The premier French occult secret society of the late nineteenth century, the Ordre Kabbalistique de la Rose+Croix (Kabbalistic Order of the Rose+Cross) was founded in 1888 by leading members of the Paris occult scene, with Stanislaus de Guaita as its first Grand Master and Joséphin Péladan, François-Charles Barlet, and Papus (Dr. Gérard Encausse) among its members. It had a governing body of 12 members, 6 of whose names were made known to members; the other 6 were concealed, according to its constitution, to enable the order to recover from any future period of decay. It claimed descent from the original Rosicrucians of medieval Germany. See Rosicrucians.

The order was organized as a university of magic, and the degrees offered were Bachelor, Master, and Doctor of Kabbalah, earned by attending lectures and passing examinations. This contrasts sharply with the initiatory degrees, modeled on Freemasonry, used by nearly all other magical secret societies of the time. See Freemasonry.

The order suffered several schisms in its history. In 1890 Péladan left to found his own Catholic Order of the Rose+Cross, which became famous for sponsoring art shows – the celebrated Salons de la Rose+Croix – but accomplished little in the occult field. Another split occurred just after the First World War, over the question of whether members of the order ought to be required to be Freemasons. Despite these controversies, the order remains active today in France and the United States. See Catholic Order of the Rose+Cross.


The Knights of Columbus was the creation of Father Michael McGivney, an Irish-American Catholic priest in New Haven, Connecticut who saw the need for a men’s fraternal order for Catholics. Most existing fraternal orders were formally condemned by the Vatican, which had extended its longtime rejection of Freemasonry to other secret societies during the course of the nineteenth century. The popularity of fraternal benefit societies in 1880s’ America, and the very real advantages of fraternal mutual aid, made it difficult for the Catholic Church to maintain its rejection of fraternalism without providing a replacement. The Knights of Columbus was Father McGivney’s solution to this problem, and with the approval of his superiors, it was founded in 1888. See fraternal benefit societies; Roman Catholic Church.

The new organization expanded quickly, and had Councils (local lodges) throughout the United States before 1900. In that year it added a new, uniformed degree, the Degree of Patriotism, to the three degrees originally created by Father McGivney and his associates, and in 1904 a burlesque degree modeled on the Shriners, the International Order of Alhambra, was created. The Knights of Columbus currently have a presence in the US, Canada, Mexico, and the Philippines, and is in the process of establishing its first Councils in Poland as of this writing. An organization based on the Knights of Columbus, the Knights of St Columbanus, was founded in Ireland in 1915 and remains active there. See Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine; burlesque degrees.

The Knights of Columbus use most of the standard elements of the fraternal societies of the time, but vary them where necessary to meet the requirements of the Catholic Church’s ban on secret orders. Membership in the Catholic faith is a requirement of membership, members do not take oaths, and the promise of secrecy specifically exempts the confessional. Like other fraternal benefit societies, it offers insurance policies to members; as a Catholic organization, it also raises funds for church causes and charitable works. Its founder Father McGivney has recently been proposed for sainthood, though the Vatican has not yet acted on the proposal.


The first major labor union in the United States, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor was founded in Philadelphia in 1869 by Uriah Stephens, a tailor and labor organizer, along with eight associates. Stephens was a member of several fraternal orders of the time, including the Freemasons, the Odd Fellows, and the Knights of Pythias, and he drew much of the new order’s structure and symbolism from these sources. See Freemasonry; Knights of Pythias; Odd Fellowship.

In its early years, the Knights were a secret society in every sense of the word, with an initiation ceremony, passwords, grips, and recognition signs. In the America of 1869, workers had few rights and most employers would fire anyone suspected of belonging to a labor union. Each Knight thus pledged, on penalty of expulsion, never to reveal the names of members to anyone outside the order. Meetings were held in secret and each Knight had to prove his identity before entering the lodge.

A second degree of initiation, the degree of the Philosopher’s Stone, was created in 1878 but found few takers. By that time, however, labor violence in the Pennsylvania coal country made the use of oaths and secret meetings a political liability for labor unions, and the opposition of the Catholic Church to secret societies of every kind posed a problem at a time when many American manual laborers were immigrants from Catholic countries. In 1882 Grand Master Workman Terence Powderly abolished the rituals and made the Knights of Labor a public labor union. In the process, he opened its doors to women and African-Americans and made it, for a time, the most influential labor union in America. See Roman Catholic Church.

At its height in 1887, the Knights of Labor had approximately a million members, but its pursuit of a moderate line in labor disputes, and Powderly’s unwillingness to support general strikes, sabotage, and violence caused it to lose ground to more radical labor organizations as the century drew to a close. The Knights also, to the embarrassment of many of their liberal supporters, took an active role in fomenting anti-Chinese sentiment, believing that Chinese immigration forced down wages. In 1917, after many years of declining membership, the Knights of Labor disbanded, and most of their members joined other labor organizations. See labor unions.

Further reading: Phelan 2000.


A secret society opposed to the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of Liberty was founded in New York in 1923 by former Klan member Andrew Padon, who had been expelled from the Invisible Empire for opposing the recruitment of undesirables in the early 1920s. Like many other anti-Klan secret societies, it flourished during the 1920s but went out of existence with the Klan’s collapse at the end of the decade. See All-American Association; Knights of the Flaming Circle; Ku Klux Klan; Order of Anti-Poke-Noses.


