It is said that space abhors a vacuum and it might be added that society does as well. Whenever men perceive a lack of leadership or organization in their lives they will band together and attempt to fill that void. Although the organization still exists today and continues to do good work the most prominent days of its history were in the last quarter of the 19th and the first quarter of the 20th centuries during which one of their number, Pat Neff, served as both Speaker of the House and Governor of Texas. They were once the third largest fraternal organization in Texas with over 30,000 members. Since they were a secret organization – i.e.; their members did not hide or skulk about but membership records were private and confidential at a time when that meant something – the exact scope and nature of Maurice Coffey’s involvement will never be completely known. What we do know is that he was a member and the organization was important in Texas – having its start in the state in Galveston – and so we will try to relate something of that history as part of our larger story.
The Knights were created by Justus H. Rathbone who relied heavily on the story of Damon and Pythias as related by the Irish playwright John Banim whose play of that name had premiered at Covent Garden Theater in London in 1821. Although the Knights appealed to many groups this play was instrumental in their appeal to the Irish and for many years was a rallying point for the order. We found the following advertisement for the play in the Galveston Daily News dated March 31, 1875 with a review of the play from April 1, 1875.
One of the largest houses of the season was present last night upon the occasion of the complimentary benefit of the Knights of Pythias. Every one knew that the performance would be a fine affair, and many availed themselves of the opportunity of being present. The Order itself was largely represented, each member of the Knighthood being known by the badge which he wore.
Banim’s great classical tragedy, entitled “Damon and Pythias,” was rendered, and brilliantly too. That part of ancient history from which is drawn the idea of this tragedy is doubtless fresh to all minds – the history of the reign of Dionysius in the Sicilian Syracuse, a reign of tyranny and debauchery – when once read is not easily forgotten. More especially in this case with the characters of Damon and Pythias, who occupied so conspicuous a part at this time. To picture to the spectator as far as possible the magnitude of soul, heroism and patriotic virtues embodied in the lives of these two Pythagoreans, as well as their trials, sorrows and tribulations, is the object of the tragedy.
Damon and Pythias are esteemed the “types of true and noble friendship,” hence appropriately follows the name of the noble order of the Knights of Pythias.
The performance last night was enjoyed for its brilliancy and potency, as well as being appropriate to the occasion. The actors seemed inspired by thoughts of the time and of the characters which they represented, as also by the large number present, and threw themselves into the spirit and temper of the play with all due emphasis.
Damon was given by Mr, Davenport in a manner replete with truthful meaning and finely effective. Mr. Mitchell also sustained the character of Pythias in a fine way and there was very little to mar the effect of the entire performance. The company closed their engagement last night.
Edward Loomis Davenport and his company had arrived at and departed from Galveston by steamer – this was a port city and it was access to the sea and the prosperity of being a port that allowed this type of entertainment to occur. He was a well-known actor whose first role had been in support of Junius Brutus Booth [father of John Wilkes Booth] and enjoyed such prominence that when he died in 1877 the New York Times carried an extended obituary including the resolution of the E. L. Davenport Club lamenting his passing. So singular were his talents that the Internet Broadway Database credits him with the lead in a production of Pudd’n-head Wilson that opened in April 1895 and ran until May.
The Knights appealed to many groups for many reasons. In addition to the Banim connection for the Irish, Galveston hosted the Humbolt lodge which was the only lodge to conduct its rituals and its meetings entirely in German. The Knights were as good as their word in their relief efforts, on August 30, 1878 the Galveston Daily News carried this appeal which would have been all the more urgent to its readers because of Galveston’s experience and frequent scares from the same deadly plague.
