As legend has it, Ong’s Hat is an isolated ghost town in the New Jersey pine barrens, almost completely uninhabited since the 1930s. Now it consists of just a road, a few houses, and a cafe.
The village was said to be a swinging place at one time, full of saloons and rowdy characters. It supposedly earned its name after a young man snubbed an admirer at the dance hall, and in retaliation she stomped on his shiny silk hat. The man, Jacob (sometimes John) Ong, tossed the trampled hat into a tree where it dangled for many months.
The only person known to have researched and written about Ong’s Hat is Henry Charles Beck. He was a mystery novelist, newspaper reporter, and Episcopal priest with a keen interest in the obscure lore of southern New Jersey’s villages and ghost towns. He chronicled urban legends like New Jersey’s “bottomless” Blue Hole. At first, having found some rubble at the site, Beck believed Ong’s Hat had been a tiny but thriving village at some point in the nineteenth century. Later, he realized the stories of moonshiners and bar brawlers were probably just that – stories. Ong’s Hat was apparently never a township. Rather, it was a stop along the market route for area farmers who called the place Ong’s Hut, after a single crude shack constructed there. The only resident of the area that Beck could find was a septuagenarian farmer.
Ong’s Hat was forgotten until the earliest days of the Internet, when someone began posting a series of extremely weird documents called the Incunabula Papers.
According to the Incunabula, one Joseph Matheny was an occult scholar and an expert on the Elizabethan mage John Dee, well-schooled in a vast range of esoteric subjects. In 1987 a physicist friend gave him a list of very rare texts about parallel worlds, quantum mechanics, and such. This photocopied catalog was titled “Incunabula”. Matheny already had most of these texts in his personal library, but an unfamiliar one snagged his attention: Ong’s Hat: A Color Brochure of the Institute of Chaos Studies. He somehow managed to obtain a copy of the pamphlet, and it launched him on an investigation that led to the following story:
In the 1930s, a clique of physicists from Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study began using the Ong’s Hat Rod and Gun Club as a pretext for gathering in secret. There, they met up with members of a strange commune or ashram (some would say a cult) that had evolved from an heretical Islamic sect founded in the early 1900s by a circus magician, Noble Drew Ali. These people practiced ancient tantric sex magic, but were also centuries ahead of their time technologically. They had in their possession an egg-shaped device, looking not unlike a Faberge egg, which enabled them to travel through a gateway into other dimensions and parallel worlds. One world they explored was identical to the New Jersey pine barrens, minus any inhabitants. They established a small settlement there. On another world they encountered a benevolent race of humanoids descended from Javanese lemurs, who had mastered dimensional travel sans machinery and had been traveling to other worlds for thousands of years.
The scientists and a few other unconventional people continued to frequent the Ong’s Hat ashram right through the ’60s, a time when their eclectic blend of mysticism and time travel would have been extremely popular – if anyone else had known about it.
Matheny was able to locate and interview the surviving members of the commune. They even allowed him to examine the Egg. Sadly, the ashram itself no longer existed; sometime in the ’70s or ’80s, the area was bombarded by black Delta Force helicopters, and at least seven of the commune members were reportedly gunned down. The commune itself was burned to the ground. The survivors apparently dispersed and have remained underground.
Matheny himself recounted his experiences in a book, Ong’s Hat: The Beginning (1999). Later, Peter Moon (co-author of a seminal work on the Montauk Project) updated and republished the book. He claimed that a friend had been in contact with members of the commune prior to its destruction.
What resulted from the Incunabula and Ong’s Hat was an enduring mystery, and a fascinating one. It had absolutely everything a conspiracist could want: a secret society, mind-blowing technology, occultism, mad scientists, and even a little sex.
But did any of it actually happen?
The short answer is no. Matheny has long since set the record straight on Ong’s Hat (kind of) – see, for instance, this interview by New World Order Disorder magazine.
The longer answer is that while Ong’s Hat didn’t actually harbor a cult of time-tripping sex magicians, the entire project was a hugely successful act of culture-jamming. The creators of the Incunabula (there were four of them, according to Matheny) set out to inject a story that had all the elements of pop esoterica into the intellectual ether just to find out if it would take on its own reality. And it did, much as the confabulated conspiracy in Foucault’s Pendulum developed flesh and bones without its authors’ agency.
Matheny didn’t stop there. He has been a shadowy hand behind any number of conspiracy theories, alternate reality games, and alternative histories – each derived from an actual urban legend or conspiracy meme. These may include (but are probably not limited to): The resurrection of the murderous Four Pi cult to which Charles Manson and David Berkowitz supposedly belonged, the Montauk Project experiments in mind control and interdimensional travel (more on that in another post in this series), and a deeply weird uber-conspiracy known as El Centro. No synopsis can do them justice, so I encourage you to explore for yourself…
Some links of interest:
Joseph Matheny’s blog
Alexandra Bruce’s article on Ong’s Hat @ disinfo
Wikipedia entry for Ong’s Hat, New Jersey
An account of a visit to Ong’s Hat by Ben Ruset @ NJ Pine Barrens.com
Amazon.com: Henry Charles Beck’s 1936 book Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey
Ong’s Hat: The Beginning (2002) by Joseph Matheny
The Inculabula Papers CD-ROM (1999) by Joseph Matheny
The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time (1992) by Preston B. Nichols and Peter Moon (first book of the Montauk trilogy)