Why are secret societies still a thing? Like, why are they formed in the first place?
Some say they are purely to provide camaraderie among members. Others say they exist to seek enlightenment. I'm all for fun, but many social clubs, the 'fun kid brother,' of the stuffy secret societies, still remain pretty exclusive.
With that said, not every club or society is formed with initiations or rituals as a foundation. Some clubs seem to be formed out of pure mischief; take Liverpool's Ugly Face Club. This club was formed purely to mock 18th century England's beauty ideals.
Membership rules were simple: one had to be unmarried and must have had one noticeably 'horrid' feature. Examples included squinting eyes, a too-narrow nose, a large 'potato' nose, 'blubber' lips, and many more. Members of this 'brotherhood' celebrated their 'ugliness' by meeting regularly at a coffee house to drink ale and sing songs.
Mad as it sounds, the idea spread across the globe. Till date, there is the Club Dei Brutti in Italy, which an organization dedicated to fighting for the recognition of ugly people. Learning about the non-cultish origins of these associations got me wondering which other clubs had funny beginnings. Well, quite a few did; here's ten of them.
10 The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks
These days, the Elks are known to be an organization driven by brotherly love and charity, but it wasn't like that when they started in 1868. Before developing into a fraternal order, the Elks used to be known as the Jolly Corks. They were a group of theatre performers who wanted a place where they could meet, be sociable, and share a tipple or two. But due to New York State laws, this was impossible to do on the Christian Sabbath i.e. Sunday.
To skirt the 'Sabbath Law,' which prohibited sale of alcohol in public places on Sundays, the Jolly Corks formed a private association. They rented a space to enjoy their drinks in peace. But the drinking and camaraderie soon blossomed into a stage workers union of sorts. Members helped other members who were between jobs, and even helped take care of a member's family when they passed.
As membership diversified, they took on more responsibilities with an emphasis on benevolence and charity. Notable members include former Presidents, Senators, Speakers of the House, entertainers like Will Rogers, Jack Benny and Clint Eastwood.
9 Uttar Pradesh Association of Dead People
When Indian farmer, Lal Bihari was denied a bank loan in 1976, he visited the bank to find out what could be done. He was told nothing could be done, because he was… DEAD.
The bank and all government records had him listed as deceased. There was even a death certificate in his name. Upon investigation into why he was classified as dead, he found that it was part of an elaborate fraud. A relative had bribed a government worker to declare Bihari dead, and transfer Bihari's farmland to him.
To right the wrongs caused and bring justice to the 'undead', Bihari formed Mritak Sangh, the Association of the Dead. For the next 18 years, Bihari tried all he could to be recognized by the government. He had his own funeral, applied for a widow’s pension for his wife, publicly insulted judges, all in a bid to get arrested and acknowledged. In 1994, a local District Magistrate restored Bihari to legal life and his lands were returned to him.
Bihari continued to agitate and help others in the region known as India’s badlands. By 1999, the Association of the Dead had helped to resurrect roughly 30 people.
8 The Obedient Wives Club (OWC)
Formed in Malaysia in 2011, this womens-only club was set up to teach wives how to be submissive to their husbands. Members believe that husbands only stray when they're deprived of care at home. To counter this, they encouraged wives to act like “first class whores” in order to keep husbands from straying.
The group even penned a highly controversial book called Islamic Sex, Fighting Jews to Return Islamic Sex to the World. Their recommendations for keeping men happy in the bedroom got the book banned in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Despite the ban, the group has grown to include members in Indonesia, Singapore, Australia, Kazakhstan, and Jordan. They believe their teachings can cure societal 'ills' like prostitution and divorce. Who would have thought? An ultra-conservative Muslim women group advocating for members to be 'whores in bed.'
7 Shriners International
The Shriners are a branch of Freemasons, established in 1870 and headquartered in Tampa, Florida. In forming, they eschewed stuffy rituals so they could focus more on fun and fellowship. The group was originally called Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. Their fez and Arabian theme was adopted when one of the founders, William J. Florence partied with an Arabian diplomat in France.
Till date, they are known to be the life of any parade they are a part of, with their 'silly' hats and the little cars they drive at their parades. With that said, they're also well known for the charitable arm of the Shrine, the Shriners Hospitals for Children. This network of hospitals in the USA, Canada and Mexico was established in 1920. Since then, the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children has been treating orthopedic injuries, diseases, and birth defects in children.
6 Phi Beta Kappa
You know how, as a kid, you wanted to play with some other kids, but they wouldn't let you join their 'clique'? Well, that's how one of America's most reputable societies started out. The nation's first secret society, Flat Hat Club (F.H.C) was formed in 1750 at William and Mary College.
