Sons of malta
The Sons of Malta (also known as the Independent Order of the Sons of Malta) was a mid-Nineteenth Century fraternal organization whose initiation rites parodied more staid fraternal orders such as the Freemasons.
- Sons of malta
- Origin of the Sons of Malta
- Proliferation of lodges of the Sons of Malta
- First Grand Assembly of the Sons of Malta
- Public Reaction
- Initiation Rites of the Sons of Malta
Origin of the Sons of Malta
The origins of the Sons of Malta are obscure and contentious.
B.J. Griswold's 1917 The Pictorial History of Fort Wayne, Indiana, states, "A secret society, known as the 'Sons of Malta,' with local lodges in many of the larger American cities, was organized in 1856 by A. G. Barnett and Morton Taylor....The Fort Wayne lodge enrolled many of the prominent men of the day. It was instituted by General Stedman [sic] of Toledo, Ohio."
The entry for the Sons of Malta in the 1899 Encyclopedia of the History of St. Louis states that they were, "A mystic society, which came into existence in St. Louis in 1855, and which about the same time seems to have been represented in nearly all the larger, and many of the smaller, cities of the country. It is said to have originated in Mobile, Alabama, once the queen of mystic society cities, and to have been, in a sense, an outgrowth of Mardi Gras festivities."
An account more contemporary with the origins of the Sons of Malta, though still more than thirty years after the fact, was provided by "old-time newspaper man" Phocion Howard in 1886: "When the yellow fever for the first time became sporadic in New Orleans, when white, creole, and black by the hundreds were dying every day, A.L. Saunders continued publication of the Delta, and filled it with wit and humor so as to divert the minds from the sad visitation. And when that failed he sent his own pilot-boat over to Mobile and brought John Forsyth, editor of the Mobile Register, to New Orleans, and the two originated the I. O. S. M.—Independent Order of the Sons of Malta. Even at that early date all the South was inoculated with the idea of filibustering...Mr. Saunders has often told me that in a house on Canal street where he and Forsyth wrote the ritual for the Sons of Malta, there were then five yellow-fever corpses. Having perfected the ritual, which was as prettily written as anything could be, having for its object "the wresting from the dominion of Spain the Gem of the Antilles and setting it in the diadem of Southern chivalry," a call was published for volunteers to go to Cuba. Under this excitement of war the lower classes forgot their griefs and became joyous and happy...That was the beginning of the ill-fated Lopez expeditions..."
In assessing Howard's report of Saunders' claims, the following should be taken into account:
Ultimately, the extent of A.L. Saunders' involvement, if any, in both the Order of the Lone Star and the Sons of Malta is unclear.
It was definitely believed, however, at least after the Sons of Malta's decline, that there was a connection between the two organizations:
According to Dr. Rob Morris of Kentucky's recollections, published in 1885, that "well known newspaper man" was George D. Prentice, editor of the Lousiville Journal. Morris did not ascribe any influence of the Order of the Lone Star's initiation rituals on those of the Sons of Malta: "The older Masons of Lousiville will recall the incident of [Prentice's] initiation into Freemasonry, as I have often related them in my lectures. As a candidate he was by no means 'one of the still and smiling kind,' and in reply to 'the standard questions' propounded him on the occasion, alternately shocked the brethren and convulsed them with laughter. In this spirit he undertook to prepare that celebrated travesty of Freemasonry entitled 'The Sons of Malta' in which, with considerable originality, are sacrilegiously blended some of the most sacred tenets of the order. It became the mother of many other fraternities of the sort, until now every community has its caricature of the Ancient Craft. Long before his death Mr. Prentice saw his mistake in this organization, but the mischief was irreparable."
Dr. W. H. Brooks also indicated that Prentice was involved in the creation of the Sons of Malta: "The Sons of Malta is supposed to have been the invention of Mr. Prentice, the famous Louisville editor, and a few jolly kindred spirits. To the uninitiated public it was believed to be an order of men secretly banded together for the purpose of capturing the Island of Cuba, and the respect for the Monroe doctrine, which the members always professed, had the effect of confirming that belief.
