If you’re headed to Barnes & Noble to buy William Cooper’s paranoid masterpiece Behold A Pale Horse, don’t look for it in the stacks. That’s because the 1991 book—an ur-text for conspiracy theorists which has, says one critic, “the look of a scrapbook kept by a not too tightly wrapped mind”—has been routinely shoplifted and is now kept behind the counter at the B&N chain.
“Cooper was interested in the nature of evil in the universe,” says Mark Jacobson, author of the new book Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, The Rise of Conspiracy and the Fall of Trust In America, a biography of Cooper, his influences, and those he influenced. That interest led, says Jacobson, to dabbling in a number of conspiracy universes, including “the flying saucer people, and “secret societies like the Illuminati.”
Behold A Pale Horse was published by Light Technology, a New Age press based in Sedona, Arizona. It contains no classified information, but what Cooper described as “suppressed” material. There is, for example, a full chapter on the alleged concentration camps FEMA has set up to imprison Americans after the imposition of martial law. The book also includes the 1967 Report From Iron Mountain, the minutes of a supposed meeting involving military-industrial figures planning how to find a “political substitute for war” (the report is actually a spoof that conspiracy theorists accept as real.
More damning, Cooper chose to reprint the entire Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious anti-Semitic fabrication allegedly containing Jewish plans for world domination. Although Cooper claimed the word “Zion” should be replaced with “Sion” (the Priory of Sion was an ancient secret society) and the word “Jews” replaced with “Illuminati,” the stench of anti-Semitism has stuck to Cooper ever since (There is a YouTube video of Cooper, in which he reads the entire book).
“He was definitely anti-Semitic, but no more than a lot of people,” says Jacobson. “But you can't have conspiracy without Jews. They are the Gold Standard of conspiracy... they're not like us, they stick to themselves... Bill Cooper was a hater, but I never saw him as a hater of specific groups of people. No doubt it was a stupid move to include the entire Protocols in a book when you are claiming not to be anti-Semitic. His seemingly ludicrous point that the Illuminati forged the document to incriminate the Jews is a wild claim, but it is in keeping with his view that life is one big skullduggery."
Like the stopped clock that is correct twice daily, Cooper’s theories, disseminated through his book, lectures and “The Hour of the Time,” a radio program he hosted from 1993–2001, were occasionally on the money. He predicted the rise in school shootings, and, shortly before 9/11, that there would be a major attack on a U.S. city. But he also believed that JFK’s driver, not Lee Harvey Oswald, was the person who killed the president, and that “those we trust with our lives have sold us out to aliens from another world.” (If the aliens-human connection sounds familiar, think X-Files. The series creator, Chris Carter, has read Behold A Pale Horse, and told Jacobson that he “got inspiration from paranoia.”)
Cooper was also convinced that the Illuminati, a secret society founded in Germany in 1776, were engaged in mass social engineering that aimed at the abolishment of private property, patriotism, nationalism, family life, and religion. He also was tuned into “what’s behind the curtain” sci fi films like The Matrix and They Live, and believed the film 2001, with its alien presence controlling human evolution, was the key “to everything that has ever happened in the history of man, everything that is happening now, and everything in the future.”
Whew! If Cooper’s elaborate conspiracy theories make you feel like you’re high on acid, you’re probably not alone. And Jacobson’s book, which is sort of a Dummy’s Guide to All Things Wacko, is both fascinating and exhausting—the density of Cooper’s theories, and others of his ilk, can practically fry your brain. Jacobson’s book is, in fact, a way of seeing conspiratorial paranoia as a perverted form of obsessive nerd scholarship.
“Cooper’s big thing was research everything, talk to everybody, believe nothing unless you can prove it with your own research,” says Jacobson. “But what does that mean? Do you actually embark on some sort of auto-didactic search?”
Cooper was a Vietnam vet who at one time was hospitalized for PTSD. He claimed that while working for naval intelligence he saw classified material in an admiral’s cabinet that told the “real” story of the war, and how he was really fighting for “the coming one-world government,” which was exemplified by organizations like the UN and the International Monetary Fund. Cooper’s distrust of government was also influenced by the Roswell incident, an alleged cover-up of the 1947 crash of an alien spacecraft in New Mexico. “It was an axiom of modern life,” says Jacobson in the book, “the extent of the obfuscation is in direct proportion to what the authorities felt they needed to hide. The bigger the secret, the bigger the cover-up.”
Behold A Pale Horse had an initial press run of only 3,500 copies, but since its publication has sold close to 300,000 units. It seems to have first been noticed by African-Americans in the prison system because, one Harlem bookseller told Jacobson, “The incarcerated African-American is the most legitimately paranoid man in the world. When you get to William Cooper, he is one paranoid white man, he speaks the same language.”
From the prisons, to the rap world. Cooper or his book have been referenced by a slew of rap stars, including Big Daddy Kane, Busta Rhymes, Tupac, Nas, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Public Enemy. There is even a rapper who calls himself William Cooper who has recorded a number titled “Beware of the Pale Horse.” Explaining this phenomenon, Jacobson quotes the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard of the Wu-Tang Clan, who once told him: “Everybody gets fucked. William Cooper tells you who’s fucking you.”
Despite this early following, Cooper essentially flew under the radar for years, and didn’t really become a “thing” until 9/11. He had long predicted there would be an attack on a major American city, so the Twin Towers disaster was a vindication of sorts for him. Then less than two months later Cooper, who had been in a long-running standoff with the Feds after being indicted for fraud and tax evasion, was killed during a shootout with police.
“The cause-and-effect correlation between the two events is impossible to resist for the so-called ‘truth’ seeker,” says Jacobson. “You see lots of posts saying, ‘Bill Cooper predicted 9/11 and they killed him for it.’ That is pretty much the pivotal moment in Bill Cooper’s street cred, and that is a main reason why his stuff has persisted.”
Persist it has. When the conspiracy maven du jour, Q of the QAnon theory endorsed the book in February of this year, it quickly sold out on Amazon and climbed into the top five on lists involving Ancient and Controversial Knowledge, UFOs, and Radicalism.
“The mysterious Q sees himself in the Cooper tradition, which only keeps the legacy going,” says Jacobson (BTW, Cooper hated Alex Jones, whom he accused of fear-mongering and just making things up—sort of the pot calling the kettle black).
Jacobson believes Cooper would be disdainful of the current paranoid world, because so many people—whom he would call “sheeple”—simply believe what they’re told, without doing any research. But he would certainly understand why so many people take an anonymous poster like Q seriously.
“The modern world is a nightmare, and the computer has kicked it into another realm,” says Jacobson. “The big cultural shift was the Matrix movies; the endangered species is humanity, human nature is under assault, and we have to do something about it. When people get desperate enough they begin to think crazy things. Conspiracy is the American version of religious fundamentalism. Cooper was an intuitive guy about this mindset, which was why he was ahead of the curve. He had this vision of the future, and it didn’t look good to him.”