One of the three largest fraternal secret societies of late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century America, the Knights of Pythias were the brainchild of Justus Rathbone, a Michigan schoolteacher who came to Washington DC during the American Civil War. As early as 1858, after watching John Banim’s play Damon and Pythias about the brotherly loyalty of two members of the Pythagorean Brotherhood in Italy in the sixth century BCE, Rathbone began drawing up plans for a fraternal order based on the legend. Rathbone was a Freemason active in the Royal Arch, and also belonged to the Improved Order of Red Men, one of the oldest purely American secret societies; he used elements of Masonic and Red Men practice in shaping his new order. See Freemasonry; Improved Order of Red Men; Pythagorean Brotherhood; Royal Arch.

Rathbone finally succeeded in organizing the first Pythian lodge, Washington #1, in 1864. The order’s early years saw almost continual political struggles between Rathbone and several other founding members, and Rathbone resigned and rejoined his order several times. These quarrels failed to slow down the explosive growth of Pythian knighthood, though, and by the end of the nineteenth century the Knights of Pythias had become the third largest fraternal secret society in the United States, just behind the Freemasons and Odd Fellows. See Odd Fellowship.

In 1869, the Supreme Grand Lodge received a petition from a group of African-American men in Philadelphia for a lodge charter, and rejected it. Similar petitions were rejected in 1871, 1878, and 1888. This was a period when African-Americans, under the protection of post-Civil War laws, were pressing for some degree of equality, but most of the social institutions of white America closed doors in their faces. The result, as with several other fraternal orders, was the birth of a separate African-American branch of the Knights of Pythias, which remained in existence well into the twentieth century. See African-American secret societies.

The Knights’ relationship with their own ladies auxiliary was equally complicated. Proposals for a Women’s Rank were circulating in the order from 1868 onward, but the Supreme Grand Lodge refused to create one. Eventually, in 1888, an entirely independent ladies auxiliary named the Pythian Sisters was founded. Relations between the Pythian Sisters and the Knights were strained in the early years, and in 1894 the Sisters had to change their name to “Rathbone Sisters” to evade an attempt by the Knights to eliminate them; the change was not reversed until 1904. See ladies auxiliaries.

These confusions did not keep the Knights from trying to stay at the cutting edge of the fraternal world. The rise of fraternal benefit societies after 1868 inspired the Pythians to create a new branch, the Endowment Rank, providing fraternal insurance to Knights. Like many benefit societies, it failed to match income to expenses, and was replaced by an ordinary insurance program run by the Supreme Grand Lodge. Somewhat more successful was the Uniformed Rank, a quasi-military branch founded in 1878 to compete with the Masonic Knights Templar and other uniformed degrees. Splendid in black uniforms and white plumes, the Uniformed Rank appealed to Civil War veterans and provided color at a time when fraternal secret societies commonly marched in civic parades. Like other uniformed degrees, it faded out after the First World War and was defunct by the 1950s. See fraternal benefit societies.

Like most of the fraternal secret societies of nineteenth-century America, the Knights of Pythias reached their peak in the first decade of the twentieth century and declined thereafter. It still exists at the time of writing, and has lodges in approximately half the states of the US.


Founded in 1923 in Pennsylvania, the Knights of the Flaming Circle was a secret society organized to oppose the revived Ku Klux Klan. Its members wore robes with a flaming red circle on the left breast, symbolizing truth. It welcomed Catholics, Jews, and blacks to its membership, but excluded white native-born Protestants. One of several anti-Klan secret societies founded during the 1920s, it ceased operations with the collapse of the revived Klan at the end of that decade. See All-American Association; Knights of Liberty; Ku Klux Klan; Order of Anti-Poke-Noses.


The most important pro-Southern secret society in the American Civil War, the Knights of the Golden Circle was founded in 1854 by George W.L. Bickley to support a campaign of American empire, in which US troops would conquer Mexico as a first step toward the expansion of the United States in a “Golden Circle” around the Gulf of Mexico. The Golden Circle project had a particular attraction for southerners, since the new territories were economically suited to slave plantations, and promised to make slave states a majority in the Union and thus block the influence of abolitionists in Congress. Though Bickley’s project went nowhere, the order was eagerly supported by members of the Southern Rights Club, a non-secret organization founded in 1852 to oppose the Underground Railroad and Northern antislavery efforts; by 1860 the Knights functioned mostly as a secret society supporting the project of Southern independence.

In 1861, with the outbreak of hostilities between North and South, the Knights spread to the Midwestern states, where many people opposed the war. The first Castle (local lodge) north of the Mason–Dixon line was organized in Williamson County, Illinois in April 1861, and by the autumn of that year Castles existed in Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa as well as Illinois. The Knights took an active role in opposing Union enlistment and, from 1863 on, the military draft; assisting Confederate spies and escaped prisoners of war; smuggling contraband to and from the Confederate states; spreading propaganda; and organizing politically in an attempt to vote Lincoln and the Republican party out of office and force a negotiated peace. While its greatest strength was in the Midwestern states, by 1864 it had Castles (local lodges) in nearly every state of the Union, including a substantial presence in California.

