29 December 2013

Fact, Fiction or Malarkey?

Conspiracy theories run rampant in fraternal societies and similar organizations. Hollywood loves them, fictional authors expand them, and there are certainly those that believe them to be 100% true. I am not here to say they are or they aren't, but I do want to follow the correct path of research, and for me, its important to weed out the ludicrous.

Cloister Conspiracy by Philip Jackson
Image: WikiMedia.org

I am way too much of a “common sense” type person to fall for the very outlandish. At some point over time, I guess much of the more radical stories and ideas that have been presented about fraternal organizations could have been truth, but I have a hard time believing that all individuals in a particular group participated and practiced every ritual and ceremony in exactly the same way. We are human, after all, and have a tendency to change things up a bit. (You’ll note I’m being fairly vague about the specifics. I will leave the process of finding these theories of conspiracy up to you, but you've probably heard them once or twice. A simple internet search will give you a very good idea of what I’m referring to here.)

It does seem appropriate in this endeavor to go straight to the source, and that is what I will continue to do as a researcher when investigating these organizations. They are, by nature, secret societies; some of the information they hold within their ranks, and is not to be shared. That is actually ok with me. I guess if I wanted to know every detail, I would have to join (but then I’d be sworn to secrecy too, and wouldn't be able to work on the organizations in the manner I have been…)  Admittedly, knowing it all would mean that some of the appeal would be lost.

Finding the information you need as a genealogy focused researcher is not difficult, but can be a bit time consuming (some of you have asked, and yes, I’m still waiting to hear back from the Shriner’s in Denver regarding my ancestor I inquired on). The social history aspect of the research can be done fairly efficiently, depending on how much you want to know. I have found a few sites that have proven to be very helpful, and have included a few of them here for you. Depending on which society you are investigating, you may or may not find similar resources.

The Masonic Lodge, especially, as a whole seems to have recognized the need to “educate the masses,” and although some of the above list is really designed for current members, they can be helpful to the outsider as well. Other organizations may not have the operating expenses, personnel, volunteer base or other needed tools to share to this extent. When that is the case, consider turning to your local library for more.

I am lucky in that I am very close to the Denver Public Library and its Western History and Genealogy department. A quick search in that repository provides me with material from the Elks, the Slavic Fraternal Lodges of Crested Butte, I.O.O.F., Knights of Pythias, Templars, Masons, and more.

If you do not have a collection of this nature in your neighborhood, try reaching out to other facilities through WorldCat to see what might be available via inter-library loan. You just never know.

On the flip side, I do think it is also important to be aware of the fluff. You need to be able to readily identify the fiction from the facts, and that is why I make a point to read some of the more mainstream publications, over the academic ones. I recently picked up a copy of a book on Freemasons, even though I knew that the reviews of the text were essentially all negative. I need to be able to see the ridiculous - the malarkey - and this seems to be an easy way to keep on top of the latest theories and angles.