The Secret Society That Left a Trail of Human Skeletons in its Wake

Skeletons have been known to lurk in abandoned lodges of fraternal organizations.
Skeletons have been known to lurk in abandoned lodges of fraternal organizations.
Photo by Mitja Juraja from Pexels

Cheerleading practice can be grueling, but rarely does it involve the discovery of human remains.

That changed in 2004, when the young women of the ShowMe Spirit All-Stars in Houston, Texas, were set to converge on a century-old building they had rented to use as practice space with the letters IOOF written above the door. Walking through the property, squad coaches Tabbi Ireland and Sheri Wade found a primitive security system with door buzzers and peepholes. They also discovered old robes, ancient ledgers, and books that seemed to hint at a mysterious history. The spine of one volume read: IOOF Working Rituals.

Then there were the coffins—three of them in total. Two contained fake skeletons, but the third seemed suspiciously authentic and quickly became the talk of the practices. One of the girls’ mothers asked local authorities to examine them, and their suspicions were confirmed: The specimen and its dirt-encrusted surface was the genuine article, a skeleton that would eventually prove to be of indeterminable gender and ancestry. All anyone knew of the remains was that they belonged to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a centuries-old fraternal organization.

Owing to the dirt, they also knew the skeleton was likely not acquired through conventional means. The dirt hinted it may have once been buried, and someone had then dug it up. The ShowMe Spirit All-Stars had uncovered evidence of a ritual that still exists in some form today, one that has resulted in multiple instances of skeletons making dramatic reappearances during renovations.

But why did the Odd Fellows need them in the first place?

 

Though their numbers have waned in recent years thanks to the advent of the internet, fraternal organizations were once a prominent part of American life. Freemasonry, Moose Lodges, and the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks opened chapters across the country and espoused a values system normally based around charitable acts and loyalty while bonding through arcane rituals, languages, and attire. By one estimate, 10.5 million Americans were a member of over 500 “secret societies” in 1907.

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows was one such society. The group formed in 17th century England before arriving in America in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1819, and its name has a few potential origins: It might refer to the fact that early members were tradesmen who wanted to form a trade group but had too few peers in their specialty and had to band together. Others believe it refers to the “odd” nature of assembling in an effort to be charitable, which is something the Odd Fellows pride themselves on. Helping orphans and assisting people in burying their dead were early tenets. Today, the group sponsors a professorship at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and supports the Arthritis Foundation, among other pursuits. Their symbol of three interlocking rings represents Friendship, Love, and Truth. In the early 20th century, it may have had as many as 3.4 million members.

“The IOOF or Odd Fellows is an inclusive co-ed fraternal organization with over 200 years of history that serves as the original social network and provides members a multi-faceted experience depending on what they are looking for,” Ainslie Heilich, a spokesperson for the Sovereign Grand Lodge for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, tells Mental Floss. “Lodges provide socializing with a purpose to help improve our communities while improving ourselves. Members come together to become a better version of ourselves and leave behind the frustrations of daily life while participating in meetings, socials, fundraisers, volunteering, initiations, and degree rituals. It’s a great way to learn new social, business, and life skills as well. 

“One of my Lodge friends aptly describes the experience as being like scouting but for grownups. I think it’s a little like slipping into a real life Wes Anderson movie. It’s something I didn’t realize I was looking for until I found it.”  

While good intentions were and are abundant, both the Odd Fellows and other organizations tended to have a taste for the macabre, using ritualized behaviors to indoctrinate members and cement a sense of solidarity and discretion.

Not all were harmless. In 1913, a Loyal Order of Moose ritual turned deadly when two candidates in Birmingham, Alabama, perished. Fooled into thinking that senior members were really branding them with a hot iron—the iron was cool, but a battery connection sent a sensation up their bodies—the men had heart attacks and died. A Knights of Tablor ceremony in Texas in 1916 nearly ended fatally when a member tripped and fell on a sword. He survived and sued the Knights in an act of decidedly non-fraternal litigation.

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows symbol representing Friendship, Love and Truth.smallcurio, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

While the injuries incurred during such practices invite publicity, other organizations have gone years—perhaps centuries—without disclosing what goes on behind closed doors. That was true of the Odd Fellows until the 1990s and early 2000s, when disbanded lodges and vacant locations began to be occupied by comparatively normal fellows.

In 2001, an electrician in Warrenton, Virginia, named Paul Wallace was repairing circuits in an old building previously occupied by Odd Fellows when he came across a space between two walls. Tugging on the contents, he discovered a black box. Inside was a skeleton covered in a white shroud—“like a Dracula movie,” Wallace would later recall—and alerted authorities.

