Disorganized Conspiracy

When you've got money and power, who needs meetings in secret boardrooms?

It's important to recognize that words like conspiracy and paranoid have limited credible application in political analysis or in everyday life. Fusing them into a single concept vanquishes malign motives behind political and business decisions that affect the lives of ordinary people. In the Gilded Age, which produced a golden age of journalistic muckraking, the public knew that amoral greed resorts to subterfuge and conspiracy, as the press was not monopolized by people feeding at the same trough as the robber barons.

"Pirates are commonly supposed to have been battered and hung out of existence when the Barbary Powers and the Buccaneers of the Spanish Main had been finally dealt with," wrote Charles Francis Adams Jr. in Chapters of Erie. "Yet freebooters are not extinct; they have only transferred their operations to the land, and conducted them in more or less accordance with the forms of law; until, at last, so great a proficiency have they attained, that the commerce of the world is more equally but far more heavily taxed in their behalf, than would ever have entered into their wildest hopes while, outside the law, they simply made all comers stand and deliver."

Adams's two reports of the Erie wars of 1868, like his brother Henry's account of the New York Gold Conspiracy (inserted between them in Chapters of Erie), are so meticulously detailed as to seem irrefutable. He unravels the intricate plotting of Cornelius Vanderbilt to wrest control of the Erie Railroad and its branches from Daniel Drew, James Fisk Jr., and Jay Gould, no slouches in the conspiracy department themselves. Chapters of Erie uncovers depths of corruption and conspiracy undreamt of in America before then and unparalleled until the G.W. Bush administration. Players in the Erie drama manipulated the stock market like a rigged slot machine, liberally purchased judges and legislators, and in one spectacular instance staged a rail collision in a tunnel north of Albany.

September 11, 2001: the biggest insider-trading op ever?
photo: Michael Appleton
September 11, 2001: the biggest insider-trading op ever?


  • Part One: No Such Thing as Paranoia On the culture of conspiracism
  • Part Two: Opus Heyday The success of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code excites interest in a secretive Catholic lay groupóand further notes on the culture of conspiracism
  • After an injunction issued in downtown Manhattan ordering the Drew party to cease any actions in "furtherance of said conspiracy," the Drew attorneys obtained a counter-injunction from another jurisdiction and dumped 50,000 shares of Erie stock on the market, which were instantly bought up by Vanderbilt before he learned their source; to avoid arraignment on contempt of court charges, the Drew minions fled the financial district at 10 in the morning for the safety of New Jersey:

    [T]he astonished police saw a throng of panic-stricken railway directors—looking more like a frightened gang of thieves, disturbed in the division of their plunder, than like the wealthy representatives of a great corporation—rush headlong . . . in the direction of the Jersey ferry. In their hands were packages and files of papers, and their pockets were crammed with assets and securities. One individual bore away with him in a hackney-coach bales containing six millions of dollars in greenbacks.

    Adams's account conjures images of the so-called perp walk that some of Wall Street's most egregious recent knaves have taken for the cameras, though contemporary financial scandals have produced little authentic reform. The agencies entrusted to cleanse the system have been as tainted as their targets. The revolving door between government jobs and corporate board seats; rampant looting as corporate S.O.P.; and the Orwellian duckspeak of a conglomerated media system are symptoms of a failing democracy.

    While Adams could write frankly about the true state of affairs within America's power elite ("Mr. Justice Sutherland, a magistrate of such pure character and unsullied reputation that it is inexplicable how he ever came to be elevated to the bench on which he sits . . . "), "investigative reporting" in our era has become a desk job involving a few phone calls and the endless quoting of "anonymous sources" who are, invariably, government officials rather than ordinary citizens fearing retribution from these same officials.

    Since Michael Barkun's A Culture of Conspiracy typifies the "one bad apple" approach, its opening anecdote is worth recounting:

    On January 20, 2002, Richard McCaslin, thirty-seven, of Carson City, Nevada, was arrested sneaking into the Bohemian Grove in Northern California. The Grove is the site of an exclusive annual men's retreat attended by powerful business and political leaders. . . . McCaslin . . . was carrying a combination shotgun-assault rifle, a .45 pistol, a crossbow, a knife, a sword, and a bomb-launching device. . . . [He] told police he had entered Bohemian Grove in order to expose the satanic human sacrifices he believed occurred there.

    The interesting detail here isn't a thwarted massacre by one of those deranged loners responsible for all political assassinations but Barkun's bland characterization of Bohemian Grove: Inexplicably, he implies, the place is a magnet for conspiracists, some of whom also suggest "that the Grove's guests include nonhuman species masquerading as human beings."

    In last year's Where I Was From, Joan Didion provides a more textured and provocative description of Bohemian Grove:

    By 1974 . . . one in five resident members and one in three non-resident members of the Bohemian Club was listed in Standard & Poor's Register of Corporations, Executives, and Directors. . . . The summer encampment, then, had evolved into a special kind of enchanted circle, one in which these captains of American finance and industry could entertain . . . the temporary management of that political structure on which their own fortunes ultimately depended.

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