Conspiracy Theories Have Consequences
History shows that they can cause real violence, often against the most vulnerable
On December 1, Gabriel Sterling, a Republican election official in Georgia, finally had enough. After enduring weeks of false conspiracy theories about the election he had administered — and threats against himself and other elected officials — he learned that ordinary election workers were being threatened with violence online. These people had not signed up to be in the public eye, but they were being falsely accused of committing nefarious deeds to rig the election. The conspiratorial thinking that led to these unsettling threats has been encouraged by President Trump and the Republican candidates for Senate in the state. Sterling called on these officials — for whom he had voted — to take a strong stance against the lies before somebody got hurt. He implored, “if you take a position of leadership, show some.” Donald Trump, Kelly Loeffler, and David Perdue have yet to show any.
What Sterling understood — and many Republican leaders seem not to — is that misinformation and conspiratorial thinking can easily spiral out of control into real violence. This is especially true when the theories include allegations of sinister activity by minority groups, as many of Trump’s claims do today — his claims that cities with large black populations like Philadelphia and Detroit are sources of widespread fraud seem to be rooted in racial animus. Throughout American history, conspiracy theories, whether encouraged by opportunistic politicians or rooted in ordinary people’s exaggerated fears, have ruined the lives of innocent people, often in the most vulnerable communities.
Scapegoats in a burning city
Colonial New York in 1741 was a cauldron of economic uncertainty. Though it was in the North, New York had the second-largest percentage of slaves of any city in the country. Almost one in five of its residents were enslaved. Many of the enslaved people worked for artisans who used slave labor to produce goods much more cheaply than was possible in shops that employed paid workers. This led to racial resentment among working-class white New Yorkers, and conspiracy theories bubbled up about sinister plots among the black population every few years. The theories often combined with anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish feelings, as England was frequently at war with Spain during the early 18th century. When an economic depression combined with a brutal winter in 1740–41, the conditions were ripe for harmful rumors to take root among struggling white New Yorkers who were looking for an outlet for their anger and disappointment. The outlet that they found was a conspiracy theory that victimized the city’s most vulnerable residents.
In March, 1741, a number of fires broke out around New York. The first to attract notice took place in the lieutenant governor’s residence in Fort George. It destroyed several buildings in the complex before being smothered by a rainstorm. Everyone assumed that it had been an accident, but exactly a week later the home of a ship’s captain burned. A week after that, a warehouse burned to the ground. The pace of the fires increased — on April 6, four fires broke out in one day. Panicked citizens began to conclude that the fires were intentional. Stories spread about a trail of hot coals being found near one of the burning buildings. People began to mutter about the “Spanish Negroes” who were alleged to be lurking near one of the blazes. The City Council offered a 100 pound reward for any information leading to the culprits.
A grand jury was formed, and called as one of its first witnesses Mary Burton, an Irish teenage servant in Hughson’s tavern. Burton unspooled a remarkable tale of a conspiracy among New York’s slaves to set fires around the city and then, when whites came to extinguish them, murder the white people and take power themselves. She claimed that she had heard the details of the plot while working in the tavern. Her testimony led to the roundup of a number of black residents of the city. Two slaves who had already been arrested for theft, Caesar and Prince, were the first to be hanged for their alleged role in the arson plot despite a lack of evidence connecting them.
Historians have concluded that there was possibly a string of real arsons that may have involved some slaves, but the response of the city authorities was far out of proportion to the evidence. Panicked authorities began to round up black New Yorkers — as many as half of the city’s male adult slave population was eventually detained in the dragnet — and put them on trial. In order to save themselves, some of the accused began to affirm the stories of a slave conspiracy and accuse others of being involved. Police disregarded the alibis of those arrested, even when they were vouched for by their owners.
Over time, anti-Catholic prejudice roped Catholics, especially Spanish people, into the conspiracy theories as well. Mary Burton and some of the other witnesses accommodated the changing narrative by adding a “Papist” element to the plot. Investigators overlooked the fact that their evidence was contradictory and incomplete because they had bought in so completely to the hysterical rumors that swept the city. Many innocent people suffered. Over a hundred black New Yorkers were arrested and tried over the summer of 1741. In the end, 17 blacks were hanged, 13 were burned at the stake, and four whites were hanged as well. Seventy other black New Yorkers were exiled from the city. Soon after the frenzy, as the holes in the prosecution’s case became more apparent, observers began to compare the events in New York to the Salem witch trials. But Daniel Horsmanden, the main prosecutor, published a memoir years later that defended his actions, concluding ominously that “we have not been able entirely to unravel the Mystery of this Iniquity; for ’twas a dark Design, and the Veil is in some Measure still upon it!”
Secession fueled by paranoia
The American Civil War was another moment when conspiratorial thinking got in the way of rational thought and led to violence. In the years leading up to the election of Abraham Lincoln, southern slaveowners were feeling more and more pressure. Slavery was dying out as an economic system around the world, and abolitionists were launching more aggressive rhetorical attacks on slaveowners. Some slaveowners tried to directly defend slavery, but many found it easier to live lives defined by resentment. If they could imagine that slavery was under siege by nefarious forces, they could justify doing what was necessary to defend their racist system.
