The Bones of Secret Societies — Columbus, Indiana

Please watch the video before reading the blog.

Video:

Ever since I was a young boy I’ve had a fascination with bones. I distinctly remember traipsing the Brown County hillsides with my father finding all sorts of skeletal treasures and trying to determine what I was looking at. Even my mother contributed to my curiosity. I was in the 1st grade when she brought me home the skull of a cow, which I still have. Then there were a few experiments — the dead frog I buried in a screen that I’d hoped to exhume to a naturally cleansed skeleton. And lest we not forget, the dead bird I accidentally liquefied in my mom’s microwave in hopes of harvesting the skeleton — let’s just call that one fucked up. I like to think that my parents reflect on raising me as the adventure they probably deserved.

Undoubtedly though, my first true skeleton crush (we never forget our first, right?) was on William Lantry. Lantry is the character in Pillar of Fire, part of the short story collection S is for Space by Ray Bradbury. The basic premise is Lantry finding himself as a resurrected mess of decomposition in the year 2349, having been dead for 400 years. He wakes up to the world where all horror has been elim­inated, and he is the last corpse to still exist — the rest having been incinerat­ed. When he awakens, he feels such hatred for what the world has become that he decides to kill others so they will be like him and basically becomes what people would consider a terrorist. In the end (spoiler alert) Lantry allows himself to be killed while he exclaims that he is the last of Poe, Lovecraft and all horror that ever existed.

Some people will find Lantry the villain, and some will find the opposite. Like many people who feel like they do not belong in their society, Lantry didn’t ask to be what he is or part of a world that dislikes it. The story asks the read­er to think about a world with no fear and no mor­bidity and whether that is truly a world worth living in.

Which brings me to my other skeleton crush. The skeleton I found 11 years ago tucked away in an old Knights of Pythias lodge shrouded by mystery and secrecy. The impact this find had on me still lingers to this day. The Pythian society itself played into it too. What was the purpose of needing human bones for your club? Definitely gives an arcane feel to the intentions behind it. Or as I look at it now, maybe it was more member hazing versus magick? But this is all coming from a guy who escaped a cult, and I definitely don’t see value in fraternities, sororities, Freemasonry, Odd Fellows or the Knights of Pythias. But, then I once microwaved a dead bird, so…

Let’s drop the metaphysical hat for a minute — the bigger mystery remains. Let’s not think about this skeleton as being a haunted object. Let’s think about it as being someone’s family member. So reminiscent of finding animal bones in the woods as a kid and wondering what it belonged to. I see a human skeleton and wonder who it belongs to. Is there any way to determine its age (it’s very old) or gender? And with the advances of forensics in 2020, maybe even find its descendants? So if anyone out there has the contact or resources to help me with this project, please reach out!

Now slap back on that paranormal cap for a second. Not to say conclusively one way or the other if there’s any mojo attached to my fragile friend here, but much like William Lantry, people who research the paranormal often find themselves pondering matters on the fringe of society’s comfortable norm — such as, how would it feel to be hidden away in darkness if you had a consciousness? Like the last articulated skeleton on earth hidden away from the eyes of all passers-by who cower when presented with reminders of mortality? Maybe you’d develop a chip on your clavicle? Of course I’m just being creative and speculative — secret society or not, I think the way America manages and reacts to death is generally abysmal. But maybe that was the objective of the Knights of Pythias with their use of skeletons in their ceremonies? A stark reminder of your pending doom — so don’t be an asshole with the time you have left and the gifts you have wrapped up in your mortal coil.

It’ll be interesting to see if anything ultimately develops from my new bony tenant. Weird or not, I’d love to see it have a respectable conclusion. Regardless, I don’t see this being a long-term relationship, but who knows? And I’m happy to report it’s not illegal to own one and that remaining groups like the Pythians no longer use the real kind in their rituals. Maybe they feel haunted by that practice too?

