What Elks, Moose, and Shriners have to do with a fake guillotine and a goat on wheels.
Freemasonry was born out of medieval craft guilds — working men distinguished by their freedom, not bonded into serfdom, indenture, or slavery. Their ceremonies and regalia were legendary, and their initiations mimicked harsh entries into religious order, initiations which might involve ritual humiliation, pain, or fear. Masons were primarily aristocratic, and if not wealthy, then at least refined. The fraternal lodges of the Elks, the Shriners, the Woodsmen, and the Moose, to name a few, offered a more casual form of brotherhood. Developed with masonic screeds in mind, they populated small towns and suburbs and its provided its members with a reason to get together once or twice a week. What they did each week was up to the members, sometimes they provided food and drink, more often they would debate bylaws and initiation fees (the lodges were originally developed to provide insurance for injured workers). Things could get a little sleepy.
Enter the DeMoulin brothers and their wonderfully strange DeMoulin Brothers catalogs, collected by New Yorker cartoonist Julia Suits in her new book, The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions. In 1892, a Woodsman lodge member asked his friend Ed DeMoulin to make him something that would really shake up dull lodge meetings. DeMoulin owned a local factory that manufactured uniforms, flags, patches, hats, seating, upholstery, and regalia of all kinds, and he was also at heart a trickster. When the Woodmen asked him to come up with a set piece that would really impress and scare the newly initiated, he delivered something darkly delightful: The Molten Lead Test, a flaming pot of seemingly boiling metal that turned out to be nothing more than mecurine powder dissolved in water (an element still not without its hazards). The pledge was convinced he was being burnt with hot lead, and the lodge would laugh uproariously at his misfortune.
The catalogs were only published for thirty years, from the 1890s to the 1930s, but in that time the DeMoulins developed hundreds of patents for some of the most popular and bizarre lodge gags. With membership of nearly 35 million at its peak, almost every fraternal lodge in America, from the Elks to the Shriners to the Moose, ordered from the DeMoulin catalog. Members kept their activities a secret, especially when it came to the two rowdiest forms of lodge fun: initiations and side-work, which were pranks carried out for no reason in particular.
The motives were the same as any college fraternity hazing: to scare, humiliate, and confuse the pledge. A lodge could order any number of devices to humiliate, including spanking machines, trick telephones, wobbly floors, and something called Throne of Honor, in which a pledge is led up a set of stairs transformed into an embarrassing slide. Lodges also enjoyed scaring the initiated half to death with trick coffins, fake guillotines, and dangerous-looking saw mills, as well as inflicting some real pain by zapping him with all manner of electric devices: the electric cane, the electric tunnel, the electric bench, or the electric shovel. Some of the offerings were just plain weird, including several variations on a wheeled goat, a lodge favorite that would be ridden in parades.
As good-natured as most of the pranks were, sometimes they went too far, injuring the initiated. The New York Times reported a prank gone wrong at a 1898 Woodmen meeting:
Plaintiff was blindfolded and subjected to several slight electric shocks. He was thrown off balance and fell hands down upon the magneto battery itself, receiving a shock which rendered him unconscious.”
A treasure chest of curiosity and a history lesson in dark humor, The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions is equal parts bizarre and delightfully bemusing, an essential piece of pop culture’s ritualistic paradigm and a rare glimpse of twentieth-century Americana.