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Photograph by Demond Meek
In 1991, when journalist Danny Casolaro was found floating in a blood-filled bathtub with a shoelace wrapped around his throat, the coroner ruled it a suicide. But people who knew Casolaro and knew why he was at the Sheraton Inn in Martinsburg, Va., where his body was found, never believed it was anything but murder.
Casolaro had traveled to Martinsburg to meet with one last source—the one, he said, who would help him cinch up the book he'd been working on for more than a year. He called it The Octopus, the same term he used to describe the cabal of spies, spooks, crooks and politicians he'd uncovered in his research—a group whose ties he had traced to, among other things, Iran-Contra, the Bay of Pigs, the October Surprise and even Area 51. But whomever it was that Casolaro was to meet in Martinsburg on August 9 never showed up. And on August 10, when two housekeepers found Casolaro's body in the tub, his fat accordion file of notes (which friends say he took with him everywhere) was conspicuously missing, along with his briefcase.
A few months after his brother's death, Tony Casolaro collected what was left of Danny's notes and clippings (the accordion file never resurfaced, and neither did the briefcase), turning them over to ABC News in hopes that the network would follow up on some of the leads his brother had uncovered. When ABC did nothing with the information, Tony took it to a friend at Investigative Reporters and Editors at the University of Missouri–Columbia's journalism school. The files were placed in IRE's archives. And that's where conspiracy researcher Kenn Thomas stumbled on them in 1993.
As it turns out, Danny Casolaro was correct when he guessed that The Octopus would rescue him from obscurity—he just didn't count on the subtitle of the book being Secret Government and the Death of Danny Casolaro. Penned by Thomas and his late writing partner Jim Keith in 1996, The Octopus is one of the most popular and accessible titles in the conspiracy genre; when the first edition went out of print, it became a collector's item and was priced for as much as $100 on Amazon.com. Thomas and Keith used the thin remains of Casolaro's research as a starting point (the 2004 second edition even includes an appendix listing the contents of Casolaro's news clippings file) but also pulled on "affidavits filed by arms merchants and convicted felons; mainstream and non-mainstream political sources, including some that publish messages received from channeled aliens, others notorious for their far-right connections, lite-left leanings and radical chic pose; unattributed sources on the Internet; anonymous samizdat; participants in Casolaro's investigation; peripheral players; researchers who knew Casolaro; and researchers whose work expanded on the Octopus thesis." Rather than apologizing for this motley—and not always academic—tangle of sources, the pair simply directed their readers to the copious footnotes, encouraging them to "track these sources and make their own judgments concerning credibility."
Welcome to the world of conspiracy research, where Christian Libertarians who see the Illuminati's nefarious influence in everything from world politics to the design of gum wrappers fraternize with '60s hedonists who never abandoned their mission to fight The Man; add to the mix former military and intelligence personnel, professors, journalists, New Agers, geeks, hipsters, whistle-blowers, snake-oil salesmen, housewives, physicists and, of course, genuine paranoid wing nuts. In the conspiracy world, the red state–blue state rift never occurred. "We may all be nuts," Thomas told The New York Times in 1995, "but we're not all the same nuts." Thomas claims the left wing–right wing division is itself part of the conspiracy—as he told The Riverfront Times that same year, "the real division is the top and the bottom."
Thomas was born and raised in St. Louis and at first seems an unlikely conspiracy researcher. When he's not in a suit, he's at least in a dress shirt, with a neatly trimmed beard and a sort of ease that could not coexist with true raging paranoia. He reminds you of those cool sociology professors you had in college who looked buttoned up from the outside but taught units on the Yippies, included Jack Kerouac and H.L. Mencken on the reading list and screened 200 Motels in class. Thomas, who works as an archivist for the Western Historical Manuscripts Collection at the University of Missouri–St. Louis' Thomas Jefferson Library, has been a key figure in the conspiracy underground for years; his magazine, Steamshovel Press, has deeply influenced the underground conspiracy movement and also surfaced in mainstream popular culture, from The New Yorker to The X-Files to Baseball Prospectus, which opined that Major League Baseball boasted "enough fishy behavior to keep Kenn Thomas swarming for years." Thomas even wonders out loud if he and fellow conspiracy newsletter publishers Greg Bishop, editor of the now-defunct Excluded Middle, and Jim Martin of Flatland were perhaps the inspiration for The X-Files' Lone Gunmen; in fact, he saw smatterings of Steamshovel in Mel Gibson's Conspiracy Theory, too.
