By their very name, secret societies inspire curiosity, fascination and distrust. When, for example, news broke that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia spent his final hours in February 2016 with members of a secret society for elite hunters, people naturally wanted to know more about the group.

It’s not uncommon for public figures to be involved in selective societies, many of which have deep historical roots. Scalia’s fraternity, the International Order of St. Hubertus, was instituted by Austro-Hungarian Count Franz Anton Sporck in 1695 and named after St. Hubert, a hunter who once saw a golden cross between the horns of a stag. Hubert heeded the divine message and thereafter chose a life of piety. Sporck’s order aimed “to honor St. Hubert’s memory and to promote responsible hunting and wildlife conservation,” according to its official website. After the organization denied membership to Nazis, Adolf Hitler dissolved it, but the order re-emerged after World War II, and an American chapter was founded in the late 1960s.

The order is one of many clandestine organizations that exist today, though the popularity of these secret clubs peaked in the 18th and 19th centuries. Back then, these societies served as safe spaces for open dialogue about everything from academia to religious discourse, removed from the restrictive eye of the church and state. As Noah Shachtman wrote for Wired in 2012:

These societies were the incubators of democracy, modern science and ecumenical religion. They elected their own leaders and drew up constitutions to govern their operations. It wasn’t an accident that Voltaire, George Washington and Ben Franklin were all active members. And just like today’s networked radicals, much of their power was wrapped up in their ability to stay anonymous and keep their communications secret.

View of a room at the Masonic Hall in Suffolk, England, in the early 20th century
View of a room at the Masonic Hall in Suffolk, England, in the early 20th century Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The emphasis on secrecy inspired much distrust in the exclusive clubs. No less than the New York Times weighed in on secret societies in 1880, not wholly dismissing the theory that Freemasonry “brought about the Civil War and acquitted President [Andrew] Johnson and … has committed or concealed crimes without number.” The Times added, “This able theory of Freemasonry is not so readily believed as the theory that the European secret societies are the ruling power in Europe, but there are still many people as yet outside of the lunatic asylum who firmly believe it.”

Many religious leaders felt at the very least conflicted about secret orders. In April 1887, the Reverend Thomas De Witt Talmage gave a sermon on “the moral effect of Freemasonry, Odd Fellowship, Knights of Labor, Greek Alphabet and other societies.” The reverend, who said he had “hundreds of personal friends who belong to” secret orders, cited Proverbs 25:9—“discover not a secret to another”—when asking his audience whether being a member of a secret society would be a positive or negative decision for them. In March 1892, James Cardinal Gibbons took a more definitive stand on secret orders, saying they had “no possible excuse for … existence.”

The national uproar against secret societies led one concerned group to create an annual Anti-Secret Society Convention. In 1869, at a convention in Chicago, attendees went after the “secular press.” The organization’s secretary said that journalists “either approved or ignored secret societies,” while “few religious papers have spunk enough to come out for Christ in opposition to Masonry.” But by 1892, the convention, which deemed clandestine clubs an “evil to society and a menace to our civil institutions,” had failed to “secure them anything but strong denunciation,” the Pittsburgh Dispatch reported.

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In recent years, Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, and other novelists have shined a light on some of the bigger secret fraternal organizations, like the Order of Skull and Bones, the Freemasons, the Rosicrucian Order and the Illuminati. But other lesser-known groups have compelling stories, too. Here are just a few.

The Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World

A 1925 photo of members of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World
A 1925 photo of members of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Around the turn of the 19th century, two Black men in Cincinnati were denied admission to the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World, an organization founded in 1868 with the goal of serving those in need. Barred from membership, Arthur James Riggs and Benjamin Franklin Howard decided to create their own order.

Formally named the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World, the new organization was once at the center of the United States’ Black community. In 1907, the Seattle Republican wrote, “It is claimed by the members and officers thereof that it is one of the most thriving secret societies among Afro-Americans of this city.” During the era of segregation, the local Elks lodge was “one of the few places … [where] Black men and women could socialize,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in 2003.

