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Strange Conspiracies and Conundrums at New York’s Mysterious Plum Island

Some places seem to invite stories of conspiracies, cover-ups, and vast intrigue. Whether they deserve all of the attention or not, there is some quality to them that draws in dark stories of hidden government experiments and secrecy. One such place lies not far from New York City, in the United States, sitting mostly unnoticed right there in a major center of civilization, but which has all of the hallmarks of a good shadowy conspiracy tale. Secluded, off-limit island? Check. Secretive laboratory facility? Check. Government obfuscation of what is going on there? Check. With so many of the pieces in place this little island has perhaps rightfully managed to conjure up stories of sinister research and strange experimentation on both animals and human beings, and has cemented itself as ground zero for a plethora of bizarre tales.

Sitting just off New York’s Long Island sitting in Gardiner’s Bay is a tiny speck of land measuring only 3 miles (4.8 km) long and 1-mile (1.6 km) wide, known as Plum Island. It is mostly a nondescript and unassuming little piece of rocky land that most would normally not give much thought to, but Plum island is wreathed in a colorful history shrouded in secrecy and mystery. Originally purchased by the U.S. government in 1899, the island went on to become the site for a military base called Fort Terry, which was mostly meant to be an artillery sentry post. This military function continued with the start of World War II, when the base became an antisubmarine outpost for a government wary of enemy subs prowling the coast, and it was eventually decommissioned in the aftermath of the war.

The island then was used by the Army Chemical Corps for some years before it was repurposed for use by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), who established the Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC) on the island in 1954. The facility was ostensibly involved in research into animal borne diseases that could be devastating to livestock, such as foot and mouth disease, and develop vaccines for these, although the full extent of the list of pathogens they were involved in researching has always been a well-guarded secret. Indeed, with the USDA’s acquisition of Plum Island it very quickly became locked down with incredibly tight security and numerous signs warning visitors to stay away, with no one allowed to come too close and boats or tourists turned away in no uncertain terms.

Plum Island, New York

Perhaps it is this sudden veil of utter secrecy that circulated rumors amongst a nervous populous that there was something more going on at this top secret facility than was let on, and whispers of conspiracies became louder when the Plum Island Animal Disease Center was taken over by the United States Department of Homeland Security in 2003 and later turned into the new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. It did not go unnoticed that workers and scientists on the island were ferried back and forth on special government vessels under armed guard, and reporters, boaters, and curiosity seekers were, and still are, strongly warned not to take photographs of the island or indeed come anywhere near it. Although the government claimed this is simply due for the need for tight security of a facility hosting potentially harmful microbes in a post-9/11 world, it is undoubtedly pure rocket fuel for conspiracy theories, and Plum Island has many.

One of the more prominent dark conspiracy ideas surrounding the island is the idea that it has long been used as a facility for researching biological weapons. Perhaps the most well-known supposed cases of this originates from an outbreak of a mysterious disease in the 1970s at a peaceful town in Connecticut called Old Lyme. The unknown illness produced myriad symptoms including fatigue, muscle aches, inability to focus, and at times paralysis, and at the time no one had any clue as to what it was, where it came from, or why it should gravitate towards this one town.

Scientists would eventually figure out that the disease, which had earned the name Lyme disease, was spread through deer ticks and was caused by a type of bacteria that would be labelled Borellia burgdorferi. Further research into this bacterium showed it to be incredibly complex and unlike most other bacteria ever seen, and that it could cause a vast number of offshoot symptoms and complications ranging from chronic schizophrenia and psychosis to severe infections of the brain and encephalitis, among many others. This baffling complexity and the fact that it had never been seen before made the strange disease very suspicious, as did the fact that it all started out of nowhere at Old Lyme, which it was quick to be pointed out was not far at all from Plum Island, only about 13 miles away. This led to the idea that Lyme disease was not naturally occurring at all, but was rather engineered at the secretive government facility.

