The Odd Fellows, the Masons, the Knights of Pythias: all ancient, secret, solemn orders full of the pillars of the community, right? Then what do we make of some of the super weird stuff they did, like pushing each other around on mechanical goats or pretending to be Iroquois sachems? In this episode, we explore the deeper, gendered meanings behind the rituals and rites of American fraternal orders in the 19th century.

Sarah: In the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, Massachusetts, there’s an odd little artifact. It looks like a child’s tricycle, with a handle on the back (presumably designed to push it) and a seat sitting on three wheels. But it’s not a child’s tricycle. To start with, it’s sized for an adult to ride. Second, the hubs of the wheels are all off-set, so it would roll in a bumping, uneven manner.  Third, the seat is … well, not really a seat. It’s a stuffed goat.

Marissa: The mechanical goat wasn’t a toy or something used by actors or comedians. No, in reality, the goat was designed to be ridden by initiates to the Odd Fellows lodge in New Kensington, Pennsylvania during the first quarter of the 20th century. And yes, in case it’s not clear – the folks ‘riding the goat’ were all adult men.

Sarah: What the hell is that about? Why were adult men in fraternal clubs like the Odd Fellows going around riding on wacky mechanical goats? And why a goat – why not a horse? And why did men want to join these weird clubs, anyway? Today, as part of our series on clubs, we’re talking about all-male secret socities in the 19th century United States.

I’m Sarah

And I’m Marissa

And we are your historians for this episode of DIG

Sarah: There’s a famous article by Robert Darnton that is on, like, every single syllabus in every single history research seminar, called “The Great Cat Massacre.” In the article, Darnton tells the story of how two printer’s apprentices in France during the 1730s held a fake inquisition with their friends and killed dozens and dozens of cats – which sounds totally crazy, and is totally crazy – but actually tells us so much about French culture during this moment. Actually, the wackiness of this story is what makes it useful, Darnton says. Sure, we can learn a lot about culture from things that seem familiar and make sense to us – things like, say, clothing or paintings or television shows – but we can actually learn more by really digging into the things that make no sense to us at all. So Darnton ‘unpacks’ this cat massacre to explore every little piece of the event, from the symbolic meaning of cats in modern Europe to the intricate hierarchies of apprenticeships. Not only does it help us understand this incomrepehensible moment, but it serves as sort of an entry point into the larger French culture at this historical moment. Ok, so what does any of this have to do with mechanical goat riding? Well, it’s that for American cultural historians, fraternal orders have sort of the same appeal as a cat massacre. The rituals are totally wacky. Riding a goat makes no sense to us! So why did men think that it was not only worthwhile, but also masculine and honorable?

Marissa: Fraternal orders – which are basically just men’s clubs but fancier – were immensely popular in the United States during the nineteenth century. The two most popular clubs were the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows. The Freemasons, despite what you might think you know from the History Channel or the excellent film National Treasure, is not an ancient order, but one established in early 18th century London. By the 1730s and 1740s, there were already lodges established in the American colonies. But Masonry looked nothing like it does now – it was simply a small scale boys club, where men might gather to have a pint and share a meal. Over the first quarter of the 19th century, the club became much more popular, but not because of a desire for brotherhood and comraderie – it had much more to do with how much liquor the clubs provided. Before they built their own lodges, Masons often met in taverns and drank so much that they often had rules written into their constitutions that required that all lodge members pay their tavern bills before they could leave the meeting.

Sarah: But during the first quarter of the 19th century, the Masons began to encounter serious criticism as an organization. First, it was having a bit of an identity crisis. Each lodge operated completely separately, with its own rituals, rules, and customs. It also wasn’t clear exactly what the club was for – was it just a men’s club for drinking and conversation? Or was it something bigger, more important? Another part of the problems facing Masonry was linked to how much drinking went on at meetings. After all, temperance (or the political movement to end alcohol consumption) was becoming a major component of white middle class identity during the antebellum era, which made the heavy drinking of lodge meetings look sort of classless and trashy. Some members also started to complain that the lodge spent so much time and money on alcohol that they weren’t doing anything else, including donate money to help Masons in trouble. One Mason in 1818 did the research and determined that their lodge had spent over $700 on alcohol in the previous year, but only $60 on donations to needy members. But the most serious criticism came from those who accused the Masons of murderous Satan-worshippers, or of being a cabal that was secretly pulling the strings in the government.

