Clubbing in days past: When fraternal societies ruled

Bill Loomis
Special to The Detroit News
  • At the turn of the 20th century, 20 percent of U.S. men belonged to at least one “secret society."
  • A man in Copper Harbor, Mich., invented the Knights of Pythias, which would top 1 million members.
  • Club members often dressed in exotic costumes and headgear or fantasy military uniforms.
  • By 1916 Detroit was named the top city for club conventions by the National Tourist Board.

Throughout Detroit one can see old buildings with names on the front, sometimes carved in stone, such as “Odd Fellows Hall” downtown (now a Buffalo Wild Wings) or “Loyal Order of Moose Lodge” near the new Red Wings Arena construction site.

Detroit is home to the largest Masonic Temple in the United States and the quirky, castle-style five-story building on Grand River that was a former G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) clubhouse.

These buildings are remnants of an era when 20 percent of U.S. men belonged to a social club. Or two. Or three. In 1901, one in five over the age of 21 belonged to one or more “secret societies,” as they were commonly called, whether they were clubs, fraternities, orders, mystical worlds, friendships, tabernacles, temples, nests, lodges, hives, tents, aeries, covens or dens.

In the 1870s men began founding and joining new clubs by the thousands from all levels of society. Immigrants organized clubs, as did African-Americans. Women would not be left out either and created auxiliaries of men’s clubs or founded major new sisterhoods. From 1870 to the end of the 1920s Americans’ social life centered on these clubs.

The Masons were the first

Prior to the Civil War the U.S. had just two well-known fraternal societies: Freemasonry and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. Both organizations came to the U.S. from Britain. Freemasonry — whose members are called Masons — began in Detroit during the British occupation in 1764, when Detroit’s Lodge No. 1 called “Zion” was established.

Many other lodges would follow, as Detroit became a major city for the Masons. The cornerstone of their final magnificent temple, the world’s largest Masonic Temple, was placed on Sept. 19, 1922, using the same trowel that George Washington — a Grand Mason — used to set the cornerstone of the United States Capitol in 1793.

The Odd Fellows began in Detroit in 1846. Along with their ceremonies and parades they helped widows and orphans of members and performed charitable acts.

Both these groups had limited memberships composed of society’s elite, such as business leaders or military officers. They were secretive, with passwords and secret rituals, and strange, with exotic titles and costumes. This would have a profound influence on future groups, but prior to the Civil War it engendered suspicion and political animosity. The Anti-Mason Party was formed in New York in 1828 and for 10 years was the “third party” in the United States. Anti-Masons were opponents of Freemasonry, believing that it was too secretive and elitist.

One man in Copper Harbor, Michigan would change it all.

Inventing the Knights of Pythias

Justus Henry Rathbone was born in 1839 in New York to a prominent family of preachers. His father enrolled him in college to study law but part way through Rathbone quit to follow his true calling — the theater. He is reported to have loved drama and costumes; there are images of him in costume playing everything from Pocahontas to Shakespeare. One play made a deep impression: a contemporary dramatization of the Greek legend of Damon and Pythias. Essentially it is the story of two young men who put their lives in jeopardy for the sake of friendship.

The "Lesson of Friendship" team at the Mason, Mich. Lodge No. 70 of the Knights of Pythias is seen in 1913.

At 22, Rathbone formed a traveling theater troupe but, while touring the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the troupe folded. Rathbone was broke. He got a job teaching in Copper Harbor, which then was largely a logging camp. To while away the long winter evenings, Rathbone began writing a secret ritual based on the play of Damon and Pythias. Rathbone was already a Mason, so he knew rituals. He also invented costumes, headdresses, swords and other exotic regalia he was sure would entice men his age to join. He called his organization the Knights of Pythias.

Seven years later in 1864, while a non-combatant soldier during the Civil War, he recruited young men in their 20s to join his new group. By the time the war ended in 1866, the Knights of Pythias had four lodges and 379 members. Through aggressive recruiting and eliminating the exclusivity of the Masons, it grew rapidly. By 1874 the Knights of Pythias had 100,000 members and by the turn of the century a million members — the third largest club in the U.S.