Proliferation of lodges of the Sons of Malta
As mentioned, the November 17, 1854 Times-Picayune contained a notice for a meeting of the I.O. S. M. The December 27 edition of that paper, in reporting on the burning of the Mechanics' Building, says "The Sons of Malta lost all their effects, as did the United Laborers' Association." The January 6, 1855 edition carries the notice, "I.O. Sons of Malta.—A meeting of the Brahmin Lodge No. 1 takes place at 7 o'clock this evening" as well as a classified ad elaborating that the meeting "will take place at the Odd Fellows Hall, Room No. 3."
Thereafter, the Times-Picayune regularly carried notices for meetings of the Brahmin lodge of the Sons of Malta meetings; on August 2, 1855, they also printed "A Letter From Ocean Springs," which mentions that "the Sons of Malta are doing a flowing business" at that Mississippi coastal resort.
In October the Times-Picayune carried notices for meetings of "Pelican Lodge, No. 4," "Desambrier Lodge No. 2," "Mercantile Lodge No. 5," and the by then usual Friday notice of the meeting of the Brahmin Lodge.
Since the Sons of Malta were a secret, or at least secretive, organization, it can not be assumed that lodges made themselves immediately (or in some cases, ever) known to the public. Reports and intimations of Lodges during the early spread of the order include:
First Grand Assembly of the Sons of Malta
On June 11, 1858, The Baltimore Sun printed a report from their Philadelphia correspondent that "Arrangements have been made to hold a convention of delegates from the different lodges of the Sons of Malta throughout the United States in this city, during the next month. Delegates are expected from all parts of the Union, and from Cuba, Chihuahua,and Sonora. It is probable that over one hundred lodges will be represented in the convention. One of the objects of holding the convention is to consolidate the order, and institute a Grand Lodge for the United States, with jurisdiction over the lodges in Cuba and Mexico." The existence of lodges in Cuba, Mexico, or (as later press claimed) Europe may have been factual or may have been more of the fanciful humbuggery that was part of the Sons of Malta's standard practice.
The same correspondent for the Sun on July 19: "About three hundred delegates have arrived to attend the national convention of the Sons of Malta, which assembles in this city Monday morning next. The Mine-Ha-Ha lodge have made the most ample provisions for the entertainment of the strangers...Among the curiosities in the hall is a punch bowl presented to the Order by Cambridge Lodge, No. 1957, of London, large enough for a man to swim in.-The convention will be in session three days. The California delegates are already here. The French and English delegates are on board of the Canada, and will reach here on Monday noon. Cincinnati will send nearly one hundred delegates."
It was also reported that officers for "the Supreme Grand Council of the Sons of Malta of the United States, Cuba and Mexico" were chosen from Massachusetts, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York. The Sun's Philadelphia correspondent stated that there were 700 delegates, including a New Jersey delegation, a large number of Baltimore Sons of Malta, and "two English Lords," "Lord Derbon" and "Lord Ernest."
The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) of July 27, 1858 quoting the Philadelphia North American, "speaking of the assembling of the national convention": "In England the office of Grand Commander is held by His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge, and Prince Albert condescends to perform the less arduous and important duties of G.R.J.A. In the United States, Mr. Breckenridge, the Vice President, is Grand Commander, and Hon. S.A. Douglas is G.R.J.A. Indeed, throughout Europe the order is hailed as one of the democratic features of the age, while prince and peasant and parvenu, within its sacred precincts, meet upon a common recognition of the universal brotherhood."
The Burlington Weekly Free Press apparently took the reported membership of the Duke of Cambridge, Prince Albert, Vice President Breckenridge, and Stephen Douglas at face value, adding that "No prominent or well known citizens appear to have attended the convention, or to be among the officers of the national organization then established."