Marissa: There wasn’t really any evidence that the Masons were Satan worshippers, but there was one dramatic incident that added fuel to the anti-Masonic fire. A Virginian named William Morgan, who had recently moved to Rochester, NY and who claimed to be a Master Mason (we’ll explain what that means later), was turned away by the Rochester lodge that he tried to join. Morgan apparently had been drinking and gambling, which violated the character clauses of Mason membership. Morgan was insulted, and so to get even he made plans to publish a book detailing all of the Masons’ secrets. Masons in the area tried to convince him not to publish by taking out full page ads in the newspaper reminding him that he had taken an oath not to reveal the club’s secrets, but Morgan wasn’t impressed. At the same time, Morgan was arrested and jailed for theft and debt. For those who opposed Masonry and believed it was some kind of secret cabal, this seemed like clear evidence that the Masons were trying to stop Morgan from telling his secrets. But the book project went forward even with Morgan in jail. Morgan was released from jail, but then disappeared without a trace while en route to Fort Niagara in Youngstown, New York. Soon, the explanation that many anti-Masons landed on was that Masons had kidnapped him and thrown him into the Niagara River (or “Lake Niagara,” lol). Although a murder was never proven and no body ever found, Morgan’s disappearance fueled a significant anti-Mason movement, including a semi-successful political third party that at one point incuded William Seward, Thurlow Weed, and Millard Fillmore as members. Membership in the organization dropped by some 60,000 between 1820 and 1830 while the anti-Mason movement was at its peak.

Sarah: The Masons who stayed made an effort to overhaul the club – specifically, to get rid of the association that many Americans had between Masons and alcohol. Instead of drinking and revelry, lodges increasingly turned to ritual. As historian Mark Carnes notes, the budget once allocated to liquor now went to the purchase of robes and other items to be used in elaborate rituals. Initially, these rituals relied heavily on the use of masks. Suddenly, a member wasn’t just John Smith the local bank manager, he was a Master Mason or an Odd Fellow, a member of an ancient and solemn order, with power over those on the ranks below him. Eventually, Mark Carnes says, the masks went away. I think this is one of those ‘cat massacre’ moments. Because typically, we would think that the masks are meant to hide identity because all this was supposed to be super secret. And it was – almost all orders made initiates swear on a Bible or holy book that they would never reveal the secrets of their order. But then why would the masks go away? It’s because members weren’t supposed to utterly transform – they were only supposed to take on a new and powerful role. Without masks, the man could imagine himself as that powerful person, and consider the rites and rituals as himself.

Marissa: Masonic rituals were deeply religious – specifically, deeply Christian – but in an unusual way. One of the requirements for membership in the Masons (then as now) was an admission of faith in “the Supreme Architect of Universal nature,” a highly stylized way of saying, faith in God. The rituals used by the Masons, developed in their first forms at some point in the 18th century, spoke to an ancient history of the order rooted in the rebuilding of the temple of Jerusalem after its destruction at the hands of the evil Babylonians. Initiation rituals put men into the position of pilgrims, sent by God into dangerous, enemy territory to rebuild the Temple. In some lodges, initiates were told they needed to dig through the “ruins of the old Temple” (really, piles of rocks and sticks), where they would eventually find a trapdoor. The door would be opened, and one of the initiates would have to be lowered using ropes into a “vault” where he would find objects and documents that would help the new members to understand the passwords and other Masonic secrets. Initiates were told that these rituals were ancient and unchanging, passed down since the days of the Old Testament – this was not true. The rituals weren’t all that old (they were invented, along with the history of Masonry, in the mid 1700s) and they certainly weren’t unchanging. Nearly every lodge had its own spin on its rituals and ritualistic language. While these odd rituals had always sort of been part of Masonry, after the tumultous years of anti-Mason ferver, ritual started to become more formal and more integral to Masonic life, intentionally created to help change the perception that the organization was either all about immoral drinking and revelry, or worshipping Satan.