The scene had been playing out across the country. In 2000, a theater worker in Missouri was offered two free caskets by a consolidating Odd Fellows lodge. One had a plaster skeleton. A second had a real one. In 2008, a man in Wayne Township, Pennsylvania, named David Simmons was helping renovate his grandfather’s home when he saw something unusual in between the floorboards of a crawlspace. Shining his flashlight, he noticed an old clock, a lantern, and some 50 bones. (Some Odd Fellows skeletons are incomplete: The human body has over 200 bones.) Other skeletons cropped up in California, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma, and Virginia, among others.

“As with all fraternal organizations, the number of IOOF members and lodges has been shrinking,” Heilich says. “The second half of the 20th century saw many lodges closing and the Grand Lodges all over the continent couldn’t keep up with clearing out and storing everything so whole lodges full of stuff were just abandoned. These traditionally downtown buildings would then be sold and as the new owners would be doing renovations they would unwittingly discover [the skeletons] long forgotten in a storage cubby."

Once authorities determined the buildings where these remains were found once belonged to Odd Fellows, the society that cherished its privacy was forced to disclose a portion of its history and detail why so many of their lodges held real skeletons—and what purpose they served.

 

Though Odd Fellows sometimes asked authorities to be discreet about their ritualized practices, details eventually began to circulate outside their closed circles.

When a prospective Odd Fellow was ready to join the ranks of the society, their initiation would involve donning a hoodwink—goggles with built-in blinds that could be open and shut. Sometimes weighed down with chains, the would-be member would be led into a torch-lit or candlelit room. When the blinds were opened, they would find themselves suddenly and unexpectedly standing face-to-face with a skeleton.

The practice, known as the Lodge of Reflection, is intended to remind members of their own mortality—that no matter a person’s wealth or stature, all wind up the same in the end.

“The skeleton serves as a ritual and symbolic 'memento mori' where we all are face mortality by looking the inevitable great equalizer in the eye,” Heilich says.

Odd Fellows kept skeletons around for initiations.cottonbro, Pexels

Heilich says the practice dates back to 1797. Lodges were able to acquire skeletons through medical supply companies or businesses that specialized in supplying the large demand for items useful in fraternal orders. One catalog at the turn of the 20th century advertised real skeletons as “genuine and life-sized” and “fairly deodorized.” Interested parties were prompted to call for a price.

While other elements of Odd Fellows rituals—like riding a goat or donning a ceremonial screen maskwere unusual but largely harmless, their practice of using real human remains gave new occupants and contractors a number of frights decades later. Inevitably, authorities would investigate the findings, determine there was no foul play, and then hand off the bones to forensic anthropologists, universities, or museums. Others received a proper burial. Two skeletons were laid to rest in Warrensburg, New York, in 2013 in a funeral funded by the Alexander Funeral Home and the Chestertown Lodge Odd Fellows chapter. Their coffins still bore the dripping wax of rituals past.

Occasionally, some will come up for sale. Two Odd Fellows skeletons found in Pennsylvania were auctioned off by the Mahoning Valley Fire Company in Mahoning Township on behalf of the Odd Fellows Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania in 2001. That practice has sometimes drawn criticism over the ethical nature of making human skeletons a commodity. There’s also been concern over a possible legal issue with the desecration of human remains, though the bones being decades old means the statute of limitations has expired.

Indeed, not all Odd Fellows bones have gone on to maintain their dignity. One skeleton belonging to the order in Pittsburgh and later sold to a prop dealer made its way into 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, with both the production and the audience unaware that the bones were the genuine article.

The Odd Fellows are still active—and actively recruiting—but sightings of their skeletons have trailed off in recent years. Still, Heilich says that as old lodges continue to be renovated, there is potential for more skeletons to pop up.

As for Houston’s Odd Fellow remains: The bones eventually wound up under the care of curious forensic anthropology students at Southwest Missouri State University. Their origin was never determined, though the dirt pointed to the fact that the skeleton may have been taken by someone—not necessarily an Odd Fellow—directly from the grave.

And what of the initiation? With skeletons literally tumbling out of closets, have the Odd Fellows found a new way of representing mortality without human remains in play?

Heilich is quick to answer. “Who said we stopped?”

