Secret Societies in America: Foundational Studies of Fraternalism



The Daily Journalist commentary.

Secret societies have an historical tendency to influence people in power. A place where magic and secrecy collide to serve an unknown porpoise set to carry out a mission to fulfill a cause. Many Americans, complain about these despicable acts, where strange rituals take place and secret agendas get written outside from public scrutiny.

It is uncertain to what extent these Secret Societies have extended or what goals they intend for the future. What is clear however is that many of these secret societies are still active, possibly stronger than ever before, and that is something that should be taken more seriously specially in today’s advance world because the last thing any society needs despite corrupt politicians, are politicians that believe they have a secret destiny to accomplish to fulfill a fairy tale story. 


By William D. Moore.


Bohemian Groove: Palo Alto CA. ” Annual The cremation of Care” 2001 


FRATERNAL organizations were a characteristic feature of American society during the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. Throughout the nineteenth century Americans had organized and joined voluntary ritualistic groups, basing their activities upon a model established by Freemasons in North America as early as the 1730s. In 1897, W.S. Harwood, writing in the NorthAmerican Review, dubbed the post-bellum period the “Golden Age of Fraternalism.”

He noted that fraternal organizations, then commonly called “secret societies,” claimed 5.5 million members while the total U. S. adult population was approximately 19 million.At the time, the five largest fraternal groups – Freemasons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, Ancient Order of United Workmen, and Knights of the Maccabees – had a combined membership of more than 2.5 million.

Albert C. Stevens, compiler of the invaluable Cyclopedia of Fraternities, estimated that 40 percent of all adult males held membership in at least one fraternal order. By bringing together foundational studies of American fraternalism, this volume seeks to assist and promote the burgeoning scholarship on this aspect of American life.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, American scholars largely ignored groups like the Modern Woodmen of America, the Knights of Columbus, the Patriotic Order of Sons of America, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the Ancient Order of Foresters, and even the Freemasons.

Individuals who sought to examine and explain the American experience disregarded the fraternal affiliations of prominent figures, including presidents and captains of industry, or treated these biographical details as peculiar and inconsequential. Ritual-based orders, and their millions of members, were largely perceived to be unworthy of scholarly investigation.

Fraternal Studies

Following the celebration of the American bicentennial in 1976, however, a cohort of scholars forged a new and vital literature which has demonstrated the significance of these groups toviii American society. Founded by the Supreme Council, 33º, Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, USA, as a patriotic gift to the American people, the Museum of Our National Heritage, in Lexington, Massachusetts, generated the earliest contributions to this scholarship.

Under the leadership of Clement M. Silvestro, an accomplished and respected museum professional who previously had served as director of the American Association for State and Local History and associate director of the Chicago Historical Society, this institution established a mission of collecting and analyzing the material culture of American fraternalism.

Barbara Franco, a graduate of the Cooperstown Graduate Program in museum studies, mounted a series of innovative and influential exhibitions, with accompanying catalogues, which insightfully examined the fascinating, but under appreciated, physical manifestations of America’s culture of voluntarism.

While Franco and the Museum of Our National Heritage were exhibiting fraternal materials, other scholars also became interested in the subject. In 1982, Harper & Row published Christopher J. Kaufman’s Faith & Fraternalism: The History of the Knights of Columbus, 1882-1982.

Although in many ways his work is a conservative organizationally commissioned institutional history, Kaufman successfully demonstrated that the Knights of Columbus had played a significant role in the development of the American Catholic church and within American society as a whole. Princeton University Press in 1984 published Lynn Dumenil’s Freemasonry and American Culture, 1880 – 1930 which originated as her doctoral dissertation at the University of California Berkeley.

This seminal work sought to understand the role of voluntary associations within the industrializing United States and focused upon issues related to the secularization of the fraternity. Dumenil argued that Freemasonry mirrored American society, and thus an analysis of the group could provide insight into middle-class attitudes towards work, leisure, success, morality, and religion during a period of profound change resulting from industrialization, urbanization, and modernization.