Sarah: But even then, why create such archaic, bizarre rituals based on interpretations of the book of Ezekiel? It does sort of make sense – white middle class Americans were super into Protestant Christianity, of course – but when you really get down into the language, it gets super weird again. For instance, historian Mark Carnes spends a lot of time analyzing one prayer, recorded by an Episcopalian reverend and Masonic High Priest, John Brown, who was a member of a lodge in Newburgh, NY for something like 60 years. If you read the prayer quickly, it seems like boilerplate Christian prayer (if a little old fashioned) and with a lot of junk about temples. The prayer talks a lot about sin, and the imperfections of man, and makes reference to men “walking the thorny path of life,” and asks the “great architect of the universe” for forgiveness and for admittance into the “temple of eternal light and life.” Again, this seems totally expected – sin and salvation and all that. But, as Mark Carnes points out, what’s really unusual about it, especially for a 19th c. prayer, it makes zero mention of Jesus, who Christians believe is the only gateway to salvation. In fact, the prayer and all the rituals are based in the Old Testament, which (if you know anything about the Bible) is all about struggle, being lost in the desert, war, death, etc. This is particularly weird  given that when this prayer was first constructed, and even in the decades after as it was recited, the US was greatly impacted by the theology of the Second Great Awakening, the key piece of which was millenialism, or the idea that through good works and perfection, humans could bring about the second coming of Christ and usher in a millenia of peace. It was an era of theolgy much more concerned with the New Testament than the Old – so why this prayer? 

Marissa: Well, Mark Carnes argues that the Second Great Awakening also saw women becoming more involved than ever in American religious life. Mid 19th c gender constructs suggested that women were inherently more moral and more spiritual than men, and that men needed women to act as their moral compass, influencing them and keeping them on the straight and narrow. It was also an era where men were expected to practice strict self control in order to act with gentility and restraint. If you were to ask most 19th c. historians to conjure up teh stereotypical image of the era, they would very likely point to the trope of the parlor – sentimental magazine etching depicting a middle class family, sitting together in a carefully appointed parlor, quiet, restrained, tasteful. Women were the ones who constructed and controlled these  internal, private spaces, including the men within them. Even the ways that antebellum Christians thought about heaven seemed feminized – as people began to think about death as just a step into a place that replicated earth, to some, it felt like heaven would be just another parlor. Men resented the new role of women in religious life. As one Baptist clergyman moaned, “Within, in her lowest, spiritual form, as the ruling spirt she inspires, and sometimes writes the sermons. Without, as the bulk of his congregation, she watches over [the minister’s orthodoxy, verified his texts, visits his schools, and harasses his sick …. The preacher who thunders so defiantly against spiritual foes, is trembling all the time beneath the critical eye that is watching him with so merciless an accuracy of his texts. Impelled, guided, censured by women, we can hardly wonder if, in nine cases out of ten, the parson turns woman himself!”

The family sitting in the Victorian parlor
The family parlor, Godeys Ladys Book

Sarah: Masonry offered a safe way for men to escape the parlor. In terms of religion, Masonry created a kind of hypermasculinized theology, where God was an angry father, a workman (an architect) like them, who kept secrets. Carnes describes the deity like this: “Man’s dependence on God, as Ezekiel warned, was absolute. Without access to His long-lost Word, man’s depravity was infinite, his prospects for salvation nonexistent. Man must struggle mightily to discover His ineffable secrets, to endure the privations of captivity, to persist through adversity, and to dig deep into the mysteries of the past.” So the Masons created a theology in which it wasn’t Christ who gave them salvation, but their commitment to the quest of understanding the ancient mysteries of Masonry. This was a dark, hard, scary Christianity, one without the emphasis on love and charity that was so important in genteel middle class society. So, to take this one step further, as white men felt like their lives were becoming hemmed in and restrained – in other words, as they felt themselves being feminized, Masonry allowed them a world that relied on industry, honor, and fraternity for salvation.

Marissa: The Odd Fellows, founded in 1819, had similar rituals, but while the Masonic rituals differed greatly from lodge to lodge, the Odd Fellows kept far tighter control on things. Odd Fellows also had supposedly ancient and generally Christian aspects to their rituals. In one ceremony, meant for those achieving their 28th degree in Odd Fellowship called the “Knight of the Sun,” involved the ‘child’ (or applicant for the 28th degree) asking “Father Adam” (the Worshipful Master) for freedom from his original sin. The child was walked around the lodge while the Father Adam talked about how vile and awful men are, and how they need to be brought out of the wilderness of sin. As he spoke, the ‘child’ who was wearing formal, symbolic clothing, would be undressed and redressed in normal street clothes, then finally covered in dirt and dust to utterly humble him. As this demonstrates, both the Masons and the Odd Fellows placed emphasis on how men were sinful and bad, that life was a difficult trial, and God was angry. Salvation was only achieved through individual persistance through struggle, not through a kind and forgiving Christ. Again, as Carnes describes this: “If middle class men built new temples, it was because existing ones had proven deficient; if they created strange new gods, it was because the ones with which they were familiar had failed them; and if they chose to evoke spiritual wastelands, if was because such representations in some way resembled the world in which they lived.”

