Archival images courtesy of Adam Parfrey Memorabilia that extols the virtues of being (clockwise from left) ritually beaten, drowned, and sawed in half to prove one’s loyalty to your lodge. My relationship with Freemasonry started the day I was born, courtesy of my grandfather. He was once a Mason in Liverpool, but eventually turned his back on the society and its activities. The main reason he defected was because my grandmother, as a woman, was forbidden to know anything about what went on at the meetings. Being that a bunch of his relatives were associated with the Masons, he and his wife became estranged from his part of the family and never really spoke to them again, and so I have many relatives out there whom I’ve never met.
Would I be happier and more successful if I’d have known them? Probably not. I believe they were from the Wirral, a part of Liverpool whose citizens I have never really found to be that appealing anyway. What I love most about this story is that my grandfather chose the love of his wife over drinking with cops and barristers in funny hats while they cuddled skeletons or whatever they did to prosper in their super-secret club. Either that, or he was terrified of my grandmother’s wrath, which could be quite fierce.
The level of family-shunning loyalty and other weird rules that you must follow to be part of the Masons and similar secret societies have always fascinated me, but my level of interest doesn’t approach that of American publisher and writer Adam Parfrey. The founder and owner of Feral House books, Adam has spent the past 20 years amassing a huge collection of Masonic ephemera and, along with his coauthor, Craig Heimbichner, has just completed a weighty book called Ritual America: Secret Brotherhoods and Their Influence on American Society. VICE was lucky enough to obtain a sneak preview of some of the best imagery in the book, along with an interview with Adam about his obsession with the Masons and similar groups.
Vice: In your new book, you claim that at the peak of their popularity, one in three Americans belonged to a secret society. That seems crazy. What’s that number like these days?
Adam Parfrey: That figure came from two sources. One was an 1898 book, an encyclopedia of fraternal organizations, and the other was a more recent book called Fraternal Organizations. It sounds crazy, but it’s not, because these societies provided important things to people of their era, like medical insurance, social networking, entertainment, and places to get away from the family and booze it up.
Have you ever belonged to a secret society?
My Texas friend Bruce Webb runs a gallery with his wife, Julie, that contains all of his secret-society purchases, which were usually taken from lodges after they shut down. Bruce encouraged me to join the Odd Fellows, and so I went through the initiation ceremony in their Waxahatchie, Texas, lodge. I must admit to having forgotten the secret password and handshake. What else did you have to do to join the Odd Fellows?
During the “initiation ritual,” you have to stare at a goofy skeleton in a coffin to remind you of your few days left on earth, and so you’d better get in line with a society that supposedly cares about you. You’ve been involved with the Church of Satan in the past through your friendship with the late Anton LaVey. How does the CoS compare with these Masonic societies?
Anton said somewhere that the Church of Satan was partly based on Masonic ideas and rituals. But when I knew him, Anton never led a “ceremony” outside of playing an organ and a synthesizer for hours at a time. Keep in mind that Freemasonry was in fact the basis for hundreds of societies, much like the 12 Steps paradigm is used by many different sobriety groups. This drawing of an initiation ritual is probably not a good representation of current Masonic rites. How prevalent do you think all these men in funny hats and aprons are in society today?
Freemasonry is still huge for police and military organizations, but less so for run-of-the-mill Americans. My coauthor, Craig Heimbichner, and I speculate that the Freemason paradigm is so entrenched in American culture that it’s hardly necessary to go through the old rituals and membership drives anymore. In other words, the people who brought about Freemasonry as a means of controlling people have done their job so well they no longer need to have any proles in there. And these days, isn’t it the Illuminati who really control the world?
The Illuminati were a totally real anti-Catholic, anti-monarchical organization at a time when such thoughts earned you the rope. I have respect for the original organization formed by Adam Weishaupt. But today the Illuminati are thought to be a secretive satanic bunch of murdering thieves who have mated with reptilian extraterrestrials. What prompted you to write this book at this particular time? Often the backstories are as interesting as the books themselves, if not more so.
Sinister conspiracies have always attracted my interest. You know—the Process Church, Manson, and all that—so I wondered about the Freemasons and other such “orders” and what the fuck is the deal with the secrets and the parades and dressing up so strangely. I started reading the conspiracy literature about it, and also what I call the “Chamber of Commerce” official line from the groups themselves. And what I discovered is that the reality is even stranger than you’d expect.
Visually, it’s amazing. Where did all the imagery come from?
It all comes from my collection. They’re from eBay mostly, but also used-book dealers and friends. It’s from two decades’ worth of collecting. There was a long production process because it’s a HUGE motherfucker of a book; however, I also had to trim it significantly. There were 4,000 images I wanted to use, but I had to pick out only 400 for the final edit. Which are your favorites?
I started fixating on the Shriners’ obsession with crippled children and doing thousands of PR photos of Shriner clowns terrifying kids in hospitals; also the Klan rituals and the Nazi visuals that link Freemasons and Jews in “a nefarious plot.” I’ve been working on the book for a decade or more. My fraternal obsession led to collecting books, magazines, newspapers, postcards, snapshots, banners, paintings, posters, liquor decanters, and even weird initiation gizmos, all kinds of shit. But then the fucking Dan Brown novels came out, which encouraged publishers to release a thousand books about secret societies. And a thousand cable TV specials called things like Secrets of the Alien SS: From the Vatican to the White House.
For crying out loud, there are so many boring reprints of esoterica, shitty exploitation, and anticonspiratorial dullness from the fraternities themselves. What really helped me keep focused on this book was all this GARBAGE churned out by the publishing industry. Follow Andy on Twitter @Andycapper
Ritual America: Secret Brotherhoods and Their Influence on American Society is out now from Feral House.