12 Historical Conspiracy Theories

Casting doubt over the historical record wasn’t invented with the internet. From doubt over Shakespeare’s existence to Lincoln’s assassination, conspiracy theories have been around for centuries.

Conspiracy theories are nothing new.
Conspiracy theories are nothing new. / filo/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

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 some lesser-known—but no less fascinating—historical conspiracy theories.

We’re actually living in the 1700s, not the 2000s.

This is one modern conspiracy theory that casts doubt on just about everything in our history after around 614 CE. This wild theory—known as the Phantom Time Hypothesis—came about in the 1990s, thanks to a man named ​​Heribert Illig. According to Illig, Holy Roman Emperor Otto III and Pope Sylvester II added around 300 years to the calendar to place them in power in the year 1000.

After deciding to manipulate time on a whim, they then concocted a vast conspiracy involving countless monks throughout the Western world who helped fill in the missing centuries with all sorts of tall tales about an emperor named Charlemagne and something called the Middle Ages—most of which, Illig argues, is basically ancient fan fiction. He points to perceived inconsistencies in the Gregorian calendar as an explanation for how 300 years could have been plucked from thin air. 

It is true that early history often stretched the truth or created it entirely out of whole cloth, but we’d have to discount a lot of primary sources and artifacts to even begin considering Illig’s theory plausible. 

Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays.

William Shakespeare  portrait with signature. Painting may be by Richard Burbage. English playwright.
William Shakespeare. / Culture Club/GettyImages

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. Conspiracy theorists have claimed that Shakespeare didn’t exist at all, and was instead merely a pseudonym for an accomplished (and well-educated) writer.

According to Vox, the conspiracy theory that Shakespeare wasn’t a real author gained prominence during the mid-19th century, when two books were published on the matter: One was by Delia Bacon, an American playwright, and the other by an Englishman named William H. Smith. Both argued that Sir Francis Bacon—no relation to Delia—was actually the quill behind masterpieces like Hamlet. Or that Shakespeare was actually a whole gaggle of writers using one pseudonym. 

The evidence in these books was ... a lack of evidence. The authors claimed that there was no written documentation that Shakespeare was well-educated (which, to their minds, cast doubt on his ability to write such memorable works), or that he ever penned a play. Smith wrote: “No plays bearing Shakespeare’s name were published between 1609 and 1622; but in the year 1623 (seven years after Shakespeare’s death) a folio of thirty-six plays was brought out as The Workes of William Shakespeare.’” 

Since then, the conspiracy theories have only proliferated, with figures such as Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford—a courtier who visited many of the places depicted in the plays—or possibly Christopher Marlowe being suggested as the real Bard. 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 was on board with the Bacon theory, 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.

But the thing is, we do have evidence that Shakespeare was the real deal. There’s written evidence that he was an actor and playwright, and his work is mentioned in multiple contemporary sources, including a 1598 book called Palladis tamia by a man named Francis Meres, where plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dreams and Titus Andronicus are mentioned specifically.

John Wilkes Booth wasn’t killed.

John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth. / Historical/GettyImages

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.

Lincoln’s Secretary of War was behind his assassination.

Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth
Booth assassinating Lincoln. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

Lincoln was no stranger to conspiracy theories throughout his presidency. For years, Southern politicians and members of the press claimed that Northerners were secretly encouraging revolts of enslaved people throughout the region. Another said Lincoln’s first-term VP, Hannibal Hamlin, was actually part Black and involved in a Northern plot to destroy the Southern way of life. After Lincoln was assassinated, the theories just kept coming. 

One of the most unlikely scenarios comes to us from an Austrian chemist named Otto Eisenschiml, who published the 1937 book Why Was Lincoln Murdered? In it, Eisenschiml proposed that the president was done in by his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. Eisenschiml suggested that Stanton wasn’t particularly happy with Lincoln’s plan for Reconstruction, which Stanton felt was too soft. To get his more hardline approach underway, Stanton supposedly put the assassination plot in motion.

What proof did Otto have? The holy trinity of conspiracy theories: hearsay, conjecture, and circumstantial evidence. According to Eisenschiml, Stanton did a number of questionable things in the days leading up to Ford’s Theater. He allegedly ordered Ulysses S. Grant away from the theater on the night of the assassination. He also turned down Abe’s request to have Major Thomas T. Eckert there for protection and closed all of the bridges into the city other than the one John Wilkes Booth used to escape. In Eisenschiml’s version, Booth still pulled the trigger, but he was under the watchful eye of the vengeful Secretary of War. Of course, scholars haven’t found any real evidence to back up these claims, but that didn’t stop Eisenschiml’s book from winding up as part of Civil War curriculums at universities for years after it was published. 

Oliver Cromwell was never exhumed.

'Portrait of Oliver Cromwell', (c1653?).
Oliver Cromwell. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

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.

Meriwether Lewis didn’t die by suicide—he was murdered.

Meriwether Lewis
Meriwether Lewis. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

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 die by suicide: 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 have 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.

Nero may have set fire to Rome.

