8 Historical Conspiracy Theories

TonyBaggett/iStock via Getty Images
TonyBaggett/iStock via 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 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.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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10 Facts About Real Genius On Its 35th Anniversary

Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

In an era where nerd is a nickname given by and to people who have pretty much any passing interest in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine the way old-school nerds—people with serious and socially-debilitating obsessions—were once ostracized. Computers, progressive rock, and role-playing games (among a handful of other 1970s- early '80s developments) created a path from which far too many of the lonely, awkward, and conventionally undateable would never return. But in the 1980s, movies transformed these oddballs into underdogs and antiheroes, pitting them against attractive, moneyed, successful adversaries for the fate of handsome boys and pretty girls, cushy jobs, and first-place trophies.

The 1985 film Real Genius ranked first among equals from that decade for its stellar cast, sensitive direction, and genuine nerd bona fides. Perhaps fittingly, it sometimes feels overshadowed, and even forgotten, next to broader, bawdier (and certainly now, more problematic) films from the era like Revenge of the Nerds and Weird Science. But director Martha Coolidge delivered a classic slobs-versus-snobs adventure that manages to view the academically gifted and socially maladjusted with a greater degree of understanding and compassion while still delivering plenty of good-natured humor.

As the movie commemorates its 35th anniversary, we're looking back at the little details and painstaking efforts that make it such an enduring portrait not just of ‘80s comedy, but of nerdom itself.

1. Producer Brian Grazer wanted Valley Girl director Martha Coolidge to direct Real Genius. She wasn’t sure she wanted to.

Following the commercial success of 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, there was an influx of bawdy scripts that played upon the same idea, and Real Genius was one of them. In 2011, Coolidge told Kickin’ It Old School that the original script for Real Genius "had a lot of penis and scatological jokes," and she wasn't interested in directing a raunchy Nerds knock-off. So producer Brian Grazer enlisted PJ Torokvei (SCTV) and writing partners Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (Splash, City Slickers) to refine the original screenplay, and then gave Coolidge herself an opportunity to polish it before production started. “Brian's original goal, and mine, was to make a film that focused on nerds as heroes," Coolidge said. "It was ahead of its time."

2. Martha Coolidge’s priority was getting the science in Real Genius right—or at least as right as possible.

In the film, ambitious professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) recruits high-achieving students at the fictional Pacific Technical University (inspired by Caltech) to design and build a laser capable of hitting a human-sized target from space. Coolidge researched the subject thoroughly, working with academic, scientific, and military technicians to ensure that as many of the script and story's elements were correct. Moreover, she ensured that the dialogue would hold up to some scrutiny, even if building a laser of the film’s dimensions wasn’t realistic (and still isn’t today).

3. One element of Real Genius that Martha Coolidge didn’t base on real events turned out to be truer than expected.

From the beginning, the idea that students were actively being exploited by their teacher to develop government technology was always fictional. But Coolidge learned that art and life share more in common than she knew at the time. “I have had so many letters since I made Real Genius from people who said, 'Yes, I was involved in a program and I didn’t realize I was developing weapons,'" she told Uproxx in 2015. “So it was a good guess and turned out to be quite accurate.”

4. Val Kilmer walked into his Real Genius audition already in character—and it nearly cost him the role.

After playing the lead in Top Secret!, Val Kilmer was firmly on Hollywood’s radar. But when he met Grazer at his audition for Real Genius, Kilmer decided to have some fun at the expense of the guy who would decide whether or not he’d get the part. "The character wasn't polite," Kilmer recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 1995. "So when I shook Grazer's hand and he said, 'Hi, I'm the producer,' I said, 'I'm sorry. You look like you're 12 years old. I like to work with men.'"

5. The filmmakers briefly considered using an actual “real genius” to star in Real Genius.

Among the performers considered to play Mitch, the wunderkind student who sets the movie’s story in motion, was a true genius who graduated college at 14 and was starting law school. Late in the casting process, they found their Mitch in Gabriel Jarrett, who becomes the third generation of overachievers (after Kilmer’s Chris and Jon Gries’s Lazlo Hollyfeld) whose talent Hathaway uses to further his own professional goals.

6. Real Genius's female lead inadvertently created a legacy for her character that would continue in animated form.

Michelle Meyrink, Gabriel Jarret, Val Kilmer, and Mark Kamiyama in Real Genius (1985).Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Michelle Meyrink was a staple of a number of ‘80s comedies, including Revenge of the Nerds. Playing Jordan in Real Genius, she claims to “never sleep” and offers a delightful portrait of high-functioning attention-deficit disorder with a chipper, erratic personality. Disney’s Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers co-creator Tad Stones has confirmed that her character went on to inspire the character of Gadget Hackwrench.

7. A Real Genius subplot, where a computer programmer is gaming a Frito-Lay contest, was based on real events.

In the film, Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite) plays Lazlo Hollyfeld, a reclusive genius from before Chris and Mitch’s time who lives in a bunker beneath their dorm creating entries to a contest with no restrictions where he eventually wins more than 30 percent of the prizes. In 1969, students from Caltech tried a similar tactic with Frito-Lay to game the odds. But in 1975, three computer programmers used an IBM to generate 1.2 million entries in a contest for McDonald’s, where they received 20 percent of the prizes (and a lot of complaints from customers) for their effort.

8. One of Real Genius's cast members went on to write another tribute to nerds a decade later.

Dean Devlin, who co-wrote Stargate and Independence Day with Roland Emmerich, plays Milton, another student at Pacific Tech who experiences a memorable meltdown in the rush up to finals.

9. The popcorn gag that ends Real Genius isn’t really possible, but they used real popcorn to simulate it.

At the end of the film, Chris and Mitch build a giant Jiffy Pop pack that the laser unleashes after they redirect its targeting system. The resulting popcorn fills Professor Hathaway’s house as an act of revenge. MythBusters took pains to recreate this gag in a number of ways, but quickly discovered that it wouldn’t work; even at scale, the popcorn just burns in the heat of a laser.

To pull off the scene in the film, Coolidge said that the production had people popping corn for six weeks of filming in order to get enough for the finale. After that, they had to build a house that they could manipulate with hydraulics so that the popcorn would “explode” out of every doorway and window.

10. Real Genius was the first movie to be promoted on the internet.

A week before Real Genius opened, promoters set up a press conference at a computer store in Westwood, California. Coolidge and members of the cast appeared to field questions from press from across the country—connected via CompuServe. Though the experience was evidently marred by technical problems (this was the mid-1980s, after all), the event marked the debut of what became the online roundtable junket.