John Judge first utters the word “conspiracy” 37 minutes into our hour-and-a-half conversation, but the word has floated over our table in a crowded Starbucks near the Capitol from the moment we sat down.
Judge, 64, is a longtime fixture of what could be called the alternative history circuit—a space brimming with earthly explanations for UFO sightings and sinister hypotheses about U.S. involvement in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But there are academics on the spectrum of alt-history, too, who, calling their field “parapolitics” or “deep history,” defy mainstream history through scholarship. Judge bridges the pseudo and scholastic ends of the alt-history world—at least, that is how he would like to be seen, as he hastens his ambitions to open the Museum of Hidden History.
With his scraggly white beard, Judge resembles a slightly worse-for-wear Santa Claus. “The Museum of Hidden History will be three things,” he says, speaking so softly I strain to hear him. “History that we’ve made assumptions about and have been miseducated about. History that goes beyond our paradigms or for which we lack counternarratives. And history that has been stolen from us by the national security state.” Some examples include exhibits on what is known, and what is still unknown, about the political assassinations of the 1960s, or on shortchanged minority and female perspectives on history. He also has plans for a research library, with thousands of documents wrested from federal agencies by good government groups.
Judge’s goal is to open a brick-and-mortar museum in 2017. In the meantime, he’s scouting sites in D.C.—the unoccupied Franklin School downtown is among his desired locations—and making plans for a mobile exhibit on the assassination of John F. Kennedy to raise awareness and money. The museum’s website boasts a clean new logo and a page for making tax-deductible donations. He has already secured a $10,000 grant from an unnamed family foundation.
But as a well-known figure in his field, Judge has an appropriately bizarre paper trail. He has argued on obscure websites that George W. Bush’s 2000 election victory was prearranged by the powers-that-be before a single vote was cast, and he has written several treatises insisting on CIA involvement in the deaths at Jonestown. His more legitimate work isn’t much closer to the mainstream. Judge’s work on the 9-11 Citizens Watch, a group established by a yacht captain to monitor the 9/11 Commission, led to a stint as a kind of roving assistant to then-Rep. Cynthia McKinney, who famously told the commission that Bush may have known about the impending attacks. Little of the scholarship on his resume would be welcome in any traditional museum.
Yet Judge’s work for McKinney, and on the Coalition on Political Assassinations, has nonetheless connected him to a handful of iconoclastic luminaries who have lent their names and occasional advice as board members, including the late historian Howard Zinn; James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me; Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg; and Cyril Wecht, the lone forensic pathologist to dispute the single-bullet theory of Kennedy’s death before Congress.
Judge’s dream, of a museum to educate some of the millions of tourists who pass through D.C. each year on the intricacies of the Warren Commission and the gaps in their knowledge on the national security state, seems to be on its way to fulfillment. But would Judge create a space for serious scholarship, or a temple to the questionable side of alt-history, with all its misbegotten suspicions?
The child of two Pentagon employees, Judge grew up in that bedroom community of the defense establishment, Falls Church. His father supervised loading docks at the Pentagon, where Judge remembers observing paper-pulping machines churn out raw material for thousands of books and binders. (Today, one of his obsessions is overclassification.) His mother was a manpower analyst who projected draft needs with the help of a hand calculator. Judge dates his interest in hidden history to an early age: Snatches of conversations between tipsy Pentagon employees at holiday parties—and his visits to the unclassified stacks of the Pentagon library—led him to believe there was vastly more to the federal government than most understood. A subscription to Flying Saucers magazine at age 10, a gift from his uncle, didn’t hurt, either.
Judge attended college at the University of Dayton, where he double-majored in broadcast journalism and theology, with an emphasis on saints, mystics, and religious leaders. He’s not religious, calling himself “a recovering Catholic since about age 10,” when he discovered for himself the Crusades and the Inquisition. He later worked as an activist, with a long stint warning D.C. high school students not to join the U.S. Armed Forces. That’s his career to this day—his salary from his time with McKinney, he confides sheepishly, is about the most he’s ever made.
The road to Judge’s rustic, three-story rattletrap in Hillcrest is so steep that as his Oldsmobile Royale struggles into the driveway, I feel I should be pedaling. Here he keeps his collection of 4,000 rare books and papers—counterhistories and conspiracy tracts, declassified documents and musty paperbacks—that form the nucleus of his life’s work.