"Everything in there, everything this cab driver guy spots, is right out of Steamshovel Press," Thomas says. "There are two anthologies, basically back issues of Steamshovel. Brian Helgeland, the screenwriter, bought both of those books [Popular Alienation and Popular Paranoia] from Jim Martin at Flatland Press." Thomas says he's also seen material from the Steamshovel website show up on TV: "There was a show called Dark Skies on the SciFi channel that mixed in real historical figures with this whole alien story. I did some research one week on Dorothy Kilgallen; the next week, Dorothy Kilgallen was a character on the show. So I write a column about Carl Sagan—in the '60s Sagan presented a paper to all these rocket scientists on aliens—and the next week, Carl Sagan was a character on the show. So they're cribbing off the website." Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. "I've been told many times that I need to go to Hollywood and exploit this," Thomas laughs. "The thing about living in St. Louis is, for $200 you can go to any city in this country, and L.A.-centered stuff, New York–centered stuff—that's part of the conspiracy. It's part of the homogenizing of the world. I don't want to be part of that. I want a bigger picture. And you have to work harder to live in L.A. I think I've stumbled upon the perfect place."
That perfect place is somewhere up in North County, where Thomas bought a really lovely house—"the Everly Brothers' family owned it, it's this 100-year-old Victorian Folk house, and it's got a huge yard"—but doesn't want to go into more detail than that. Years ago, he took out a P.O. box and prefers to keep his address on the down-low. Though the first few issues of Steamshovel didn't attract a lot of attention (the inaugural issue was a stapled-and-photocopied affair, containing a Q&A with Ram Dass [formerly Richard Alpert, who had worked alongside Timothy Leary in Harvard's LSD experiments] that'd been orphaned after a local newspaper reneged on its agreement to publish it), Thomas says he continued to publish in order to get free review books from publishers, and when he switched to conspiracy topics, he immediately regretted printing his home address on the back cover. Weird people started showing up on his doorstep.
"One of them was an old guy who was just driving across the country and living out of his car," Thomas says, shaking his head. "The other guy's actually become a friend of mine and takes me out to the gun range, tries to teach me to shoot. He used to shoot with Burroughs—he went to school in Lawrence. That was another weird little coincidence. It was easy for him to track me down, but this other guy was from Texas …"
Ah, that's the other thing: coincidences. And Burroughs. Thomas studied literature at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, where he befriended Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs (he spoke at the ceremony when Burroughs' star was added to the Loop's Walk of Fame). The second issue of Steamshovel was dedicated to the theories of Wilhelm Reich, the scientist who developed a kind of chi accumulator he called an orgone box. Thomas (who quips that Burroughs became his neighbor … after he died and was buried in Bellefontaine) says he's noticed that "the grass is lighter around Burroughs' grave, and I tried to make the case that this is because Burroughs sat in the orgone box every day of his life. He was a Reichian. He had more life energy." (It could be true; junkies don't often live to be octogenarians.) Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson, co-author of The Illuminatus! Trilogy, were also friends. So Thomas' approach to conspiracy is a decidedly literary one; the third issue of Steamshovel featured poet Amiri Baraka, though even then it seems that conspiracy sneaked in somehow: Baraka talked about being the only member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in New York; Lee Harvey Oswald was the only member in New Orleans. (Relating this fact makes Thomas roar with laughter.) Much later, Baraka would be jettisoned from his post as poet laureate of New Jersey after delivering an angry, conspiracy-heavy poem about what happened on 9/11.
