San Francisco Vigilance Committee

San Francisco Vigilance Committee
San Francisco Vigilance Committee
Was the San Francisco Vigilance Committee of 1856 an unselfish citizen effort to establish law and order or was it a cleverly disguised conspiracy to gain political power? Although opinions may differ, it appears that, after disbanding the committee, several of its members ran for office as Republicans rather than the party that created the Vigilance Committee to promote itself.

San Francisco can be seen as a lesson in what happens when people fail to perform their civic duties. Many tried “to get rich quick,” neglecting public affairs, including jury duty, so only those with an ulterior motive tended to serve on juries. For example, justice was often perverted when the only willing jurors were friends of the accused.

On the other hand, a case may be made that partisan politics was the fundamental motivating factor in San Francisco. With the Whigs defunct, Democrats divided over slavery, and Know-Nothings offensive to most voters (despite their having elected Governor J. Neely Johnson in 1855), a vacuum welcomed a new party, the Republicans. All that those with political ambitions needed was to find a cause, and the issue of law and order provided that.

Life was turbulent in San Francisco during the gold rush and early days of independence from Mexico. Without strong government, gangs roamed the streets, demanded free drinks, and abused the Latino community.

On 15 July 1849, when a bunch of ruffians launched a raid against the Chilean neighborhood, 230 men retaliated. They took the law into their own hands, formed a special police force, arrested the gang, elected two new judges, and appointed a new district attorney.

Two years later, after law and order was again neglected, 700 men banded together as the Vigilance Committee of 1851 to supplement local law enforcement. But, within a short time after the group disbanded, the situation returned to near anarchy. Arson, murder, and election fraud continued to go unpunished.

Two particular events sparked public concern. On 19 November 1855, a gambler, Charles Cora, shot and killed popular U.S. Marshal General William H. Richardson. Cora was apprehended but remained in jail pending trial.

Then, on 14 May 1856, San Francisco Supervisor James P. Casey, publisher of the San Francisco Sunday Times, shot and killed James King, noted banker and publisher of a rival newspaper, the Daily Evening Bulletin. Casey surrendered and sought protective custody in the county jail.

Mayor Van Ness asked a menacing crowd gathering outside the jail to disperse and ordered 300 armed volunteers, the Light Dragoons, the National Lancers, and the First California Guard to surround the area and protect Casey from the mob.

During this demonstration King’s bodyguards and some members of the 1851 committee, led by William T. Coleman, met secretly in the chambers of the Society of California Pioneers, forming the Vigilance Committee of 1856.

They required candidates to complete an application, to obtain the sponsorship of two members, to pay a fee from $1 to $20, to meet the approval of a Qualifications Committee, and to swear an oath of allegiance.

Many Catholics, who did not wish to join a secret society, swore a special oath not to take up arms against the committee, while 1,500 merchants and service providers as well as lawyers and clergymen joined. They used secret signs, grips, and passwords, responded to an alarm bell, and marched together waving banners.

For more than three months the committee enforced its brand of law and order. It set up court and maintained a jail in its downtown headquarters fortified with sandbags and two artillery pieces.

It tried and hanged four people, including Casey and Cora, contributed to the suicide of another, tried and incarcerated a state supreme court justice for stabbing one of its members, posted a $5,000 reward for the arrest of arsonists, and banished numerous rapists, thieves, abortionists, and ballot-box stuffers.

Casey and Cora hanged by San Francisco Vigilance Committee
Casey and Cora hanged by San Francisco Vigilance Committee

The 5,000-man army captured four city armories and a ship loaded with weapons from a U.S. arsenal, and boarded all vessels entering San Francisco Harbor, excluding 90 percent of prospective immigrants.

On 18 August 1856, the committee disbanded, opened its tastefully decorated headquarters to visitors, and concluded with an all-day parade through the streets of San Francisco. It returned all the arms it had taken from the city, county, and state, and on 3 November, Governor J. Neely Johnson lifted his insurrection proclamation.

The committee failed in its attempt to schedule a state constitutional convention and hold special county elections, but some of its members won public office as members of the new Republican Party in November 1856, ensuring their amnesty from prosecution.

Stamp Act

1765 One Penny Stamp
1765 One Penny Stamp
The Stamp Act was a tax on a variety of print material, legal documents, dice, and playing cards intended to raise an estimated £60,000 to pay the costs of housing British troops stationed in North America to provide for colonial defense.

George Grenville, First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer under King George III from 1763 until 1765, called for its enactment as part of a larger plan for more effectively managing Great Britain’s North American territories.

Grenville announced his intention to levy a stamp tax on the American colonies in March 1764 and indicated that they had one year to post their objections. Although some opposed the measure, Grenville did not expect any sort of widespread opposition to the tax.

Consequently, Parliament passed the measure with little debate or opposition on 22 March 1765, but the measure did not go into effect until 1 November 1765. Yet, from this innocuous beginning, the American colonists quickly interpreted Grenville’s call for a stamp tax as part of a vast conspiracy to deny the colonists their basic rights as Englishmen and to economically enslave them.

Two events led to the passage of the Stamp Act: the debt crisis caused by the Seven Years’ War and a Native American uprising in the Great Lakes region and Ohio River Valley led by an Ottawa chieftain named Pontiac.

The Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) was fought between Great Britain and France for control of North America; this war led to British domination in North America with the exception of New Spain—the territory west of the Mississippi River. The war left Britain with a large debt and a new North American empire to manage—both of which required additional revenues. After waging a long war against the French for control of the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, Britain had to face another crisis.

Chief Pontiac and his followers launched a series of strikes that led to the loss of almost every fort west of Niagara within a few weeks. The systematic Native American effort targeting British forts began tapering off in 1764, and hostilities formally ceased when Pontiac surrendered to the British in July 1766.

