By their very name, secret societies inspire curiosity, fascination and distrust. When the Washington Post broke the story last month that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia spent his final hours in the company of members of a secret society for elite hunters, people instantly wanted to know more about the group.
The fraternity in question, International Order of St. Hubertus, was incorporated by Count Anton von Sporck in 1695 and was originally intended to gather “the greatest noble hunters of the 17th Century, particularly in Bohemia, Austria and countries of the Austro Hungarian Empire, ruled by the Habsburgs,” according to its official website. After the organization denied membership to Nazis, notably military leader Hermann Goering, Hitler dissolved it, but the order reemerged after World War II, and an American chapter was founded in the late 1960s.
The order is just one of many clandestine organizations that exist today, though the popularity of these secret clubs peaked in the 18th and 19th centuries, writes Noah Shachtman for Wired. Back then, many of 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 Schatman writes:
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.
The emphasis on secret was what inspired so 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 Johnson and… has committed or concealed crimes without number.” The Times comments, “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 the lunatic asylum who firmly believe it.”
Many religious leaders felt at the very least conflicted about secret orders. In 1887, Reverend T. De Witt Talmage wrote his sermon on “the moral effect of Free Masonry, Odd Fellowship, Knights of Labor, Greek Alphabet and other Societies.” The reverend, who said he had “hundreds of personal friends who belonged to orders” used Proverbs 25: 9 —"discover not a secret to another” —to ask his audience to question whether or not being a member of a secret society would be a positive or negative decision for them. Meanwhile, that same week, Cardinal James Gibbons took a more definitive stand on secret orders, saying that they had “no excuse for existence.”
In the United States in the late-19th century, there was enough of a national uproar against secret societies that one concerned group created an annual “Anti-Secret Society Convention.” In 1869, at the national convention in Chicago, the attendees went after the “secular press.” The organization’s secretary said that the press "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 group, which deemed the societies an "evil to society and a menace to our civil institutions," had failed to “secure them anything but strong denunciation,” as the Pittsburgh Dispatch commented.
While The Da Vinci Code novelist Dan Brown and his contemporaries have shined a light upon some of the bigger secret fraternal organizations like the Order of Skull and Bones, Freemasons, Rosicrucians and the Illuminati, there are still other, lesser-known groups that have compelling stories of their own. Here are just a few:
The Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World
In 1907, the Seattle Republican reported on the Order of Elks, writing that "it is claimed by members and officers that it is one of the most thriving secret societies among Afro-Americans of this city." According to the non-profit African American Registry, the fraternal order was founded in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1899 after two black men were denied admission to the Benelovent and Protective Order of Elks of the World, which is still popular today and, despite questions raised on discriminative practices, now allows any American citizen, 21 years or older, who believes in God to be invited to join its ranks.
The two men decided to take the order’s name and make their own club around it. Formally called the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World, the order was once considered to be at the center of the black community. During the era of segregation, the lodge was one of the few places where black men and women could socialize, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote. In recent years, however, the Post-Gazette commented that the secret organization has struggled to retain its relevance. Still, the secret society continues to sponsor educational scholarship programs, youth summer computer literacy camps, parades as well as community service activities throughout the world.
The Grand Orange Lodge
The Grand Orange Lodge, known more commonly as the “Orange Order” got its name from Prince William III, the Prince of Orange, and was founded after the Battle of the Diamond outside a small village in modern-day Northern Ireland called Loughgall. Its purpose was to "protect Protestants" and that’s why, in 1849, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, George William Frederick Villiers, captured the ire of Dublin’s Waterford News for supporting the society. 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 pass-words, has been plotting with his Excellency during the whole of that period. This may seem strange, but it is a fact…”
At the time, secret societies were banned from Ireland as they were said to have acted in “antagonism to the “Land League,” an Irish political organization, according to Ireland’s official records on statistics of eviction and crime.
The Grand Orange Lodge is still around today with clubs in Ireland, as well as others around the world. Prospective members of the Protestant fraternity don’t take a pledge, they just have to affirm their acceptance of the Principles of Reformation, as well as loyalty to their country. As to the question of whether they are “anti-Roman Catholic”, the official 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 Independent Order of Odd Fellows
Perhaps one needs to be a member of the altruistic and friendly society known as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows to know for sure when the club first started, but the first written record of the order comes in 1812, however, and it references George IV.