The society’s effective head was Clement Vallandigham, the most vocal antiwar politician in the North. After a term in the House of Representatives, Vallandigham returned to the Midwest in March 1863 and organized resistance to the Union. In May he was arrested by order of the military governor of Ohio, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, and later the same month was expelled into Confederate territory; the Confederates smuggled him through the blockade to Canada, where he resumed his leadership of the Knights. He ran for governor of Ohio on the Democratic ticket in the 1863 election, but lost. After his defeat, many members of the Knights defected to another organization, the Order of American Knights (OAK), which pursued a more direct strategy of armed revolution; Vallandigham himself accepted the office of Supreme Commander in the OAK. See Order of American Knights.

Like many political secret societies, the Knights found it useful to organize under many different names. Their known pseudonyms included the Mutual Protection Society, the Knights of the Mighty Host, the Circle of Honor, the Circle, and the Peace Organization. Supporters of the Union dismissed them as Copperheads (the name of a poisonous snake) or Butternuts, after the gray-brown nut that provided dye for the classic Confederate uniform.

While the Knights of the Golden Circle ceased to exist as an organized force not long after the final surrender of the Confederate armies at Appomattox in 1865, the attitudes they expressed and fostered remained active long afterwards. The same Midwestern states that formed the backbone of the Knights in the war years became the heartland of a new secret society, the revived Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, in the 1920s. See Ku Klux Klan.

Further reading: Benton 1972, Gray 1942.


In the year 1119, nine French knights living in Jerusalem formed a religious order devoted to the protection of pilgrims traveling to the Christian holy sites in that city. Together, they took monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the presence of the patriarch of Jerusalem, and King Baldwin II gave them a place to live near the ruins of Solomon’s Temple. This inspired the name of the new order, the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, more commonly known as the Knights Templar.

Many strange claims have been floated in recent years about the founding of the order, but it made perfect sense in the context of the time. Aiding pilgrims on their way to sacred sites was a religious duty in the Middle Ages, enshrined in canon law and accepted in the popular culture of the time. The road between the port city of Joppa and Jerusalem, the principal pilgrim route, was infested by robbers and wild animals but only 40 miles (64 kilometers) long, short enough that nine competent knights devoted to the task could have a real impact on pilgrim safety.

The order remained very small for its first decade, and the title “Poor” well describes their situation; despite intermittent support from the King of Jerusalem, they had to make do on resources so limited that on occasion two brothers had to ride a single horse. A letter from the first Grand Master, Hugues de Payens, to the members in Jerusalem at the time of the Council of Troyes in 1128 makes it clear that the Poor Fellow Soldiers were struggling for survival. Fortunately for the order, help was on its way. Few people had heard of the Templars until Hugues traveled to Europe in 1128 to publicize it, but his journey brought back a torrent of donations and scores of new recruits. More valuable still, at the Council of Troyes the Catholic Church formally recognized the Templars and made their property exempt from church tithes and ordinary taxes, while the influential Bernard of Clairvaux (later canonized by the church) helped write a monastic rule for them and penned a widely circulated essay, In Praise of the New Knighthood, extolling the Templars and encouraging others to support them. Within a few decades donations of land from nobles across Europe gave the Templars so much real estate that a network of local centers, called commanderies, had to be set up to manage Templar properties and send the profits to Palestine. A Templar navy had to be built to convey recruits and supplies the length of the Mediterranean, and castles rose in vulnerable points throughout the Holy Land as the Templars redirected their efforts from the protection of pilgrimage routes to the defense of the crusader kingdoms against Muslim efforts at reconquest. Even so, the Templar rule assigned ten knights to guard duty on the Joppa road as long as the crusader presence in Palestine lasted.

By 1170 the Templars had nearly a thousand brother knights in the Holy Land, divided more or less evenly between the crusader kingdoms of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Tripoli. Squires (noble recruits not yet admitted to the rank of brother knight), sergeants (cavalrymen of peasant origin), and Turcopoles (mounted archers recruited from the native Palestinian population) expanded the Templars’ total fighting force to perhaps 10,000 men. Along with the two other major crusading orders of the time, the Knights Hospitallers and the Teutonic Knights, the Templars made up about half the effective fighting force of the crusader states, and their training, experience, and discipline made the military orders the iron backbone of the Crusades. The Templars’ black and white banner, the Beauceant, was seen on every battlefield in the Holy Land as long as the Crusades lasted.

At the core of Templar discipline was their rule. The original or “Primitive Rule” given to the Templars at the Council of Troyes was closely modeled on the rule of the Cistercian order of monks, and had little relevance to the Templars’ military life or the conditions they faced in Palestine. The rule was later expanded by retrais or additional sections covering the order’s organization, the duties of its officers and members, and the penances imposed on those who violated its laws. The rule divided the Templars into brother knights, who were of noble birth and alone could vote in chapter meetings; chaplains, who administered the rites of the Catholic Church to the brothers; and serving brothers, a class that included squires and sergeants, as well as craftsmen such as armorers, blacksmiths, cooks, and the like, who provided all the goods and services needed to keep a medieval military force in action. A fourth class of lay affiliates consisted of men and women who pledged support to the order and received a variety of honorary membership in return.