In 2004, an attorney named Michael Carroll published a book called Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory, compiled from declassified documents and numerous interviews with those with insider knowledge, in which he goes into detail on what he claims was the epicenter of Lyme disease. According to Carroll, After World War II, a German scientist named Erich Traub, was allegedly brought to America to do research at Plum Island, in this case into disease-carrying insects such as ticks.

There at Plum Island Traub purportedly worked on developing diseases that could be loaded into such insect vectors and spread into enemy territory as a bioweapon, eventually creating Lyme disease, which could be carried in ticks on birds and other animals. This makes it possible that this disease could have gotten loose and been spread out by the numerous species of bird that come to nest on the island, all aided along by reportedly shoddy security measures in place, which Carroll calls, “somewhere between dismal and abominable. The island is an environmental disaster,” including potential catastrophic emergency outbreaks that were apparently stopped through using simple duct tape, as well as numerous technical malfunctions that were never formally reported. Carroll’s book mentions other rather alarming and insidious details of Plum Island as well, including tales of infected workers or researchers who were denied treatment, potential biological catastrophes that were averted and swept under the carpet, and the dumping of dangerous biological waste into the bay.

Not everyone is a fan of Carroll’s theory, and it has proven to be quite controversial to say the least. Researchers on the island claim that neither ticks nor Lyme disease were ever studied there, with one researcher saying “There is no scientific basis for suggesting that Lyme disease originated on Plum Island,” and even a Lyme disease expert at Yale University saying of Carroll’s theory saying, “He should stop making these things up. It just scares people.” However, Carroll has insisted that there is plenty of evidence that he is right, and has explained:

The facts are they were researching hundreds of thousands of hard and soft ticks. And at the same time, an unknown bacteria has found its way into the mouth of the Connecticut River in Old Lyme, ten miles away, where tens of thousands of birds fly.

Although it is not known if Lyme disease truly originated at Plum Island or not, it fits in very well with some of the other evidence of bioweapons research purportedly being carried out there. An November 21, 1993 article in Newsday reported that recently declassified documents had outlined a plan to use diseases from Plum Island in the 1950s against Russian livestock for the purpose of destroying their food supply. In this scenario, the very diseases they were studying to protect American livestock would be unleashed upon horses, cattle, and swine in enemy territory, and the Newsday article states:

Documents and interviews disclose for the first time what officials have denied for years: that the mysterious and closely guarded animal lab off the East End of Long Island was originally designed to conduct top-secret research into replicating dangerous viruses that could be used to destroy enemy livestock.

The Cuban government has also claimed that Plum Island was the source of an insidious bio-attack plot against their agricultural assets as well, and there have been declassified documents confirming a secret biological warfare program being pursued at Plum Island right up until 1969, when the program was shut down by then president Richard Nixon. Other alarming evidence of supposed bio-weapon research on the island is a 2001 article in the New York Times that claimed the facility was pursuing a vaccine-resistant form of anthrax, as well as testimony from a virologist at the island named Mark Buller saying that a program there was pursuing animal equivalents of small pox that could possibly spread to humans, ostensibly for studying ways to prevent such virulent strains from developing. For its part, the government to this day insists that all biological research done at the lab is for defensive purposes only.

Lab facility on Plum Island

In addition to the theory that the U.S. government has carried out secret research into biological weapons on Plum Island is the idea that the facility has been used for sinister experimentation on animals and even humans. By far one of the most talked about and weirdest incidents in recent years that has fueled such rumors was the discovery of a strange animal carcass that washed up on the beach at Ditch Plains Beach, near Montauk, New York, on July 12, 2008, just about a mere 10 miles from Plum Island.

