The Short History

History of the Knight of Pythias

The Order of Knights of Pythias is a great international fraternity, which was founded in Washington, DC, February 19, 1864, by Justus H. Rathbone. The first African American Pythian lodge was organized in Vicksburg, Mississippi, April 1880, by Dr. T.W. Stringer, and known as Lightfoot Lodge No. 1.  The primary object of fraternal organizations is to promote friendship among men and to relieve suffering. It bases its lessons and builds it ritual largely on the familiar story of the friendship of Damon and Pythias. Strict moralities, absolute truthfulness, honor and integrity is thoroughly instilled in the minds of its membership.

The Story of Damon & Pythias

Pythias had opposed the motive of the king of Syracuse, who had gained the throne by fraud, and as a result he was condemned to death. Damon became a hostage for Pythias, while the latter was permitted his liberty to bid his wife and child goodbye. Each was willing to die to save the other’s life. Their loyalty to each other, the adventures that beset them, and the outcome of this noble friendship, form the basis for the knights of Pythias Order.

 

A Detailed History of the First Forty Years of the Pythian Order

A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house.   Matthew 13:57

The following brief history of the early years of the Knights of Pythias is largely taken from William D. Kennedy’s Pythian History published in 1904.  Kennedy, a Past Supreme Representative, was brought into the Order by Samuel Read, the first Supreme Chancellor, in 1871.  By 1872 Kennedy had introduced the order into Toronto, Ontario with five lodges followed by a grand lodge.  By 1874, he was making notes for a history.

Considerable reference has also been made to James Carnahan’s Pythian Knighthood (1889 ed.) which contains a most interesting interview with Rathbone, the Order’s founder.  Carnahan’s account complements Kennedy’s nicely and fills in a number of otherwise puzzling blanks.  Carnahan, among [many] other things, was Commander of the Uniformed Rank.

Kennedy and Carnahan were but two of a number of extraordinary Pythians. Their Histories represent a monumental effort at objectivity in the face of some strange and incredible events including several bankruptcies and an internal civil war that would smolder and periodically explode for more than a decade and which would end with most if not all of the founding members out of the order.  Kennedy conveniently provides a chronology of Rathbone’s in’s and out’s of the Order he founded.

For the first decade of the Knights of Pythias is largely the story of Rathbone and Read.  Both were men of vision, farsightedness, and determination.  Unfortunately, their visions did not agree and were destined to collide.

Justus Henry Rathbone was a man of many talents.  He was well educated, a schoolteacher, an accomplished musician and occasional playwright, a Royal Arch Mason and a member of the Improved Order of Red Men.  He spent the Civil War years in the United States Hospital Service where he worked as a Citizen Nurse and Hospital Steward.  His last assignment was in Washington, D.C. and following the War, he secured the first of several Government jobs.  Harry Rathbone didn’t know it but he was about to launch the most incredibly successful fraternal order in human history.  The Knights of Pythias exploded into being in 1864 and continued to roar all through the remainder of the Nineteenth Century.  In barely thirty years, it had half a million members and had joined the ranks of the Odd Fellows and Masons in popularity.  Their Uniformed Rank inspired numerous others.  At the turn of the Twentieth Century, It was in to be a Pythian.

It was in the winter of 1858 or the spring of 1859, while teaching school at Eagle Harbor, Michigan, that Rathbone first conceived the idea of forming a fraternal order and had written the ritual.  A current play, Damon and Pythias by Banim, provided the inspiration for the name.  But the nation was soon engulfed in the Civil War and it was not until February 19th, 1864, that the first lodge (Washington # 1) was formed.  Incredibly, barely a month later on March 25th, Rathbone would resign from the order he had founded.

Rathbone’s first resignation, one of several, was brought about by the actions of one Joseph T. K. Plant, a founding member that Rathbone had met at a Red Man lodge meeting.  Shortly after the founding meeting of the KoP, Plant announced the founding of a Grand Lodge by virtue of him being founder of the Order!  Plant was somehow under the impression that having occupied the office of Venerable Patriarch–the third office down in the new Order–made him Founder.

