Decoding Secret Societies: What Are All Those Old Boys' Clubs Hiding?

October 3rd, 2012

Their members use secret handshakes and coded language. In temples, they don ancient regalia, helmets, or masks. Thanks to their veils of secrecy and archaic symbols like the All-Seeing Eye, outsiders find fraternal orders endlessly fascinating. But what does it all mean?

By the early 20th century, nearly all of America’s white wealthy elite belonged to one secret society or another. That fueled suspicions—still rampant today—that Freemasons, Odd Fellows, and other fraternal members have employed occult rituals to gain or maintain their power. But a collector named AR8Jason, who has posted on Collector Weekly’s Show & Tell, thinks the appeal of such clubs was much more simple than that.

“Some of these groups are simply the big-boy versions of the little boy clubs,” he says. “As a little boy, I lived in a small town in Oklahoma. There, my friends and I started a club. We had the secret handshake, the passwords. Then, I grew up and I found out that grown men were doing the same thing. They just had better uniforms.”

Top: Three Royal Arch Masons in their regalia in a York Rite cabinet card. Above: At meetings, Masons wear aprons designating their degrees. This silk apron is hand-painted with scene of an Native American offering his peace pipe to a white man.

Top: Three Royal Arch Masons in their regalia in a York Rite cabinet card. Above: At meetings, Masons wear aprons designating their degrees. This silk apron is hand-painted with scene of an Native American offering his peace pipe to a white man.

Recently, the fancy trappings of dwindling fraternal orders have caught the attention of Hollywood, pop stars, and interior designers alike. In 2004, the film “National Treasure” posited that the Founding Fathers—many of whom were, in fact, Masons—sprinkled currency and documents such as the Declaration of Independence with clues to the location of an unimaginably vast treasure.

“This thing about world domination, it’s so hokey. As Masons, we just laugh at that.”

Masonic symbols also pop up in music videos by Nicki Minaj, Jay-Z, and Lady Gaga—these appearances are viewed by conspiracy theorists as evidence of a plot by the secret elite to brainwash the public into submission. And now, Masonic and Odd Fellows folk art, like hand-painted silk flags, are popping up in trendy Brooklyn restaurants as quirky decorative pieces.

For some, Masonic and other fraternal items, particularly those from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, are simply sexy collectibles. For others, these groups are linked to devil-worship and sinister plots to install a New World Order, ideas fed by fictional films like 2006’s “DaVinci Code.” But most cooler heads view them as rather tame social clubs, where older gentlemen talk about philosophy, science, and God, pausing to occasionally invest a bit of their time (which they have a lot of) and money (not so much) in charity.

A watch with movements shaped like Masonic symbols—a slipper, plumb, trowel, level, square, compasses, the Letter "G" and a Bible—made by Dudley Watch Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1923. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

A watch with movements shaped like Masonic symbols—a slipper, plumb, trowel, level, square, compasses, the Letter “G” and a Bible—made by Dudley Watch Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1923. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

“All the conspiracy theories that we’re out to control the world are a bunch of hogwash,” says Dave Lettelier, a Freemason, retired cabinetmaker, and the curator of the Phoenixmasonry Masonic Museum. “Most Masonic Lodges today have a hard time repairing the roof of their Lodge or the air-conditioning system. This thing about world domination, it’s so hokey. As Masons, we just laugh at that.”

AR8Jason doesn’t feel threatened by secret societies, and he has routinely bought and sold fraternal artifacts in venues like eBay. He says he likes “knowing the secrets you’re not supposed to know, without spending all the initiation fees some require in joining and going up through their orders.”

At left, two hand-painted Odd Fellows silk flags, and at right, Etsy editor Alison Feldmann's wedding crest, inspired by the such flags. Via TeenAngster.net.

At left, two hand-painted Odd Fellows silk flags, and at right, Etsy editor Alison Feldmann’s wedding crest, inspired by the such flags. Via TeenAngster.net.

For Etsy Blog editor in chief Alison Feldmann and her fiancé, the appeal of these antiques is less about unlocking mysteries than it is the Victorian aesthetic of the items, which are at once a little macabre (the skull and bones) and heart-warming (Odd Fellows symbols include interlocking hands and a trio of chain links for “Friendship, Love, and Truth”). In fact, the couple is so enamored with these symbols, they’ve made fraternal organizations the theme of their upcoming wedding.

“For us, it started with noticing the old Masonic Temples in Brooklyn, which are such majestic old buildings,” Feldmann says. “Once I looked on eBay, I realized they really took every opportunity to brand anything they could. It’s crazy how much stuff exists out there. Many of the pieces were mass produced, but the folk art is the stuff I am attracted to the most, like the aprons, banners, and ceremonial gowns that were hand-embroidered with the skull and bones. Jeff and I both are morbid people, so we were drawn to that.”

