History

Social Clubs and Secret Societies in Early Philadelphia

December 7, 2022 | by Stephanie Feldman

A photograph from 1902 showing the Masonic Temple on Broad Street across from City Hall. | Image courtesy of Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

Across from City Hall stands the Masonic Temple, an enormous, medieval-style building. The Free Masons have gathered there since 1873. If the popular imagination were a tavern, like the ones where Philadelphians first gathered, Free Masonry would be downing Fish House Punch with the Illuminati and the Knights Templar–ancient orders with esoteric rituals and terrifying powers. In reality, while the Free Masons descend from medieval guilds, the first modern lodge was founded in 18th century England as a fraternal order–or, in other words, a social club. While the Free Masons adopted medieval-sounding ceremonies and titles, they have always served a modern purpose: fellowship and mutual benefits.

I’ve been thinking about clubs and secret societies for a while. When I first conceived of my novel, Saturnalia—about a woman navigating conspiracies in a near-future, dystopian Philadelphia—I knew I wanted to write about wealth, class, and hierarchy as much as I wanted to imagine occult rites and elite halls. Secret societies are an alluring topic, but also, I’ve learned, a hugely illuminating one (no pun intended). My novel uses fictional clubs and societies to imagine a future. A survey of Philadelphia clubs, fraternal organizations, and societies, though, comprise a history of our region. It’s a complex history, too. While fraternal orders use exclusivity as a brand, and mutual aid and political societies are often founded with narrow missions, these groups’ membership and activities reveal nuanced class, religious, ethnic, and political dynamics of early Philadelphia.

An etching from 1889 of Colony in Schuylkill’s clubhouse, Court House (later named the Castle), which was built in 1747 at Rambo’s Rock on the eastern banks of the Schuylkill River opposite of Bartram’s Gardens. | Image courtesy of Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

In 1681, King Charles II granted a royal deed to William Penn, thus founding the British colony of Pennsylvania. One year later, Penn founded Philadelphia, the capital of his colony and later the capital of the United States. But perhaps Philadelphia society began on another key date.

In 1732, a few wealthy colonists founded a club. They called it the Colony in Schuylkill and established a treaty with local indigenous leaders. They gave themselves the titles of governor, councilor, and even coroner. They built a castle near the Schuylkill River Falls and would later describe this building as “the most precious relic, in wood, our city possesses, and most precious in its associations.” Then they set about the club’s main business—not state-building, but fishing and hunting the “great quantities” of “ungovernable” rabbits, squirrels, pheasants, and other game.

Members of State in Schuylkill Fishing Club (formerly named Colony in Schuylkill) outside of their clubhouse. Date unknown. | Image courtesy of Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

These men weren’t just fisherman, or even “just” wealthy landowners. Early members included revolutionary financiers, the first president and governor of Pennsylvania, the first commander of the U.S. Marine Corps, and several founding fathers. Colonists also created the inkwell used to the sign the Declaration of Independence and the first clock to hang in Independence Hall. (Allegedly, George Washington visited the club’s castle and got seriously drunk on their signature Fish House Punch—but what Philadelphia site didn’t George Washington allegedly visit?) After the war, the club renamed themselves the State in Schuylkill and began lobbying. The very first law the independent Pennsylvania legislature passed was to benefit the club, “making the river navigable, and …. [preserving] … the fish in the said river.” Specifically, it stopped other fishermen from decimating the stock of perch, rock, and catfish in the clubs’s sporting jurisdiction.

It is tempting to imagine the other deals and contracts brokered by the castle’s hearth or the river’s shore. It is also a good reminder of how in any community, but especially in a growing city, the boundaries between political and social relationships blur. The infrastructure of early Philadelphia blurred these lines in a particular way. In the 18th century, there were no office buildings, convention centers, or even hotels. Social places were also meeting places for political and economic exchange. This is illustrated by the history of the City Tavern in Old City, founded in 1773 “for the convenience and credit of the city,” to serve as both meeting place and proof that Philadelphia was an important city on the rise. (The tavern persisted through several incarnations before ultimately closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) It became the center of Revolutionary life and organizing, a favorite of John Adams, and home to weekly dinners by the Second Continental Congress. The first American statesmen would later celebrate the first July 4 Independence Day and the adjournment of the Constitutional Convention there.

