For many of us, the term secret society conjures a pretty specific image: Wealthy men gathering in smoky rooms to manipulate the levers of world power, or possibly to do magic. Masks or robes might be involved. There are probably secret handshakes.
In reality, secret societies span all socioeconomic categories, from impoverished laborers to one-percenters. Some of them have legitimately altered the course of history, while others are content to empower (or enrich) their members. Secret societies have played important roles in labor organizing, influenced religious movements, plotted the downfall of governments, and helped start a World War. Others seem genuinely devoted to altruistic causes.
Here are nine secret societies that have had very real impacts on their communities, nations, and, sometimes, the entire world.
1. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
Occult societies were all the rage in 19th-century London, but none were as influential as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Founded in 1887 by a trio of Freemasons, the Order’s teachings were based on a collection of documents known as the Cipher Manuscripts, which outlined a complex system [PDF] of supposedly magical rituals. By rising through a hierarchical system of “grades,” members worked to establish a connection to their own latent divinity, or “Holy Guardian Angel.”
While many contemporary secret societies restricted their membership to men only, the Golden Dawn happily accepted women as well. Influential theater manager Annie Horniman was a member, as were prolific Scottish writer Violet Tweedale and Irish actress Sara Allgood. In the 1890s, the Golden Dawn's membership roster boasted hundreds of names, including prominent literary figures such as W. B. Yeats and Arthur Machen [PDF]; A. E. Waite, co-creator of the widely used Rider-Waite tarot deck; and famed occultist Aleister Crowley.
The group’s influence waned after the turn of the century, largely due to infighting that caused the Order to splinter into less successful factions such as the Isis-Urania and the Stella Matutina. Though its peak era lasted only a few years, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is credited with influencing the modern Wicca movement [PDF].
2. The Righteous and Harmonious Fists
Plenty of secret societies make grandiose but conveniently unprovable claims about their historical influence. But China’s Righteous and Harmonious Fists indisputably changed the course of history in 1899, when its members fomented what became known as the Boxer Rebellion.
The Fists were mostly peasants and farmers from China’s Shandong province, an area that had suffered droughts, floods, and famine in the quarter-century leading up to the rebellion. After its defeats in the Opium Wars and the First Sino-Japanese War, China’s ruling Qing dynasty had been forced to allow considerable foreign activity in the region, particularly by German and Japanese interests. The Fists, who became known as “Boxers” because the martial arts exercises they performed reminded observers of shadow boxing, resented the encroachment and blamed foreign occupiers for their poor living conditions. The Boxers first targeted Christian missionaries and Chinese Christians in the late 1890s. In 1900, the Qing dynasty lent its support to the group, and the Boxers laid siege to Beijing’s foreign district.
The group was armed with knives, spears, swords, and rifles, and they were fierce and ruthless fighters who believed their calisthenic rituals made them bulletproof. (According to the book Chinese Women in a Century of Revolution, 1850-1950 by Kazuko Ono and Kathryn Bernhardt, the Boxers were occasionally joined in battle by their all-female counterparts, the Red Lanterns.) It took an eight-nation force, including troops from America, Russia, and Japan, to quash the violent uprising. The Qing dynasty, which had ruled since the 17th century, was weakened by the rebellion. It was overthrown in 1912, ending centuries of imperial rule in China and making way for Mao Zedong and his People’s Republic.
3. The Thule Society
The Thule Society was founded in 1918 by Walter Nauhaus, a former German soldier who’d been discharged after being wounded on the Western Front, and Rudolf von Sebottendorff, a self-styled aristocrat whose real name was Adam Glauer. Both men shared an interest in the occult, but how much the group leaned into the supernatural angle is up for debate. Instead, the main tenets of the Thule Society, which took its name from a mythical Aryan homeland, focused on rabid anti-Semitism and violent right-wing nationalism.
Ultimately, the Thule Society was short-lived. Nauhaus was executed for conspiring against the Bavarian government, and Sebottendorff’s influence never recovered after members of the society suspected him of leaking Nauhaus’s name to authorities (along with the names of six other executed co-conspirators). According to British historian Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s 1993 book The Occult Roots of Nazism, the Thule Society “was dissolved around 1925, when support had dwindled.”