A watercolor postcard entitled “A Knight Templar’s Dream,” in which a Mason dreams of an event in Chicago with the planning committee members’ heads flying around him. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

A watercolor postcard entitled “A Knight Templar’s Dream,” in which a Mason dreams of an event in Chicago with the planning committee members’ heads flying around him. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

Of course, thanks to the Internet, most of the secret societies aren’t so secret anymore. Lettelier launched his online Phoenixmasonry Masonic Museum, a volunteer-run nonprofit, in 1998, which led to a physical location in his hometown, Havana, Florida. He’s heading to Salt Lake City this week to prepare for the opening of the second Phoenixmasonry museum on October 14. His museum also has pieces currently on view at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Museum.

On the site, which gets 60,000 hits a day, you can read the 1898 encyclopedia, The History of Freemasonry, by Albert Mackey. Elsewhere, Albert Pike’s 1871 Masonic guide, Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, can be found online. At a glance, it reads like your worst nightmare about getting cornered by a philosophy Ph.D. candidate in a bar.

This is the 32nd degree Scottish Rite apron of Venezuelan president Simón Bolívar from the 19th century. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

This is the 32nd degree Scottish Rite apron of Venezuelan president Simón Bolívar from the 19th century. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

“Not that Philosophy or Science is in opposition to Religion,” Pike writes. “For Philosophy is but that knowledge of God and the Soul, which is derived from observation of the manifested action of God and the Soul, and from a wise analogy.”

“If you have a hard time sleeping at night, just crack open Morals and Dogma and start reading,” says Lettelier, who is a York Rite Mason, a Scottish Rite Mason, a Shriner, and a Past Master of his Lodge in Havana. “You’ll be out like a light in 15 minutes. Nobody can read it! I can’t even read it. But it contains a lot of wisdom. Pike studied the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Druids, and all of these ancient religions. We call their ancient insights Past Knowledge.”

This sterling silver Past Master's Jewel was presented to David Lettelier when he became Worshipful Master of his Lodge. It was passed down from his great-grandfather who was a Past Master in Pennsylvania. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

This sterling silver Past Master’s Jewel was presented to David Lettelier when he became Worshipful Master of his Lodge. It was passed down from his great-grandfather who was a Past Master in Pennsylvania. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

The Roots of Secret Societies

Dating to 18th-century London, Freemasonry is one of the oldest of these operating fraternal orders, although the group’s mythology claims it is rooted in the building of King Solomon’s Temple around 966 B.C. Like many similar groups, the Masons were borne out of a British craft guild, wherein stone layers learned the tricks of the trade.

“The concept of freemasonry, which taught architecture and geometry, goes back thousands of years,” Lettelier says. “The Greek temples, the pyramids in Egypt, you name it—none of that could have been built without a knowledge of mathematics. So whenever you see the square and compass with the letter G in the center, that stands for God or sacred Geometry.

A rare Arts & Crafts style cocktail serving tray, made with mahogany inlaid with butterfly wings. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

A rare Arts & Crafts style cocktail serving tray, made with mahogany inlaid with butterfly wings. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

“Back in the 1500s and 1600s when the great European cathedrals were being built, a ‘freemason’ was a bricklayer or stonemason, who was free to travel and work,” he continues. “This was a big deal, because most men weren’t free. There were kings and knights, but the serfs were owned by the king. Uniquely, freemasons were people who were allowed to travel, work, and receive master-masons wages wherever they went. They were accomplished tradesmen. Back then, you probably spent 10 years as an apprentice before you received a degree. If you gave up the secrets of geometry to someone who wasn’t worthy or well-qualified, the freemasons would literally put you to death.”

Modern-day Freemasonry, however, emerged when the stonemasonry guilds began to initiate honorary members, armchair architects or intellectuals excited about the new ideas of reason and science that were catching on during the Enlightenment. “Geometry is taught in colleges now,” Lettelier says. “But 200 years ago, geometry was only taught in Masonic Lodges. During the Renaissance, men of social class joined their local Masonic Lodges so that they could learn these things.”

A piece of what is known as a "Master's Carpet," a basic emblematical chart for the instruction of Freemasonry. Scrolls such as this were produced during the 19th century as teaching aides for the Worshipful Master. Via Phoenixmasonry.org

A piece of what is known as a “Master’s Carpet,” a basic emblematical chart for the instruction of Freemasonry. Scrolls such as this were produced during the 19th century as teaching aides for the Worshipful Master. Via Phoenixmasonry.org

These “speculative” Freemasons formed their own group, starting with the Grand Lodge of England in 1717, adopting the guilds’ structure and passwords, as well as the iconography of stonemason tools. It’s also possible that the new Freemasons took inspiration from 17th-century German secret society known as Rosicrucians, which celebrated arts and sciences and sought philosophical truths from the ancients. The first known mention of a Masonic Lodge in the United States was recorded in 1731.

“The idea switched from literal architecture, to building the internal character of a man as a temple,” Lettelier says. “The requirements for joining are still pretty strict; you have to be an upstanding man of character in your community. We don’t just let in anybody and everybody, because it’s not just for anybody and everybody. You can’t take bad men and make them better. But you can take good men and good women and make them better, which is the whole foundation of what Freemasonry is now.”