Sarah: Of course, fraternal orders were also homosocial spaces. Women were strictly prohibited from membership – in many cases, even from entry into lodges. This proved problematic, though, during the anti-Mason movement, as women, increasingly worried about all matters spiritual, began to criticize Masonry out of the belief that it tempted men away from church and into mysterious, even dangerous, worlds of ritual. In the 1850s and 1860s, Masons began to try to find ways to convince women that the Masons were a force of good rather than evil. Masonic publications began to cater to women by including articles by the wives of Masons, and short stories that helped women to understand the goings-on of Masonic lodges without revealing any secrets. One story, called “Too Late at the Lodge,” is about a young, recently married couple whose new marriage suddenly grows cold when the husband joins the Masonic lodge and spends several nights a week with his brothers. The wife suspects him of frittering away his time and abandoning her, but one night, the Mason invites his wife to accompany him to a meeting. There, the wife learns that her husband has been spending these evenings not drinking and worshipping Satan, but minstering to the poor and doing other charitable work. In fact, some Masons and Odd Fellows started to explain the need for fraternal orders precisely because men were naturally less moral – if they were women, they wouldn’t need the aid of other good men to help them stay on the straight and narrow. The principles of Odd Fellowship, according to one member, were already “the innate principles of woman’s nature.” In a short story about Masons, a Mason tells a woman, “you were born Masons, any initiations or ceremony would be superfluous, therefore we do not insult you by any such propositions.” The lodge served the same role as women did, then – by helping naturally immoral men to be better.

Marissa: This became sort of a selling point of the lodge, and what made it both appealing and acceptable to middle class white men concerned about their reputation. Masons and Odd Fellows especially began to point out that the lodge was actually a great option for men who craved the comraderie of other men but who did not want to frequent establishments of ill repute or take part in immoral passtimes. As historian Ami Pflugrad-Jackisch notes, “time spent at fraternity meetings was time not spent in the tavern, the gaming house, or involved in other immoral activities.” In her research, Pflugrad-Jackisch found that the Freemasons and Odd Fellows both became interwoven with temperance, and used this as yet another selling point: men who joined the Masons or Odd Fellows were marking their commitment to abstain from alcohol. In Virginia, fraternal orders also policed their members behavior in other ways. Adultery, theft, contempt, and immoral conduct could all get you kicked out, and card playing could get you a serious talking to.

Sarah: While the Masons and Odd Fellows gave men a masculinized theology that allowed them to escape, at least temporarily, from genteel antebellum society, two other organizations allowed them a different experience altogether. The short lived Grand Order of the Iroquois and Improved Order of Redmen, which somehow still exists, didn’t just give men a hypermasculine space to enjoy, it gave them the chance to play Indian. The Grand Order of the Iroquois was founded by Lewis Henry Morgan, who we’ve actually discussed before in our Bone Collecting episode. Morgan was a lawyer, from a teeny town called Aurora, on the shore of Cayuga Lake, named for one of the tribes of the Haudenosaunee. The town itself is built on the old site of a Cayuga village called Chonodote, or Peach Town, as the English called it, which was destroyed by American general John Sullivan during his campaign against the Iroquois during the American Revolution. Morgan was not a particularly successful or empassioned lawyer, and so spent a great deal of time in a men’s literary club called the Order of the Gordian Knot. In the 1840s, Morgan read a novel by Washington Irving about Christopher Columbus, which for some reason touched off an interest in Native American culture for Morgan. Given his home in New York State, Morgan proposed to the other members of the Gordian Knot that they completely overhaul their society to base it on “the whole history, customs, exploits, dress, and mythic lore” of the Iroquois.