— Evel Ogilville

Washington/Sixth street block

(Also known as Odd Fellows block)

Columbus, Indiana

Historic Timeline

Block of largely 19th-century commercial buildings with historic occupants commonly offices, furniture stores/rooms, barbers, tailoring, meat markets, grocery/bakeries, drugstores/pharmacies, fraternal organizations, apartments

• Northeast corner, known as Odd Fellows Building, built circa 1893

▪ Land purchased by Victor A. Schnell in 1874.

▪ 601-605 – included furniture stores/undertaker (i.e. Hoover, Davidson & Henderson), Great A & P Tea Company, Kroger Grocery

• 605/5½ – International Order of Odd Fellows hall/temple

• Odd Fellows purchased property in 1889; one of original Masonic lodges in city.

• “At a meeting of the Odd Fellows lodge it was decided to build a new three-story building on their lot at the corner of Washington and Sixth streets. Plans to be adopted will be unlike any other three story building in the city, and it will be very fine.” (The Republic, 6/16/1891)

• “Work of remodeling the old Odd Fellows building at Sixth and Washington street in order to convert the second floor to lodge use as well as the third, is now under way.” (The Republic, 6/9/1911)

▪ among current: offices, condominiums

• 607-609, circa 1891

▪ 607 – included tailor (Nienaber), florist (Barnaby), Citizens Telephone Co., furniture/undertaker (i.e. Everroad, Davidson & Henderson), Music Center, Kroger Grocery and Baking Co., hardware/stove store (Virden), restaurants (i.e. Ruder’s, Reeder’s, Swan), pawn shop, apartment, chiropractor, pharmacist, fruit house (Robison)

• among current: La Mode 607 salon

▪ 609 – included drugstores (i.e. Fehring, Harms, Johnson & Wiley)

• among current: w/ Industrial Design, offices

• 611-615, circa 1895

▪ Rolla Lodge K of P (Knights of Pythias) No. 17/K of P Hall

• Purchased from Elizabeth Rebennack in 1930.

• Local lodge established 1871; “grown to be a strong, robust man, full of vigor and enthusiasm in the prosecution of the fraternal work of Knighthood.” (The Republic, 12/23/1891)

• “The citizens of Columbus and Bartholomew County have an opportunity to prove their loyalty by getting behind Rolla Lodge No. 17 … Rolla lodge was the first to start a movement for a state Pythian home.” (The Republic, 4/14/1922)

▪ included Hawaiian School of Music, confectioner/baker, physician, furniture (i.e. Springer, Buchanan and Jones), barbers (i.e. Kellum, Rebennack, Holloway), electrical (Santisteban)

• “The Buchanan and Jones furniture store on Washington Street has an extensive expansion program under way … built on its present store in the K of P building. The firm has also leased the room adjoining the store on the south which is now occupied by the Wininger pharmacy.” (The Republic, 2/2/1946)

• among current: Hoosier Sporting Goods

• 617-619, circa 1890

▪ included Labor Hall, barber, real estate, printing, plumbers, beauty shop

• 621-627, circa 1890

▪ included meat market, furniture, grocer, hardware, Goodyear Service Store, Sears

▪ among current: Kirr Marbach & Co LLC, Blue & Co

• 629 – Bassett Building, circa 1910

▪ included physicians, dentists, insurance, real estate, loan office

▪ among current: Strand Associates

• 639 – among current: Zen Fitness

• 641-645 – Charlotte Building, circa 1925

▪ included physicians, dentists, insurance, utilities, tire/battery company

▪ among current: Reason & Co Beauty Lounge

Corner of Sixth and Washington streets (The Republic)

Furniture stores in funeral trade

Historically furniture stores and funeral homes often operated under one roof. Many cabinet makers were sent off to study and specialize in the art of embalming. As their education increased, these undertakers became highly specialized at their trade.