Today, the society continues to sponsor educational scholarship programs, youth summer computer literacy camps and parades, as well as community service activities around the world. The original Order of Elks also remains active. Following questions raised about its discriminatory admission practices, the group now allows any American citizen who is at least 21 years old and believes in God to apply to join its ranks.

The Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland

Group portrait of members of a Loyal Orange Lodge in Armagh, circa 1940
Group portrait of members of a Loyal Orange Lodge in Armagh, circa 1940 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, more commonly known as the Orange Order, derives its name from William of Orange, a Protestant prince who later ruled over Britain and Ireland with his wife, Mary. The order was founded in 1795, after the Battle of the Diamond, a clash between Catholics and Protestants outside of Loughgall, a small village in modern-day Northern Ireland. Its purpose was to protect Protestants, who were the majority in Ireland’s northern provinces but were outnumbered by Catholics in the rest of the country.

By the mid-19th century, secret societies were banned in Ireland, with an 1823 act declaring such groups “an unlawful combination and confederacy.” Given this prohibition, George William Frederick Villiers, the lord lieutenant of Ireland, attracted the ire of the Waterford News for supporting the Orange Order in 1849. The paper wrote, “Lord Clarendon has been holding communication with an illegal society in Dublin for upwards of ten days. The Grand Orange Lodge, with its secret signs and passwords, has been plotting with His Excellency during the whole of that period. This may seem strange, but it is a fact.”

The Grand Orange Lodge is still active today, with clubs in Northern Ireland and around the world. Members nicknamed “Orangemen” hold marches every year to mark William and Mary’s victory over the Catholic James II during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Per the Irish Times, these celebrations are contentious, with Northern Ireland’s “predominantly Catholic nationalist community [viewing them] as a provocative display of triumphalism.”

Prospective members of the order must be adult men who affirm their acceptance of the principles of the Protestant Reformation. Responding to the question of whether the order is “anti-Roman Catholic,” the group’s website states, “Orangeism is a positive rather than a negative force. It wishes to promote the reformed faith based on the infallible word of God—the Bible. Orangeism does not foster resentment or intolerance. Condemnation of religious ideology is directed against church doctrine and not against individual adherents or members.”

The Odd Fellows

Members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, circa 1898
Members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, circa 1898 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The exact origins of the Odd Fellows (also known as Oddfellows) have faded into history, but the website of a North Carolina branch of the altruistic society states that several chapters existed in England by the 18th century. “The lodges were originally formed by workingmen for social purposes, and for giving the brethren aid and assisting them to obtain employment when out of work,” the website notes.

The story of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, an offshoot of the Odd Fellows movement, centers on the future George IV of England, then Prince of Wales. According to an 1867 article in the Daily Evening Telegraph, George was initially a member of the Freemasons, the oldest fraternal order in the world. He reportedly wanted a relative to be admitted to the society without having to endure the lengthy initiation process, but this request was emphatically denied. George then left the Freemasons, declaring he would establish a group “which in time should rival in numbers and influence the one which had shown him such little deference.”

The Odd Fellows spread to the United States in the early 19th century. In addition to George, the society counts such notables as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, showman P.T. Barnum and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt among its alumni. Membership is grounded in the ideals of friendship, love and truth. Interestingly, real skeletons appear in the order’s lodges; they are used during initiation to remind members of their mortality, the Washington Post reported in 2001.

The Knights of Pythias

An 1886 Knights of Pythias parade
An 1886 Knights of Pythias parade Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Government employee Justus H. Rathbone founded the Knights of Pythias in Washington, D.C. in 1864. He felt that the U.S.—then embroiled in the Civil War—needed an organization that practiced “brotherly love.” Rathbone named his order after the Greek legend of Damon and Pythias, a tale of personal sacrifice for the purpose of friendship. The group was the first fraternal order to be chartered by an act of Congress, after review by President Abraham Lincoln. The Knights of Pythias’ colors are blue, yellow and red, signifying friendship, charity and benevolence, respectively.