Marissa: Morgan called the new club “The Grand Order of the Iroquois,” (later called the New Confederacy of the Iroquois). Other than the language used in the ceremonies, the club was indistinguishable from the Masons or Odd Fellows or any number of other kinds of fraternal orders. The order created what Philip Deloria calls a “usable past,” just like the Masons and Odd Fellows did, to give the order a sense of ancient-ness. The overarching theme of the ceremonies used by the Grand Order was that American liberty and democracy needed to be protected by men who were honorable, noble, rooted in their cconnection to the American landscape. Deloria describes it this way: “By claiming to be mystic descendants of the Iroquois and using costumed rituals to bring the imagined to life, the New Confederacy hoped to gain emotional access to these native muses who would help them proclaim American identity.” The initiation ritual used by the Grand Order – which Morgan called “inindianation” – involved the spirits of dead Indians rising from the grave to lecture the assembled men about how white men have mistreated Native Americans. Then, someone pretending to be the voice of the “Great Spirit” tells the men that that he is very sad because he has watched his children die, and that the only way to make him less sad is by preserving Indian rituals and customs. In order to do this, the white men initiates must be ‘reborn’ as Iroquois ‘children’ themselves, given new “Indian” names, and wearing Indian costumes.

Ely S. Parker | Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: At the same time, Morgan and other Grand Order members weren’t quite satisfied with their ritual “inindianation.” They weren’t sure it was authentic enough. (It wasn’t authentic at all!) In hopes of learning more so that they could use what they learned to create better rituals, Morgan and other Grand Order members, particularly Isaac Hurd, began to travel do research. Initially, they planned to do research in the NYS Archives, but while he was in Albany, Morgan met Ely S. Parker, born Hasanoandah, who was a member of the Seneca tribe from the Tonawanda Reservation (which is a small reservation in WNY, overlapping corners of Genesee, Erie, and Niagara counties). Parker had studied law, but was unable to practice because he was Native American, and his family placed great emphasis on education, particularly on fostering relations with white New Yorkers. Parker invited Morgan and his comrades from the Order to visit his family home to learn more about the real traditions of the Iroquois. Thus began a long and fruitful relationship between Morgan and Parker, and also marked a career shift for Morgan. From that point on, he worked primarily as an ethnographer, studying and documenting the history and tradition of the Iroquois. With him, he took the entire Grand Order, which soon shifted from a fraternal literary club to a fraternal ethnographical club, dedicated to preserving the history and culture of the Iroquois. We talked a little bit about some of Morgan’s theories in our Bone Collecting episodes, and I don’t want to stray too far from our focus on fraternal orders, so I won’t go into great depth here, but there is one part of his writing about the Iroquois that is really important. Both Lewis Morgan and his colleage Isaac Hurd recorded Iroquois culture through the assumption that Indians were disappearing.

Marissa: The Grand Order wasn’t the only club using mythology about Native Americans in fraternal rites. The Improved Order of Red Men traces its history back to the Sons of Liberty and the men who took part in the Boston Tea Party, who, you may recall, tossed all that tea while dressed as Iroquois warriors – although that’s probably not true. Philip Deloria talks about the Red Men as being based on the belief, popular during the Jacksonian era, that the Native Americans were all gone – either banished from the United States or simply dead. The Red Men, then were using bits and pieces of Native American culture in essentially the same way the Masons were using bits and pieces of Old Testament history. But Morgan’s Grand Order, he argues, was a bit more complicated. It was based on Morgan and his pals’ interest in ethnography, but also their belief that the Iroquois were 1) different from their forebears and 2) on the cusp of extinction. Because of this, Morgan and his buddies were practicing “salvage ethnography,” preserving their stories so that when they did die out, the Grand Order could basically reenact Indian-ness. In this really bizarro twist of logic, Morgan believed *he* was the one preserving “authentic” Iroquois life and culture, because the real, living Iroquois  – even those who became his friends, like Ely Parker, were inauthetic Indians because they lived in a culture that had changed since the appearance of Europeans. Deloria states it this way: “The only culture allowed to define real Indian people was a traditional culture that came from the past rather than the present. Even as they continued to live and propogate, then, Indian people in the present were necessarily regarded as inauthentic because their culture did not conform to that of the second Iroquois epoch. Real Indian people both had, and had not, disappeared. For pragmatic reasons, Morgan and his protoethnographers saw a select few as being close enough to tradition – their memories were authetic, even if their lives were not.”

