JFK Was a Diamond Geezer

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.

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Jonestown, White Night, and What Scientology Could Have Taught the People’s Temple

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

If anything, Tim Reiterman was even closer to the events recounted in Raven than Bugliosi was in Helter Skelter. Whereas Bugliosi only arrived on the scene after the fact in Helter Skelter and can only directly attest to what went down in the trial, Tim Reiterman was part of the team of journalists accompanying Congressman Leo Ryan’s doomed visit to Jonestown, and was wounded in the People’s Temple attack on the party (and the group of Temple defectors they were trying to get to safety) at the Port Kaituma airstrip.

Horrifying as it was, that attack was a mere foretaste of the carnage that Jim Jones was simultaneously planning in Jonestown, as he led his people in a carefully rehearsed process of murder and mass suicide that was, at least as Jones explained it, intended to act as the ultimate protest against a capitalist world that wouldn’t leave them be. There is room for debate in terms of how serious he was about this motive – his claims that “mercenaries”, the Guyanese army and other hired guns of capitalism were out to invade and destroy Jonestown were backed up by faked assassination attempts, just as earlier in his career his claims of healing powers were backed up by faked faith healings, so there is every chance that he didn’t really believe his own rhetoric captured on the infamous “Jonestown death tape” about how soldiers were going to swoop in and torture and kill all the town’s inhabitants.

What is not in doubt is Jones’ commitment to mass suicide as an exit strategy: as well as the famous “White Night” drills that prepared the inhabitants of Jonestown for self-destruction, Raven documents how Jones was running hoaxed suicide drills even when he was headquartered in the United States, years before Jones’s spiralling paranoia, increasing legal and journalistic scrutiny, and a string of defections from the People’s Temple prompted his retreat to his Guyana hideaway. Given the Temple’s vehemently (and often counter-productively) aggressive responses to even a hint of journalistic curiosity or law enforcement interest, an arguable case could be made that what Jones was really doing on that final White Night was fleeing the consequences of his actions, his pride rendering him unable to face either the criminal charges that would have inevitably followed the attack on the Ryan party or the exposure of his secrets that would follow.

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The Family That Slays Together Stays Together

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The phenomenon of American lawyers writing books about famous cases they have been involved with isn’t really surprising – if anything, I’m personally surprised we don’t see more doing it. A key skill of being a good trial lawyer is being able to present a believable and engaging narrative to the court which persuasively accounts for all the evidence; in addition, anyone performing this task in a jury trial needs to be able to make this narrative clear and understandable to a cross-section of the general public who don’t necessarily have any specialised knowledge of the subjects at hand. Any diligent attorney’s case file would consequently already provide most of the necessary research and documentation necessary to produce a book.

Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, produced with the aid of Curt Gentry, is a particularly good example of the genre. Although any attorney’s account of a trial is necessarily going to partial towards the case they presented, Bugliosi is of the school of lawyers who believes in making an open and honest assessment of their case’s flaws and gaps. Whilst you might think a prosecution lawyer wouldn’t want to introduce gaps in their story or failings in the police investigation into their case, it’s ultimately good practice to own up to such things: in any area of law, if you are able to identify the weaknesses in your own case and present them to the court first, before the other side do, it allows you to get whatever response or explanation you want to present for them in first, and it means the other side can’t pull it out and confront you with it like it was something you were trying to hide.

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Gull’s From Hell and John’s From Glasgow

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

It’s the late 1880s, and royal party boy Prince Albert “Eddy” Victor – grandson of Queen Victoria and second in line to the throne – has been having all manner of fun. Encountering Annie Clark, a Catholic woman who works behind the till at a sweet shop just across the road from Eddy’s favourite rent boy brothel, he begins an affair with her which culminates in an ill-advised secret marriage and the birth of a child – one who, strictly speaking, would then be in line for the throne.

Queen Victoria will not stand for this, and she uses all the covert influence available to her to make sure that Eddy and Annie are forcibly separated. Among the resources available to her is the power structure of British Freemasonry. With members riddled throughout the British aristocracy and respectable professions, the Masons were a microcosm of the establishment of the time, and a large cross-section of Victoria’s male family members were Masons. Between that and a perennial desire for Royal patronage, it was no surprise that the Brotherhood was willing to do favours for Victoria. In this case, this included enlisting Dr William Henry Gull – Freemason, physician, and mystic – to the task of performing an operation on Annie to profoundly damage her mental capabilities. Even if she could get someone to listen to her story and she were able to coherently tell it through the cognitive fog imposed on her, nobody would give it any credence.

However, Annie’s fate wasn’t unknown to all. Marie Kelly, an East End prostitute and friend of Annie’s, is aware of what happened, and also knows that painter Walter Sickert – who had accompanied Eddy on his visits to the seedier side of town – is aware of what’s happened. When she and a group of her fellow prostitutes are shaken down for protection money they don’t have by a local gang, they hit on a plan of blackmailing Sickert for cash. Alas, they get greedy, ask for more money than Sickert has available, and when he turns to his Royal connections for help word of the matter gets back to Victoria, who dispatches Gull to silence the women, permanent-style.