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

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30 Strange Old-Timey Medical Treatments

Venesection on male patient by Cintio d'Amato, 1671
Venesection on male patient by Cintio d'Amato, 1671
National Library of Medicine, Flickr // Public Domain

Some treatments of old, like the ones in this piece adapted from The List Show on YouTube, will make you especially thankful for science and modern medicine.

1. Cure Rabies with Raw Veal

In Ancient Rome, people thought they could treat rabies. According to Pliny the Elder, a naturalist and author, anyone bitten by a mad dog should be treated by having their wound cut open and covered with raw veal. Then, the patient should eat a diet of lime and hog’s fat—and then the patient would then drink a concoction made with wine and boiled badger dung.

2. Treat Asthma with a Diet of Boiled Carrots

In Primitive Physick, or, An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases, first published in the late 1740s, British evangelist John Wesley suggested “a fortnight on boiled carrots only” to treat asthma.

3. Take Care of Heart Palpitations with a Vinegar-Soaked Rag

For heart palpitations, Wesley's treatments included “drink a pint of cold water,” “apply outwardly a Rag dipt In vinegar,” and “be electrified.”

4. Cure Toothaches with Electricity

Wesley also suggests that patients with toothaches be electrified. The idea of electrotherapy was fairly new in the 1700s, but it was used regularly until the early 1900s for illnesses like epilepsy, paralysis, impotence, tapeworms, and more. Some people just got electrotherapy for general wellness.

5. and 6. Prevent Nosebleeds with the Aid of a Red-Hot Poker or Bloodletting

To prevent nosebleeds, Wesley recommends, “hold[ing] a red hot poker under the nose or steep[ing] a linnen rag in sharp vinegar, burn[ing] it, and blow[ing] it up the nose with a Quill.”

In Wesley’s day, someone with nosebleeds might also get blood removed from another part of their body. There is documentation going back to around 200 CE recommending that someone with nosebleeds have their elbow bled. Back then, it was believed that every person had four humours in their body: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood—and any illness could be boiled down to an imbalance of humours. Bloodletting was one of the therapies that was supposed to put them back in balance. During medieval times in Europe, bloodletting was used for the plague, smallpox, and gout.

7. Treat Malaria with a Magic Word

There are a lot of strange historical treatments for malaria, but one of my favorite cures was a magical charm recommended by a Roman physician in the 3rd Century CE. Patients were told to write Abracadabra over and over on a piece of paper with one less letter on each line, until the letters formed a triangle with just an A at the bottom. Then, they had to tie the paper with flax and wear it around their necks for nine days before tossing it into an east-running stream. If that didn't work, they were supposed to rub themselves with lion fat.

8. Cure Rabies With Ground Liverwort and a Cold Bath

Back to rabies, which was a huge concern in Europe during the 1700s. There was this treatment from The Book of Phisick, written around the same time, that advised, “Tak[ing] 40 grains of ground liverwort and 20 grains of pepper in half a pint of milk ... take this quantity four mornings together, then use of Cold Bath, every other day, a month.”

9. Treat Epilepsy with a Powder Made of Hair and Deer Bones

The Book of Phisick also contains a remedy for patients with epilepsy. Cook a strong man’s hair with a deer leg-bone, turn it into powder, then eat it leading up to the new moon. (For a long time, people have debated whether the moon affects seizures. As recently as 2004, there was an article published in the journal Epilepsy and Behavior titled “The influence of the full moon on seizure frequency: myth or reality?” For the record, they found no connection between the full moon and the frequency of epileptic seizures.)

10. Cure Bible Cysts with a Dead Man's Hand

In 1743, German anatomist Lorenz Heister wrote down treatment options for Bible cysts, which appear on the hand or wrists. They included strapping a bullet that had killed an animal to the cyst or touching it with a dead man’s hand. But one of the treatments he recommended, hitting it with a heavy book, is still in use today. That’s why they’re called Bible cysts—the Bible was supposedly a good book to whack them with because it’s so big. But medical professionals probably don’t want you doing that.

11. Treat Asthma with Cigarettes

Asthma cigarettes were popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and were made with a number of toxic ingredients, including stramonium, belladonna, and tobacco.

12. and 13. Use Saffron to Sober Up—and Cheer Up

The Red Book of Hergest is a Welsh manuscript from around 1382 that contains some herbal remedies, including one to remove drunkenness that involves “eat[ing] bruised saffron with spring water.” Sadness could be cured by saffron, too, at least in moderation—according to Hergest, “If you would be at all times merry, eat saffron in meat or drink, and you will never be sad: but beware of eating over much, lest you should die of excessive joy.”