The age of fraternal societies begins

The success of the Knights of Pythias inspired others, and secret societies were founded by the hundreds. By the 1870s so many clubs were active in Detroit that the Detroit newspapers ran weekly columns such as “Clubs and Societies” and “Fraternal Societies” to keep track of their activities. In 1896 one expert estimated 5.4 million men were members of one or more of the 568 secret societies in the U.S. By 1907 that figure had risen to 10.5 million members.

A typical example, Henry Komrofsky, was born in 1872, raised in Detroit and known throughout the city as “Henry the Hatter,” since Komrofsky was in the clothing business. In a book featuring Detroit’s business leaders, Clarence Burton wrote of Komrofsky’s memberships: “Fraternally, he is with the Schiller Lodge [a Masonic Lodge for Germans], Damascus Commendary; and with the Mystic Shrine. He also belongs to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks, the Knights of Pythias, and the Loyal Order of Moose. He is also a member of the Yacht Club, Harmonie Club, and German Turnverein [a German gymnastics organization].”

Some societies that started more than 100 years ago are still in existence, such as the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks and the Fraternal Order of the Eagles.

The officers of the Mystic Order of Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm are seen in 1890, including founder Leroy Fairchild, seated at right. The club was founded on fun, fellowship and playing practical jokes on one another.

Others didn’t fare so well. Few can recall the Order of Chosen Friends, the Protective and Benevolent Order of Beavers, the Jolly Bachelors, Supreme Tribe of Ben Hur, the United Ancient Order of Druids, Improved Order of Deer, or the Order of the Owls (whose “Sacred Nest” was in Rhode Island). A personal favorite that counted thousands of members was a branch of the Masons called The Mystic Order of the Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm, a club based on practical jokes.

Some clubs were formed by immigrant ethnic groups like the Polish American Falcons and the German Order of Harugari. African-Americans formed branches of existing clubs, like the Odd Fellows and G.A.R., as well as founding their own clubs that included the Twelve Knights and the Daughters of Tabor. Women joined auxiliaries like Daughters of Rebekah, Order of the Eastern Star and Daughters of Ruth.

Learning the lingo and rituals

This was a time when normal Detroit men and women spent hours of intense study memorizing arcane rules, passwords and exotic titles; one women’s club, The Daughters of Mokanna, referred to their leader as “Supreme Mighty Chosen One.” She resided in the “Supreme Cauldron.” People practiced secret handshakes and learned symbols, fictitious histories, greetings and special rituals. Some carried swords, daggers and bejeweled battle axes. They dressed in exotic costumes, antlered headdresses, turbans or fantasy military uniforms, and argued passionately over the color of gloves or special plumes for hats.

Members paid for their own regalia, some costing hundreds of dollars, in addition to their dues, annual donations, fees and special fundraisers. Companies made millions specializing in accoutrements for clubs, such as Pettibone Brothers Regalia Manufacturers from Cincinnati.

An 1871 constitutional manual titled “First digest of the laws of the Supreme lodge of the world of the Knights of Pythias” states that the following regalia is mandated:

Emblems of Official Rank - Shoulder Straps for Officers

For Supreme Chancellors – Royal purple silk velvet, four inches long by two inches wide, bordered with three rows of corded embroidery in gold. The escutcheon or crest of the order at each end, globe in the center. … in addition, three small silver stars, one at the center of the top and one on the right and left of the strap.

The same manual specified that “Pages” carried battle axes and shield, “Esquires” lance and shield, “Knights” sword and shield, and other officers only a sword.

When rituals go wrong

Sometimes the sacred rituals got dangerous. On July 24, 1913 the Loyal Order of Moose, founded in 1888 in Louisville, Kentucky, met with tragedy when two candidates for membership, Donald A. Kenny and Christopher Gustin, died during the initiation ceremony held at a Moose Lodge in Birmingham, Alabama. The two were made to stare at a burning red hot brand of the Order’s Moose emblem. They were then blindfolded and disrobed, while wires from a large battery were taped to their legs.

