JFK is the eternal president of the conspiracy theory community. Whilst conspiracy theories had been rife in American culture before his assassination – much of the entire previous decade had involved much fretting about the global Communist menace on the part of citizens and senators alike – the Kennedy assassination is perhaps the first such event which, thanks in part to the mass media age, almost instantaneously spawned its own subculture that could be described as a 9/11-style truth movement. You didn’t have World War II Truthers, after all… Though I guess the early Christians could be regarded as Crucifixion Truthers.
One of the heretical early gospels of JFK assassination theories is the famed Gemstone File. Supposedly a mass of letters written by the mysterious Bruce Roberts, the Gemstone File came to the public consciousness largely through Mae Brussell’s radio show, Roberts having given Brussell copies of the letters because he thought the conspiracy he’d stumbled on was responsible for killing one of Brussell’s daughters in a car accident.
Brussell was the queen of the conspiracy theorists back in the 1970s, offering a left-wing point of view which seemed all too plausible in the days of COINTELPRO and Watergate. After Brussell’s death, her voluminous papers ended up divided among various parties, and the original Gemstone File dropped out of sight – but as we shall see, a paraphrased summary of its contents circulated at first as mass-photocopied samizdat and eventually as a text file on the early Internet.
Come 1992 and the Gemstone File would become the subject of a book by Jim Keith – maverick conspiracy researcher and all round libertarian counter-culture dude. (He strikes me as the sort of libertarian less prone to Pinochet-inspired helicopter memes and who’s more keen on legalising weed.) Keith himself would become the focus of various conspiracy theories after he died in 1999 after complications arising from knee surgery, Keith having injured himself falling off a stage at Burning Man. (I told you he was a counter-culture dude.) Before that happened, though, he was an ex-Scientologist who, after dropping out of the Church, created the underground zine Dharma Combat, and for a space of time in the 1990s produced some of the most way-out-there conspiracy theory books you could hope for. The Gemstone File was his first book, largely a collection of key Gemstone-related texts and commentary thereon by various hands.
After a brief introduction, Keith leads off with A Skeleton Key To the Gemstone File, a timeline summary of Bruce Roberts’ epic (and still largely unavailable) Gemstone letters which is far more widely distributed than any of the original Gemstones. The Skeleton Key was compiled by Stephanie Caruana, who had been sent to interview Brussell for Playgirl and ended up buying into a lot of her ideas, to the point where she became Brussell’s live-in secretary for a time. For this edition, the Skeleton Key is extensively annotated with notes by Jim Keith, G.J. Krupey, Matt Love and the amazingly pseudonymous X. Sharks DeSpot.
The basic story told is that the Mafia was largely in control of the United States, with Aristotle Onassis acting as the main powerbroker after an audacious operation in 1957 in which he had Howard Hughes kidnapped and took control of the Hughes empire, with Hughes himself having been left helpless and brain-damaged by the kidnap bid. (Hughes’ infamous seclusion for much of his later life was apparently just a cover story.)
As all this is going on, Bruce Roberts is innocently developing a technique for making synthetic rubies, which due to their optical qualities are supposedly vital for laser technology. He takes his concept to Hughes Aircraft, who promptly steal it, establishing an international market in gemstones and accompanying “gemstone papers” – documentation on the gems’ histories into which secret intelligence information was concealed. Roberts’ insights supposedly come from these papers, though why he’d have access to them when he’d been shut out of the synthetic gem business is an unanswered question.
As for JFK? Well, his dad Joe was in deep with Onassis and the mob – but after Joseph Kennedy died, Jack and Bobby slipped off the Mafia leash. Grumpy about this, and particularly about JFK’s failure to fully back the Bay of Pigs fiasco (remember, the Battista regime on Cuba that Fidel Castro had ousted was nice and cozy with the Mafia). Lee Harvey Oswald was indeed one of the assassins, but there were multiple other shooters as well, and Oswald was double-crossed so as to provide a fall guy. Much of what follows in the next decade or so of American politics – Vietnam, Chappaquiddick, Watergate, etc. – are all cast in the light of the continuing cover up and the defence of Onassis’ interests.
As the Skeleton Key progresses, however, an increasingly dissonant note creeps in. It is evident that Caruana is cherry-picking to a certain extent in order to find a coherent story to tell, but even then she can’t quite keep out hints of deeper layers to what Roberts was talking about. There’s a bizarre little aside about apparently-unrelated efforts by the Vatican to cover up the fact that Jesus was an Arab (Roberts presumably having an antisemitic agenda somewhere), and regular mentions of Roberts hanging out in the Drift Inn, supposedly a safehouse hangout bar where CIA and FBI agents came to drink, with Roberts supposedly holding forth on all his ideas (and referring to flashing his Gemstones about, though it is far from clear whether this refers to physical stones or a metaphor for him airing his theories). The deaths of anyone important to Roberts – from his dad to the bartender at the Drift Inn – is ascribed to the conspiracy, and any death due to apparent natural causes is ascribed to “sodium morphate”, a chemical not known to conventional science but which apparently smells of apple pie.
