.”

But according to Albert Greco in his 2004 book Conspiracy 101: Beginning to Be Crazy (according to the foreword, "a beginner course in the world of conspiracy theory"), the Air Force, and then the CIA, had been actively investigating UFOs, at taxpayer expense, since the late '40s. Greco also noted, with more than a little sarcasm, that the 1950s “were filled with more government investigations into easily explainable, totally natural, anything but alien events. According to the government there was no validity to these reports of UFOs; but they were going to continue to spend millions of American tax dollars to investigate them.”

And in 2017, conspiracy theorists got official confirmation that the government was, in fact, looking into UFOs—or at least it had been, for a time.

That year, the Pentagon confirmed the existence of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which The New York Times reported was a $22 million program in a $600 billion budget. Started at the behest of then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2007, the program was reportedly shut down in 2012 (though The New York Times says that some officials have worked on it on the side since). According to the Washington Post, the purpose of the program was “collecting and analyzing a wide range of 'anomalous aerospace threats' ranging from advanced aircraft fielded by traditional U.S. adversaries to commercial drones to possible alien encounters." Experts were quick to discount the little green men part of the UFO research, though, with former space shuttle engineer James E. Oberg saying, “There are plenty of prosaic events and human perceptual traits that can account for these stories ... Lots of people are active in the air and don’t want others to know about it. They are happy to lurk unrecognized in the noise, or even to stir it up as camouflage.”

4. Magnetic materials in money can be used to determine the number of bills a person is carrying.

The Lone Gunmen, from TV's The X-Files, might be pop culture's most famous conspiracy theorists. (They took their name from the conspiracy surrounding president John F. Kennedy's assassination.) In the season one episode "E.B.E.," Lone Gunman John Fitzgerald Byers tells Mulder and Scully about "a dark network, a government within a government, controlling our every move." The proof, he says, can be found in a $20 bill. He takes one from Scully and rips it up, revealing the anti-counterfeiting strip: "They use this magnetic strip to track you. Whenever you go through a metal detector at an airport, they know exactly how much you’re carrying.”

Snopes has debunked this story, saying that according to rumors, the security thread is “to allow the government to know exactly how much money anyone is carrying at any particular moment ... The rumor is bunk. The strip’s sole purpose is the foiling of counterfeiters.” But while that last statement is likely true, there's also evidence that the Lone Gunmen were technically kind of right.

In 2011, Christopher Fuller and Antao Chen, both of the University of Washington, released a study called “Induction detection of concealed bulk banknotes.” They reasoned that because American currency has magnetic materials it should be possible to detect how much money someone was carrying on them. According to a 2012 New Scientist article, the physicists “found an ordinary handheld metal detector was able to pick up a dollar bill from 3 centimetres away, and placing the notes behind plastic, cardboard and cloth did little to block the signal. Adding further bills in $5 increments increased the strength of the signal, making [it possible] to count the number of bills,” though they do caution that denominations couldn’t be determined from this technique. According to New Scientist, "large bundles of notes would contain enough magnetic material to be detected at a distance, potentially allowing police to catch people attempting to smuggle cash over the border."

5. People who are "chipped" can be tracked by satellites.

According to the Detroit Free Press, the '90s publication Relevance, with its high quality paper and nice layouts, was “one of the slickest examples of conspiracy theorizing.” Physician Philip O’Halloran, the man behind the publication, wrote in one issue that biochips, implanted under the skin, “will emit low-frequency FM radio waves that can travel great distances, e.g., several miles up into space to an orbiting satellite. The transmission would provide information on the exact location of the ‘chipee.’" A year later, a psychologist writing in a New York newspaper said that mental health professionals who heard someone describing what O'Halloran proposed “might make a diagnosis that the person was suffering from a severe paranoid disorder,” before going on to discuss the origins of these kinds of views.

But O'Halloran's idea was prescient: Just three years later, in 1998, a professor of cybernetics at Reading University in England named Kevin Warwick received a chip implant, which according to a contemporary Independent article “emits a unique identifying signal that a computer can recognise to operate various electronic devices, such as room lights, door locks or lifts.” While that was still a long way off from what O’Halloran was proposing, in 2018 The Atlantic reported on a group that is working on making GPS-enabled chips to track relatives with dementia. In the future, there might be GPS tracking of other groups—something that was dismissed as a paranoid disorder just a few decades ago.

6. The government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition.

Just because the government made booze illegal doesn't mean people stopped drinking during Prohibition. But when those who chose to get tipsy started dying, accusations flew that the government was poisoning alcohol to enforce Prohibition. “When the government puts poison into alcohol, a large percentage of which the government knows will ultimately be consumed for beverage purposes, such action is reprehensible and tends to defeat the very purpose of prohibition,” a 1926 issue of The Camden Morning Post opined. A number of people, including a senator, put the blame for the deaths firmly at the hands of the government, and said that the practice was, essentially, "legalizing murder."