Two items from AR8Jason's collection: At left, the knight-shaped hilt of a Knights of Pythias dress sword. At right, a 1908 foot-shaped pin produced for a Shriners event.

Two items from AR8Jason’s collection: At left, the knight-shaped hilt of a Knights of Pythias dress sword. At right, a 1908 foot-shaped pin produced for a Shriners event.

It didn’t take long for the concept of the fraternity to catch on; many of these groups formed with lofty altruistic purposes in the 19th century. Often, they served as insurance companies for their members: Everyone paid their dues, which supported those who had hardships or a death in family. Other groups include the Knights of Columbus, the Knights Templar, the Red Men, Knights of Pythias, Moose Lodge, Woodmen of the World (now an insurance company), and the elite Yale University fraternity Skull and Bones.

One of the most peculiarly named organizations is The International Order of Odd Fellows. There are two stories behind the name. One says the group started out as a group for craftsmen who didn’t have enough men in their trade to form a specific guild; thus, they were “odd fellows.” The group itself says that its moral tenets of helping the needy and decrying vices was “at odds” with the dominant culture of London in 1819, when they were founded.

A framed Odd Fellows insignia found at the Vintage Bazaar in Chicago. Via Thriftaholic.com.

A framed Odd Fellows insignia found at the Vintage Bazaar in Chicago. Via Thriftaholic.com.

In the early 20th century, after the discovery of King Tut’s Tomb, a new group of Rosicrucians, the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, emerged. Inspired by a legendary order in ancient Egypt, the new order embraced mysticism and psychic consciousness. That order faded in the 1970s, but other Rosicrucians have since emerged.

AR8Jason has read several of the old Rosicrucian monographs, which he calls a “bunch of mumbo jumbo” about mysticism and mind games. “Some of their material talked about how one town had a lot of mystical power,” he says. “The writer said he knew that because he’d ridden through that town on trains and the windows on the buildings had a purple tint to them. Well, the reason they have a purple tint is because they’re old glass. The glass through the late 1800s had an impurity in them. When the windows were created they were clear, but because of sunlight, over time, the glass turns purple. People who collect glassware know that. Anywhere you found old windows, they were purple. There was no mysticism to it.”

At left, a York Rite Mason poses for a cabinet card. At right, a woman, probably a member of the Eastern Star, is dressed head to toe in Masonic gear. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

At left, a York Rite Mason poses for a cabinet card. At right, a woman, probably a member of the Eastern Star, is dressed head to toe in Masonic gear. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

Who Are the Freemasons Now?

Today, Masonic Lodges around the world count six million members, with two million in the United States. Each member works his way through at least three degrees as a Blue Lodge Mason, from Entered Apprentice to Fellow Craft to Master Mason. While all Masters are considered to be on equal footing, they have the option of pursuing more degrees through either the Scottish Rite branch or the York Rite branch. Each of these degrees involves studying and mastering dense philosophical catechisms, while paying your yearly dues.

An exceptional Freemason who has completed all 32 degrees of the Scottish Rite may be selected to join the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, now known as Shriners International. Considered Mideastern-themed “party Masons,” the Shriners are the ones who wear fezzes and drive little cars in parades. Wealthier Shriners might join a motorcycle club or keep camels used in the Shrine Circus.

An example of a ball-and-cross fob, which opens to reveal Masonic symbols inside. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

An example of a ball-and-cross fob, which opens to reveal Masonic symbols inside. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

According Lettelier’s web site, Masons uphold ideals of equality, religious tolerance, and natural law (a.k.a. science), as well as a belief in a Supreme Being. These radical new concepts were central to the foundation of the United States of America, as many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Paul Revere, were Masons.

“Some of these fraternal orders are simply the big-boy versions of the little boy clubs.”

Given that members tend to be older now, these Masonic beliefs counter stereotypes about American men getting more closed-minded and miserly as they age. Freemasonry promotes religious tolerance and benefits myriad charities from the high-profile Shriners Children’s Hospitals, which give free care to burned or disabled children, to support systems for Masons and their families who are ill, elderly, or simply down on their luck.

“Freemasonry practices and promotes tolerance of all religions and philosophies,” Lettelier says, “because everything has something to teach, from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shintoism, to ancient Greek and Egyptian philosophies. Naturally, it’s your obligation to take care of a fellow brother, but if you come across anybody who’s down and out, you should help him, too.”

This hand-painted enameled clock, done in the Limoges style, depicts the symbolism of early Blue Lodge Masonry. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

This hand-painted enameled clock, done in the Limoges style, depicts the symbolism of early Blue Lodge Masonry. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

All which seems rather sweet, noble, and—dare I say—a bit dull. So why are people so obsessed with the myths of the Masons and other groups?

Weird Signs and Symbols

For one thing, fraternal organizations are dense with symbols, and the symbols are undeniably cool. Among the most popular—used by Freemasons in Europe, the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, and Skull and Bones—is the Jolly Roger skull and crossbones, intended as a reminder of human mortality. Another is the All-Seeing Eye of God, also called the Eye of Providence, which runs through ancient religions starting as the eye of the Egyptian sun god and moving through Buddhism, Hinduism, and early Christianity. A symbol of God’s omniscience, the All-Seeing Eye is famously featured on the U.S. dollar bill.