In the New York Times of July 16, 1858, their Boston correspondent reports, "Fears are entertained that the Sons of Malta are a political club...Perhaps they are, but I know nothing of them or of their doings."
Part of the Sons of Malta's ongoing humbuggery seems to have been the perpetuation of the notion that they were actively engaged in plotting filibuster expeditions, as demonstrated by the following news items:
The Sons of Malta were noted for their charitable work, of which there are numerous newspaper accounts. Especially noted was assistance provided by the Ingomar Lodge No. 1 of Memphis,, Tennessee, for the care of the survivors of the wreck of the steamboat St. Nicholas in April 1859.
"The order [of the Sons of Malta] was understood to claim an origin with the persecuted saints of the Isle of Malta in the fifteenth century, but this was doubtless nearer fiction than reality. Its precise character and object were never definitely disclosed. The public gained an impression that it was largely for the cultivation of whatever was comic, droll or ridiculous in thought, speech and action. It had sufficient membership to give a long spectral procession one night, the marchers draped in sheets, which nearly the whole town came curiously out to see." Many lodges of the Sons of Malta organized spectacular, solemn marches, often at midnight and usually followed by all night repasts by the members. Most accounts of the marches noted public enjoyment of the spectacle, but in commenting on reports of one such march in New York City, The Emporia Weekly News wrote "What the Sons of Malta are, or what all this fantastic mummery signifies, we do not know. It seems very much like a regretful look backward from civilized life towards the freedom and unreason of barbarism."
Initiation Rites of the Sons of Malta
In late 1859, the Zanesville Aurora, of Zanesville, Ohio, published an account of the Sons of Malta's initiation entitled "SONS OF MALTA. Grand Disclosures of the Ceremonies and Mysteries of the Wonderful Order. FUN AND MORE FUN." Although other extant accounts indicate that the initiation sometimes varied in particulars from lodge to lodge, this seems fairly typical:
"In almost every town and city in this country, there is a lodge of the Sons of Malta. This mysterious order took its rise in New Orleans some three or four years ago. There are two accounts given of its origin. It is said, by one account, to have originated with the army of 'Walker the Filibuster,' at the time that worthy was preparing to take Cuba. Another account says it originated during the ravages of the yellow fever, and was intended to divert the minds of the frightened people, as well as to supply a fund for charitable purposed-such as burying the homeless dead, &c.
"However it may have originated, it is not the order that outsiders take it to be; as we shall presently show.
"One of the brethren, who has been turned out of the important and secret office, the initials of which are 'G. R. J. A.,' has taken offense at the order, and communicated to us the whole proceedings--pass word, grips, signs, &c.
"When about to become a member of the I. O. S. M., (Independent Order Sons Malta,) the candidate or candidates presents himself or themselves in an outer room, where he meets a committee of officers of the Lodge, who come to him out of the lodge--room, with drawn swords in their hands, and a kind of three--barred sheet iron hats on, which hide their faces; these officers put test questions to each candidate; and any candidate who hesitates or falters is allowed to depart in peace; those who remain pay $5 each, and the committee returns to the lodge-room to report on the cases and have them balloted for.
"The funds thus raised pay the rent of the room, and the balance is expended in charities; there are no other dues, for reasons which will appear hereafter.
"After the candidates are balloted for and elected, the Grand Conductor goes out to the anteroom and escorts the candidates to the inside entrance door, where he pounds on the door with the hilt of his sword three times; the inside sentinel raises a little slide in the door-peeps out; and the chief officer from the inside asks in a loud voice:
"'What is the cause of this hub-bub?' The sentinel answers: 'Strangers coming into camp!' To which the Chief replies: 'Let 'em rip.'
