Discussing "conspiracy theories" will generate one of two reactions: a patronising tut and roll of the eyes, or the scraping of a chair being pull closer to the conversation.
As you're here, we're assuming you reacted with the latter.
In his new book 100 Things They Don’t Want You To Know, author Daniel Smith looks at 100 of the world’s greatest mysteries, disappearances, unsolved crimes and conspiracy theories - many that'll cause you to chuckle in knowing wisdom, others that'll see you digging around gloomy online chatrooms in search of the "truth".
Here Smith talks us through the 20 weirdest mysteries he has come across.
Did Hitler come up with a crackpot scheme to bomb London and New York with UFOs? It sounds bizarre but there is now evidence to suggest that the Nazis came very close to succeeding in building some kind of hi-tech, anti-gravity aircraft with vertical take-off capabilities. There were even sighting of a UFO over the Thames in 1944, while others are convinced the 1947 Roswell Incident was actually a disastrous attempt by the US to test out Nazi designed flying saucers.
What was the CIA-sponsored MKULtra programme and what did it do?
MKUltra was set up during the Cold War to research and develop materials that could be used to control human behaviour – basically, how to do mind-control. It was run covertly through universities, hospitals, prisons and drug companies who used their patients and inmates as non-consenting guinea pigs. While a government investigation in 1975 revealed a lot about MKUltra, the vast majority of official records relating to it were destroyed in 1973 on the orders of the CIA’s then-Director, Richard Helms… We may never know the lengths it went to and the damage it caused.
(Image: ©John Springer Collection / Corbis)
Who was the man in the iron mask?
Immortalised by Dumas (and di Caprio) The Man in the Iron Mask was a prisoner in Paris’ Bastille prison from 1698 until his death in 1703. His face was always hidden but he was treated with the utmost respect by his jailers. So who was he? The most popular theories suggest that he was someone related to the French king of the time, Louis XIV who would call his legitimacy into question – his twin brother, older brother, or even his real father. That his identity remains uncertain to the modern day is testament to the French crown’s ability to keep it’s silence …
The Borden Murders
On 4th August 1892 Andrew and Abby Borden were brutally bludgeoned to death in their home in Massachusetts. Their daughter Lizzie, a quiet Sunday School teacher, was arrested on circumstantial evidence and after only an hour of deliberation, the jury acquitted her. Whether this means Lizzie was innocent or not, we’ll never know, but her defenders have pointed to several other potential killers including her uncle, illegitimate brother, scorned lover and even the local doctor. Whatever happened in that house that day, someone got away with murder.
What does the Shugbrough Inscription mean?
The inscription found on a monument at Shurgborough Estate in Staffordshire (pictured) has perplexed some of the most brilliant cryptologists. One of the most popular theories is that it relates to a secret kept by the Priory of Sion, descendants of the Knights Templar and guardians of the holy grail (the ones from The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown). Another theory suggests it is simply a private dedication from one member of the family to another. Whatever the case, no one, not even Darwin (who was captivated by the mystery) can solve it.
(Image: © PA photos / Top Photo)
The Black Dahlia Murder
The unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947 is one of the most famous cold-cases of the 20th century. Elizabeth was a 22-year-old waitress found brutally and clinically murdered in a park in California. The case became a media furore when her supposed killer wrote to the Los Angeles Examiner and sparked a queue of cranks and attention-seekers purporting to be the killer. Over the decades suspects have risen and fallen in popularity, with an LAPD detective even pointing the finger at his father. With the passage of time and decaying evidence it seems unlikely the crime will ever be solved.
(Images: ©Bettman / Corbis)
The Mystery of the Vampire Child, Mercy Brown
Mercy Brown was young girl who died from tuberculosis in New England, 1892. She was exhumed along with her mother and sister who has also died from the disease in 1892 when her father was told a sinister spirit may be at work on his family. When Mary’s body was brought to light it did not show any signs of decomposition, despite being buried for two months. Her skin was well preserved, her hair and nails had grown and she even had liquid blood; even more weirdly her body was said to have moved positions in the grave. While science has tried to explain it, no theories have succeeded completely – perhaps Mercy was, as suggested at the time, a vampire child, sucking the life out of her family?
Do the Men in Black really exist?
Since the 1940s rumours have abounded in the USA about the mysterious Men in Black, always linked to supposed UFO sightings and investigations. They have become part of our popular culture, and yet there is growing support for the theory that MIB legend is part of a hugely complex web of deceit by the US government. Their aim, according to theorists, is not to persuade people that aliens don’t exist but to add another layer to the UFO folklore to distract from the real truth behind UFO sightings, that are all part of government conspiracies.
(Image: Courtsey Everett Collection / REX)
What’s the truth behind the 1995 alien autopsy video?
1995 promised to be a huge year for UFO enthusiasts, with the release of a video purporting to show a real-life alien autopsy. Over one billion people watched the shadowy 17 minute long video in which a non-human entity was dissected. The film’s producer Ray Santilli claimed it was original footage he found among 22 reels of film harboured by a retired military cameraman for over 40 years. In 2006, he admitted he had made the film with a model-maker, but insists it is an exact reconstruction of the film he saw, which had disintegrated so much it was unusable, apart from a few scenes used in the 1995 film. Whatever the truth, it doesn’t look like Santilli - the only person who can ever know – will tell us.
