The Strange True Story of the Godfather of Conspiracy Theories
Photos of William Cooper and alien sketch via The Hour of the Time Photo collection. Photo of Ol' Dirty Bastard by Scott Gries/Getty Images. Photo of Alex Jones via Wikimedia Commons. Image composite by Lia Kantrowitz
In the eyes of most conspiracy theorists, there's always going to be an Osama Bin Laden or a Timothy McVeigh or a Lee Harvey Oswald, somebody who takes the blame for spectacular crimes or injustices while more nefarious forces remain in the shadows. But in the last several years, a new wave of conspiracy theories—and adherents—have gained traction on the internet. From Alex Jones's smearing of Sandy Hook families to lies about Parkland crisis actors to renewed chatter about lizard people secretly running the world to dangerous near-tragedies like PizzaGate and, most recently, QAnon types showing up at Trump rallies, ours is a moment rife with fresh paranoia. Yet even if the way false and toxic narratives take shape and spread may be changing, they all owe something to the forefather of modern conspiracy theorists, William Milton Cooper. Among other things, he was the author of Behold a Pale Horse, a strange book that was considered required reading when I first went inside the belly of the beast—a.k.a. federal prison—to serve a 25-year sentence for an LSD conviction in 1993.
In his own forthcoming book, Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy, and the Fall of Trust in America, Mark Jacobson—who penned the New York magazine article on Harlem druglord Frank Lucas that was turned into Denzel Washington’s American Gangster—explores the life of Cooper and his legacy in American culture. Cooper espoused all kinds of conspiracy theories involving JFK’s assassination, the idea that AIDS was a government creation, and that the Illuminati actually help the US government deal with aliens. In prison, Cooper was viewed as a hero who clued in the oppressed and gave them the 4-1-1. He was ultimately killed in a shootout with cops—he shot a sheriff's deputy in the head—in Apache County, Arizona, shortly after September 11.
VICE caught up with Jacobson to talk about why Cooper’s book is so popular in the subcultures of prison and hip-hop, whether Cooper's radio show set the stage for modern hucksters like Alex Jones, and how much of our unhinged discourse can really be attributed to one man.
VICE: What drew you to William Cooper?
Mark Jacobson: I'm always interested in people that nobody knows who they are, for the most part. In prison, people know who William Cooper is and in Harlem they know, but most people have no idea. People like that are always interesting to me. I first found out about him completely by chance. A friend of mine was dying and I was at the hospital. His son told me, "There's something I got to show you.”
I thought it was about his father. It turns out he'd found this video tape and it's William Cooper talking about the Kennedy assassination and how the driver shot Kennedy. I'm looking at it and... if you smoke enough blunts you can see anything. I just always remembered that weird experience. And then one day I'm walking down the street in my neighborhood and I see ODB, Ol' Dirty Bastard, the guy from the Wu-Tang Clan. His mother lives in my neighborhood. It was early on in the Wu-Tang Clan career, right after 36 Chambers.
I see he's reading this book by William Cooper, Behold a Pale Horse. I said, "Hey, man," and he didn't even look up. But when those kind of things happen, if you're the kind of journalist I am, they just stick in your head. I don't really go out and cover stuff, I just think about things and see what can happen. Around 2013, I got this feeling that William Cooper is important. I began to research him and it turned out that the story, as opposed to getting less interesting, got more interesting. Then Trump and all this other stuff happened [and it] became [very] timely.
After researching and writing the book, it seemed like you decided he was obviously espousing a lot of crazy, false, and dangerous, damaging, stuff, but also, somehow, was more than mere peddler of conspiracy theories. How so?
He was actually legitimately searching for the meaning of some things.
Everybody's talking about the word freedom. [But] what exactly does that mean? What does it mean to be free? He was somebody who was obsessed with this idea, but he didn't feel free. He felt imprisoned even when he wasn't in jail, which is, I think, the reason why he got so popular among prisoners. He had a real sense of being in prison—this idea that people are watching you and trying to keep you from getting to be a free person.
