The Real History of Secret Societies
Richard B. Spence is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Idaho. He holds a PhD in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he also taught as a visiting assistant professor. His research areas include Russian and military history, espionage, occultism, secret societies, anti-Semitism, and true crime. He is the author of several books, including Trust No One: The Secret World of Sidney Reilly and Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence and the Occult. He has also been a contributor for HISTORY®.
01: Small-Town Secrets
Get a brief introduction to the realm of secret societies you will study throughout the course, seen through the personal experience of Professor Spence in his home town of Taft, California. Often demonized by their enemies and misunderstood by outsiders, many secret societies have become the stuff of myths and conspiracy theories.
02: Secret Societies: The Underworld of History
Meet Willa Rhoads. She was 16 when she died. Her body was discovered in October 1929—five years after her death—which opened the door to a public awareness of the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven, also known as the Blackburn Cult. Professor Spence intentionally opens his course with an obscure story to introduce you to the idea that secret societies come in many forms and operate under many names.
03: The Knights Templar
Uncover the story behind The Knights Templar—a military monastic founded two centuries earlier, during the Crusades who persevered through time to become the subject of so much rumor, speculation, and outright fantasy that it’s almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. Are they guardians for a holy bloodline reaching back to Jesus and Mary Magdalene or are they secret devil worshippers? Are they connected to the heretical Islamic sect known as the Assassins or the Jewish mystics known as Kabbalists?
04: Masonic Revolutions in America and France
Secret societies do often work behind the scenes to change the world, although not often in the way the stories claim. Professor Spence looks at the secret societies behind the Boston Tea Party and Bastille Day. Understand the part that the Sons of Liberty, the Society of the Friends of the Constitution (the Jacobins), the Grand Orient Lodge, the Nine Sisters Lodge, and other groups played in these important revolutions and see how famous names such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, and additional founding fathers were involved with these—and other—secret groups.
05: Bolsheviks, Masons, and Russian Revolution
Were the Bolsheviks a political movement or a secret society? Dive into this question as you survey the rich history of governmental secret societies who combated revolutionary conspiracies with their own conspiracies. You will gain a vivid appreciation for the allure of the elite, and the power of conspiracy, showing that history is made not by the inactive majority but by active minorities—including Trotsky, Lenin, Kaplan, and others. And you’ll see that there is no better active minority than a well-oiled secret society.
06: Adolf Hitler and the Thule Society
Start with the history of the smaller secret societies that were popping up all over Germany at the end of the 19th century. Then look at how the larger societies and individuals, which have already been covered in this course, will weave through the background of Hitler's rise to power. Then explore the role that secret societies played, or might have played, in Hitler's rise; how they influenced his beliefs; and how the Nazi leader came to embrace secret-society methods for his own purposes.
07: Synarchy, Schemers, and Vichy France
The 1930s has been called “a low, dishonest decade.” It saw economic crisis, the rise of Hitler, Stalinist terror, and the general decline of democracy. Were the events coincidence or consequences? Was there a hidden hand at work undermining democratic institutions and encouraging dictatorship? And was this hidden hand something called Synarchy? Dive into the movements and events that have been tied back to various Synarchy ideas and see how it may have bled over into America with the so-called Business Plot of 1934.
08: Ancient Mystery Cults
Travel back to Ancient Greece to hear what we do know of The Eleusinian Mysteries—which are among the most ancient and prestigious of the Greco-Roman world and were guarded on pain of death. This first secret society—which had endured for almost 2,000 years, and counted among its members the likes of Socrates, Plato, Plutarch, and Cicero—ceased to exist. Or did it? After reviewing the history of the Great Mysteries of 391, Professor Spence considers if secret societies ever die or if they just change into something else.
09: The Islamic Assassins
Travel to a historic empire that stretched from Anatolia to Central Asia as you get to know The Assassins, who’s roots reach back at least as far as the beginning of Islam in the 7th century. This invisible empire was led by Hasan-i-Sabah who called his acolytes asasiyun, “the faithful.” See how “assassin”—our generic term for professional killer, especially one who commits political murders—is linked to these asaiyun, who were notably the cause of 200 years of terrorism and murder, including a chief minister, a sultan, viziers, emirs, and even a Crusader king.