Sensational claims about a “secret rule” were made during the trials of the Templars in the fourteenth century, and have been repeated by pro-and anti-Templar writers over the last two centuries, but the reality was more prosaic. The Templar rule has survived in numerous copies (see Upton-Ward 1992 for an English translation) and contains detailed information about Templar military tactics and procedures; for this reason one of the retrais requires that copies of the rule be restricted to officials of the order, so that they would not fall into enemy hands.

According to the rule, any man who applied to join the Templars had to be voted into membership by a majority of brother knights in the chapter house where the application was made. A simple initiation ritual followed, in which the new member affirmed that he was neither married or vowed to another religious order, had no debts he could not pay, had no hidden illness, had not bribed any member of the order in the hope of admission, and was not a serf. He then pledged himself to the order for the rest of his life, was received into the order, and heard a lecture on his duties and responsibilities. The ritual, which survives in numerous texts of the Templar rule, has close similarities to other medieval initiation rituals, including the reception of new members into other monastic orders and the admission of apprentices, fellow craftsmen, and masters into trade guilds. See Brothering; guilds, medieval; Initiation.

The Templar rule forbade any member from having any money of his own – if money was found in a brother’s possessions on his death, his body was left unburied for dogs to eat – but the order itself quickly became rich. Financial systems evolved to transfer funds from Europe to the crusader kingdoms soon found other uses, and the Templars became the first international bankers in medieval Europe. From the time of King Philip Augustus of France (1165–1223) until the end of the order, the French royal house banked its treasury at the Templar center in Paris. The Grand Masters of the order served as advisers, financiers, and field marshals to crusading kings for more than a century.

The efforts of the Templars and the other military orders, however, could not save the crusader states once the Arab world united against them. Despite the Third Crusade, Jerusalem fell to the armies of Saladin (Yusuf Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, 1138–93) in 1187, and later crusades merely slowed down the tide of Arab advances. The fall of Acre in 1291 removed the last crusader foothold in Palestine and deprived the military orders of their original reason for existence. The Knights Hospitallers moved to the Greek island of Rhodes and continued the fight from there; the Teutonic Knights returned home to Germany and launched a new holy war against the pagan Balts and Slavs of eastern Europe. The Templars alone failed to find another mission, and contented themselves with lobbying European courts for a new crusade.

This proved to be a fatal mistake. Envied for their wealth and privileges, hated for their arrogance, and blamed by many for the failure of the Crusades, the Templars offered a tempting target to any monarch bold enough to seize the opportunity. Perpetually short of money, Philip IV of France had long regarded the rich Templar properties in his country with a greedy eye. His handpicked papal candidate, Clement V, was elected Pope in 1305. All that was needed was an excuse, and rumors of Templar improprieties circulated by Esquin de Floryan, a renegade Templar from southern France, provided that.

At dawn on Friday, October 13, 1307, in an operation that would have done credit to a modern police state, royal officials carried out coordinated raids and mass arrests in every Templar chapter house in France. The charge was heresy. Two thousand Templars, of whom around a hundred were brother knights, landed in prison. Torture was used and confessions duly followed, alleging that the Templars had a secret initiation ritual requiring novices to renounce Christ, trample on a cross, and kiss their initiator on the anus, while Templar chapter meetings focused on the worship of an idol called Baphomet. This name has been subject to any number of strange interpretations over the years, but is simply the standard medieval French mispronunciation of “Muhammad,” equivalent to the contemporary English “Mahound;” the implication was that the Templars, during their time in Palestine, had gone over to the enemy. See Baphomet.

The following year, under intense pressure from the French king, Pope Clement decreed that Templars elsewhere in Europe be arrested and tried. Some arrests followed, but convictions were very few; in several trials, notably in Germany, the Templars were found innocent of all charges. In 1312, Clement called a general council of the Church at Vienne to condemn the Templars, but found that many of the bishops and cardinals supported the order and wanted to give them the right to formally respond to the charges against them. Clement, caught between the recalcitrant council and an enraged King Philip, summarily dissolved the Templar order on his own authority.

Outside France, the dissolution of the Templars simply involved a change of habit for its members. Most Templars found new homes in other military orders; German Templars joined the Teutonic Knights, Templars in Spain joined the Spanish military orders of Montesa and Calatrava, while the king of Portugal simply renamed the Portuguese Templars “Knights of Christ” and helped them continue as before. In England, King Edward II settled pensions on the Templars and arranged for them to transfer to monastic orders. Even in France, of the 2000 seized in the 1307 arrests, the vast majority was set free; an uncertain number died during torture, and only 60 were actually executed. One of these was the last Grand Master of the Templars, Jacques de Molay, who was burned at the stake in 1314. As he died, according to contemporary legend, he pronounced a curse against King Philip and Pope Clement. If so, the curse was a potent one, for both king and pope were dead before the year was out.

Jacques de Molay’s death marked the end of the history of the Templars, but it was only the beginning of the history of the Templar myth. That myth has essentially nothing to do with the historical Knights Templar, and everything to do with the history of secret societies in the western world from the 1730s to the present.