The Masonic logo features a square and compass, two of the most important tools of stonemasonry, respectively standing for man and God. The cornerstone of a building has to be completely square or the structure will not stand, so a Mason is expected to be morally upright. Aside from tools, Masonic imagery often features arches and pillars, said to hold up heaven. Nearly all Masonic Lodges have a checkerboard floor, known as the Mosaic Pavement, which symbolizes the complex relationship of good and evil in life.

View of a room at the Masonic Hall in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, England, circa 1900. Courtesy of the Bury St. Edmunds Past and Present Society, Spanton Jarman Collection.

View of a room at the Masonic Hall in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, England, circa 1900. Courtesy of the Bury St. Edmunds Past and Present Society, Spanton Jarman Collection.

Spooky and Silly Rituals

Secondly, these fraternal orders put their recruits through elaborate rituals. In the past, a wannabe Odd Fellow would be blindfolded or masked with a pair of goggles known as a “hoodwink,” which had blinds that could be open and shut. When the blinds were lifted, the initiate would be facing a human skeleton in a room lit only by torches. Recently, such skeletons are being discovered in abandoned Odd Fellows halls all over the country, terrifying unsuspecting construction workers.

An antique Odd Fellows hoodwink.

An antique Odd Fellows hoodwink.

“That ritual is called a Lodge of Reflection, which is strictly to teach you about the brother or sister that has gone before you,” Lettelier says, explaining that it was largely practiced by Odd Fellows and Woodmen in the United States, but also by Freemasons in Europe. “It all revolves around the Latin term, memento mori, meaning ‘time flies, and we all meet our Maker.'”

AR8Jason says years ago he came across one of these old caskets with a skeleton in it at a flea market in Canton, Texas. “I have a problem with that,” he says. “I have no idea who the person was, but I think that’s disrespectful. “

Initiates also go through what Lettelier characterizes as “light hazing.” Odd Fellows and Woodmen were known to make their recruits ride goats. Lettelier says there’s never been a goat in a Masonic Lodge, but members so regularly teased candidates about “riding the goat,” it became associated with the Masons in popular culture.

Postcards perpetuated the popular Masonic joke about initiates "riding the goat," something that didn't really happen. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

Postcards perpetuated the popular Masonic joke about initiates “riding the goat,” something that didn’t really happen. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

“During the fraternal-order hazing, they didn’t beat you up and physically mangle you,” he says. “They didn’t paddle you. Well, I mean, some of ’em did, but it wasn’t meant to hurt anybody. It was meant to embarrass the candidate a little bit, and everybody in the Lodge room got a big belly laugh out of it. Once you went through that little bit of hazing, you’d go out and bring all your friends in because you wanted to see them go through the same thing. You wanted to see them ‘ride the goat.'”

While AR8Jason has never joined a fraternal organization like the Masons or Odd Fellows, in the Navy, he was initiated into the ranks of The Golden Shellbacks, which is a combination of two societies, The Shellbacks and The Realm Of The Golden Dragon, for sailors who have crossed the Equator and the International Dateline respectively while in the service.

This anti-Masonic protestor from 1870 has a sign decrying "illegal, immoral, and despotic oaths." Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

This anti-Masonic protestor from 1870 has a sign decrying “illegal, immoral, and despotic oaths.” Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

“You get up in the morning and put your clothes on inside out and backward,” AR8Jason recalls. “You crawl along the decks on your hands and knees. At the ‘royal barber,’ they blindfold you, drop hair shavings down your neck, and say they’re cutting your hair. As part of the initiation, some are made to pluck a cherry from the belly of a fat man wearing a diaper, ‘the royal baby,’ with their teeth. The belly is covered in engine grease, and the initiate’s face is shoved into the grease. To get into group, you have to do that. What would be the fun of the next guy getting in, without having to do that? Again, these fraternal organizations are not a whole lot above a college fraternity. Except they have more money to play with, and better costumes.”

The DeMoulin Bros. & Co. made masks, pranks, and other novelties designed specifically for fraternal orders. Via Dim Tool Dull Bulb.

The DeMoulin Bros. & Co. made masks, pranks, and other novelties designed specifically for fraternal orders. Via Dim Tool Dull Bulb.

Another ritual requires Fellow Craft Masons to carry bottles of corn oil, wine, and olive oil to remind them to “nourish the needy, refresh the destitute, and pour the oil of joy in the hearts of the afflicted.” AR8Jason says he’s found a Shriners pin shaped like a foot, commemorating a 1908 Imperial Council event wherein Shriners walked on hot sands near Houston, Texas. But for him, the most important brotherhood is the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“To join the VFW or the American Legion, there’s no initiation; you were initiated by your military service,” he says. “I would tell civilians, ‘If you want to join the VFW, no problem. All you have to do is get shot at. If you want to, some of the VFW guys can take you out and they can shoot at you for a while. If you survive, you can join.’ Nobody’s ever taken me up on that.”

