Course No. 8680 | Lecturer: Professor Richard B. Spence, PhD | + PDF Guidebook
The first rule of this course is you don’t talk about this course. The second rule of this course is YOU DON’T TALK ABOUT THIS COURSE. Welcome to The Real History of Secret Societies, a historical look at the true-life groups which, if you believe the myths, are the unspoken power behind some of the world’s major turning points, from controlling the British crown to holding back the electric car and keeping Martians and Atlantis under wraps.
Prepare yourself. In this course, brought to you in partnership with HISTORY®, you will be visiting some of history’s deepest rabbit-holes, across centuries and continents, in search of secret societies in all their varieties. You will journey to some very dark places and, frankly, some odd and sometimes silly ones as well. During 24 eye-opening lectures, Dr. Richard B. Spence, professor of history at the University of Idaho, guides you through the always fascinating, often mystifying—and sometimes disturbing—world of brotherhoods, sisterhoods, orders, cults, and cabals that have influenced human culture from ancient times to the present.
Despite the name, “secret” societies have permeated popular culture and become symbols of wonder, mystique, and rumormongering. Thanks to phenomena like Dan Brown’s best-selling novels, hit movies such as Skull and Bones, or hit songs by Madonna, the idea of secret societies has become utterly mainstream, allowing the general population to think they know about the most important parts of this clandestine underworld.
However, the commonly known groups barely scratch the surface of the number of real-life secret societies that exist. In fact, if one didn’t know better, one might think the popularization of a few groups is a conspiracy, in of itself, to cover up for the many that are never acknowledged…
With help from the archives of HISTORY, Professor Spence leaves no society uncovered, and will open your eyes to the history and evolution of factions you think you know, introducing you to fascinating and illuminating stories and insights. Consider:
The Illuminati—A group so pervasive in popular culture that their name has become synonymous with any generic conspiratorial group—noted throughout literature in everything from Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein to Marvel comic books. There are a variety of global groups which considered themselves Illuminati—or at least affiliated with them—but the Illuminati initially took root with a young lawyer who was obsessed with secrecy, rank and order, and creating a New World Order that echoed the promises of communism.
The Shriners—Founded by a wealthy New York Freemason, named William Florence, who enlisted a group of well-heeled masons to establish Mecca Temple, the first lodge of the Mystic Shrine. Exclusivity added to the mystique, growing the membership of The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine to hundreds of thousands over time. They adopted a motto of “Fun and Fellowship,” and they are known for wearing red fezzes and seen riding small bikes or cars in parades, though they also founded a number of children’s hospitals.
The Freemasons—A group known for secret rings and handshakes, subtle symbology, dangerous initiation rituals, and a complicated hierarchy. You’d think with all this secrecy and protection of the group, the last place you’d find them is being parodied on The Simpsons. But the truth is that they are a hard organization to keep hushed up because there has never been just a single school of Freemasonry; many variations exist and they don’t play by the same rules.
Professor Spence also looks at groups who have become so ubiquitous in our history that it’s impossible to think of them as being secret, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Mafia, the IRA, or the Nazi Party. But as Professor Spence explains, these were the groups which began to organize behind closed doors, and their original, secret—or at least exclusive—status was likely an impetus in the group’s successfulness and omnipresence. After all, half the power and draw of a secret society stems from the fact that everyone (secretly) wants to join one.
Myth and Reality
The time period from 1890–1930 is known as a “golden age of fraternalism,” when hundreds of lodges, mystical orders, and fraternal organizations came into existence in the United States. During this time, America accounted for more than half of the world’s Freemasons. And, millions of Americans were affiliated with lesser-known, oath-bound orders such as Odd Fellows, Red Men, Woodmen of the World, Knights of Columbus, B’nai B’rith, Elks, Owls, Eagles, and the Moose.
Some groups were organized to promote fellowship, mutual aid, or political and social causes during a trying time for the U.S. economy. Other groups took advantage of desperate times to turn groups of humans against each other, encouraging supremacy or separatism. Still, others simply came into existence for solely self-serving reasons and were not considered legitimate, yet their stories and reputations endure. Consider these groups:
U. S. Secret and Civil Service Society, Self-Supporting Branch—Founded by Arthur Rochford Manby to “combat nameless evils that regular authorities couldn’t, or wouldn’t, handle.” This society was a cover for Manby to receive money, deeds, and mortgages from his followers in order to partake in bootlegging, extortion, fraud, robbery, and murder for hire. It also solidified the secret society mantra of “join or die,” as Manby preyed on well-to-do citizens and then showed the new initiates how broken oaths of silence or obedience would result in a beheading.
The Learned Elders of Zion—A super-secret group of Jewish leaders purported to be bent on world domination through subverting the morals of non-Jews and by taking control of the press and the economy. Henry Ford fueled the fire of the Elders by paying for 500,000 copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to be printed and distributed in the United States in a fit of anti-Semitism. This guide was also taught by German school teachers after the Nazi’s came to power. The real history? This group never existed and the Protocols were a hoax.
The Priory of Sion—An uber-secret society claiming to be the restoration of an order dating back to the First Crusade in the 11th century that was created to protect the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The society’s objective was supposedly to restore a descendant as the ruler of a unified Europe. However, it was nothing more than the concoction of a career con man, who had developed a complete pseudo-history that was picked up and repurposed by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci; Victor Hugo; Claude Debussy; and most recently, Dan Brown.
Secret societies, real or not, were often a mirror of their times, in some cases, reflecting exclusionary practices with religious, racist, or classist overtones. In other cases, they could be considered America’s first social welfare system, as many groups established programs to bridge the very divides caused by others.
But as much as these societies echoed the consciousness of America, they were fundamentally un-American. As Professor Spence points out, John F. Kennedy said in 1961: “The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths, and to secret proceedings.”
A Personal Connection to History
Professor Spence opens each lecture with a story—a specific glimpse at another time, another place, and a real person or group who is connected in some way to the secret society being examined. This approach introduces you to these societies from both the inside-out and on a personal level. You’ll also get unprecedented access to images, photographs, and more, provided by HISTORY, which give you a true picture of what these societies looked like and how they were organized.
As you uncover secret and often now-defunct societies from around the world—including Ancient Greece, Japan, Korea, Ireland, Russia, France, Germany, and more—you’ll feel like you are there with them, whispering in underground meeting rooms or conspiring around a table in Bavaria. You’ll get to know the founders, leaders, and famous and influential members associated with these groups. And you’ll follow many of the well-known clandestine conspiracies back to their roots, through their uprising, their unearthing, and into the new secret societies that almost always sprang up to take their place.
Secret societies have attracted some of history’s most brilliant, and some of its most evil, minds. Often demonized by their enemies, many secret societies have become the stuff of myths and conspiracy theories. Why do they exist? And when they are invented or imagined, why would someone pretend they exist? What do secret societies believe? Who do they recruit? Most important, what influence do they have? Buckle up and get ready to find out.