At the time of the Templars’ destruction, and for hundreds of years thereafter, almost everyone in Europe believed that Philip IV had destroyed the Templars to get at their wealth, and only a handful of propagandists for the French royal house and the official historians of the Papacy even claimed to believe the stories about heresy and the worship of Baphomet. The contemporary poet Dante Alighieri, whose great poem The Divine Comedy commented on most of the events of his time, referred to the Templars’ fate in Canto XX of the Purgatorio as purely a result of Philip’s greed and spite. The great Renaissance legal theorist Jean Bodin, two centuries later, cited the Templars as a classic example of a group oppressed and destroyed by an unjust monarch. Until the middle of the eighteenth century, this view and the orthodox claim that the Templars had done exactly what Philip IV said they did were the only opinions about the Templars in circulation.

Abruptly, in the late 1730s, a third set of claims began to appear, insisting that the Templars were the secret guardians of an ancient wisdom ruthlessly suppressed by the forces of orthodoxy. These first surfaced in Masonic circles in France linked to the Jacobites – supporters of the exiled House of Stuart – and drew their theme from the famous 1736 Masonic address of the Chevalier Andrew Ramsay, an influential Jacobite who argued that Freemasonry itself was descended from the knightly orders of the Crusades. See Freemasonry; Jacobites; Ramsay, Andrew Michael.

Within a few years of Ramsay’s address, rumors circulated through the French court about a new, “Scottish” Freemasonry above the three Craft degrees of ordinary Masonry. French sources claim that the first Scottish system was launched by Ramsay himself and included the three degrees of Scottish Master, Novice, and Knight of the Temple. More degrees followed; a 1744< pamphlet from Paris claims that there were six or seven degrees above Master Mason at that time, while in 1751 most French lodges worked a system of nine degrees. See high degrees; Scottish degrees.

Central to the entire system of Scottish degrees was the claim that they descended from Templar traditions preserved in Scotland, and that the Templars themselves had been guardians of an ancient wisdom that now survived in the higher degrees of Freemasonry. Many historians of Freemasonry have argued that the entire Templar myth was created by Jacobite propagandists at this time, as part of a struggle for control of French Freemasonry between Jacobites and their opponents, and the evidence does seem to support this claim.

After the catastrophic defeat of the Jacobite rising of 1745 put an end to the hope of a Stuart restoration, several different systems of Scottish Masonry surfaced in public, among them the Royal Order of Scotland in The Hague in 1750, the Rite of Perfection (the source of today’s Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite) in Paris in 1754, and the Rite of Strict Observance in Saxony, also in 1754. All these rites had connections to the Jacobite court in exile and included, as part of their teachings, the claim that surviving Templars had carried their mysteries to Scotland in the years after 1307 and established Freemasonry there. This claim was originally a secret teaching but, like most Masonic secrets, it slipped out at an early date, and sparked a lively market for Templar degrees within Masonry. Eighteenth-century Masonry being what it was, supply soon caught up with demand, and soon more than a dozen newly minted Templar rites with no connection to the Stuart cause competed with the Scottish degrees for membership and influence. The Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross, an eighteenth-century German Rosicrucian order, also found room for the Templars in their origin story, claiming that Templars were initiated in 1188 into the Rosicrucian order, originally founded in Alexandria in 96 CE, and brought its teachings back to Europe with them. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite; Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross; Rite of Perfection; Rite of Strict Observance; Rosicrucians; Royal Order of Scotland.

The next major element of the Templar myth arrived by way of the French Revolution. Many of the liberals who originally supported the National Assembly in its struggle against royal privilege in the heady days of 1789 were Freemasons. During the Revolution years, a handful of journalists turned this fact into the foundation for a claim that the Revolution itself had been hatched as a Masonic plot. One contributor to this literature was Charles-Louis Cadet de Gassicourt, a former radical whose book Le Tombeau de Jacques Molay (The Tomb of Jacques Molay, 1796) claimed that the Freemasons were exacting their vengeance against the French monarchy for the death of Jacques de Molay. Cadet de Gassicourt’s book also introduced the idea that the Templars had been influenced by the Order of Assassins, and strung together more than a dozen unrelated secret societies into a supposedly continuous tradition of anarchist conspirators plotting across the centuries. See Assassins; French Revolution.

This theme was taken up readily by conservatives in the decades immediately after the Napoleonic Wars, when secret societies – many of them linked in one way or another with the Templar degrees of Freemasonry – played an important role in spreading liberal political ideas across Europe and fomenting rebellion against the attempts of autocratic regimes to stamp out the influence of the French Revolution. The two great founders of modern conspiracy theory, Augustin de Barruel and John Robison, both drew on Cadet de Gassicourt’s work in claiming that Freemasonry had been infiltrated by a vast conspiracy against religions and governments. See antimasonry.

Far more influential than either of these authors in shaping the Templar myth, however, was the Austrian scholar Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, whose Mysterium Baphometis Revelatum (The Mystery of Baphomet Revealed, 1818) and several later books argued that the Templars had been Gnostic heretics, practicing an orgiastic cult of the goddess Achamoth or Baphomet passed on in secret since the third century CE. Von Hammer-Purgstall was an employee of Prince Klemens von Metternich, chief minister to the Emperor of Austria and leader of the conservative reaction in post-Napoleonic Europe, and his books on the Templars were anything but disinterested scholarly research; rather, they were part of a deliberate strategy of disinformation meant to tar the revolutionary secret societies of the era with charges of sexual deviance, religious heresy, and occult practices. See Disinformation.

