Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The internet's first conspiracy theory involved a ghost town in New Jersey

Illustration for article titled The internet's first conspiracy theory involved a ghost town in New Jersey
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Ong’s Hat

What it’s about: An Old West ghost town! Twenty miles west of the Atlantic Ocean, that is. Halfway between the shore and Philadelphia, New Jersey has its very own ghost town, with a name that stands out as odd even in a state with municipalities like Cheesequake, Frelinghuysen, and Buttzville. Ong’s Hat has everything you’d want in a town—a funny name, a colorful origin story, a dubious claim to even existing… and a central role in the internet’s first conspiracy theory.


Biggest controversy: The town’s not actually a town, as such. And not just because it’s an unincorporated community with a population of zero. The Hat may have only ever comprised one single building: Ong’s Hut. In fact, it’s possible Ong’s Hut is the correct name of the place, but it said Ong’s Hat on the map (the “town” appeared on maps as recently as 2006), and there’s an Ong’s Hat Road nearby.

On the other hand, Henry Charlton Beck’s book Forgotten Towns Of Southern New Jersey reports that the Hat was “a lively town” and “a social center” in the 1860s, and the town dates back to at least the Revolutionary War, as it appears on a 1778 map.

Strangest fact: According to legend, the town is named for an actual hat. A man with the last name of Ong (a common surname in the area in colonial times) was famous for “wooing women with his suave attire,” in particular a silk hat. A jealous lover stomped on his hat, and in frustration, Ong threw it in the air. The hat got stuck in a tree, where it remained for years, so Ong’s Hat became a local landmark, which was used to identify the town that grew up around the hat. In some versions of the story, Ong owned a tavern, with his hat as the logo.

There is a competing story. In 1968, a member of the Ong family told The New York Times that his family had lived in Little Egg Harbor, and transported the grain they grew to Burlington, New Jersey. They built a hut at the midway point to rest during their journey, and Ong’s Hut eventually became Ong’s Hat. (This also supports the idea that there wasn’t a town, just the one building.)

Thing we were happiest to learn: As if a New Jersey ghost town isn’t a good enough story, Ong’s Hat is also the center of a conspiracy theory. Wikipedia calls it “one of the earliest internet-based secret history conspiracy theories,” that began as a work of collaborative fiction. The theory involves Princeton professors building a secret quantum physics lab in Ong’s Hat to built a device called the EGG, which allowed inter-dimensional travel. (This is essentially the first act of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension, and the theory seems to have started around the time the movie was released, so make of that what you will.)

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: There’s also a darker story set in Ong’s Hat. Forgotten Towns, the same book that insists Ong’s was in fact a town, says it was down to only seven residents by the early 20th century. The Chininiskis, a couple from Poland, moved in, drastically boosting the population. At least, temporarily. The couple disappeared, and years later, hunters found a skeleton believed to be Mrs. Chininiski. The county sheriff believed her husband had killed her and fled to New York, but was unable to prove anything, and kept her skull on his desk as a grisly reminder of the unsolved case.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Ong’s Hat is in the Pine Barrens region of New Jersey, a sprawling forest which most likely still stands today because the soil is acidic, sandy, and unsuitable for growing crops (hence, “barrens”). In 1978, 1.1 million acres of the Barrens became the first National Reserve, preserving an ecosystem that not only hosts a diverse array of trees and animal life, but produces some of the purest fresh water in America, and, of course, houses the New Jersey Devil.

Further down the Wormhole: As convoluted as the Ong’s Hat conspiracy theory is, its history might be more so. The creators of the conspiracy wanted to give it credence by spreading it across multiple media, which means it appeared in print, radio, television, pre-world-wide-web online bulletin boards, zines, and mail art. That last one has mostly been forgotten, but in the pre-internet era, there was a movement to send artwork through the mail (often on envelopes or postcards) instead of in a gallery space.


We’re shutting down the Wormhole for the rest of 2018, but we’ll return in the new year to revisit an era when the mail was used for something other than unwanted credit card offers.

Host of the podcast Why Is This Not a Movie? His sixth book, The Planets Are Very, Very, Very Far Away is due in fall 2021. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.