‘Nero and the Burning of Rome.’ / Fototeca Storica Nazionale./GettyImages

Nero took control of Rome in 54 CE 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 (who was just a child when the fire started), even claimed Nero merrily played his fiddle while Rome went up in flames.

Tacitus and others relied on a number of unconfirmed accounts of the fire that may have been misunderstood or embellished along the way, though, and the fiddle had not yet been invented—but such details have not stopped suspicions that the young ruler was a bit of a firebug.

One of the things that possibly helps a theory like this survive is the fact that Nero is recognized as one of the most heinous of the Roman emperors—a pretty competitive field. He’s been blamed (with varying degrees of evidence) for killing his mother, wife, and stepbrother. And in the wake of the fire, he put countless Christians to death. So, even if most modern historians believe the fire was simply an accident, it’s not that outlandish to blame the guy who was feeding Christians to animals.

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 was 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.

Queen Elizabeth I was actually a man.

Queen Elizabeth I - portrait
Queen Elizabeth I. / Culture Club/GettyImages

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.

Lewis Carroll was Jack the Ripper.

Lewis Carroll
Lewis Carroll. / Oscar Gustav Rejlander/GettyImages

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.

Winston Churchill’s father (or maybe Queen Victoria’s grandson) was Jack the Ripper.

Lord Randolph Churchill
Randolph Churchill. / Henry Guttmann Collection/GettyImages

Ever since the Jack the Ripper murders started making headlines, there have been more theories around the case than corpses. The list of supposed suspects ranged from average blokes to Carroll to some of the most powerful people in England.

Take Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Winston. During his political career, Randolph was Secretary of State for India and leader of the House of Commons. And, according to one theory, he also headed up a secret group of Masons that had a mission to kill five sex workers who had dirt on the Royal Family

The dirt in question was that Prince Albert Victor, Queen Victoria’s grandson, had secretly married and had a child with a Catholic woman. At the time, this would have been a scandal of the highest order. The problem is that there’s no record of the wedding, or the child, and there seems to be evidence that Churchill was in Scotland for some of the murders.

Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence (1864-1892), English prince, c1890.
Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence (1864-1892), English prince, c1890. / Print Collector/GettyImages

There’s another theory that involves the prince, but this one suggests that Albert Victor himself was the one knocking off the Whitechapel women, supposedly in revenge for contracting syphilis from a sex worker. This story came courtesy of a man named Dr. Thomas Stowell, who was friendly with the family of the royal family physician. Stowell said the physician had claimed he once treated a young gay man with syphilis who he had suspected of being Jack the Ripper since the young man happened to be in the Whitechapel district of London on the nights of the murders. 

While Stowell wouldn’t explicitly name names when he came forward with his story in 1970, it was heavily implied that the man the physician was working on was Prince Albert. Rumors about Albert’s sexuality had swirled for years, after all, and the royal family’s involvement just made the whole thing irresistible for theorists. 

Albert, however, wasn’t in the city at the time of all of the murders, and it doesn’t seem he died of syphilis. But Albert the Ripper’s story is so good that parts of these theories were adapted as the comic book From Hell by writer Alan Moore and artist Eddie Campbell.

The USS Maine was an inside job.

Wreck Of The Maine
The wreck of the USS ‘Maine.’ / Henry Guttmann Collection/GettyImages

In 1898, war hawks were waiting impatiently for the United States to declare war against Spain. At the time, Spain was in a war with insurgents in Cuba over the island’s independence, but the U.S. had, up until that point, stopped short of getting involved. 

Then, on February 15, 1898, the pro-war sect got its wish, in a way. The USS Maine sank after an explosion while it was stationed in Havana Harbor, eventually propelling the U.S. into the conflict, which ultimately ended with Cuban independence. 

At first, it was concluded that the Maine was brought down by a submerged mine. A different theory said that a fire ignited the onboard ammunition, leading to the disaster. But some have always believed that it was a deliberate act of self-sabotage meant to get the U.S. public behind the war. While some say the American government acted alone in bringing down the Maine, others believe media mogul and war lover William Randolph Hearst, who had been advocating for the United States to enter the conflict for more than a year, orchestrated the whole thing in order to push the nation into the conflict. And theorists had plenty of anecdotal evidence to glom on to. 

He definitely sold those papers: Immediately after the Maine was destroyed, Hearst-owned publications printed flashy, sensationalist headlines putting blame for the Maine squarely on Spain with no evidence to speak of. Within a few months, Hearst’s papers were beating out their closest competition by more than 200,000 readers, and by the end of 1898, his combined readership was said to total 1.25 million people a day. But as American University professor W. Joseph Campbell told History.com, “No serious historian of the Spanish-American War period embraces the notion that the yellow press of [William Randolph] Hearst and [Joseph] Pulitzer fomented or brought on the war with Spain in 1898.”

For what it’s worth, the idea that the Maine’s explosion was the work of the U.S. government is the official view of the Cuban government. On a memorial plaque for the Maine in Havana, an inscription reads: “To the victims of the Maine, who were sacrificed to imperialist greed in its fervor to seize control of the island of Cuba.”

Read More Articles About Conspiracy Theories:


A version of this story ran in 2019; it has been updated for 2024.