Pontiac’s rebellion highlighted the need for more effective management of the colonial settlements in America as well as the need to bolster colonial defense; the uprising also gave an added sense of urgency to Parliament’s need to secure additional revenue through the Stamp Act.

Grenville started to implement a comprehensive plan to address the emerging imperial crisis developing in America. To prevent future Native American uprisings, Grenville sought to adjust colonial boundaries in North America, which basically meant to separate the English colonists from Native American tribal lands.

In pursuit of this goal, the Grenville ministry implemented the Proclamation of 1763 and set the Appalachian Mountains as the western border of American settlement; the proclamation reserved the bulk of the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys as tribal lands for the Native Americans who inhabited the region.

Once the new borders were set, they would be enforced by the construction of a string of frontier forts that would house British troops, should there be another Indian uprising. The implementation of the Proclamation of 1763 necessitated the collection of additional revenues to pay for colonial defense. In the quest of such revenue, Grenville secured passage of the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act.

Many American colonists, however, did not regard Grenville’s agenda as an attempt to manage more effectively Britain’s new transatlantic empire; they viewed his efforts as part of a vast conspiracy to redefine the relationship between crown and colony to their disadvantage, by stripping away their basic rights as Englishmen.

The logic behind this fear of conspiracy stemmed from the simple reality that the taxes would have to be paid in specie (i.e., gold and silver coin). The problem for the colonists who had to pay the taxes related to the absence of specie in America—they did not have the means to pay the tax.

Yet, if they did not pay, they would be in violation of the law. Grenville made it clear he intended to enforce these measures and that all infractions would be tried in the vice-admiralty courts—a move that effectively denied those who violated the law a jury trial.

The simultaneous passage of a fourth measure, the Currency Act of 1764, fanned American fears of conspiracy because it mandated that private debts could no longer be paid with paper currency; such debts would also have to be paid in specie. The American colonists did not have enough coin to pay their taxes, let alone their private debts as well.

The combined effects of the Proclamation of 1763, the Sugar Act, the Currency Act, and the Stamp Act led many prominent American colonists to the conclusion that Grenville’s ministry sought to enslave them economically.

Grenville’s reliance on the vice-admiralty courts to prosecute violators convinced many Americans that they did not have any legal recourse to combat these measures; consequently, those who were adamantly opposed to Grenville’s agenda took extralegal (or illegal) action. In many respects, the Stamp Act represented the final straw, and widespread protests against the Stamp Act ensued.

In cities throughout the colonies, radical groups, led by men such as Samuel Adams of Massachusetts and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, organized mob activity that, through violence and intimidation, forced the appointed stamp distributors to resign before the 1 November 1765 enactment date. More moderate groups in America voiced their opposition in a more staid manner.

In October 1765, a group of colonists convened the Stamp Act Congress, which met in New York. Those who attended the congress sought to achieve the same goals as Adams and Lee, but without the threat of violence. The congress lasted just over two weeks and presented a list of fourteen grievances justifying the repeal of the Stamp Act.

The ninth grievance summed up the sentiments shared by both radicals and moderates: “That the Duties imposed by several late Acts of Parliament, from the peculiar Circumstances of these Colonies, will be extremely Burthensome and Grievous; and from the scarcity of Specie, the Payment of them absolutely impracticable.”

The widespread colonial protests against the Stamp Act that forced the stamp distributors to resign nullified the measure before it actually went into effect. On 18 March 1766, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, essentially acknowledging the state of affairs in America.

The damage, however, was already done: the Stamp Act protests set the tone for the relationship between crown and colony until the beginning of the War for American Independence, as radical groups intensified their opposition toward Parliament and moderates sought to heal the widening rift.

Zimmermann Telegram

Zimmermann Telegram
Zimmermann Telegram

In the winter of 1916–1917 the United States was still officially neutral in Europe’s Great War, but the situation was changing. The German foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, sent a telegram effectively proposing an alliance with Mexico in case the United States entered World War I.

The turning over of the Zimmermann telegram to the U.S. government by the British government in February dramatically changed the course of World War I. The telegram would be one of the last factors leading the United States to enter the war.

Since its release to the U.S. government the document has on occasion been the subject of questions as to how it came into the British government’s possession, and why officials took so long after receiving it to turn it over to the United States. The popular suspicion is that the Zimmermann telegram was deliberately forged, and was part of a conspiracy to force the United States to enter the war.

Barbara Tuchman laid out what has become the traditional interpretation in her book on the subject. German concerns over the ability to maintain the neutral status of the United States and a belief that Britain would be forced out of the war quickly if restrictions were lifted on its submarine commanders’ ability to sink ships led the German imperial government to decide to take a gamble. It chose to return to unrestricted submarine warfare from 1 February 1917, even though it might bring the United States into the war.

In order to deal with the potential U.S. involvement in the war the German government convinced itself that potential German allies to the south and west could divert U.S. attention from the continent. The idea would be to convince Mexico, and hopefully Japan, to go to war with the United States and keep it occupied in its own backyard.

The history of U.S.–Mexican relations at the time gave the Germans reason to hope. In 1836 Texas gained its independence from Mexico and was then annexed by the United States in 1845.

Then in 1848 the United States gained possession of California and the western United States south of Oregon and west of Texas after defeating Mexico in the Mexican American War (1846–1848). More recently the United States had sent troops into Mexico in 1914 to occupy Vera Cruz and then again in 1916 to deal with bandits.

The German foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, sent a telegram on 16 January 1917 to the German ambassador to the United States for forwarding to the German ambassador in Mexico.

It explained the German position; although the message espoused a German desire to maintain U.S. neutrality during the Great War, if this failed it proposed as an alternative that Mexico assault the United States with German assistance.

In exchange for Mexican cooperation they would receive German financial assistance and the return of territories of the American southwest that had been lost: “Mexico is to re-conquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona” (Tuchman, 146).