Both Kaufman and Dumenil examined groups with exclusively male memberships, but neither utilized gender as a mode of analysis. Kaufman viewed the Knights as Catholics; Dumenilix understood the Masons as bourgeois. Neither author focused upon these groups as representing men purposefully gathering with other men. In the early eighties, gender studies were still largely concerned with the social construction of femininity.

Scholars were not yet investigating how American manhood was defined historically. In 1989, two monographs propelled the study of masculinity to the forefront of scholarly discussions of American fraternalism. Mary Ann Clawson’s Constructing Brotherhood: Class, Gender, and Fraternalism offered a sociological argument which posited that fraternalism was a resource with which Americans constructed power relations in a manner that emphasized gender identity while camouflaging class distinctions.

Grounded in social history,

Clawson’s study is rich in numerical details concerning membership demographics and financial relationships. The same year, Mark Carnes’ Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America proffered a psychosexual analysis of American fraternal rituals. Carnes built upon Dumenil, but examined what the rituals performed by fraternalists revealed about how participants situated themselves within the world and in relation to existential human issues such as death, kinship, and interpersonal responsibility.

Carnes’ impact upon the field is visible in Franco’s subsequent article “The Ritualization of Male Friendship and Virtue in Nineteenth-Century Fraternal Organizations” which appeared in 1997. During this period, the American historical establishment encouraged scholarship that investigated how institutions have structured culture and society. Carnes, Clawson, and Dumenil participated in this discourse.

Subsequent scholars, seeking to further illuminate these issues, continued to scrutinize the history and practices of fraternal groups. In Service Clubs in American Society: Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions, Jeffrey Charles provided the first serious analysis of the twentieth-century groups which evolved out of the nineteenth-century secret orders.

Similarly, in his volume entitled From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967, David Beito examined the social, medical and financial benefits provided by fraternal organizations.12 Steven C. Bullock’s Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730-1840 will be, for the foreseeable future, the most essential resource for individuals examining the first century of Masonry in the United States.

In the new century, scholars have used fraternal organizations to examine the bonds which link individuals together to form society. Robert Putnam’s much-cited Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community made the term “social capital” part of our common American vocabulary. Putnam suggests that the decline of secret societies in the twentieth century is one manifestation of a larger decay of American social institutions which has left individuals alienated and disconnected from their families, friends, and neighbors. Reacting to Putnam’s work, Theda Skocpol, a sociologist at Harvard, led a group of scholars to examine the influence of fraternal groups upon black Americans.

This work culminated in “What a Mighty Power We Can Be”: African American Fraternal Groups and the Struggle for Racial Equality published by Princeton University Press.15 In contrast to Putnam and Skocpol, Jason Kaufman has argued, in his For the Common Good? American Civic Life and the Golden Age of Fraternity, that fraternal societies were corrosive, rather than beneficial, and that they exacerbated ethnic, race, religious, and class distinctions.

Recent increased scholarly attention to fraternalism has resulted in conferences and academic fellowships. Established in 2007 in Edinburgh, Scotland, the International Conference on the History of Freemasonry provides a forum for scholars from around the world to discuss Freemasonry and fraternalism. This biannual conference has featured work on American fraternal organizations at each of its gatherings.

Similarly, in January of 2010, the Nationa Heritage Museum, in Lexington, Massachusetts, sponsored a symposium entitle “New Perspectives on American Freemasonry and Fraternalism” which drew participants from across the United States. The papers from this conference subsequently were published in a special issue of the new Journal for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism.

Following a model implemented at a number of European universities, the University of California at Los Angeles, under the leadership of Margaret Jacob, an eminent scholar of European Freemasonry, has established a program in Freemasonry and Civil Society, which hosts a postdoctoral fellowship. With the support of the Masonic Grand Lodge of California, this fellowship assist emerging scholars with doctorates in pursuing research, while also providing opportunities for students to study the impact of xifraternalism upon the United States and other nations.

Similarly, in 2008 the Oklahoma Masonic Charity Foundation contributed funds to endow a faculty chair in gender studies at Oklahoma State University, in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Administered through the Center for Gender Studies within the OSU College of Arts and Sciences, this interdisciplinary chair promotes scholarship concerning masculine ideals, social networks, and moral attitudes.

