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.
The Disappearance Of William Morgan
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.5124Is this out there?
The Comstock Act
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.3913Is this out there?
- Photo: Kessinger Publishing3
The Awful Disclosures Of Maria Monk
Anti-Catholic sentiments were extremely popular in America and England in the 1800s, fueled by nativist resentment of Irish and German Catholic immigrants. A cottage industry of lurid literature cropped up to support their alleged plots, with maybe the most lurid being The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. The book, written by a woman who claimed to be a nun in Montreal, alleged that nuns of the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph were systematically assaulted by neighboring priests. If a baby resulted, it was baptized and then slain and dumped into a basement. It also alleged that nuns who fought back were offed and that priests were incapable of sin.
While the book caused a massive uproar among the anti-Catholic rabble, further investigation showed Monk didn’t write it. She’d spent most of the time she claimed to be a nun in a mental institution, and the whole thing was revealed to be a hoax.3311Is this out there?
The Many Candidates For Jack The Ripper
Few serial killers have lingered in our cultural memory like Jack the Ripper, the name given to the figure who terrorized the Whitechapel area of London in 1888. However, what we know is dwarfed by what we don’t know. It’s not known exactly how many women he killed, whether they were all slain by the same person, or who any of those people might have been. While five women are traditionally thought to have been been his victims, there were at least 11 murders in the area at the time Jack was active - almost certainly not all by the same person.
In fact, there are over 100 different suspects for Jack - meaning it’s quite possible several worked together in a conspiracy. Among the notable names are several renowned painters, Winston Churchill’s father, and Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll.4122Is this out there?