History has seen nearly as many conspiracies about secret societies as secret societies themselves. Below, we take a look at five of the strangest and most exclusive clubs in the world–some of which are still in operation today (or are they?).
5. The Independent Order of the Odd Fellows
The Odd Fellows claim to have originated in the sixth century BC, but their earliest written records date back only to 1740s England. At that time, the Odd Fellows served two functions: 1) It gave members a financial safety net by offering a portion of membership fees as a form of unemployment, health, and life insurance; and 2) It gave members–all of whom were men–a reason to drink and get rowdy (as if anyone ever needed a reason for that).
Over time, their membership spread to Europe and North America, which was convenient because members who traveled from one place to another got a free place to stay. By 1911 the Odd Fellows had become the biggest friendly society in the world.
Famous members: Winston Churchill, King George IV, the fathers of both Ringo Starr and George Harrison
4. The Thule Society
Ze Germans formed the Thule Society in the waning months of the First World War (1918). It was founded by Rudolf von Sebottendorff (a.k.a. Erwin Torre), an astrologist and occultist who believed the Germans descended from a northern race known as the Thules. No one knew exactly where this race came from, though Sebottendorff suggested it could have been a mystical lost world like Atlantis.
The Thule Society was basically an early form of Nazism and fed into and off of that movement when it began to emerge in the 1930s. Most of the 1,500 members were based in Munich and cared little for Sebottendorff’s crazy theories about mystical lands. Instead, they saw it as a forum for complaining about Jews. After Hitler came to power, he saw the Thules as a threat and shut them down. However, both Hitler and Heinrich Himmler are said to have appreciated some of the Thule Society’s whacky ideas about the occult, making them semi-members.
Famous members: No one you’ve heard of (unless you’re a German historian or a Thule yourself)
3. Ordo Templi Orientis
Otherwise known as the Order of Oriental Templars, this fraternal secret society was formed in the early twentieth century and is widely associated with Aleister Crowley, an English author and weirdo. It was organized in a way very similar to the Freemasons–including all kinds of crazy secret rituals–but its central focus revolved around what was known as The Law of Thelema.
According to Crowley, a non-human entity known as Aiwass told him of this law, which dictates a new ethical code for all humans. That code indicated that every human being had a “True Will” or special purpose in life. Now, Crowley wasn’t trying to get people to engage in hedonism, or doing whatever the hell they wanted, but he did encourage people to adore the phallus, masturbate frequently and free themselves from sexual restrictions (luckily for members, the OTO was co-ed). In other words, Crowley was a really early hippy. It’s no surprise, then, that there are still people who believe in Crowley’s ideas.
Famous members: Aleister Crowley
2. The Order of Skull and Bones
Apparently when they’re not rowing and shopping for turtleneck sweaters, Yale men like to form crazy secret societies. The best known of these is definitely The Order of Skull and Bones, formed in 1832. This is the secret society featured in that movie with the dude from Dawson’s Creek.
Unfortunately, despite the name there are very few pirates in this order; instead, the vast majority of recruits are snotty undergraduates from well-to-do American families. The Order meets in what is known as “The Tomb,” though the original building wouldn’t spook a five-year-old trick-o-treater.
For most of its history The Order was for white, Protestant men only, though that started to change around 1950 when an African-American was “tapped” for membership. Speaking of members, there have been many and all have received ridiculous club names: McGeorge Bundy was “Odin,” George H.W. Bush “Magog.” There’s no minimum IQ requirement for the society, which explains how George W. gained membership during his senior year.
Famous members: George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Paul Giamatti
1. The Freemasons
With a peak membership of six million people, it’s hard to imagine the Freemasons as a secret society. But, legend suggests that this organization, which was first formed in Britain at least three centuries ago, has had a huge impact on the direction of major historical events without any of us knowing about it.
Some believe the Freemasons are connected to an even more secretive group known as The Illuminati, who allegedly use their connections to control governments and spread their influence. According to some conspiracy theorists, the Freemasons and the Illuminati are bent on taking over the world. Some people believe these groups are anti-Christian and caused the French Revolution, which wiped out the monarchy and caused a huge rift to open up between the once-powerful Catholic Church and the state. Stateside, some people point to Masonic imagery on U.S. currency as evidence that the Masons and Illuminati wield great power in the United States.
Indeed, some of the country’s most powerful people have been Freemasons, from George Washington to Davy Crockett. However, contrary to popular opinion (and an episode of The Simpsons), it doesn’t appear Steve Guttenberg was ever a Freemason. Too bad, they could have made him a star.
Famous members: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Davy Crockett, Mark Twain, Ty Cobb, John Wayne, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Phil Collins, Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin and many, many more