Even before he was named Prince Regent of the United Kingdom, George IV, had been a member of the Freemasons, but as the story goes, when he wanted a relative of his to be admitted to the society without having to to endure the lengthy initiation process, the request was emphatically denied. George IV left the order, declaring he would establish a rival club, according to a history of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows published by the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph in 1867. The official website of the order, however, traces the clubs origins all the way back to 1066.
Regardless of how it first started, it’s fair to say the king got his wish. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows is still around today, and the club counted British prime ministers Winston Churchill and Stanley Baldwin among its ranks. The Odd Fellows, as they call themselves, are grounded in the ideals of friendship, love and truth. There are real skeletons in the order’s lodges; they are used during initiation to remind its members of their mortality, the Washington Post reported in 2001.
The Knights of Pythias
The Knights of Pythias was founded by Justus H. Rathbone, a government employee in Washington, D.C., in 1864. He felt there was a moral need for an organization that practiced “brotherly love,” which would make sense, seeing as the country was in the midst of the Civil War. The name is a reference to the Greek legend of Damon and Pythias, the Pythagorean ideal of friendship. All of its founding members worked for the government in some capacity, and it was the first fraternal order to be chartered by an act of Congress, the order’s official website writes. The Knights of Pythias’ colors are blue, yellow and red. Blue signifies friendship, yellow charity and red benevolence, the North Carolina Evening Chronicle wrote in a special edition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the club in 1914.
The Knights of Pythias is still active and is a partner of the Boy Scouts of America, the second organization to receive its charter from the United States Congress.
The Ancient Order of the Foresters
Known today as “Foresters Friendly Society,” the Ancient Order of the Foresters was initially established in 1834, according to the society’s website, albeit under a slightly different name. The Ancient Order was created before state health insurance began in England, so the club offered sick benefits to its working class members.
In 1874, the American and Canadian branches left the Ancient Order and set up the Independent Order of the Foresters. Candidates looking to be admitted to the club had to “pass an examination by a competent physician, who is himself bound by his connection with the order,” the Boston Weekly Globe wrote in 1879. The society still provides insurance policies today for its members, who also engage in a variety of community service activities.
The Ancient Order of United Workmen
John Jordan Upchurch and 13 others in Meadville, Pennsylvania, founded the Ancient Order of United Workmen in 1868 with the goal of bettering conditions for the working class. Like the Foresters, it set up protections for its members. Initially, should a member die, all brothers of the order contributed a dollar to a member’s family. That number would eventually be capped at $2,000.
The Ancient Order of United Workmen is no longer around, but its legacy continues, as the order unintentionally created a new kind of insurance that would influence other fraternal groups to add an insurance provision in their constitutions.
The Patriotic Order Sons of America
The Patriotic Order Sons of America dates back to the early days of the American Republic, according to its official website. Following in the footsteps of The Sons of Liberty, the Order of United Americans and Guards of Liberty, the Patriotic Sons of America, which later added the word “Order” to its name, became one of the “most progressive, most popular, most influential as well as strongest patriotic organizations” in the United States in the early 20th century, the Allentown Leader wrote in 1911.
How progressive the order actually was is up to interpretation. In 1891, the Sons of America refused to delete the word “white” in its constitution, defeating a proposition that would allow black men to apply. Today, the order opens its membership up 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, to join with us in our work of fellowship and love.”
The Molly Maguires
In the 1870s, 24 foreman and supervisors in the coal mines of Pennsylvania were assassinated. The suspected culprit? Members of the secret society the Molly Maguires, an organization with Irish origins brought to the United States by Irish immigrants. The Maguires likely got its name because members used women’s clothing as a disguise while allegedly carrying out its illegal acts, which also included arson and death threats. The group was finally undone by a mole planted by the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency, which was hired by the mining companies to investigate the group. In a series of criminal trials, 20 Maguires were sentenced to death by hanging. The Order of the Sons of St. George, another secret organization, which was founded in 1871 to oppose the Maguires also appears to have vanished.