The conviction that I ought to do it is the strength in which I go about it.
Conspiracy theories can be a lot of fun—as long as you don’t believe them. Sometimes they get started as benign hoaxes but often as not, they represent the fervent (one might argue fevered) beliefs of the people proposing them. They can run the gamut from ridiculous to almost-kinda-possible. They include the ever popular shape shifting lizard people taking over the world (the Queen is one by the way), the moon landing (actually shot on a desert sound stage) and the Oswald-didn’t-act-alone crowd (choose your co-conspirator: Castro, Khrushchev, the Mob, LBJ). They all (excepting the lizard people) have a couple of things in common. First they deal with momentous events. Secondly, the event is so outsized, that folks have trouble believing a straightforward explanation. Let’s face it; we can’t put an astronaut into space in 2013, so why would anyone believe we could have landed a couple of them on the moon in 1969? There are reasons of course, but conspiracy theorists look at things and figure the explanation is too good to be true or conversely, too awful to be true. While conspiracy theories have been around for as long as folks have been getting together to swamp tales, the genre really took off when one woman had an idea.
Delia Bacon is the Mother of the modern conspiracy theory. She was a diminutive woman who simply believed that no one as ordinary as William Shakespeare could possibly have written all those incredible plays and sonnets. It’s not entirely certain how or why she latched on to this theory. Before she developed what Nathaniel Hawthorne deemed a monomania, she’d enjoyed success as a lecturer, novelist and playwright. By all accounts she was an extraordinary woman with a powerful and compelling personality. Born in a log cabin on the Ohio frontier in 1811, she was raised in Connecticut. Though living in genteel poverty, she attended a private school run by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sister, Catherine. Her education complete, Bacon became a teacher at 14. She left teaching when she was 20 and began lecturing and writing. Her work was favorably reviewed by none other than Edgar Allen Poe and her lectures were sponsored by Washington Irving among others. In 1845, she gave it all up and spent the remaining 14 years of her life to unmasking William Shakespeare. The years were spent working out (with Samuel Morse’s assistance) what she claimed was a cipher hidden in the plays, meticulous research in England and multiple attempts to have Shakespeare’s body exhumed. She died in 1859 convinced she was right—in a Massachusetts insane asylum.
Perhaps the craziest thing about conspiracy theories is how easily people can be drawn into them. It turns out that the greatest literary lights of 19th century America got swept up in her undecipherable theory. Ralph Waldo Emerson helped Bacon publish her theories in Putnam’s Magazine. Hawthorne arranged to have her book; The Philosophy of Shakespeare’s Plays Unfolded, published and wrote its introduction. (The book was so convoluted that it’s claimed only one person ever completely read the whole thing and it wasn’t Hawthorne.) Walt Whitman and Mark Twain were both Bacon fans.
So how about you? Do you get caught up in conspiracy theories based on vaguely plausible hypothesizes and little evidence? Do you find yourself passionately engaged in an issue or making decisions on a few facts and a lot of assumptions? We all do. Usually it doesn’t matter when we’re talking about big things like Shakespeare’s authorship or the moon landing. It only does damage when the subject is closer to home. It’s the “conspiracy theories” about relationships or lost opportunities that hurt us. Next time you find an outsized explanation for a simple event, pause to think about Delia Bacon. Often as not, things are as simple as they seem. —Ebert