Early 1900s Secret-society masks for the characters of Atum, Mas, Nepthys, and Osiriss offered on Etsy by Gypsy Rose Antiques.

Early 1900s Secret-society masks for the characters of Atum, Mas, Nepthys, and Osiriss offered on Etsy by Gypsy Rose Antiques.

Outside of the initiation ceremonies, the various fraternal organizations put on plays or rituals to make their word-of-mouth teachings easier to remember. In the 19th century, the Odd Fellows plays often involved creepy mesh masks that were painted and sometimes adorned with hair. Lettelier said Masons were less likely to use masks, but they would still dress up in ornate robes to perform the roles of King Solomon and His Twelve Workers.

“Most of your Scottish Rite Temples have beautiful theaters in them,” Lettelier says. “You have to understand that that stuff was perfected 200 or 300 years ago, long before television. It was an early form of entertainment. People joined these different groups because they wanted to see the degrees acted out in theatrical form.”

Left, a ceremonial robe embroidered with the number "30," possibly for the 30th degree of the Scottish Rite. Right, an example of an Odd Fellows helmet used in their rituals.

Left, a ceremonial robe embroidered with the number “30,” possibly for the 30th degree of the Scottish Rite. Right, an example of an Odd Fellows helmet used in their rituals.

Other groups, particularly, those with “knights” in the name, issued their members military-style garb and top-quality dress swords, made by the companies that supplied the U.S. military, like Ames Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

“One of the most common things you see for sale is a Knights Templar uniform, including the chapeau hat with the peacock feathers, the sword, the white gloves, and the sashes with the silver stars on them,” Lettelier says. “Those organizations got big after the Civil War, because a lot of the young men who grew up hearing about the Civil War didn’t have a military organization to join. So they would join a fraternal order and dress up and march through city streets in all their finery. I’ve got a couple of stereoview cards, showing these guys parading down the street. The parade goes on for miles.”

A stereoview card of a Knights Templar parade that took place in New York City on June 2, 1875. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

A stereoview card of a Knights Templar parade that took place in New York City on June 2, 1875. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

The plays put on by the Bohemian Club, in particular, fan the flames of those who fear that fraternal orders belong to the occult, are conspiring to take over the world, or actually are already doing so. This exclusive fraternal organization, whose members have included Richard Nixon, Walter Cronkite, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Henry Kissinger, has a waiting list 33 years long. “If there’s a world conspiracy, it’s coming out of this group and the Skull and Bones fraternity, not Freemasonry,” muses Lettelier.

Every year, the Bohemians camp around a lake in a dense Northern California redwood forest, to watch a Pagan-like ritual called the Cremation of Care, which symbolizes letting go of all the small worries in life. Men in robes chant while an effigy is set on fire in a giant, hollow concrete owl sculpture, which represents wisdom. This ceremony has been well-documented by muckracking journalists who managed to sneak into the event.

Image of the Cremation of Care ceremony put on the Bohemian Club in California.

Image of the Cremation of Care ceremony put on the Bohemian Club in California.

Actual Power and Exclusion

Allegorical pageants aside, fraternal groups did indeed have real power once in American society. AR8Jason explains that at one point, the Freemasonry network was so vast and dominant, that a parent could send a child alone on a cross-country train trip and ensure his or her safe passage by securing a Masonic pin to the kid’s clothing. At its height in the late 1800s, Lettelier says, one in eight Americans was a member of a fraternal order.

In addition, the reason why old Masonic Temples are so breathtaking and imposing is that the wealthy elite of the country all used to be Freemasons. That’s also why you’ll find some of the finest turn-of-the-century jewelry, glassware, and pottery marked with Masonic symbols. Masonic items were produced for every event a Lodge held, from laying a cornerstone (a symbolic ceremony from harkening to the original masonry craft) to anniversaries. Limoges, Delft, Maddocks, Lenox, Westmoreland, Tiffany & Co., Frankart, and Whitehead & Hoag all made exclusive Masonic pieces. Some of these items, like portrait plates, aren’t even obviously Masonic at first glance.

A Knights Templar portrait plate from 1904 features a beautiful woman. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

A Knights Templar portrait plate from 1904 features a beautiful woman. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

“I went through George Spielman’s Masonic Collecting, and I trained my eye from the pictures in that book,” says Lettelier, who says he was bitten by the collecting bug long before eBay. “You’ll see the scene on the front of a portrait plate, but until you look at the back and see what it was made for, you’ll have no idea that it was made for a Masonic Temple or Shrine. So I trained my eye, and now I can walk through an antiques mall and go ‘boink, boink, boink,’ and pick out all the stuff that’s Masonic. Even the antiques-mall dealers don’t know it is.”

