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Throughout history, men and women have gathered behind closed doors in pursuit of a shared ideal. They might have used unexpected methods to get what they wanted. Some attempted magic, others turned to violence. Many, in fact, got caught and persecuted for the things that they did. Yet still, secret societies continue to meet in private today – perhaps there’s even one in your hometown, too.

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20. Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World

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The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World first cropped up on the scene of secret societies back in 1868. But then, just over three decades later, a pair of African-American men weren’t permitted entry into the club’s ranks. With that, they formed their own organization. And fittingly, they called it the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World.

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The founders of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World ended up creating a club that would become central within black communities during the segregation period. It was, apparently, one of the only places that African-Americans could gather. As society started to integrate, however, the order’s relevance faded. But they still fund scholarships, participate in parades and host community events today.

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19. Freemasons

So many rumors surround the Freemasons. This makes sense, really, considering how old and storied a secret society it is. The organization emerged in Europe in the midst of the Middle Ages, a time when craftspeople were arranged into regional guilds. It wasn’t until 1717, though, that the Freemasons morphed into its current iteration, as four branches from London joined together and subsequently expanded to the rest of the continent and the Americas.

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What started as a fraternity for craftsmen is now a bit more mysterious to non-members. The Freemasons is ostensibly about charity work and social networking. However, rumors swirl that the group is plagued with bullies, nepotism and a refusal to change with the times. People also suspect that the Freemasons have a secret handshake, but they won’t show it to anyone outside of their six million members.

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18. The Molly Maguires

An organization made up of Irish immigrants in 19th century America – that sounds innocent enough. But the Molly Maguires had sinister aims that the all-male membership carried out while dressed as women – hence the name. In the 1870s they completed their most notorious job of all, assassinating 24 higher-ups working in the Pennsylvania coal mines.

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The Molly Maguires had their hand in arson and threat-making, but it was the two dozen murders that finished them off. A mole infiltrated the group, leading to the arrests and eventual conviction of 20 members. All of them received death sentences. As time has gone on, some remember the Maguires positively as dedicated to labor and unions despite their unforgivable crimes.

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17. The School of Night

London in the late 16th century set the scene for some of humankind’s greatest writers to create their life’s work. But they didn’t spend all of their time at their desks with pens in hand. Instead, some authors gathered as the School of Night, a society that explored atheism and alchemy, all illegal subjects of conversation at the time. In fact, if you didn’t believe in God at the time, you could be burnt to death.

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Playwright Christopher Marlowe – the top tragedy writer of his time and inspiration to Shakespeare – was said to be a member of the School of Night. He faced charges for writing a text deemed to be heretical, but before his trial he died under suspicious circumstances in 1853. After that, no one knows what happened to the School of Night.

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16. Order of the Temple of the East

The Order of the Temple of the East used the Freemasons as its inspiration, but it operated on a completely different belief structure. OTO leader and occultist Aleister Crowley taught members the tenets of Thelema, an ideology he created himself. He incorporated mysticism, contributing to some very strange rituals performed by the society – supposedly to this day.

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A gathering of the Order of the Temple of the East incorporates two components – gnostic mass and magic ceremonies. The former mimics Catholic mass, although attendees don extravagant get-ups to worship. And then there are the rituals, which range from conjuring spirits to tantric love-making and encouraging out-of-body experiences called astral projections. Perhaps even more surprising, the society still exists today, although the locations of their lodges remain largely unknown to non-members.

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15. The Calves’ Head Club

To understand The Calves’ Head Club, you need to brush up on English history. King Charles I married a Catholic French princess in 1626, a union that angered his Protestant subjects. In response to rising opposition, he dissolved Parliament and incited civil war in England. Headed up by Oliver Cromwell, Parliamentarians defeated the monarchy and by 1648 Charles I was facing charges of treason. The following year, his head was chopped off.

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The highly controversial Calves’ Head Club came to be after Charles I’s execution. On the anniversary of his slaying, the group would gather for a grotesque celebration of his demise. Members would first decapitate a calf – a representation of the former king – then prepare it and eat it. Their behavior was treasonous to the monarchy, which returned to power in 1659. Eventually, the Calves’ Head Club disappeared, with the last record of its existence dating back to 1734.