To the members of the order of Knights of Pythias, grand jurisdiction of Texas
Brethren; the hand of death is being laid heavily on people east of the Mississippi river, by the yellow fever scourge. Many good Knights of Pythias have been brought to early graves , and many more are languishing upon beds of suffering and want. Therefore I, R. P. Aunspaugh, grand chancellor, appeal to each and every subordinate lodge, and individual members of the order in this jurisdiction for aid to relieve our suffering brothers , whose voice may even now be calling us to the rescue. Any contributions to John R. E. Luhn, grand keeper of records and seal, at Brenham, Texas will be sent promptly to Memphis, Vicksburg or New Orleans as directed by the contributor, or where mostly needed is left optional.
During a single summer in Memphis alone, the yellow fever cost more lives than the Chicago fire, the San Francisco earthquake, and the Johnstown flood combined. The resulting quarantines, some enforced by vigilantes, wrecked havoc on trade between the ports but actually gave Galveston an edge in cotton exports. Every cure possible, including patent medicines like Dr. Tichenor’s, were tried but it would not be until Walter Reed showed the conclusive link to mosquitos that the disease was brought under control. The efforts of the Knights to render aid were substantial and aided in building a huge reservoir of good will that would help the organization grow.
In 1878 – the year after the military occupation of the South ended – the Knights of Pythias founded the Uniformed Rank which provided a fancy drill team for parades and other ceremonies and whose manual was the Army Manual of Drill. While the Supreme Chancellor of the world – “whose jurisdiction is coextensive with the world” – may have seen this as an unofficial reserve force for the nation [the Army of the Lily] others may have viewed it differently. While veterans of the Confederacy might march in parades as civilians and general officers might even be grand marshals in full regalia uniformed, armed or mounted units were not allowed.
Looking at some of the news reports of the parades we find reported on June 10, 1879 that in Petersburg, Virginia, “Memorial Day [Confederate] was observed with the usual ceremonies, including a fine parade of military and public officers… Company B, first Virginia regiment, and a uniformed division from Knights of Pythias, both from Richmond, participated in the ceremonies.” On February 24, 1880 the Galveston Daily News reports the events of the preceding day in Norfolk, Virginia, “The city was gaily decorated with bunting today in honor of Washington’s birthday… A procession composed of local military companies, cadets, marine corps, Knights of Pythias and Mexican [War] veterans, paraded the streets, under the direction of General Getty, from fortress Monroe, and presented a fine appearance.” Finally, on August 17, 1880 we have reported that in St. Louis, The supreme lodge of the world, Knights of Pythias, will convene in St. Louis August 24. Preparations for the event are far advanced, and arrangements have been made for the finest display this order has over had. The programme is quite elaborate and embraces entertainment of different kinds; several prize drills, and a grand procession, in which all local military companies will participate.
The Uniformed Rank was never a shadow Confederate Army the way that the Frederick Corps would function in Germany between the world wars – indeed there were probably as many companies made up of veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic as there were of Confederates – but it was an important opportunity to maintain ties in a quasi-military setting and to have a ceremonial display for important public events. As the veterans aged the Uniform Rank diminished, General Carnahan’s [actually his highest rank in active service was captain] dream of a great reserve army evaporated and by the mid-point of the 20th century the Army of the Lily had ceased to exist altogether.
Reading the Galveston Daily News through the online archive of the Rosenberg Library is an indispensable tool for this blog. The paper was the leading news source for the state and because it often had first access to the news its reporting was by no means limited to the island. A year’s subscription was $12.00, delivered, and for that the subscriber received a combination Wall Street Journal and New York Times full of financial, world and national news along with complete reports from across Texas. There are almost no pictures before 1900 but there is a world of information, much of it in purple prose, but probably the best single source for a composite view of Texas’s first centenary.
At what was possibly their zenith in Galveston the Knights had the Humbolt Lodge, the Island City Lodge, the Oleander Division Uniform Rank, the Oleander Lodge, the Relief Bureau, the Schiller Lodge and Section No. 278 with a combined membership of over 800 and their own Castle Hall on the third floor of the Reymerhoffer building at Mechanic and 22nd streets. The notice from the April 1, 1882 Galveston Daily News shows how active they were, with other fraternal organizations, in seeing to the obsequies of fellow members. In some ways it calls to mind Mencken’s essay on fraternal organizations where he recounts the story of the 95 pound mortician who, when fully bejeweled to plant a fellow joiner, weighed in excess of 400 pounds and sparkled like the very mouth of Hell itself.