Much has been made of the Thule’s connections to the Nazi Party, and several members did go on to play key roles in the German Workers’ Party, which Hitler would reorganize into the Nazis. Sebottendorff himself was all too eager to write about the relationship between his society and the Nazis in his memoirs. But according to the online magazine Aeon, the idea that the Thule Society was in essence a fetal form of the Nazi party “is a product of Sebottendorff’s megalomaniacal imagination.”
4. The Seven Society
Yale’s Skull and Bones is probably the best known collegiate secret society, but for sheer drama and spectacle, none can top the University of Virginia’s Seven Society. No one knows exactly when or how the group formed, but it dates back at least to 1905, when its symbol—the numeral “7” surrounded by alpha, omega, and infinity signs—first appeared in the school’s yearbook. The society’s roster is a closely guarded secret; membership is only revealed by a banner at the member’s funeral. The group seems to be more progressive than some collegiate societies, at least in terms of gender equality. While Skull and Bones didn’t vote to allow women into the club until 1991, the identity of the Seven Society’s first known female member was revealed in 1958.
The group’s highest-profile activities are elaborately presented donations and gifts. According to the university’s Virginia magazine, the school’s 1947 commencement address was interrupted when a check for $177,777.77 floated to the ground when the smoke cleared after a small explosion. In 2008, a $14,777.77 contribution was delivered “by a skydiver carrying a large 7 flag.”
If you want to contact the Seven Society, you’ll have to get into the spirit of their famously clandestine activities. The group only accepts correspondence in the form of a letter deposited at the Thomas Jefferson statue in the school’s Rotunda.
5. The Leopard Society
Members of an animalistic cult known as the Leopard Society were allegedly responsible for a series of ghastly killings in West and Central Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the '20s and '40s, specifically, the society was blamed for a rash of murders in eastern Congo [PDF], resulting in several suspected members being executed by colonial authorities. Then in the '40s, more than 200 deaths were attributed to the cult in Nigeria, leading to the execution of 77 suspects.
Little is known about the Leopard Society, and it’s often difficult to separate factual accounts of its activities from misconceptions born of racism and colonial fears. Dressed in leopard skins and armed with metal claws, the group’s adherents supposedly attacked, mutilated, and ate their victims out of a belief that consuming human flesh and blood would imbue them with supernatural strength. But according to Dr. Vicky van Bockhaven of Ghent University and the Royal Museum for Central Africa, the murders might have had more to do with “maintaining local power relations, performing indigenous justice in secret and circumventing colonial government control.”
6. The Molly Maguires
Ireland has a long history of agrarian secret societies, including the Defenders, the Whiteboys, the Peep o’ Day Boys, and the Ribbonmen. The Molly Maguires originally emerged in Ireland in the 1840s, where they lashed out at landowners who treated their tenants unfairly. The group’s members were known for hiding their identities by wearing women’s clothing and smudging their faces with burnt cork.
Decades later, an American offshoot in Pennsylvania was composed mostly of Irish Catholic miners who were exploited by mining companies. Partly to protest awful working conditions and predatory employment practices, and partly to resist being drafted into the Union Army during the Civil War, the American Mollys allegedly struck out at their employers, assassinating 24 foremen and supervisors throughout the 1860s and ’70s.
But it was their labor-organizing activity that ultimately proved their downfall. When their efforts threatened the profits of the Reading Railroad, the company’s president sent a Pinkerton detective to infiltrate the group. After a two-and-a-half-year investigation, that same railroad president served as chief prosecutor in a series of trials that sent 20 men to the gallows. According to historian Kevin Kenny, the trials were outrageously unfair: Most of the prosecutors were railroad or mining company employees, there were no Irish Catholics on the jury, and evidence presented by the Pinkerton detective was suspect at best. John J. Kehoe, the alleged “King of the Mollys,” finally received a full pardon from Pennsylvania’s governor—101 years after Kehoe was hanged in December 1878.