"What a sight breaks upon their vision! The room is nearly dark, and is only lighted by a lamp of alcohol, which sits upon a coffin in the middle of the room, and thrown its blue, flickering light around the scene! The members dressed as our citizens have seen them upon the streets, are ranged around the room, thus: One lies upon his back like a corpse, another kneels down upon his knee beside him in the attitude of a mourner. All is still as a tomb around the room, except in the center where the coffin lies upon the bier and the pale lamp flickers upon the scene. Beside that coffin, which is covered with a pall or black cloth, marches an old man who carries a musket and bayonet upon his shoulder—an old man whose white locks of hair hang in weird and tangled masses about his neck—with his left hand he snatches unmeaningly at his hair, and then mutters to himself as he turns upon his heel with military precision and marches back and forth, passing and repassing the black palled coffin and flickering light. At either end of the coffin stands a figure draped in white from head to foot, with uplifted hands and upturned eyes, muttering lips from which no sounds issue, and nothing of the face visible but the eyes and mouth. At one end of the room sits the Chief—blazing in red and gold colors but motionless—at the other end sits a skeleton with a gilded crown upon his head; with on bony hand pointing upward, while with the other he clasps to his fleshless lips the figure of an infant-at either side of the room sits the Grand Chancellor and Recorder. Each and all as motionless as the coffin or the skeleton.
"Around the coffin the candidates march in an oblong ring, passing fartherest from the coffin an nearest to the members and officers—thus leaving the old man room to pace to and fro up and down the room. The Grand Conductor marches with drawn sword at the head, and the Grand Sergeant of the sappers and miners marches also with drawn sword at the tail of the line of candidates for initiation. Three times round the line marches—twice in painful silence, through which nothing is heard but the clanking of sword scabbards as they strike, at each step, the legs of the Conductor and Sergeant—during the third round an organ or melodeon strikes up a low, wailing, tremulous, wild, hollow tune, which is echoed back by the members in a low death song, while the old man marches more rapidly and mutters louder and louder, until as the candidates finish the last round, the G. C. (as the Chief is called) says in a deep voice, 'Peace, venerable father! Life is made up of sorrow, and the world is ripening for sorrow greater than thine! Peace! Peace! Be still thou wounded heart!' To which all the members respond: 'Peace! Peace! Be still!'--then the music stops, and the old man resumes his quiet march.
"The candidates are now arranged around the G. R., who questions them as to their motive and intentions. If the answers are satisfactory (as they always are) the candidates are conducted to the chair of the skeleton where a person hidden behind the grim figure, administers an obligation to each, which binds him from his cradle (represented by the infant!) never to divulge what he may there see and learn.
"After assuming the obligations the candidates are conducted back to the G. C. through the same scene of silence and sorrow, who gives them some advice, after which they are conducted out to the ante-room. And this ends the first scene.
"After the candidates go out and the door is closed, the members in an instant spring to their feet, light up the room, throw off their gowns, put away the coffin, &c., and prepare for fun. In the meantime the candidates are being blindfolded so that they cannot see; in this condition they are conducted to the door again by the same parties as before; the door is again rapped upon, and, this time, the G. C. says in a loud voice: 'What is it makes the alarm!' To which the Sentinel replies: 'Friends! Who will do us no harm!' To which the G. C. answers: 'Bid them, Beware! Beware! And welcome them to enter here!'
"The candidates are then led in, in single file, each holding the coat-tail of the other. In total blindness they are thus marched about the room several times while the room is lighted brilliantly. All is now silence and grins--except on the part of the candidates, who are sternly commanded to indulge in 'No Levity' They are brought to the chair of the Grand Commander, where they are asked all manner of questions touching their fitness to bear arms, to swim, to march, as to the condition of their health, teeth, &c., &c.--as to their moral character--whether they have been, or are, intemperate--whether they have overstepped the bounds of chastity, and so on. In order to get this information, one of the previously initiated heads the line and stammers out answers to the questions, gradually and painfully making himself out a mighty bad fellow. The others, who are blinded and cannot see, of course hold themselves in honor bound to speak out the whole truth in such a solemn place as they imagine this still to be--as they cannot see how the scene has changed. At each answer the G. C. says 'let it be recorded,' and the recorder sings out in a low, hollow tone, as he writes it down in a great book. 'It has been so recorded!'