Then, after a few sacred words were whispered in their ears, the Moose emblem (not red hot) was jammed on their chests just as the battery wires on their legs were turned on. The aim evidently was to make them believe that they were being branded. They both had heart attacks and died. The New York Times reported that the Moose organization was held liable and the four men conducting the initiation were charged with manslaughter.

In 1916 during the Knights of Tabor’s sacred ritual in Texas, an unlucky candidate at the altar, Smith Johnson, tripped on a carpeted stair step and impaled himself on the imperial ceremonial sword. He survived then sued and won in the Texas Supreme Court in a widely publicized lawsuit.

Detroit Club caters to the elite

In the 1880s the club most likely to attract Detroit’s elite was the Detroit Club, whose 1891 clubhouse still stands at 712 Cass Ave. Registered as an historic landmark, the four-story red brick building described as Romanesque Revival and Italian Renaissance held four bowling alleys, a library, dining rooms large and small, a billiard parlor, barbershop, a wine cellar, café and on the fourth floor private rooms for members to sleep it off. Its members were Detroit’s Victorian elite: industrialists, lawyers, lumber magnates, real estate dealers, railroad men, politicians, and later automotive millionaires.

The list of dignitaries entertained at the club is impressive: Presidents Truman, Hoover, and Roosevelt; Prince William of Sweden, Empress Zita of Austria, and the Duke of Windsor; Margaret Truman, Charles Lindbergh, Gene Tunney, Admiral Byrd, John D. Rockefeller and Edward G. Robinson.

Detroit clubs could be founded on anything, such as the “Odd Experience Club” founded in 1895 that gathered to discuss, naturally, odd experiences. In 1910 the Church of New Thought had 125 members to promote positive thinking and optimism.

Detroit: The No. 1 convention destination

The great event that every loyal member eagerly prepared for was the national convention. A branch of the Freemasonry, the Knights Templar, held Detroit’s first national convention in 1870 and made a deep impression on Detroiters that the city could be promoted for this type of event. Knights and their companions arrived by several thousands.

The Knights Templar march on Woodward Avenue in 1928, under the symbol of the red cross.

“… the various commaderies began the march to Washington Avenue. By eleven o’clock every knightly body was on the street with eight bands of music to thrill the pulses of the thousands of spectators who lined both walks of the wide avenue from end to end. Dressed just alike with some few minor exceptions, their uniforms rich, but not gaudy, their white plumes nodding in the morning breeze, their swords gleaming in the sunshine, and the gallant Knights made such a parade as was never witnessed in Detroit. Up they marched, stepping to the beat of the drums, looking like the knights of the olden times …” Detroit Free Press, June 10, 1870.

So many other groups chose Detroit for their convention that by 1916 Detroit was considered the number one destination for conventions by the National Tourist Board.

The “Antlered Ones” — the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (originally called the “Jolly Corks”) — came to Detroit by the thousands in 1910. As the Detroit Free Press declared:

“Women of Elks Parties Are Most Enthusiastic in Keeping up with Husbands in Pleasures of Entertainment. Members of the Grand Lodge and their ladies were given a generous sample of why life is worth living in Detroit.”

Shriners take over the city

Nobody’s convention in Detroit could compare in size, color and overall weird mayhem than the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, better known as the Shriners. In early June of 1897 the Shriners held their annual convention in Detroit with 100,000 Shriners, wives and girlfriends, and mobbed the city. For most of the year these conventioneers were responsible and dedicated citizens from cities and tiny towns across the U.S. and Canada, but for a few days all was cast aside.

Wearing their signature red fezzes, they overflowed the hotels, including the Russell House Hotel — the headquarters for Imperial Potentate Harrison Dingman. The Texas delegate brought their “tarantula juice,” delegates from Temple Zem Zem (Erie, Pennsylvania) poured out their “Zem Zem Spirits” and the Indiana temple offered their “Wabash Water.” The Detroit Free Press reported that the Mystic Shrine ladies also “drank of the limpid waters of mirth and ministrely” at the Empire Theatre, as they watched the “Monster Trolley Party” clanging up Woodward.

