At a party recently, someone asked me, “So, what’s the difference between a conspiracy and a hoax?” It’s a great question, and for a second or two I thought it might be an invitation into deeper conversation, an escape from the dreaded small talk. But I quickly checked myself, and only provided a boilerplate answer – something along the lines of what you might find on wikidiff:
I said, “A conspiracy involves two or more people, working secretly toward some sort of villainous goal. But a hoax can be pulled off by one person – it’s a deception, for sure, but it could be a gentle deception, like a practical joke or a parlor trick.”
I left it at that. I didn’t get into the nitty-gritty. I had a feeling that this guy didn’t really want to go down any conversational rabbit holes with me. He definitely had no idea that he was poking a conspiracy bear. Maybe it was just a run-of-the-mill, party question to him.
I guessed right. He leaped almost immediately into his next topic, which was to do with him telling me about the best way to sharpen lawnmower blades. Small talk is the worst. I tend to zone out. No sooner had he begun his spiel (“To get your blades just right, what you ought to do is…”), and yours truly was off in Lalaland.
I was thinking about the real difference between a conspiracy and a hoax.
While I’m comfortable with the answer that I provided for my fellow party-goer, I do think there’s quite a bit more to it. Meaning: I wouldn’t change anything about what I said, but I would definitely want to add to it.
I’d want to include something about how a conspiracy is fundamentally different from a hoax because a conspiracy is a type of magical working, a type of spell casting – a magic spell being an activity that attempts to create a change in consciousness in accordance with someone’s will. It’s an energetic working that involves intention. And in the case of conspiracies, the intentions and wills involved are typically nefarious.
Since we deal with conspiracies all the time here at This Perfect Day, and since they can be rather heavy at times, I thought it might be interesting to look at a couple of hoaxes. Hoaxes represent, well, the lighter side of deception (yes, I really typed that), so we can try to have a little fun with them, take a breath of fresh air, as it were.
While they can certainly be rooted in negative soil and fed by low vibrations such as selfishness, greed, and so on – hoaxes are not, at heart, sneaky attempts at energy manipulation or will-tinkering. To wit: P.T. Barnum and Harry Houdini were shysters and everyone sort of knew it and accepted it. People willingly allowed themselves to suspend their beliefs for a time in order to be entertained by them. Hoaxes were their stock-in-trade, and the world was none the worse for it. Hoaxes can be that way. Not always, but sometimes.
Let’s take time to consider a couple of other historical, but lesser-known hoaxers: Allan W. Eckert and another fellow that I’ll mention in next month’s article, titled “Conspiracy or Hoax: Part 2.” These guys had personal agendas, peculiar itches that apparently needed to be scratched. Interestingly, both of them did end up impacting human consciousness. But since that was an accidental artifact of their scratching, rather than the primary intent of it, I think it’s safe to call them hoaxers instead of conspirators.
Allan W. Eckert (1931-2011) was an American novelist and playwright. His specialty was writing historical novels and plays related to events that took place in the American Midwest in the 1800s, related to settlers and Indians and such. Think Little House on the Prairie type stories, only occurring further East, and written by someone who wasn’t actually there.
Some of Eckert’s most famous works are The Frontiersmen: A Narrative, Blue Jacket: War Chief of the Shawnees, and Tecumseh! (an outdoor drama). Interestingly, Eckert also wrote more than 200 episodes of the old TV show, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, which ran from 1963 to 1988 – a show which would surely trigger many of today’s wildlife advocates due to its dated approach to wildlife interactions and conservation and what-have-you.
A good way to describe Eckert’s written works may be via something written by Eckert himself, in his Author’s Note at the beginning of his novel, Blue Jacket: War Chief of the Shawnees (1969), in which he writes:
“Much of Blue Jacket’s life is documented but there are certain gaps in the story. In this book, the author has taken the liberty of smoothing these gaps and building a complete story. This was done only after a careful study of all the known facts of Blue Jacket’s life. All of the major incidents described in this book are true; the author has taken license only with the minor items which do not affect or alter history. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from historical records, but a certain amount was created to help maintain the smooth flow characteristic of a novel.”
Eckert did indeed take himself some gap-smoothing liberties in his “historical” novels, but they were far from “minor items which do not affect or alter history.” This guy would have fit in pretty good out in Hollywood, taking good stories and making them rotten by re-writing them as he saw fit.
One of my all-time favorites has to be Eckert’s assertion that the great Shawnee Chief, Blue Jacket, was, in fact, a white settler named (wait for it . . .) Marmaduke Van Swearingen. I’m not making this up.
According to Eckert, Marmaduke was captured by the Shawnee Indians in 1771, when he was seventeen years old. Marmee’s brother, Charles, age 12, was captured as well. Marmee had always dreamed of living with the Indians and had even learned some of their language. He was able to strike a clever bargain with the Shawnee: He agreed to stay with them if they would let his little brother go, unharmed. The Indians agreed, and little Charles made it back home to the Van Swearingen cabin, while Marmee went with the Shawnee to what was then the Ohio Territory. At the time of capture, Marmee was wearing a blue linsey blouse hunting shirt, so his captors named him “Blue Jacket.” Marmaduke, being of such stout, healthy, intelligent stock, was a model of manly presence, and it was no time at all before he was impressing the Shawnee braves with his hunting and crafting skills, which often exceeded the Shawnee’s own, and catching the eye of the Shawnee ladies. Before he turned twenty-five, Marmaduke was chosen Chief of his tribe and began participating in all the usual councils and campaigns. Blue Jacket, né Marmaduke, married a Shawnee woman, and had several children, including a single son, named “Jim Blue Jacket.” In 1794, Blue Jacket commanded the allied Indian forces that were defeated by General Wayne. It was such a crushing defeat that the Shawnee swore they would never make war on the whites again. Blue Jacket signed a peace treaty made with the United States by the Wyandotte, Delaware, Shawnee and other Indian Nations, in August 1795. Blue Jacket was revered by all, as a man of great bravery and ability until his death in 1810, and long after.
