A few years ago, I was researching a story about Seattle-area Masons for The Stranger. Problem was, there wasn't a whole lot there: The Masons I interviewed were nice guys who joined a group looking for an excuse to hang out with other men. The esoteric rules and history and rituals provided a common bond, an icebreaker for the members to talk about. It seemed sweet, old-fashioned, and interesting, but not really interesting enough to hang a story on.
The title of Adam Parfrey and Craig Heimbichner's new book—Ritual America: Secret Brotherhoods and Their Influence on American Society (Feral House, $29.95)—certainly indicates a sexy underside to Masonlike groups. But those in search of childish factoids supporting a world-dominating conspiracy will come away disappointed. Ritual America is much more interesting than that: It's a beautifully illustrated exploration of the importance of brotherhoods, for good and ill.
Rather than a single direct narrative, the text in Ritual America is arranged magazine- style, with different "articles" focusing on different secret societies and various sidebars detailing the secret prayers, songs, and oaths members were required to memorize. You will find salaciousness—like any decent history, Ritual America is lousy with murder, hate, sex, and religion—but it's not Dan Brown–style melodramatic junk. These are the actions of generations of men who joined fraternities in order to feel less lonely. Occasionally, terrible things happened. More often, they just spent time with their friends, trying to be less bored.
Ritual America is packed with photographs of schlubby guys wearing the aprons and faux-ethnic uniforms of their societies; one photo of nerdy white men wearing feather headdresses and faux-buckskin outfits as part of a Native American–themed society (the treasurer went by the title "Collector of Wampum") sits atop a chapter titled "Improved Order of the Red Men Not for Red Men." And there are other, more zany pursuits, too: The photo of three men dressed as babies in bonnets and diapers on their tiny Shriner motorcycles, once seen, cannot be forgotten. This is what people do behind closed doors.