There had been a few legitimate conspiracies in the years leading up the war, most famously John Brown’s attempt to arm slaves and foment a revolution in Virginia. Plots like John Brown’s were outliers. Very few abolitionists were willing to go beyond giving speeches, signing petitions, and distributing pamphlets. Despite a lack of evidence, powerful southerners became convinced that there was a comprehensive plot to stir up slave rebellions throughout the south. Officials spoke often of the Haitian revolution in the early nineteenth century, which was cast as a tale of savage slaves secretly plotting to destroy a prosperous and civilized society. The belief that the south was under siege came from officials in power. Texas’ declaration of secession, for example, alleged that:
[Northerners] have invaded Southern soil and murdered unoffending citizens, and through the press their leading men and a fanatical pulpit have bestowed praise upon the actors and assassins in these crimes, while the governors of several of their States have refused to deliver parties implicated and indicted for participation in such offenses, upon the legal demands of the States aggrieved.
They have, through the mails and hired emissaries, sent seditious pamphlets and papers among us to stir up servile insurrection and bring blood and carnage to our firesides.
They have sent hired emissaries among us to burn our towns and distribute arms and poison to our slaves for the same purpose.
During the 1860 election, Abraham Lincoln was a relatively unknown politician in the south. He didn’t even appear on ballots in many states. Southerners projected their fears onto the blank slate that he presented. He was described as a radical abolitionist who would stop at nothing to destroy the south; the editor of a Charleston newspaper described Hannibal Hamlin, his Vice President, as “what we call a mulatto. He has black blood in him.”
It was remarkable how quickly the south seceded after Lincoln’s election — they didn’t even wait for him to take office, to see what he would do. Southern leaders immediately plunged the nation into war because they had convinced themselves that Lincoln was a committed abolitionist with a black Vice President, supported by an army of radicals who would stop at nothing to incite slaves into violence against whites. Since slavery was destined to end in violence if they did nothing, southerners had no problem starting a war to defend it. These conspiracy theories were especially influential because they were trumpeted by the richest and most powerful members of southern society; those who stood up to the hysteria were ostracized. Had slaveowners not convinced themselves that there was a nefarious conspiracy against their way of life, America might have found a way to end slavery without killing hundreds of thousands and creating divisions that damage the nation 150 years later.
Rumors create a summer of violence
In 1919, it felt like America and the world were at a tipping point. World War I had devastated Europe and led to the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. In America, it felt as if the old social order was about to crumble. Industrial workers who had done their part in the war now demanded better pay and safer work conditions. A general strike in Seattle terrified government officials and business owners. American socialists — whose leader, Eugene Debs, had been imprisoned for opposing the war — engaged in massive May Day protests that were, in many places, met with violence from authorities and counter-protestors. Anarchists began to send explosive devices to government and business leaders. The summer of 1919 saw race riots in a number of cities around the country as black soldiers returning from the war began to demand fair treatment and were met with violence by white supremacists.
America seemed to be devolving into chaos, and people began to look for a grand unified theory to tie all of the year’s events together. Rather than accept that America was a divided, exhausted country with real inequalities that demanded solutions, many of those in power began to see a sinister Bolshevik conspiracy that — in their minds — explained everything. The racial violence was a particular source of conspiratorial thinking. Rather than believe that systematic racism might actually be real and worth fixing, white Americans clung to the idea that racial inequality should have been perfectly acceptable to black Americans. The source of the unrest was “outside agitators” like foreigners and communists.
Woodrow Wilson, himself a committed racist, had privately predicted that “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying Bolshevism to America.” Representative James Byrnes of South Carolina argued on the floor of the House that black southerners were “happy and contented and will remain so if the propagandist of the I.W.W., the Bolsheviki of Russia, and the misguided theorist of other sections of this country will let him alone.” Federal law enforcement agencies began to believe this baseless claim, as well. J. Edgar Hoover, the young, ambitious head of the Department of Justice’s General Intelligence Division, believed that foreign leftists were engaged in a “sinister movement” to foment racial division in order to bring down the country (Hoover would reprise this pack of lies during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s).
Hoover and his allies were successful in planting stories like this in the press, as well. The New York Times published a story in July, 1919 alleging that
“Evidence is accumulating in the files of the Government to show that the negroes of this country are the object of a vicious and apparently well financed propaganda which is directed against the white people, and which seeks, by newspapers, pamphlets, and in other ways, to stir up discontent among the negroes, particularly the uneducated class in the Southern States…. The radical organizations active in this propaganda are the IWW, certain factions of the radical Socialist element, and Bolsheviki.”
These allegations bore a striking resemblance to theories during the war that black leaders were under the influence of a network of German spies.
Hoover never actually found any evidence (other than his racist conclusion that black leaders and publications couldn’t possibly be coming up with such eloquent calls for equality by themselves), but that didn’t stop him from spending the year promoting conspiracy theories. He sponsored the writing of an official-sounding report entitled “Radicalism and Sedition Among the Negroes as Reflected in their Publications,” again alleging without real evidence that Communists were directing protests by black Americans. The idea that black protests were part of an international plot against America created a permission structure that allowed terrible violence against black communities. One of the worst attacks against blacks that year, the Elaine massacre in Arkansas, was retroactively justified by a governor’s commission that concluded the local Sharecropper’s Union was engaged in a socialist plot to murder all of the local whites. Seventy-nine black people were convicted for attempting to defend themselves against the white mob, with twelve sentenced to death. No whites went to jail.
Conspiratorial thinking has been a part of American history from the beginning. Conspiracy theories attempt to impose some order on a chaotic world; it’s probably much easier for Trump and his allies to believe that they are the victims of a diabolical plot to undermine American democracy rather than accept that he is not a very good president and has been deeply unpopular for four years. These fantasies, though they are psychologically reassuring, can also lead to violence. People who are convinced that they are the victims of elaborate conspiracies will sometimes take drastic action — often against the most vulnerable — to combat the dangers they imagine. Let’s hope that Trump’s flirtation with dangerous fantasies doesn’t end in violence this time.