This Volume

Bringing together nineteen essays about American secret societies published before the current blossoming of scholarly interest in fraternalism, this collection presents the foundation which underpins the later historiography. Some of these contributions appear regularly in the bibliographies of the books previously addressed. Others, although less regularly acknowledged in footnotes, are included because of the important insights their authors provide and the perspectives they offer into periods of fraternal growth and decline.

The articles are organized into four categories. The first, entitled “Journalistic Studies,” documents how fraternalism has been portrayed in the American periodical press. These sources reveal transformations in the clubs and orders, but also demonstrate changing styles in popular prose. The section called “Historical Studies” presents two important articles from the middle decades of the twentieth century. These works by Schlesinger and Davis are noteworthy for their early recognition of fraternalism’s relevance.

Essays by Georg Simmel and Noel Gist comprise the category termed “Sociological Studies.” These writings provide perspectives which have informed the work of subsequent authors. Finally, the last division gathers six essays concerning the insurance functions of America’s secret societies. Although fraternal benefit programs have been examined by authors including Clawson and Beito, this aspect of the phenomenon has yet to receive adequate attention.

Period commentary on the virtues and drawbacks of systems developed to provide financial stability to the groups’ members during industrialization’s economic turmoil is central to this division. By gathering into one volume these essays, which otherwise can prove complicated to locate and difficult to access, we hope to foster further intellectual investigation and scholarly discourse.

Wexii are optimistic that this collection will attract and inspire readers who will, in turn, contribute to our understanding of America’s “secret societies” and the numerous individuals who promoted, reshaped, and belonged to them over their centuries of existence.

Secret Societies in America

W. S. Harwood has been widely recognized for identifying the final decades of the nineteenth century as the “Golden Age of Fraternity.” This essay provides a balanced contemporary overview of the fraternal organizations which swelled to importance in the years following the Civil War. Harwood celebrates the role that the societies played in providing economic relief and fostering reverence while recognizing that they simultaneously could harm their members by tempting men to squander resources on frivolous adornments while luring them away from their families and business endeavors.


W.S. Harwood 1897, North American Review 164 (May 1897), 617-624.

THE membership of the secret fraternal orders of the United States in the month of December, 1896, was, in round numbers, 6,400,000. Taking the adult male population of the nation at the present time to be nineteen millions, and allowing that some men belong to more than one order, it will be seen that, broadly speaking, every fifth, or possibly every eighth, man you meet is identified with some fraternal organization, for the preservation of whose secrets he has given a solemn oath, a pledge more binding in its nature than perhaps any other known among men.

In this vast number have not been included the many thousands who are members of the various labor organizations, though they, to a greater or lesser extent, are knit together by secret threads; nor about 500,000 members of the secret military orders, as the G. A. R.; nor has any account been taken of the many other thousands who are identified with the fraternities of the colleges.

Perhaps even more significant than the fact that there are so many millions of oath-bound men in the United States is the further fact that auxiliary to and a part of these orders are military branches, having at the present time about two hundred and fifty thousand members in the prime of life, who are trained in military tactics and who know the sword and musket manual as well as does the cleverest “regular,” many of them thoroughly informed as to the history, the present needs, and the possibilities of military life. Some of these organizations are of quite recent date.

Indeed,Secret Societies in America since the closing of the War of the Rebellion there has been a remarkable increase in their number in this country. And in the last two decades, especially, there has been a strong growth. The beneficiary nature of some of the orders, combined with the secret work and the fraternal element, has no doubt attracted many men to seek entrance.

It is far beyond reasonable computation to attempt to indicate the amount of money given by these fraternal orders in a single year in aid of their members. Many of the benefactions do not come into consideration in the making up of reports, and many are the result of purely fraternal generosity. Some idea, perhaps, may be gleaned from the formally announced amount which is given every year in benefits of one kind and another—money paid for caring for the sick, burying the dead, supporting the widows and orphans of deceased members, and in sums paid out to the widows of deceased members in the form of insurance.

These amounts range in size from ten to twenty thousands of dollars per annum, to seven million five hundred thousand for a single organization. Many of the organizations pay out over a million dollars per year in this way. While it is difficult to arrive at positive figures as to the amount which has been paid out by the fraternal orders in the United States since their establishment, yet, allowing for the amount paid out in the year 1896 and not included in the annual reports of the grand secretaries of the various bodies, the enormous total of $475,000,000 has been given by these organizations in beneficences.