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14. Bilderberg Club

It all started in 1954, when 11 Americans traveled to the Hotel de Bilderberg in Oosterbeek, Netherlands. There, they met with 50 people from 11 western European nations. Among the attendees, apparently, were a prime minister, a royal and a one-time CIA leader. But no one knows why these people gathered in the first place – or why they continue to do so.

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The roster of Bilderberg Club attendees has only ever been leaked to the public in a privacy breach. Naturally, such secrecy has made for many conspiracy theories about the organization. Some people wonder if the group gathers to plan for world domination, or even to sway the global economy. Still, though, no one can say for sure.

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13. Priory of Sion

Some say that the Priory of Sion is a myth, while others totally believe this secret society exists. Either way, legend has it that the group formed to complete a very important mission. That is, they had to protect the alleged ancestors of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, who ended up in France.

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A leaked dossier uncovered at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris cites the Priory of Sion’s location. This document, however, traced back to a man named Pierre Plantard, who may have wanted to trick people into believing in the organization – and that he was a direct descendant of Jesus himself. Experts tend to believe that his claims were false.

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12. The Rosicrucians

The glossed-over tale of the Rosicrucians goes something like this. Founder Christian Rosenkreuz traveled from his native Germany into the Middle East so that he – a mystical philosopher – could gain esoteric wisdom. His studies gave him greater perspective on the natural world and the universe at large. Upon getting back home, he wanted to share it all with others. This led him to set up the Fraternity of the Rose Cross.

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Sinister claims about the Rosicrucians have plagued the group since its foundation in the 15th century. Rumor has it that the organization wants to incite worldwide change by using occult methods. As such, conspiracy theorists believe that the Rosicrucians are behind just about any of history’s modern uprisings, as well as the founding of other prominent secret societies.

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11. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – often shortened just to the last two words – began gathering in 19th century London. Group members shared an interest in the occult, magic and mysticism. If that sounds familiar, it’s no coincidence. Some say that Golden Dawn was the precursor to other supernatural-focused groups, such as the Order of the Temple of the East.

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Controversial documents from Golden Dawn have emerged over the years, supposedly exposing the organization’s secret rituals. Someone leaked text related to the group’s magical practices, which seem to have their roots in Rosicrucianism. However, there’s lots of debate as to where these documents came from, so no one really knows what the Golden Dawn gets up to behind closed doors.

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10. The Knights of Malta

It’s time for a break from the occult or magical secret societies. The Knights of Malta – founded in the year 1048 – had noble aims from the start. Members would take care of anyone making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, regardless of the person’s faith. And the Pope ordered them to aid any Christians who needed protection along the way.

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Nowadays, the Knights of Malta have a much different focus. Its 13,000 members across 120 countries focus on charitable causes in general. In other words, no longer do they solely make the way to Jerusalem safer. Considering their focus on charity, it makes sense that Nelson Mandela was once part of the organization.

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9. The Black Hand

History buffs may be familiar with the work of the Black Hand. In the early 20th century, this revolutionary group hoped to bring together the Slavic people into a single country. To do this, they’d need to break Serbia free from the rule of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, which had earlier taken control of the small country by annexation.

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The Black Hand decided to free Serbia from Austria-Hungary through war, but they didn’t plan for the conflict they created. Their plan was supposedly to assassinate Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which Gavrilo Princip did in 1914. Right away, the monarchy declared war on Serbia, but each country’s allies decided to join in, and this inter-country war soon became World War I.

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8. Order of Gimghoul

Peter Droomgole, a University of North Carolina student in the mid-19th century, inadvertently inspired the start of a very creepy on-campus society. He vanished from campus in 1833, and legend has it that he died after losing a duel. Not only that, but his body is said to be entombed on the school grounds.

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In the student’s honor, this secret society first called itself the Order of Droomgole, but changed the last part to Gimghoul to sound a bit scarier. The group – comprised of students and faculty – supposedly meets on campus at a very creepy, enshrouded castle on campus. Photo evidence of their activities seems to show satanic references, making them even more off-putting.

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Image: Pictures of Yale clubs and societies (RU 692). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.

7. Skull and Bones

It’s no secret that some of the brightest minds in the country end up studying at Ivy League institutions. And Yale University just so happens to be one of the most selective. Therefore, the amount of brilliance packed into the school’s secret Skull and Bones society should be enough to scare the rest of us.