As with so much disinformation involving secret societies, however, von Hammer-Purgstall’s assault on the Templars had the unintended consequence of creating new secret societies on the model of the disinformation project – in this case, making sexual deviance, religious heresy, and occult practices popular among would-be Templars. France was the scene of most of these transformations, as von Hammer-Purgstall’s book arrived there in the middle of a full-blown Templar renaissance. This was launched by Bernard Fabrè-Palaprat, a Freemason who in 1804 announced that he had a charter dating back to the time of Jacques de Molay himself. According to this document, the Charter of Transmission, de Molay had passed on the Grand Mastership of the Templars to one Johannes Marcus Larmenius, who kept the order alive in secret and passed it on in his turn. The charter is an eighteenth-century forgery and Larmenius apparently never existed, but the ploy allowed Fabrè-Palaprat to launch his own Order of the Temple and attract hundreds of members.

The Templar revival quickly found common ground with the burgeoning French alternative-spirituality scene. By 1828 French Templars were claiming a direct descent from the ancient Gnostics, and Eliphas Lévi’s immensely influential 1860 Histoire de la Magie (History of Magic) argued that the Templars were Gnostic sorcerers practicing the true, magical Christianity of Jesus as passed on through the “secret church” of the apostle John, and their idol Baphomet was the goat-symbol of the all-powerful Astral Light, the mysterious substance that made magic possible. See Gnosticism; Magic.

By 1903 the Aryan racial mystic Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels was laying the foundations for the Ordo Novi Templi, a racist occult order that foreshadowed Hitler’s SS. In 1906 the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), which practiced a system of sex magic borrowed from other magical orders of its time, was established, and in 1912 Aleister Crowley, for whom sexual deviance, religious heresy, and occult practices were the breath of life, took charge of the OTO in England and America and proclaimed to his new Templars a gospel very nearly identical with von Hammer-Purgstall’s fantasies. See Crowley, Aleister; Ordo Novi Templi (ONT); Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO).

Nor was this the last hurrah of the Templars. All the elements of the Templar mythology just surveyed remain live options in the alternative scene today, and many have penetrated popular culture as well. Bestselling books repeat the old claims of a Templar origin for Freemasonry and link the Templars to Gnostics, Assassins, and others. New elements have entered the myth in recent years; Pierre Plantard’s extraordinary Priory of Sion hoax, and its various mutations at the hands of other authors, grafted an entirely new body of fable onto the existing mythology, centering on the Merovingian kings of Dark Age France, the alleged mysteries of Rennes-le-Château, and exotic accounts of Christian origins. These same speculative claims have also found a home in the world of popular fiction, most notably in Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code (2003). See Christian origins; Merovingians; Priory of Sion; Rennes-le-Château.

In recent years new Templar orders of various kinds have sprouted throughout the western world, promoting almost every imaginable ideology except the orthodox Catholicism that motivated the original Templars. The reaction of the simple, devout soldier-monks of the Knights Templar to all this can scarcely be imagined.

Further reading: Barber 1978, Barber 1994, Partner 1981, Upton-Ward 1992.


A major force in American politics in the 1850s, the Know-Nothing Party was at one and the same time a secret society and a political party – a complicated mix, but entirely believable in nineteenth-century America, where secret societies of all kinds were in their heyday. Its formal name was the American Party; the term “Know-Nothings” came from the requirement that members answer all questions about the party and its activities with the words “I don’t know.”

The party’s history began in 1849 when Charles B. Allen organized a secret society, the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, in New York City. The order had two degrees of initiation and the usual lodge equipment of passwords, grips, and symbols. Its purposes, though, were strictly political; it sought to unite white Protestant Americans against the Roman Catholic Church, keep Catholics out of political office, and ban immigration from Catholic countries. The role of Catholicism in American society was a heated issue at the time, as many Americans of other religions were convinced that Catholics placed their loyalty to the Pope over their duty to their country. See Roman Catholic Church.

In 1852 a political party, the American Party, was founded in New York City with a platform very similar to that of the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, and the two soon merged, absorbing several other nativist political groups in the process and drawing members and ideas from the Society of St Tammany, a descendant of the old Sons of Liberty society from the Revolutionary War era. By 1854 a new ritual of three degrees had been established, and local, district, and state Councils (local lodges) began to spring up across the United States. See Society of St Tammany; Sons of Liberty.

The Know-Nothings emerged when the Federalist (Whig) Party, until then one of the two dominant forces in American politics, was in the process of breaking apart over disputes concerning slavery. Many Whigs, especially in the southern half of the country, joined the Know-Nothing Party or supported its candidates. In 1854, the party’s candidate for Governor of Maryland won election, and 1855 saw a Know-Nothing governor take office in Tennessee; there and elsewhere Know-Nothings won election to the Senate and House of Representatives, state legislatures, and a wide range of state and local offices.

In 1856 the Know-Nothing Party seemed to have a chance at the US presidency as well. Its national convention in Philadelphia that year nominated Millard Fillmore for president, and a special meeting of the National Council abolished the rituals, oaths, and other secret society aspects of the party to enable it to carry out a national political campaign. In a bitter three-way campaign against Democrat James Buchanan and John Fremont, the candidate of the recently founded Republican Party, Fillmore came in third place, with a quarter of the vote. Within a year of its defeat, the party had fallen apart as the slavery issue came to dominate the political landscape of the US and armed clashes between pro- and antislavery forces lit the fuse of the American Civil War.

