In 1820, a group of English radical activists plotted to kill the entire British government while they were sat down to dinner in central London. The Cato Street Conspiracy – so-called from the place where they met to plot – was uncovered and the ringleaders executed in a public and grisly manner. One of those who died was William Davidson – a black British Georgian rebel.
Davidson is an under-recognised figure in our history. An educated and resourceful radical. The illegitimate son of the slave-owning Attorney General of Jamaica and a local free woman. And a man whose gravitas on the scaffold as he faced his fate was commented on positively by journalists.
Britain had won a long war against Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Empire with the final victory at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. But far from ushering in a period of peace and stability, the ending of military conflict was followed by economic depression and mass hunger as food prices skyrocketed.
This was a period when working-class people didn’t have the vote and precious few rights in the workplace – if they were lucky to have a job. Demobbed soldiers joined civilians sleeping rough on the streets with many surviving through petty crime even though pickpocketing and burglary could carry the death penalty. And those being hanged in public included teenagers and very occasionally what we would regard as children.
Little wonder that radical movements emerged, and Davidson was drawn to them like a moth to the flame. He would play a leading role in the Cato Street Conspiracy that aimed to take out hated ministers like the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh. The plotters hoped to display Castlereagh’s head after the government had been wiped out but instead, it would be Davidson who would be beheaded in front of Newgate prison on the first of May 1820.
Join me as we go back to this turbulent yet fascinating period of history!
Since the first feature films were made by Hollywood in the early 20th century – they have been peddling conspiracy theories. All social media has done is amplify this stuff to an unparalleled degree. Whether it’s faked moon landings or clones of Hitler being created in Latin America – there’s a movie for every conspiracy theory you can imagine!
How about the moon landings never happened? Ever since Neil Armstrong made a giant leap for mankind by stepping to the surface of the moon – there’s been endless speculation that it never happened. One conspiracy theory is that fake filmed footage to fool the public was overseen by Stanley Kubrick who had just directed 2001: A Space Odyssey which included scenes on the moon.
In 1978, James Brolin and O. J. Simpson played astronauts in the conspiracy theory movie Capricorn One. The plot involves a manned mission to Mars that goes wrong due to technical faults with the space module. To avoid embarrassment, the government creates a Mars-like environment in a studio and the astronauts pretend to have landed on the red planet. But in order to keep things totally secret, the astronauts have to be killed. This played to lingering widespread suspicions that nobody had ever been to the moon.
Since the end of the Second World War, there’s been a great deal of speculation about how many of Hitler’s top Nazis secretly fled Germany to Latin America. Was the Vatican involved? Did fascist and military dictators in Latin American countries shelter some of the most evil people in the 20th century? The 1978 movie The Boys from Brazil certainly thought so.
This has to be one of the most absurd conspiracy theory plots ever concocted. Veteran Hollywood actor Gregory Peck (who must have needed the money) plays Dr Josef Mengele, a real-life Nazi doctor who conducted unspeakable experiments in the Auschwitz concentration camp. The movie had him in Brazil decades later developing Hitler clones. The intention was that these little boys would grow up to be Fuhrers and take over the world.
The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 has been blamed on the CIA, the mafia and of course Lee Harvey Oswald. In 1991, director Oliver Stone brought us JFK – a conspiracy theory laden feast of conjecture and inference. Most controversially, it pointed an accusing finger at Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s immediate successor as President of the United States. Stone came in for a mountain of criticism but the movie was a box office smash.
In 1962, The Manchurian Candidate gave us the story of a US President secretly in the grip of the Soviet Union. The champion of the free world was actually a Communist agent. I know what some of you are thinking – replace the Soviet Union with Russia and we have a Manchurian Candidate in the White House today! In 2004, the film was remade with a president under the control of a multinational corporation. Time for another update then?
Forward to 1990 and we have the release of Godfather III – the third of the Godfather gangster trilogy directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It’s arguably the weakest of the three films. The conspiracy theory plot features the murder of a recently elected pope and financial skullduggery within the Vatican. These are heavy references to the real-life scandal at the Vatican controlled Banco Ambrosiano at the end of the 1970s and the sudden death of Pope John Paul I only a month after his election in 1978.
The theme of a murdered pope continues with Angels and Demons – a movie based on the novel by Dan Brown.
Are there any movies you’ve enjoyed that promote crazy or feasible conspiracy theories?
Lewis Thornton Powell (sometimes known as Payne) was one of the four conspirators hanged for their part in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He also looked like a GQ model. And his handsome features were rather tastelessly picked up by the new technology of photography.
Powell was tasked with killing US Secretary of State William H. Seward and managed to stab him several times but not fatally. Nevertheless, it was enough to earn him a place on the gallows with his fellow conspirators. And at the same time – he acquired a degree of celebrity which was quite modern.
In recent years, Lewis Powell has become noteworthy for the prison photographs taken at the time, which could easily grace the front cover of a men’s fashion magazine.