The telegram was intercepted by the British and decoded over the next few weeks. When the document was finished the British had a tool to use to convince the United States of its need to enter the war, but they first had to hide the evidence of how they came into possession of the document, causing a delay in its transmission to the U.S. government.

The British need for security of their code-breaking operations led to a desire to find a second source; that source was a copy of the telegram sent from Washington to Mexico, which contained subtle but significant differences from the one to Washington the British were already working on.

On 24 February Walter Page, the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, telegraphed the contents of the telegram to Washington. He also sent along an explanation of the British delay in turning over the information to the United States, namely their desire to protect their sources (Hendrick, 334).

The document became public on 1 March, after which a public uproar ensued with some Americans claiming the document was a fraud. They were convinced that the Allies, and particularly the British government, lied to the United States in order to convince the Americans to support them during the Great War.

This was a response to a traditional U.S. concern about the British dating back to the American Revolution, an idea that would after World War I be replaced by the “special relationship.” The popular suspicion was that the telegram was not sent by the Germans but was the creation of British intelligence who used it to convince Americans of the immediate German threat to the United States.

This theory withered away quickly on 2 March when Zimmermann admitted having sent the telegram. Even with this, America’s entrance into the war was not immediate, as Wilson did not ask Congress for a declaration of war against Germany until 2 April and it was not passed by Congress until 6 April.

More recently it has been proposed that the Zimmermann telegram and the Balfour declaration were tied together. In a letter of 2 November 1917 British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour stated the government’s support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine; this has since come to be known as the Balfour declaration. John Cornelius has argued that the declaration was the price for the un-encoded text of the Zimmermann telegram.

He argued that it was unlikely that the British were capable of breaking the German diplomatic code (or else the Germans would not have used it), and thus the information about the contents must have come from another source. He argued that Zionists in Germany worked with Zionists in Britain to make a deal in which the British would get the text of the telegram in exchange for the acknowledgment of their rights in Palestine.

This theory assumes that since the Germans used a code they believed unbroken, it must have been unbroken, and thus the British needed help from German Zionists to get the contents of the telegram. British success in breaking the German Enigma code in World War II suggests the weakness of this logic. It is also based on a timetable of events that though interwoven, does not show any direct connection between the actions.

The ultimate impact of the Zimmermann telegram is unknown. As Tuchman noted, it was likely that at some point Germany would push the United States into the war. And while the theory of a relationship between the Zimmermann telegram and the Balfour declaration is potentially interesting for its impact in the Middle East, the theory does not answer as many of the questions about either document as the proponents believe.

John Peter Zenger

John Peter Zenger
John Peter Zenger trial

John Zenger (1680–1746), a German-born printer working in New York City, found himself at the center of a political brawl in 1732 by printing a letter from New York Supreme Court chief justice Lewis Morris.

The letter was a minority opinion in the case of Governor William Cosby against respected and elderly statesman Rip Van Dam, who had acted as governor for almost a year awaiting Cosby’s arrival from England to begin his term.

Cosby insisted on receiving his salary for that time, and Van Dam refused. Since no court in New York would yield the decision Cosby wanted, he constructed a “Court of Exchequer” from the colony’s Supreme Court, and instructed it to decide his case without a jury.

Although two of the judges found for Cosby, under intense pressure, the third, Lewis Morris, dissented and, after being replaced by Cosby, circulated his opinion in the form of a pamphlet printed by Zenger.

Although Zenger knew that printers were held responsible for their work, his newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal, continued to publish songs, cartoons, and articles critical of Cosby and his activities, including taking money from the New York Assembly and violating the colony’s laws by attempting to rig an election for assemblymen against Lewis Morris.

A rival paper, the New York Gazette, controlled by Cosby’s supporter, Francis Harison, rebutted these charges as libelous and untrue. Cosby pressured the Supreme Court to get an indictment against Zenger as a libeler, but two grand juries, noting that Zenger had not written the material, refused to bring charges.

Frustrated, the governor entered into a conspiracy to bring down Zenger, ordering a Supreme Court bench warrant issued on information filed by his attorney general, Richard Bradley.

Unable to pay the £800 bail, Zenger remained under arrest for eight months in the Old City Jail as an object of much sympathy and support, much of it stirred by his wife’s continuing publication of the Journal.

The case finally came to trial in August 1735. The governor intended to have the case tried by his handpicked Supreme Court justices Delancey and Philipps alone, but Zenger’s lawyers objected successfully.

Cosby and his conspirators then attempted to select a jury pool composed of Cosby’s employees and supporters, but Judge Delancey, horrified at this transparent manipulation of the system, refused to comply. Cosby then attempted to disbar Zenger’s attorneys, but was thwarted when the famous Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton agreed to act on Zenger’s behalf.

Prosecuted by Attorney General Bradley, who accused Zenger of seditious libel against Governor Cosby, the printer adopted a unique defense at Hamilton’s insistence: Zenger would not contest the fact that he printed the materials, but would claim that it could not be libel because they were true.

Bradley pointed out that the libel law of New York did not recognize truth as a defense against a charge of libel, but Hamilton countered with the argument that the law ought to allow the complaints of men who had been oppressed or wronged to be aired publicly. Although this had no legal support in the colony, Hamilton could turn to the jury and ask for nullification of an unjust statute.

In his closing remarks, Hamilton spoke not of Zenger as an individual, but as the representative of the press, and asked them to vote in favor of a free press unrestricted by arbitrary government. Delancey instructed the jury to find Zenger guilty, which, under the law, he was, but they returned with a “not guilty” verdict.

This single nullification did not change New York law, but it sent a clear message that the people of the colony, and, by extension, those of the other British colonies in the Americas, would not tolerate unjust prosecutions by corrupt government, and that they valued an independent press in which to circulate their views.

Despite the powerful conspiracy brought to bear by Cosby, and his misuse of the judicial and electoral system, Zenger and his case triumphed to become a bulwark against other conspiracies and restrictions on journalism.



