8 Fascinating Secret Societies and Bohemian Clubs

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Prolific author, muckraking novelist, and political activist Upton Sinclair’s provocative works (The Jungle, The Brass Check) have taken on a new relevance in today’s society. This weekend marks the enduring author’s birthday. Time once called Sinclair “a man with every gift except humor and silence,” but the writer must have had a penchant for the comical when he joined a bohemian group known as “The Dill Pickle Club,” featured below. This discovery led to a curious search for other clubs and secret societies that housed freethinking discussions, art and literature appreciation, or just plain weird goings-on. Most people have heard of groups like the Skull and Bones Society‎, but see what you make of these other organizations.

The Dill Pickle Club

Chicago’s Dill Pickle Club welcomed academics and anarchists, sex workers and socialists, bums and con artists. The front door let you know what you were in for: “Step High, Stoop Low, Leave Your Dignity Outside.” Somewhere between a dive bar, cabaret, and social club, owner John A. “Jack” Jones issued this mission statement about the club when it opened in the early 20th century (in a dilapidated barn downtown):

The Dill Pickles was founded by several groups of people who were convinced that they, nor for that matter no other person or group knew all there was to be known about art, literature, drama, music, science, social or political economy or any other problems confronting or bothering the human race. The various groups responsible for the formation had one idea in mind: the thought that there should be some center where any idea or work would be given a respectful hearing and brought before the public, which in the last analysis are the best judges of what they want.

Famous guests included William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, and Upton Sinclair.

The Sons of Lee Marvin

Sometime in the 1980s, Only Lovers Left Alive director Jim Jarmusch founded The Sons of Lee Marvin. Yes, that Lee Marvin—the scowl-faced star you (better) know from Cat Ballou, The Killers, The Dirty Dozen, and Point Blank. Member Tom Waits once described the club as “somewhere between the Elks Club and the Academy Awards.” The “admission” requirements and group’s directive according to Jarmusch:

I’m not at liberty to divulge information about the organization, other than to tell you that it does exist. I can identify three other members of the organization: Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Richard Bose. You have to have a facial structure such that you could be related to, or be a son of, Lee Marvin. There are no women, obviously, in the organization. We have communiques and secret meetings. Other than that, I can’t talk about it.

The filmmaker later explained the club’s origin:

It all started years ago with an idea I had for a movie where Lee Marvin was a father with three sons who all hated each other, and he was an alcoholic guy and lived in a barn somewhere. It was one of those ideas that gradually became more interesting to me, then Lee Marvin crossed over to the other side.

Nick Cave, Iggy Pop, and Neil Young are just a few of the “sons.” We’re not sure if the tough-talking actor would approve or knock Jarmusch out, but that’s part of the group’s charm.

Cicada 3301

“Hello. We are looking for highly intelligent individuals. To find them, we have devised a test,” read the first mysterious message from a group known only as Cicada 3301 in 2012. Since then, the annual puzzles that draw cryptologists from across the globe have confounded people. Some people believe Cicada 3301 is really a recruitment tool for intelligence agencies like the CIA. Others peg them as hackers or simply eccentric cryptoanalysts. The references used in their challenges range from William Gibson and William Blake to Aleister Crowley’s The Book of the Law.

Society of the Horseman’s Word

A strange Scottish Masonic-esque brotherhood existed that involved witchcraft, horses, early animal activism, and male chauvinism. We’ll let the publisher of Society of the Horseman’s Word explain a little of the group’s history:

This clandestine esoteric society flourished amongst ploughmen in Scotland from the end of the 18th Century until the early 20th. Its members were believed to have supernatural control over horses, and also women and were also associated with witchcraft. . . . Forget notions of dour Victorian morality. We learn from the disapproving pen of the one Scottish ploughman who left a substantial written record that his work mates drank hard, played hard and chased women.

Trap Door Spiders

New York men’s literary dining club the Trap Door Spiders was founded by science fiction, fantasy, and military author Fletcher Pratt in 1944. The group started as a way for a few writer pals to escape the day—and, apparently, escape the new wife of influential writer and chemist John Drury Clark. It seems the friends weren’t fond of opera singer Mildred Baldwin. The invitation-only group was a debating society. The men opened the evening’s festivities with a meal and conversation, in which members had to “provide the others with a good reason for his continued existence.” Isaac Asimov was the group’s most famous member, with L. Sprague de Camp following closely behind. Notable guests included L. Ron Hubbard and Frederik Pohl. Asimov created a fictional group in a book series based on the club called “The Black Widowers.”

The Order of Chaeronea

Poet, radical freethinker, and early gay rights activist George Cecil Ives founded a secret society called the Order of Chaeronea, which was established to end the oppression of homosexuals and offer a safe space for gay men to communicate. It was named after the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC), where hundreds of men from the Sacred Band of Thebes, all of them lovers, were killed. “An elaborate system of rituals, ceremonies, a service of initiation, seals, codes, and passwords were used by the members. The Secret Society became a worldwide organization and Ives took advantage of every opportunity to spread the word about the “Cause.” Ives unsuccessfully tried to recruit Oscar Wilde after they met at the Author’s Club in 1892. Just a few years later, Wilde’s sexuality would land him on trial for gross indecency, after which he was imprisoned.

The Bohemian Club

The term “gentlemen’s club” arouses all kinds of lewd thoughts, but the gentlemen’s club founded in San Francisco in 1872, known simply as the Bohemian Club, is not what you think. The club started out with a diverse group of cultured men, including young artists and journalists who appreciated the arts. It was eventually overwhelmed with influential leaders (prime ministers and presidents have been members) and businessmen who didn’t quite fit the definition of “bohemian,” transforming it into a more traditional fraternal organization. Although, there is nothing traditional about the club’s annual encampment ceremony, which resembles a scene from The Wicker Man. The men gather around a 40-foot owl shrine surrounded by Redwood trees for the elaborate “Cremation of Care” ceremony. It’s an symbolic gesture that is meant to banish worldly cares. Weird(er) note: the owl talks. For years member and broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite provided the creature’s recorded voice.

The Semi-Colon Club

Abolitionist and author Harriet Beecher Stowe was influenced by her time in the Semi-Colon Club, which helped shape her anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The literary club was one of the only of its time to offer a space for men and women alike—a time when female writers were still using male pseudonyms so they could publish their works and were restricted from speaking in public to groups that included men. Members of the pioneering Cincinnati group included writers, a judge (future Supreme Court Justice Salmon P. Chase), physicians (including first American female physician, Elizabeth Blackwell), and Harriet’s sister, Catherine Beecher (an early women’s education advocate).