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No one outside of Skull and Bones really knows the purpose of this society, but there are plenty of theories. Some say that the Bonesmen – who have gone on to become Supreme Court justices, CEOs and presidents – might influence the CIA or strive for global control. Making things even creepier, the group meets in a building called the Tomb, a building without windows.

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6. The Grand Orange Lodge

The Grand Orange Lodge drew its name from William of Orange, the Protestant king who defeated Catholic king James II and took over as ruler of Scotland, England and Ireland in 1689. Almost 200 years later, the Northern Irish Protestants still reveled Orange’s leadership. So, they formed the Lodge to better protect their fellow worshippers.

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Had Lord Lieutenant of Ireland George William Frederick Villiers not thrown his support behind the group, the Grand Orange Lodge’s aims might have flown under the radar. You see, Ireland had always been a Catholic stronghold, so having a leader support a Protestant society ruffled some serious feathers. Nowadays, the Orange Order still exists.

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5. Veiled Prophet Organization

A long time ago, business executive and one-time Confederate soldier Charles Slayback had an idea. In 1878 he gathered fellow St. Louis businessmen to build his own secret society. He wanted his city to have a festival like New Orleans did with Mardi Gras. They just needed a reason to party – and the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan could be the reason for the fete. This was a mystic based out of St. Louis – or, at least, that’s what Slayback decided to tell people.

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In reality, the Veiled Prophet story was just meant to be an excuse to celebrate – and to mask negative social realities. At the time, laborers demanded socioeconomic equality and fair working conditions. So, the citywide gathering would perhaps appease them while exalting the elite’s way of life. Perhaps surprisingly, the Veiled Prophet Organization still has parties to this day.

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4. The Hashshashin

In the 13th century, a small group of Shia Muslims split from a larger group of their religion’s practitioners because wanted to create a utopian state. Yet they didn’t have the manpower to make their vision a reality. So, the secret society had to use much more shocking methods to get what they wanted.

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The Hashashin made a name for themselves by staging political assassinations, as well as by sending spies over enemy lines. But these operatives had great discretion – enemies would wake up with daggers on their pillows and notes warning them of impending death. Eventually, though, the group was squashed by the Mongols.

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3. Knights Templar

Things started out well for the Knights Templar. They had a simple mission when founded in the 12th century – protect Christians as they traveled to the Holy Land. Templar Enlistees had to vow to a chaste lifestyle, which meant they couldn’t swear, gamble or drink anymore. Perhaps this left their heads clear enough to come up with a most lucrative idea. You see, the Knights opened a bank where people could deposit money at home and take it out when they arrived to their pilgrimage destination.

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Once the Crusades ended, the Knights Templar decided to set up in Paris and make their banking business the main focus of their operation. However, they made the mistake of denying King Philip IV of France a loan, so he had some society members arrested and tortured. The Knights began making false confessions, implicating themselves in depraved acts. So, the French monarch had dozens burnt to death for their supposed wrongdoings.

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2. The Knights of the Golden Circle

The Knights of the Golden Circle first formed because they wanted the United States to take over the West Indies and Mexico. However, the Civil War kicked off in 1861, and the society’s members switched gears. They sided with the Confederacy, so they started organizing themselves into guerrilla armies and ambushing Union soldiers.

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Interestingly enough, the Knights of the Golden Circle had a bigger impact in Union states, where people pointed the finger at anyone who seemed to sympathize with the south. Even President Franklin Pierce faced accusations of being a secret member of the organization. Despite everything, though, none of the Knights’ aims ever came to fruition.

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1. The Illuminati

The Illuminati formed on May 1, 1776, bringing together the era’s most forward-thinking politicians and intellectuals. Unlike many other secret societies on this list, the Illuminati didn’t require its members to believe in any sort of deity. This made it a popular society amongst non-believers. Their inclusion made people wonder if the group actually formed to get rid of religious organizations.

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The Illuminati was eventually outlawed, and it subsequently crumbled internally when a new leader had to replace its founder Adam Weishaupt. But some believe that the society didn’t actually collapse in the late 1700s. Instead, they believe the Illuminati still operates – and controls all of the governments dotted around the globe.

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