Secret societies remain inconspicuous in the ledgers of global history. In America, a few secret organizations played significant roles in shaping the country’s evolution. These societies, comprised of national visionaries and public figures, harnessed a power that, for years, remained behind closed doors.
As the truth of these organizations slowly leaked out, it became clear they provided a backdrop to some of the most important movements in American history.
The Jekyll Island Club
Background and origins
For 50 years, the Jekyll Island Club remained the most exclusive recreational society in America. The club boasted a membership of notable titans of industry, including J.P. Morgan, William Vanderbilt, and Cyrus McCormick, the father of modern agriculture.
When plantation owner Newton Finney first organized the purchase of Jekyll Island, a patch of land just off the Georgia coast, he intended to attract a group of businessmen who could use the island as a resort. Finney intended recreational hunting to be the foremost attraction, even hiring a gamekeeper to stock the island with pheasants, turkeys, and deer.
The Formation of the Federal Reserve
Perhaps the most interesting component in the rich history of Jekyll Island Club remains its role in the formation of the Federal Reserve. As the American banking system continued to display a large degree of volatility, particularly following the Panic of 1907, a group of wealthy bankers stole away to the island — under the guise of pseudonyms — to restructure the system.
Senator Nelson Aldrich, chairman of the National Monetary Commission and fresh off his two-year study of European banking operations, assembled this group of the banking elite. Together, they devised the first draft of legislation to create the U.S. Federal Reserve on Jekyll Island in 1910.
Throughout their stay on the island, they operated in total secrecy. They departed New York in a private railcar, rode hundreds of miles south in the dead of night, and utilized code names during their entire stay on the island. Even the servants on the island remained unaware of the dignitaries to whom they attended.
In the end, the Jekyll Island Club hosted one of the largest banking reorganizations ever — and solidified its place in the legacy of backroom talks throughout American history.
Skull and Bones
Origins and Roles of Undergraduate Societies
In 1832, a schism confronted the debating societies of Yale, prompting William Huntington Russell and Alphonso Taft to form the first senior undergraduate secret society called Skull and Bones. Further examination into the events preceding the club’s formation revealed Russell’s rejection into the prestigious academic society, Phi Beta Kappa.
Skull and Bones gave rise to many undergraduate secret societies that followed in its footsteps. Often attaining membership in these societies represented the central goal for those attending university. The connections made in these circles could solidify a student’s lifetime prospects in American business.
The Legacy of Skull and Bones
To this day, Skull and Bones remains rooted in conspiracy. The secret society garnered blame for events as diverse as the creation of the nuclear bomb and the Kennedy assassination — although these credits remain largely unsubstantiated.
According to an article in Time Magazine, “Bonesmen have, at one time, controlled the fortunes of the Carnegie, Rockefeller and Ford families, as well as posts in the Central Intelligence Agency, the American Psychological Association…and some of the most important firms in the world.” The number of Skull and Bones alumni in prominent positions of authority hints at the inner workings of such an organization, revealing the power these secret societies can wield.
The Culture of Journalism Finds a New Home
In the late 1850s, Bohemianism continued to take root in large American cities, cultivating a flourishing culture of journalists. After the American Civil War galvanized many citizens into joining the military, the culture of the fourth estate became temporarily disbanded.
In 1872, journalists hoping to share a mutual interest in arts and culture founded the Bohemian Club in the Bay Area. Journalists served as primary members in this exclusive society, though over time, it opened its doors to artists and musicians who joined as honorary members.
While membership at times waned over the years, this club featured such honorary members as Richard Nixon, and William Randolph Hearst, the media mogul whose life became the basis for the film, Citizen Kane.
Today, it operates two locations in California, with the primary clubhouse located in the Union Square district of San Francisco. Like many secret societies, this club united people of common interests, and the Bohemian Club sought to unite men with an interest in the arts.
Ultimately, secret societies provided a forum for like-minded individuals to discuss contemporary issues — and in some instances, plan and execute radical reformations.
Because the general public may never know the full influence of secret societies in America, we’ll always thrill at catching a glimpse behind the curtain of silence.