"During these questions the candidates are tried to test their ability to swim, to play the drum or instruments--and it must be amusing to see staid, sober citizens lying down face foremost on the floor, and “striking out” as if swimming for dear life from Florida to Cuba, as well as going through the other feats of a similar ridiculous character. But then, each man thinks, we suppose, that he must do as all good “Sons of Malta” have done before him, and therefore he goes the whole figure.
"After enough of the above questions are asked and answered, the candidates take another solemn obligation having reference to the conquest of Cuba, which is administered to them in their blind state, while each places his hand upon a big book, which is always carried in procession, and which contains nothing but the pictures of two Jackasses, one in the prime of life and the other in a rapid decline.
"After this the candidates are told that they must retire for a moment and prepare to go through a trying ordeal, which will severely test their nerves and manhood.
"They retire, and so ends scene second.
"The candidates are now brought in one at a time, still blindfolded. Each candidate is brought in, rapidly marched around the room, double quick time, between two guards, and is them made to run up a steeply inclined ladder composed of rollers, which are set close together, and which turn under his feet at every step and make his legs fly past each other like spokes of a run away buggy—when he gets to the top of the ladder he lands upon a platform, where stand two more guards, who turn him about and tell him to sit down; he sits down, and they give him a shove down the ladder over the rollers. Without any sled, he rides this way to the bottom of the ladder, where he strikes a springing board, just as it is jerked up by two stout men, which sends him with a bound up towards the ceiling of the room-as he comes down he is caught upon the board in a sitting posture-one of his legs is then pulled about, so that he is astride the board; and in this condition he is carried around the room in a procession of the members, while drums and gongs are being beaten in a most furious manner.
"By this time the candidate, blind as he is, begins to see through the matter; and gets scared or riled according to the state of his feelings, but it is too late to stop.
"After taking him round the room on the board, the G. C. says, 'let the cavern be opened,' and at that moment the board is lowered at one end and hoisted at the other, and the candidate slides down to the mouth of a large sheet iron cylinder—something similar to the smoke-stack of a steamboat—and as he slides down a rough voice whispers in his ear, 'Crawl for your life'--following this advice, he crawls through the thing, while all hands are pounding on the outside of it with sticks—just as he comes out he is taken, again up the steep ladder of rollers to the platform at the top. He is now told to stand up, straight, and divest himself of all matter that will spoil by coming into contact with water. While he is being thus prepared for the water the members have got ready a large canvas sheet with rope all round it; this is placed behind him, and held outstretched by as many men as can get hold of the ropes; as soon as all is ready, the candidate is thrown from the platform back upon this sheet, and away he goes—up and down—no sooner down than up again—like Sancho Panza tossed in a blanket—until the members get tired tossing him, at which time he is let down upon a mattress; from which he is lifted back upon the platform, where he is set upon the top roller with his feet directed toward the bottom, an umbrella without any covering is then hoisted and given to him, in his left hand, while in his right hand is placed a cow-bell-he is told to hold up the umbrella and ring the bell, and thus sails down over the rollers into a tub, full of wet sponges, at the bottom. Here the blinds are taken from his eyes, and he beholds himself surrounded by about fifty persons, in their shirt sleeves, all laughing at him.
"At first the candidate is astonished, then he gets angry, and finally he laughs with the rest, and becomes a zealous member of the Venerable Order.
