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Fact-checking QAnon conspiracy theories: Did J.P. Morgan sink the Titanic?

During President Trump’s rally on July 31, several attendees held or wore signs with the letter “Q.” Here’s what the QAnon conspiracy theory is about. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

When the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, several well-known millionaires were counted among the 1,503 dead. “Noted Men on the Lost Titanic,” announced a New York Times headline: “Col. Jacob Astor, with His Wife; Isidor Straus and Wife, and Benj. Guggenheim Abroad.” Obituaries followed for Astor, the New York builder of hotels and skyscrapers; Straus, a banker and owner of Macy’s department store; and Guggenheim, a builder of mining machinery.

But one of the world’s richest men had avoided his fate.

J. Pierpont Morgan “had thought earlier in the year to return to America on the ill-fated Titanic,” The Washington Post reported on April 19. “Then Mr. Morgan decided to lengthen his stay abroad.”

Now, 106 years later, the pro-Trump online conspiracy-theory group QAnon has made Morgan the villain of a wildly implausible story. In its sinister tale, Morgan sank the Titanic to assassinate Astor, Straus and Guggenheim, his supposed rival millionaires.

But the story falls apart fast if you spend a little time in historic newspaper databases or a good library. QAnon may have only surfaced nine months ago, but its obsession with the Rothschilds, the Illuminati, the CIA’s supposed Operation Mockingbird, Morgan and the Titanic revives decades, even centuries, of moth-eaten paranoia.

QAnon: Meet a real-life believer in the online, pro-Trump conspiracy theory that’s bursting into view

The Titanic and J.P. Morgan

The ship’s sinking still captivates imaginations, as both a genuine tragedy and a near-perfect metaphor for humanity’s hubris. Ever since the luxury liner went down, conspiracy theories have clung to it like barnacles. One elaborate theory says the 46,000-ton vessel was switched with its sister ship, the Olympic, in a convoluted insurance scam, a fake iceberg collision that went horribly wrong.

Compared to other Titanic blarney, the J.P. Morgan theory is relatively new, but QAnon didn’t invent it — it’s been echoing inside Internet rabbit holes for years.

Morgan did indeed have a connection to the Titanic: His International Mercantile Marine company owned the White Star Line, which built and operated the ship. Morgan witnessed the Titanic’s launching in Belfast, on May 31, 1911.

Supposedly, the conspiracists say, Morgan canceled his Titanic trip at the last minute before the ship’s April 10, 1912, departure from Southampton, England. Then Morgan somehow had the ship sunk, killing 1,503 of its 2,224 passengers, to get rid of Astor, Straus and Guggenheim.

How did he do it? The theory is unclear on that, but the plot supposedly involved ensuring the ship had the wrong signal flares. In a sci-fi-horror twist, believers also claim the Titanic’s decks could be electromagnetically sealed to trap passengers. “Some of the ‘facts’ offered up in the retellings of this tale are absolutely hysterical to read, at least to anyone familiar with the historical facts,” wrote maritime historian J. Kent Layton in his 2016 book “Conspiracies at Sea: Titanic and Lusitania.”

Even more sinister is Morgan’s supposed motive for mass murder: The conspiracists falsely claim Astor, Straus, and Guggenheim opposed the creation of the Federal Reserve, the nation’s central bank. (Alternate versions of the tale don’t blame Morgan, but either the Rothschild banking family or the Jesuits.)

Morgan’s actual reason for not sailing on the Titanic’s maiden voyage is well-documented. According to Jean Strouse’s 1999 biography “Morgan: American Financier and Brad Matsen’s 2008 book “Titanic’s Last Secrets,” Morgan was busy trying to ship his vast art collection in England and France by sea to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. In late March, he hit a setback: a U.S. Customs Office art specialist, sent to London to inspect the shipments, unexpectedly left for the States. Morgan stopped the shipments, asked the art dealer supervising them to meet him in France in mid-April, and sent a telegram to the White Star Line’s president with his regrets: Business would keep him from sailing on the Titanic.

At least one of Morgan’s supposed enemies, Guggenheim, didn’t book his spot on the Titanic until April 8, after Morgan canceled, according to a news account from the time. And despite the sinister insinuation, Astor, Guggenheim and Straus didn’t oppose the creation of the Federal Reserve. A digital search of key U.S. newspapers of the era doesn’t show Astor or Guggenheim taking a position on the Fed. But Straus did. He spoke publicly in favor of the proposal to create a federal reserve, according to two October 1911 stories in the New York Times.

Operation Mockingbird

QAnon posters dismiss press reports they do not like by claiming they are part of “Operation Mockingbird,” supposedly a continuation of a 1950s CIA program to distribute propaganda through the media.

The CIA really did cultivate extensive relationships with the American press: Former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein reported in Rolling Stone in 1977 that CIA files showed 400 reporters had “secretly carried out assignments” for the agency in the ’50s through ’70s.

A declassified 1965 CIA memo names at least 20 prominent journalists whom a CIA deputy director briefed from 1957 to 1965. For years, conspiracists identified this effort as “Operation Mockingbird,” based on a 1967 article in Ramparts. But the actual “Project Mockingbird” was something different: a 1963 CIA effort to wiretap two Washington journalists believed to have received top-secret leaks. QAnon, though, uses the phrase “mockingbird” to mock all mainstream media, as if the CIA program still exists and controls everything.

The Rothschilds

QAnon has embraced a centuries-old anti-Semitic trope about an international banking conspiracy, claiming the Rothschild dynasty is funding an evil global plot. The Rothschild family founded banking houses across Europe in the early 1800s, and they have been a favorite target of conspiracy theorists ever since.

Hundreds of unproved, bizarre and anti-Semitic allegations have been leveled against the Rothschilds for centuries.

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The list of their supposed atrocities includes controlling the world economy, bankrolling Adolf Hitler, plotting to kill Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, founding Israel, funding the Islamic State, inflicting financial distress on Asians and, most recently, messing with the weather.

When did this craziness about the Rothschilds begin? The Post’s Mike Rosenwald writes that it dates back to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. According to an 1846 political pamphlet signed “Satan,” Nathan Rothschild, once the richest man in the world, exploited his knowledge of Napoleon’s defeat to make a fortune on the London Stock Exchange. Satan didn’t reveal his sources on this, but conspiracy theorists ate it up.

The Illuminati

Some QAnon fans have embraced one of the all-time oldest conspiracy tropes, which dates back to the late 1700s. The actual Illuminati, an anti-Jesuit group of Germans with Masonic symbolism influences, formed in Bavaria in 1776 and was disbanded in 1785 after Bavaria’s ruler banned secret societies, according to “The Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories.”

But their reputation has spread ever since, with generations of paranoids convinced they still exist, which is often bolstered by Hollywood. Exhibit A: the plot of Dan’s Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.”

“Perhaps because of the complete lack of any evidence for who the Illuminati actually are,” wrote the “Rough Guide” authors, James McConnachie and Robin Tudge, “they have simply become whatever conspiracists want them to be.

Erick Trickey is a Boston-based freelance writer who teaches magazine journalism at Boston University. Michael S. Rosenwald contributed to this report. 

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