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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
For more about Masonic history and collectibles, visit Dave Lettelier’s Phoenixmasonry Masonic Museum. And don’t miss 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.