This past weekend, financier Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his New York jail cell while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges. Within minutes of the news breaking, conspiracy theories circulated widely on social media, accusing a laundry list of people as playing some role in his death. One of them, President Trump himself, who has advocated conspiracy theories in the past, shared them as well.
One reason that conspiracies about Epstein’s death have gathered so much traction is that their appeal transcends political party. It’s a Rorschach blot of plausible alleged motives, allowing Democrats and Republicans alike to connect the dots so they point to their favored boogeyman. Who killed Jeffrey Epstein? Take your pick: Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, George Soros, the Illuminati, the Queen of England … . Of course, the answer could very well be Jeffrey Epstein, but that’s hardly a satisfying conclusion, as it can’t be weaponized into an agenda.
This article is not an attempt to address—much less debunk—every conspiracy theory out there about the death of Jeffrey Epstein. Beheading that hydra would be futile, as new theories and versions emerge on social media by the hour. Each new nugget of information—or, less often, verified fact—fuels conspiracies and gives theorists new avenues of rumor and speculation. But we can put the claims in context and explore the central questions.
Psychology of Conspiracy
Part of the reason that conspiracy theories are so popular is that we are hard-wired to find them. Our brains, even without the help of memes, books, or websites promoting conspiracy theories, have a tendency to generate conspiracy-type thinking. The human brain sometimes has a difficult time understanding why things happen, and two unrelated events can appear to be connected in some way.
Seeing hidden connections and causes is a key element of conspiracy thinking. But that logic is a common fallacy with a Latin name: post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of it”). Because the human mind seeks connections, people often misattribute causes, thinking that “B happened after A did, so A must have caused B.” It makes sense, and it’s often true—but not always. It’s like saying “roosters crow before the sun rises, so the roosters must have made the sun rise.”
This pattern-seeking fact of psychology is, unfortunately, not always beneficial. Paranoia and conspiracy thinking lead to feelings of powerlessness or helplessness. Those who believe in conspiracies often see themselves and those around them as victims, pawns trapped in some sinister master plot. Even so, they often feel intellectually superior to others around them, especially “sheeple,” the unenlightened masses who are routinely deceived by government lies and misinformation.
Conspiracy theorists love to challenge “official” explanations but offer little actual evidence supporting their own claims and beliefs. There’s no such thing as an accident or random event; there’s a cause behind everything. Conspiracy believers see a hidden hand in most newsworthy events; nothing is as it seems, and those who believe “the official story” (or in some circles the “mainstream media/MSM”) are useful idiots or sheeple—if not active disinformation agents.
Many people who endorse conspiracy theories (often indignantly) reject the suggestion that they are actually “a conspiracy believer.” To them, conspiracy believers are the caricatured tinfoil hat wearing fans who follow every spittle-soaked unhinged Alex Jones rant. But the truth is that most people believe one or more conspiracy theories. In their book American Conspiracy Theories, Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, both associate professors at the University of Miami, note that “conspiracy theories ignite when socialized motive meets political opportunity … lots of people have conspiracy theories that no one else cares about, and appeals to the most conspiracy-prone people are unlikely to reverberate widely. Therefore, conspiracy theories that involve the biggest groups, biggest gains, and biggest foes will gain the most adherents.” Thus the sudden death of a man whose alleged influence reaches into the White House and spans two presidencies—not to mention into the British monarchy—is of course ripe with conspiracy fodder.
Assuming people believe that Epstein is dead (and not everyone does), the question then becomes how plausible it is that Epstein died by his own hand. As yet information is still coming out, and an FBI investigation has begun into the circumstances of his death. So for now, I’ll stick with the few confirmed facts.
