On a recent trip to the Milwaukee Art Museum, I saw a really intriguing collection of objects from the Odd Fellows fraternal organization. The Odd Fellows were one of those mysterious fraternal groups, kind of like The Freemasons or Shriners. I find these sort of groups mysterious, anyway. The more secret the meetings and the more unique items are used in their ceremonies, the more I'm going to wonder what's going on. I know many of these groups do good deeds and I imagine some of them served a social or community purpose. But sometimes, I hear stories about fraternal organizations that make me imagine a group of guys in cloaks, chanting in a circle, performing secret rituals. What I've heard about The Freemasons in general ranges from a social group for important men in the area, to surprising ceremonies, to a lot of good fuel for a conspiracy theory.
With those thoughts and stories in mind, I went into a small room built in the middle of the museum's gallery space. The room was dark, and some antique objects used by the Odd Fellows group were uplit in a spooky way. These objects ranged from a skull and crossbones plaque to what looked like an Eye of God or Eye of Providence symbol. There was a full artificial (but plenty real looking) skeleton standing in a coffin. There were staffs, one of which had a snake wrapped around it. The other featured a religious looking symbol with a hand holding a heart. Plenty mysterious!
So, who were The Odd Fellows? Well, a lot of the groups were made up of guys who worked in a specific trade. According to the description on the gallery wall, the Odd Fellows worked in less common trades, where there were less people. So it makes sense that a few guys from a trade here and a few guys from a trade there would team up to form their own club.
The symbols you see here would have been used in their ceremonies. The sign on the gallery wall explained that the full skeleton would have been used during initiation as a reminder of mortality (ouch) and also to remind the initiated of the group's discount burial rate! I'm not kidding. Perhaps one of the "odd" trades included in the group was mortician. Belonging to the group offered a form of burial insurance. I'm not sure if there were discount rates for anything else, but it would have been a good idea!
It might seem morbid to have a skeleton involved with an initiation ceremony, but a lot of things from the 1800s seem morbid by today's standards. People were a lot more pragmatic in the way they looked at death. Probably because they were surrounded by more death. I read that every Odd Fellows lodge owned a skeleton for the initiation ceremony. Unlike the one pictured above, some of these skeletons were real. If you search online for the words "Odd Fellows + skeleton" you'll find countless articles, many about the skeletons turning up nowadays. Modern people are getting a real surprise as they run across these things in old lodges. I even saw some of the skeletons up for auction online. I have to wonder where the skeletons came from. Perhaps from lodge members who donated their remains to the group?
The Odd Fellows are still in existence, and I just visited their web site. According to their web site, the "odd" part comes in not only because of odd trades, but because it was considered odd to be that helpful and altruistic to society. It's sad when helping people is considered odd. You can read more here:
About The Odd Fellows
I can tell this is the same group of Odd Fellows, since both the museum and the group web site mention their three link emblem standing for Friendship, Love, and Truth. I got a completely different perspective of the group from reading their web site. The museum showed the more more mysterious, ritualistic side of the group. The web site described more of a kind, giving, spiritual, volunteer group. They stated that their group was the first national fraternal organization to include women and that was in the year 1851. They won some points with me for that.
This video gives a nice overview of the history of the Odd Fellows:
Doesn't the narrator sound like Ron Swanson?
Every time I learn a little about a fraternal organization, I'm left with a complex view. Those of us who don't belong to the group will probably never know what happened behind the closed doors of their meetings, but it sounds like the Odd Fellows have done something good for their communities!
*Update as of July 28, 2014 *
I had another run-in with some Odd Fellows antiques! I was browsing a local antique shop with my mom and saw a homemade set of The Ten Commandments. I thought it was kind of weird so I went over to investigate.
I didn't even look closely at what the tablets were on. Suddenly, my mom said "Umm... Justine, look down." I looked down and saw this directly below me.
I jumped up and said "EEK!" I had been leaning over a replica coffin with a painted head inside. I know that on closer inspection the head doesn't look all that realistic. Still, it really freaked me out because I wasn't expecting it! For a split second I actually thought there was a body right below me.
On top of the coffin was a label stating that it was used in Odd Fellows initiation proceedings. I wonder how it was used, because this thing was seriously scratched! There are some interesting metal details on the coffin.
There's the standard All Seeing Eye symbol, what looks like a beehive, and then IOOF or The Independent Order of the Odd Fellows. I just looked up the beehive symbol and read that is associated with the Rebekah Lodge, which is the female counterpart to the fraternal organization. The lily is also associated with the Rebekahs and there is a Fleur de lis at the top of this. So this may have been used in a ladies initiation ceremony!