Plant’s audacity was compounded by the fact that at the time there was but a single Pythian lodge with perhaps thirty-five or forty members.  A Grand Lodge presupposes subordinate lodges.  In the words of Rathbone, There was nothing out of which to form a Grand Lodge, unless one lodge could be Subordinate and Grand Lodge at one and the same time.  Not the least constrained by impossibility, Plant went on to form his Grand Lodge–and presumably Subordinate Lodges as well–and Rathbone resigned.  Carnahan records that Plant was expelled from the order for “divers reasons known to members of the Order.”  One presumes it may have had something to do with his Grand Lodge.

Though neither Kennedy or Carnahan gives the details (or even mention it), Plant was to be reinstated in the order and take his place in the Supreme Lodge as a Past Supreme Chancellor.  [Author’s note:  Samuel Read (among others) was quite competent at creating Past Grand and Supreme Chancellors out of thin air and a good many of them had little if anything to do with a Grand or Supreme Lodge.  Plant appears be one of these Virtual P.S.C.’s by virtue of being a founding member of the Order.  Carnahan notes Plant’s passing in 1882: he had “fought a good fight and had kept the faith” and had seen the Order come to its “Land of Promise”.  The burial rites were conducted by Justus H. Rathbone.

By 1868, there were Grand and Subordinate Lodges in Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware and movement was underway to form a Supreme Lodge as an overall governing body for the order.  (The Grand Lodge of Washington, D.C. was acting as provisional Supreme Lodge.)  The Supreme lodge was approved and held its first session in Washington, D.C. on August 11th.  The first Supreme Chancellor was Samuel Read.  It was Read, along with Clarence W. Barton, who eventually would force Rathbone out of the Supreme Lodge and effectively out of the order.  Samuel Read is best described with a lengthy direct quotation from William Kennedy as follows:

The history of the first four years of the Supreme Lodge, and the results accomplished from 1868 to 1872 inclusive, form the story of his official life–after that, he largely ceased to be a factor in its affairs.  During almost all his Pythian career, we knew him well, and the work he did, and while with many of his acts we were not in accord, yet we yield to no one in our admiration of his pluck, energy, and marvelous ability as an organizer.  Wisely, at the very threshold of his administration, the Supreme Lodge endowed him with plenary powers–to him was given the keys to every door–all dispensing powers were his–he was authorized “to make Knights at sight’–and he did–sometimes, out of sight–and where the power required was not expressed, he accepted it as understood-anyway that was as he understood it.  His favorite mantle of authority, the one with which he clothed himself before pronouncing any benediction or indulgence for which there seemed to be no expressed  or implied authority was “by the powers vested in me and the rules and regulations of the Order,” and then he proceeded to make Past Grand Chancellors or Past Chancellors, and suspend the operation of any interposing obstacle such as a Constitutional Provision or By-Law.  “Making Knights at sight”– was his greatest and most efficient “prerogative”–and what was there that his prerogatives could not effect?  We experienced the application of many of them–this among the rest. When he performed this act, he simply obligated the party, communicated the substance of the ceremonies, explained the unwritten work, and gave the recipient a written certificate (of which we have one) that he was a Knight of Pythias, curtailing his right of use of this to six months, with the understanding that he was to go out       into the “waste places of the earth” and proclaim the Gospel of Pythian Knighthood.  Being an Odd Fellow and a Representative of that order in its National Conventions, he chose these gatherings as his field of     operation, and on the occasion of the meeting of the “Grand Lodge of the United States” (afterwards the “Sovereign Grand Lodge”) I. O. O. F. in San Francisco in 1869, where he attended as Grand         Representative from New Jersey, he held a “service” at any time, day or night, whenever “the spirit       moved,” and sent his postulants back to their homes ardent missionaries in the Pythian cause.  Though, on the surface, history does not evidence that the spread of the Order was directly attributable to this, yet, nevertheless, we know that to the many methods of propagation, lawful, otherwise, and doubtful, adopted by Brother Samuel Read, was due the rapidity with which, during 1868 to 1872, the Order    of Knights of Pythias spread from sea to sea;  the happenings passed before us–we knew the man, his manner, methods, manipulations, and “prerogatives,” and we know whereof we speak.  He seemed to fit right into the times then–times have changed.

Kennedy’s mixed feelings toward the man who had brought him into the order are evident in this paragraph.  Yet it was the tone set by people like Read that allowed the Knights of Pythias to grow to nearly half a million members in its first thirty years.  There can be no doubt that Read was a real go-getter.