Judge stores about half of his collection in his basement, a dim room packed with crispy old newspapers, haphazard stacks of typed papers, and hundreds of bound volumes. The straining shelves bear the odd decoration here and there, like a bumper sticker announcing, “Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed.” He points out some highlights: The Sept. 11 volumes. The anthrax volumes. The JFK shelf. The RFK shelf. Malcolm X. Martin Luther King Jr. Row after row of scholarly tomes, indiscriminately mixed with kookier ones.
The rest is housed on the top floor, which teeters over his garage. This is the Ralph McGehee Intelligence Library, a collection of documents and books belonging to the disaffected CIA agent and bestselling author of the 1983 tell-all Deadly Deceits. Judge’s housemate sleeps on the floor, on a thin pallet nestled among crowded bookcases bearing government reports and obscure periodicals obtained by McGehee. “I’m sort of a packrat with this stuff,” Judge says, smiling. “That’s part of why I want a museum—so it’s not just me who can access all this, sitting like Smaug over my gold pile.”
For someone who has spent his career opposing what he believes to be a patronizing, overbearing national security state, Judge is weirdly uncynical. In describing his various conclusions about history, he comes off like an earnest, precocious teenager, but one without a tendency to get hot and bothered about his passions. That’s part of what makes him engaging in spite of some of his wilder notions. He is unconcerned with present-day Washington’s viciously partisan debates over the intrusions of government. When Judge pitches his museum, he does not describe a reimagining of national narratives so much as a bizarro Smithsonian.
His supporters can be a little more aggressive. Wecht, the forensic pathologist—who has gone on to be a best-selling author and TV commentator on the deaths of celebrities—sees Judge’s museum as a breakthrough in the campaign to reveal what he says is the truth about the Kennedy assassination. He begins to shout when asked how Judge could design exhibits in a way that avoided association with “conspiracy theories” and the easy dismissal that attends the term. “How can that appellation be made with any validity?” he yells. “Where does anybody have the chutzpah to make that kind of condescending statement when a majority of the American public don’t believe the Warren Commission Report gave them the full story?”
In fact, it is because so many people doubt the veracity of official rulings on JFK’s assassination that Judge has been such a successful agitator. That was the conclusion of Rebecca Moore, chair of the humanities department at San Diego State University, writing in 2002 for the Journal of Popular Culture. Calling Judge a “professional conspiracist,” Moore argues that when ambiguity surrounds an event like Jonestown, the opportunity is ripe for someone to come along and capture imaginations with a grand explanation, even though he is challenged by almost all scholarly accounts.
Judge, though, always remains soft-spoken. Ronnie Dugger, the founder of the Texas Observer and a board member of the Museum of Hidden History, thinks this is part of what makes him so compelling. “In the miasma of the material that is out there, you really have to decide who you trust among the researchers,” Dugger says. He trusts Judge, at least in terms of what he brings to annual meetings of the Coalition on Political Assassinations, because he is “a serious man” capable of screening others for “trash research.”
The point, Judge says, is not communicating an absolute point of view, but “having an open, informed society.” (Although there are a few things Judge is clear he does not believe in, such as honest-to-God extraterrestrials and the arguments of Sept. 11 truthers.) For him, the Museum of Hidden History is less about an alternative truth than about caching and presenting everything that precedes truth—the specific tapes, documents, and outré research that Judge thinks are a must for anyone who wants to investigate, for example, the Malcolm X assassination from scratch.
“This history is going to be lost if it’s not archived and retained and looked into,” Judge says. “I think history in general has been untold, and not just the covert history. All the time, in different areas, history is being unearthed that gives us different perspectives. We’re slipping into a posthistorical and postliterate age, where history isn’t seen to be central.…Without an active effort to preserve our history, it is not going to be preserved. And without an active effort to unearth it from our own intelligence agencies, we’re not going to know enough of it to make decisions about our future.”
This might be the appeal of the Museum of Hidden History, despite Judge’s many strange beliefs. The idea that history hasn’t been properly assembled—whether because of who wrote it or what they were working with—is a notion that harangues every former grade schooler who grew up to learn, say, that Woodrow Wilson was one of the greatest facilitators of institutional racism and not exactly the world peacenik we learned about when we were young. What makes Judge’s vision attractive is the ever-tantalizing possibility that government conspiracies might exist, and the chilling evidence that they do. The last decade of history alone is lousy with government scandals: warrantless wiretaps; revelations that, in the 1940s, NIH-funded researchers infected unknowing Guatemalan soldiers, mental patients, and sex workers with syphilis. Museums are meant to be educational, and Judge’s track record suggests that, in the strictest sense, his might not be. But giving yourself over to the notion that there was a second shooter, just for an afternoon, could be a kind of education, too.