"But that third issue, Mae Brussell died," Thomas says. (Brussell was a Jewish housewife in California who put forth her own sort of Octopus theory based on a transcript of the Warren Commission hearings and thousands upon thousands of newspaper clippings.) "Also," Thomas continues, "there was another magazine called Critique, which was a conspiracy magazine—but that guy joined a cult and changed the magazine to Sacred Fire, and the magazine was dedicated to the homilies of his guru. It was like breakin' my heart, because I was putting out this free newsletter to hustle some books and I was into poetry, but it looked like the whole conspiracy world was falling apart—what the heck is going to happen? So I did a call for papers—'People who are interested in conspiracy, send me your stuff.' And then, that must have been '92, and to this day—I just came from the post office—to this day I get things like this …"
He pulls out a newsletter from The Worldwide Conspiracy of Einsteinian Relativity. The return address is San Quentin Prison. "I haven't totally read it yet," Thomas says. "He's even sent me a photo of himself. Still, the people in prison, I want to say, 'If you're so damn smart, what are you doing in prison?'"
It's actually been a light day at the post office. Lately, Thomas has been keeping a low profile; he has been planting lilies in his yard and swears that now that he has a house, "I just want to be landed gentry for a while." He has two kids, a daughter in college and a son who's just on the cusp of high school. It was during a trip to the airport to pick up his daughter that he realized that he didn't miss his life during the '90s and early noughts, especially after 9/11—where he regularly showed up on shows like Kevin Nealon's The Conspiracy Zone or stepped off airplanes only to be greeted by a constellation of flashing camera bulbs. "I remember one time flying into London, and I was received like I was one of the Beatles," he laughs. "There were flash cameras going off, guys with microphones saying, 'Can you talk about this, Mr. Thomas …?' I was blown away. But then there were other times when I used to do the Reich talk—it's very difficult to talk about, he was a very complicated guy who used his own language and created his own technology, so the talk can sound a little academic. I remember one time going to a conference, doing a little workshop on Reich, where like only six people signed up."
He doesn't, he says, miss the rock-star life. He'd rather be planting hostas. After his distributor, Fine Print, went belly-up around 2000, Steamshovel—like many small presses—had a tough time getting distributed, and Thomas didn't actually print Steamshovel Press No. 23; it's a PDF. Everything was, rather logically, rolling to a nice, clean stop.
But somehow, this spring Thomas once again found himself getting ready to embark on another rock-star tour: the first stop being RetroCon, a UFO conference held at the Integratron, a stylized, flying-saucer–shaped building constructed in the Mojave Desert in the '50s by a UFO contactee, George Van Tassell, who swore it channeled positive energy from the universe. Thomas delivered two lectures, one on a UFO sighting at Maury Island in Washington State and one on "Jack Kirby, Conspiracy Theorist." (Kirby was the co-creator of a number of Marvel Comics heroes, including the X-Men, Captain America, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four.) Then it was off to the Beyond Knowledge Conference in Liverpool, where he delivered another Maury Island lecture and one on Reich. And this doesn't even take into account a possible book tour in the fall, when Feral House, the publisher of The Octopus, releases Secret and Suppressed II, Thomas' follow-up to Jim Keith's 1993 book, which, among other things, introduced the term "men in black" to the mainstream—and contained the essay that eventually became The Octopus.
Now, before we proceed any further, it's important to know that the term "conspiracy theorist" is considered pejorative by guys like Thomas. The term "conspiracy researcher" is OK; "parapolitical researcher" is infinitely better: "Politics, of course, is going out and voting for people," Thomas says. "The 'para-' is everything that goes on behind the scenes in that process." And the popular perception of the conspiracy theorist "is a cartoon picture created by the media to keep people from taking these kinds of issues seriously," Thomas says, with a touch of crankiness in his voice, relating the term to a phenomenon he calls "the laughter curtain." Area 51 is the classic example: Disseminate enough dopey misinformation about little green men, and no one will pay attention to the trillions of dollars being funneled into the military-industrial complex via Area 51's black budget.
