The history of paranoia owes much to the secret society. An unreasoning fear of clandestine networks abounds among credulous folk, who imagine a world controlled by unseen hands, whereas the truth is that most secret societies are entirely innocuous. But some are indeed extremely dangerous, as America discovered on Sept. 11, 2001.
Al-Qaida is not the only underground group to have had an impact on America. At least nine other such groups, both foreign and domestic, have shaped some aspect of U.S. history.
“Sinister,” of course, is not a label that everyone would apply to all of these groups. Some were founded by self-styled patriots with idealistic goals. But most of these groups were willing to employ violence to achieve those goals, which lent a sinister cast to their activities–at least as far as the authorities were concerned.
Among the groups that made our list are two that were composed of immigrants–the Fenians, from Ireland, and the Galleanists, from Italy–and two that were anti-immigrant, the Know-Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan. Five of our groups were based in foreign countries and five in the U.S. Two of them aimed to overthrow the U.S. government and the capitalist system. Two others were involved in plots that, indirectly, pushed America and Japan onto the path to Pearl Harbor.
Some of these groups, such as the Know-Nothings, started out as secret societies but eventually went above-ground. (That particular group got its name because its members were instructed to respond “I know nothing” if anyone asked about their secret activities.)
In compiling our list, we have excluded criminal secret societies such as the Mafia, whose primary purpose is self-enrichment. Our societies all had a political purpose. Most of them failed to achieve that purpose, but their efforts often had unexpected results.
Conspiracy theorists may be disappointed by the absence of certain groups from our list, such as the Roman Catholic group Opus Dei, which supplied author Dan Brown with the villains for The Da Vinci Code. Opus Dei really exists, but Brown’s homicidal albino monk does not. (Brown is a novelist; he made it up.) And yes, the Yale University secret society known as Skull and Bones has numbered many powerful men among its members, including America’s current president. But if world domination is the collective goal of these Yalies, they seem to have fallen short. Ditto for the Trilateral Commission.
As for the other secret societies that pop up frequently on conspiracy-minded Web sites–the Templars, the Rosicrucians, the Illuminati, etc.–most are mythical. An exception is the Freemasons, which do exist and did in fact have an impact on U.S. history, although not the kind that would qualify them for our slide show.
In 1826, a Mason named William Morgan mysteriously disappeared from Batavia, a town in upstate New York. Morgan’s fate remains unknown to this day, but at the time it was widely believed that he had been killed by fellow Masons who feared he would reveal the secrets of their lodge. This incident touched off a widespread anti-Mason movement that culminated in the founding of the Anti-Mason Party, which flourished in several Northeastern states in the late 1820s and early 1830s.
Anti-Masonry was tinged with class resentment, since many members of the social elite were Masons, including President Andrew Jackson. Fearing that an upper-class secret society had taken over the government, the hoi polloi mobilized to combat the alleged menace of Freemasonry. Bizarrely, the Anti-Mason Party rode this paranoia to power in several states. They also were the first political party to hold a national convention. But the presidential nominee they chose, William Wirt, carried only one state in the 1832 election, and the Anti-Mason Party soon dissolved.
Of course, for conspiracy theorists, the very fact that we’re leaving out the Masons (and the Templars, the Illuminati, etc.) only proves that these secret societies really do control the world, and that we at Forbes are part of their sinister cabal. To which we can only respond, “I know nothing.”
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