One of the three largest fraternal secret societies of late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century America, the Knights of Pythias were the brainchild of Justus Rathbone, a Michigan schoolteacher who came to Washington DC during the American Civil War. As early as 1858, after watching John Banim’s play Damon and Pythias about the brotherly loyalty of two members of the Pythagorean Brotherhood in Italy in the sixth century BCE, Rathbone began drawing up plans for a fraternal order based on the legend. Rathbone was a Freemason active in the Royal Arch, and also belonged to the Improved Order of Red Men, one of the oldest purely American secret societies; he used elements of Masonic and Red Men practice in shaping his new order.
Rathbone finally succeeded in organizing the first Pythian lodge, Washington #1, in 1864. The order’s early years saw almost continual political struggles between Rathbone and several other founding members, and Rathbone resigned and rejoined his order several times. These quarrels failed to slow down the explosive growth of Pythian knighthood, though, and by the end of the nineteenth century the Knights of Pythias had become the third largest fraternal secret society in the United States, just behind the Freemasons and Odd Fellows.
In 1869, the Supreme Grand Lodge received a petition from a group of African-American men in Philadelphia for a lodge charter, and rejected it. Similar petitions were rejected in 1871, 1878, and 1888. This was a period when African-Americans, under the protection of post-Civil War laws, were pressing for some degree of equality, but most of the social institutions of white America closed doors in their faces. The result, as with several other fraternal orders, was the birth of a separate African-American branch of the Knights of Pythias, which remained in existence well into the twentieth century.
The Knights’ relationship with their own ladies auxiliary was equally complicated. Proposals for a Women’s Rank were circulating in the order from 1868 onward, but the Supreme Grand Lodge refused to create one. Eventually, in 1888, an entirely independent ladies auxiliary named the Pythian Sisters was founded. Relations between the Pythian Sisters and the Knights were strained in the early years, and in 1894 the Sisters had to change their name to “Rathbone Sisters” to evade an attempt by the Knights to eliminate them; the change was not reversed until 1904.
These confusions did not keep the Knights from trying to stay at the cutting edge of the fraternal world. The rise of fraternal benefit societies after 1868 inspired the Pythians to create a new branch, the Endowment Rank, providing fraternal insurance to Knights. Like many benefit societies, it failed to match income to expenses, and was replaced by an ordinary insurance program run by the Supreme Grand Lodge. Somewhat more successful was the Uniformed Rank, a quasi-military branch founded in 1878 to compete with the Masonic Knights Templar and other uniformed degrees. Splendid in black uniforms and white plumes, the Uniformed Rank appealed to Civil War veterans and provided color at a time when fraternal secret societies commonly marched in civic parades. Like other uniformed degrees, it faded out after the First World War and was defunct by the 1950s.
Like most of the fraternal secret societies of nineteenth-century America, the Knights of Pythias reached their peak in the first decade of the twentieth century and declined thereafter. It still exists at the time of writing, and has lodges in approximately half the states of the US.
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