Of course, a cursory look through any of Thomas' dozen books, or an issue of Steamshovel, will clue you in to why the term irritates him so. As an archivist, his research is naturally both sweeping and impeccable. He's filed thousands of Freedom of Information Act requests. (Tip: File multiple times for the same material, and one day you'll get a clueless clerk—that's how Thomas ended up with all of Wilhelm Reich's prison correspondence.) He's made multiple trips to the National Archives for material related to the JFK assassination, which is more difficult than it sounds. You have to know what document to request before the archives will hand it over to you, so doing research there requires a lot of preresearch. He's a Jedi with LexisNexis and other research tools; he knows how to dig for information that other people don't know how to dig for, and then he publishes it. Nothing sexier than that. No tinfoil hats, no special Google-fu, no channeling. Just enormous stacks of documents.
"You have to create a triangulation of research, the bulletin-board model of research where you take the bits of data that come in and every one of them has a bias, you have to find out where the bias is, pin it up on a bulletin board," Thomas explains, sounding every bit the archivist. "When you find a certain kind of information clustered somewhere, you realize you're onto something. That's the whole metaphor of Steamshovel Press—your desk gets piled up with bits of information, and you need to create a metaphor for pushing it out of the way. It actually comes from a Dylan song: 'takes a steam shovel to clear out my head.'"
In an attempt to correct the semantics a little, Thomas created the motto "All conspiracy. No theory," which you'll see at the top of his site, steamshovelpress.com, and above the magazine's logo. Though bypassing the theory part sometimes gets him in trouble (he's pissed off some people by documenting, for instance, that it was indeed a plane that hit the Pentagon, not a missile, as some 9/11 conspiracists allege), his only-publish-what-you-can-document approach has earned him the respect of those who normally dismiss conspiracists, and he's absolutely spooked out the true believers; Bob Girard of Arcturus Books said Steamshovel would "feed that dark feeling in the pit of your gut." But Thomas' good friend Greg Bishop says that's not the point.
"It's informed by history and creativity and radicalism and basic mistrust of people in power," he says. "Kenn's about eight or nine years older than me, but I also admire William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac and Leary and Ginsberg and all those people. I include a lot of UFO writers and paranormal writers and psychedelic researchers in my universe of what's going on. Kenn does not quite as much, but we still have that same spirit of being suspicious of people that don't have most of the population's interest in mind."
That lack of magnanimousness seems to especially extend to segments of the population that like to go poking around in the Octopus' business. Casolaro was warned several times, sometimes by his sources, that the information he was compiling could be dangerous to his health. And Thomas' friend and co-author Jim Keith, who wrote for Steamshovel, also died under mysterious circumstances; after suffering a knee injury at Burning Man in 1999, he was taken to Washoe Medical Center in Reno. Before being taken into surgery, Keith told his nephew, "I have the feeling that if they put me under, I am not coming back." He was correct. Though the hospital ruled that Keith's death resulted from a blood clot that moved from the site of the injury to his lung, Thomas theorizes that it possibly resulted from tissue contaminated with clostridium bacteria, incidentally one of the superbugs being bred in government laboratories for warfare purposes, which Keith had discussed in his last book, Biowarfare in America (anthrax is another popular germ in weapons labs). Two years later, Ron Bonds, publisher of IllumiNet Press, which had issued Biowarfare, died of clostridium poisoning after eating in a Mexican restaurant—right around the corner from the tissue bank that had been the source of clostridium-infected tendons that had resulted in the deaths of several people undergoing knee surgery. Of course, one is tempted to ask Thomas: Does he ever get nervous about these things?
"Well, you know, Jim Keith and I used to have this discussion: 'How come they don't come after us?' It's not a conversation I can have with Jim Keith anymore," Thomas says. Though he'll josh about black helicopters and aliens, this is not a subject he can approach with levity, not yet. "I have no proof, but Jim Keith, it's a horrible burden to try and communicate what kind of guy he was, because he was funnier and more charming than I will ever be. In Casolaro's case, he thought what would protect him would be to turn this into a fictional novel. It doesn't matter—if you start doing a real investigation and start talking to people, they don't care if you're going to write a novel or a story for The New York Times. They just know that you're poking around where you don't need to be. And that could've been what happened to Keith."