Shriners pose with bear cubs on the steps of the Masonic Temple during their summer convention in Detroit in 1897.

The “Army of Mystic Shriners” whooped it up on trollies, steamboats, Belle Isle, the roof of the Majestic Building, hotel lobbies and on the trains that brought them to Detroit. They brought camels and elephants for the parade to cross the burning sands of the streets of Detroit. Two black bears were tied up in the lobby of the Hotel Cadillac, and one “noble” from the Jackson Temple carried a raccoon on his shoulder.

The Temple Murhat from Indianapolis brought their own camel and dressed it in red socks, blue trousers, a carmine blouse, crimson fez and yellow Turkish slippers. Revelers grabbed hold of long ropes and serpentined and careened through the lobbies of hotels in lines of drunken nobles. Beautiful dancing girls entertained during banquets wearing white silk.

Locals offering Shriners room and board got into the spirit of things. A Detroit woman put up a sign on her house: Dinner ready! Camels’ milk hot or cold. Fricasseed tarantula!

One Shriner gave Michigan Gov. Hazen S. Pingree an exploding autograph book that made everyone but the governor laugh.

In short, a hilarious time was had by all. But all things must end and soon they exchanged souvenirs, planned for next year’s convention in Dallas, packed up and headed to the trains. The Detroit Free Press lamented: “They have gone from the oasis of Detroit to their various homes…”

What was I thinking?

The question many scholars asked then and continue to ponder today is why did so many people do this? What induced a normal adult to put on a purple general’s uniform with a gold fur collar?

A few reasons have been suggested. Some of the less colorful groups organized to pool finances for pension benefits or life insurance. Many joined groups to help others through charitable activities or common political causes. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) was founded in 1890 based on “Progressive politics and doing good deeds.” Other organizations, like the largest club at the time, the G.A.R., offered simple companionship with other Union veterans from the Civil War, a part of soldiering they missed. Both veterans and non-veterans also had common love of military uniforms and parades to show them off. It was social elitism and business connections that drew in members to the local Detroit Club.

Finally, many proper, buttoned-down Victorians held a fascination for the world of spirits, hypnotism, séances, magic and ancient cults. This fad seemed to carry into the popular allure of club secrecy, mystical ceremonies and shared fantasy that went on behind the walls of secret societies.

But that desire came to a sudden stop in the 1920s, as if someone had flicked on the lights and everyone said, “That’s enough,” dropped their horned helmets and went home.

Most groups were not regulated nor followed any established accounting procedures, opening them to embezzlement and fraud, although groups with the word “Improved” in their title meant that they were audited. Some clubs were unrealistic in their promises of benefits based on collected member dues that were frequently set at a rate that was too low. For many groups, though, it was simply that the members got old: Retirement money paid to elderly Supreme Chancellors outnumbered dues from younger cadets and the club became insolvent.

Less colorful, more charitable

Fraternal clubs enjoyed a spike in membership in the 1950s, with a bit less exoticism, but today membership is dwindling. The Masons fell from about 4 million members in 1965 to 1.25 million in 2013, with its average member’s age 62. Others follow similar trends.

Virtually all surviving clubs have community service as the linchpin of their organization, and are international in their reach. The Kiwanis Club, founded in Detroit 100 years ago in 1915, raises $100 million every year for family programs and emphasizes volunteer work. The Lions Club is known for its support of eyesight programs. The Rotary Club, aimed at business professionals and community leaders, tackles a variety of community issues.

The Shriners also now focus on charity work over their once raucous party image. In 2010 they even changed their name from the colorful Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine to the respectable albeit somewhat corporate “Shriners International.” They still love parades but typically drive tiny motorized cars to bring awareness to their charitable causes, notably Shriners hospitals for children.

For better or worse, the passwords, secret codes and camel-riding while drinking zum zum juice have been left in the past.

Bill Loomis is the author of “On This Day in Detroit History,” to be released in January 2016.