On 31 December 1967, at a party hosted by Abbie and Anita Hoffman and attended by Jerry Rubin, Nancy Kurshan, and Paul Krassner, the movement known as Yippie!—the Youth International Party (YIP)—was born.

Guided by Hoffman and Rubin, the clown-princes of “the Movement” during the Vietnam era, the Yippies attempted, through myth, media savvy, and guerrilla theater to bind the hippie counterculture and the politicized New Left into a powerful youth movement capable of creating an alternative U.S. society.

By building on their earlier media attention-grabbing protest events, such as the August 1967 episode of money throwing and burning at the New York Stock Exchange and the October 1967 National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam march on the Pentagon where the duo took part in an attempted exorcism and levitation of the building, Hoffman and Rubin attempted to use the popular press to publicize YIP and garner support for their ideological views.

The Yippies were one of a number of late 1960s countercultural movements who not only viewed the establishment as amounting to a conspiracy, but also self-consciously styled themselves as a counterconspiracy.

The Yippies’ first major media event took place on 27 February 1968, when members of the group “raided” the campus of the State University of New York (SUNY)–Stoney Brook mimicking a recent on-campus drug-bust.

Following this action, on 22 March 1968, the Youth International Party held a “Yip-In” at New York City’s Grand Central Station. Six thousand potential Yippies congregated amidst incense and balloons—so did officers of the New York Police Department.

When a demonstrator removed the hands from a large clock, the police attacked, making fifty arrests and throwing one demonstrator through a plate glass door. This melee, however, was only a prelude to the major summer event the Yippies had planned—the Festival of Life.

Coinciding with the August 1968 Democratic National Convention (DNC), the Yippie Festival of Life sought to bring tens of thousands of people to Chicago to launch a demonstration that would end the war in Vietnam and usher in a new, free society.

The Yippies aimed to counterpose what they saw as the political “convention of death,” and they planned to include a huge rock-folk festival, numerous theater performances, educational workshops, and a “constitutional convention.”

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who had promised to bring local, state, and federal powers to bear against anyone attempting to disrupt the convention, thwarted YIP efforts at achieving the full aims of the festival. Instead, Daley’s tactics forced confrontations between his police force and those who had come to protest the DNC.

Despite repressive government tactics, the Yippies succeeded in nominating a pig, “Pigasus,” for president, providing a brief rock concert, causing an LSD scare by threatening to lace the Chicago water supply with the drug, and providing movement workshops on guerrilla theater and protest maneuvers.

The events surrounding the convention drew to a climax when, on the night of 29 August, a “police riot” broke out when Daley’s lawmen violently assaulted protesters, journalists, and bystanders alike. Hoffman and Rubin would later be indicted on conspiracy charges, for their activities during the convention, as part of the Chicago 7 trial.

The Yippies continued to garner media attention within and outside the Movement for the remainder of the 1960s and into the 1970s. At the 1972 Democratic National Convention, held in Miami Beach, Florida, the younger faction of the Youth International Party, the “Zippies” (or Zeitgeist International Party) broke with the older YIP members.

Hoffman and Rubin, who conditionally supported the peace platform of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, were seen as establishment “sell-outs” by the younger YIP faction, whereas the older Yippies objected to the Zippies’ outrageous street comedy, which they viewed as overly cruel satire.

As the power and momentum of the Movement declined, so did the visibility of the Yippies. Beginning in the 1970s, YIP published the Yipster Times (later renamed Overthrow) and the Youth International Party Line or YIPL (later known as TAP [Technological American Party or Technological Assistance Program]) magazine.

By the 1980s, the Yippies were best known for their “smoke-ins” (which developed into annual “pot parades” promoting the legalization of marijuana), crank phone call wars with Yippie enemies, and maintenance of their protest and demonstration staging point, the Yippie loft—an apartment in New York City’s East Village that has served as the group’s headquarters since 1973.

Yellow Journalism

Yellow Journalism
Yellow Journalism

A style of sensationalist newspaper writing that emerged in the late nineteenth century, “yellow journalism” has been accused, at best, of conspiracy-minded scaremongering and, at worst, of actively fabricating stories and conspiring behind the scenes to bring about historical events. Known by its proponents as “the journalism that acts” (Milton, xiii), it is a style of biased reporting designed to inspire specific opinions of its readership.

This style makes use of multicolumn headlines, a wide variety of sensational subject matter, frequent, and some say excessive, use of illustrations of all sorts, intriguing and novel layouts, the use of anonymous sources, and a focus on self-promotion.

The term comes from the newspaper publicity wars of the late 1800s, when publisher William Randolph Hearst hired artist R. F. Outcault away from the New York World to work for his newspaper, the New York Journal.

Hearst was interested in presenting one of Outcault’s newest creations, a comic strip named Hogan’s Alley. The strip featured what was to be Outcault’s most famous creation, a small Chinese boy who wore a giant shirt that reached from his neck to his toes.

When color became available, this boy’s shirt was colored yellow, and the strip became colloquially known as “The Yellow Kid.” Following a fight over the character and the profits his immense readership would bring, eventually both papers won the right to print comics featuring him.

The use of the color yellow, a novelty at the time, came to symbolize a new movement in journalism, namely a focus upon style and bold effects that often played fast and loose with the truth to attract readers.

The most famous example of yellow journalism is an alleged cable sent by Hearst. Reporter Richard Harding Davis and artist Frederic Remington were sent by Hearst to Cuba to report on conditions there in the winter of 1896–1897.

The expected revolution against the ruling colonial government of Spain was not visible in Havana, and Remington is said to have told Hearst, “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

In reply, Hearst is said to have ordered, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” Although Hearst denied the story, and no evidence of the telegrams has ever been found, the re-creation of the incident within Orson Welles’s epic Citizen Kane has only lent credence to the oft-told tale.

