Conspiracy Theories in the Archives

|By Rebecca Bowden, Gale Digital Scholar Lab Product Manager|

Everybody has heard one conspiracy theory or another. Some buy into them wholeheartedly, others mock them and call out their absurdity. Whichever camp you fall into, there is undoubtedly something fascinating about conspiracy theories! They’re akin to the myths and legends that ancient civilisations used to explain the world around them – tales of manipulative gods and hidden cities. Yet one could argue that those civilisations had an “excuse” – they did not have the years of advanced scientific discovery that we now enjoy! Even with this scientific knowledge, however, conspiracy theories still emerge and take hold, often growing ever more elaborate and determined, even whilst they’re being actively discredited.

There are the famous ones: Area 51, accusations that Princess Diana was murdered, that 9/11 was planned by the US Government, that there was a second gunman at the assassination of JFK, or that Kennedy was killed using an umbrella. Or a government plot. The CIA! The Mafia! Fidel Castro! Everyone’s heard of those. Then there are the more unusual conspiracy theories which may be entirely new to you, many of which still have the ability to baffle us with their absurdity. All of them appear within Gale Primary Sources. In this blog post, we delve deeper into the world of conspiracy theories.

"Fit for a Princess Royal Tailor's Venture." Sunday Telegraph, 6 July 2014, p. B2. The Telegraph Historical Archive,
A well-known conspiracy theory is that Princess Diana’s death was not an accident.
“Fit for a Princess Royal Tailor’s Venture.” Sunday Telegraph, 6 July 2014, p. B2. The Telegraph Historical Archive,

The Hollow Earth Theory

Most people have heard of the Flat Earth theory, but how about the Hollow Earth theory? This theory, first posed by Edmund Halley (of Halley’s comet fame) in 1962, is that the earth is hollow, and that the subterranean world beneath the earth’s surface is capable of supporting life. Entered by tunnels hidden at the Earth’s poles, or perhaps in the depths of the Brazilian jungle, this secret world could be housing entire advanced cultures beneath our feet. One of the biggest proponents of the Hollow Earth theory was John Symmes, an American war hero who believed so strongly in the idea that he tried to organise exhibitions to find these secret passages. Sadly these fell through, and he died before he made it to the earth’s interior. Other believers included Hitler and Charles Manson, and the theory has also inspired numerous works of fiction, the most famous of which is Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.

"Enigma of the Hollow Earth." Beyond Reality, July-August, 1980, p. 16+. Religions of America
You may have heard of the Flat Earth theory, but how about the Hollow Earth theory?
“Enigma of the Hollow Earth.” Beyond Reality, July-August, 1980, p. 16+. Religions of America,

The Chemtrails Conspiracy Theory

Slightly more modern is the Chemtrails Conspiracy Theory: the belief that the white trails left by aeroplanes are efforts by the government to affect the population. Although science proves that these trails are in fact just long-lasting condensation, conspiracy theorists believe that they are instead ‘chemical or biological agents secretly sprayed into the sky by government agencies’, according to this article in The Times. The purported motives behind this nefarious action are varied – from trying to manipulate the weather for military purposes, to attempts to sterilise or control voters, as referenced in The Daily Telegraph. Governments consistently stick to their argument that there is nothing untoward about chemtrails but to a conspiracy theorist, denial is tantamount to admittance.

The Pope Was Murdered by the Mafia

Now we start to move into the more madcap conspiracy theories. On September 28, 1978 Pope John Paul I died of a heart attack, just 33 days after becoming head of the Catholic church. His papacy was one of the shortest in history. But was it really a heart attack? Conspiracy theorists would beg to differ, arguing instead that the Pope was murdered by the Mafia. This argument, discussed in the Sunday Times in 1989 and then by the Daily Mail and The Times almost ten years later, argues that the Vatican Bank had become entangled with the Mafia. Having discovered this, Pope John Paul I was assassinated because of his investigations and plans to purge it. There were also rumours that he planned to demote or dismiss powerful figures in the Vatican bureaucracy, which furthered the desire to see him removed. For a man in his sixties with a healthy heart, they assert, a heart attack is unlikely. He therefore must have been poisoned…

Hudson, Christopher. "Murder in the Vatican." Daily Mail, 27 Aug. 1998, p. 11. Daily Mail Historical Archive, 1896-2016
Hudson, Christopher. “Murder in the Vatican.” Daily Mail, 27 Aug. 1998, p. 11. Daily Mail Historical Archive, 1896-2016,

The Death of Paul McCartney

Suspicious deaths are a favourite among conspiracy theorists, and another appears in the Gale archives: that of Paul McCartney. But Paul McCartney isn’t dead, you protest. Well, according to many, he is. The story goes that he died in an awful car crash in 1965 and was replaced by a lookalike who had undergone plastic surgery. Proof of this is littered throughout the Beatle’s albums. While many include deciphering muffled mumblings that appear between songs, or playing the records backwards, the most talked about is the Abbey Road cover.

As this article in The Times (which also gives a history of the conspiracy) describes, the iconic cover of the Beatle’s album Abbey Road, where the four band members are depicted on a zebra-crossing, actually represents a funeral procession: John Lennon, dressed in white, leads the way and represents a priest; Ringo Star is an undertaker in a black suit; and George Harrison, clad in jeans, takes on the role of a gravedigger. Paul McCartney, shoeless and out of step with the others, is, of course, the deceased. He also holds his cigarette in his right hand, when he’s actually left-handed, and the Beetle in the background has a number plate that reads ‘28IF’ – 28, the age Paul would have been if he’d lived. What more proof could be needed? Thankfully, Paul McCartney himself is unconcerned about the rumours of his death.

"MVC." Independent, 31 Oct. 2003, p. 7. The Independent Historical Archive 1986-2016
“MVC.” Independent, 31 Oct. 2003, p. 7. The Independent Historical Archive 1986-2016,

Whether you choose to believe them or not, there are a myriad of conspiracy theories out there – and many of which can be explored in Gale Primary Sources!

If you enjoyed reading about conspiracy theories and other amusing things to be found in the Gale archives, try:

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About the Author

Becca joined Gale in 2017, and moved into Product Management at the start of 2022. Responsible for Gale Digital Scholar Lab she is passionate about all things digital humanities and is enjoying exploring the exciting possibilities presented by the field. In her spare time, she likes doing a variety of unusual sports, a lot of baking, and curling up with a good book.