The Secret History of Secret Societies

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The book Ritual America catalogues the quirks and artifacts of Freemasons, Elks, and their ilk.

ritual america 615.jpg"Whether it be the Camel, Tiger, Elk, Eagle, Moose, Owl or Goat, there can be no more appropriate ceremony than serving a candidate with the blood of an animal," reads a vintage catalog targeted at secret societies.

It is not surprising that America has hundreds of secret societies—after all, they're meant to inspire fascination. Adam Parfrey, the founder and owner of Feral House publishing, has been keeping an eye on them since he watched his first Shriners parade as a child. Their mysterious garb and raucous behavior "provoked me, and stayed with me throughout the decades," he says. Now he's produced Ritual America, a book that reveals these quirky and nefarious underground cultures. "We tried to cover all sides of the story," he says—not always an easy task when the story is about cultures premised on secrecy.

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In 1987 Parfrey published his first essay on this theme, "King-Kill 33," in the first edition of his book, Apocalypse Culture. One of the leading subjects of his research, conspiracy theorist James Shelby Downard, proposed a scenario about the JFK assassination that contained a fascinating speculation about the importance of Freemasonic "twilight language" (double and triple meanings, numerology, and onomatology). The essay stirred up controversy, even leading Marilyn Manson to title one of his songs "King Kill 33."

In recent years, Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code bestsellers revived popular interest in secret societies. But none of the books in the latest wave of pro-Masonic and conspiratorial literature, says Parfrey, "had an image-heavy and sociological approach as does Ritual America."

Given the vast number of cults and sub-cults, Parfrey knew his research would be surprising to many. "Despite the success of Joseph Campbell's PBS series a couple decades ago, what good American thinks he's practicing 'rites' or 'rituals?'" Parfrey asks. "These words are thought to refer to what primitives do in foreign lands." Ritual America shows that hundreds of ritualistic oaths and procedures are practiced behind the doors of lodges and clubs, even today.

Parfrey defines a "secret society" as a social group that demands an oath of allegiance to join. "That's our perspective; we know that others may feel differently," he says. "Some service-oriented organizations, like Lions or Elks, have a great deal of secret ritual within its structure. Rotary and Kiwanis, less so, but these organizations, like the Masons, require oaths of allegiance. No oath, no membership."

Researching the book was eye-opening (and, fittingly, the cover illustration is the so-called "eye of providence"). There were an amazing number of groups "particularly at a time when there was no seeming reason for integrating secret rituals into their organizations," he says. "Hundreds of years ago, the Catholic church battled groups of Freemasons over power and money, and the need for secrecy back then was logical." But today it's a bit more mystifying.

ritual america cover.jpgParfrey says his primary source was Albert C. Stevens's The Cyclopaedia of Fraternities (1899). And the subtitle says it all: A Compilation of Existing Authentic Information and the Results of Original Investigation as to the Origins, Derivation, Founders, Development, Aims, Emblems, Character, and Personnel of More than Six Hundred Secret Societies in the United States, Supplemented by Family Trees of Groups and Societies, Names of Many Representative Members. Of those "More than Six Hundred Secret Societies," Freemasonry is the grandaddy, "like AA is the archetype of all the 12-step sobriety movements," Parfrey says. But secret societies had many purposes and took many shapes: labor unions, business groups, rural/agrarian organizations, religious and occult organizations, sobriety groups, drinking groups, immigrants, anti-immigrant organizations. As Parfrey puts it, taking in the breadth of them provides "a snapshot of America."

The question of who gets admitted to these groups recurs as a theme through history. Among the more troubling societies was a fairly large and important group, The Improved Order of the Red Men, which dates back to the early 1800s. Its members dressed in Native American garb and had rituals inspired by that culture—and yet refused to allow Native Americans into their society. Freemasonry and other fraternal groups, which said they welcomed all comers who believed in God, were primarily Protestant in perspective. "As a result, the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups adopted a close form of Masonic ritualism," Parfrey says.

The rites and rituals of these organizations were often bizarre and intimidating. Parfrey asserts that this was "a way of challenging new members, and providing a boast for all those who get beyond the rituals." There were hazing initiation pranks that made people believe their heads were going to be chopped off, or at the minimum, believe they were drinking goat's blood. "Some groups actually seemed to appeal to the sadistic," he says.

The payoff to membership in societies often extended to outside meeting-hall walls. During the Civil War, a number of soldiers from North and South carried on them proof of their Masonic membership, which was supposed to secure them good treatment from the enemy. "Then there were more business-oriented groups that in time became insurance agencies," Parfrey says. Others served social functions. "A remarkable group, The Veiled Prophet of the Khorassan of St. Louis, which still exists today as a yearly debutante ball and parade, was based on a poem by Thomas Moore," he says. "Promotional material would feature a strangely veiled leader in a fairy tale setting."

And part of the appeal of these societies has long been in their oddball accoutrements: costumes, banners, voting equipment, hoods, emblem jewelry, and outlandish hats, like the fez. "I think the fez, as well as a lot of the Shriners costume was done with an eye to exoticism or orientalism," Parfrey says. "It seems strange, particularly today, that it's demanded that all Shriners recite a bloodcurdling oath with one hand on a King James Bible—and the other hand on a Koran."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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