Clearly, deeper digging is called for. Jim Keith next offers us an interview he conducted with Stephanie Caruana via mail. This reveals some information about Roberts and Caruana’s interactions with him. We learn that on first reading some of the Gemstone letters Roberts had given Brussell, Caruana thought she was dealing with a paranoid schizophrenic, but eventually decided that Roberts was on the level and clearly ended up greatly admiring him. She also clarified how the Gemstone intelligence network was supposed to work – Roberts sold gems (allegedly his artificial rubies and the like), and provided Gemstone letters along with the supporting documentation, and supposedly sometimes he got information back in exchange.
Keith next gives us Mae Brussell’s own perspective, in the form of an edited transcript of the two radio shows she spent discussing the material. To a large extent this involves Brussell picking apart the Skeleton Key – evidently she didn’t think dedicating airtime to go over the full 300+ Gemstone documentation Roberts gave her line by line was a good use of her platform. Brussell endorses some parts of the theory whilst criticising or outright debunking others, and reframes what’s left in light of her own view of Who’s Behind It All. (Nazis, apparently. She’d have felt so vindicated by the Trump era.)
Next up is a mysterious anonymous text, which is clearly based on the Skeleton Key in terms of its formatting and general rhetorical style whilst having a somewhat different set of priorities. This is the Kiwi Gemstone, AKA the Opal File, evidently written by someone with great interest in New Zealand politics due to its focus on that country. Concerning itself largely with arcane financial dealings, the Kiwi Gemstone essentially alleges that the Onassis organisation (later inherited by David Rockefeller) used high-tech satellites to detect large oil reserves off the coast of New Zealand, and then moved to take over the media, banking, and political institutions of New Zealand to maintain monopolistic control of the oil industry there. Carrying events up to the late 1980s, it also sprinkles in the sort of Bilderberg Group/Trilateral Commission One World Government stuff that had become common currency by that point.
What remains is a clutch of commentaries and stray thoughts. Len Bracken contributed Gemstoner, a short story that’s essentially a biographical sketch of Bruce Roberts. Bracken claims a bicycle courier gave it to him, but there seems to be little reason to believe it wasn’t written by Bracken himself, or that for that matter that the author actually knew Roberts at all. The central thesis of the story was that Roberts was paranoid from smoking too much weed. Jonathan Vankin, author of Conspiracies, Cover-Ups & Crimes, discusses his joy at receiving a copy of the Skeleton Key whilst researching his book and also says some cogent words about the fun of delving into conspiracy theories not necessarily for the sake of believing them, but to simply enjoy a different perception of the world and for the intellectual workout involved in tackling them; I recognise a lot of my own motives for reading this sort of material in that, and agree with him that “Conspiracy theories are too important to be left to the conspiracy theorists”.
In Is It True?, Jim Keith himself attempts to answer that question, but despite finding numerous flaws in the document (and despite much of his corroboration of the points he considers true coming from decidedly flaky sources) tries his best to hedge his bets and say “uh, maybe?”. Robert Anton Wilson’s The Godfather, Part IV ends up giving a more firm answer: Roberts was probably wrong on the specifics but right on the overall thesis about the Mafia gaining entirely too much influence in America, and the best way to counter that is to legalise drugs.
G.J. Krupey offers one of the longer and more tangential essays, Tales From the Vatican Crypt. This delves into Roberts’ accusations, as filtered through the Skeleton Key, concerning both corruption in the Vatican and secrets doctrines about the true ethnicity and agenda of Jesus; no evidence is found to support the “Jesus was an Arab” angle, unsurprisingly, and Krupey calls it out for the anti-Semitism involved.
In Is Gemstone a Hoax? tedious Discordian anecdotalist Kerry Thornley attempts to tackle the titular question, but not without extensively airing his own connections to the JFK assassination. (he’d been a buddy of Oswald’s in the Marines and wrote a book about Oswald – prior to the assassination – inspired by Oswald’s defection to the Soviet Union, and had met a fair number of other figures who’d later feature in conspiracy theories around the assassination when living in New Orleans, where Oswald also spent time. Thornley dines out on this story constantly, the counter-culture’s most repetitive one-trick pony, because he thinks conspiratorial forces are persecuting him in connection with it, and believes that all those folk he ran into were trying to set him up as a fall guy if the Oswald thing didn’t pan out; in this essay he reasons that it can’t be a coincidence that he met all those people, not realising that the sheer number of people named in JFK conspiracy theories is such that any reasonably socially outgoing adult residing in an area Oswald was associated with prior to the assassination probably knows some people.
