Historians and America’s First Secret Societies

This posting was written by Kevin Butterfield, a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the New-York Historical Society, 2012-1013.

Mason Hall, Broadway near Pearl Street, 1831 (PR 003)

Much of what we know about the past we know for one simple reason: someone took the care to record and to preserve some record of his or her time. Thankfully, people like New York’s Philip Hone, whose twenty-eight quarto volumes in the diary he kept for decades wound up at the N-YHS, were virtual packrats and incessant chroniclers of their lives.

That urge to keep and to preserve records was, if anything, even more pronounced in the clubs and voluntary societies of the early United States. It became astonishingly common in the fifty or so years following the American Revolution for men and women to create fraternal clubs, debating societies, and other voluntary associations. These people often went out of their way to record their proceedings—and to preserve them. When a debating and literary club for young men in Long Island discovered in 1822 that they’d filled up one book with all their debates, club elections, and so on, the Mamaluion Society allocated funds to buy a new blank book to record their proceedings. And when they showed up one day for a meeting and couldn’t locate the book, they were at a loss and didn’t even know how—or whether—to go on with the meeting.

New England Anti-Masonic Almanac depicting secret rituals, 1829 (Mass.1829.N49 B64)

But many of these same groups kept secrets. They had secret initiation rituals, locked doors, and strict rules against divulging what happened within the confines of the club. Such secrecy had begun, in seventeenth-century England, as a strategy to protect clubs and societies from the watchful eye of church and state, but it continued in the far less repressive setting of the new American republic for different reasons. Most commonly, secrecy was a strategy to create close ties among men who could then know that they shared knowledge with one another that other men just didn’t possess. They could be more tightly knit, more caring, more charitable to one another—all thanks to the wonders of shared secrets. Thomas Power wrote a long, mostly bad poem about the glories of “Secrecy” that he delivered to his fellow Freemasons in 1832 Boston, pairing secrecy not with conspiracy or hidden power but with charity, friendship, and love.

Another reason that people in the early decades of the American republic often chose to insulate themselves from the outside world by vows of secrecy is…well, almost adorable. In a lot of cases, it was a product of shyness. Young men would form a reading club or a debating society, but they also knew that they didn’t yet have the oratorical skills or esoteric literary knowledge that might suitably impress everyone else. Gathering together to develop those skills was precisely the point, and so a policy of strict secrecy was implemented. Take the Schaghticoke Polemic Society, for example, which was a group of young men who met in 1797 in a small town in Rensselaer County to debate the issues of the day and whose manuscript book of minutes is kept at the N-YHS. They created strict rules enjoining secrecy, to which they added an oath: “That I will not in any manner whatever divulge the proceedings thereof, so that the same may operate to the disadvantage of any member or members” of the society. The society’s first president, Edward Ostrander, declared that this was probably the best way “to fortify us against every embarrassment.”

Historians are not without some tools for exploring these societies with secrets. For one thing, these groups tended to keep records for themselves, under lock and key, that have survived for posterity. The men of Schaghticoke recorded their meetings in great detail, even if their contemporaries saw only a closed door.

The World’s Wonder; or, Freemasonry Unmasked: To Which Is Added a Key to the Phi Beta Kappa, John W. Carter.

And sometimes secrets were publicly divulged by an outsider or a disgruntled ex-member, who often went straight to a printer with the scoop. We know as much as we do about early Freemasonry because Englishman Samuel Prichard published Masonry Dissected in 1730.The exposé, according to historian Steven Bullock, was so accurate in its descriptions of rituals and passwords that the English lodges were forced to make changes just to keep interlopers from crashing their meetings. In the heat of the American Anti-Masonic furor of the 1820s and 1830s—itself sparked by the disappearance and possible murder of one William Morgan, who proposed to print a book exposing some of Masonry’s few remaining secrets—more and more exposés came out, some including plates with visual depictions of all the key Masonic ceremonies.

Still, there are some secrets that apparently went to the grave with the members. And there’s one in particular I’d love to solve. The Mamaluion Society I mentioned above, which was founded in 1816, made as the first order of business in its constitution (preserved in their book of minutes at the N-YHS) the announcement of the name of the society—and the declaration that its meaning shall forever remain hidden.

Sec. 1. This Society shall be distinguished, and known by the name of the Mamaluion Society.

Sec. 2. The enigmatical interpretation of the word Mamaluion shall be made known to none, only to the members of this Society; and any members who shall divulge the meaning of the name to a non member shall be expelled the Society

Constitution, By-laws, Proceedings of the Mamaluion Society, 1816-1823, Article 1, sec. 2. (MS 1776)

There’s no record of what the name meant. If it was a simple letter-substitution code, then it’s possible that the name “Mamaluion” was intended to have the secret meaning of “Cucumbers” or “Ululating.” But that doesn’t seem right. Nearly 200 years later, it remains, as they had very much hoped in 1816, a secret.


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