Sarah: Historian Mark Carnes has interpreted the Grand Order in a different way. He focused more on the Grand Order’s use of themes of fatherhood and childhood. Just as he believed that Protestant Christianity had been feminized during the antebellum era, Carnes argues that men were struggling with fatherhood during the time period. Since men were not naturally inclined to be good or moral, the role of mothers was particularly important when raising sons. He argues that men often remained in their parents homes, and therefore under the influence of their mothers, until their late twenties or later, when they married and established their own homes, effectively delaying adulthood. At the same time, fatherhood had changed. The market revolution meant that most men were leaving the house to go to work, making it so that fathers were spent less time at home. Ideas about ‘separate spheres’ also meant that many men believed that raising children was the purview of women and women only. Given this sort of social backdrop, it is very interesting that so many fraternal orders used imagery of fathers and sons. Carnes argues that fraternal ritual evolved during this time to simulate a kind of transition from childhood and its feminine associations, to the hard realities of manhood. He states this: “In every major order, at least one ritual developed each of the following themes: 1) the initiate at the outset of his task was portrayed as immature or unmasculine, 2) he overcame obstacles as he embarked on a difficult journey through the stages of childhood and adolescence, 3) this journey or ordeal reached a climax when he was killed (or nearly killed) by angry father figures, 4) he was reborn as a man in to a new family of approving brethren and patriarchs.” There are definitely aspects of this in the Grand Order’s “inindianation,” when the bad, sinful white ‘children’ are chastised by the dead Indian fathers and then are ‘reborn’ as Indians themselves.

Albrecht Duhrer, Witch Riding on a Goat, ca. 1500

Marissa:  So we know that fraternal orders served as a way for men to reinforce masculinity that they believed was lacking or somehow threatened, and we’ve explored a number of ways that orders symbolically accomplished that. But what about the goat? Goat riding was long associated with witchcraft, and in occult lore was associated with vaguely demonic or Satanic activities. According to historian William Moore, there were no references to goats or goat riding in either fraternal order records or in criticisms of orders until the 1840s – which, as you might recall, was just at the moment when anti-Masonry was all the rage. A major component of anti-fraternal order conspiracies were rooted in people’s curiousity and distrust of the “secret” initiation rites and ceremonies, so most of the conspiracy theories the arose during panic focused on the crazy things people imagined might be going on. In 1845, an anonymously published book called Odd Fellowship Exposed described a menacing and probably totally fictional ceremony where an man being initiated into the order was forced to ride a large black and white goat. The book was reprinted, with a new title, in 1847, featuring an illustration of an Odd Fellow riding a large hairy goat. (Actually, because the man riding the goat is wrapped in robes, barefoot, and carrying a weird urn, Moore thinks that the image was stuck in from a preexisting print block from religious texts!) Goats and goat riding, which smacked of ancient Satanic rituals, was a manifestation of what antebellum people feared fraternal orders were up to behind closed doors.

Sarah: But after the Civil War, what started as frantic conspiracy theories actually turned into ritual. As the millenial spirit of the Second Great Awakening before the war gave way to the excesses of the Gilded Age, fraternal orders started to actually embrace their outrageous reputation. Moore suggests that by the 1880s, the goat had actually turned into something of an inside joke, a wink-and-a-nudge shared by brothers in secret societies. The goat suddenly appeared in humorous poems and jokes published in lodge publications. Even lithographs riffed on the idea of riding the goat, such as one that featured a costumed, blindfolded dog (in the mode of dogs playing poker) riding on a goat while “brother” dogs watch on. Yet another lithograph, this one manufactured by Currier & Ives,  paints a similar scene, but with caricatures of black men performing the goat-riding-ritual, While the dog lithograph is light hearted, the black caricature image has clear white supremacist intentions. I find this one particularly powerful – of course, it’s important that it appears in the late 1880s, as the American South entered what most historians call the ‘nadir’ of race relations, but it’s also important because during the 1880s, black people established their own fraternal orders in record numbers. Groups like the Grand United Order of True Reformers, the Ancient Order of Pilgrims, the Order of Calanthe, and the Order of the Golden Circle proliferated, popping up everywhere from Kentucky to Illinois. Scholars Theda Skocpol and Jennifer Oser have found in thier demographic research that these organizations seemed to arise in moments when black Americans were cut off from other ways of asserting themselves as citizens. Black men were also banned from joining the major fraternal orders, including the Freemasons, Odd Fellows, and Knights of Pythias. Black men, then, established their own groups, like those I mentioned before, as well as some that were exact parallels to white groups. There was an independent black order of the Masons, a black order of the Odd Fellows, a black order of the Knights of Pythias, a black order of The Elks. 