It’s not uncommon for accused child molesters to die by suicide rather than face trial (and, if convicted, likely be targeted in prison). The fact that he died in jail doesn’t really mean much because guards are fallible and miss things; it’s the same reason that threats often get past security checkpoints. As Lindsay Hayes recently noted in an article for The Atlantic, “Many criminal-justice experts pointed to a broader issue: Suicide has been a lingering problem in detention facilities, and systemic factors—such as inattention, understaffing, or inadequate training—generally offer a simpler explanation for a prisoner’s death than nefarious intent … . Hundreds of individuals are thought to commit suicide each year in jails throughout the country, and suicide is still thought to be the leading cause of death in such facilities.”
Epstein was a high-profile prisoner, leading many to assume that unusually vigilant care would have been taken in his case. As the title of the popular podcast Mueller, She Wrote scolds, Epstein was “The One Guy You Don’t Forget to Check On.” The New York Times reported that the guards watching Epstein had both been working double shifts, however—one of them for the fifth day in a row. The idea that jail guards might have been lax in their oversight is hardly a shock. People in every industry sometimes slack off and cut corners. Some end up sleeping on the job, especially if the job involves sitting down and simply watching something or someone. Pilots, train conductors, and bus drivers get arrested for showing up drunk. I’ve worked at several restaurants where prep cooks and dishwashers would sneak out behind the dumpster in the middle of their shifts to get high. Sure, jail guards should be held to a higher standard when people’s lives are potentially at stake, but the idea that they must have been complicit in Epstein’s death is baseless. The suicide explanation is even stronger when we note that this was apparently Epstein’s second attempt; he’d tried to hang himself on July 23 but was found unconscious and treated. That’s precisely why he was placed on suicide watch for a week.
As for a murder motive, of course Epstein isn’t the only person who could potentially implicate the rich and powerful. There could be documents, photographs, videos, etc. of other people already in the government’s possession from when Epstein’s home was raided. His partner, the socialite Ghislaine Maxwell, has already been accused of arranging illegal trysts for him. The idea that he was the only one who could implicate powerful figures with what he knows is silly. He wasn’t some James Bond villain who memorized the codes to deactivate a nuclear bomb and who must be kept alive to save mankind. His death certainly deprives his alleged victims of their chance to seek justice, but it’s not at all certain he’d ever have to testify or give up any names. Many of the investigations and cases into Epstein will proceed, including potential civil lawsuits against his estate.
Celebrity Death Conspiracies
Epstein is only one of many high-profile deaths that have attracted conspiracies. Within hours of Princess Diana’s death in 1997 in a Paris highway tunnel, while being driven by a drunken chauffeur and pursued by paparazzi, conspiracy theories swirled. As was the case with the death of John F. Kennedy, the idea that such a beloved and high-profile figure could be killed so suddenly was a shock. This was especially true of Princess Diana; royalty die of old age, political intrigue, or eating too much rich food; they don’t get killed by a drunk driver. Some think that Elvis, Michael Jackson, and other famous musicians faked their deaths and are still alive. Mundane causes of death just seem unworthy of such larger-than-life figures in their prime.
It’s not just the real or (as in the case of Paul McCartney) imagined deaths of beloved celebrities that spur conspiracy theories; the infamous are often given the same treatment. Conspiracies about the death of Adolph Hitler have circulated for decades, with some suggesting his suicide was staged, and that he escaped to a quiet retirement in Argentina (one book claims he died on February 13, 1962). Others acknowledge that he died in 1945—but that he was murdered. And so on.
Another despised figure, Osama bin Laden, was killed in a 2011 firefight. But his body was never displayed and bin Laden was instead buried at sea, in accordance with Islamic tradition. (It was also done to thwart the efforts of those who would make bin Laden a martyr by robbing them of a place to build a shrine.) After his death was announced, some claimed that bin Laden had not really been killed—or, conversely, that he had died a decade earlier in 2001 of kidney failure.
After Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez died in 2013 after a long bout with cancer, his death sparked conspiracy rumors that he might have been the victim of an assassination plot by the United States. When notorious Mexican drug lord El Chapo was arrested, conspiracy theories circulated that the escape-prone criminal had in fact not been captured at all, but instead escaped; one filmmaker even made a movie promoting this conspiracy. El Chapo’s recent trial and conviction in New York would seem to discredit this theory—unless of course it was really a twin or body double.