10: The Medieval Cathars
Professor Spence starts with the 1244 the fall of Montsegur, which most history books note as The Cathars last stand as an organized movement. Yet, as Professor Spence demonstrates, this influential group shows up over and over throughout history. The true origins of the Cathars are lost in time, yet it's clear they didn't spring from nothing. See how The Cathars inherited and adapted much older beliefs, and how they undoubtedly influenced other groups to come.
11: The Rosicrucians
Did you know there is a secret-society theme park right in the middle of Silicon Valley? Professor Spence introduces you to The Ancient and Mystical Order of the Rosae Crucis, or Rosy Cross, or just AMORC for short. AMORC might be the first commercially marketed secret society. During the early 20th century, the mystical order’s grand imperator, H. Spencer Lewis, advertised in magazines, radio, and comics, claiming that “The Secrets Entrusted to the Few,” including skills like levitation and telepathy, could be yours for a low price and enticing the likes of Walt Disney and L. Ron Hubbard. See how this group—or more accurately, the idea of this group—wove itself throughout both history and society.
12: The Illuminati
Even if you haven’t taken notice of secret societies before, you’ve heard of the Illuminati, a group so prevalent they have been satirized by Taco Bell. Explore the roots of the 28-year-old Adam Weishaupt’s secret society—the Order of Perfectibilists, which later became the Order of the Illuminati, or, in German, the Illuminatenordern: The Order of the Enlightened. Discover how Weishaupt envisioned nothing less than “A New World,” which necessitated destruction of Christianity and all other forms of religion. Professor Spence demonstrates the goals of Weishaupt’s Illuminism, the influence of the movement—even reflected in the modern-day promises of Communism, and the famous names associated with the Illuminati.
13: The Freemasons
The Freemasons inspired and influenced many societies, so much so that many object to the idea that their group is secret. They don't hide their existence. However, they did popularize the idea of secrecy: adopting a clandestine set of identifying factors, ensuring their rituals and initiations are complicated and intimidating, and even having a term for outsiders or non-members. Discover the multiple evolutions and adaptions of Freemasons, which has helped to keep this group shrouded in mystery.
14: Ireland’s Secret War for Independence
The Irish Republican Army was a tightly organized secret society battling the greatest power on Earth, the British empire, and, after Bloody Sunday, perhaps the best known. But they were not the first secret society to practice resistance in Ireland. Professor Spence introduces you to The Whiteboys, the Peep o’Day Boys, the Orange Order, the Sons of the Shamrock, Young Ireland, the Molly Maguires, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and more—outlining the effect these secret societies had both on Ireland and on America as they migrated to the United States.
15: Debunking the Elders of Zion
Professor Spence opens the door on secret society conspiracy that permeated across countries and decades, with each iteration more complicated and bizarre than the last. The Learned Elders of Zion never actually existed, but to this made-up secret society was attributed a real-life protocol to take over the world, which caused—and continues to cause—incalculable harm and religious intolerance. Discover the deceitful origins and global impact of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.
16: Mafia! Criminal Secret Societies
We are exposed to them all the time in movies, television, and novels, so do criminal gangs really qualify as secret societies? Yes: They’re selective in membership, require oaths and initiations, and members usually advance through grades or ranks. Starting with the biggest—and most feared—all-female gang in the London underworld, Professor Spence turns a spotlight on organized crime. From the early 20th century, Thuggees of India to the modern-day Mafias that have arisen in cities all over the world, you’ll get to know the seedy underbelly of society like never before.
17: Aleister Crowley, Occultism, and Espionage
Focusing on the worldwide impact of Aleister Crowley, Professor Spence highlights the murky connections between secret societies, occultism, and espionage. Credited with being “the wickedest man in the world,” the reason America joined the war, a Satanist, the “Leader of Irish Hope,” and a number of other nefarious titles, you may be surprised to see the number of world-changing events Crowley had his hands in. Although once you discover the extent of power stemming from the secret societies he was involved with, including his turn as a spy, it may not be so surprising after all.