It should be stated, also, that this is exclusive of the three larger orders, the Masonic, the Odd Fellows, and the Knights of Pythias. As nearly as can be computed these three orders have paid out in the same line one hundred and seventy-six millions more, making all told the vast sum of nearly six hundred and fifty millions of dollars.

A tabular statement follows, but it should be clearly understood that the amount of money recorded as paid out in benevolences by the various orders does not include the private monetary gifts of the members. Did it include these private beneficences the sum must be immensely augmented. It is impossible to ascertain the amount which is given in this personal manner, for the significant reason that it is all given for the aid of those who would scorn such aid were the fact made public that they were to be made the recipients of it.

Inecret Societies in America the period between the years 1892-93, and the close of the year 1896, many men holding responsible positions were compelled to relinquish these positions because of the prevailing hard times, and during this period thousands, indeed, tens of thousands, of dollars have been given by fellow-craftsmen to such of these unfortunates as were members of secret orders. It was not money given in charity, it was not a premium on mendicancy; it was not alms : it was the visible token of the great-heartedness which is one of the vital elements in fraternal life.

Take, for instance, one body, the Masonic, which may be considered typical of all. In connection with each lodge there is a relief committee whose duties are done with delicacy, whose acts are performed in tender and sympathetic secrecy. These committees ascertain the needs of those members who are facing hard fortune, aid them with money, with clothing, with provisions; or, if possible, secure positions for future bread-winning. No record is kept in any form for the public eye of these private beneficences.

Indeed, in some cases, not even the names of the members of the committee itself are known to the other members of the lodge to which they belong. So in all these orders there are like acts. The sum which the members of the fraternal orders give to such of their members as are in need would amount to several millions of dollars per year, were only one dollar per capita given; it is undoubtedly largely in excess of such an amount.

There are large and well-equipped homes for orphans of deceased members, too, and for aged and indigent members, for which many thousands of dollars are expended annually. The figures hereinafter given were secured by the writer in the month of December, 1896. In some instances the general secretaries of the organizations—from whom, in the main, the data were secured—estimated the membership and the revenue for several months past, dating from the annual meeting of the orders held in the summer or spring of 1896.

The close contact of these officers with the subordinate lodges, the frequency of reports from the lodges and the intimate relationship between the general secretaries and the subordinate lodges give the general officers unusual avenues of information and make the figures practically complete to the month of January, 1897. It should be stated that, as there is no general grand lodge of the Masonic order, and as no reports are made from secret Societies in America the lodges to any superior body, the amount of money contributed in public beneficences by this order has been in some measure estimated from the best general information obtainable.

Here is the table itself :

Name of order. Membership. Amount paid
in beneficences.

Masonic                                                    750,000 $90,000,000
Odd Fellows                                             810,000 74,600,000
Knights of Pythias                                  475,000 10,362,000
Ancient Order United Workmen        361,301 71,729,180
Royal Arcanum                                       189,161 38,206,422
Modern Woodmen of America            204,332 7,229,985
Knights and Ladies of Honor             85,000 12,000,000
United American Mechanics              56,000 3,000,000
Catholic Knights of America              26,000 7,007,133
Order United Friends                            15,000 4,931,700
Benevolent Protective Order Elks      32,500 500,000
Equitable Aid Union                             16,610 7,742,748
United Order Pilgrim Fathers            22,000 2,321,030
National Provident Union                   6,300 1,293,450
Improved Order Red Men                     165,000 14,200,000
Ancient Order Foresters                       36,825 80,000,000
Royal Templars                                       168,000 4,573,025
Tribe of Ben Hur                                     11,294 49,250
Catholic Benevolent Union                 45,250 7,031,481
Knights of the Maccabees                    244,704 7,233,930
American Legion of Honor                  52,100 33,672,676
Order Scottish Clans                              4,000 575,000
National Union                                       47,791 7,539,948
Knights of the Golden Eagle               60,000 1,811,186
Ancient Order of Hibernians              98,000 * 681,928
Order B’rith Abraham                            11,785 1,121,500
Improved Order Heptasoths               31,118 2,114,000
B’nai B’rith Improved                             2,700 132,550
B’nai B’rith Independent                       34,925 43,175,000

