Conspiracies and allegations of plots have been with society since the beginning of recorded history. The 19th century might have lacked the technological means to spread theories of conspiracy as quickly as they go around now, but that doesn't mean they didn't exist. But what were the biggest 19th-century conspiracies and most popular theories of the 1800s?
The 1800s were a time of roiling anti-Catholic and anti-government fever, and these conspiracies get right to the heart of what people were afraid of: that their leaders and their religions were being eliminated from within. 19th-century America was full of conspiracy believers, but international theories ran rampant as well.
Here are the most extreme historical conspiracies of the 19th century; some real, some just theories. Vote up the craziest theories below and see how they stack up against the modern conspiracies bandied about today.
Conspiracies about Freemasons controlling the world were as popular in the 19th century as they were in the 20th, and they still are today. Much of this anger was kicked off by the slaying of New York resident William Morgan, who had announced his plan to publish a book that would break the Masonic conspiracy wide open.
Himself a former Mason, Morgan’s book Illustrations of Masonry would expose the group’s secrets and rituals for all to see - except he disappeared, never to be found. Various stories have Morgan either paid off by the Masons to leave the country or kidnapped and drowned by Masons, with his body washing up on a shore a few years later.
Anti-Masonic fervor expanded in the aftermath of Morgan's vanishing act and Illustrations of Masonry being published - even drawing in prospective presidential candidates. Virtually everything in the book itself was made up by Morgan.
According to this theory, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln was not the act of a lone gunman, but an organized conspiracy by a cadre of disgruntled Southerners. These men planned not just to eliminate the president but also the vice president and secretary of state as revenge for the Union winning the Civil War.
Only John Wilkes Booth carried out his role, with the other two planned shootings resulting only in Secretary of State William Seward being wounded. Vice President Johnson was spared by the cowardice of his planned killer - and in the aftermath, Booth was shot dead by police and seven other conspirators were hanged.
Ostensibly written and passed by Congress in 1873 in an effort to crack down on vice, the Comstock Act (named after its chief proponent, anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock) prohibited the sending of “Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use" through the US mail. It had the added, and intentional, effect of acting as a conspiracy to prevent women from obtaining information about contraception and birth control.
The years after the Civil War had seen an explosion in Bible-based opposition to birth control, with the idea of sex between married couples (or anyone) for anything other than procreation seen as “unrestrained indulgence, without the risk of consequences.” These laws were struck down one by one thanks to various court cases, but some version of Comstock anti-vice laws were on the books in dozens of states well into the 1960s.
The book Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the Secret Meetings of Freemasons, Illuminati and Reading Societies, written in 1797 by John Robison, posited the Bavarian Illuminati as a sinister force dedicated to eliminating the Catholic Church and the natural order of society.
The crux of Robison’s book was that not only were the Illuminati much more powerful than anyone knew, they had masterminded the French Revolution to overthrow the monarchy of France. Robison’s writings, and fear of Illuminati plots in general, became extremely popular among the upper classes and Catholic populations of both Europe and the US. In 1848, a series of worker revolts around Europe were forcibly oppressed, in part because of fears of Illuminati influence.