Alas, Gull’s work is no clean, surgical strike this time around. Having suffered a stroke, Gull has become prone to mystic visions and occult obsessions, and he regards the work to be done in averting Royal embarrassment as a mere pretext for his true goal. The 20th Century is looming, and Gull believes that by conducting the murders in a particular manner and pattern, aligned with the occult geometry of London, he can turn them into a ritual act which will shape the very nature of the coming century. His intention is to make it safe from the rising tide of feminist and other progressive challenges to the status quo, winning the day for what he sees as the inherently masculine force of Apollonian rationality. The actual outcome is, well, the history we got…

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Save vs. Libel, Pt. 2: The Rumour Dies, the Scars Remain

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

(Content warning for this series: over these two articles I’m going to touch on sexual abuse, mental health issues, suicide, and Gamergate. If you aren’t up for such subjects, maybe skip these.)

As outlined in the first part of this article, the popular rumours smearing Dungeons & Dragons were largely driven by the James Dallas Egbert III case, but soon took on a life of their own. It would take other hands, however, to really bring them to the absurd pitch that they’d reach during the Satanic Panic – and the primary driver of that process was Patricia Pulling.

You can see Pulling as the David Icke of Dungeons & Dragons conspiracy theories: many of her ideas were parroted from others, her credentials and competence as a researcher and investigator were wildly overstated, and she’s mostly notable for weaving all of the different theories she picked up from others into a dizzyingly paranoid collage, a fear-riddled look at the world in which almost anything she didn’t approve of was part of a grand conspiracy to destroy America’s children.

The major difference between Pulling and Icke is this: in Britain we laugh at our extreme conspiracy theorists, in America they get elected President. Whilst Pulling never attained quite that level of power she did end up with an undue level of influence – particularly within police forces which turned to her as a consultant on “occult crime” – which resulted in her being treated as an expert in criminal cases when in fact her credentials were not up to snuff. (If you want an illustration of how dangerous it is to have unqualified amateurs posing as experts and hyping their personal conspiracy theories to the police, you could do a lot worse than doing some Googling on the subject of the West Memphis Three.)

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Save vs. Libel, Pt. 1: The Rise of a Popular Error

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

(Content warning for this series: over these two articles I’m going to touch on sexual abuse, mental health issues, suicide, and Gamergate. If you aren’t up for such subjects, maybe skip these.)

The most infamous variant of this story is Jack Chick’s second most paranoid tract, Dark Dungeons. (Chick’s most paranoid comic is, of course, The Last Generation.) The beloved tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons is not a mere hobby, but an indoctrination system for occultism and Satanism – one which teaches participants real magic, drives them insane, and causes them to commit suicide. It’s an implausible story, rendered even weirder when someone tries to get the idea across in a brief little comic with unintentionally hilarious and highly quotable dialogue, a surprisingly progressive gender ratio in the gaming group depicted, and an evil Dungeon Master drawn by an artist who can’t quite conceal their secret attraction to hot goth ladies that their religion won’t let them act on.

It’s an urban myth which had a pretty brief shelf life. The movies Mazes & Monsters and Skullduggery were based on it, but after they had their day in the Sun it was largely evangelists riding the Satanic Panic bandwagon pushing the concept – and most of them moved on to other targets after a while. The current boom in popularity of D&D thanks to hit streaming shows like Critical Role, Harmonquest and the like is pretty much the last nail in the coffin; this conspiracy theory is the sort of thing which hinges on tabletop RPGs being a poorly-understood thing where people don’t have much of an idea of what goes on in a typical game session, and now that there’s plentiful examples online of people who can apparently bathe and look after themselves gaming happily the mystery is gone.

A discussion of the wider issue of where the Satanic Panic came from, why it happened, and why it died down is something you could right multiple PhD theses on – but I’m not going to go that broad this time around. Instead, I’m going to cover a brace of materials which, between them, illustrate where the particular moral panic surrounding tabletop RPGs emerged, why it stopped, and how some of the gaming community’s worst habits of the present day can be traced back to the fight against censorious moral panics of the past.

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All My Friends Know the Pale Rider…

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Milton William Cooper basically told the same story ever since he made his first big public splash in 1988. The story went like this: as part of an accomplished military career which saw him serving in Vietnam, Cooper eventually found his way into the Office of Naval Intelligence, in a post under Admiral Clarey. Bored out of his skull and frustrated with the massive discrepancies between the stories he saw Nixon and Kissinger telling the American people on the news and the activities he knew to be going on in Southeast Asia as part of the overspill of Vietnam into Cambodia and Laos, he eventually started peeking at top secret documents which, whilst not strictly intended for his eyes, happened to be in the filing cabinets in his office. These documents revealed a hidden story of astonishing conspiracy against the American Republic and the wholesale subversion of its Constitution.

The problem was that what Cooper claimed was actually in those documents kept changing. When he first started making his claims, they were generally in support of the Majestic-12 conspiracy theory and the documents received by UFO researchers Jamie Shandera, William Moore and Stanton Friedman. Then, when the credibility of those documents started looking shaky, Cooper claimed that the documents he’d seen in the Navy substantiated this – that the leaked documents were part of a damage limitation plan by the real Majestic-12 to send potential investigators down blind alleys should they get too close – but he stuck with his claims of UFO conspiracies and secret pacts with hostile alien races, claiming that he’d seen in the filing cabinets copies of the legendary O.H. Krill papers (named after the alleged alien ambassador to Earth).

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