An illustration of the City Tavern from 1800. | Image courtesy of Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

The City Tavern was a public institution that hosted meetings of closed organizations, the political bodies listed above as well as other members-only clubs. Two examples are The Society for the Sons of St. George and The Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick–mutual aid societies for English and Irishmen, respectively. Their membership included elite Philadelphians, including Constitutional signatories and Revolutionary War commanders. Robert Morris, who signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution, was a member of both societies.

While we are taught to view the American Revolution as, well, revolutionary—a toppling of power, the establishment of popular democracy—we might also understand it as a conservative action. The colonial elite weren’t sharing power with the masses. They were protecting their power from the King of England. In other words, they didn’t want to pay taxes, and they wanted to control the colonies—soon to be states—themselves. So we can slide two different imaginative lenses over our visions of pheasant hunts outside the State in Schuylkill’s castle or the meetings over coffee and roasted pheasant at the City Tavern. Here are insurgents raising capital and crafting strategy to fight off the British Empire. Or, here are wealthy men creating protected spaces to meet with other wealthy men, making deals to ensure their personal fortunes.

The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, later renamed The Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and then Pennsylvania Abolition Society, was founded in 1775 at Rising Sun Tavern in Germantown. | Image courtesy of Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

In 1775, while the Founding Fathers gathered at City Tavern, a club with a decidedly insurgent mission was meeting at the Rising Sun Tavern in Germantown. Anthony Benezet assembled 24 other like-minded Philadelphians to convene the first meeting of The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. The majority of the membership was Quaker. (It was Germantown Quakers, too, who drafted the first petitions for abolition in 1688.) Benezet himself was not a Quaker. He was a French Huguenot born to a once-powerful family that lost their business to religious persecution and migrated to Pennsylvania. Here, Benezet became a poor businessman, but a passionate activist and educator, who also opened the Negro School at Philadelphia and the first public school for girls.

After a few fits and starts, Benezet’s society changed its name to the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and later the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS). In 1787, Benjamin Franklin, a favorite customer at City Tavern, became the president. Benjamin Rush, another founding father, also joined the society. The PAS found its way into elite halls. In 1787, it successfully lobbied the Pennsylvania legislature to prohibit trafficking of enslaved children and pregnant women, to outlaw the building and servicing slave ships in Philadelphia ports, and to increase fines for kidnapping enslaved people and separating enslaved families. In 1789, Franklin sent the Society’s petition to end slavery to Congress where it was tabled.

A photograph taken in 1851 of the executive board of the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society. Standing, from left to right: Mary Grew, E. M. Davis, Haworth Wetherald, Abby Kimber, J. Miller McKim, and Sarah Pugh. Seated, from left to right: Oliver Johnson, Mrs. Margaret James Burleigh, Benjamin C. Bacon, Robert Purvis, Lucretia Mott, and James Mott. | Photo courtesy of HistoricAmerica.org

The PAS and organizers for abolition reveal other aspects of Philadelphia society: communities of non-English immigrants, the unincorporated communities surrounding the city, and the Quaker character of William Penn’s Commonwealth. Indeed, the Society of Friends–the first American organization to formally condemn slavery, and an influential force in the 18th century “Quaker City”–was an important partner in PAS’s lobbying efforts. The PAS’s story also reveals that the fight for abolition is as old as slavery, older than Jefferson’s ironic declaration about the equality of men. The PAS and Benezet didn’t just fight for legal abolition, they sought to educate and uplift Black Americans. In a 1784 broadside, published in Philadelphia, Benezet expounded on not just the depravity of slavery, but the moral and intellectual equality of Africans and Europeans.