In fact, the government was poisoning alcohol, and freely admitted to it—and even published an entire short book on the subject. However, according to the government, the purpose wasn't to enforce Prohibition, but for Federal Revenue purposes: Booze meant for consumption would have to be taxed, but denatured booze was tax-free.

In 1906, Congress passed the first tax-free denatured alcohol act, which was designed to safeguard industries that required industrial alcohol. In order to keep suppling the industries that required alcohol, the government began to denature the alcohol (adding something to make the alcohol unfit for consumption) to make it “wholly unfit for beverage purposes.”

After reports of several deaths in the 1926 holiday season, the poisoning became an increasingly controversial tactic, though the government denied that their denaturing of the alcohol had anything to do with it. According to a 1929 Congressional Record, an expert who testified regarding deaths in New York City said that “There was not the slightest evidence adduced at any point, so far as I am aware, that these deaths were caused by industrial alcohol, either in the form in which it was denatured under Government supervision or after it had been manipulated by criminals.” Instead, the expert said, the deaths were caused by drinking straight wood alcohol. In the Minerva's Mail column in Nebraska's The Lincoln Star, Minerva drove the point home, saying, "The thing that kills the unfortunate, who in his craving will drink anything, is the alcohol itself in its raw state ... it is hard and raw and disastrous in its effects on the stomach."

Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

If you're looking for deals on items like Keurigs, BISSELL vacuums, and essential oil diffusers, it's usually pretty slim pickings until the holiday sales roll around. Thankfully, Amazon is starting these deals a little earlier with their Big Fall Sale, where customers can get up to 20 percent off everything from home decor to WFH essentials and kitchen gadgets. Now you won’t have to wait until Black Friday for the deal you need. Make sure to see all the deals that the sale has to offer here and check out our favorites below.

Electronics

Dash/Amazon

- BISSELL Lightweight Upright Vacuum Cleaner $170 (save $60)

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- AmazonBasics 1500W Oscillating Ceramic Heater $31 (save $4)

Home office Essentials

HP/Amazon

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Selieve/Amazon

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Home Improvement

DEWALT/Amazon

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Home Décor

NECA/Amazon

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12 Surprising Facts About T.S. Eliot

Getty
Getty

Born September 26, 1888, modernist poet and playwright Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot is best known for writing "The Waste Land." But the 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was also a prankster who coined a perennially popular curse word, and created the characters brought to life in the Broadway musical "Cats." In honor of Eliot’s birthday, here are a few things you might not know about the writer.

1. T.S. Eliot enjoyed holding down "real" jobs.

Throughout his life, Eliot supported himself by working as a teacher, banker, and editor. He could only write poetry in his spare time, but he preferred it that way. In a 1959 interview with The Paris Review, Eliot remarked that his banking and publishing jobs actually helped him be a better poet. “I feel quite sure that if I’d started by having independent means, if I hadn’t had to bother about earning a living and could have given all my time to poetry, it would have had a deadening influence on me,” Eliot said. “The danger, as a rule, of having nothing else to do is that one might write too much rather than concentrating and perfecting smaller amounts.”

2. One of the longest-running Broadway shows ever exists thanks to T.S. Eliot.

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In 1939, Eliot published a book of poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which included feline-focused verses he likely wrote for his godson. In stark contrast to most of Eliot's other works—which are complex and frequently nihilistic—the poems here were decidedly playful. For Eliot, there was never any tension between those two modes: “One wants to keep one’s hand in, you know, in every type of poem, serious and frivolous and proper and improper. One doesn’t want to lose one’s skill,” he explained in his Paris Review interview. A fan of Eliot's Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats since childhood, in the late '70s, Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to set many of Eliot's poems to music. The result: the massively successful stage production "Cats," which opened in London in 1981 and, after its 1982 NYC debut, became one of the longest-running Broadway shows of all time.

3. Three hours per day was his T.S. Eliot’s writing limit.

Eliot wrote poems and plays partly on a typewriter and partly with pencil and paper. But no matter what method he used, he tried to always keep a three hour writing limit. “I sometimes found at first that I wanted to go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory," he explained. "It’s much better to stop and think about something else quite different.”

4. T.S. Eliot considered "Four Quartets" to be his best work.

In 1927, Eliot converted to Anglicanism and became a British citizen. His poems and plays in the 1930s and 1940s—including "Ash Wednesday," "Murder in the Cathedral," and "Four Quartets"—reveal themes of religion, faith, and divinity. He considered "Four Quartets,” a set of four poems that explored philosophy and spirituality, to be his best writing. Out of the four, the last is his favorite.