There is an item reported in the Daily News of January 16, 1881 under the headline:
A Brutal Husband
“I don’t believe in these secret societies,” said one Galveston lady to another.
“That’s very singular,” replied the other. “your husband is a Forrester, A Knight of Pythias and a Knight of Honor, and you will have at least $10,000 when he dies.”
“But what good does that do me,” was the tearful response, “when he never dies!” And the poor creature burst into tears.
We hope the story is apocryphal however it does bring up a very important aspect of the Pythian appeal. There was no Social Security death benefit because there was no Social Security – which meant there were also no survivors benefits. There were no uniform Confederate pensions – some states eventually paid some benefits – but there wasn’t a Veteran’s Administration until 1930. People had to provide for themselves and their families in the best way they could and after the Civil War the growth of the life insurance industry for the poor and middle class came into being with many fits and starts.
In a News story dated August 16, 1881 in what almost amounts to an advertisement we find;
Albert Worth, formerly a workman at Lee’s foundry, and a member of section 278, Endowment Rank, Knights of Pythias, died June 21, 1881. Proofs of death were forwarded July 1, and August 1 Mr. P. S. Wren, secretary and treasurer of said section, received from the supreme treasurer a check on the Third National Bank of New York for the sum of $8,000 payable to Mrs. Mary Worth, widow of the deceased, that being the amount due on her husband’s endowment certificate. This is a quick settlement of a death policy.
The Knights not only allowed their members to display jewels while they lived, there is an advertisement in the News on December 9, 1880 for M. W. Shaw Jewelry offering a gold pin for $4.00 for Christmas, but they also had an insignia that could be engraved on a member’s headstone so that posterity could know of his membership.
A confluence of forces would cause problems for Maurice Coffey, and many others, with their membership in the Knights. Texas has reflected impulses typical of Protestant religion in America at large, such as the desire for a Christian Sabbath, enforced if necessary by Sunday closing laws; an effective educational system that operated in tandem with the churches to promote public morality; “temperance,” by which was meant prohibition; and an intense hostility toward Catholicism. There is always a tension in a society between any organization that preaches and teaches in terms of absolute truths and those who may not agree in every particular with the truths being pronounced. This can and has led to internecine warfare in Christianity but within a pluralistic society that declares that the tub thumpers and those who listen to the harmony of the spheres are equal under the law you have enshrined whirl as the king of chaos. The Knights and the Church would be caught up in this maelstrom.
Franklin thought of government as two wolves and a lamb deciding to dine together and defined democracy as a well armed lamb helping to name the menu. The Catholic Church in Texas was that well armed lamb defending itself both against protestant hostility and the groups in a pluralistic society that had sailed far beyond the shores of Christendom in search of enlightenment. One of the finest weapons it had in its arsenal was well-educated prelates like Nicholas Aloysius Gallagher, third Catholic bishop of Galveston, pictured at the left.
Before we go into the particular controversy we need to offer a few words on what made these prelates better educated than most of their opponents and gave them the moral authority to teach. Reflecting the demands of pluralism John Henry Newman tells us that we can believe what we choose but we are answerable for what we choose to believe. The only way to know what to believe is to be educated and here again we turn to Newman for a concise definition of what that means. “It is the education which gives a man a clear, conscious view of their own opinions and judgements, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought to detect what is sophistical and to discard what is irrelevant.”
The full account of the controversy may be found in the Galveston Daily News dated February 26, 1895.