It is entirely possible, however, that the story that best defined the term “yellow journalism” is also the finest example of the form, as James Creelman, who broke the story, did little to offer any evidence or proof of his claims concerning Hearst, and in decrying the lack of responsible reporting of the Spanish-American War may have used the very techniques he was attempting to describe to make his point.

It is important to note, however, that Creelman was known to exaggerate in his stories, and had in fact previously been investigated by the U.S. minister to Japan, Edwin Dun, for a report to the U.S. State Department concerning his work. Conspiracies were often a feature within his prose, involving individuals at the highest level of the U.S. government.

Hearst, on the other hand, only argued against the rumor on occasion, and may have preferred the circulation of the telegram story, which he could offer arguments against, as a defense against inquiry into his involvement in events leading up to the bombing of the USS Maine.

If Hearst had truly been involved in either of these attacks, it would be in his best interest to encourage investigation into events, such as the purported telegraphic exchange, that he could more easily deny.

Today the term “yellow journalism” is normally used to refer to a lack of ethical behavior on the part of journalists and commentators, whether it is by manufacturing sources and stories, or by tricking their sources into revealing far more of a story than they intended to in the first place.



In the 1990s computer analysts began to warn that the date change from 1999 to 2000 at the millennium could cause some computer systems to malfunction. This potential problem, which soon become known as the Y2K (Year 2000) bug, attracted much media attention and a good deal of conspiracy speculation.

Many computer operating systems designed in the 1970s and 1980s had an internal date clock that only used two digits, and so could only go as far as 1999. Industry analysts feared that some computers would not recognize the year with the rollover from 1999 to 2000, and would either produce errors (mistakenly assuming the date to be 1900), or would shut down altogether.

The Y2K “bug” was therefore not a computer virus as such, but a design flaw that hadn’t been anticipated in the early years of software development. Governments and businesses around the world spent huge sums of money in the years leading up to the millennium ensuring that their computer systems would be Y2K-compliant; it is estimated that the U.S. government spent $8.5 billion, and U.S. business around $100 billion.

Conspiracy theories took one of two main forms. On the one hand, many on the religious far right who were already concerned about the apocalyptic connotations of the millennium warned that the global meltdown of computer systems caused by the Y2K bug would result in civil mayhem, in turn provoking the U.S. government to declare martial law, and for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to initiate rumored plans for a complete erosion of citizen rights with the imposition of the socalled New World Order.

One posting to the Internet newsgroup alt.conspiracy in 1997, for example, warned, “In the year 2000, the United States Government, NATO and its armed forces will cease to exist, as will most of the organized economy, when all of the needed mainframe computers (and a good many others in consequence) become useless.”

The writer went on to predict that “a third to two thirds of the population of Europe and the United States will die of thirst, starvation and disease, anarchy and crime” (Wilson).

These fearful scenarios tapped into the existing apocalyptic, survivalist mentality, and a small but committed number of Americans stock-piled food and took to their basements or their cabins in the woods in the run-up to the year 2000.

The other form that conspiracy theories took was a cynical—some might say clear-sighted—dismissal of the Y2K problem as a panic promoted by the computer industry (and whipped up by the media and a compliant government) in order to fool everyone into spending a fortune on unnecessary technical fixes. This theory was circulated a good deal on the Internet, but was only held by a minority.

However, many more people began to question the scale of the reported problem and the cost of fixing it, and many urban legends and rumors muddied the waters further (one common rumor, for example, suggested that most video recorders would not recognize the date change, but would work properly if set to 1972, a year that corresponded in day/date to 2000, a fact that the manufacturers were apparently deliberately keeping quiet; unfortunately, the warning about the malfunction, the proposed quick fix, and the hint of a conspiracy of silence by the manufacturers were all off the mark).

According to an opinion poll reported in the Wall Street Journal on 7 September 1999, most Americans did not believe that the Y2K bug was deliberately created (as some of the far right claimed), but some 15 percent of Americans believed that “a person and/or company is hiding the solution to the Y2K bug.” For those holding this belief, 60 percent named Microsoft as the guilty party, while most of the rest blamed the government.

In the end, of course, very little happened at the millennium. Some power-generating companies in the United States, for example, reported that their computer systems had briefly malfunctioned, but then the date was quickly reset and the systems were restored; and there were other minor, temporary glitches (for instance, some slot machines at a Delaware race track shut down, but the problem was quickly fixed [CNN]).

It became apparent very soon that there was to be no global computer systems crash, although some commentators—in the tradition of endlessly deferred millennial warnings—pointed out that the problem would not kick in until the return to work after the long bank holiday, and then that the true millennium would not begin until 2001.

Although the first group of conspiracy theorists outlined above had little to say in the wake of the nonevents of 1 January 2000, some of the second group continued to question whether the threat had been unnecessarily exaggerated. The computer industry and the U.S. government, however, insisted that disaster had been avoided only because the vast sums of money had been well spent on curing the problem in advance.

As the sociologist Anthony Giddens has argued, in issuing warnings about potential disaster scenarios (the AIDS epidemic and mad cow disease are the obvious examples) the authorities are in a no-win situation: either they downplay the potential danger, but then if something bad does happen they will be accused of a cover-up; or they give full credence to the scientific predictions, but, because people change their behavior accordingly and the disaster is averted, they are vulnerable to accusations that the problem was deliberately exaggerated in the first place.

White Slave Trade

During the Great White Slavery Scare of 1907–1914, the U.S. public devoured a flood of speeches, pamphlets, magazine articles, plays, novels, books, and films about the so-called white slave traffic. These sensational materials, which included the first full-length feature film, spread the alarming message that a secret vice syndicate was reaping huge profits through forced prostitution.

Sixty thousand innocent women a year, it was said, were held as sex slaves by means of force, trickery, seduction, drugging, debt peonage, social shame, and venereal disease. The belief in white slavery was widespread: cities formed investigative commissions and Congress passed laws (notably the Mann Act of 1910).

