Secret societies have an enduring appeal and they’ve prompted speculation about their motivations and influence for a long time. Why are they secretive? What powerful people are members, and how does their membership affect their decisions? Popular fiction and movies frequently base their plots on groups like the Freemasons or Illuminati or other shadowy organizations.
But secret societies aren’t entirely serious all the time. The item depicted above* is a compilation of three separate pieces of printed ephemera dealing with TRIAEOAOF: The Rhode Island Association of Economical and Odd Fellows (also known to detractors as The Rascally and Ignorant Abominable Officious Evil Arrogant Odd Fellows).
The top item is a brief (but typographically fascinating) announcement of a Saturday evening meeting in 1826. It employs backward type, upside-down type, and type of varying sizes to express either chaotic whimsy or a parody of secretive encrypted messages:
It is attached to the second item, a “circular” providing more details about the event, which must have been an interesting affair if it followed the description here:
The final item is a ticket to the meeting, filled out for Pardon Miller. The 1826 Providence city directory lists Miller as a watchmaker located at 47 Cheapside**. The directory also lists a John Wilder, who is described as an inn-keeper at 18 Market Square, which is presumably where the event was held.
According to a memoir of the period, TRIAEOAOF was founded as a debating society in 1825 and took upon itself the mission of properly celebrating historical anniversaries such as Washington’s birthday.*** Apparently the group’s members were drawn from Providence’s most important and powerful citizens, and the group was able to exert real influence in state politics.
Although similarly named, TRIAEOAOF apparently bore no relation to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, which also later operated in Providence. The Odd Fellows Directory**** of 1845 offers a brief history of the organization, which wasn’t founded in Providence until 1829, three years later than the item discussed here. Outlining the founding of the Rhode Island IOOF—a much more serious and religiously-focused organization than TRIAEOAOF, to gauge by the Directory—the author describes “a strong prejudice which was felt toward all secret societies”, and the IOOF was forced to close between 1832 (only three years after their founding) and 1843.
RIHS collections include much more material related to organizations like these, including the papers of the Rhode Island branch of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
* Broadsides-G1157, 1826
** He is also listed in James Gibbs’ “Horologic Rhode Island Visited.” Bulletin of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors 14 (1970): 807. His brief biography includes mention of his being a first lieutenant in the Militia.
***Almon Danforth Hodges, Almon Danforth Hodges and his neighbors: An autobiographical sketch of a typical old New Englander. [T.R. Marvin & Son, Printers], 1909. Pages 153-6 detail the founding of TRIAEOAOF and its activities.
**** B. F. Moore, The Odd Fellows Directory. Providence: B. F. Moore, 1845. HS 969 .R4 O3 1845.