Now to be fair, Eckert didn’t make all this crap up by himself, as bits and pieces of this tall tale had been kicking around since the late 1800s. Eckert just failed to do his history homework before popularizing the story. His hoax was not about whether or not Blue Jacket or Marmaduke Van Swearingen were real people or not – both were most certainly real. Eckert’s hoax was broadcasting the bullshit story about these guys being the same person to a massive audience, claiming it to be historically accurate, and continuing to stick stodgily to his guns long after historical evidence that contradicted his story was presented to him. Cracks in the ‘white Indian Chief’ story began to appear when a number of historians in the late 1970s began to state that Blue Jacket and Van Swearingen were not likely to be the same person. Strong evidence was piling up. Then a woman by the name of Louise Johnson emerged in the mid-80s to say the same, and she had the primary source historical documentation to prove it. Johnson was a genealogist in her sixties who also happened to be the fourth grand-niece of Marmaduke Van Swearingen. She had collected piles of family history, so she knew that Eckert’s story was bogus, through and through. She was content to keep quiet about it for some time, but eventually she got so fed up with the distortions of her own family’s history that were being promoted and celebrated by the likes of Eckert, that she felt compelled to write a 13-page letter (accompanied by 97 pages of supporting documentation), and send it to the Springfield News-Sun (Ohio) newspaper. When the story broke, the shit kind of hit the fan for Eckert. But he refused to abandon his assertions about the historical integrity of his various Blue Jacket stories (Blue Jacket, as one of his favorite subjects, appeared in many of his works). Eckert was still alive when results from DNA tests were published by The Ohio Journal of Science in 2006. The DNA tests were based on four men descended from Charles Swearingen (Marmaduke’s brother) and six men descended from Jim Blue-Jacket (Blue Jacket’s son), and the conclusion stated that:
“Barring any questions of the paternity of the Chief’s single son who lived to produce male heirs, the ‘Blue Jacket with-Caucasian-roots’ story is not based on reality.”
So, what was Eckert’s motivation for pushing this bogus story into the mainstream?
If Eckert truly engaged in a “careful study of all the known facts of Blue Jacket’s life,” as he claimed, he would have surely bumped into evidence that pointed pretty clearly toward the famous Indian Chief, Blue Jacket, being, well . . . an Indian. But Eckert either wasn’t the historian that he claimed to be, or he chose fantasy over reality, conveniently ignoring any bubble-bursting findings that he may have stumbled upon.
Looking back, his motivations appear to have been along these lines:
- Upon reading any of his books in which the Blue Jacket story is told, it’s pretty clear that Eckert is gushing. To be captured by, and then raised by Indians, and then rise up within their ranks to become a War Chief? This was beyond appealing to a guy like Eckert, who was much more than your average Indian lover. He was obviously enthralled by the whole idea. He may as well have written himself into his books in first person in place of Marmaduke. (Had he done so, of course, he would have been creating works of fiction, and there would have been no hoax.)
- On the surface, it may seem as if Eckert was honoring Indians in telling the tales he told. He was clearly fascinated by Indian culture; he studied it deeply and was able to write about it in a compelling and believable way. But there’s an ugly underbelly to his work that speaks to a classic “liberal snafu” that is, unfortunately, still alive and kicking today. In attempting to honor Indian culture, Eckert actually demeans it. He is basically telling a story that goes something like this: If you placed a white kid in amongst the savages and they didn’t kill him, that kid would naturally grow up to be the leader of them all. That would be an ugly story to promote, and it would be uglier still if Eckert secretly wished that he was that white kid.
Despite all the above, it’s pretty clear that Eckert was more of a hoaxer than a conspirator. Granted, Eckert had a massive audience, and that surely spread some damage by default. But his primary intention was not to alter the consciousness of humanity (although he may have accidentally done so a little). His primary intention may have simply been to work out some of his private fantasies on paper. And for whatever reason, he wanted to be regarded by others as a historian rather than a fiction writer. Whatever floats your boat.
Phil’s Two Cents
The Eckert story does have a happy ending, I think. It’s an example of truth eventually emerging to set a story straight. It’s mighty comforting to know that that can actually happen.
This might call attention to another defining feature of a hoax compared to a conspiracy: a hoax has the potential to be more easily exposed and corrected, whereas a conspiracy may be a tougher nut to crack. I figure that’s on account of the magic and all.
P.S.: My use of the term “Indian” throughout this article may sting the precious eyes of those who prefer more politically correct terms, such as “Native American.” I respectfully offer this in defense of my language choice: I personally find the term “Native American” to be quite offensive, so I choose not to use it. The native peoples of this continent were many things, but one thing they were not was “American,” a label that makes more sense for select latecomers. Furthermore, the term “Indian” is not derived from the mis-identification of native peoples by confused, early European explorers (who knew damn well that they were exploring a new continent – not India, for Chrissakes – despite what many history books might say). The term, Indian, is derived from the term, indigino/indigena (Portuguese/Italian), which means indigenous.