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'Throughline': How Conspiracy Theories Helped To Create The U.S.


Crisis actors in a school shooting, a deep state that is against President Trump, the birther movement - these kinds of conspiracy theories have become a feature of our current news and politics. And the history behind America's fascination with conspiracy theories is the focus of the latest episode of NPR's history podcast Throughline. We're joined by one of the hosts of the show, Rund Abdelfatah. She is with me in the studio.

Hi, Rund.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Thanks for coming in. So talk to me about this. Conspiracy theories in American history - what exactly are you talking about?

ABDELFATAH: So in the episode, we're looking at a few different moments in American history and the role that conspiracy theories played in each of them. The one I want to tell you about today is a historical whodunit...


ABDELFATAH: ...From the prohibition era. It's a mystery with a conspiracy at the heart of it. And I'm actually going to play a clip for you from the episode, where I'm telling the story to my co-host, Ramtin Arablouei.


ABDELFATAH: Now we're in 1926.


ABDELFATAH: It's Christmas Eve in New York City, and the streets are buzzing with eager children and slightly tipsy adults. One especially drunk guy stumbles into the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital.

DEBORAH BLUM: Screaming that Santa Claus has chased him...

ABDELFATAH: All the way across the city.

BLUM: ...With a baseball bat.

ABDELFATAH: He's having a vivid hallucination.

BLUM: A poisoned-alcohol hallucination.

ABDELFATAH: By morning, the man is pronounced dead. And then more and more people start dropping dead across New York City.

BLUM: About 60 deaths in two days.

ABDELFATAH: The pattern was the same - they'd have a few drinks, begin to hallucinate and then they'd die. At this point, it's becoming clearer and clearer that this is no coincidence. Something was wrong with the alcohol.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: With the fire lined with the boys and bums spending their money, debauching their characters, rotting their bodies and jeopardizing their immortal soul.

ABDELFATAH: This is all happening during the era of prohibition, the 1920s, when the U.S. government banned the production and sale of alcohol throughout the country.

BLUM: To try to get Americans to behave, which is how they saw it.


ABDELFATAH: By the way, this is Deborah Blum.

BLUM: I'm the author of "The Poisoner's Handbook" and "The Poison Squad."

ABDELFATAH: And she walked me through this story.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: So people, obviously, didn't stop drinking. And I'm guessing they were probably making alcohol at home.

ABDELFATAH: Exactly, and this made a lot of scientists really nervous.

BLUM: Because it's very difficult to avoid making poisonous forms of alcohol.

ABDELFATAH: If the chemistry is off even a little bit, the alcohol can still look and taste perfectly fine but actually be poisonous and even deadly. Now imagine an entire industry emerging to sell this stuff to thousands, maybe millions, of people. Welcome to the underground world of bootleggers.


BLUM: In New York City, for instance, there were 30,000 illegal speak-easies formed.

ARABLOUEI: I mean, the bootleggers would've needed a lot of alcohol. So where did they get it?

ABDELFATAH: They just stole it.

BLUM: They'd hijack trucks or they'd go to factories or they'd pay factory workers, you know, to siphon off X percentage. And because these factories are all across the country because everyone needs industrial alcohol, they're able to just, you know, steal a huge amount of this.

ABDELFATAH: Industrial alcohol was the key to the bootleggers' business. It's the stuff used in cleaners or perfumes. And the government requires that certain contaminants be added to the alcohol.

BLUM: So that it's not drinkable.

ARABLOUEI: So how did the bootleggers make it drinkable?

ABDELFATAH: Well, the bootleggers were really clever. They hired chemists to remove those contaminants from the industrial alcohol so people could drink it. The government was outmaneuvered.

BLUM: By about the middle of the 1920s, you see the government starting to say, no matter what we do, no matter how many people we arrest...

ABDELFATAH: Our tactics are not working.

BLUM: What's our next step of enforcement?

ABDELFATAH: We need a new plan. So at this point, the government decided to declare war on the bootleggers.

BLUM: People would later call a chemist war because it was, essentially, a tactical war between government chemists and bootlegger chemists.

ABDELFATAH: On one side of this chemist war, the government was trying to use chemistry to enforce prohibition. And on the other were bootleggers.

BLUM: Using chemistry to try to undo that enforcement.

ARABLOUEI: I get that in theory. But what does it actually look like in practice?

ABDELFATAH: So the government publicly announced that it was adding poisonous contaminants to industrial alcohol.

BLUM: They actually, at one point, had a press conference where they invited journalists so they could demonstrate these different formulas - right? - in an effort to say to people, don't drink this because it's going to contain very dangerous things that could kill you.

ARABLOUEI: That's just bizarre because the government's basically admitting they're trying to make people sick.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah - hoping it would deter people from drinking.

ARABLOUEI: Did it work?

ABDELFATAH: No, because the bootleggers kept stripping the poison out of the alcohol and selling it. The thing is, each new formula the government rolled out was more and more toxic, more and more likely to kill you. The bootleggers just couldn't keep up. And sure enough...

BLUM: That's where you start seeing people die.

ABDELFATAH: Suddenly, people all throughout the country began getting really sick and, in a lot of cases, dying. By some estimates, at least 10,000 people died from alcohol that was intentionally poisoned by the U.S. government.


BLUM: Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? - because of things like this, because of the real conspiracies that were, in fact, people in power plotting and anticipating and accepting harm to people without power.


GREENE: That's some tape from the NPR podcast Throughline. I'm here with one of the hosts, Rund Abdelfatah. Wow - 10,000 people.

ABDELFATAH: It's pretty amazing - and not just that the government carried this out but that it's not common knowledge today.

GREENE: And also, that it actually is true. I mean, what does a story like this, that seems like a conspiracy theory that turns out to be true...


GREENE: How does it impact people in how they think about conspiracy theories?

ABDELFATAH: Well, it tends to fuel more distrust in the government and even more conspiracy theories. You know, was the JFK assassination an inside job? No. How about 9/11? No. But did the U.S. help fund a sterilization campaign? Yes. And so every yes makes it that much harder to dispel and to disprove these conspiracy theories. And it's sort of a feedback loop that then makes those conspiracy theories more and more a part of our politics and culture.

GREENE: Because everyone - on everyone's mind is the question of, what if this one is actually true?


GREENE: Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host of NPR's history podcast Throughline.

Thanks a lot.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks, David.

GREENE: And you can hear a lot more from Throughline wherever you listen to podcasts.


Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.
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