The fine quality of Masonic antiques brings up a curious contradiction: However egalitarian the messages of these groups were, all fraternal orders were built on the concept of exclusion and elitism. The Masons, in particular, wanted to guarantee that it only included the most upstanding, respected members of a community, who would be seen as moral guides. But Freemasonry clearly served as old-boys networks that helped the bankers, lawyers, and doctors among their ranks succeed in their fields.

This hand-carved Worshipful Masters Chair dates to the 1700s. The Worshipful Master sits in the east end of the room while he governs. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

This hand-carved Worshipful Masters Chair dates to the 1700s. The Worshipful Master sits in the east end of the room while he governs. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

Originally, women were not allowed in the Freemasonry, so Masons established women’s auxiliaries such as the Order of the Eastern Star, which allowed the men to share their moral teachings with their families. The Odd Fellows has a similar auxiliary known as the Rebekahs. The first African American Freemasons, all born free, achieved the Master Mason degree in 1775, and these men were granted the right to form their own Lodge in 1784. Because racism was so prevalent, this started a long tradition of separate black lodges in North America, known as Prince Hall Masonry.

Even today, you rarely see a black man in a white-dominated all-male Lodge that subscribes to what is known as Male Craft Masonry. Lettelier, however, says his Lodge in Florida is a different sort, which accepts both men and women of all races.

Left, this Maddocks tobacco jar commemorates the 125th anniversary of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania in 1911. Right, this 1800s Delft plate is adorned with Masonic symbols. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

Left, this Maddocks tobacco jar commemorates the 125th anniversary of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania in 1911. Right, this 1800s Delft plate is adorned with Masonic symbols. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

Another group that took its organizational structure from Masonic tradition, but rejected the ideas about tolerance and equality, was known as the Ku Klux Klan, which coalesced in the 1910s from disorganized bands of post-Civil War vigilantes, originally outraged by the emancipation of slaves and the destruction of the South. This fraternal-order version of the Klan openly excluded blacks, Jews, and Catholics, while claiming to promote chastity, conformity, prohibition, and other supposed White Protestant values. At its height of popularity in the mid-’20s, the Klan had more than four million members in the United States, who would march in their hooded robes in major city parades. This group faded in the 1940s, when World War II made fascism deeply unpopular, and re-emerged in the 1960s as an underground anti-Civil Rights terrorist organization.

Westmoreland Glass produced glasses each year commemorating the Imperial Shrine Session and the city it was held in. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

Westmoreland Glass produced glasses each year commemorating the Imperial Shrine Session and the city it was held in. Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

But Masonry has also fostered many positive developments, as well as harmless trends, in this country. For example, Lettelier credits the Freemasons with starting collectors swaps, where people from different cities would get together to trade pins, cards, or glasses. Starting in 1893, the Shriner group known as Syria Temple commissioned glasses from Westmoreland as souvenirs of the annual Imperial Shrine Sessions, with decorations representing the event’s host city. These would be traded among Masons in much the same way as Olympics pins are now.

Still, given all the forms of entertainment available today, fraternal orders per se have waned in popularity with Americans under the age of 40. But Lettelier says Masonic teachings continue to reach new audiences through other formats. Ever heard of a little movie called Star Wars? Lettelier recognizes Masonic ideas in the Jedi philosophy about mastering the Force. Perhaps the Masons have succeeded in taking over the world, after all.

A pocketknife with 32nd degree Scottish Rite symbols on one side and Shriner symbols on the other. The degree's Latin motto "Spes mea in Deo est" means "My hope is in God." Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

A pocketknife with 32nd degree Scottish Rite symbols on one side and Shriner symbols on the other. The degree’s Latin motto “Spes mea in Deo est” means “My hope is in God.” Via Phoenixmasonry.org.

For more about Masonic history and collectibles, visit Dave Lettelier’s Phoenixmasonry Masonic Museum. And don’t miss the Collectors Weekly Hall of Fame collection, Oft Seen: Art From the Lodge and Other Secret Societies, from the Webb Collection presented by the Halsey Gallery at the College of Charleston, South Carolina.

24 comments so far

  1. AR8Jason Says:

    I enjoyed this well done article. It scratched the surface of the Secret Societies, but there are plenty of “secrets” that remain. Well done Lisa.

  2. John Says:

    Well Written. I appreciate the history and the fact that Freemasons were generally not racist whites only clubs as many would believe. I do have to respond to the previous comment. As a researcher and someone who works at a University, Id have to say that there are no other “secrets”. Ask People or Just go to a library and do some research – all will be revealed. That is, research in articles and scholarly books and not hokey conspiracy theory. The idea of secrets and conspiracy is still a product of 19th century mysticism and class societies.

  3. Jorge Arbusto Says:

    The CIA is one of the largest and most powerful secret societies existing today. It does what secret societies have always done. Allowed powerful individuals to network to conspire to share information for profit, political and monetary profit.

    The forebearer to the CIA, was the OSS it was made up of lots of Yalies, lots of bankers kids, who enjoyed pranks. Now they are growed up and pranking our economy and most are very wealthy and privy to insider information. The cover story is they are a “defense” outfit saving America, and at the bottom of the food chain a few do that, but at the top its a corrupt secret society of the oligarchy.