Historians doubt that white slavery existed, yet the campaign to abolish it was arguably one of the most important moral crusades of the Progressive Era. The scare waned when evidence repeatedly failed to emerge and World War I diverted attention to other threats, but remnants of white slavery lore have survived the century.

The image of the prostitute as an innocent white slave began in Europe, where by the 1880s the alarm was raised that white, European women who ventured abroad—sometimes to work as prostitutes—were being captured for sexual exploitation by colonial subjects. In the United States, similarly, white slavery fears took hold in reaction to stepped-up immigration and women’s expanding opportunities and increasing mobility.

The term “white slavery” implies that the victims are racially distinct; and indeed, the earliest U.S. white slavery fears expressed a racist, nativist fear of foreign infiltration, particularly by Jews and southern Europeans, and the first white slavery laws were immigration controls.

But the scare reached its peak when a U.S. version of white slavery evolved. Drawing on the national shame and horror over black chattel slavery, white slavery writings—which were clearly intended for a white consumer—exploited the term’s implication that the enslavement of whites is especially evil.

Using proto-abolitionist rhetoric to call for the abolition of this heinous, “blacker” form of slavery, white slavery writers suggested that to be roused to moral indignation on the part of these poor women—who might, after all, be one’s “own” sister or daughter—was tantamount to joining an abolitionist crusade.

U.S. white slavery writing also incorporated the central reformist impulse of the Progressive Era: to save democracy from erosion by big business. Starting in 1907, when McClure’s magazine published a serial exposé of the vice business in Chicago, the U.S. public got a complex version of white slavery in which the traffickers included harmless-looking U.S. citizens and the crime syndicate was a nationwide industry working hand in hand with foreign traffickers and corrupt officials.

The white slavery business, with its network of related enterprises—liquor and drugs, abortionists, procurers, beauticians, government infiltrators—was a sinister reflection of the vertically integrated corporations and monopolies, the trusts and syndicates, that were being exposed and broken up by Progressive Era reform efforts.

Other major cities published similar pieces on bigcity vice and the growing public outcry provoked the Senate to extend government’s power to bar and deport aliens suspected of trafficking, while the 1910 Mann Act (aka the White Slave Traffic Act) made it a felony to “aid, entice or force a woman to cross state lines for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.”

Aside from these laws and some stepped-up brothel-raiding, the socalled Great War on White Slavery involved very little in the way of actual reform. The scare probably brought increased financial and moral support to social welfare work among working-class women and prostitutes: Jane Addams, for example, used white slavery rhetoric to draw attention to the struggles and worthiness of the women she served.

But for the most part, the scare was a textual and representational phenomenon made possible by the boom in urban populations consuming popular media and fueled by competition for that market as much as by the generally reformist climate of the time.

The White Slavery Genre

The set piece of white slavery collections was the white slave narrative, which drew on the conventions of melodrama to portray a sunny, innocent girlhood brutally severed by the evil traffickers. The heroic exploits of lawmen were also featured; these tales of investigation, rescue, and punishment, which often incorporated criminals’ sensational confessions, are related to the detective story and to the earlier “mysteries and miseries of the city” genre, which offered shocking glimpses of the exotic degradations of the urban poor.

In lawmens’ narratives, undercover heroes adopted elaborate concealments and disguises, penetrating the secret criminal enterprise by means of an equally conspiratorial law enforcement network.

The great popularity of white slavery materials was clearly due to their titillating entertainment value. But at the same time, their content—particularly their disturbing depictions of a ubiquitous conspiracy—reflected and grappled with unsettling social changes.

Prostitution had boomed as the cities grew, and criminalization of the sex trade had created vice districts and driven prostitutes onto the streets, forcing residents to wonder where all these young, white prostitutes came from, and where they ended up. And where were the increasing numbers of daughters and sisters who were leaving towns and families for big city life, never to be heard from again?

Answering these unsettling questions, the white slavery conspiracy theory gave assurances that prostitution was never freely entered into by anyone resembling a middle-class white woman and that prostitutes never reemerged into mainstream society (the white slave nearly always ends up dead).

The conspiracy theory foreclosed on the perceived threat to family life posed by a booming market economy that offered women increased independence by depicting women as doomed without the protective agency of the family.

Portrayals of secret white slavery syndicates transposed anxiety about big business into a melodrama with clear moral demarcations. Progressive Era campaigns to regulate business and break up trusts and monopolies were often set in motion by exposés uncovering the secret machinations and tyrannical reach of corporate barons like Rockefeller.

White slavery conspiracy depictions, similarly, portrayed a consolidation of power in the hands of coercive economic agents, with resulting corrosion of democratic institutions, families, and even individual self-determination. In white slavery materials, however, readers were given a sense of empowerment against such vast forces.

Enabled to see through the veil of secrecy and to learn how to protect women, and privileged to vicariously take part in brothel raids, the consumers of white slavery materials could experience themselves as moral agents with a clear position and purpose.

The scare peaked during a period of significant demographic shifts when urban growth, spurred by booming industry and commerce, coincided with the effects of vastly increased immigration. Geographical, national, ethnic, racial, and social boundaries were in flux.

White slavery writings reflected the fear of corrupting alien presences whose foreign ways—not least their foreign languages—made them seem sinister and mysterious. Weakened social boundaries were reinstated in white slavery writings’ demarcation between “us” and “them,” while cultural integrity was boiled down to a contest over woman as the repository of cultural stability and familial and social identity.

Conspiratorial Sex Trafficking since 1980

In recent decades, sex trafficking media stories and reform campaigns have reemerged. That this contemporary fear over international “trafficking in persons” coincides with stepped-up globalization lends additional plausibility to the hypothesis that sex slavery conspiracy theories can reflect anxieties caused by weakened geographic and demographic boundaries.

