The Absolutely True, Somewhat Spurious and Totally Impossible


Was the Watergate break-in plotted in a Nob Hill saloon? Did Bill Clinton narrowly escape an assassin's bullet outside the posh Fairmont Hotel during campaign '92? And did the CIA's San Francisco mind-control experiments, which began in North Beach, culminate in the mass suicides of Jonestown, Guyana?

San Francisco has been a magnet for plotters, spooks and spies since its earliest days. Consider John C. Fremont: Was he secretly playing the Polk administration's trump card when he paddled across the Golden Gate in 1846 and claimed San Francisco for the U.S.-backed Bear Flag putsch? Or was Fremont just a hard-drinking lone nut? Scholars still debate the point 150 years later. What is certain is that conspiracy -- in all its forms -- has as much to do with the history of the Bay Area as liquor and gold. Chalk it up to the city's free-wheelin' Barbary Coast adolescence: San Francisco continues to thrive at the point on the horizon where the nefarious tendrils of conspiracy converge, where they bury the bodies, shred the documents and plan their next subterranean move.

Who are they? You have to ask the investigators, the latter-day Cassandras willing to spend their lives peeling the onion, cracking the codes and reading between the lines. In their world, the distinction between paranoid delusion and speculative history is academic. Spend enough time in this netherworld, poring over declassified documents for that nugget that will explain the world's mysteries, and see if you don't wake up changed one morning. Sometimes the price of this passion is public ridicule, sometimes a broken marriage. You could even pay for your curiosity with your life.

What is a conspiracy? And why has it become such common currency in fin de-sicle America? The standard definition of conspiracy is a secret plan shared by two or more people conniving together toward a common goal. The payoff is usually morally questionable (in legal patois, a conspiracy must result in an illegal act), but the keystone to conspiracy is secrecy. Whether you're talking about the slippery 1963 Dallas coup d'Žtat or the very real Iran-contra scandal, conspiracy is a beast best bred in the dark. And as we lumber into the information age, the crepuscular disclosures of the conspiracy theorist can seem like words from the burning bush -- each new take on history, real or imagined, offering those in the know something resembling insight.

Besides, conspiracy can be a gas. A few beers, a nod and a wink, and any room full of cynics can become a veritable cabalistic think tank; especially in San Francisco, where conspiracy grumbles just beneath the surface like a tectonic plate.

Here, then, is a collection of the Bay Area's 10 best conspiracies, real and surreal tales of secret deception, government cover-ups and covert cabals as sordid and murky as the gray waters of the bay.

Uncle Sam's Acid House
You may shrug when conspiracy theorists claim the U.S. government is concealing evidence of space aliens among us. You may wince when the cocktail chatter turns to the satanic plot to implant subcutaneous microchip IDs in our foreheads. But you probably listen anyway, because the government does resort to some bizarre subterfuges to accomplish its questionable goals.

Take, for example, the well-documented CIA mind-control experiments conducted by the CIA in the '50s and '60s, in which the Agency spent a wad drugging innocent (and not so innocent) civilians in San Francisco.

According to John Marks' groundbreaking 1979 book, The Search for the Manchurian Candidate, the CIA believed the Chinese had successfully brainwashed POWs during the Korean War, so it launched its own mind-control program in 1953: MKULTRA. The goal of MKULTRA was to open the deepest reaches of the mind to Agency manipulation, and in addition to financing numerous psychological studies in universities, the CIA established a brothel in San Francisco where "subjects" were dosed -- without their knowledge or consent -- with pure Sandoz LSD.

In 1955, the CIA contracted George White, a hard-drinking federal Narcotics Bureau investigator, to operate a "safe house" at 225 Chestnut Street on Telegraph Hill. White decorated the posh digs to reflect the clientele he hoped to "entertain." Bawdy Victorian bondage pictures hung on the walls next to garish Toulouse-Lautrec prints; microphones were installed along with two-way mirrors and a fully stocked liquor cabinet, all at Agency expense.

The roguish White amassed a stable of call girls, each of whom he paid $100 a night for her services. He also promised to shield them from police; White was the renowned narcotics cop who busted Billie Holiday and her husband for opium possession in a Tenderloin hotel in 1949. The cops assumed the girls were helping rope in drug traffickers; nothing was further from the truth.

In reality -- or what passed for reality at the "safe house" -- the pricey prostitutes trolled the North Beach bar scene for clients; once back at the safe house, the johns were slipped an acid mickey and the fun would begin. In the interest of national security, the ensuing electric rutfest was observed by White, sitting on a portable toilet behind a two-way mirror, a pitcher of martinis at the ready.

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