"He is then instructed how he is to get into the lodge. He is instructed to the outside door, sneeze twice and rap once; at this the sentinel raises the slide or wicket in the door, and the candidate says 'Squi,' to which the sentinel says 'Bob,' then both say 'Squibob,' and the member enters. He then advances to the inside door where he sneezes once and blows his nose and raps, at which the slide is lifted and the candidate says 'Lager,' to which the sentinel responds 'Beer,' and then both say 'Swei Glass,' and the candidate enters-proceeds to the center of the room, where he flaps his two open hands at the top of his head, after the manner of a jackass flapping his ears, and takes his seat. These signs will give admission into any lodge of the Sons in the world, if they are properly given."
According to subsequent newspaper accounts, this information was leaked by a Son of Malta named Curtis who subsequently disappeared, leading to comparisons with the disappearance of Morgan after disclosing Masonic secrets, until it was announced by Mrs. Curtis that she had revealed the secrets after undergoing the initiation in male disguise and that her husband had run off after she had revealed her identity to him: "I just whispered a word or two in his ear, and maybe he didn't pull off his gown and hood in short order, and walk home with me. He left me that night in anger and mortification, and I have not seen him since."
An additional detail given by K.Loric: "Finally, as a grand wind-up, the candidate was informed that, in view of the fact that he had suffered so many indignities and passed through such a trying ordeal, the lodge had decided to confer upon him the honorary title of G.R.J.A.—Judge, or General, or Colonel So-and-so having resigned the position in his favor. With a lengthy and florid speech...the candidate was presented with his credentials...Hastily the 'great seal' of the order would be broken, the certificate taken from the envelope and opened, when the victim would discover the picture of a jackass in bold relief..."
In January and February 1860, Frank Leslie's New York Illustrated Weekly ran a series of articles condemning the Sons of Malta as an organization encouraging immorality and published a detailed account of their initiation. This is generally considered to have dealt a fatal blow to the S.O.M.
Another cause claimed for the organization's decline was the paralysis and eventual death of George Harding resulting from his initiatory hazing at the Lafayette, Indiana: "Harding was an intensely earnest man, and took the initiation to be a serious affair; being told by the grand conductor that from the elevated railway he would be plunged into a lake, he contracted his muscles and nerved himself for the battle with the waves. When he struck the [wet] blanket the shock was too great for his nerves...His sufferings and death were the death knell of the Sons of Malta, not only in Lafayette, but throughout the United States.
A third factor is cited by The Cyclopædia of Fraternities: "When the available material at a given city or town was exhausted, Councils of the Sons of Malta naturally became dormant and ultimately died out. Existing only to initiate, they became extinct when candidates were scarce."
A National Encampment (also called a "Grand Encampment" in some newspaper reports) was held in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 15, 1860, "the object being a thorough revision of the laws and ritual of the order." Representatives from the National Encampment were received by President Buchanan: "So solemn was the scene that several portly delegates were evidently convulsed with emotion (or secret laughter), and the Union was regarded as safe. Owners of ships, stocks, States, and the Order took courage," as Benjamin Poore later wrote in his recollections.
Despite the efforts of the National Encampment, many or most S.O.M. lodges gave up their charters, if they had them, or otherwise ceased to function soon after the New York Illustrated Weekly articles appeared.
The Sons of Malta did not completely disappear immediately after the articles in the New York Illustrated Weekly, however:
The New Orleans Time-Picayune of Dec 27, 1866, reported "The Order of the Sons of Malta is to be revived in Richmond," and the Biennial Report of the Secretary of State of the State of Texas (1894) contains a listing for the Grand Lodge of the Sons of Malta in Houston, their charter having been filed with the Secretary of State on June 28, 1879. To what extent these were genuine revivals, rather than organizations inspired by the Sons of Malta's humbuggery, is difficult to determine, though at least some of the "revived" Sons of Malta used different designation for their officers than the original I.S.O.M.
A group called the Sons of Adam was established in Parsons, Kansas in 1879 by several prominent businessmen, including Masons. The order is supposed to have had the same raison d'etre as the Sons of Malta and early Ku Klux Klan. It had a "brief, but eventful career."