A growing number of international and domestic organizations, campaigns, and legislative reforms seek to uncover and punish those who use deception and force to coerce women into sex work. The Progressive Era fear of corrupting foreign infiltration is echoed in depictions of the foreign traffickers as gangs linked up with crooked foreign governments.

The U.S. media is giving increasing coverage to tell-all exposés and accounts of brothel raids, which sometimes closely resemble Progressive Era materials—except that the imported female “sex slaves” are usually not white, but Asian or Latin American women presented as vulnerable and helpless (i.e., innocent) due to their poverty.

In media stories and in reports generated by reform organizations, prostitution is foregrounded over other kinds of labor exploitation, and women migrants are rarely acknowledged to be knowingly entering prostitution.

XYZ Affair

XYZ Affair
XYZ Affair

The XYZ affair is a name given to a series of events involving French and U.S. relations during the latter half of the 1790s. In an attempt to settle disputes between the two countries arising from French raids on U.S. shipping and outstanding debts owed by the United States to France from the American Revolution, newly elected President John Adams sent a committee of three men—Charles Cotesworth Pinkney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry—to negotiate a peaceful settlement with France.

Once there, however, the American emissaries found that the French minister of foreign relations, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, would not meet with them directly. Instead he sent John Conrad Hottinguer, Pierre Bellamy, and Lucien Hauteval as his agents to negotiate what amounted to a bribe before any formal negotiations could begin.

Rather than agree to pay almost $250,000 just to meet with Talleyrand, the commission wrote back to Adams describing their reception. When Adams made these dispatches public, he replaced the names of Talleyrand’s agents with the code names of X, Y, and Z.

The Federalist Party, in moves largely orchestrated by Alexander Hamilton, was able to use these events to turn a majority of U.S. citizens against the French and the francophile Jeffersonian Republicans at home.

In fact, most of the real impact of the XYZ affair was seen in the domestic politics back in the United States, as it provided an excellent tool for the pro-British Federalists to articulate and support their anxiety about France and cast it as a specific threat to the United States through tales of French intrigue and internal spies conspiring to topple the U.S. government.

The Republicans also saw the XYZ affair through the lens of conspiracy theory as they interpreted the actions of Adams and other Federalists in response to these events as a subterfuge to reinforce U.S. ties, both political and economic, to Britain.

Whatever international repercussions followed from the XYZ affair, they paled in comparison to the significance of the domestic struggles between the Republicans and Federalists as conspiracy theory followed counterconspiracy theory.

As the commission broke up over internal disagreement—Gerry remaining to attempt an amicable settlement, Marshall returning to the United States to a hero’s welcome, and Pinckney taking a sick daughter to the south of France to recuperateinternal disagreements back in the United States began to boil over.

The Federalists demanded that Adams declare war immediately and passed legislation readying the country for that war by setting up a new cabinet position of the secretary of the navy and establishing funds for a new naval force. The Jeffersonian Republicans instead insisted on peaceful negotiation and saw the Federalist activities as francophobic warmongering.

In order to support their side, Federalists such as Robert Goodloe Harper from South Carolina and Timothy Dwight from Boston promoted anti-France political paranoia by detailing various French-supported conspiracies against the United States.

Harper suggested that the French and “internal agents” sympathetic to the Jacobin cause—read Republicans—were fostering an uprising of southern blacks by spreading French revolutionary ideas among slaves and that France itself would launch an attack on the southern states from Saint Domingue in the Caribbean.

Dwight, a vehement Federalist minister, on 9 May 1798 gave a sermon about a secret offshoot of Freemasonry—the Society of the Illuminati—that had already invaded the United States secretly and whose agents were hiding among the U.S. populace, waiting for a chance to attack from within.

These are only two examples of many such conspiracy theories deployed by Federalists in an attempt to convince Americans of the danger of France. Their tactics worked well enough to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 as an attempt to regulate and control “enemies” to the United States, both internal and external.

Republicans also attempted to point out conspiratorial threats in order to win political points for their agenda. Republican newspaper editors such as Benjamin Franklin Bache and Albert Gallatin used their papers to promote conspiracy theories that cast the Federalists in power as warmongers who wanted to go to war with France only in order to strengthen political and trade ties with Britain.

They even went so far as to suggest that Federalists wanted to reunify with England and were using this diplomatic crisis as an excuse to open the door for a British invasion.

The political crisis brought on by the XYZ affair was not settled until 1800 when the United States and France signed the Treaty of Mortefontaine that reestablished the grounds for commercial trade between the two nations. Through the excesses of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Federalists finally lost favor with the American public and Adams lost his second bid for the White House to Thomas Jefferson.

The X-Files

The X-Files
The X-Files

The X-Files is a long-running television series, renowned for its atmosphere of suspicion and convoluted conspiracies. It was created by Chris Carter, a former writer and editor (of the magazine Surfing).

It premiered on the Fox Network in the United States in September 1993, starring David Duchovny as Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agent Fox Mulder, and Gillian Anderson as Dr. Dana Scully, his partner. Though it gained little acclaim early in its run, this moody, visually stunning “quality TV” series went on to become first a cult hit and then a popular success, eventually making the top twenty in the Nielsen ratings.

In a self-congratulatory but essentially accurate observation, Carter has acknowledged that “the show’s original spirit has become kind of the spirit of the country— if not the world” (qtd. in Knight, 54). This spirit is concerned with conspiracy theory, paranoia, and the paranormal.

The X-Files generated a wide variety of spin-off texts—including novels, official and unofficial guide books, an official magazine, and, of course, academic examinations of the series—not to mention a wide variety of X-Files merchandise. Hundreds of fan websites on the Internet have been devoted to the show, and its fans—who came to call themselves X-Philes—are among the most obsessed in all of popular culture.

Its complex story lines, composed of both stand-alone “monster of the week” episodes and segments that are part of a multi-season narrative arc known as the X-Files “mythology,” have unfolded in more than two hundred episodes over nine series, and (to date) one feature film, X-Files: Fight the Future (1998). Over its run, the show has become increasingly self-referential and intertextual, offering hilarious spoofs of its own conventions and sending up other media genres.

