Local writer’s new book literally secret

By TOM JOZWIK - Special to TimeOut

February 18, 2016


The Masons, the Manson family, the Mafia.

All three 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.”

The 300-page,  recently published book, targeted primarily to institutions such as colleges and libraries, is also available to the public via “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.’”

A lifelong 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.

In days 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.

Freemasonry 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.

“Christianity 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.”

The fact 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.

Manson “was trying to trigger the outbreak of a race war in America,” Luhrssen said.

Luhrssen 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. 

“Secret Societies and Clubs” also considers the Ku Klux Klan, the Molly Maguires, Scientology and other organizations.