  4. Knott A. Mason Says:

    Thanks for this well-researched educational and insightful article, offering a rare illuminating glimpse beyond the shadowy exoteric aspects of these Orders, and revealing a tasty bit of the mesoteric and historic parts.

    As for the esoteric parts, those would surely be impossible for anyone to present without doing an injustice to the ideas and I think your article framed things well, leaving clues that they may exist without going too far.

  5. Todd Gelineau Says:

    I throughly enjoyed this article. I am a Seventh Degree member of the National Grange and hold state offices in my home state of Connecticut. The Grange was founded in 1867 by seven Masons as the first family oriented fraternal organization providing membership to men, women and children (women having full voting rights in the Order decades before they could vote outside of the Grange). From the beginning it has been branded with the same stereotype plaguing all fraternal organizations, that we’re closed secret societies. Nothing could be more false… The “ritual” practiced in Grange meetings is intended to serve as a thread that connects all members with a feeling of belonging. Quite a while ago Grange meetings were allowed to be opened up to anyone who wants to attend a meeting and get a feel for the organization before joining.

    Community Service and providing benefits to our members are really what today’s Grange is all about and I’m sure the Masons and similar organizations feel the same way.

  6. Fred Wyant Says:

    In general a good article. I did however, note at least one inaccuracy. While it is true that some years ago one had to be either a Knights Templar or a 32° member of the Scottish Rite to join the Shrine, that is no longer the case. Any Master Mason is eligible.

  7. upchuck Says:

    Nice job of damage control!!

  8. Joseph E. Filion Says:

    Just great work. Very interesting and informative. I have really appreciated all the writiing and the pictures of all the items shown. I just hope to get more info in the future if you come with some more.

    Joe Filion – Member of Laurentian Lodge #81, Prov. Quebec and Lodge Black Forest BF 901 Lahr Germany.

  9. Cory Sigler Says:

    Very well done, informative and educational. Pictures were a gorgeous illustration to help make your points come alive. PhoenixMasonry is a great site which I use quite often for my own research. Glad you brought them into the public eye for more to find.

  10. Doug Luberts Says:

    Nice article, but some inaccuracies:

    In the U.S. almost all Scottish Rite Masons attain the 32nd degree within A short period of time, often as little as two weekend sessions.

    It is no longer a requirement to be a 32nd Degree Scottish Rite, or Knight Templar in the York Rite, in order to become a Shriner. All Master Masons are eligible to join the Shrine.

  11. jimbo in limbo Says:

    You couldn’t have just anyone come on a building site and claim they could do the job and then get half way through and the building fell down. So a lot of this was to demonstrate your knowledge and credentials so you could go anywhere in the world and build.

  12. Kato Says:

    Wonderful and interesting. Although I would like to clarify what AR8Jason said about the “The writer said he knew that because he’d ridden through that town on trains and the windows on the buildings had a purple tint to them. Well, the reason they have a purple tint is because they’re old glass. The glass through the late 1800s had an impurity in them.” It’s actually not an impurity. Early glass was made using manganese which after being exposed to direct sunlight for at least 100 years will change a light purple. Today selenium has replaced manganese as a cheaper material. I recommend anyone interested research glass bottle collecting, it is quiet fun and a little bit magical ;)

  13. sam Says:

    Brilliant article with an illuminating array of fact, artifact and intelligent commentary.

    Both my father and step-father were big city masons, like their fathers before them and their many friends. I grew up with this stuff. Really and truly, even as kids we just knew it was a grown-ups’ version of being in a playground gang.

    My father and step-dad just wouldn’t have belonged to such nefarious gangs as are today often depicted as freemasons by lurid fiction and conspiracy theorists. And all the men I knew/know who were ‘G gang’ members were/are just decent, honest, upright chaps with no sinister intents and every intent to help the ‘widows and orphans’ etc – as well as escape from reality from time to time…. which my sons and their generation do, only more so now via ‘World of Warcraft’, ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ etc which have very similar neo-mediaeval rites and rituals as well as goodies/baddies affiliative opportunities.

    Seriously, the more we invest the masonic movement with importance and power, the more they think they’re important and powerful! Our fears and assumptions fuel a myth – which all the masons of my acquaintance are quite flummoxed by. To them, they’re just doing grown-up boy scout stuff.

    And membership is not a magic get-out-of-jail-free card! I’m not saying that there aren’t rotten apples who pervert their Lodges for their own nefarious means, but the real incidence of this is probably minimal in comparison to the good works and will anyway be tempered by the majority of decent masons of integrity.

    NB – no backhanders have been taken, nor integrity destroyed, nor duress applied, nor funny handshakes exchanged in the making of this post!

