Cincinnati Once Supported a Menagerie of Secret Societies

The city was filled with odd fellows, wise men, druids, and elks in the late 1800s, though it was all hush-hush.

A few weeks back, someone found a skeleton in a Mt. Healthy garage, resulting in flurry of hypothesizing until an investigation revealed the bones were a leftover prop from an erstwhile Odd Fellows lodge.

Multiple Odd Fellows lodges held their meetings in the magnificent temple that once dominated Seventh and Elm streets. The site is now occupied by a parking garage.

Postcard image digitized by the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

You don’t run into many Odd Fellows these days … well, allow me to rephrase that. You don’t often run into a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows these days. Back in 1890, however (to pick one random year), Cincinnati was home to nearly 50 Odd Fellows lodges or encampments. With the creation of the auxiliary Daughters of Rebekah in 1851, the Odd Fellows became the first fraternal organization to admit women. They built an eight-story temple on Fourth Street that covered half a block. Next to the Masons (who had their own substantial temple at Third and Walnut), the Odd Fellows were probably the largest of Cincinnati’s secret societies.

Cincinnati had so many secret societies that several businesses thrived while providing the special robes, regalia, ribbons and other accoutrements required in lodge rituals.

The societies were secret for a variety of reasons. Fraternal lodges were prime networking opportunities, and they wanted to filter out the riffraff. But they were secret mostly because they provided financial support to ill or indigent members and death benefits to their families. The secret symbols, handshakes, passwords, rituals, and so forth were a sort of Victorian two-step verification to ensure that remunerations were distributed only to initiates and not to poseurs. The Ancient Order of Good Fellows—not to be confused with the Independent Order of Odd Fellows—was typical in its benefits. Here is a summary from Daniel Kenny’s 1879 Illustrated Cincinnati:

“This is a benevolent and beneficial society, and has been established in Cincinnati about twenty years. There are now fourteen subordinate lodges within the city limits, with an average membership of seventy-five. The initiation fee is $10 for all the degrees, and the yearly dues $6. This entitles a member to $5 per week sick benefits, and burial at the expense of his lodge. Like most other secret organizations, it has an insurance branch for the benefit of members, but this is not obligatory on them. The widow or heirs of a deceased insured member receives $2,000. The order is composed largely of Germans, the majority of the lodges having German names, and lodge rooms in the German districts.”

Cincinnati had so many secret societies that several businesses, including Charles Carter’s Cincinnati Regalia Company, thrived while providing the special robes, regalia, ribbons, etc. required in lodge rituals.

Cincinnatians As We See ‘Em (1905), image digitized by Internet Archive

Most of Cincinnati’s secret societies were segregated by ethnicity (Ancient Order of Hibernians) or religion (Order Kesher Shel Barzel) and definitely by race. The Masons and the Sons of Pythias extended the same level of legitimacy to African American lodges as white lodges, but each lodge was segregated.

The Independent Order of Good Samaritans & Daughters of Samaria was originally founded to promote temperance and admitted both white and African American members—pretty much unique in the U.S. at the time—recognizing “the humanity in man, no matter what his color.” Over time, however, it became an almost exclusively Black organization.

During the 1800s, most Cincinnati men belonged to at least one secret society and often belonged to several. George Wiedemann Sr., founder of the eponymous brewery, was a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Good Fellows, and the Druids. His son, Charles, was a 32-degree Mason, a Knight Templar, a Noble of the Mystic Shrine, and a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

Some secret societies have their own secret societies. Membership in the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, or Shriners, is limited to Masons. These gents from the Cincinnati Shrine promoted a 1923 parade.

Entertainers with Syria Cincinnati (1923), image digitized by Library of Congress

If this rundown gives the impression that Cincinnati men were rarely at home, you would be correct. Before radio and television there wasn’t much to do at home, and most men (it was a chauvinistic time) spent evenings out at lodge events or at saloons. And there was an abundant variety of organizations to join.

Der Deutsche Orden der Harugari, usually abbreviated “D.O.H.,” was at one time the largest German secret society in the U.S. The Druids, a secret benevolent order whose rites and ceremonies were supposed to conform to those of the Ancient Druids, maintained seven “groves” and one chapter in Cincinnati.

Cincinnati was a stronghold for the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. Garry Herrmann, one of Boss Cox’s lieutenants, was active in the organization, and city contractors quickly learned that a lot of projects got assigned at Elks meetings.

The Heptasophs or Seven Wise Men created an entire pseudohistory to explain the origins of their association, involving mostly fictional links to non-existent kings of ancient Persia and heavy borrowings from the Zoroastrian religion. Known for elaborate and exotic rituals, the Heptasophs were at root an insurance agency. With an almost exclusively German membership, the group dissolved amid the anti-German sentiment of World War I.

The Improved Order of Red Men, despite its name, restricted membership to white males. Its constitution, organization, regalia, and rituals were all modeled rather clumsily on memories of Native Americans. Cincinnati hosted four “tribes” of this organization and a few more of a similar group called the United Order of Red Men.

The Supreme Council of the Royal Arcanum invested a lot of time and energy creating rituals that were excessively elaborate even by the standards of the day, with multiple references to the esoteric power of the number 1105 and memorization of epic oaths. It was, like many such organizations, an insurance company paying dividends when members fell ill or died.

The Order of the Iron Hall checked all the necessary boxes for secret societies: elaborate rituals, funny names for officers, esoteric robes and regalia, arcane symbolism, and benefits for sick or dead members. This secret society, founded in Indiana, added a new twist that led to its downfall, though—it was a pyramid scheme, or what we might call today a multi-level marketing operation.

The Order of the Iron Hall promised exceptional financial benefits, with thousands of dollars expected after just a few years of membership, but the prize was based on recruiting more and more members. In addition to paying dues and other assessments, each member was required to recruit at least four new members, each of whom had to recruit four additional members, and so on. After a decade, state regulators started sniffing around and the scheme imploded. The scandal was compounded by some shady members in Cincinnati, most notably a fellow named Gus Sussman, treasurer of an Iron Hall lodge made up of firemen. According to The Enquirer [February 2, 1889]:

“Gus Sussman is the treasurer. He has handled large sums of money, some of which has stuck to his fingers. It is claimed that his shortage is between $400 and $500.”

You might have noticed few Catholic organizations among this roster. Beyond their near-paranoiac obsession with the Masons, Catholic Church leaders knew that several of these secret societies were overtly anti-Catholic, among them the American Protective Association. As late as 1894, American bishops appealed to the Pope, who complied with a letter condemning secret societies and prohibiting participation by Catholics in three specific organizations: Knights of Pythias, Odd Fellows, and the Sons of Temperance. Any Catholic joining one of these societies faced excommunication.

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