• “Furniture and Funerals”: Furniture and undertaking businesses often combined in those days. (The Republic, 3/20/1935)

• “When a death was reported he embalmed the body, after which he made the coffin for the funeral. The (Davidson & Henderson, 601-607 Washington) firm continued in business as undertakers and furniture dealers … removed their location to the Odd Fellows building.” (The Republic, 3/23/1915)

• Davidson and Henderson furniture store and undertaking business occupied the entire lower/second floor that has since been divided into store rooms. Embalming and casket preparations were completed in a rear room with an entrance on Sixth Street. (The Republic, 1/22/1972)

1893 advertisement (The Republic)

Previous Catholic church site

East side of Washington and Sixth streets, then north end of city limits, original site of St. Bartholomew’s, city’s first Catholic church built in 1841, named for patron saint that is also name of county’s namesake. Church later purchased property to south in 1874 with existing house used as rectory. In 1879 two-story brick schoolhouse constructed. Church, school and rectory remained on Washington Street until new church constructed on Sycamore Street in early 1890s.

• “The last religious services were held in the Catholic church on Washington Street. There yet lives a mother or two in this city who 40 years ago led their small boys to this building through a path, which is now Washington Street, walking under the shade of forest trees overrun by the wild grape vines so common in this locality in those days. Many were the struggles of this small congregation to pay for and support their church.” (The Evening Republican, 4/25/1891)

• The first little frame church stood on Washington street near Sixth. 50-foot-square lot purchased north of Sixth; building then considered among the largest. (The Republic, 4/30/1941)

▪ Church building located near current site of Odd Fellows building.

• Father Vincent Bacquelin visited church monthly until death in 1846 from injuries suffered in fall from horse while visiting sick parishioner in Shelby County. (The Republic, 4/30/1941)

• In 1855 school started, lasting three years. First parsonage built in 1865 with designation of St. Bartholomew’s as a parish. (The Republic, 5/28/1971)

• “Transformation from church to business properties”: The church was the center of the property. A brick house on the corner at Sixth was the home of the priest, the Rev. Andrew Oster in the 1880s. (When new church built at later location), half-block sold (1899) in parcels. Howard Duffy bought the ground with the frame house on the alley … and built 2-room store. The corner portion of this church property was acquired by the Odd Fellow lodge. Other buildings on half-block erected soon after construction of the buildings on the alley and corner properties. (The Republic, 1/22/1972)

1886 Sanborn map

‘Old Catholic Cemetery’

Wilson Street Catholic Graveyard (Catholic Cemetery), 10th and Wilson streets, second cemetery for St. Bartholomew’s Catholic Church from 1841-1883 until reached capacity and “all” graves and markers relocated to Garland Brook Cemetery. (findagrave)

• Anne Farrell listed in 1843 as first person buried in Catholic cemetery, then said to have been located near 10th and Wilson streets.

• “As the boring for natural gas in the old Catholic cemetery is such a ‘grave subject,’ the Citizens Natural Gas Co. have decided to sink their well in the south part of the city.” (The Republic, 5/6/1887)

• “It will be remembered that some time ago the old Catholic cemetery was removed from within the city limits to what is now known as Garland Brook. Some days ago a man, who has never been exactly satisfied regarding the removal of his family, came here and commenced to dig in a spot where they were buried. A part of the remains have been exhumed.” (The Republic, 11/28/1890)

• Creepy Things Are Unearthed: “Some grewsome (sic) finds are being made in the vicinity of Wilson Street between Ninth and Tenth streets where city workers are excavating a city water main. Bits of caskets and burial boxes unearthed. No bones discovered but believed ashes from remains of persons dug into. “According to old-time residents a cemetery was located in vicinity where the trench is being made, and it is thought that what is being removed now from the street formed graves in the cemetery.” Some of tombstones stood as late as 12 years ago when removed by the city. (The Republic, 5/28/1925)

• “Bodies in old Catholic cemetery were moved to Garland Brook.” (The Republic, 3/20/1940)

• While plans discussed for new church location, ground south of 10th Street purchased for cemetery, now Garland Brook. Bodies that had been buried in old 10th Street Cemetery were removed. (The Republic, 5/28/1971)

Previous cemetery location also indicated in Washington/Sixth street block in vicinity of former church property.