Lewis Powell – handsome but violent
Although Powell was a very striking young man (only 21 when he was executed), he did have a record of violence including a horrific attack on an African American maid. Powell had also supervised his father’s slave plantation before fighting with the Confederate side in the American Civil War.
The manner in which he tried to slaughter Seward suggested an unbalanced mind. Seward was already bed ridden after a carriage accident and Powell found his way into the great man’s bedroom and stuck a blade into his neck several times. Amazingly, the Secretary of State survived and indeed went on to serve under Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson.
Lewis Powell was arrested very soon after his botched murder attempt. This led to the prison photos that included him dressing up in different suits. He struck cocky poses and stared dreamily into the lens.
Quite why this was entertained by his captors is beyond me.
The hanging of Lewis Powell was a gruesome affair with him taking at least five minutes to die. One eye witness claimed that he writhed at the end of the noose with such vigour that at one point his knees rose so he was in a seated position.
Is there any link at all between the Knights Templar and Freemasons? I have recently been filmed for an episode of The Curse of Oak Island – Specials – Season 7, episode 2. I was asked to comment on the links between the Masons and Templars.
As you know, the Knights Templar were in existence between their founding in 1118 and their destruction in 1307 – a period of nearly two hundred years. The Freemasons as we know them today are largely a construct of the 18th century though with roots going further back.
How far back and whether they link to the Knights Templar is the big question. Freemasons seem to vary between those that are quite happy to state an explicit and firm link and those who say it’s part of the masonic mythology but not to be taken too literally.
Templar infiltration of the Freemasons?
The linkage between the Freemasons and Knights Templar is difficult to prove but there’s no shortage of theories. One goes that after they were suppressed by Pope and the King of France, the Templars infiltrated stone mason guilds.
These were then refashioned to embrace Templar ideals and rituals. In effect, the masons and Templars over time became one and the same thing.
Freemasons came to full public view in 1717 with the foundation of the Grand Lodge of England. The organisation’s website traces the history of the order back to the stone masons of the Middle Ages who built Europe’s great cathedrals and not to the Knights Templar. It doesn’t recognised the aforementioned merger of masons and Templars.
The website cites evidence of people becoming Freemasons throughout the seventeenth century such as a gentleman called Elias Ashmole in 1643. Then in the eighteenth century, grand lodges were formed in England, Ireland and Scotland and the order grew significantly to include top politicians and establishment figures. But as its lodges spread throughout government and business, the conspiracy theories proliferated.
From the eighteenth century to the present day, there were Freemasons happy to state that their rituals and organisation were directly descended from the Templars. Equally, there have always been Freemasons irritated by these claims. However, the creation of an occult mythology around masonic activity was largely created by Freemasons and not their detractors.
Baron Gotthelf and the Knights Templar – Freemasons link
The prominent eighteenth century Freemason Baron Karl Gotthelf von Hund was forever hammering home the link between masonry and the Templars. The baron founded The Rite of Strict Observance within Freemasonry, as series of degrees through which members would pass including the degree of “knight”.
Michael Haag details in his book The Templars that a crusader connection was first expounded by Andrew Michael Ramsay, a Jacobite who headed up the French Grand Lodge around 1737. He said in a speech that the crusaders had wanted to create a global spiritual confraternity. While attempting to rebuild the Temple of Solomon, he believed they had developed secret signs and rituals to protect themselves from Saracen infiltration.
When the crusades collapsed, these spiritual crusaders left the Holy Land and returned to their European homes setting up the first Freemason lodges. But these were neglected over time and the secrets forgotten. Only in Scotland was the flame kept burning.
Holy Blood Holy Grail – and the Knights Templar – Freemasons connection
The authors of The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail in 1982 wrote about the alleged flight of Knights Templar to Scotland when the order was suppressed by the King of France in 1307, repeating an old claim that they participated in the Battle of Bannockburn against the English.
They claimed to have discovered “what seemed to be” a Templar graveyard in Argyllshire with 13th century Templar gravestones and eighteenth century Masonic gravestones. The authors asserted that the later stones had mixed motifs suggesting a fusion at some point between the Templars and Freemasons.
The alleged link between Freemasonry and the Templars has often been used to damage the reputation of masons. Stephen Knight authored The Brotherhood in the early 1980s claiming a link to the Templars and arguing that Freemasons were running the United Kingdom.
Knight had also written a book on Jack the Ripper claiming that his murders were part of a conspiracy involving masons and the Royal Family. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it influenced the later work From Hell by Alan Moore.
John Robinson’s 1989 book Born in Blood claimed that Knights Templar fleeing arrest and torture in England and Scotland formed a secret society of mutual protection that eventually revealed itself as the Freemasons.
The symbols and rituals we associate with the masons in fact dated back to the Templars. He credited this secret society with the Protestant Reformation and included among its members the first US President George Washington.