Secret Societies in America

Catholic Mutual Benefit Association      41,800 6,600,000
Order of Chosen Friends                            29,413 11,617,000
Ancient Order Druids                                  16,500 3,806,697
Foresters of America                                   140,575 4,795,291
Independent Order Foresters                    110,000 4,070,000
Order Golden Chain                                    11,550 2,228,221
Royal Society Good Fellows                      13,164 3,124,154
Home Circle                                                   8,140 1,650,000
Independent Order Free Sons Israel       14,300 4,860,900
Irish Catholic Benevolent Union             16,500 2,750,000
Knights of Honor                                         118,287 62,009,200
Knights of Malta                                          17,600 ……..
Fraternal Mystic Circle                               11,423 952,091
Knights of St. John and Malta                 5,350 237,420
New England Order Protection               23,186 1,336,000
Independent Order Rechabites                 3,520 ……..
Woodmen of the World                               76,962 1,370,107
Unt. Ord. of Odd Fellows (colored)        130,350 † 238,783
United Amrican Mechanics,                     187,000

Order Sons of St. George                            34,108 ……..
Masonic (colored)                                       224,000 ……..
Sons of Temperance                                    25,474 ……..
Independent Order Good Templars        281,600 ……..
                                                                          5,454,329 $649,082,471


Of course the table does not include anything of the expenditures of the orders for room rent, for uniforms, for banquets, for regalia, for lodge-room furnishings. There are about seventy thousand lodges in the United States, and, allowing them an average of fifty dollars per month for lodge-room rent—a low estimate, as many of the orders have expensive suites of rooms in great city buildings costing thousands of dollars in rental per annum—allowing but fifty dollars per month as the average throughout the towns and cities of the country, it will be seen that there is spent annually the sum of fortytwo millions of dollars for the bare rental of lodge-rooms.

The furnishings and decorations of some of the lodges are rare and costly. Many splendid buildings have been erected for lodge uses primarily, and much money is invested by the orders in property of various kinds. But while these secret orders are a vast power for good in giving aid and comfort to their members, in caring for the sick and ministering to the distressed in mind, body, and estate; while they give vast sums in beneficence and afford wide opportunity for developing the social side of their members, yet they are not an unmixed blessing to the race.

The newspaper paragraphers have a sound basis in fact for their threadbare joke about the man who cannot find his latch-key hole when he reaches home after the lodge banquet. This is not the place to discuss the temperance question or to dwell upon the evils of inebriety, but one should note in a consideration of the vast influence of these fraternal organizations the inimical possibilities of conviviality.

Yet another danger must be considered in estimating the influence of secret societies. One does not trifle with truth in saying that no human gauge can measure the sorrow that comes to some families through the too close attention of husband and father to the lodge-room. There is a strange and powerful attraction for some men in the mysticism of the ritual.

There is a peculiar fascination in the unreality of the initiation, an allurement about fine “team” work, a charm of deep potency in the unrestricted, out-of-the-world atmosphere which surrounds the scenes where men are knit together by the closest ties, bound by the most solemn obligations to maintain secrecy as to the events which transpire within their walls. In the business life of the land instances are not wanting where men have become so infatuated with their secret society work that Secret Societies in America they have sacrificed position and even financial standing that they might satisfy their craving for greater knowledge of the secret workings of many of the leading organizations.

In the commonplace vernacular of the lodge devotees, these were “jiners”—men found in every community who are more eager to be initiated into some new order than to be strengthened in business standing. I think it will not be denied by any fair-minded and conservative member of these organizations that a very large number, throughout the whole United States, suffer in pocket, and not infrequently in business position, in gratifying their desire to belong to, and take all the degrees in, all the secret societies that appeal to their love for novelty and mystery.