Rathbone was also busy in 1868.  On June 9th, undoubtedly at Rathbone’s request, the Grand Lodge of Washington D.C. (acting as Provisional Supreme Lodge) adopted the following Resolution:

Resolved, That, notwithstanding any law or order to the contrary, power and privilege is hereby granted to the Founder of the Order to create and establish a higher degree or degrees that that shall in nowise interfere with the ritual of the Order, to be entirely different there from, and to have its own Grand Lodge, Supreme Lodge, etc.

Rathbone immediately organized a body he called the Supreme Pythian Knighthood, better known as the SPK.

The first Supreme Lodge convened two months later and two resolutions and a quote from the minutes express a somewhat puzzling situation in light of later events.  The first resolution from C. W. Barton (and others) asked that they (and others) be allowed to “write a higher degree or degrees to this order to be approved by this body before being attached to the ritual.”

This was almost immediately followed by a Resolution that “the Supreme Lodge recognizes no higher degree or degrees of the Order than those now established in the ritual of the order.”

Just prior to adjournment, “Past Grand Chancellor Rathbone made a few remarks in relation to what purported to be the Supreme Order of the Knights of Pythias and Damon Conclave, No. 1.”

Thus was the beginning of the SPK (Supreme Pythian Knighthood) controversy that would nearly tear the order apart.  Both Carnahan and Rathbone place the blame squarely on Clarence W. Barton.  Carnahan’s interview with Rathbone gives his side of the story.

Rathbone founded the SPK in 1868 under the authority of the Washington D.C. grand lodge which was then acting as Provisional Supreme Lodge.  Rathbone saw the SPK as a Pythian parallel to the Royal Arch Masons and its membership included most of the Pythian founding members and quite a number of other prominent Pythians.  Among them was C. W. Barton.  Rathbone saw the need for a higher degree to act as “a sieve”;  he was not all that happy with the quality of some of the Pythian membership and saw the SPK as a means to select only the best.  The SPK consisted of a single lodge, the Damon Conclave of Washington, D.C.  The SPK made strict use of the blackball;  anyone denied membership would never be given a second hearing.

On August 18th, 1868, C. W. Barton made application to form a new Conclave which he modestly styled Barton Conclave No. 2.  It was rejected because some of the applicants had previously been blackballed by the SPK.  When Barton was informed that the charter was denied for Barton Conclave, he left the room vowing vengeance against the Conclave, and right here is where the trouble began that afterward came so near disrupting the Order of K of P.  (Rathbone’s words quoted by Carnahan.)

Samuel Read was perfectly happy with the Knights of Pythias as originally founded and the convention of 1868 passed a resolution disavowing the SPK and demanding that all Grand and Subordinate lodges not have anything to do with this new order.  There can be little doubt that C. W. Barton was behind it but Read undoubtedly saw the SPK as a threat to the authority of the newly formed Supreme Lodge.  The battle had been joined.  At the same convention, a petition was introduced from a group of Philadelphia women asking that a woman’s rank of the order be established.  It was promptly tabled (as were its many successors, notes Carnahan.)

[The persistence of the women eventually  paid off when in 1888, under increasing pressure, the Supreme Lodge yielded up half a loaf.  There would be no Ladies Rank (“for various reasons, which this committee believe will be apparent to all members of this Supreme body…”) but instead a parallel body called the Order of Pythian Sisterhood would be established. The Supreme Lodge made it very clear that it would “assume no legal or financial responsibility in connection with the establishment or maintenance of the Order”.

The Supreme Lodge convention of 1869 was significant for two events.  The petition of a group of Philadelphia Blacks to form a Pythian Lodge was rejected by a vote of 24-13.  It would reject similar petitions at the conventions of 1871, 1878, and 1888.  It was not unusual in doing so; all fraternal orders of that time limited their membership to white males only.  By 1875, Blacks had founded their own Order and as Carnahan notes “Colored bodies had taken the name and were working and claiming to be Knights of Pythias.”

It was also at this meeting that Rathbone resigned his position as Past Supreme Chancellor–and effectively from the Supreme Lodge whose meetings he did not attend from 1870 to 1875.  Though he would maintain erratic membership in various subordinate lodges, he would play no leadership role during the administration of Read and the subsequent administration of Berry.  Rathbone as quoted by Carnahan:

At that time I withdrew from all connection with the K of P and S. P. K., having stated my intention to do so at the supreme Lodge session in Richmond; and further, that I would remain outside the portals of the order so long as a certain prominent officer had connection with it, and I did not return until his membership terminated.  

