5. The Thule Society
Rudolf Hess, Arthur Rosenberg, Adolf Hitler (rumored)
Lots of secret organizations are suspected of having malevolent ulterior motives, but the Thule Society is one of the few where such suspicions have been proven. The group was unofficially started in Germany just after the end of WWI. It began as a kind of German heritage group that dabbled in the occult, but it quickly transformed into an organization that sought to forward the ideology of the Aryan race, and it took an outwardly racist approach toward Jews and other minorities. The group soon boasted over a thousand members, and even had its own propaganda newspaper. In 1919, members of the Thule Society formed a political organization called the German Workers’ Party. A young Adolf Hitler became a member, and eventually took over the party, which would later become known as the National Socialist German Workers’, or Nazi, party.
Even before the Thule Society became a vehicle for Nazism, the members were involved in some pretty bizarre activities. The strangest was the group’s fascination with the Aryan race, whose origins they tried to trace back to the mythical land of Thule, which the Greeks had claimed was found north of Europe near Iceland and Greenland.
4. The Sons of Liberty
Paul Revere, John and Samuel Adams, John Hancock
The Sons of Liberty is the name for a loosely organized group of dissidents that existed in America prior to the Revolutionary War. The group did not exist as a secret society in the traditional sense; rather, it was made up of smaller factions of patriots from across the colonies that united in support of a common goal. When they did meet, it was usually in Boston around an elm tree that has since become known as the Liberty Tree. It was here that the group would formulate their resistance, which included the dissemination of pamphlets and even some sabotage and terrorist activity. This behavior led to the British branding the Sons of Liberty as seditious, and they were often referred to pejoratively as “The Sons of Violence.” The group is most notable today for sowing the seeds of revolution among the colonists with their protest of the Stamp Act, and for coining the now famous phrase “no taxation without representation.”
The Sons of Liberty in Boston were the most famous arm of the group, but there were factions spread out all across the 13 colonies. One group in Rhode Island looted and burned the British trade ship Gaspee in protest of unfair trade practices, while others were known to tar and feather British loyalists. Still, the most famous event engineered by the Sons remains the Boston Tea Party in 1773, when members of the group dressed as Indians and dumped shiploads of overtaxed tea into Boston Harbor.
3. Skull and Bones
George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, John Kerry
Ivy League Colleges are known for their many secret societies and student organizations, and of these Yale’s Skull and Bones is probably the most famous. The society taps new students for membership every spring, and the only real prerequisite for membership is that the initiate be a campus leader. As such, athletes, members of the student council, and fraternity presidents are often considered. Skull and Bones counts among its membership U.S. Presidents, Senators, and Supreme Court Justices, which has lead many to argue that the group works as some kind of underground organization for the high-powered political elite. There is no denying that the club is well funded: an alumni organization called the Russell Trust Association bankrolls its activities, and the group supposedly owns an island in upstate New York.
Skull and Bones’ membership is no longer kept secret, but their practices still are. The order meets twice a week, but just what goes on at their meetings has never been revealed. To the disappointment of conspiracy theorists, what rumors have come out are relatively innocuous. The group has supposedly taken part in a number of pranks, and was once even sued by chairman of the Apache tribe, who claimed the Bonesmen were in possession of the skeleton of Geronimo. Beyond this, the group is known for allegedly forcing new members to relate their sexual history to the rest of the society, and for giving out nicknames to each initiate. In a widely reported rumor, President George H.W. Bush was supposedly known as “Magog,” a name given to the Bonesman with the most sexual experience.
2. The Illuminati
Goethe, Ferdinand of Brunswick, many others rumored
In popular culture and the realm of wild and weird conspiracy theories, no secret organization has become as well known as the Illuminati, who have made frequent appearances in books, movies, and television. The group as it is popularly understood is more or less a myth, but the legend of it dates back to a real organization that existed in Germany in the late 1700s. At the time, the members of the group presented themselves as an order of enlightened free thinkers. The press soon turned against them, and they came to be regarded by many as an underground force of dissidents intent on overthrowing the government, and they were even blamed for inciting the French Revolution. The group disbanded shortly thereafter, but their influence remained strong, and for years after their dissolution they were rumored to still be operating somewhere in the shadows.
Thanks to its constant presence in popular culture, the Illuminati have continued to be feared to this day. Modern conspiracy theorists have asserted that the group survived and now operates as a sinister shadow government, directing world industry and politics as it sees fit. The Bush family, Winston Churchill, and President Barack Obama have all been named as prominent members, but no legitimate evidence of such a group has ever been uncovered. Still, the rumor lives on as one of the most popular, albeit bizarre, of all conspiracy theories.
1. The Freemasons
Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, James Buchanan, Bob Dole, Henry Ford, Ben Franklin
Although they are less influential and secretive today than they once were, the Freemasons remain one of the most famous fraternal organizations in the world, with a membership somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 million. The group was officially founded in 1717, but documents relating to its existence date back to the 1300s. It was originally created to be a brotherhood whose members share certain key philosophical ideas, among them a belief in a supreme being. The group stresses moral uprightness, and as such many of the chapters have become known for their charitable work and community service. Despite these seemingly harmless practices, the Freemasons are not without their critics. Conspiracy theorists have long targeted them for supposedly being involved in nefarious occult practices, and there have even been whole political groups based around opposition to the group. Churches of all denominations have also criticized the organization, as its moral teachings and esoteric spiritual beliefs have been said to be in competition with more traditional religion.
The Stonecutters, a secret society featured on the Simpsons is based on the Freemasons.
With its huge membership and different lodges scattered across the globe, modern Freemasonry no longer has the same universal principles as it did in the old days. One practice that has remained constant is the method for induction. Initiates must be recommended to the group by someone who is already a Mason, and once a member they must pass through three different degrees of standing before reaching the level of “Master Mason.” Members also have certain prescribed modes of greeting one another, including handshakes, gestures, and passwords, and non-masons are always banned from attending meetings.