Most people would call this paranoia in the clinical sense, but it was a global paranoia [and] most people feel it. You feel it most extremely when you're in a situation where you actually are confined. Cooper was looking for the reasons why he felt confined even though he was living in America, supposedly the bastion of freedom. This became a search for him. I'm not trying to set him up as somebody who was an honest speaker, because he cut a lot of corners and said a lot of stuff that wasn't true.
He sense [was] “freedom is the most important thing I'm seeking, [so] why don't I feel free?” That was the thing that he really was concentrating on. I think that all this stuff with the Illuminati and the flying saucers and all this kind of stuff was his different reasons for why he wasn't free, and why he was being kept from actually being a free human being. If he was just a huckster and full of shit all the time and trying to put things over on people, I wouldn't have been interested enough to go through the whole thing.
How did Cooper's background play into his ability to become a sort of forefather of modern conspiracy theorists?
He was a gung-ho guy from a military family, [but] when he went to Vietnam, it began to dawn on him that it was all bullshit. These people were just fighting for their own freedom and the Americans were there to try to stop them from getting what they wanted. It's a much more complicated situation than what I just said, but to him, it seemed like, "Well, I don't know if I'm fighting on the right side here.” Then when he got [into] Naval Intelligence and a lot of the stuff they were saying was actually contrary to the actual intelligence papers that he was reading.
He began to think, "Wow. This is really a problem here.” [From Vietnam] he got serious PTSD [and] was in the VA twice. That sort of armed his personality about looking [for] the person that was telling you one thing, but actually wasn't telling you the truth. That seems to be the way everything is now. But that's not the way it was back in the 1960s. People still believed what the government said, strangely enough. There's always been conspiracy theorists, but for the modern conspiracists, Cooper is the father. You always hear from people about the Federal Reserve and the [Illuminati]—he really brought all that stuff up.
"I think if you're, say, a black man in America, you have every reason to be paranoid, right?"
I read Cooper's book in prison and it's not what you’d call a page-turner or anything. Why do you think the book is so big in prison and hip-hop?
Those guys reading the book in prison are really the beginning of the modern conspiracy thing. That kind of thing like, "They're out to get me. They're watching me. They're fucking with me. Everybody's looking through all my phone calls." Nobody in the world doesn't think that their information is being stripped [nowadays.] There is this kind of sense that, "I'm getting screwed and there's people out to get me, who are they?" And people don't like to say, "Well, it's really me. It's really my fuck up." People don't like to think about that. They want to blame it on somebody else.
Not everybody, but a lot of people do. And I think if you're, say, a black man in America, you have every reason to be paranoid, right? You have every reason to be paranoid, because they are out to get you. When they started reading that first chapter, Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars—and then there's another one called The Secret Government—Cooper was looking for some reason why people were being oppressed and why he felt like a prisoner even though he was trying to do his own thing and the rappers [and prisoners] picked up on that kind of stuff. In their way, they we're looking for the same thing that William Cooper was looking for.
Almost ten years later [after seeing ODB with the book], I actually interviewed him just about a couple months before he died. I went and talked to him, because he was supposedly finishing his record he never finished. I reminded him of this time that I saw him reading this book, and he said, "Oh, yeah. William Cooper, that's right.” I said, "Well, what is it about William Cooper?” He said, "Well, everybody in this world is getting fucked. What William Cooper does is tell you who's fucking you. When you're somebody like me, that's a really significant thing."
Prodigy [from Mobb Deep] read Behold a Pale Horse [too]. He did a guest spot on a LL Cool J video called "I Shot Ya." He comes out and says, "The Illuminati wants my mind, soul, and my body," and, "The secret society keep their eye on me." This is all the shit that he learned in the William Cooper book. I interviewed him before he died and he said the first time he ever saw the world Illuminati was in Behold a Pale Horse. In 1996, Jay-Z picked it up, and quotes Prodigy's line. But once Jay-Z is saying it, you might as well have it on the radio 24 hours a day, right? You see how this stuff just travels through the culture.
On the darker side of our culture, though, do you think it's fair to argue Cooper's radio show The Hour of the Time set the stage for Alex Jones?