Thornley argues that the Gemstone File is a hoax because if it were real, he’d have surely known Bruce Roberts and Roberts would have been just as persecuted as him. (Never mind that the Skeleton Key notes murders of friends and family members and damage to cars inflicted on Roberts by the conspirators.) He’s wrong about it being a hoax, as we’ll see, but even if he were right he’d be right for the wrong reasons.
Ben G. Price offers Outlaws and Inslaw. From the title, you might expect an examination of parallels between the Skeleton Key and the various conspiracy theories that swirled around the death of journalist Danny Casolaro, who whilst researching the scandal surrounding the Department of Justice’s alleged mistreatment and intellectual property theft from computer company Inslaw started talking like he was onto a huge network of crime and scandal he referred to as The Octopus before he was found dead in a hotel room, apparently of suicide (though conspiracists are quick to point to irregularities in the investigation of that). However, Price seems more keen on launching a grumpy libertarian-primitivist rant: big government is bad, big business is also bad, industrialised culture is bad, the IRS is just as villainous as the most ruthless secret police out there, everything is bad. He doesn’t go so far as to endorse the Unabomber’s manifesto, but then again that hadn’t been published yet.
Keith caps off this bouquet of gemstones with an appendix by Yael Dragwyla and Gary Csillaghegyi in which they discuss the plausibility of a chemical compound existing referred to as “sodium morphate” with the sort of properties that Roberts ascribes to it. (Answer: there’s no fucking way it’s real.)
All in all, Keith’s collection offers a fun set of wildly tangential takes on the subject from a wide range of perspectives, but here’s the elephant in the room: aside from Mae Brussell and Stephanie Caruana, more or less everyone involved had only seen Caruana’s Skeleton Key, not the actual Gemstone material itself. Indeed, Mae seems to be largely working from the Skeleton Key when doing her radio show on the Gemstone File – this in 1977, some years after she was no longer working with Caruana. I suspect that she only did the show because Caruana’s samizdat Skeleton Key had circulated enough that Brussell got a lot of requests for comment on it, and indeed I suspect she never read through the entire Gemstone material herself.
The original Gemstones did, however, finally emerge in the mid-2000s. This blog here offers an unedited transcript of someone’s copy of Mae’s Gemstone material, and Stephanie Caruana herself re-emerged to issue The Gemstone Files: A Memoir, in which she compiled various Gemstone-related materials provided a greatly expanded version of the Skeleton Key, and gave biographical details of her involvement in the situation. It’s evident that she remains a fervent believer in Roberts – apparently her original release of the Skeleton Key was motivated by Roberts’ terminal cancer, which she and he believed was not cancer at all but a Mafia-induced ailment, and Caruana thought that if the information got out there it might save herself and, possibly, Roberts, and maybe even the US of A itself.
The centerpiece of Caruana’s memoir, however, is over 200 pages of raw material from Roberts. This has been subjected to some editing by Caruana, for two reasons. The first is that Roberts’ material was originally prepared as private letters to various parties, begging for their help or lambasting them for their part in the conspiracy, and as such a lot of material was repeated from letter to letter because, of course, Bruce had to write assuming that people didn’t have the other letters in front of them when reading. Trimming the repeated material is a sensible way of boosting readability.
Caruana also says she tones down some of the bits where Roberts got incoherently angry, though to be honest I can’t imagine she did very much of that. See, the terrible truth about the Roberts material, whether in its raw form or as edited by Caruana, is that it kind of bears out Mae Brussell’s initial assessment that it was written by someone in the grip of some sort of mental health crisis. Roberts is given to wildly grandiose claims, following the flimsiest of logic; for instance, he claims that in 1968 his car got run into by a vehicle driven by the son of Mayor Alioto of San Francisco, and that when he threatened to blow this information wide open Hubert Humphrey stayed way from California late in the election cycle, and Humphrey lost California and the Presidency to Nixon by a slim margin, and thus on those grounds Roberts was tricked into electing Nixon himself, and people had better wise up and follow the two secret commandments of Christ that Roberts had discovered – “kill cancer” and “take me off the Cross and put murderers up there instead”, and, and, and…
Had Roberts only written this stuff to the various public figures he harassed about his theories, he would be one of a number of forgotten cranks by now – and indeed would be had the compilation he sent Mae Brussell stayed untouched in her filing cabinets. Really, despite all she credits Roberts with, it’s Caruana’s talent for taking all this rambling nonsense and coming up with a somewhat more coherent-sounding summary of it in the form of the Skeleton Key which actually gave the Gemstone File its niche in conspiracy theory history. Now that the legendary original material is freely available, there’s no hiding the fact that the Emperor has no clothes – and no gemstones.