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.