With more than 4.5 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you’re throwing a term paper together at the last minute or checking to see whether the “Boys Are Icky” society based out of your childhood treehouse retains any infamy. But follow enough links, and you get sucked into some seriously strange places. We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 4,591,275-week series, Wiki Wormhole.
This week’s entry: Secret Societies
What it’s about: We could tell you, but we’d have to kill you. For centuries, people (usually men) have banded together in secret, developing codes, rituals, and private traditions hidden from the public at large. Some form to avoid oppressive governments, some to break the law, some to secretly control world events, and some are essentially just social clubs who keep secrets, because keeping secrets is fun. This is a rare Wiki Wormhole where the main Wikipedia page doesn’t tell the whole story, so through the course of the article, we’ll be clicking through the secret societies category page to related pages on the subject.
Biggest controversy: Various secret societies have gone by the name Hellfire Club, the best-known cropping up in Britain and Ireland in the 1700s. The clubs were made of up what Wikipedia calls “persons of quality,” often including well-known politicians, who wanted to engage in “immoral acts,” usually sexual in nature, without the public’s knowledge. London’s original Hellfire Club was founded in 1719 by Philip, Duke Of Wharton, and his club seemed to be less of a secret brothel and more of a support group for atheists. Wharton’s club mocked religion, naming the Devil himself as club president. The original club also accepted men and women as members, which later imitators rarely did. Eventually, his membership in the club cost Wharton his seat in Parliament. He disbanded the club, but didn’t lose his interest in secret societies—within a few years, he was Grandmaster of England’s Freemasons. Most subsequent clubs followed not Wharton’s lead, but Sir Francis Dashwood’s, who established a club in the 1750s that was publicly known as the Order Of The Friars Of St. Francis Of Wycombe, but in fact worshipped Venus, Bacchus, and any other gods that encouraged pleasure and partying. The members were known as “brothers,” the club leader as “abbot,” and the prostitutes who were a regular part of the festivities were “nuns.” (One “brother” in Dashwood’s club may have been the Earl Of Sandwich, still best known for his bread-based innovations.) In our slightly-less-repressive modern age, the Hellfire name still lives on in various swingers or fetish clubs around the English-speaking world.
Thing we were happiest to learn: The Illuminati were actually relatively good guys. While a shadowy organization controlling world events has long been at the center of conspiracy theories, the name Illuminati came from a real-life organization, the Bavarian Illuminati, that formed in May of 1776 to uphold Enlightenment ideals. They vowed to fight superstition, prejudice, the abuses of government and organized religion, and supported equality for women. They were vilified, perhaps unsurprisingly, by government and organized religion—specifically the Catholic Church and Bavarian ruler Charles Theodore, who outlawed the group, leading them to disband in 1785. While that’s the official end of the Illuminati story, it’s the beginning of the legend, as it was widely alleged that the organization had regrouped and caused the French Revolution. From then, there’s hardly a world event that someone doesn’t believe the Illuminati to have a hand in.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Not all secret societies are romantic. While some had to operate in secret to avoid unfair government persecution, others operated in secret to avoid absolutely fair government persecution. Chief among them is domestic terrorist organization the Ku Klux Klan, whose members dedicated themselves to murdering and intimidating African Americans from the end of slavery until the present day (not to mention intimidating juries that might convict their members). The group has three distinct periods—the Reconstruction-era Klan of the 1860s, formed by Confederate Army veterans, had more or less died out by the following decade after Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act. President Ulysses S. Grant used the Act to arrest hundreds of members, effectively breaking the back of the organization. The group was revived in 1915 and flourished in the ’20s, spreading outside the South, adding the burning cross to the group’s repertoire, and finding enough room in their hearts to hate Catholics and Jews as well as blacks. Incongruously, the ’20s KKK were also big supporters of Prohibition. By 1930, the group’s ranks had shrunk from over 4 million to just 30,000, and the “second KKK” disappeared by the ’40s. Unfortunately, they came roaring back in the ’50s and ’60s, fighting against the civil rights movement and often openly allying with Southern police departments and even the office of Alabama Governor George Wallace. The KKK still exists, although as of 2008, membership was down to 6,000.
Also noteworthy: While Americans are most familiar with the secret societies of the English-speaking world, they’re a worldwide phenomenon. Secret societies overseas have included Nigeria’s Abakuá, a men’s club focused on mutual aid and preserving culture; the Duk-Duk in Papua New Guinea, who performed dances women and children were not allowed to see; the Greek Ellinoglosso Xenodocheio and the Arab Al-Fatat, both secret organizations that agitated for their respective people’s independence from the Ottoman Empire; the Hamatsa, an organization of Kwakwaka’wakw, the native people of British Columbia, that allegedly practices cannibalism (probably symbolically, although the group’s secrecy makes it impossible to know for sure); the Finnish Kagal, who fought back against Russian occupation; the Katipunan, who secretly fought the Spanish occupation of the Philippines, until the organization’s discovery prompted the Philippine Revolution, which only partially succeeded, as it ended in an American occupation; and the Thule Society, a German secret organization that sponsored the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, a political faction eventually reorganized be Adolf Hitler into the Nazi Party.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Another focus of some secret societies is the occult, referred to here as secret knowledge. Occultists believe there are things science cannot explain, which can broadly include everything from magic, to astrology, to Gnosticism and Wicca. At one time, these beliefs were not as far from scientific discipline as one might imagine. Sir Isaac Newton was an occultist, particularly interested in alchemy, and as such his theory of gravity was dismissed by some as mere mysticism. (In fairness, while we know gravity is real and have a good idea how it works, we still have no idea why it works.)
Further down the wormhole: While many secret societies exist to avoid government scrutiny of one kind of another, governments the world over have formed secret societies of their own—we know them as intelligence agencies, formed to practice state-sponsored espionage. One of the strangest forms of espionage on record is the mysterious numbers stations, whose strange messages we’ll try and decipher next week.