• “Buildings extended from Sixth Street northward. The Washington Street properties remained in use until after erection of the new Catholic church on Sycamore. Possibly a few burials were made at the Washington Street site prior to establishment of the Tenth Street cemetery.” (1888 History of Bartholomew County)

• Previous property records refer to portion of block as “Catholic Cem Lot.”

Secret Societies

After Freemasonry originated from a British craft guild, the concept of the fraternity caught on quickly, with many groups forming with altruistic purposes in the 19th century, often serving as insurance companies for their members paying dues, which supported those who had hardships or a death in family.

• Washington/Sixth block buildings housed space for several benevolent and fraternal organizations, including Odd Fellows, Rebekah Lodge (IOOF), Knights of Pythias, Modern Woodmen of America, Daughters of America and Royal Neighbors of America.

International Order of Odd Fellows

One of earliest and oldest fraternal societies, thought named either for those with unusual, miscellaneous “odd trades” who joined together to form larger group – or because at time of organizing, thought odd to find people who followed noble values such as fraternalism, benevolence and charity. Promoted philanthropy and ethic of reciprocity and charity.

Knights of Pythias

• Nationwide fraternal organization formed in 1800s centered on Greek mythology and based on charity, benevolence, loyalty and friendship. Founded by Justus H. Rathbone, inspired by play about Greek legend of Damon and Pythias. First fraternal organization to receive charter (at suggestion of President Lincoln) under act of U.S. Congress. Dedicated to cause of universal peace. Three-tiered structure of local “Castles” and lodges. Pythian lodges own, support or endorse variety of charitable endeavors.

• “In the Order’s ritualistic work, every sentence has a meaning and every paragraph a beautiful and inspiring lesson. We believe that any two men, believers in a Supreme Being, meeting in a spirit of good will in an honest effort to understand each other, can live together in peace and harmony.” (Indianapythias.org)

• To become member of Pythagorean Brotherhood, certain very rigorous tests were demanded and applied, some of which are very similar to the ritualistic work of order today. The object of the organization was the moral uplifting and purification of society. Strict morality, absolute truthfulness, honor and integrity were thoroughly inculcated in the minds of its membership. (pythias.org)

Damon and Pythias (Phintias)

Phintias condemned to death for opposing the tyrant Dionysius. Damon offered himself as hostage so that Phintias could go make his farewells. When Pythias had not returned at time of execution, Damon offered to take place. At last minute, Pythias returned and embraced friend. Dionysus so impressed with display of friendship he released both men.

Lodge Rituals

Fraternal organizations often used rites and rituals passed down through generations to facilitate the groups’ shared values. Plays or rituals also performed to make word-of-mouth teachings easier to remember. These rituals often shrouded in secrecy. Symbols also used, among the most popular is Jolly Roger skull and crossbones, intended as reminder of human mortality, used by Freemasons in Europe, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias and Skull and Bones. Groups, particularly with “knights” in name, often issued members military-style garb and top-quality dress swords.

• K of P rituals follow pattern typical of deism with three degrees: Page, Esquire and Knight. Some rough-house qualities. (stichtingargus)

• “Test of Steel”: Candidates for Knight led to believe they would have to jump barefoot onto a spiked board, though the spikes were removed or rubber spikes substituted beforehand. (nationalheritagemuseum)

• Postulates for Page asked if believe in supreme being and of sound bodily health; must answer in affirmative to: “Are you willing to take upon yourself a solemn obligation to keep forever secret all that you may hear, see or be instructed in — an obligation that will in no way conflict with your creed or your conscience.” (stichtingargus)

1906 illustration (The Republic)

Use of skeletons

Odd Fellows/K. of P. initiation rites often cited as including encounters with skeleton.  

