Ritual America – or, to give the book its full title, Ritual America: Secret Brotherhoods and Their Influence On American Society – A Visual Guide – is a big, chunky, coffee table affair. Compiled by Adam Parfrey and Craig Heimbichner, it offers exactly what the title implies: an extensive visual treasurehouse showcasing the influence of Freemasonry and various other fraternal orders (the vast majority of which are rip-offs of Freemasonry) in American society and culture.
Though the book hails from Feral House, which has published its fair share of conspiracy theory on the subject of Masonry and similar secret societies (they’re the big bads in James Shelby Downard’s Carnivals of Life and Death, for instance, and regular features of Secret and Suppressed), it isn’t the wall-to-wall orgy of conspiracy theory it might be – it discusses the occasional outbreaks of anti-Masonic sentiment and some of the major scandals like the death of William Morgan and the Leo Taxil affair, but it doesn’t wallow in conspiratorialism. Nor does it obsess on the esoteric aspects of Masonry and its more occult-themed offshoots like the OTO or the various Rosicrucian-themed spinoffs from it.
Instead, the book takes a refreshingly broad approach to the subject, appropriate to the fact that Freemasonry is an awkward broad church of an institution and always has been – ever since a bunch of esotericists, toffs, and middle class intellectuals gatecrashed and hijacked some old, near-moribund stonemason’s guilds, appropriated and/or radically reworked some of their ceremonies and procedures, and made it into this weird mashup of eating-and-feasting-club, charitable association, mutual aid society, and occult talking shop.
As Ritual America illustrates, for many Masons the “occult talking shop” bit is the least important part of Masonry, or outright irrelevant to them – and the vast majority of fraternal organisations like the Rotarians, Elks, Lions, and whatnot were actually more keen on the drinking club, charity, or mutual aid aspects of the whole shebang and just did the ritual bits for shits and giggles. (Parfrey and Heimbichner don’t hold back on the illustrations from the likes of the DeMoulin catalogue – DeMoulin having started out as one of several companies specialising in creating absurd devices for the sake of hazing and tormenting new initiates – a tradition which survives in the torture of new pledges into fraternities and sororities on US university campuses, perhaps the most famous and still-healthy examples of the “boozing and partying” variety of fraternal group.)
Taking this more grounded and fact-oriented approach to the subject allows Parfrey and Heimbichner to tease out the real story. If Masonry or other such fraternal organisations did, at one point, exert a powerful influence over American society, it’s not because some sort of Stonecutters-esque central committee arranged it that way as part of some masterplan to control the world. It’s because there was a span of time when, especially in some towns, going to the Masonic Lodge – or the Elks’ meeting, or whatever – was basically what you did for a social life.
Take a typical American small town. Had the golf club been the place where the significant folk of the town spent much of their time and did most of their networking, then the golf club could be said to control the town – in the sense that membership of the golf club would be overwhelmingly advantageous, anyone of importance in the town would either be in the golf club or want to be a member, and exclusion from the golf club would be highly socially disadvantageous.
At the same time, the golf club doesn’t control the town – the mayor, the police chief, the town councillors, they control they town, the golf club just happens to be the place where they hang out, and the club might benefit from that connection so long as they hang out there, and it might be substantially easier to get one of those positions if you socialise with the right people at the golf club, but if the people with the power get bored of golf and move on to something else, the golf club’s influence would evaporate – and there isn’t really anything that the statewide, national, or international golf clubs the local golf club is affiliated with could do about that.
Of course, the use of strange rituals – especially with those with a humiliating angle to them – often proved to be a great way to create a sense of group identity and belonging. (Shared trauma is like that.) That’d presumably be why such fraternal societies ended up in that “golf club” niche as often as they did. If they exerted a strong influence over American society at one time, it’s because there were a significant number of influential people (mainly, it has to be said, men) for whom the lodge was their big hobby, and so naturally they tossed references to it here and there just like when D&D geeks get influential you get lots of sly gaming references flying just under the radar.
Likewise, the propagation of fraternal societies wasn’t some sort of flowering of a grand Masonic network so much as it was a reflection of the fact that the fraternal model was familiar to people, so when they wanted to establish new groups that was one of the options they considered. For instance, when police officers wanted an association for themselves they created the Fraternal Order of Police, and how early trade unions drew on working class fraternal societies like the Odd Fellows. As late as the 1950s and 1960s, otherwise entirely novel groups ranging from Scientology to the LaVey-brand Church of Satan included notions borrowed from Masonry and its occult neighbours, with the Church of Satan drawing on ritualism and Scientology drawing on the idea of a complex, graduated set of levels and tiers of initiation and indoctrination.
Which isn’t to say that there’s no really wild secrets covered in here. Parfrey and Heimbichner include some details of actual scandals which are far more believable – not least because they’ve resulted in criminal trials being brought and have been spoken out about by people in fraternal circles, rather than being based on mere speculation from outside. We even get a bit on the bizarre world of the Royal Order of Jesters – which you can only be a member of if you’re a Shrine, and you can only be a Shriner if you’re a Master Mason (formerly, a top-ranking Scottish Rite or York Rite Mason), so it’s real cream of the crop stuff and also incredibly crass and lewd. (You can get a full unpacking of their misdeeds – and the mysterious organisation known as SOBIB, or Secret Order of Brothers In Blood, which you have to be a Jester to be a member of and seems to be an order-within-an-order controlling the Jesters, just as the Jesters are an order-in-an-order with the Shriners and the Shriners are an order-in-an-order of the Masons – in this YouTube video, which seems to be from the perspective of a serious-minded Freemason.)
It’s by no means a perfect book. The accompanying text which goes along with the images is highly fragmentary, as though Parfrey and Heimbichner had to cut back their intended commentary ruthlessly and ended up hacking out the connecting tissue (or, alternately, they were short on material and threw in multiple versions of the same section of text to fill space). There’s also some points where the text is clearly the victim of a formatting error or an incorrect caption. Still, that’s not quite enough to derail the book, largely because the text isn’t as central as it could be – it’s largely there to lend extra context to the pictures, which tell a fascinating story by themselves.