In the classic Western "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," there is a famous line that says "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." However, printing a legend doesn't turn it into a fact - a situation that has been affirmed over the centuries as bizarre rumors, urban legends and down-and-out lies have become an alternate history.
To separate the audacious legends from the often less-than-stellar facts, here are 10 of the weirdest conspiracy theories that tried (but failed) to reinvent the truth.
Konnichiwa, Jesus-san: While conspiracy theories surrounding the life of Jesus are as plentiful as the lilies of the field, this might be the most unusual. According to this story, Jesus did not die on the cross – that fate belonged to his hitherto little-known brother Isukiri – but instead escaped to Japan, where he previously visited when he was 21 years old. He married, had three daughters and ran an onion farm until his death at 106.
While Biblical scholars politely decline to embrace this conspiracy theory, the Tomb of Christ site in the Aomori Prefecture village of Shingō is among the most popular tourist destinations in northern Japan.
The Empress And The Equine: The 18th century Russian Empress Catherine the Great was the victim of one of the most bizarre conspiracy theories of all time. If one believes this tale, Catherine was into bestiality and sought to have sex with one of her horses, but when her servants attempted to suspend the animal in a harness above her the contraption broke and the empress was crushed to death by the falling horse.
In reality, Catherine died from a stroke at the age of 67. The exact source of the crazy rumor has never been confirmed, but Catherine’s biographers believe it was planted shortly after her death in a vain effort to denigrate both her achievements as empress and to prevent the possibility of other strong-minded women becoming ruling monarchs. Still, the story survives – thanks, in part, to Seth MacFarlane.
The Road From Ford’s Theatre: While historians have recorded that John Wilkes Booth was fatally shot at a Virginia farm 12 days after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, some conspiracy theorists insist that he eluded capture and the man who was killed was James William Boyd, a Confederate soldier who bore a resemblance to Booth. In 1903, a suicidal man in Enid, Oklahoma, who went by the names John St. Helen and David E. George made a deathbed confession that he was Booth.
The dead man’s body was never claimed, but it was not buried – instead, it was mummified and displayed for years at carnival sideshows. The 1977 book and feature film “The Lincoln Conspiracy” revived the alternate history of Booth’s demise, to the derision of Lincoln scholars.
The Royal Ripper: The perpetrator of the Jack the Ripper serial killings of 1888 has never been identified, and multiple suspects have been raised as the possible murderer. Perhaps the most astonishing theory puts the blame on Prince Albert Victor, a grandson of Queen Victoria and second in line to the throne. Historian Philippe Jullian was the first to publicly acknowledge the rumor in a 1962 book about the prince’s father, King Edward VI, and stated the murders were committed to eliminate witnesses that were aware the prince fathered an illegitimate child with a woman in the Whitechapel area where the killings occurred.
In reality, the prince was not in London during the months when the Jack the Ripper murders took place, and the rumor was one of many that disfigured his legacy. The prince never made it to the throne – he died in 1892 during a flu pandemic, and his untimely passing generated a new batch of rumors insisting on more sordid reasons for his premature death.
The Yellow Brick Road To Death: The production of the 1939 film classic “The Wizard of Oz” produced one near-death experience when Buddy Ebsen had a severe allergic reaction to his Tin Man make-up that required him to undergo a prolonged hospitalization. But a conspiracy theory emerged that one of the little people hired to play the Munchkins not only hanged himself during the production, but his dead body turned up in the film.
If one watches a grainy, unrestored VHS video of “The Wizard of Oz,” the hanging body of the allegedly suicidal munchkin is supposedly visible in the rear of the forest after the Tin Man joins Dorothy and the Scarecrow on the road to Oz. In reality, the object in question is a large crane that was among several exotic birds brought from the Los Angeles Zoo to decorate the set – but the birds were barely on camera, thus adding to the confusion.
Comrade Oswald: The assassination of President John F. Kennedy has probably generated more conspiracy theories than any single historic event, and the most original theory connected to the crime said that Lee Harvey Oswald was not Lee Harvey Oswald, but rather a Soviet lookalike.
While historians have recorded that Oswald defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 but returned to the U.S. in 1961, British writer Michael Eddows claimed in his 1977 book “The Oswald File” that the KGB sent an agent who bore an imperfect resemblance to Oswald to the U.S. with the goal of presidential assassination. Eddowes offered photographs taken before and after Oswald’s Soviet residency to show the man arrested in Dallas in November 1963 was not Oswald.
To prove his theory was correct, Eddowes spent roughly $15,000 to sue for the exhumation of Oswald’s body. Eddowes successfully had the body exhumed – and forensics tests confirmed it was the same man who left for the Soviet Union in 1959.
Looking Into The Glass Onion: The final years of the Beatles’ time together were framed in the conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney was killed in an automobile accident in January 1967 and was replaced by a Scottish lookalike named William Campbell. But rather than hide this subterfuge from their fans, the Beatles planted numerous clues about the switch in song lyrics and album artwork.
The “Paul is dead” rumor lasted longer than the Beatles – in 2018, McCartney was still refuting the story in the “Carpool Karaoke” segment of James Corden’s talk show. At last check, Paul was still alive and well and making music.
The Grounded Aviator: In 1970, McGraw-Hill published Joe Klaas’ book “Amelia Earhart Lives,” which declared aviator Amelia Earhart (who disappeared over the South Pacific in 1937) was not dead, but had been captured by the Japanese and held as a prisoner until 1945 when she was quietly repatriated and began a new life as a New Jersey banker under the alias of Irene Bolam.
Klaas’ book surprised many people – particularly Irene Bolam, who had no problems affirming her identity. Bolam denounced the theory in a press conference filed a lawsuit against Klaas and McGraw-Hill, which withdrew the book. Incredibly, there have been three additional books that repeated Klaas’ discredited research.
The Unlikely Newlyweds: In the early 1970s, a conspiracy theory emerged that film star Rock Hudson and “Gomer Pyle USMC” star Jim Nabors were married. While it was known within Hollywood that both men were gay, that knowledge did not permeate into the wider public. Hudson and Nabors were only casual acquaintances before the story was planted, but they avoided each other for the rest of their lives after it took root.
The genesis of the story was traced to a circle of gay men in Huntington Beach, California, who hosted an annual party. For the invitation to one party, they created a faux-wedding invitation imagining the union of Rock Hudson to Gomer Pyle, with the former assuming the latter’s surname to become “Rock Pyle.” That weak joke created the fake story that still needs to be explained away.
If It Aint’ Broke, Don’t Break It: In April 1985, Coca-Cola Company (NYSE:KO) sought to improve its sagging beverage sales by updating its flagship soft drink with the introduction of New Coke, which offered a somewhat sweeter taste than the longtime soda favorite. New Coke was meant to replace the original Coca-Cola formula, but within three months the company was forced to bring back the original drink under the banner “Coca-Cola Classic.” New Coke sales never reached the level of popularity of the original drink – it was rebranded as “Coke II” in 1990 and discontinued in 2002.
While New Coke was initially seen as a marketing fiasco, the brouhaha over its introduction and the reintroduction of the original formula helped to drive sales – which led to the conspiracy theory that the entire endeavor was a well-planned strategy to capture the public’s attention and wallets.
“Some cynics say that we planned the whole thing,” said Coca-Cola President Donald Keough. “The truth is we’re not that dumb and we’re not that smart.”
And if few people are nostalgic for New Coke, at least one person is eager to update the Coca-Cola formula once more:
Photo: Road sign for Japan's Tomb of Christ site by Calebincatania / Wikimedia Commons