KNIGHTS OF PYTHIAS
Why the Catholic Church Frowns On This and Other Secret Societies
REQUIRES BLIND OBEDIENCE
Pastoral Letter Read in the Churches, Commanding Withdrawal of the Faithful From Certain Secret Societies
Last Sunday being the Sunday preceding Lent and the day usually set for reading pastoral letters, Bishop Gallagher of this city caused to be published in all the churches in his jurisdiction the decree recently issued by the sovereign pontiff forbidding all Catholics to become members or continuing membership in secret societies, particularly the Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias and Sons of Temperance. The Masonic organization is not mentioned in the decree nor in the pastoral letter read to the churches for the reason that this organization has for years been under the ban of the Church, and as Bishop Gallagher said to the News reporter, should a Catholic present his name as a candidate for Masonic initiation it would be equivalent to excommunication by the church. The pastoral letter read as follows:
A recent decree of the Holy Office, confirmed by the Sovereign Pontiff instructs that the faithful be advised against affiliation with the societies known as Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias and Sons of Temperance, with the further injunction that if Catholics persist in their connection with any of these societies and will not give up membership they can not receive the sacrament. The general resolutions on account of which it is unlawful for Catholics to join societies forbidden by the Church will be found in the third plenary council of Baltimore.
Bishop Gallagher gives us the reason for the abhorrence of the Catholic Church to the above named secret societies, among other things the initiatory oath the candidates are called upon to take, an Rt. Rev. William Henry Elder, Archbishop of Cincinnati, in reply to inquiries on this subject, said as long ago as August 15, 1892, that the most active of these societies, the Knights of Pythias, are likewise jealous members of the Free Masons order, which is positively excommunicated by the Church. “The masons have furnished a new justification of the Church’s action in this regard,” said the Archbishop.
“At a banquet given in Florence, Italy, July 31, 1891, to their grand master, they made no shame in avowing their desire to destroy religion. In this country they have not reached that point and I believe a great many members abhor such sentiment. But the lodges in this country remain associated with those of Europe, and I have not heard that any lodge nor any conspicuous member of a lodge has made a public protest or disavowal in regard to the war against religion carried on for many years by the Free Masons in Italy, France, Belgium and elsewhere.
“In regard to the Knights of Pythias in particular I have to say that their initiation is made a religious ceremony and a mixture of Christian and pagan religions together.” Here the Archbishop describes what is said to be in the and the manner in which it is taken and continues, “Pythias is styled their ‘honored and revered saint.’ Here is an imitation of Catholicity either in jest or in earnest, for protestants make no profession of patron saints. And this man whom they claim for a patron saint, as far as we know, was a pagan and an idolator. I do not suppose this is intended to be irreverent; but to a Catholic mind this medley of the sacred and profane is painfully irreligious,
“The candidate invokes on himself all the anguish and torments possible for a man to suffer, if ever by word or sign he exposes the secret work or ceremonies of the order. This is worse than the stories told about the Spanish inquisition. That was never charged by its enemies with torturing any person for revealing secret work or ceremonies. This oath and these penalties apply to all mysteries which he may hereafter be instructed in. He has no guarantee as to the character of these mysteries. They may be against religion, against God, against the peace of the country, or they may involve injustice to his neighbor. Of course he hopes it will not be so, and members may say it will not be; but how can a man put himself under such an oath and such penalties for all his lifetime, with no other protection than their saying? His oath is on record – their saying is a passing word.
“Besides observing secrecy, the candidate binds himself ‘to obey all orders that may be given, emanating from the supreme lodge, so long as they do not conflict with my political or religious liberty.’ Here again there is no guarantee of the character of these orders. Men write and say many foolish things about the obedience the Catholic Church requires of her members. But she requires no such obedience as this. With her, obedience is safely protected, because authority is clearly defined. Those who hold authority are themselves under obedience to laws that are publicly known, and obedience ceases when authority exceeds its lawful powers.