Dubbed the “Montauk Monster,” the carcass was that of some sort of stocky quadruped with comparatively thin legs, clawed paws that appeared to end in dextrous fingers, an elongated skull with jagged, pointy teeth on the lower jaw and what looks like a beak on the upper portion, and leathery skin dotted with patches of sparse hair all ending in a slender tail. It certainly looks like something not of this world, and was also said to exude an unbearable stench. When photos were released of the mysterious creature they immediately went viral, prompting intense scrutiny and debate as to what it could be, with “rodent-like creature,” and “eagle-dog,” typical examples of some of the colorful descriptions thrown around.

One of the first ideas was that this was all simply a hoax or a viral marketing campaign, but there were many, including visual effects experts, who pointed out that if it was a doctored photo then it had been very well done indeed. Of course since the location where the carcass was found lies only around 10 miles away from Plum Island there was a lot of chatter that it was some sort of escaped mutated experimental specimen that had drifted to Montauk. More grounded and rational analysis of the photos has suggested that this was merely the bloated, partially decomposed body of a dog, pig, or even more likely a raccoon, with the decomposition process radically altering the animal’s appearance to make it seem more mysterious than it is. It is hard to say for sure, as the actual body itself was never officially examined and we have only photos to go on, leaving the identity of the Montauk Monster debated to this day. Unbelievably, the following year, in 2009, a nearly identical carcass washed up in the same area, although it is unclear of just what happened to it or if the two are connected at all.

The Montauk Monster

Even creepier still was the discovery of what was described by all accounts as a mutated human body on Plum Island itself. On January 14, 2010, a private security guard was patrolling the perimeter of the research facility on the southwest end of the island at about 4:15 PM, when he came across what was described as the body of a human male, measuring around 6’2” in height and with a large build, wearing green cargo pants, a light green short-sleeved shirt and brown loafers. It doesn’t seem too odd at first, until one looks at some of the strange details of the corpse. The fingers of the unidentified man were said to be extremely elongated, and another odd detail was that he was found to have had five symmetrical holes bored into his head either before or after death. There were no other signs of any sort of trauma on the body.

Since there was no identification on the strange corpse, the Suffolk County Police ran a search through various databases, including military, criminal, missing persons and fingerprint records, but nothing at all came up and the mysterious body has remained unidentified. Oddly, the dead man was initially described as being a white male, yet the following day the official report was that it was in fact a black male, a strange discrepancy in the reports that authorities explained away as a simple oversight with no further elaboration. For many, this has combined with the mysterious location of the discovery and the strange state of the body, as well as the government’s refusal to confirm or deny any part Plum Island had to play in the case, to point to something more secretive and sinister going on, such as perhaps evidence of some sort of human experimentation on the island that is being covered up. Considering that the whole report seems to have been forgotten and relegated to the background it seems like we may never know for sure.

With top secret experiments and an isolated, government run island research facility, it is perhaps no surprise at all that such conspiracies should swarm around Plum Island. In recent years the government has relaxed its security measures a bit and allowed occasional tours of the island to limited people, perhaps realizing the stories swirling about it, but even with this attempt at transparency the results leave much to be desired. The select few who are actually allowed to go are only permitted to see certain selected areas of the island and are not allowed anywhere near the actual research areas, and additionally they are given only fairly bland and generic information on what they are seeing, with any questions at all about the workings of the facility deflected and inquiries concerning Lyme disease or the Montauk Monster mostly ignored or written off as nonsense. In the end the slight opening of the facility’s doors has done little to allay fears of dangerous biological research and outlandish experimentation, and the conspiracy theories are undeterred.

In recent years there have been efforts for the government to sell Plum Island to the private sector, and various conservation, environmental, and civic organizations have been campaigning to make the island part of the public trust in order to preserve its biodiversity and cultural resources and make it into an open space. Whatever the future of Plum Island may hold, it will most definitely keep its cloak of shadowy, impenetrable mysteries with it, and there is a good chance we may never know just what the real history and inner workings of this place contain. Just what has gone on on this little speck of land lying right in the midst of one of the most populated places on the planet? It remains a mystery.