Alex Jones was growing up in Texas listening to William Cooper on the radio. A lot of people just know the book, they don't know the radio show. When he was on, it was hard to beat him. He really had great delivery, his voice was good, and sometimes if he had a couple of drinks he could be fantastic. It's spellbinding. Really good. When Alex Jones first got his show, he would have William Cooper on every so often, and Cooper's a total paranoid. He's against anybody that has a radio show, it doesn't make a difference if it's good or bad. He didn't like Alex Jones.
There’s a long list of his programs on The Hour of the Time website, and [in one] called "Alex Jones, Liar," he just goes off on Alex Jones. That's 17 years ago, he's calling Alex Jones a liar. When he knows that he's Alex Jones's hero. Yeah, [Jones] got a lot of his stuff from him, but I don't think [Jones] really followed through on William Cooper's ethic, so to speak. If you look through his programs every once in a while, you can see he trashes William Cooper sometimes. [But it’s] pretty clear that he actually admires William Cooper.
Is it fair to say Cooper also facilitated Trump's rise?
Trump is a product of a narrative that comes out of both conspiracy and religious feelings. The idea that Hillary Clinton is part of the Illuminati, as Bill Cooper always claimed, might be cracked, but it carries a lot of force. Conspiracy always wages war against the establishment. That is one of the best things about conspiracy, which might as well be called parapolitics. It would be hard to find someone who seemed more establishment than Hillary. So it makes sense for someone who sees the Clintons as the elite to vote against them. The crazy thing is that many people saw Trump, the billionaire, as not part of the elite. The religious reasons to vote for Trump seem more interesting to me. The idea that he is some chosen person whom God has taken from the life of real-estate huckster and philanderer is in keeping with notion of the born-again sinner who is given another chance through the grace of Jesus. It makes no sense to secular people, but it is compelling to believers. What is left to decide is whether this kind of religious thinking falls under the same tent as conspiracy.
How does a situation like Sandy Hook and the deniers out there—who insist the tragedy didn't happen as we know it did—fit into Cooper's modern conspiracy theory and impact his legacy?
One of Cooper's most quoted paragraphs from Behold a Pale Horse predicts the rise of school shootings by people exactly like Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook gunman. What Cooper said was the excessive prescription of drugs like Ritalin to young children would inevitably create these incidents. That was a legitimate argument against big pharma and indifferent schooling, both of which Cooper attacked. As for the next stage conspiracy stuff, the crisis actors, etc., the stuff Alex Jones is in trouble for now, I cannot in a million years imagine Cooper saying that. To me the Sandy Hook stuff comes down to sheer cruelty. And even if Cooper said many harsh things, he loved his children (even the ones he abandoned) and revered the family. He might have supported Jones on First Amendment grounds but he would have denounced the thoughtlessness of these claims. Cooper was a conspiracy guy, a desperate man in search of some skewered version of the truth, [but] he wasn't a sicko. He never intentionally hurt anyone just to make a buck.
What about QAnon? What would Cooper think of the events surrounding their rise?
Cooper pretty much hated any and all competition. He hated Art Bell. He hated Rush Limbaugh. He hated every other patriot broadcaster and every other UFO person. To say he didn't play well with others is an under statement. So he probably would have seen QAnon is competition and hated it too. To me QAnon has little to do with conspiracy or the deep state: The Q message is basically about the new Eden that great Trump figure is going to lead his followers to once the Armageddon against the liberals is over and won. This probably sounds crazier than anything Bill Cooper or Donald Trump ever said, but that's what spending a few years working on this material does to you.
Cooper died in a shootout with cops in Arizona. Was that just him going out in a blaze of glory, or am I romanticizing?
To my mind, that's one of the most complicated suicide-by-cop things that you've ever seen, because he really wants the feds to come up there and shoot him dead so he can be a martyr. When they won't do it, and the local police won't do it, he's up there waiting to shoot it out with the police. I found that to be poignant. But then eventually it worked out that way.
Learn more about Jacobson's book, out next month, here.