There are many elevating and ennobling elements in these fraternities, but the broad, rich acres of man’s selfishness are nowhere more carefully fertilized, tended, tilled, and reaped than in the lodgeroom. It would all but revolutionize a large section of American Society if the wives and growing-up daughters of the households of the men who belong to these organizations should insist on their right to spend for their own adornment or their own personal pleasure dollar for dollar spent by husband or brother for dues and initiations, for regalia and uniforms and swords, for plumes and banners and banquets.

In the great majority of cases the amount of money paid out for the actual expenses of the lodge, as the dues of the order, is not great; it is in the field of personal gratification that the vast unaccounted-for sum is expended. It is probable that, for mere personal gratification, aside from any real or imaginary benefits, the members of the various secret organizations in the United States will spend annually in banquets, railroad and travelling expenses, costly gifts to retiring officers, testimonials, elaborate uniforms, and rare swords not less than two hundred and fifty millions of dollars, and this is allowing but fifty dollars a year as an average for the delightful, but probably wholly unnecessary, expenses connected with the fraternities. It is quite likely the sum is considerably more than this.

But the importance of these fraternal organizations and their tremendous power for good must not be overlooked if we would arrive at a just appreciation of their significance. So numerous, so powerful, have these orders become, that these closing years of the century might well be called the Golden Age of fraternity.

So strongecret Societies in America has their hold become upon so many millions of people that the occasions have not been infrequent where other ministers than the priests of the Church of Rome have inveighed against the lodge, and sought to show its pernicious activity in tearing down what the church would build up, or, to put it more mildly, they have protested against the usurping influence of the lodge, its tendency to induce men to accept it as their church, and to make its standards and forms and laws their guide of right conduct.

While the secret society has its peculiar dangers it has great elements of good. Its influence in making thoughtless men reverential, in increasing respect for government by law; its influence in maintaining and promoting allegiance to country, these are important elements of its service. While men with evil tendencies and deformed moral natures are known to be members of fraternal orders, and while, when so known, they are not always as promptly removed as might be wished, yet I think it is but fair to say that cases are exceedingly rare in reputable organizations where men of known badness are admitted. Indeed, one of the greatest powers of the secret fraternal orders of the present day is found in the element of selection.

No other organization in the immediate hands of man, and unidentified with religion, so universally sets so high a standard of sobriety, integrity, and honesty; none other, when a seeker for admission appears, so sharply scrutinizes his past, so searchingly investigates his present. The prime essential in all secret organizations of this character is that the initiate shall be a manly man; after that a companionable man.

Nor should it be lost sight of that there is a demand upon these millions of oath-bound men in our land, whom we meet at every turn in the street, who touch elbows with us in business and in society, many of whom are leaders in the laity life of the church, and who are increasingly numerous in the ministerial ranks of the churches, it should not be forgotten that there is a most imperative demand upon the consciences of these men— the acknowledgment of a Supreme Being as ruler over all. To this should be added a rarely lacking, positive, unequivocal, and constant reverence for the Scriptures.

Not that any test of religious belief is exacted, but I think it will be fair both to those who are inside and those who are outside of these organizations to say that the Bible, taken as the most sacred book of the Christian nations, is a work to which peculiar reverend secret Societies in America is always given in fraternal organizations. No other organization of men in the world, with the single exception of the church, so universally, so consistently, and so insistently demands that recognition of divine authority which is at once the test and the evidence of the highest type of life.

It may be urged that the hidden power of the fraternal orders is used at times to influence the course of elections; that men who are members of these organizations band themselves too closely together even outside of their society; that they seek to aid a brother before one not bound by the same oath. While we may make some allowance for weaknesses in this regard upon the part of some, I do not think it follows that, because a man is a member of one of these organizations, he stands ready to stultify himself when he enters the polling booth or when he comes into social or commercial contact with those who are not members of his organization.

It is perhaps quite within bounds to say that these orders are increasing in membership in the United States at the rate of between two hundred and fifty and three hundred thousand members annually. Possibly the vast increase during the last twenty-five years may have been an abnormal one, but the indications all point to a constant augmentation of this enormous secret power.

Perhaps in no other country in the world could these orders thrive so constantly and at the same time be so free from any suggestion of national censure. If all their secrets were paraded before the eyes of the world, we should find none directed against the best interests of our country.


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