Masons, the Manson family, the Mafia.
fall into the category of secretive entities. And all three
are among the chapter topics in David Luhrssen’s latest
book, “Secret Societies and Clubs in American History.”
published book, targeted primarily to institutions such as
colleges and libraries, is also available to the public via
Amazon.com. “I want it to be accessible,” the author said
during an early-morning coffee house interview, going on to
condense a favorite quotation from the Spanish philosopher
Jose Ortega y Gasset: “‘Clarity is courtesy.’”
Milwaukeean, Luhrssen, 55, has been attempting to provide
readers with clarity for nearly 40 years, from the time he
scored his first byline in a now-defunct alternative newspaper
as a John Marshall High School student. Having “developed an
interest in history all the way from childhood,” he earned
bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the subject at the
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He has freelanced as a
feature writer (focusing on the entertainment realm) for
various publications, has taught college-level history
courses, has worked full-time as a writer-editor and has
authored or co-authored nine books.
long gone, Luhrssen told a reporter, more people espoused the
belief that “it’s dangerous for everybody to know
everything,” fostering a climate favorable to secret
organizations. However, “we live in a society now that
values transparency and openness,” the author noted.
“Secrecy has become a bad word in contemporary culture.”
And membership in the Masons, to cite just one organization
prominent in “Secret Societies and Clubs,” has declined
markedly in recent decades.
has, according to Luhrssen, been blamed in the United States
for everything from the income tax to the Hiroshima bombing to
the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
as a whole has had a mixed response” to the Masons, Luhrssen
said. Episcopalians, for instance, have come down on the pro
side, with Lutherans and Catholics less positively inclined.
Historically, Christians in opposition presumably objected to
what they considered “very radical ideas” among some
Masons and faulted Freemasonry for “illegitimately asserting
functions that the church should have.”
is, secret societies and clubs have been responsible for, in
Luhrssen’s words, “philanthropy and community building,”
as well as “drug trafficking and terrorism.” Charles
Manson’s family would have to be positioned in the latter
category. Manson “set himself up as a prophetic leader,”
said Luhrssen. He’d been a Scientologist and was influenced
by secret societies. Manson’s initiation rituals involved
sex and drugs.
“was trying to trigger the outbreak of a race war in
America,” Luhrssen said.
enjoys incorporating popular culture in his books, and this
one, in its chapter on the Mafia, considers the first two
“Godfather” films and the television series “The
Sopranos.” The Francis Ford Coppola movies show the Mafia at
its height, Luhrssen indicated, while the TV show depicts the
Mob in decline.
Societies and Clubs” also considers the Ku Klux Klan, the
Molly Maguires, Scientology and other organizations.