With Duchovny’s limited participation in the 2000–2001 season (his last on the show), the series experienced for the first time significant cast changes (Robert Patrick as Agent John Doggett became Scully’s new partner). By general critical consensus the series began to decline. Many commentators even began to question the rationale (other than economic) for its continuance.

The degree to which The X-Files became part of our cultural vocabulary in the 1990s and the first years of the twenty-first century can be demonstrated by an exchange from a first-season episode of the WB series Angel in which Kendrick, an obviously sexist male detective, hassles female detective Kate Lockley (Elizabeth Rohm), who has come to believe in the reality of vampires.

Although Kendrick does not seem to get the basic premise, the culture at large certainly did, and to “Scully” someone came to mean to doubt his or her questionable ideas—especially conspiracy theories.

Mulder was open-minded about all sorts of paranormal possibilities, especially UFOs and alien abduction—had he not watched his own sister be abducted when he was twelve years old? Scully, however, was the ever-questioning, scientifically objective medical doctor assigned to partner with (and rein in) Mulder in his investigation of the X-Files, those aberrant FBI cases that do not lend themselves to normal forensic investigation.

“The Kennedy assassination, MIA’s, radiation experiments on terminal patients, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Roswell, the Tuskegee experiments—where will it end?” Mulder asks his informant Deep Throat. For the critic Allison Graham, The X-Files is “television’s fin de siècle compendium of conspiracy theories” (Graham, 56), and is the apotheosis of U.S. conspiratorial thinking stretching back to the 1960s.

Likening Scully and Mulder to Woodward and Bernstein, she notes that Mulder’s sister had been snatched by aliens while they were watching the Watergate hearings on television. (Not surprisingly, Chris Carter has called Watergate “the most formative event of my youth” [qtd. in Graham, 56], and has spoken too of the strong influence of Harvard psychologist John Mack’s controversial Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens.)

Driven by its “perpetual motion of suspicion” (Knight, 28), The X-Files has contemplated much worse than mere political conspiracy. We learn in the mythology episodes that an international consortium (“The Syndicate”) involving mysterious, powerful men meeting in drawing rooms in London and New York, working in cooperation with scientists from the Axis Powers supplied through Operation Paperclip, have known since the crash of a UFO at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 of a coming alien invasion.

Over the years conscientious viewers have very gradually come to realize that The Syndicate has been preparing for the end, bargaining for a delay so that they might, as a kind of peace overture to the invaders, offer them genetically engineered human-alien hybrids, purportedly as slaves for the powerful and ancient conquerors and (in secret) to prepare a cure, a serum, that would prevent their own colonization by the pathogenic Black Oil.

They had long ago surrendered their own loved ones—wives, children (including Mulder’s sister)—as hostages, in return for their own survival of the impending “viral holocaust.” “Survival,” the Well Manicured Man tells Mulder in the X-Files movie, “is the ultimate ideology.”

The evil but compelling Cigarette Smoking Man (CSM)—Mulder calls him “Cancer Man”—one of the series’ most interesting creations, serves, it seems, as The Syndicate’s chief enforcer, one of them but working at their behest, though always putting his self-interest first. In the fourth-season episode “Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man,” we learn (or do we?) that his involvement in conspiracy is not limited to covering up the coming alien invasion.

CSM assassinated both JFK and Martin Luther King, fixed the 1980 United States Olympic ice hockey upset of the Soviet Union, prevented the Buffalo Bills from ever winning the Super Bowl, and talks regularly on the phone with Saddam Hussein.... But then again we are not certain of the validity of any of these “facts,” which are buried two or three levels deep in the narrative, and CSM himself, it turns out, is a failed writer of bad Robert Ludlum–ish fiction.

In “José Chung’s From Outer Space” (season 3), one of the series’ most masterful episodes, Scully completes her narration of the events to an author who is completing the “non-fiction science fiction” book of the title and then admits that it “probably doesn’t have the sense of closure you want, but it has more than our other cases”—a very self-conscious allusion to/defense of the often-complained-about tendency of Mulder’s and Scully’s cases (and every X-Files episode) to end enigmatically and without full resolution.

It was probably inevitable in the climate of post-modernism that a television series so focused on conspiracy would itself generate paranoid criticism. Christy Burns, drawing on Horkheimer and Adorno, suggests that this “very postmodern show” might be considered part of “a grand governmental conspiracy to ‘keep the whole thing together,’ meaning capitalism and its mass suppression”.

The sealing off of the eyes of the Alien Rebels in the series, she suggests, “pokes fun at the fantasy that television might, like the black oil, sneak in through our eyes and ‘infect’ us with alien cultural influences”.

Although making “visible the buried social implications of centrist politics”, the writers and producers of The X-Files, Burns proposes, have a more cynical secret agenda in mind: “step[ping] beyond the temptation simply to be noiresque and nihilistic, they realize their own roles as history bringers, via television, through which they may—wittingly or not—participate in yet another conspiracy: that of draining the agency out of the American masses”. Adrienne McLean, too, finds the series both cause and effect of contemporary conspiracy culture.

“Scully and Mulder cannot be joined sexually or legally,” we are told, “because they are both literally and figuratively alienated, penetrated, and probed to the molecular level by omniscient and omnipotent forces who have infiltrated, like television and, now, computers, virtually everything in our lives.” We remain fans of the series, she thinks, despite the anxiety it induces, because “We have to believe in the reality of something, even if that something is the paranoia induced by television itself”.

From its inception The X-Files has given with one hand and taken away with the other, perpetually abandoning the viewer in a “hermeneutic limbo” (Knight). The series has not been content to merely “deny all knowledge”; it has, as Knight observes, taken as its subject “the process of repeatedly discovering everything you thought you knew is wrong.”