Further reading: Overdyke 1950.


The most notorious of American secret societies, the Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee, by six young Confederate veterans. The name came from the Greek word kuklos, “circle,” and the Scots word “clan,” popularized in the South through the romantic novels of Sir Walter Scott. At first, the original Klansmen simply dressed as ghosts and goblins to play pranks on neighbors, but the joke turned serious – and ugly – as others joined the organization and used it to terrorize former slaves and political opponents. The original ghost costumes soon became standardized as Klansmen resurrected the old Irish custom of dressing in white for nocturnal acts of violence, a habit that dated to the eighteenth-century Whiteboys. The Klan’s distinctive costume, a white robe with a tall pointed hood and cloth mask with eyeholes to cover the face, quickly became a symbol of fear across the old Confederacy. See Whiteboys.

By 1868 the Klan had tens of thousands of members throughout the South and had recruited Nathan Bedford Forrest, the former Confederate cavalry general, as its head. Under Forrest’s leadership, the Klan evolved into an organization modeled on military lines but festooned with colorful names. The South as a whole was the Invisible Empire, headed by Forrest as Grand Wizard and his staff, the ten Genii. Each state was titled a Realm, under the authority of a Grand Dragon and eight Hydras; each congressional district was a Dominion, under a Grand Titan and six Furies; each county a Province, under a Grand Giant and four Goblins; and each town a Den, under a Grand Cyclops and two Night Hawks. How much of this organization existed in reality and how much only on paper is anyone’s guess; the fact that anybody could put on a hood and pursue private vendettas under the cover of the Klan makes it impossible to tell how much of the anarchy that swept the South between 1868 and 1872 was the work of the organized Klan and how much was merely carried out in its name.

The Klan’s activities brought harsh reprisals. Laws passed in 1870 and 1871 gave President Ulysses Grant the power to impose martial law and suspend habeas corpus. Federal troops moved against the Klan, and several thousand real or suspected Klansmen spent time in Federal prisons. By the late 1870s the Klan had become a memory, as Southern political and business interests made their peace with the national government and Jim Crow segregation became the law of the land south of the Mason–Dixon line.

It took one of the first successful American motion pictures, an enthusiast for secret societies, and a pair of professional promoters to bring the Klan back to life. The movie, Birth of a Nation (1915) by D.W. Griffith, was a masterpiece of racist propaganda that portrayed the Klan as heroic defenders of Southern womanhood against treacherous Northerners and subhuman blacks. The enthusiast, William J. Simmons, belonged to 15 fraternal orders and for a time made his living recruiting members for insurance lodges. After seeing the movie, Simmons turned his efforts to reviving the Klan as a fraternal order and wrote a new Klan ritual in which nearly every term began with the letters “kl” – the dens of the old Klan were renamed Klaverns, officers included the Klaliff, Kludd, and Kligrapp, the book of ritual was the Kloran and the songs sung during Klonvocations (Klavern meetings) were known as Klodes. Simmons proclaimed himself Imperial Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 and recruited a few thousand members, but the new Klan made little headway until 1920. In that year Simmons turned over public relations to Edward Young Clark and Elizabeth Tyler, who ran a firm called the Southern Publicity Association and had ample experience in fundraising and promotion.

Thereafter the Klan grew explosively, gaining 100,000 members by 1921 and more than four million nationwide by 1924. Klaverns sprouted in every American state and most Canadian provinces. Efforts to launch the Klan outside North America had little success apart from Germany, where the German Order of the Fiery Cross was founded in 1923, but the Klan’s activities were a source of inspiration to the radical right throughout Europe; the Cagoule, the major French fascist secret society of the 1930s, took its name (“hood” in French) from the Klan-style headgear worn by its members. See Cagoule.

The key to its success was the broadening of its original white supremacist stance to include other popular American prejudices of the time. Catholics, Jews, immigrants, labor unionists, and liberals joined African-Americans on the Klan’s hate list. At a time when many white Americans fretted about internal enemies undermining the American way of life, Klansmen presented themselves as defenders of “100 percent Americanism” against all comers. Publicly, Klansmen pursued their agenda through boycotts and voting drives; violence and intimidation aimed against the Klan’s enemies formed the more covert dimension of Klan activity, publicly denied by the national leadership but tacitly approved by them and carried out by local Klansmen under the white Klan mask. See Roman Catholic Church; Antisemitism.

Like the Antimasonic Party and the Know-Nothings before it, the Klan drew much of its support from conservative Protestantism. The 1920s were the seedtime of the fundamentalist churches, the years when conservative Protestant denominations abandoned their commitment to social justice and turned to a rhetoric of intolerance rooted in narrow biblical literalism. Recognizing common interests, the Klan made recruitment of fundamentalist ministers a top priority. Some 40,000 fundamentalist ministers became Klansmen in the 1920s; the Grand Dragons of four states, and 26 of the 39 Klokards (national lecturers) hired by Klan headquarters, were fundamentalist ministers. This strategy paid off handsomely as Klan propaganda sounded from church pulpits and Klansmen-ministers encouraged their flocks to enter local Klaverns. See Antimasonic Party; fundamentalism; Know-Nothing Party.

