8 Historical Conspiracy Theories
For some, the historical record just won’t do. For centuries, conspiracy theories have attempted to draw back the curtain on important world events, casting into doubt official accounts and accepted wisdom. While the internet has made the discussion and dissemination of conspiracy theories easier, suspicion over everything from Roman rulers to the moon landing has persevered for centuries (and some conspiracy theories have even turned out to be true!). Take a look at eight of history’s lesser-known—but no less fascinating—alternative explanations.
1. Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays.
Many consider William Shakespeare the greatest playwright who ever lived. But to some, he’s simply one of the great pretenders. So little is known about Shakespeare as a person—he was born in Stratford in 1564 as the son of a glove-maker, married a woman named Anne Hathaway, and died in 1616—that examining his life in any detail is all but impossible. Theorists have claimed that Shakespeare didn’t exist at all, and was instead merely a pseudonym for an accomplished (and well-educated) writer. That could have been Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, a courtier who visited many of the places depicted in the plays, or possibly Christopher Marlowe. The latter is one of the more elaborate ideas, as it maintains that Marlowe was not murdered in a tavern in 1593 but instead hustled away to France thanks to some well-placed connections. He allegedly then spent the next 20 years writing under the Shakespeare name.
The belief that Shakespeare was not the author of works attributed to him has been voiced by several notable names throughout history, including Orson Welles, Sigmund Freud, and even Mark Twain. Twain once posited that Sir Francis Bacon could easily have been the Bard, and he believed the words "Francisco Bacono" appeared in code in the First Folio.
The belief gained more credence in 2016, when the respected Oxford University Press actually credited Marlowe as co-author of the three Henry VI plays. Among other research, the publishing house cited an analysis of vocabulary between the work and Marlowe's plays.
2. John Wilkes Booth wasn’t killed.
After drawing a weapon and fatally shooting President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth went on the lam. Authorities caught up to him 12 days later, when he was confronted by an Army sergeant and shot while hiding in a barn. He died on the porch of a nearby farmhouse shortly thereafter. Unless, that is, the person in the barn wasn’t Booth at all.
One theory speculates that Booth succeeded in escaping and headed to Texas, changing his name to John St. Helen and living until 1903. The idea was put forth by author Finis L. Bates, who published The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth in 1907 after claiming St. Helen confessed to him he was Booth and that the assassination was planned by Andrew Jackson to secure the presidency. (The man shot in the barn, Bates said, was a patsy, his death allowing soldiers to collect the bounty on Booth’s head.) Not coincidentally, Bates was able to profit from this speculation by displaying what he claimed was the preserved body of the recently departed Booth, charging admission for the morbid curiosity.
The notion that Booth escaped death has intrigued at least one salient party: Booth’s descendants, who have petitioned to have his grave in Baltimore dug up in order to make a positive identification. No court has yet granted their request.
3. Oliver Cromwell was never exhumed.
There was no peace for Oliver Cromwell (the Lord Protector of England, Ireland, and Scotland in the 1650s) after his death. In 1661, King Charles II of England's parliament ordered Cromwell’s body and two others exhumed so they could be posthumously hanged, a vindictive bit of showboating resulting from the trio having ordered the execution of King Charles I. (Cromwell died of illness in 1658, denying King Charles II the pleasure of striking him down.) Cromwell, Henry Ireton, and John Bradshaw were left to hang and then decapitated, with Cromwell’s head left on a spike for several decades.
But what if they got the wrong corpse? Some believe that Cromwell secretly moved his own planned tomb site in Westminster Abbey to avoid just such a fate, and that whoever was dug up was not Cromwell. In one spectacular flight of fancy that reads more like an E.C. Comics twist, there has been speculation that King Charles II’s men accidentally dug up his executed father instead, and were in the process of having him hanged before realizing their mistake.
4. Meriwether Lewis didn’t commit suicide—he was murdered.
Famed explorer Meriwether Lewis met an unfortunate end on October 10, 1809. After stopping to rest at a lodge along the Natchez Trace—a formidable trail between Mississippi and Tennessee—Lewis apparently shot himself. The wounds were fatal, and he was soon buried nearby. There seemed to be motivation for Lewis’s decision to take his own life: While he was celebrated for the journey from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean with partner William Clark that ended in 1806, the two had not found the Northwest Passage to the Pacific, making Lewis feel as though they had come up short on one of the mission's primary goals. Lewis was also desk-bound, a disappointing outcome for someone who craved adventure. He was known to suffer from depression and even wrote a will before striking out on the Natchez.