  14. Cassandra Says:

    The article was interesting, but not entirely factual. Part of that is the difference between jurisdictions, as each operates as an individual entity. In my jurisdiction, for example, I’ve travelled extensively over 30+ years and have never seen a checkerboard floor. Most have blue carpeting, tying in the the idea of the “Blue Lodge”. It mentions that the Worshipful Master presides from the East, but leaves out that the directions each have significance in all Masonic orders. Important officers are stationed in the East, West, North and South, and these are referred to in ceremonies. The article also fails to mention the youth organizations, which include DeMolay, Job’s Daughters and Rainbow. New York has its own girls organization, Triangles., and other places may also. It would have been nice to see mention of the many womens’ groups, like Amaranth, Daughters of the Nile, Ladies’ Oriental Shrine, etc.

    The history of fraternal organizations is a fascinating study of human nature and human failings. Many times new organizations were created due to power struggles, and someone or an entire faction would split off and start a new order, changing the rituals a little but keeping the same tone and basic ideas of the original group. It’s also interesting to explore the dichotomy of such idealistic groups with aspirations toward self-improvement having institutionalized racism up to the present day. Prince Hall Masonry was created by the refusal of white men to allow black men admission to their Lodges in the 18th and 19th centuries, but recognition and cooperation between the two branches of Masonry didn’t happen until the late 1990s and even into the 21st century. I don’t know if the PH Eastern Star was ever recognized by F&AM affiliated OES. PH Masonic groups are actually stronger than F&AM in many jurisdictions, and recognition or even merger might be what saves many groups from dying out.

  15. Cassandra Says:

    I did forget to mention the connection between Mormonism and Masonry. Joseph Smith was a Mason from a thoroughly Masonic family before publishing the Book of Mormon. He founded so-called Mormon lodges in Illinois and incorporated Masonic symbology and rituals in the ceremonies of the LDS church. Not surprising, since Brigham Young and many other early leaders involved in the founding of the church were also Masons. Urban legend has it that Smith and his brother, Hyrum (also a Mason), were murdered by Masons who were incensed that Smith had violated his oaths by incorporating so much Masonic ceremony into his church. History doesn’t bear out that theory, but many still believe it to be true.

  16. The Magpie Mason Says:

    What is the attribution for the photo of the apron depicting the Indian with the clay pipes? I’d like to learn more about that one. Thanks.

    MM
    http://themagpiemason.blogspot.com/

  17. Master Smith Says:

    Very well informed article. Although we Odd Fellows do not “haze” with paddles we do go through a quite humbling experience.

  18. frank Says:

    What about the O.T.O. and Scientology?
    T.O.P.Y. / The Church of Satan/ The Temple of Set?
    Jehovah witness…N.S.A …The brownies?
    Universal Order etc etc etc etc
    Great article very entertaining.

  19. Bruce Kiper Says:

    While one commentor stated you can go throught the Scottish Rite to obtain a 32nd degree”in 2 weeks”, they falied to mention that the “oldw ay” is the best and most respected. To become a 32nd degree using the old method can sometimes take most of your life to accomplish. Much of the secrets lies within that work. What is revealed is much about yourself.

  20. WB TRA Says:

    A clarification: the brown “ceremonial robe” pictured next to the white helmet is actually from the Ancient Egyptian Order of Sciots, a social/charitable order for Master Masons. The number 30 almost certainly would indicate the number of the Pyramid (the local unit, like a Lodge) which used the garment!

  21. Mechanoboy 57 Says:

    Well I never !! A link between Joseph Smith’s religion of Mormon and Freemasonry .. this came as quite a surprise and will keep me occupied checking out for some time . Just when you think you know the fundamentals of something you get floored by a ‘common knowledge’ fact . Thanks for this Cassandra Nov 9th 2012 .

  22. Jim Witness Says:

    The apron with the Indian….

    See The Improved Order of Red Men (http://books.google.com/books?id=kZLbGv92SjUC&dq=the%20history%20of%20the%20improved%20order%20of%20redmen&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q=the%20history%20of%20the%20improved%20order%20of%20redmen&f=false)

    Re: Your article.

    Specific enough to point in the right direction. Vague enough to be acceptable. That’s how I find all cowan reference.

    The OES didn’t start out as the OES. It had a beautiful evolution.

    According to Wikipedia, ” Hall and 15 others sought and were initiated into the Masonry by members of Lodge No. 441 of the Grand Lodge of Ireland on March 6, 1775.[1][2][12] The Lodge was attached to the British forces stationed in Boston. Hall and other freedmen founded African Lodge No. 1 and he was named Grand Master.[1]}”

    The reason was not racism he was turned away the first time.

    I’ve been to a Prince Hall Lodge and being white, was treated with great respect as due any brother. Their traditions have remained elegantly preserved in antiquity.

    Further research:
    Memphis Mizrahi
    Tall Cedars of Lebanon
    The Orange Order (crest symbolism)
    Co-Masonry (Colorado)
    Allied Masonic Degrees
    The Order of the Star & Garter
    The Rite of Strict Observance

  23. Walkman Says:

    Great article. My gt grandfather belonged to the International Order of Oddfellows and another ancestor belonged to the Woodsmen of the World.

  24. Jack Tripper Says:

    never heard of odd fellows till now nice to know good info


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