A similar strategy aimed at influential members of other secret societies, and turned many fraternal lodges into recruiting offices for the Klan. As the most prestigious secret society in America, the Freemasons formed a major target for this project, and hostilities on the part of white Masonic lodges toward black Prince Hall Masonry rendered the Craft vulnerable to Klan rhetoric. To the lasting embarrassment of Masonry, several Masonic organizations entered into a tacit alliance with the Klan. The Southern Jurisdiction of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, with its history of hostility toward the Roman Catholic Church, was among the most heavily involved, and during the mid-1920s the head of the Scottish Rite in at least one state was also the Grand Dragon of that state’s Klan. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite; Freemasonry; Prince Hall Masonry.

The popularity of secret societies in 1920s America made the Klan’s spread spark the growth of other secret organizations, some attempting to compete with it for the same racist market and others opposing the Klan and everything it stood for. Competing orders included the American Order of Clansmen, founded in San Francisco at the same time as Simmons’s Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Royal Riders of the Red Robe, an order that admitted white men born outside the US (and thus excluded from Klan membership) but shared the Klan’s repellent ideals. An even more colorful assortment of secret orders rose up to oppose the Klan’s influence; these included the All-American Association, the Knights of Liberty, the Knights of the Flaming Circle, and the Order of Anti-Poke-Noses, an Arkansas organization founded in 1923 that opposed “any organization that attends to everyone’s business but their own.” See All-American Association; American Order of Clansmen; Knights of Liberty; Knights of the Flaming Circle; Order of Anti-Poke-Noses.

All this was prologue to the Klan’s reach for political power, which occupied the national office with increasing intensity from 1923 on. The Imperial Kligrapp (national secretary) Hiram W. Evans spearheaded this project after he seized control of the Klan in a palace coup in 1922. Journalists assailed the Klan or dismissed its members as “nightie Knights,” but politicians of both parties found the Klan useful. Nowhere was the Klan’s political reach longer than in Indiana, where one in four white adult males was a Klan member by 1924. Indiana Grand Dragon David C. Stephenson had more control over the state government than any of its elected officials and was preparing for a Presidential campaign. In 1925, though, he abducted and raped his secretary, who took poison but lived long enough to name him and provide police with details of the crime. The media furor that followed his exposure and conviction for murder proved catastrophic for the Klan. In Indiana itself, three-fourths of the members quit in the next two years. Stephenson himself, furious at the state governor’s refusal to pardon him, revealed Klan illegalities to the authorities, landing more than a dozen elected officials in jail.

Stevenson’s exposure and the resulting media frenzy left the Klan in tatters. Most Klaverns outside the South went out of existence during the late 1920s as popular opinion turned against the order and politicians who had praised the Klan found that attacking it brought equal advantages. As the 1930s dawned the Klan handed an even more deadly weapon to its opponents by allying with the German-American Bund and other pro-Nazi groups in the United States. Widely suspected of disloyalty, pilloried by the media, and faced with a bill for more than half a million dollars in back taxes, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan dissolved in 1944.

It took the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s to breathe new life into the Klan. Challenged by school desegregation and the swelling demands of black Americans for equal rights, white Southerners clinging to the Jim Crow system of racial privilege turned to the Klan in an attempt to turn back the clock. The Association of Georgia Klans (AGK) was the first Klan organization to pick up the gauntlet, launching a campaign of beatings and intimidation. In 1953 the AGK reorganized itself as the US Klans, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and expanded throughout the South. In 1961 the US Klans merged with another Klan group, the Alabama Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, to form the United Klans of America (UKA).

The bitter desegregation struggles of the 1960s saw the UKA take center stage as the most intransigent wing of white Southern resistance, and it grew to a total membership near 50,000. Where other racist groups launched boycotts and propaganda campaigns, members of the UKA embraced overt terrorism, fire-bombing black churches and murdering activists. This strategy backfired when Federal Bureau of Investigation agents infiltrated the Klan and sent dozens of its members to prison for long terms.

The Klan splintered further in the 1970s and 1980s as the South discovered it could live with desegregation, and Klan opponents discovered that civil suits could be used to bankrupt Klan groups that engaged in violent behavior. The UKA fell to this strategy when two of its officers were convicted of lynching a black teenager, and lawyers for the victim’s family won a civil lawsuit that stripped the UKA of all its assets. By the late 1980s surviving Klan groups could count only a few thousand followers scattered across the United States, and their place in the racist right was rapidly being taken by neo-Nazi organizations, Christian Identity, militia groups, and racist Satanist groups such as the White Order of Thule. See Christian Identity; neo-Nazi secret societies; New World Order; White Order of Thule.

Presently the Klan is split into more than a hundred competing fragments, most of them still using revisions of Simmons’s 1915 Kloran and dressing in the traditional white robe and pointed hood. Bitter internal politics and a reputation as the has-beens of the far right present a burden to further expansion that none of the current Klan leaders have been able to overcome. Still, the Klan has risen from defeat more than once in its history and the possibility of a future revival cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Further reading: Horowitz 1999, Wade 1987, Weller and Thompson 1998.

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