EDITOR’S NOTE: Yet another wonderful post from our longtime contributor, Jeffrey Wengrofsky! This past year, he’s been keeping busy with all manner of projects, and this Sunday, April 3, his Syndicate of Human Image Traffickers will be screening “The Gospel According to Reverend Billy” as part of the Prison is an Angry Father fundraiser at Goodbye Blue Monday (1087 Broadway, Bushwick, New York). It’s a benefit for a prisoner’s rights project created by the Sanctuary of Hope. The event will include live performances of an almost musical variety, as well as the screening of several more short films in addition the Syndicate’s. Doors open at 8pm. Showtime for “The Gospel According to Reverend Billy” is 10pm. This event is free of charge.
Last year I spent my summer vacation working on a feature film in Detroit. While creeping around the city, I could not help but notice its mountainous Masonic Temple – the largest in the world – whose muscular shoulders rise above its environs as if Charlton Heston’s urban fortress in Omega Man were carved into Yosemite’s El Capitan. I was even able to arrange a private tour of the windowless monolith by its hospitable and wily Grand Master, including many meeting rooms and a majestic 4,004 seat auditorium (numerologists take note), all of it a visual feast for anyone with a taste for dramatic architecture, grotesque beauty, or even cryptography for that matter. While in the lobby, our guide offhandedly revealed three levels of meaning behind a seemingly random painting, and the stately oddities awaiting us in floors above and below nearly exploded with symbolic resonance. Unfortunately, the photographer I brought with me was so spooked by the whole experience that he ran screaming into the long night, ever since unreachable by phone or email.
And who can blame him? The uninitiated public can never comfortably claim to understand the true raison d’etre and inner machinations of secret societies because any scholar or spokesperson or self-declared defector may actually be a shill for the organization, planting seeds of misinformation and spreading misleading rumors. Even joining such a society does not entitle one to understanding the ways of its upper circles. Circles within circles, dear reader. Are you getting sleepy? The cinematic accoutrements – vaulted iron doors, masks, handshakes and cloaks – provide the perfect canvas for our fears of the unknown and desires for hidden order beneath evident chaos, conjuring a veil behind which we may never knowingly trespass. Consequently, it can never be definitely settled as to whether any or all such societies are actually: cults of mystical inquiry; wholesome gatherings of those serving laudable Enlightenment values of science and public service; the core of a dastardly “power elite”; congresses of people who enjoy rituals involving aprons (not that there’s anything wrong with that); or some combination thereof.
Last year, Fantagraphics reproduced Catalog No. 439 of the DeMoulin Brothers– the most extensive depiction of initiation contraptions and ritual outfits used by Freemasons and other fraternal orders, like the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, and E. Clampus Vitus. Bearing the title Burlesque Paraphernalia and Side Degree Specialties and Costumes, this wacky book may shed a shred of light into the outer sanctum of these associations – unless, of course, it is actually a hoax disseminated to lead us astray. Bracketing but never disregarding this notion, the readership of Coilhouse may discover certain Truths regarding these quasi-mystical clubs from perusing its glossy pages. Even if Enlightenment should, as always, prove ever elusive, the illustrated designs of Edmund DeMoulin and the handiwork of his brothers Ulysses and Erastus, as reproduced in Burlesque Paraphernalia, will still deliver amusing, if sadistic, anthropology.
Short essays by magicians David Copperfield and Charles Schneider and U.N.C. Professor William D. Moore proffer an official narrative revealing a fin de siècle American civil society so flush with secret societies that an estimated 40% of all adult males were somehow members of some exclusive group or another. They provide no figures of how many women joined the Order of the Eastern Star and the like, and no indication of the prices their cabals exacted for inclusion. Driving the early proliferation of American secret societies was the rise of consumer society, a notion suggested by the wasteful whimsy of the devices used to test the willingness of initiates to forgo personal dignity and commonsense in pursuit of membership and all it conferred. This was the age of Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, a time when people made debutante inroads into the middle class by joining associations that did nothing but signify idle aristocracy. For people whose parents lived off the land, a life of creature comforts may have carried a psychological debt, a guilt, whose appeasement demanded satisfaction. Take, for example, a “Branding and Whirling Table,” presided over by an initiator wearing a devil suit in the plate below. Please note that it has no other function than to horrify and humiliate pledges. This reviewer can only wonder if the brothers DeMoulin fancied themselves devilishly tempting tormentors by dreaming up such creations.
Spinning and tossing would-be joiners was only one way of breaking down their ability to reason independently of the group they sought to join. This collection of profligate degradations also includes collapsing chairs, explosions, fountains springing from unlikely sources, electrical shocks, smoke in one’s face, and sharp objects set to poke and prod initiates. Perhaps more pernicious, however, are the tests to see whether the pledge is willing to undergo morally degradation by ingesting what he believes are human blood and internal organs. Why would a social club want someone who is willing to sacrifice their inner moral compass to be born again into it? The Foucauldian in me replies that all groups strive to dominate their members. There is no “I” in team. By analogy, the known behavior of collegiate fraternities and sororities reveals patterns of cruelty across gender, ethnicity, and class, with different admixtures of psychological terror relative to bodily discipline dispensed in corresponding ceremonies. More broadly still, consider the passions and pleasures of the Human Resources profession.
The most sinister-seeming contraption featured in the catalog are a series of carts with saddles made from the heads and hides of goats. Looking at them, an image of Satanic goat rituals blossoms in a grotesque fireball in my mind, but the book’s lead essay promptly snuffs it out. Freemason and magician Charles Schneider insists unequivocally that “no such activity has ever occurred in a Masonic lodge.” Schneider then tells us that Freemasons were, in fact, so ill-disposed to the notion of bringing a goat into a lodge that they would ask, in whispered jokes, if initiates enjoy “the smell of goat” before the actual of business of riding mechanical goats and whatnot. But how can we trust someone like Schneider – someone sworn to secrecy?
Figures occupying such disparate ideological locations as George Bush (Skull and Bones), Rashid Khalidi (Wolf’s Head Society), and Jesse Jackson (a 33rd Degree Prince Hall Freemason) are all known to be members of secret orders. Does this fact suggest that these cults are no more sinister than Fred Flintstone’s Order of the Water Buffalo?
Fantagraphics has made the DeMoulin Brothers’ Catalog No. 439 available to you, the uninitiated, at a reasonable price despite fancy paper and tapered edges. Now you can ponder these heavy imponderables, lost in reveries of sadomasochistic delight and social conquest, while actually snuggling up to some Irish coffee – heavy on the Irish – and sporting your fuzziest slippers. Book lovers (and who among the Coilhouse faithful are not print fetishists?) will fall for its hundred and fifty full-page plates of machines of untold mischief.
Civil society is continually being transformed. I’ve heard that many of these clubs are experiencing membership shortages. This may be your last chance to explore the recondite delights of para-occult associations before they are all extinct – much like actual buffaloes. At many lodges, the Truth can be yours at a social discount. If you join them, you may beat them. Maybe, in some grand but grim and dimly lit pit of cool marble and mahogany, you’ll perform unmentionable acts and utter soft whispers in a tattooed boy’s club of Boston’s rock elite. You wanna smell a goat?