Marissa: So lithographs like the one by Currier & Ives, depicting caricatures of black fraternal order members taking part in a well-known fraternal activity (riding the goat) were meant to communicate how ridiculous it would be for black men to particpate in fraternal rites. The white people who consumed these images understood the subtext completely. From their point of view, these people would never actually be capable of true membership in respectable middle class organizations, just like they were incapable of all the rites of American citizenship. Black men would have to replicate their own fraternal rites, and since they were bafoons, the resulting ‘rites’ would be absurd and laughable. Moore goes even further, explaining that not only do the images depict both dogs and blacks riding the goat, they depict the activity in totally different ways. The dogs are meant to poke gentle fun at white fraternal order members, and so are depicted riding a docile, well-controlled goat. But in the images of black caricatures, the goat is kicking and bucking, trying to throw its black rider off its back. The black men, in other words, were incapable even of controlling the goat! As Moore sums it up, “Fraternalists thus made riding the goat emblematic of civilized individuals containing chaos, of the status quo maintaining order.” White fraternalists riding the goat symbolized the white men who controlled the potential chaos of Gilded Age society.

Sarah: At the turn of the century, white fraternal orders continued to use the goat as a way to poke fun at those outside of their orders. In 1901, the New York Times reported that a man named Samuel Robinson had received a citation for keeping a goat in his house, which he used to represent the Knights of Pythias in parades. Another guy, Frank Gibson, kept a white goat called Columbia, which he walked around Washington, DC wearing a blanket covered in Masonic pins and ribbons. The goat still wasn’t actually a part of fraternal rites – instead, they were used specifically to reiterate that the public would never know their secrets. It was a way of mocking the public’s futile fascination with their rites. But what about the mechanical goat, then? Moore argues that in the 1910s and 1920s, men were feeling suffocated by the overly formal, Victorian rituals and ceremonies, and were increasingly in need of escape from the suffocation of modern society. We’ve talked before (I think in our episode about the conservation movement, for instance) about how many men around the turn of the turn of the century and after were diagnosed with neuresthenia, and how the cure was for nervous men to find masculinizing ways to expend their energy. Men played football, went out West and hunted bison, camped in the Adirondacks, took up bodybuilding and boxing, and of course, went to war. Men also joined fraternal orders, and those already in fraternal orders began to reshape their rites to better reflect the new demands of 20th century masculinity. Instead of making men face face their sinfulness and be reborn symbolically, orders began to embrace actually breaking down their initiates using shame and mockery, only to then reward the ‘real men’ who made it through initiation with the honors of fraternity.

Marissa: Now, the goat came to yet another use. Toy companies manufactured mechanical goats, which iniates would have to ride if they wanted in. Like we mentioned before, the mechanical goat was deliberately made to not ride smoothly – it would bump and dip and shake as the man rode it. Some were even made to occasionally fling a man off if he wasn’t careful. The directions for one goat included specifics for how to get a man on it: “To Seat Rider. Have attendants pull candidates legs apart, thrust animals’s head between then, and slowly bear down on handle. Then you send him teetering, galloping, flying, trotting, bucking around the room until between tears and laughter you are forced to desist.” This particular goat also had a bladder that you could fill with water so you could spray the humiliated man, too, if you wanted. (Now, I don’t know about you, but that whole description sounded awfully sexual, right? Forcing the man’s legs apart, thrusting the goat’s head between his legs, bearing down on the handle, then squirting him?) Goats were the centerpiece, but they weren’t the only tool of humiliation. Fraternal orders purchased all sorts of strange devices to use to trick or prank their iniates, including canvases that they would use to pop iniates in the air (like the parachute in gym class) or paddles they might use to spank a new member. Riding the goat, like all forms of humiliation, was a way of testing a man’s resolve and also, importantly, whether he could laugh at himself.


Mark C. Carnes, Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989)

Ami Pflugrad-Jackisch, Brothers of a Vow: Secret Fraternal Orders and the Transformation of White Male Culture in Antebellum Virginia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010).

William C. Moore, “Riding the Goat: Secrecy, Masculinity, and Fraternal High-Jinks in the United States, 1845-1930,” Winterthur Portfolio 41 (Summer 2007), 161-188.

Theda Skocpol and Jennifer Lynn Oser, “Organization despite Adversity: The Orgins and Development of African American Fraternal Associations,” Social Science History 28 (Fall 2004), 367-437

Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

Fraternal Orders in 19th Century America


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