“The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings.”
– John F. Kennedy, April 27, 1961
Long before the fiction writer Dan Brown arrived on the literary scene with his stories of esoterica, people have been intrigued with the idea of secret societies working in the shadows, carrying out evil plots against them. On this score, it would be hard to beat the Freemasons.
Here is a group of characters that has piqued the imaginations of men throughout the centuries. Back in 1798, John Robison, a professor of Natural Philosophy, and Secretary to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, published a book that made a big splash throughout Europe. The publication carried the lengthy title, ‘Proofs of a Conspiracy against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, Carried on in the Secret Meetings of Freemasons, Illuminati and Reading Societies.’ Had John Robison attempted to publish such a book in our day, he would have been quickly written off as a conspiracy theorist nut job along the lines of Alex Jones. But in 1798, the book was taken quite seriously.
Robison, himself a Mason, attempted to prove that not only the French Revolution, but many other historic events of the day were the result of this secret fraternity’s machinations.
“I have seen this Association exerting itself zealously and systematically, till it has become almost irresistible: And I have seen that the most active leaders in the French Revolution were members of this Association, and conducted their first movements according to its principles, and by means of its instructions and assistance, the formerly requested and obtained. And lastly, I have seen that this Association still exists, still works in secret, and that not only several appearances among ourselves show that its emissaries are endeavoring to propagate their detestable doctrines among us…”
Aside from the question of whether Robison was correct in his accusation is an equally important one: if the freemasons are really up to no good, are they continuing with their shenanigans today?
A lot of people believe they are, and many are speaking out with revelations of various levels of believability. Many are dismissed as conspiracy theorists (which, in turn, reinforces the belief of many others in the secret societies’ willingness to ‘throttle the truth’). Former singer-songwriter and winner of The X Factor Australia, Altiyan Childs, for example, shared a five-hour video where he proclaims that nearly every Western institution has been infiltrated by the Freemasons, to the point where it is nearly impossible to rise to high office – from the world of entertainment to politics and everything in between – without the silent nod of this international fraternity. That video has been viewed nearly four million times.
While it may be easy to laugh off such outlandish claims based on the ‘Illuminati’ and other such groups, there are other societies that make no secret about their secrecy, and have a much more tangible claim to controlling the world.
Secret societies always get the ominous treatment in fiction.
Are there any movies with remotely benevolent secret orders? Most fictional secret societies are usually more bogged down with dressing in outdated robes, chanting ominously, doing sacrifices, or hatching nefarious global plots.
So, to the paranoid mind, it probably sounds somewhat startling that 20 out of 45 US presidents have been affiliated with some kind of secret group. Just keep in mind that many of these societies function a bit like social clubs, charitable organizations, and business networks. In many cases, beneath the secret handshakes and mysterious rituals, they’re kind of like adult frats (or actual frats, in the case of the college groups on this list).
First consider the account of the origins of Bones to be found in a century-old pamphlet published by an anonymous group that called itself File and Claw after the tools they used to pry their way inside Bones late one night. I came upon the File and Claw break-in pamphlet in a box of disintegrating documents filed in the library’s manuscript room under Skull and Bones’s corporate name, Russell Trust Association. The foundation was named for William H. (later General) Russell, the man who founded Bones in 1832. I was trying to figure out what mission Russell had for the secret order he founded and why he had chosen that particular death’s-head brand of mumbo jumbo to embody his vision. Well, according to the File and Claw break-in crew,
Bones is a chapter of a corps of a German university. It should properly be called the Skull and Bones chapter. General Russell, its founder, was in Germany before his senior year and formed a warm friendship with a leading member of a German society. The meaning of the permanent number “322” in all Bones literature is that it was founded in ’32 as the second chapter of the German society. But the Bonesman has a pleasing fiction that his fraternity is a descendant of an old Greek patriot society founded by Demosthenes, who died in 322 B.C.
They go on to describe a German slogan painted “on the arched walls above the vault” of the sacred room, 322. The slogan appears above a painting of skulls surrounded by Masonic symbols, a picture said to be “a gift of the German chapter.” “Wer war der Thor, wer Weiser, Bettler oder Kaiser? Ob Arm, Ob Reich, im Tode gleich,” the slogan reads, or, “Who was the fool, who the wise man, beggar or king? Whether poor or rich, all’s the same in death.”*
Imagine my surprise when I ran into that very slogan in a 1798 Scottish anti-Illuminist tract reprinted in 1967 by the John Birch Society. The tract (Proofs of a Conspiracy by John Robison) prints alleged excerpts from Illuminist ritual manuals supposedly confiscated by the Bavarian police when the secret order was banned in 1785. Toward the end of the ceremony of initiation into the “Regent degree” of Illuminism, according to the tract, “a skeleton is pointed out to him [the initiate], at the feet of which are laid a crown and a sword. He is asked whether that is the skeleton of a king, nobleman or a beggar. As he cannot decide, the president of the meeting says to him, ‘The character of being a man is the only one that is of importance’ ” (my italics).
Doesn’t that sound similar to the German slogan the File and Claw team claims to have found inside Bones? Now consider a haunting photograph of the altar room of one of the Masonic lodges at Nuremberg that is closely associated with Illuminism. Haunting because at the altar room’s center, approached through an aisle of hanging human skeletons, is a coffin surmounted by—you guessed it—a skull and crossbones that look exactly like the particular arrangement of jawbones and thighbones in the official Bones emblem. The skull and crossbones was the official crest of another key Illuminist lodge, one right-wing Illuminist theoretician told me.
Now you can look at this three ways. One possibility is that the Bircher right—and the conspiracy-minded left—are correct: The Eastern establishment is the demonic creation of a clandestine elite manipulating history, and Skull and Bones is one of its recruiting centers. A more plausible explanation is that the death’s-head symbolism was so prevalent in Germany when the impressionable young Russell visited that he just stumbled on the same mother lode of pseudo-Masonic mummery as the Illuminists. The third possibility is that the break-in pamphlets are an elaborate fraud designed by the File and Claw crew to pin the taint of Illuminism on Bones and that the rituals of Bones have innocent Athenian themes, 322 being only the date of the death of Demosthenes. (In fact, some Bones literature I’ve seen in the archives does express the year as if 322 B.C. were the year one, making 1977 anno Demostheni 2299.)