The idea that rich and famous/infamous people fall prey to mundane and otherwise common causes of death is hard for many to accept. Drug overdoses kill tens of thousands of non-notable people every year, but when they kill stars (Amy Winehouse, Prince, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, etc.), it often comes as a shock and is met with disbelief.
How Conspiracy Theories Can Provoke Violence
For many sharing and discussing conspiracies, it’s harmless social media fun. But it’s important to remember that in some cases, belief in conspiracies can provoke violence. Jared Loughner, the gunman who killed six people and injured fourteen others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, in a 2011 Tucson shooting, advocated conspiracy theories. According to a profile in The New York Times, Loughner “became intrigued by antigovernment conspiracy theories, including that the Sept. 11 attacks were perpetrated by the government and that the country’s central banking system was enslaving its citizens.” In addition to his beliefs associated with a New World Order, he was also convinced that many NASA programs were fake.
Aaron Alexis, a government contractor who killed a dozen people and injured eight others at the Washington Navy Yard in September 2013 told police that he had been harassed through a government mind control program using ultra low frequency microwaves. In one document, Alexis wrote: “An ultra low frequency attack is what I’ve been subject to for the last three months, and to be perfectly honest, that is what has driven me to this.” Needless to say, there is no evidence that the U.S. government can control anyone’s thoughts or decisions using microwaves—though that claim is common in conspiracy theory literature.
There are other examples as well, including the anti-Clinton “Pizzagate” conspiracies that Alex Jones and others promoted, resulting in a man shooting a gun in a pizza shop rumored to have been involved in child sex trafficking. Of course, most violent people are not conspiracy theorists, most mentally ill people are not violent, and most conspiracy believers are not violent. Though conspiracy beliefs themselves do not cause violence, they can give a name and form to otherwise generalized rage and helplessness and set the stage for violent actions.
Epstein, Plausibility, and Fuzzy Facts
Another reason the Epstein conspiracies proliferate is the sparse and shifting facts. At first, he was believed to be on suicide watch, but that rumor turned out to be false. One person wrongly suggested that Epstein was “on 24-hour isolated suicide watch” when he died; he was not on suicide watch at the time and hadn’t been for nearly two weeks. In hindsight, he probably should have been, but even in that case, the prisoners are checked on approximately every half hour, not constantly watched. A person determined to kill him- or herself can usually succeed sooner or later.
Facts don’t matter to many people and most roads lead to a new conspiracy: If he was on suicide watch, then his death was suspicious (how could it have happened?). When it came out that he wasn’t on suicide watch, then his death was still suspicious (why wasn’t he?). If he’d lived and been indicted but the charges were dropped (as happened with Patriots owner Robert Kraft), that too would be seen as suspicious (who did he pay off?). If he’d gone to trial and been acquitted of all, or the most serious, charges (for whatever reason, ranging from legal loopholes to vanishing witnesses), that would be seen as suspicious (again, who did he threaten or pay off?). If the sixty-six-year-old had died of genuinely natural causes at any point between now and his sentencing (including through appeals, which could take years), that would be suspicious. If he’d been tried and convicted but received a light sentence, that also would be seen as suspicious (once again, who did he pay off?). Along this outcome tree we find that very few branches result in most people thinking nothing at all was odd about the case and it was fully proper. Anything other than the swift indictment, trial, conviction, and long-term incarceration of this billionaire would (or could) have been seen as suspicious.
The evidence released so far suggests that Jeffrey Epstein’s death was probably a suicide. Even less likely, it could have been an assisted suicide; still less likely, it could have been a homicide. Some, of course, think his death was wholly faked and the billionaire is hiding out in the Caribbean somewhere. Presumably the Justice Department investigation will determine who, if anyone, should be held responsible for the incident. That doesn’t mean people will believe it.
Full disclosure: I am not funded by any political party and work for a non-profit educational organization; my shill buck checks have yet to arrive.