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Conspiracy theories aren't a modern phenomenon. In fact, some fascinating (if less than convincing) conspiracies have been circulating for thousands of years. Was Queen Elizabeth I a man? Are we leaving in the year 1722? The answers may be obvious, but the stories behind them are interesting and illuminating.

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We might not be living in the year 2022.

In fact,  human civilization itself might not be nearly as old as you think. At least according to one modern  conspiracy theory that casts doubt on just about everything in our history after around 614 CE.

Known as the Phantom Time Hypothesis, this wild theory came about in the 1990s, thanks to a  man named ?? Heribert Illig. According to Illig, Holy Roman Emperor Otto III and Pope Sylvester  II got together and added around 300 years to the calendar to place them in power in  the year 1000.

Apparently, ruling during a nice round number like that was something of a  conversation starter, and the duo wanted in on it. 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 fanfiction. As for his evidence?

Illig 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 heck of a lot of  primary sources and artifacts to even begin considering Illig’s theory plausible. Hi, I’m Erin McCarthy, editor in chief of Mental Floss, and welcome to The  List Show.

OK, so you’re probably not convinced that we’re really living in the  year 1722, but that’s only the beginning of the strange historical conspiracy theories  we’re bringing you today. Let’s get started. History is full of stories of entire cities  burning or nearly burning to the ground after a simple fire grew out of control.

It  happened in Chicago in 1871, London in 1666, and—perhaps most famously—it happened in  Rome. You probably know part of the story: In 64 CE, a fire spread from ?? Circus Maximus  stadium and wound up damaging or completely destroying 10 of the capital’s 14 districts.

Hundreds died; thousands lost their homes. Rumors spread about the origin of the  inferno soon after it was extinguished. Many people at the time, and in the centuries  since, put the blame squarely on Emperor Nero.

There are two main theories proposed as to why the  emperor would purposely burn his own capital city: One, Nero just didn’t like the way Rome looked,  and the Senate wouldn’t permit him to make the changes he wanted, so he chose to redecorate  things in his image by burning most of it to the ground first. Not exactly an HGTV-approved  strategy, but a strategy nonetheless. Others thought Nero orchestrated the fire so  he could blame the Christians for starting it, believing that would curb their  increasing influence in Rome.

The thing is, much of the information about  the fire comes to us from suspect sources like Tacitus, who was just a child when the fire  started, and was certainly no big fan of Nero to begin with. Tacitus and others relied on a  number of unconfirmed accounts of the fire that may have been misunderstood or embellished  along the way. You know that famous image of Nero fiddling as Rome burned?

Not true—as we covered in  our episode of Misconceptions About Ancient Rome. 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—and that’s 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. To run down the list of great works by William Shakespeare would be a waste of  everyone’s time—you know most of them, have probably read a bunch of them, and  maybe even understand one or two without CliffsNotes.

But not everyone is convinced that  he really penned the works that bear his name. 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, well, 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 the Earl of  Oxford and Christopher Marlowe being suggested as the real Bard. To this day, books, documentaries,  and organizations like the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship exist solely to circulate these  theories.

Public figures like Mark Twain, Helen Keller, and even former Supreme Court  justice John Paul Stevens bought into them. 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  Palladia Tamia by a man named Francis Meres, where plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dreams and  Titus Andronicus are mentioned specifically.

If you wanna take Shakespeare down a peg,  you don’t have to claim he never existed: just admit that Macbeth is boring. Abraham 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 suggests 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. Circling back to Booth for a moment: There are a bunch of theories that he actually survived  his supposed death days after the assassination and lived out the rest of his days as a  drifter of note.

One theory even claims that he wound up in Egypt where he buddied up  with a sultan and owned more than 100 camels. Now that’s the movie Spielberg should have made. Daniel Day-Lewis would kill it as Camel #5.

Queen Elizabeth I was, undoubtedly, a woman. You  know it; I know it. The problem is that Dracula author Bram Stoker and plenty of others weren’t so  convinced.

In 1910, Stoker published a book called Famous Imposters, in which the author shed light  on a number of historical hoaxes. In it, he helped thrust the absurd theory that Queen Elizabeth was  a man in disguise further into the mainstream. This theory suggests that when Elizabeth was still  a child, she was sent to the English village of Bisley for a time—some say it was to avoid a  plague, others say it was just for “a season of outing.” Regardless, a young Elizabeth soon got  sick, just as her father, King Henry VIII, was coming to visit her.

The child allegedly died, but  rather than face the King’s wrath, the governess in charge hatched a very ‘80s sitcom plot and  decided to replace her with a lookalike from the neighborhood. Unfortunately, no girls fit the  bill, so she was forced to go with a local boy. The idea was that King Henry didn’t take much of  an interest in young Elizabeth, so he wouldn’t notice a difference.

The ruse was somehow then  maintained until Elizabeth died at the age of 69. For conspiracy believers, it was a convenient  reason why the Virgin Queen never married. This was a story that had been bouncing  around the locals for centuries, and according to Stoker were further emboldened  when a coffin was unearthed in Bisley during the early 1800s that contained the body of a  child dressed in fine clothes that were well beyond the reach of a commoner.

That, they said,  was airtight proof of baby Elizabeth’s fate. 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 has ranged from average blokes to writer Lewis 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.

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 hey, never let the  truth get in the way of a good story—and 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. 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. On February 11, a few days before the Maine  tragedy, Hearst’s yacht, the Buccaneer, was seized in Havana Harbor, prompting Hearst’s  New York Journal to dub this the “Spanish-Journal War.” The publication also asked why the Maine  had allowed this to happen to a U.

S. ship, clearly showing frustration with the country’s  unwillingness to engage the Spanish. The fact that the Maine itself was destroyed a few days  later immediately caught the attention of some, who believed it was the culmination of  Hearst’s plan to bring the country to war and sell a boatload more papers in the process. 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 its 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, “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.” We’ve got an upcoming episode on  explorers who disappeared without a trace. If you know of a cool story from  history about, well, you know, drop it in the comments below for a  chance to be featured in that episode.

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