Sunday, September 13, 2015

Password, Please! Members Only: Secret Societies, Sects and Cults--Exposed! by Julie Tibbott

If you think cliques begin and end in middle and high school, have I got the book for you!

Julie Tibbott's Members Only: Secret Societies, Sects, and Cults Exposed! (Zest Books, 2015) comes as close as is possible to a tell-all treatise about those clandestine clans of history.

Some of the better known are mostly benign, viz., the Freemasons, (generally called the Masons) which began as a medieval beneficent trade union of stone masons, reputedly dedicated to personal and spiritual growth and support for their injured and aged, widows, and orphaned children. Numbering millions of members worldwide, the Masons included a number of America's founding fathers and heroes--George Washington, Buzz Aldrin, Davy Crockett and Lewis and Clark, eminent artists--Oscar Wilde, Duke Ellington, Marc Chagall, and celebrities--Clark Gable, Harry Houdini, Shaquille O'Neal, Philip Mountbatten, consort of Queen Elizabeth II--to cite a few.

There are other benevolent but quirkier groups such as the Society for Creative Anachronism, sponsors of medieval and Renaissance jousts, feasts, and fairs, Other noted or notorious societies and cults with a long history are the Illuminati, founded 1776, a secret association of the world's most powerful men and women, supposedly dedicated to world progress and reputedly the power behind the American and French Revolutions, and still active today (but, which, despite the rumors, does not actually own any black helicopters.) Then there are the curious cases of the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, begun as a patriotic society, which was led by its distaste for immigrants became a political party known to American history as the Know Nothings; The Knights Templar, founded as a religious order dedicated to the Crusades, which evolved into a rich and politically corrupt oligarchy; and the fabled Yale University Skull and Bones, an elite senior society founded in 1832 and numbering among its inductees "presidents, cabinet officers, spies, Supreme Court justices, and captains of industry."

Some societies are merely arcane and/or downright weird--The Ghost Club, devoted to magic and spiritualism, the Lily Dale Assembly (ditto), The Magic Castle, (ditto, with more attention to magicianship itself), and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, another magical but a fairly self-limiting society who claim that achieving their third level requires dying first, but who did manage to give the world tarot cards.

However, the poster child sect for this genre has got to be the Hellfire Club, founded in 1719, officially disbanded but reconstituted throughout history, and consisting initially of "high society rakes who had money to burn and plenty of time to do it." By indulging in riotous boys'-nights-out debauchery, the members expressed their disdain for religious and societal rules and thus dabbled in the dark arts, meeting in a crypt and performing mock sacred rites. Although he was no rich and lazy layabout, even "Poor Richard," Ben Franklin himself, was a member, waggishly penning a piece called "Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress." Another noted member was the moralistic painter William Hogarth, whose famous "The Rake's Progress" was apparently painted from life (possibly at a chapter meeting?) by the amoral Hogarth.

Then there are the not-so-benevolent secret societies, whose dabbling in dastardly deeds and the dark arts get downright spooky. There are the Haitian Bizingo, who evolved to keep order in Haiti by strong arm-enforcement and the practice of voo-doo, including the threat to turning the uncooperative into zombies, and the similar Mexican cult of La Santa Muerte. In this group, too, are the Simbionese Liberation Army, infamous domestic terrorists, kidnappers, and converters of heiress Patty Hearst, The Weathermen of the anti-Vietnam protest period, and the People's Temple, a religious cult organized around the charismatic Jim Jones, whose sexual exploits and murderous control of his followers ending with the "revolutionary suicide" by cyanide-dosed Flavor-Aid of over 900 of the faithful at Jonestown and which gave us the pop saying, "Don't drink the Kool Aid."

"Birds of a feather flock together," says the old aphorism, and from ancient times, selective associations have flourished. Tibbott adopts a wry style in dealing with her selection of secret societies, treating the saintly and the salacious with a tongue-in-cheek wit that makes this book a fascinating and funny read for young adult and adult readers. She dishes some surprising and enlightening tidbits about the rich and famous, including the enlightening information that President George H. W. Bush earned the Skull and Bones' honored historical nickname "Magog" for having had the most, er, romantic encounters before induction. His son, future president George W., was apparently no chip off the old block: unqualified for "Magog" or any of the other historical nicknames of the society and unable to come up with one on his own, he was dubbed "Temporary" and remained so throughout his Yalie days and to his Bonesmen buddies to this day.

Presumably intended as light and lively reading for fans of the bizarre, the author regrettably does not offer substantiating source notes or even an index to make this highly readable book useful for research or reference.

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