Uniquely American Secret Societies: An Overview

From the Lecture Series: The Real History of Secret Societies

By Richard Spence, Ph.D., University of Idaho

Historically, there has been an abundance of secret societies in America. Some of these oath-bound lodges with selective membership were notorious for criminal acts and alcohol abuse. While there were others who strove to help fellow human beings. Group insurance and death benefits offered to members were among their attempts in this regard. Freemasonry influenced a large number of them.

Grunge freemasonry emblem on a dramatic background - masonic triangle and compass.
Freemasonry was the most powerful secret society in the US. (Image: A_Lesik/Shutterstock)

Freemasonry

The most powerful American secret society was Freemasonry that had survived short-lived anti-masonic national reactions in the 1820s and 1830s. Freemasonry grew in the following decades, and even during the Civil War, the members supported each other on both sides. Lodges issued “Masonic Certificates” for their members, and if they were captured, they would show the cards to their brother Masons. This way, they would receive care, sympathy, and good fellowship.

Learn more about Masonic revolutions in America and France.

Side Orders of Freemasonry

“Appendant bodies” emerged based on special interests. One of the most famous ones was the Shriners or the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. It emerged as a response to “Orientalism” that was dominant in late-19th-century Europe and America.

In 1870, a wealthy Freemason from New York named William Florence visited France, where he was invited to an exotic party. Hosted by an Egyptian diplomat, the entertainment turned into initiation into a brotherhood. When he returned to New York, he established Mecca Temple, the first lodge of the Mystic Shrine, and enlisted several well-to-do Masons. The highly selective initiation only included master Masons who had completed the Scottish or York Rite.

Touting “Fun and Fellowship” as their motto, the Shriners founded their first children’s hospital in 1920. But Shriners have many interesting things to consider, like their tongue-in-cheek versions of Islamic rituals. They pray to Allah and take oath on a Koran, which makes them a fake version of Islam.

Freemason symbol
Shriners were one of the most important side orders of Freemasonry. (Image: Mariusz Matuszewski/Shutterstock)

Another imitating offshoot was formed in 1889 by a group of master Masons in upstate New York. They called it the Mystic Order of Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm, or “The Grotto” for short. Imitating Islam with a twist, They wore a black fez, as opposed to Shriners’ red ones, and had the image of their mascot, Mokanna: the Veiled Prophet. Hashim al-Muqanna was a Persian mystic from 8th century Central Asia. He raged an uprising against Arab domination and Orthodox Islam and created a new version of Islam by mixing Shi’ism, old Persian Zoroastrianism, and Gnostic mysticism.

Al-Muqanna was the patron saint of another American secret society: Veiled Prophet of Khorassan Society of St. Louis. The founder of this society was Charles Slayback, a local merchant and ex-Confederate officer. Reserved for the social elite in Saint Louis, it was an imitation of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras.

This is a transcript from the video series The Real History of Secret Societies. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

African-American Secret Societies

Another American secret society was the Black Shriners, who surfaced in Chicago in 1893. They were African American versions of the White Shriners, who called themselves Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine.

Prince Hall Masonic Temple, Seattle, Washington, USA.
Besides black men, Prince Hall Freemasonry initiated Irish Catholics and Jews, who were not allowed in most lodges. (Image: Joe Mabel/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

The black version of Freemasonry also appeared in 1775 in Boston. A free African named Prince Hall and 14 others were initiated into a British military lodge. But later, they created their own lodge, Prince Hall Freemasonry. Although the Grand Lodge of England accepted them, American lodges considered them clandestine. In addition to black men, Prince Hall initiated Irish Catholics and Jews, who were not allowed in most lodges.

There were other lodges that promoted Black Nationalism. One of these oath-bound lodges was the African Blood Brotherhood. Appearing in Harlem in 1919, it was protected by high levels of secrecy against hostile authorities. At first, it supported separatism but then shifted to communism in 1922.

Learn more about Islamic Assassins.

Competitors of American Masonry

American Freemasonry had many rivals. The most direct competitor was the Knights of Columbus. It was, in reality, “Freemasonry for Catholics”, and was popular among Irish and Italian immigrants. Many people were members of various societies at the same time. For example, the Knights of Columbus, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the revolutionary Fenians had overlapping membership.

Another quasi-masonic lodge was the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. They followed the Masonic template in which each fellow earned three degrees of Friendship, Love, and Truth. Then, through a higher rite, called Encampment, they would become a patriarch. In 1900, the Odd Fellows had more members than Freemasonry in the US. Unlike Masonic lodges, the members belonged to the working class and were linked to labor unions. They even had female members who were equal to men. Although Odd Fellows and Masons were competitors, they had many shared members like Franklin Roosevelt, Earl Warren, and even Albert Pike.

Common Questions about American Secret Societies

Q: Who were the Shriners?

The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine emerged as a response to “Orientalism” that was dominant in the late-19th-century Europe and America. Founded by William Florence, members of the society were called Shriners and its motto was Fun and Friendship.

Q: What did the Shriners do?

The Shriners were a fake version of Islam. They offered prayers to Allah and took oaths on a Koran. All tongue-in-cheek, of course. They built the first children’s hospital in 1920.

Q: What is Prince Hall Masonry?

Prince Hall Masonry is the black version of Freemasonry that appeared in 1775 in Boston. A free African named Prince Hall and 14 others were initiated into a British military lodge. But later, they decided to establish their own lodge.

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