A Bishop Richard Allen, co-founder of Free African Society, from 1840. | Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian

Another partner organization was the Free African Society (FAS), founded in 1797 by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones–two formerly enslaved abolitionists and church leaders. The FAS’s members paid dues and redistributed these funds to “support one another in sickness, and [to support] their widows and fatherless children.” Most historians recognize it as the first Black mutual aid organization in the city, and the second in the country, after Rhode Island’s African Union Society. Other such societies were to follow. Some historians credit Black mutual aid societies, and their forerunners in Africa, as influential on the development of mutual aid societies across the United States.

The growth and prominence of the FAS illuminates two other important parts of Philadelphia history. First, it points to the late 18th century surge in Philadelphia’s free Black population, first from migration from rural and southern eras, and then due to the influx of fugitive slaves and Haitian Revolution refugees. This demographic shift, along with the Yellow Fever epidemic, would increase the need for and raise the profile of the FAS. It would, in time, counter racist policies by obtaining burial plots, issuing marriage licenses, and maintaining birth records for the community, becoming a kind of civic organization for this growing community.

A portrait of Reverend Absalom Jones circa 1800s. | Image courtesy of Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library

The FAS is also a window into the evolving Black church. Founder Richard Allen, a Methodist minister, held services for FAS members, which developed into the congregation of the African Church of Philadelphia, and then the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, the first Black church in Philadelphia. Allen and Jones would disagree on doctrinal matters. Allen would go on to found the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest AME church in the nation. The two men would continue to work together, along with the PAS and the Quaker Society of Friends, on their goals for abolition and legal rights.

The FAS’s story teaches us about the development of cooperative societies, the evolution of religion, and relationships across religious and ethnic communities. It also demonstrates that mutual aid is not apolitical charity, but work that bleeds into politics, whether that means direct legislative lobbying, providing rightful civic services, or compensating for economic discrimination.

This print from 1886 shows the leaders of the Knights of Labor. Terence V. Powderly, Master Workman, is at center. Founder Uriah S. Stephens is enshrined within a shield and wreath at top-center. | Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Mutual aid societies are also entangled in the history of the labor movement. In 1791, journeyman carpenters in Philadelphia went on strike for a 10-hour workday and formed a cooperative group to offer their services and maintain income during negotiations. This affinity between mutual aid and advocacy would grow throughout the 19th century and be integral to both the development of labor unions and Philadelphia history. The mission statement for The Knights of Labor, the major national labor union founded in Philadelphia, explicitly addressed its roots in mutual aid organizing. Members would aid one another and the less fortunate.

Both the FAS and Knights of Labor reveal another side of closed membership. While the Colony at Schuylkill was limited to 25 sponsored members, relying on social relationships, these activist organizations had practical reasons for mandating exclusivity. The FAS founders didn’t want to just support their community, but serve as ambassadors to white society. That required carefully assessing members’ reputations and character. They demanded members live “an orderly and sober life” and encouraged them to work as medics and grave diggers during the Yellow Fever epidemic to increase esteem in Philadelphia.

A chromolithograph depicting the the Knights of Labor standing up against employers and scabs on the cover of an issue of PUCK Magazine published in 1886. | Image: Public Domain

The Knights of Labors didn’t want to just emulate the elite. They needed to secure their safety. The group originally began as a secret society of tailors. Founded in 1869 by garment cutter and former indentured servant Uriah Stephens and six other garment workers, Stephens declared their organization “The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor.” They were explicitly mimicking the Freemasons, incorporating the mystical traditions of elite fraternal orders. 

However, this clandestine style didn’t fit with Stephens’ larger vision, which was of a labor union bridging industries to campaign for workers’ common interests. Membership eligibility shifted again, along with the growth of the labor movement. By 1880, there were 700,000 members across the United States and across most industries. Only bankers, lawyers, gamblers, and saloon owners were denied membership. The Knights were progressive, to a point, admitting women and Black members, but lobbying to stop Chinese immigration and organizing anti-Asian violent raids in the west.

The emblem of the Society of The Friendly Sons and Daughters of Saint Patrick. The mutual aid organization was founded in Philadelphia in 1771 and still has active chapters today. | Image courtesy of Falvey Memorial Library, Villanova University

Fraternal orders would proliferate throughout the 1800s. By the early 20th century, one in three American men were members of such societies. In Philadelphia, mutual aid societies with various membership requirements included the Columbus Mutual Benefit Association, the Order of Pente, the Order of Sparta, and the Sexennial League.