18: Red Octopus: The Communist International
Discover how some politically-driven secret societies have far-reaching impact, as Professor Spence dives into a period of time when America was full of Soviet espionage and clandestine communist activity. Through a number of interlinked, connected history, he demonstrates how the Communist party relied on proven secret society techniques, such as selective recruitment, rigorous discipline, and fanatical loyalty. Then note, once you start integrating secret societies inside secret societies—as the American communist party became infested with FBI informants—they can quickly wither to insignificance.
19: Japan’s Black and Green Dragons
The 1942 fictional Bela Lugosi film Black Dragons was not just a figment of a screenwriter’s imagination. The real-life group was described as a “nationalistic organization” that aimed to “inform the Japanese people of their … rights to dominate the world” and enjoyed a close relationship with the Japanese crime syndicate, the yakuza. Examine how the Black Dragons had a huge impact in pushing Japan into fanaticism, militarism, and a devastating war. Explore additional Asian-based groups, including the Green Dragons and the Genyosha (or Dark Ocean), and how they dabbled in everything from major bombings to a plan to assassinate Charlie Chaplin.
20: Italy’s Secret Government: The P2 Lodge
Propaganda-Due, or P-2 , an Italian pseudo-Masonic organization has been tied to a number of shady crimes and mysteries, including corruption, bribes, and even murder—but was made up of senior military and police officers, parliament members, journalists, and the heads of all three of Italy’s intelligence agencies. In fact, this exclusive society was rumored to be Italy’s secret government. Learn how this organization grew to include such important figures and what, exactly, its intent was.
21: From the KKK to the Black Shriners
Professor Spence turns his focus to the United States and looks at uniquely American secret societies, including the sham group known as the U. S. Secret and Civil Service Society, Self-Supporting Branch. He also covers the disturbing emergence and evolution of the Ku Klux Klan. The history of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine—or the Shriners is also covered. Discover how the secret societies that emerged during this period provided foundation for and acted as a reflection of America at the turn of the century.
22: Bohemian Grove, Bilderbergers, and Elites
Sometimes being among the 1 percent is not exclusive enough. Get to know the elite secret societies that only recruited members who were already—or would likely be—rich or influential, including the Bohemian Club, the Schlaraffia, the Sath-Bhai or Asiatic Brethren, the FOGC, the Skull & Bones Society, and more. These primarily men-only clubs are rumored to have dabbled in black arts, unusual rituals, and conspiratorial agendas. Discover which famous, influential, and prominent big names were members of these privileged groups.
23: Secret Societies for Aging Swingers
In what sounds like the start of a bad joke involving L. Ron Hubbard, J. Edgar Hoover, and Charles Manson, Professor Spence introduces you to a crazy-sounding story about Aleister Crowley’s secret society, Ordo Templi Orientis, as he debates the merits of truth around it. From there, hear some fantastical stories about UFOs, the Priory of Sion, the American Heraldry Society, the Society of St. John of Jerusalem—known as Shickshinny Knights, and other groups and events developed from hoaxes and disinformation that was intentionally designed to distract and mislead.
24: Terrorism’s Long Trail of Secret Cells
From the 1920 Wall Street bombing to the events of 9/11, see where secret societies have embraced terrorism as a mind game throughout history. Most secret orders are more or less harmless, but Professor Spence peers inside some which have used violence to further their agendas, including the Ku Klux Klan, the Red Army Faction, the Weathermen, the Symbionese Liberation Army. Professor Spence also provides an overview of the evolution of Islamic extremism.
25: Secret Societies: The Never Ending Story
Professor Spence provides some final examples of secret societies that reinforce what their common characteristics are and what their leaders are like. Taking an in-depth look at The Order—an American society of anti-Semites, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis—as well as FEAR (Forever Enduring, Always Ready), the Silver Legion of America (Silver Shirts), and others, he demonstrates how so many of these secret societies begot, influenced, or resulted in other ones, keeping the tradition going, suggesting that there are hundreds, if not thousands, more that have remained secret.
26: UFOs and the Elusive George Hunt Williamson
On the afternoon of 20 November 1952, a small group of people milled around a canyon outside Desert Center, California. Among them was 25-year-old George Hunt Williamson, an ex-military man and amateur archaeologist. Consider the possible connection between a desert cult and the UFO craze of the 1950s.