• “The creation of the lodge of the Knights of Pythias at Elizabethtown threatens a building of a closet for the fabled skeleton in the homes of some of the brave men who lately had conferred upon them the degrees of Knightly honor.” (The Republic, 8/19/1885)

• Creed hints at special initiation rite in which skeletons or bones are used to symbolize mortality. (Dayton Daily News, 9/20/2001)

• Odd Fellow applicant would be blindfolded or masked with a pair of goggles known as a “hoodwink,” which had blinds that could be open and shut; when blinds lifted, initiate would be facing a human skeleton in a room lit only by torches. (Collectors Weekly, 10/3/2012)

• “On two trestles, 12 inches high, covered by black pall reaching to floor shall be placed an open coffin which shall contain a skeleton. On the coffin shall be two crossed swords, with the hilts towards the Prelate, and on these the open book of law.” Symbolism for death and resurrection; candidate blindfolded for part of the ceremony. (stichtingargus)

• “It was supposed to remind people of what would happen to them someday … and encourage them to make life worth it while they’re here.” (Newark Advocate, 3/4/1991)

• Each chapter said a human skeleton used in a secret initiation ritual. One former member said new members held hands with the skeletons during initiation. (The Parsons Sun, 3/14/1990)

1878 Knights of Pythias illustrated

Sources of ritual skeletons

Believed not too difficult, or particularly unusual, to attain a real human skeleton, often purchased from scientific or fraternal supply companies. Usually pinned and wired like models at medical schools. Reported catalogue sources include Dominion Regalia and De Moulin Bros & Co., an Illinois company that once offered an extensive selection of fraternal hazing items such as robes and ribbons, trick chairs and fake goats, and “genuine, deodorized” skeletons. Museum now showcases unusual offerings. Today mannequins or plaster or papier-mâché skeletons used.  

• Companies said to have obtained skeletons from anywhere possible, including indigents, or those at higher levels of society who had been anxious to donate their remains for scientific study. (Los Angeles Times, 4/1/2001)

• Early 1900s advertising describes regalia and ceremonial items; coffins as “scenes” and “genuine, full-size selected specimen, set up and wired, fairly deodorized.” (The Morning Call, 1/27/2001)

• Anatomists and medical school students often resorted to grave robbing in order to obtain fresh cadavers for dissection or employed the help of resurrectionists who made living of exhuming bodies and selling to medical schools. (Ontario Archaeology)

Supply company advertisement (Worthpoint)
1894 catalogue

Literal skeletons in closets

As interest in fraternal orders waned and lodges closed, reports of unusual discoveries of skeletons and memorabilia by new building tenants and questions about whose responsibility to claim and with what to do with the remains.

• “When we bought this house there were jokes about a skeleton in the attic. It turned out to be no joke. That one is the Odd Fellows’ skeleton. The one in the coffin is Pythias.” (Press and Sun Bulletin, 11/24/1971)

• “Man Finds Skeleton in Old Church”: Purchased from Knights of Pythias; found black masks, wizard’s sticks, gavel, swords and skeleton in cubby hole above kitchen sink. (Star Tribune, 1/25/1996)

• 100-year-old skeleton found in fire ruins in Canada. “There was no foul play,” fire chief said after investigation. “The skeleton, known as Fred, was part of an initiation.” (Bangor Daily News, 4/7/1989)

• As each local chapter disbanded, shipped its skeleton to state headquarters. Since then most everyone forgot or stopped caring about the skeletons. (Parsons Sun, 3/14/199)

• In recent years, the discovery of Odd Fellows skeletons has sparked police investigations in Missouri, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Nebraska. In Oklahoma, the remains prompted work crew to flee in terror. (Los Angeles Times, 4/1/2001)

SPECIAL SHOUTOUT TO EUNICE REGINA SPECTER FOR ALL YOUR HISTORICAL HARD DIGGING!!!!!

Bottom of chair
My original photo from 11 years ago

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