14. Cure Everything from Arthritis to Impotence with Radium

Radium was once considered a legitimate medical treatment. The ailments it supposedly cured included arthritis, impotence, and aging. The Revigator, an early 20th century crock that combined water with radium, was placed in hundreds of thousands of American households. Now we know that radium doesn't cure aging; it puts people at risk of radiation sickness. Users of the Revigator also had arsenic and lead leach out into their water, which wasn't great.

15. Treat Syphilis with Mercury

From about the 16th century to the 20th century, mercury was the primary treatment for syphilis, either eaten or applied to the body. It was also used to treat less severe illnesses, like constipation. In fact, Lewis and Clark’s men consumed so many pills containing mercury chloride that historians and archeologists can find the places where they camped just based on the mercury content of the area.

By the 18th century, doctors were aware of mercury poisoning, but they continued using it to treat syphilis—they just limited the amounts that were used.

16. Treat Hay Fever with Cocaine

Dr. Thomas Jefferson Ritter's Mother’s Remedies: Over One Thousand Tried and Tested Remedies from Mothers of the United States and Canada, published in 1910, contains many remedies that have been phased out—like the one for hay fever, which called for spraying a “four-percent solution of cocaine” up the nose. That was relatively normal back then; cocaine was prescribed for indigestion, fatigue, eye pain, and hemorrhoids.

17. Use Chloroform to Treat Asthma

The book also recommends inhaling chloroform for asthma. Chloroform, like cocaine, wasn’t an unusual treatment in the United States, where it was used as an anesthetic. We now know that it’s toxic.

18. Fix Chapped Hands with Old Sour Cream

Dr. Ritter has an interesting fix for chapped hands: Put sour cream in a cloth, bury it outside overnight, then unearth it and apply the sour cream the next day.

19. Treat Ringworm with Gunpowder and Vinegar

To heal ringworm, Mother's Remedies recommends a paste made of gunpowder and vinegar be applied to the infection. If the first time doesn’t do the trick, repeat until the ringworm disappears.

20. Use Nux Vomica for Headaches

For certain headaches, Dr. Ritter suggested mixing a drop of tincture of nux vomica in a teaspoonful of water. Today, nux vomica is best known as the primary source of strychnine, which is poisonous, and often used to kill rats.

21. Get Rid of Bruises With Powder Made From Human Bodies

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the use of human bodies in medical remedies became more popular than ever in Europe. They appeared in medicine for headaches, epilepsy, and more. Egyptian tombs and graveyards were looted for the bodies. If you had a bruise or other ailment, you were supposed to put it on your skin or turn it into a powder and ingest it via a drink. French King Francis I and Francis Bacon both used it.

22. Take Care of Colic With "Soothing Syrup"

Between the mid-1800s and early 1900s, 25 cents could get you a bottle of Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for your baby. It was advertised as a solution for colic, teething, diarrhea, and any pain. And it worked, because it contained a whole lot of morphine.

23. Use Periwinkle Flowers to Treat Cataracts

There’s one known copy of Bald’s Leechbook, a medical textbook from around the 10th century, which can be found at the British Library in London. For cataracts, it suggests putting burnt periwinkle flowers and honey in the eyes.

24. Cure Swollen Eyes with the Eyes of a Crab

According to Bald's, to treat swollen eyes, take a live crab and cut its eyes out, throw the crab back into the water, then apply its eyes "on the neck of the man who hath need."

25. Treat Swollen Body Parts with a Fox Tooth

Similarly, a live fox to is needed to heal swelling: Take one of its teeth out, secure it in a fawn’s skin, then place the skin on the swollen body part.

26. Cure Typhus Through Prayer

Typhus had a more religiously oriented treatment in the 10th century. A patient should go outside, write a prayer on a piece of paper, then hold it to their left breast.

27. Avoid Tipsiness Using Ground Up Bird Beaks

In ancient Assyria, bird beaks were ground up, combined with myrrh, and eaten. Supposedly, this helped you avoid getting tipsy, though it seems more painful than a hangover.

28. Eat Pickled Sheep's Eyes to Cure a Hangover

During Genghis Khan’s days, the Mongols ate pickled sheep’s eyes for breakfast to get rid of a hangover. The practice continues today, though the eyes are followed by a glass of tomato juice.

29. and 30. Cure a Hangover with Tea Made of Poop or Owl Eggs

Legend has it that one popular Wild West hangover cure was rabbit poo tea. Pliny, meanwhile, suggested drinking owl eggs mixed with wine for three days to get rid of a hangover.