(Image: CarverMostardi / Alamy)
The severed feet of the northwest seaboard
The Salish Sea is a waterway that runs from British Columbia in Canada to the north of Washington State, USA. Between August 2007 and May 2014 over 10 dismembered feet – still in their socks and shows – have washed up somewhere along this stretch of sea. While no body can prove it, it is thought that they are the feet of drowned cadavers. Whose feet remains the question…
(Image: Andrea Conti / Shutterstock)
The Majestic 12
In the mid-1980s a series of astonishing documents, apparently leaked from the US government, were made public. They claimed that US President Harry Truman had set up ‘Operation Majestic 12’ - a 12-man committee ordered to work undercover and cover up the 'Roswell Incident’ (a supposed UFO-crash landing in 1947), utilising the technology that had fallen into US hands as a result, and to manage future extra-terrestrial engagement. While most are convinced it was all a hoax, theories remain as to why the US government went to such lengths to discredit the rumours, with some even suggesting it was to divert public attention form the real truths that could have come to light.
The CIA Kryptos Code
The sculpture ‘Kryptos’ stands at the centre of the CIA grounds at Langley, Virginia. Designed by Jim Sanborn it is adorned with four coded messages – each fiendishly difficult to break. Three have been decoded (though this took years instead of the weeks Sanborn predicted) but the fourth is yet to be cracked – a task made even more difficult by a number of deliberate typographical errors. Sanborn has set up an official website where possible solutions can be verified but for now even the world’s pre-eminent intelligence experts are confounded.
The Dancing Plague – did people really dance themselves to death?
In July 1518 a woman known as Frau Troffea took to the streets of Strasbourg and started to dance maniacally. A week later, she had been joined by 100 people and within a month there were four times as many who began to collapse from exhaustion – a large number died. Weirdly, there had been at least 10 comparable incidents documented since the 14th century, all of which noted that the participants seemed to be reluctant to dance or unable to control their affliction. Illness, mass hysteria and evil possession have all tried to explain the Dancing Plague away but the reality is we will never know what caused it.
The Flying Dutchman
The Flying Dutchman – a spectral ship fated it sail the seas for all eternity – has become rooted in naval folklore since it was first supposedly sighted in the 17th century. Many think it is simply a myth conjured up in the minds of old sea dogs, designed to both entertain and terrify. However, sightings as recently as the 20th century have persuaded others that the ghost ship really exists.
(Image: Mary Evans Picture Library)
The Mothman is one of the more famous urban myths, reworked and popularised in print and on screen. However, the story has its roots in a number of apparently genuine sightings reported over the course of a year in West Virginia, of a human-like huge-winged figure with red eyes. The sense of bewilderment and fear caused by The Mothman climaxed with a tragic accident that killed 46 people. Was it an instance of mass hysteria? Was it the work of a cruel practical joker? Or was there really a creature whose appearance forewarned of impending doom?
(Image: ©TopFoto / Fortean)
Beast of Bodmin Moor
Since 1983 there have been at least 60 reported sightings in the West Country of a large catlike animal, of a type not indigenous to the UK. Descriptions of the Beast tally strongly, but the official line is that no such creature exists, but a growing body of evidence - including unexplained livestock mutilations, photos and videos - would suggest there really is something out there. We just don’t know what.
The Valentich Incident
In October 1978 a would-be hot-shot pilot, Frederick Valentich, was on a training flight when he radioed Melbourne air traffic control to report an unidentified flying object (a literal UFO) speeding through the sky above him. Valentich was asked to identify the other aircraft and replied "It isn’t an aircraft. It is…" when all contact was lost. No trace of him has been found. Theories about what happened range from tragic accidents, suicide, alien abductions and UFO attacks, fuelled by a supressed investigation report. Ultimately however, we’ll never know what happened.
Can humans really spontaneously combust?
Spontaneous human combustion is when a person bursts into flames despite the apparent absence of an external heat source. Often used in film and fiction, many suggest that in reality victims succumb to something called the ‘wick effect’ (too gross to explain here). However, there is growing evidence to suggest that spontaneous human combustion can in fact occur with over 200 cases reported worldwide. It was even given as the cause of death by a highly experienced coroner at an inquest in Ireland in 2011. If it is real (and no one knows the answer to this), we also crucially don’t know HOW it happens.
(Image: ©1999 Credit Topham Picturepoint)
Why was Lee Harvey Oswald murdered?
In 1963 Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated the US President John F. Kennedy. Oswald was initially depicted as a lonely Communist sympathizer, but it is now widely accepted that he was part of a bigger conspiracy to kill the President. At the heart of this is the mysterious figure of Jack Ruby who shot Oswald soon after his arrest. Ruby’s links to organized crime have only fuelled the conspiracy-theory fire but no one knows why he did it for sure. Ruby himself even said: "Everything pertaining to what’s happening has never come to the surface… The people who had so much to gain, and had such ulterior motive for putting me in this position I’m in, will never let the true facts come above board to the world."
The Lost Cosmonauts – did Moscow cover up the deaths of numerous members of their space programme?
At the height of the Cold War everything between the USA and the Soviet Union was a battlefield – most famously the space race. While the USSR had been leading since 1957, America finally won when they put Neil Armstrong on the Moon in 1969. However, there have long been rumours that two earlier attempts by the Russians ended in tragedy and a government cover-up, started by a pair of Italian brothers who claim they listened in on extraordinary episodes including at least three occasions where they heard astronauts dying in space. With the lengths taken by both the White House and the Kremlin to preserve secrecy at the height of the Cold War we may never know the truth.