Few people are aware that the Half Moon Club even existed and this probably wouldn’t have bothered its members very much. Although it wasn’t a secret society, its surviving club “log” suggests that it was on par with other leading Progressive Era social organizations — elite, sophisticated and enormously selective.
Beginning in 1906, the Half Moon Club met twice and sometimes three times a year until its last recorded meeting in 1934. With Henry Hudson and his ship, the Half Moon, as thematic inspiration, their “voyages” were formal affairs with dinner and a lecture by an adventurer, scholar or gentleman on a range of topics including exploration, science, art, and architecture. On two occasions Ernest Shackleton himself even spoke before the the club!
Aside from presenting a snapshot of Gilded Age leisure, the log also demonstrates how the period’s social, intellectual and cultural circles overlapped. It’s impossible here to convey fully the complexity of these interactions and how they may have influenced modern American society but those who showed up for lectures as members, or guests, were highly capable of shaping public discourse and taste. Among the more recognizable attendees were John D. Rockefeller, Ralph Adams Cram, Tim Hornaday, John Russell Pope, Kermit Roosevelt, Charles Dana Gibson, Peter Cooper Hewitt, Thomas Hastings, John Muir, Whitney Warren, Roy Chapman Andrews, Cass Gilbert, Daniel Chester French and Charles Scribner.
Those names and the broader meaning of their interactions is thought provoking but a slightly more subtle avenue of inquiry travels through the two men who loom largest over the club, Henry Fairfield Osborn and Madison Grant, while touching on one of the least savory aspects of 20th Century American history.
Osborn was a paleontologist and head of the American Museum of Natural History, while Grant was a lawyer, naturalist and board member of both the AMNH and the New York Zoological Society. Each made pivotal contributions to the early American conservation movement and are, without exaggeration, two of its most important figures. However, these achievements can obscure their leading roles in scientific racism. Historians have long acknowledged that among early nature conservationists were many men and women, spurred on by the related impulse of racial preservation, who advocated eugenics, anti-miscegenation, anti-immigration and related causes.
Still, perhaps because of the club’s obscurity, the only historian to discuss the Half Moon Club itself and this aspect of its legacy is Jonathan Spiro, who offers a brief introduction in his biography of Grant, Defender of the Master Race. In it, Spiro posits that William Z. Ripley’s 1908 lecture, “The Migration of the Races,” proved a formative moment for Grant which precipitated his headlong plunge into matters of race and genetics. Whether or not this is literally true is impossible to say, but this lecture was not an isolated event. Although Spiro fails to mention it, there were at least three other lectures over the course of the club’s existence on various facets of scientific racism:
“Through the Channels of Heredity” – Edwin Grant Conklin, April 29, 2014
“From the Home Port of Asia” – Madison Grant, March 23, 1921
“Navigating by Race” – William McDougall, February 5, 1925
The titles aren’t proof alone but an examination of the presenters and many of the attendees (which included men like Prescott F. Hall, Charles B. Davenport, Franklin H. Giddings, Edward L. Thorndike, and Clark Wissler) leaves no doubt as the to thrust of the discussion.
Admittedly, there is little to no evidence that many Half Moon members actually subscribed to the theories of Grant, Osborn and their cohorts either. In fact, evolutionary biologist and geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan, who was present at Conklin’s lecture, became a staunch critic of eugenics. Conklin himself even rejected the “practical suggestions” for man’s improvement. Still, the very fact that men so highly regarded for their cultural and civic achievements mingled with those who left such a damaging mark on America, and the world, gives pause.