The Ancient Order of Foresters

An 1883 membership certificate for the Ancient Order of Foresters
An 1883 membership certificate for the Ancient Order of Foresters Requiem Salvage Co. via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Known today as the Foresters Friendly Society, this group was established in England as the Ancient Order of Foresters in 1834. According to the society’s website, founding members organized to help people “as they walked through the forests of life,” establishing a communal system of funding reminiscent of the unemployment insurance programs or labor unions seen today. “Back then, members recognized that by paying a few pence a week into a common fund, they would be able to offer sick pay and funeral grants when needed,” the website notes.

By 1874, the society’s American and Canadian branches had left the organization to set up the Independent Order of the Foresters. Candidates hoping to be admitted to the club had to “pass satisfactorily [an] examination by a competent physician, who is himself bound by his connection with the order,” the Boston Weekly Globe wrote in 1879. Modern chapters of the society provide financial benefits for their members, who also engage in social and community service.

The Ancient Order of United Workmen

A Seattle-based Ancient Order of United Workmen band in 1902
A Seattle-based Ancient Order of United Workmen band in 1902 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Mechanic John Jordan Upchurch founded the Ancient Order of United Workmen in Meadville, Pennsylvania, in 1868, with the goal of improving conditions for working-class Americans, many of whom were moving from rural farms to urban areas and lacked a support system. Members were white men between the ages of 21 and 50, who met to listen to lectures, encourage research and the arts, and discuss news.

Like the Foresters, the order set up insurance for its members. When one died, each brother contributed a dollar to the family of the deceased. That group donation would eventually be capped at $2,000.

The Ancient Order of United Workmen is no longer around, but its legacy survives, as the group unintentionally created a new kind of insurance that led other fraternal organizations to add an insurance provision to their constitutions.

The Patriotic Order Sons of America

The Patriotic Order Sons of America was founded in Philadelphia in 1847
The Patriotic Order Sons of America was founded in Philadelphia in 1847. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Patriotic Order Sons of America dates back to 1847. Following in the footsteps of the Sons of Liberty and the Order of United Americans, the group became one of the “most progressive, most popular, most influential, as well as strongest patriotic organizations” in the U.S., the Pennsylvania-based Allentown Leader wrote in 1911.

How progressive the order actually was is up for debate. In 1891, the organization refused to remove the word “white” from its constitution, defeating a proposition that would allow Black men to apply for admission. According to the order’s website, membership is now open to “all native-born or naturalized American male citizens, 16 years and older, who believe in their country and its institutions, who desire to perpetuate free government, and who wish to encourage a brotherly feeling among Americans, to the end that we may exalt our country in our work of fellowship and love.”

The Molly Maguires

The Molly Maguires (1970) Official Trailer #1 - Sean Connery Movie HD

During the 1870s, 24 coal mine foremen and supervisors turned up dead in Pennsylvania under suspicious circumstances. The alleged killers? The Molly Maguires, a secret society with roots in Ireland. Assembled in the U.S. by Irish immigrants, the group was named after Molly Maguire, an Irish widow who protested the theft of Irish land by the English in the 1840s. After immigrating to the U.S., many Irish people were forced to work in the dangerous mining industry. The story goes that the Molly Maguires emerged to fight for the rights of Irish coal miners; when mining leaders threatened their strikes, they retaliated with violence.

The group was finally undone by James McParland, an undercover detective with the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency. McParland infiltrated the society’s ranks on behalf of the mining companies. In large part due to his testimony, 20 Molly Maguires were hanged between 1877 and 1879. Their executions have since been characterized as unjust products of anti-Irish prejudice. In 1979, the governor of Pennsylvania issued a posthumous pardon to the group’s leader, John Kehoe.

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