But others have argued that the trail was full of bandits, any one of whom could have confronted Lewis and engaged him in a lethal struggle. It was also curious that a trained marksman would need to shoot himself multiple times, as Lewis had, to achieve the desired result. The theory picked up steam in the 1840s, when Lewis’s body was exhumed and examiners made a comment about his injuries looking like the work of an assassin. His descendants have lobbied for another exhumation, which could look for gunpowder traces to see if a weapon was fired at close range or from across a room. Because Lewis's body is on National Park Service land, and the service rarely grants permission for exhumations, the theory remains untested.
5. Nero may have set fire to Rome.
Nero took control of Rome in 54 C.E. at the age of 17. Ten years later, a fire broke out around the Circus Maximus, the chariot stadium. The blaze ravaged the city over nine days, destroying three of its 14 districts and severely damaging seven others. Was it an accident, or did the formidable ruler set fire to his own kingdom? Those who argue the latter point out it was convenient that Nero was safely tucked away in Antium and miles from the fire. With the city partially destroyed, he could erect new buildings more to his liking, including one—the fanciful Domus Aurea—that would have been met with opposition among the social elite under normal circumstances. One of Rome’s historians, Tacitus, even claimed Nero merrily played his fiddle while Rome went up in flames. The fiddle had not yet been invented, but such details have not stopped suspicions that the young ruler was a bit of a firebug.
6. The U.S. developed an invisible warship.
Private citizens may never know the full extent of the weaponry and tools of war that the U.S. government has developed over the decades. One significant leap in technology was thought by some to have occurred in July 1943, when officials at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard took the USS Eldridge and successfully rendered it invisible using electrical field manipulation—or so some believed, anyway. Later, the Eldridge was allegedly teleported to Norfolk, Virginia, with the ship arriving a few seconds before it left. Thus, time travel had also been invented.
These claims originated with a man named Carl Meredith Allen, who said he was a seaman stationed in Virginia who saw the Eldridge appear and disappear in front of his eyes. He sent his eyewitness account to author Morris K. Jessup, author of several books about UFOs. While Jessup never published the claims, they did become the focus of a 1979 book, The Philadelphia Experiment: Project Invisibility. The author, Charles Berlitz, was primed to buy the tale, as he had already explored the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle.
Naval records, however, contradict the claim. The Eldridge was not in commission on the day it was supposedly rendered invisible, and stationed in New York Harbor instead of Philadelphia or Virginia. The theory may stem from attempts by the Navy around that time to make ships undetectable to surface and underwater mines by running electrical currents through them, canceling out their magnetic field. That could technically make ships "invisible" to the mines, although not to the human eye.
7. Queen Elizabeth I was actually a man.
Queen Elizabeth I—who ruled England for 44 years between 1558 and 1603—defeated the Spanish Armada, rejoined what had been a divided country, and encouraged the arts to flourish. What she didn’t do was marry. The Queen refused any and all advances to enter matrimony, a policy that led to her nickname of the Virgin Queen. Her stance led some observers—including Dracula author Bram Stoker—to suspect she may have been a man.
Stoker once visited the town of Bisley in the Cotswolds, where a May Day celebration involved a boy dressing as the May Queen in Elizabethan clothes. Intrigued by the ceremony, Stoker discovered a fantastic tale—that the queen-to-be had visited Bisley in her youth to escape the plague, got sick, and died. Knowing her father, King Henry VIII, had a famous temper, the governess found a boy who resembled her charge and disguised him as Elizabeth when the king, who apparently could not readily identify his own daughter, came to visit. The deception was never discovered, and the unknown boy grew to rule England, disguising his masculine features with wigs, heavy make-up, and neck coverings. While Stoker popularized the story in the early 1900s, it had appeared during Elizabeth’s reign, possibly as a way for male subjects to cope with the idea of having a female ruler.
8. Lewis Carroll was Jack the Ripper.
To some, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was no demure children’s book author. He could have been notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper. That was the theory offered up by author Richard Wallace, who assembled a laundry list of suspicious and potentially incriminating facts about Carroll in his book, Jack the Ripper: Light-Hearted Friend. Wallace believes Carroll—born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson in 1832—experienced traumatic events in boarding school that would plague him for the rest of his life. He also believes Carroll hid secret messages in his books in the form of anagrams that confessed to his involvement. Carroll was also geographically close to the sites of the Ripper murders.
Doubters pointed out that “confessions” could be extracted from Wallace’s own words in the same fashion—including incriminating statements about murder and even that Wallace was the secret author of Shakespeare’s sonnets.