Here's my favorite story about the White House: On October 13, 1792, stone masons laid the cornerstone for the White House -- the first government building in Washington, DC. The men who placed it were brothers in one of the world's most secretive organizations -- you guessed it -- the Freemasons, who attached a brass plaque to the stone, staged an elaborate Masonic ceremony, and lowered it into place.
Sounds like the set-up for a thriller, yes? But it's all true. And within twenty-four hours, the stone supposedly went missing. No one knows where it is. Harry Truman went looking for it during the construction that led to the Truman Balcony. Barbara Bush supposedly also went looking for it when they celebrated the anniversary of the building. It still hasn't been found.
Some say the cornerstone was inscribed by our Founding Fathers -- others say that it was hollow and contained landmark documents of great, unimagined wisdom. Many believe it was stolen by the Masons themselves. Whatever the case, this is the very first piece of the White House that's missing -- and nobody's seen it -- or the brass plaque -- for more than 200 years.
The crazy part is, Harry Truman apparently came close. By then, technology had advanced, so White House architect Lorenzo Winslow called up the Army Engineers and had them bring in a mine detector. But just as they started hearing the buzz of the detector -- as they zeroed in on the location -- Truman, a thirty-third degree Mason (of course) called off the hunt.
You're telling me the metal detectors were going beep-beep-beep -- they were closing in on the first piece of the White House -- and suddenly Truman decided, "Forget it, let's not look here"? And then, to really feed the conspiracy nuts, Truman added this little strawberry on top: During the construction, President Truman took actual pieces of the White House -- original granite blocks with Masonic markings on them -- and had them sent to Masonic Grand Lodges in all 48 states.
In most TV shows about lost history, this is the moment they start playing the scary music.
Hold on -- that's not true. They'd have started playing the scary music back when I said, "The men who placed it were brothers in one of the world's most secretive organizations." And in our new History Channel series, Brad Meltzer's Decoded, we definitely have some scary music. But we also have the most important part of the story: we actually try to find you the answer to what happened. We track the old documents. We talk to experts who explain the true size of a cornerstone. And most important, we absolutely go to see the Freemasons -- and (gasp) ask them what really happened.
I know it might not sound novel. But it is. And y'know why? Because when you have a good ghost story, the worst thing you can do is reveal that there is no ghost. Finding logical explanations isn't good television. Perpetuating the ghost story is good television. Showing clips of Harry Truman looking evil is good television. And letting us assume that George Washington's frozen head is inside the White House cornerstone -- that's beyond good television. That's sweeps.
To put it more clearly: These days, the truth is considered...boring. And worse than that, the actual truth is harder than ever to find.
Okay, I see you now, shaking your head and saying that, in the computer age, information is the easiest commodity to come by. And you're right. In fact, information used to be for those who sought it out and chased it. Today, anyone with a good cell phone has access to the world's information and history. The problem is, the one thing that goes hand-in-hand with an overabundance of information... is an overabundance of noise.
You see it in every Google search. The hard part isn't getting info -- it's sorting through it. Put the word Freemason into any search engine, and it'll say they're doing everything from trying to take over the world, to stealing your car right now. Put in the words Statue of Liberty and Satan, and you'll get thousands of pages insisting that Lady Liberty hides secret satanic messages. And watch what happens when you put in John Wilkes Booth and the word mummy (I kid you not). I even experienced it firsthand when I read something online about myself and it said that I "acquired a British cat" (I've never owned a cat, much less a British one). But all those "facts" are out there -- and we're left hopelessly sorting through the haystacks, trying to figure out what's actually "true."
Once you dig through actual history, and speak to experts, and do the real homework -- the answers are breathtaking. And they almost always come back to some actual nugget of fact. There is a logical explanation for why the first piece of the White House went "missing." There's a reason why people think the Statue of Liberty is linked to Satan. And even why John Wilkes Booth's body was linked to a mummy.
The only thing I can't explain?
That damn British cat.
Brad Meltzer is in the new television series Brad Meltzer's Decoded -- premiering on the History Channel, December 2nd at 10 p.m. -- and the author of many bestselling novels. His newest thriller, The Inner Circle, will be published 1/11/11.