And who are "they"? Thomas laughs. "'They' are different people at different times. This whole question of why haven't they killed me—why did they let Abbie Hoffman go for so long? He's part of the Octopus story. He was delivering his write-up of the Iran-Contra affair when he was forced off the road by a truck. So why don't they just form an army and go out and shoot every dissident in the country?"—he's again laughing now—"But they don't. Sometimes they kill people, sometimes they have the laughter curtain. They make us look like crazy people. That's the thing about great journalists—they know what not to ask! In some cases, it's just to maintain access to power, sometimes just to stay alive." And besides: "My mentor into the world of the weird was Timothy Leary. And Timothy Leary would never accept negative energy. Never. He was in prison, I remember seeing footage of him in 1970 where he was talking about 'Whoa, how cool is this? I can slow down. I can just sit here and write and read and learn.' He did that, and then he escaped! He went over the wall. For a while, he was in a cell right next to Charles Manson. He taught me that there's nothing to be afraid of. There's no reason to let it get you down. Soak it up. Fight back. And do dharma combat with it."
Perhaps it's naive to say this, but it seems that things have changed a bit since the early 1990s, when Danny Casolaro was intrepidly chasing the Octopus like a cross between Columbo and Jacques Cousteau. Whether it's the transparency brought about by the Web or the brazenness of the current administration in consolidating power in the executive branch or even the conspiracy underground's success in mainstreaming concepts like black helicopters and MIBs (men in black), it seems to have a slightly less opaque ink cloud to hide behind. Oddly enough, Thomas is finding this phenomenon a little irritating, at least as far as finishing the manuscript for Secret and Suppressed II goes. "We came up with the idea, believe it or not, of trying to—and this must've been in January—of trying to expose what a wacky church Barack Obama belonged to. That was obscure at that point!" Thomas laughs. Though the book's being released to coincide with the 2008 elections, Adam Parfrey, Thomas' editor at Feral House (which published both editions of The Octopus), says that's why they're concentrating on the bigger-picture stuff, like the larger implications of Diebold's electronic voting machines—and the Freemasons. "We have definitely discussed investigating Freemasonic influence—there's a lot of interest in that with The Da Vinci Code," Parfrey says. "Though we're trying not to have these bizarre intimations about the Vatican, but address Freemasonry as really a large issue in the military as well as the government—with actual, supportable evidence."
And though the lilies behind Thomas' house are no doubt flourishing (the Everly Brothers would be happy to know), his spring tour has him wondering how to knacker Steamshovel's distribution problems; Nexus magazine, he notices, is still on the stands, so there must be some way to do it. "I consider myself a permanent fixture," he says. "What I may do is stop the magazine at that and create a smaller, comic-book–sized zine, hold onto the name and put that at the top, so it'd be Steamshovel Press presents, say, Popular Alienation or Popular Paranoia and make it smaller and less expensive enough that it can come out more frequently."
And why abandon the life of the landed gentry? Same reason he always has. "It's just like when I first started Steamshovel—it was basically out of paranoia that because Mae Brussell had died and the other magazine that did conspiracy stuff had disappeared, I had to make sure it was there for me to consume," he says. "But even more so, now that the country's changing again … we have to stimulate and encourage a variety of points of view, eccentricities, the creative life.
"I try to get that across to the people who take this stuff too seriously," he says. "It's hard to do, because they're locked into reality tunnels—that was Leary's concept. You're locked into these certain reality tunnels, and you can't see the bigger picture and can't sympathize enough with another tunnel to see that there's something else."
Visit Kenn Thomas on the web at steamshovelpress.com; Secret and Supressed II will be released in October and will be available at Barnes & Noble, Borders, local bookstores, Amazon.com and feralhouse.com.