“It is strange that in a republican country men should select the title of king for their highest ruler. But so it is with the Knights of Pythias. The king and his nine counselors form the Council of Ten, from whose decisions there is no appeal, who edicts once sent forth are established laws. Here again is absolute authority without the protections against tyranny which both the state and the Church give their administration. These are some of the reasons why no Catholic ought to belong to the Knights of Pythias or any similar society.”
While we can not take issue with the correctness of the pastoral letter, or with the reasoning behind it, we are certain that this kind of requirement of the faithful had an impact. One the one hand Church members who were also Knights may have felt disinclined to conform with the requirement, especially if they felt that the reasons for the requirement were not sufficient to instruct them in good conscience to conform – and that is the determinant factor in all issues of obedience from a theological perspective. If the law is believed to be wrong in one particular it is not long before others are questioned and you end up with the modern Church and cafeteria Catholics who take servings of only the beliefs that they find convenient.
A second impact of the letter and its consequences would be an increase in the dislike for the Church. The Church has never been an easy institution for Americans to understand or accept. The entire intellectual tradition of our founding was anti-clerical and, public protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, the gap grows wider with each passing day. In a time of nativism where the Irish and Italians were in enough trouble for being foreigners, let alone Catholic, and the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise – and at one time was said to be planning to tar and feather Monsignor Kirwin [Bishop Gallagher’s second in command] – anything that called on the faithful to pronounce their differences was an impediment to the assimilation process. Unfortunately things tend to be leveled down rather than up and what is now dismissed as a blip and a false echo looks more like a precipice that some marched off of.
On February 19, 1896 the Knights of Pythias celebrated thirty-three years in Galveston with an oyster roast and Maurice Coffey was there – as were some 250 others. It may have been the uniform, sword and jewels that attracted those who had never served – at least not as combatants. It may have been the opportunities to network that attracted the merchants. It may have been the pageantry that attracted the protestants. Whatever it was it caused over a half million men to join and while their good works continue we have not found any instance where the organization as a body exhibited anything other than the principles of friendship, charity or benevolence. No where was this truer than after that dark and stormy night in September 1900 when the ocean tried to wash Galveston away.
The 1900 Storm struck the night of September 8/9 and The Galveston Daily News was back up and publishing by September 12, 1900. On September 14, 1900 we find an advertisement from the Pythians trying to get information on their members. On September 16th the News reports that two officers, “came in today with the steam tug Eugene chartered, bringing assistance for the local relief committee. The Eugene carried back several Pythian families to Houston, where complete facilities have been made for the tender care of all Pythian members and their families of the flooded district. The distressed Pythians are cordially invited to come. Pythians are requested to send those of their families to Houston. Nothing is left undone to make the Pythian home there complete. The Rathbone Sisters are in charge of the home. Any information given at Pythian headquarters, 2406 Market Street, Galveston or 205 Man Street, Houston.”
The cleanup continued, the recovery continued and on November 5, 1900 the News reported, “A memorial reunion of the Knights of Pythias, commemorative of the thirty-one dead Pythians who perished in the Galveston Storm , was held yesterday evening at Pythian Castle. Pat of the benediction was as follows:
Brethren, this is a cold, uncharitable, unfriendly world to some. God pity the man who is without a friend. In this day when the people are crazed with the money greed; with political diplomacy, national and local intrigue, hypocrisy and deception, the true friendship of noble hearts is often, aye too frequently overlooked, unnoticed and unrecognized. Too often are we compelled to revert to ancient fable or legends for examples of bravery and friendship, while upon every hand in the great broad land of ours, where children romp and play, and flowers bloom, may be found examples of friendship, bravery and charity, that rise like a cathedral tower that begins on earth, surrounded at first by other parts of the structure, but at length rises above the buttressed wall and arch and parapet, and pinnacle, and then shoots spire like into the air so high that the huge cross upon its summit glows like a spark in the morning light, and shines like a star in the evening sky, while all the rest of the pile is enveloped in darkness. These examples should shine luminous against the sky of eternity when the others of history and fable shall have long felt the wrap of night and darkness.