The Strange Case of the Mechanical Goat in the Fraternal Lodge


Americans at the end of the nineteenth century believed that candidates for membership in fraternal organizations were blindfolded and forced to ride goats as part of their initiation.  While this idea was originally promulgated before the Civil War by evangelistic critics of secret societies, by the 1880s fraternalists enthusiastically embraced the humorous idea of the "lodge goat."  During what has been termed the "Golden Age of Fraternity," members of the Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, Woodmen of the World, and hundreds of other less well-known groups regularly alluded to goats within lodge rooms in anecdotes, poems, cartoons, souvenirs, and keepsakes as a means to emphasize the institutional power of their organizations as well as to celebrate the behavioral latitude provided to them by their custom of secrecy.

Around 1900, with changes in American society and transformations in social definitions of masculinity, fraternalists began to practice a new set of "side degrees" or "burlesque initiations" which introduced an unprecedented level of boisterousness and horseplay into the fraternal sphere.  Regalia companies, which had previously supplied costumes, furniture, and props to lodges, found a new economic niche in producing and distributing equipment to support ceremonies which tested initiates' ability to tolerate being the butt of a joke.  De Moulin Brothers & Company of Greenville, Illinois, and the Pettibone Brothers Manufacturing Company, of Cincinnati, Ohio, were the leading purveyors of these goods.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, many fraternal lodges purchased wheeled mechanical goats with which to humiliate their friends. These contraptions, which often featured eccentric wheels and noise-making attachments, were industrially-manufactured material manifestations of previous generations' misconceptions of membership rites. These metallic ungulates eventually found their way from lodge rooms into court rooms, as injured initiates sued their tormentors. One resident of Missouri, for example, claimed compensation from the local Modern Woodmen's lodge in 1906 claiming that their mechanical goat had "walked on his face."

Editor's note: If you'd like to learn more about mechanical goats and/or fraternal lodges, check out Julia Suits' hilarious book The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions. You can check out the trailer above. And then click through to Amazon here. This book will remind you that the past really is like a foreign country where you show up, look around, and think: man, this is weird.

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William D. Moore is an Associate Professor of American Material Culture Department of the History of Art and Architecture and the Program in American and New England Studies at Boston University.

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