by Tom Rizzo,
author of Last Stand at Bittercreek and Heroes and Rogues
When I was growing up in a small town in Ohio, a few of us in my neighborhood started a club. The membership qualifications, or even purpose escape me now. All I remember is that membership was open to a select few.
Secret handshakes and whispered passwords were part of the ritual of belonging. The guy with the biggest yard happened to have an actual clubhouse at the back of the property, bordering an alleyway. The clubhouse was really nothing more than a shack, fashioned mostly out of old newspapers, cardboard, and a few chunks of wood, with a slanted roof. It reminded me of how frontier families might have built their homes.
As a bonus, this same family also owned the neighborhood’s only Bing cherry tree–those extra-large, heart-shaped cherries, deep maroon in color. His father considered the tree some sort of treasure, I think, because he used to warn us, on a regular basis, and without a smile: “Thou shall not steal.” Of course, it didn’t stop us from periodic, clandestine raids.
The durability of the clubhouse always amazed me, especially given the unpredictable weather patterns of the Midwest. The fact that it rarely leaked was testimony enough to the inventiveness of the family who built it – and, without advice from Mother Earth News, which didn’t exist at that time. The big advantage of our one-room clubhouse was its size. We were able to stand upright. Adults were not. This was good, because it limited their presence. After all, who wants uninvited outsiders kneeling around during high-level secret conversations?
The exact nature of our secret discussions eludes me. I do, however, remember a summer day when one of the guys floated the idea of allowing girls to join. A sudden stillness permeated the cramped, humid quarters of the Prospect Street Irregulars. We exchange furtive glances. Eyes rotated to the ceiling. The member who originally brought up the idea slumped to the floor, and shook his head in silent acknowledgement of the sheer audacity of his suggestion. No one spoke of it again.
I don’t remember many other votes that carried similar significance. Obviously, we broke no new ground when it came to equal rights, or any other political or social correctness. Our secret society was a front for fun-and-games. Among our biggest challenges: mapping a strategy to raid a Wonder Bread truck, and purloin sample packets containing two slices of bread, and a small pouch of sugar and cinnamon mixture.
Grown-ups run the real secret organizations. They exist at almost every level of society – political, collegiate, fraternal, and ethnic. Only a select few have access to the confidential handshakes, passwords, and coded language shared, usually, during some level of ceremonial initiation. Sometimes their purposes are innocent. Often, they’re evil or suspect.
Nineteenth century America had its share of secret societies, many of them controversial. Among them: the Know-Nothing Party, officially known as the American Party, grew out groups that opposed immigration. Other secret societies – the Order of United Americans, and the Order of the Star Spangled Banner – emerged with the same purpose.
In an 1855 letter, Abraham Lincoln expressed outrage at the Know-Nothings. He wrote that if the party ever won power, the Declaration of Independence would need amending to reflect that all men are created equal except for “negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” By 1850, The Know-Nothings collapsed and became extinct.
The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, in 1869, represented the first major effort to organize labor. The effort started as a secret, ritualistic society created by the Philadelphia garment workers. The organization grew slowly, but gained enough strength to state a successful strike in 1885 against railroad baron, Jay Gould. Within the following year, the group grew to a membership of one-half million, but declined, when the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was organized.
Numerous secret societies emerged in the 19th century. Among them: the Molly Maguires, and the Freemasons.
Today, hundreds of secret societies operate throughout the U.S., according to Ritual America, written by Adams Parfrey and Craig Heimbichner.
These groups span a broad spectrum of society. And, like the small secret society of my childhood, there’s a certain exclusionary nature to membership.
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Here are the story description and a brief excerpt:
A patrol of soldiers massacred...
A hidden gold shipment missing...
A priceless U.S. historical document stolen...
An undercover agent betrayed, and on the run...
For Union Army spy Grant Bonner, the war can't end soon enough. Tired of living a life of deception, he desperately wants to put his past behind him, but agrees to one last assignment.
The mission is compromised and Bonner is entangled in an intricate conspiracy. Ambushed and left for dead, he recovers only to learn his battle for survival and justice has just begun.
Accused of the cold-blooded killing of several fellow soldiers during a train robbery, he makes a daring escape and becomes the target of an unrelenting manhunt.
For some soldiers, the war isn't over, and won't end until Bonner makes his Last Stand at Bitter Creek.
"Be careful for God's sake!"
The warning came from one of the three soldiers struggling to transfer the last of five coffins from an army wagon into a railroad baggage car at the Cincinnati Railroad Station.
Bonner had taken refuge from a light rain under the overhanging eaves of the depot, and looked up in alarm to see the three men perform a kind of spontaneous dance trying to maneuver the wooden casket into the boxcar. The weight inside the container appeared to have shifted, slipped from their grasp, and slammed to the ground.
He shoved the cargo manifest he had been reviewing into his belt, and hurried over to the railcar, hoping the mishap didn't generate unnecessary attention, although he noticed a few passengers staring out their windows.
"Couldn't help it, Sir," one of the men said. "Damn thing's heavy, lieutenant. Hell, they're all heavy. No offense, but these guys must have died from overeating."
Bonner noticed the other two trade glances, trying their best not to laugh, but his mind was focused on the comment about the weight of the coffins. It was improbable all the dead soldiers were overweight—not in this army. His first thought was the gold. Smuggling it out in coffins struck him as daring, and a possibility he couldn't ignore. Somehow, he had to find a way to get a look inside those boxes. Retrieving a nearby lantern, he lowered it over the casket to check for damage.
"Lieutenant." A voice, firm and laced with authority, echoed from the darkness beyond the railcar. "Get over here. Now!"