7. The Black Hand
Most secret societies have a flair for drama, but the Black Hand was exactly as sinister as it sounds. Formally known as “Unification or Death,” the Black Hand was founded in 1911 by Serbian military officers. According to The Washington Post, the group’s aim was “unifying South Slavs—including Bosnians, Slovenes and Croats in Austria-Hungary—into a Greater Serb or south Slavic (Yugoslav) state.” If there were any doubts about whether the Black Hand meant to use violence to achieve that end, the group quelled them with its logo: A skull, a bomb, a knife, and a vial of poison. Members swore unquestioning fealty to the organization and promised to take its secrets to the grave.
The group was headquartered in Belgrade, where a central committee oversaw the activities of small, three-to-five-member cells. The Black Hand has been implicated in terrorist activities and political murders, but its most consequential action was facilitating the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, an event that helped start World War I. The Black Hand supplied the Archduke’s assassins with bombs, pistols, and cyanide capsules, and helped them smuggle the weapons across the border from Serbia to Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the attack took place.
There are conflicting theories about why the Black Hand wanted to kill the Archduke, or if it really wanted to kill him at all. Some believe the Serbian group saw Austria-Hungary’s 1908 annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina as an obstacle to its goal of a unified Serbian state. Others suspect the organization wanted to destabilize its own government—the leader of the Black Hand, a Serbian colonel named Dragutin Dimitrijevic (nicknamed Apis), had already butted heads with Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pasic over how best to achieve unification, and maybe Dimitrijevic hoped the assassination would bring enough international heat down on Pasic that he’d be removed from power. There’s even a popular theory that Dimitrijevic didn’t expect the inexperienced young assassins to actually carry out the deed, but hoped the sure-to-be-botched attempt would be enough to get Pasic tossed out.
Pasic rid himself of Dimitrijevic for good in 1917, when the Black Hand leader, along with two other high-ranking members, was executed for treason. The Black Hand never regained its power.
8. The African American Mysteries
Most of what we know about the African American Mysteries, also known as the Order of the Men of Oppression, comes from an 1887 Detroit Tribune interview with the group’s founder, William Lambert. He was a successful Black business owner in Detroit and a tireless advocate for Black suffrage, abolitionist causes, and public education for Black children. As the co-founder of the Colored Vigilant Committee of Detroit, Lambert helped more than 1500 freedom-seeking people escape their enslavers via the Underground Railroad. But the African American Mysteries was a far more secretive operation.
To protect themselves, members were taught special passwords and hand signals, and only two white members were reportedly ever allowed in. According to sociologist Katherine DuPre Lumpkin, the society operated for at least 10 years, and its mostly Black members were initiated “by elaborate ritual,” and “some became ‘conductors’ on the Underground Railroad.” Membership was organized into ranks with titles such as “chevalier of Ethiopia” and “knight of St. Domingo.” Lambert estimated the group’s membership at nearly 1 million free Black men and women, with 60,000 achieving its highest rank. According to Lambert, the group helped as many as 1600 enslaved people reach Canada in one year, with as many as five crossing into the country per day.
9. The Rosicrucians
Some secret societies are so effective that they’ve changed history without going to the trouble of actually existing.
According to three foundational texts that appeared in the 17th century, the Order of the Rosy Cross was founded by a German physician named Christian Rosenkreuz around the turn of the 15th century. Rosenkreuz had supposedly acquired ancient, mystical knowledge during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and formed the secret order upon his return to Europe.
To say that the manifestos were bizarre would be something of an understatement. The third installment, titled “The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz,” describes a hallucinatory journey to a magical castle to witness the marriage of two beings created from the ashes of a dead bird. The thing is, most historians agree that the organization never really existed, and the movement’s central figure, Rosenkreuz, was probably allegorical—the texts have been attributed to a German theologian named Johann Valentin Andreae, who might have meant them as a joke. (John Crowley, author of Little, Big, considers “The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz” the first science fiction novel.)
But the manifestos were taken seriously, and they inspired what’s become known as the “Rosicrucian Enlightenment.” According to British scholar Dame Frances Yates, the texts contained a synthesis of religious, mystical, and scientific thinking that inspired a new world view. The myth of the Rosicrucian order would later be incorporated into other secret societies, including the Freemasons and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.