5. T.S. Eliot had an epistolary friendship with Groucho Marx.

Eliot wrote comedian Groucho Marx a fan letter in 1961. Marx replied, gave Eliot a photo of himself, and started a correspondence with the poet. After writing back and forth for a few years, they met in real life in 1964, when Eliot hosted Marx and his wife for dinner at his London home. The two men, unfortunately, didn’t hit it off. The main issue, according to a letter Marx wrote his brother: the comedian had hoped he was in for a "Literary Evening," and tried to discuss King Lear. All Eliot wanted to talk about was Marx's 1933 comedy Duck Soup. (In a 2014 piece for The New Yorker, Lee Siegel suggests there had been "simmering tension" all along, even in their early correspondence.)

6. Ezra Pound tried to crowdfund T.S. Eliot’s writing.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1921, Eliot took a few months off from his banking job after a nervous breakdown. During this time, he finished writing "The Waste Land," which his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound edited. Pound, with the help of other Bohemian writers, set up Bel Esprit, a fund to raise money for Eliot so he could quit his bank job to focus on writing full-time. Pound managed to get several subscribers to pledge money to Eliot, but Eliot didn’t want to give up his career, which he genuinely liked. The Liverpool Post, Chicago Daily Tribune, and the New York Tribune reported on Pound’s crowdfunding campaign, incorrectly stating that Eliot had taken the money, but continued working at the bank. After Eliot protested, the newspapers printed a retraction.

7. Writing in French helped T.S. Eliot overcome writer’s block.

After studying at Harvard, Eliot spent a year in Paris and fantasized about writing in French rather than English. Although little ever came of that fantasy, during a period of writer’s block, Eliot did manage to write a few poems in French. “That was a very curious thing which I can’t altogether explain. At that period I thought I’d dried up completely. I hadn’t written anything for some time and was rather desperate,” he told The Paris Review. “I started writing a few things in French and found I could, at that period ...Then I suddenly began writing in English again and lost all desire to go on with French. I think it was just something that helped me get started again."

8. T.S. Eliot set off stink bombs in London with his nephew.

Eliot, whose friends and family called him Tom, was supposedly a big prankster. When his nephew was young, Eliot took him to a joke shop in London to purchase stink bombs, which they promptly set off in the lobby of a nearby hotel. Eliot was also known to hand out exploding cigars, and put whoopee cushions on the chairs of his guests.

9. T.S. Eliot may have been the first person to write the word "bulls**t."

In the early 1910s, Eliot wrote a poem called "The Triumph of Bulls**t." Like an early 20th-century Taylor Swift tune, the poem was Eliot’s way of dissing his haters. In 1915, he submitted the poem to a London magazine … which rejected it for publication. The word bulls**t isn’t in the poem itself, only the poem’s title, but The Oxford English Dictionary credits the poem with being the first time the curse word ever appeared in print.

10. T.S. Eliot coined the expression “April is the cruelest month.”

Thanks to Eliot, the phrase “April is the cruelest month” has become an oft-quoted, well-known expression. It comes from the opening lines of "The Waste Land”: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”

11. T.S. Eliot held some troubling beliefs about religion.

Over the years, Eliot made some incredibly problematic remarks about Jewish people, including arguing that members of a society should have a shared religious background, and that a large number of Jews creates an undesirably heterogeneous culture. Many of his early writing also featured offensive portrayals of Jewish characters. (As one critic, Joseph Black, pointed out in a 2010 edition of "The Waste Land" and Other Poems, "Few published works displayed the consistency of association that one finds in Eliot's early poetry between what is Jewish and what is squalid and distasteful.") Eliot's defenders argue that the poet's relationship with Jewish people was much more nuanced that his early poems suggest, and point to his close relationships with a number of Jewish writers and artists.

12. You can watch a movie based on T.S. Eliot’s (really bad) marriage.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tom & Viv, a 1994 film starring Willem Dafoe, explores Eliot’s tumultuous marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a dancer and socialite. The couple married in 1915, a few months after they met, but the relationship quickly soured. Haigh-Wood had constant physical ailments, mental health problems, and was addicted to ether. The couple spent a lot of time apart and separated in the 1930s; she died in a mental hospital in 1947. Eliot would go on to remarry at the age of 68—his 30-year-old secretary, Esmé Valerie Fletcher—and would later reveal that his state of despair during his first marriage was the catalyst and inspiration for "The Waste Land."

This story has been updated for 2020.