Of the fraternal secret societies of late nineteenth century, few have a more colorful origin than the Fraternal Order of Eagles. In the winter of 1898, the burlesque theatres and saloons of the Lava Beds, Seattle’s notorious red light district, faced a musicians’ strike. Six prominent businessmen from the Lava Beds sat down on a pile of lumber in a shipyard a few blocks from their establishments and worked out a common strategy to deal with the strike. In the course of the meeting, they decided to start meeting regularly and, half jokingly, named themselves the Independent Order of Good Things; this name shared the initials of the Independent Order of Good Templars, one of the largest temperance orders in the country. The original motto of the Seattle IOGT was “Skin ‘em.” See Independent Order of Good Templars.
In the weeks after the original meeting, other Lava Beds business owners and employees asked to join the organization, and the idea of creating a fraternal order modeled on the Elks, another order founded by people in the theatre industry, occurred to the founders. A month after the first meeting, the Independent Order of Good Things renamed itself the Fraternal Order of Eagles. The next month saw the formation of the Grand Aerie, the national grand lodge. In the next 10 years the Grand Aerie chartered 1800 aeries across the United States, Canada, and Mexico and more than 350,000 members. See Benevolent Protective Order of Elks (BPOE).
Several factors contributed to this dramatic growth. At a time when most fraternal orders gave at least lip service to the temperance movement, Eagles aeries either met in saloons or, as they grew, purchased their own buildings with members-only bars. As private clubs, aeries could also evade the “blue laws” in many states that barred public saloons from selling alcohol on Sundays. The revenue from the private bars made it possible for many aeries to offer medical care, sick pay, and funeral benefits to their members. All these things made the Eagles particularly attractive to people in the theatre industry – the source of most early Eagles membership – and, as the order expanded, to many other Americans who faced the difficult economic challenges of the time, or who simply liked to drink in congenial company. See fraternal orders.
Unlike most fraternal orders, the Eagles continued to expand through the first half of the twentieth century. Three American presidents – Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry Truman – were members. The difficult years of that century’s second half, which saw so many fraternal secret societies go out of existence or fade to a shadow of their former size and influence, also impacted the Eagles but left the order surprisingly strong at the century’s end. The Eagles still have aeries in most American and many Canadian cities.
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006