I have decided to start a new feature in my blog discussing Kentucky's Secret Societies. Anyone who has followed me knows a little about the Knights of the Golden Circle, who figure prominently in CIRCLE OF DISHONOR. The KGC was just one of the many organizations active at that time.The Nineteenth Century was home to a plethora of Secret and Semi-secret Societies. These societies rose in membership and power in Kentucky as the political structure of the state divided and rushed headlong into Civil War.
No state was more divided, more pivotal, or more ill equipped to deal with war than Kentucky. That fact is perhaps best demonstrated by the formation of Kentucky’s shadow legislature, which formed for the express purpose of keeping a Confederate government in Kentucky during the Civil War.
Secret Societies were not all related to the hostilities that threatened to dissolve the United States into two nations. The Nineteenth Century was a time of rapid growth in these types of organizations in Europe and the Americas. Many scholars attribute the spread to the repressive nature of the Victorian Age combined with the rapid social changes forced by industrialization. The world was changing. Immigration, secessionism, industrialization, and social reform placed pressure on every community. Kentucky was ill prepared for change as it shifted from its former place as a western frontier state and struggled with its new identity as a hinge pin in the conflict between slave and free states.
Whatever the problem facing Kentuckians, for good or evil, a society formed to fill the gap. Most were benevolent organizations taking on the monumental task of improving conditions in their communities. Some were church or community outreach societies where members banded together to perform charitable work, often anonymously, within their community. The level of secrecy each organization kept varied by the wishes of organizers or the needs of members.
Kentucky harbored societies with far ranging goals. Men and women organized to explore the occult, engage in acts of evil, and gain mystic power. There were societies planning overthrow the government, establish a new world order, and defend white supremacy. Kentuckians also banned together to fight slavery, protect homes and families, maintain peace, and above all survive the long, bloody war that touched every life in the nation. The history of these societies play a part in the history of every county. Together they tell us a great deal about where we came from and who we are as Kentuckians.
Secret societies divided along the lines of color, creed, political affiliation, opinion on social ills, and ethnic origin. To understand why they had such an enormous growth in the 1800's, we must look at them through these lenses. We must consider their successes and failures, the impact on the time, and why some of them no longer exist. If the feature is successful, we may also take a look at those that remain and the changes that have taken place within their ranks to keep them active today. I invite you to step back in time with me as I explore this aspect of Kentucky's past.