Most of these groups have not survived into the present. However, the Society for The Sons of St. George and The Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick still exist and are taking applications. Today, the former continues to administer aid, and the latter offers scholarships and grants. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society still exists, too. It’s dedicated to fighting racism and administers grants to improve African American life through “confronting racism, preserving African American monuments, fighting housing discrimination, promoting multicultural arts, exposing children to multicultural education, and improving the quality of race relations in Pennsylvania.”

The Union League at Broad and Sansom Streets in 1902. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

The Colony at Schuylkill still fishes, but the organization is now known as The Schuylkill Fishing Club of Pennsylvania. That makes it, according to the club, the oldest, continuously operated social club in America. The South River Club in Annapolis, Maryland makes the same claim. Other elite social clubs persist, too. On the Main Line, the only way into the Rabbit private eating club is by inheritance. The Union League, founded in 1862 and ensconced in a beautiful Broad Street building, promises “exclusive privileges” to its members, who are among the “vanguard of Philadelphia life.” I don’t know their membership criteria, but I do know that, during a lovely, recent afternoon in September, members stood outside with a sandwich board inviting passersby to learn more about the application process. The Philadelphia Freemasons are also open to prospective members and rent their medieval castle on Broad Street for weddings. In 2021, executive director Michael McKee noted, “If we were a secret society, we wouldn’t have this building prominently displayed in the middle of a major city. Either that, or we’re horrible at keeping secrets.”

The COVID-19 pandemic precipitated a new wave of organizing in Philadelphia. In a 2021 Billy Penn article about mutual aid in Philadelphia, Michaela Weinberg observed, “Unlike many kinds of nonprofit or charity work, mutual aid has a low barrier to entry. Organizers say it’s as simple as getting a group together, asking people what they need and securing those resources.” Philadelphians began assisting each other with laundry services, grocery orders, and funds for specific projects. When the City Tavern was enjoying its peak, Philadelphia’s residents numbered in the tens of thousands. Today, that number is about 1.5 million. We may not frequent the same taverns, but we do use the same hashtags.



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About the Author

Stephanie Feldman is the author of the novels Saturnalia and The Angel of Losses, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, winner of the Crawford Fantasy Award, and finalist for the Mythopoeic Award. She is co-editor of the multi-genre anthology Who Will Speak for America? and her stories and essays have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Catapult Magazine, Electric Literature, Flash Fiction Online, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Rumpus, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and more. She teaches fiction at Arcadia University and lives outside Philadelphia with her family.

5 Comments:

  1. Also Davis says:

    I was impressed with the private clubs of Philadelphia when I arrived here, and that they had survived with their own buildings. I was pleased to find it was possible to join one, which I did, the Plays and Players Club. In New York City, it was all but impossible to join clubs such as the National Arts Club or the Friars Club. Not so, here. And that’s a great thing. I also joined the Pen and Pencil Club. The main drawback was that, as private clubs, they were allowed to let people smoke indoors.

  2. Kettell says:

    You could have included the First City Troop in your list.

  3. Clifford Tobias says:

    Dear Ms. Feldman,

    I contributed info. on State in Schuylkill to this National Park Service report, Historic Context Study of Waterfowl Hunting Camps and Related Properties within Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland and Virginia (Ralph E. Eshelman and Patricia A. Russell, July 21, 2004), for which I was Project Mgr. If you would like the link to this report, please reply to me at the e-mail address I provided.

    Your well documented article does not include the exclusive Philadelphia Club on the northwest corner of 13th & Walnut Sts.

    Clifford Tobias, Ph.D.
    Historian, National Park Service (ret.)

  4. Brian Epp says:

    It is thanks to these organizations that we can still see so much of the city’s history preserved today despite all the changes it has gone through over the centuries since then!

  5. Peter Good says:

    As a native Philadelphian, I find the history of secret societies and social clubs in our great city to be fascinating.

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