Their constant wearing of mortarboard caps (caps that we now wear at graduations) led non-members to coin the name Flat hat Club. But it seems all they did was meet at a Williamsburg tavern for drinking and discussion. One member, Thomas Jefferson, described them as “serving no useful object.” By the 1770s, interest had waned in FHC, with another secret society, Phi Delta Alpha taking its place.
When one student, John Heath tried to join PDA and was barred repeatedly, he created 'his own club,' Phi Beta Kappa. Today, ΦΒΚ is considered the nation's most prestigious honor societies with past members including 17 U.S. Presidents, 38 U.S. Supreme Court Justices, and 136 Nobel Laureates. Greek Life!
5 The Gormogons And The Scald-Miserables
In the 1700's the growth of Freemasonry and the power it wielded left many nobles of two minds. On one hand, the Masons seemed to be ending oppression by the government and encouraging free speech. On the other hand, it was close to impossible for some people to get accepted into the society.
This led to the spawning of many imitators. In some cases, they were real attempts to build a groups like the Masons, like the Oddfellows. In other cases, they were simply a parody of the Masons and sought to embarrass them.
One of these groups, the Gormogons, was started by a disgraced Freemason, Philip Wharton. The Gormogons aped Mason culture and sought to discredit them through publications. Another copycat group, the Scald-Miserables also sought to ridicule the Masons, by holding parades that were mockeries of real Masonic processions.
4 Belizean Grove
With most fraternity groups being male dominated, women soon tired of forming annexations. Why couldn't they have an exclusive all-female club of their own, based in their values and needs?
In 1999, the Belizean Grove was founded by Edie Weiner and Susan Stautberg, as a 'screw-you' to groups like the Bohemian Grove. The invitation-only social club has headquarters in Manhattan's Upper East Side and meets annually in exotic locations across South America.
Described as the ultimate Old Girls’ Club, this under-the-radar collective isn't all R&R. It boasts some of the world’s most accomplished, powerful women and offers opportunities for high-level networking. Invitation is only possible through an existing member. Despite its high profile members, the group maintains a very low profile. Most people only became aware of its existence when Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor had to resign from the Grove in 2009.
3 The Order of the Occult Hand
Long before Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O, there have been pranksters in existence. The exploits of JFK, Edison, Twain are legendary, but what happens when pranksters form a collective?
The Order of the Occult Hand is one such group; it's made up of journalists who insert the nonsense phrase: "It was as if an occult hand had…," into a print run. They get more respect amongst their peers if they can do this over and over without being caught.
When police reporter Joseph Flanders used the phrase in a 1965 news story, his colleagues 'congratulated' his use of such flowing language in a serious story. This led to the formation of the Order of the Occult Hand.
While editors are not happy with the use of such extravagant prose, reporters still sneak it in. Since 1965, the phrase has appeared in publications all over the world. In 2006, due to an exposé on the topic, the original members of the Order met at an annual editorial writers' convention and chose a new phrase.
2 The Ejection Tie Club
To get in, you have to be thrown out.
Sounds paradoxical, till you learn the Ejection Tie Club is a club for pilots that have survived being ejected from a plane in an emergency. The Club is a way to showcase the quality of their product, while congratulating pilots for choosing Martin-Baker seats.
Members are given special ties, pins or a brooch for the women, to show their part of an exclusive club. Before you write it off as a bunch of cocky flyboys, the club has over 5,800 members worldwide, and has recorded over 8,000 safe ejections. Perks of the membership also include a steep discount on a Martin-Baker Bremont watch, which usually retails for between $4,300 and $9,000.
1 The Alfalfa Club
The Alfalfa is like Coachella with a healthy dollop of the Great Gatsby ladled in, and with the clause that it's on for only one night. Yep, one of the 'biggest' parties held in America happens every year on the last saturday night of January.
Using the term biggest doesn't really do this event justice. The Alfalfa Club itself only allows 200 members at a time; spots only open when a member dies. Even at that, one has to be invited. Lobbying for admission is frowned upon. Members include the crème of the crop of American politics, Supreme Court justices, elite businessmen
The group was established in 1913, with the main function of celebrating the birthday of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Their name is a reference to the alfalfa plant and it's willingness to do anything for a drink. Yep, the 1% of the 1% gather once a year, for one purpose only; to get royally pissed.
What's not to love about a club like that?
Sources: Google Books, ABC, CNN, TIME, AsiaOne
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