Rathbone can only mean C. W. Barton.  As subsequent events would show, the SPK controversy had not been resolved.

Supreme Chancellor Read’s report at the convention of 1870 opened with a strong denunciation of members of the SPK who, it seemed, had continued their operations in D.C., Maryland, and Pennsylvania.  Acting on this, the Supreme Lodge demanded that each Subordinate Lodge be required to administer a test oath or O.B.N. (apparently an abbreviation for obligation) to both old and new members in which they would disavow any association with the SPK.  Members failing to take the oath would be excluded and lodges failing to do so would lose their charter.  This measure was passed with considerable misgivings.  In the words of William Kennedy:

“Outside of the actions of the body regarding the SPK, but little legislation of importance was enacted,  and when the convention closed, every member present left the meeting with serious forbodings as to the possible results of the enforcement of the “O.B.N.”  While it was true that a very large preponderance of those in attendance were thoroughly convinced that the disloyal spirit which prevailed in some localities should be scotched, yet they were doubtful as to the correctness of the diagnosis, and the efficacy of the prescription and treatment.”

By 1871, there were several “rebel” Grand Lodges in existence and the civil courts had been brought into the matter.  Cooler heads finally prevailed as it was recognized that the entire order was on the verge of self destruction.   The SPK ritual was laid upon the alter of the Supreme Lodge and after all the members present had sworn to never reveal its contents, it was read to them.  In a spirit of cooperation brought about by the need for self preservation, both the SPK and the O.B.N. were essentially tabled  at the convention of 1871.  According to Rathbone, the SPK continued to exist but severed all ties to the Knights of Pythias.  In spite of Rathbone’s desires, there would be no higher degrees for the Pythians.  The SPK saga had officially ended but the damage that had been done would continue to reverberate through the order for years to come.

[The author speculates:

What ever became of Supreme Pythian Knighthood, the SPK?  Rathbone says it severed all ties to the Pythians which means it would have had to change its name.  Curiously enough, there was a very Pythian-like organization came into being at just the right time (1870) and place (Pennsylvania)  called the Ancient Order Knights of the Mystic Chain.  Both time and place coincide nicely with Rathbone’s and the SPK’s departure from the Pythians.

Given the time, place, and circumstance, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that the SPK and AOKMC has some kind of connection.  Given the fact that there were more Pythians  in Pennsylvania than all the other states combined meant that the new AOKMC members would have been surrounded by Pythians—probably neighbors.  And the fact is that a lot of early AOKMC members were also KoP.

Pennsylvania Pythians were pissed and some would say with good reason.  Pennsylvania was on the losing side of a Pythian Civil War, the side of Rathbone, the Founder of the KoP.  Pennsylvania had led the  rebellion against the Supreme Lodge and the Supreme Lodge had excommunicated the lot of ‘em—twice.  The AOKMC was most likely initially  made up of ex-Pythians, on the outs with the Supreme Lodge.  It probably had a healthy share of SPK members—another reason to be tossed to the wolves.  If the SPK survived for any time in any form, it is most likely within the AOKMC.

And where was Rathbone in all of this?  Probably sitting it out in DC  Interestingly enough, when Rathbone left the Supreme Lodge over the SPK affair, he severed ties with both the Supreme Lodge and the SPK.  Although he would re-establish relations with the Supreme Lodge in 1876, the edicts of the Supreme lodge would not have permitted him to re-establish any contact with the SPK and there is no evidence that I know of that he ever did.

So what ever happened to the AOKMC?  It appears to have been a One State Wonder.  It flourished in angry Pennsylvania but hardly left a trace anywhere else.   Latest dated pieces are from the early thirties and that probably marks the AOKMC’s extinction; very few small orders survived the Great Depression.

Now the question of the connection between the SPK and the AOKMC could probably be settled definitively by simply comparing the rituals but that is a lot easier said than done.  The AOKMC ritual is obviously still extant as Axelrod  summarizes it in his encyclopedia (and states—wrongly—the founding date of the AOKMC as 1887)  Getting one’s hands on a an authentic copy of SPK anything  would be a significant accomplishment.  From the moment the Supreme Lodge came into existence, the SPK was under fire and probably never again wrote anything down.  It is more than likely that the ritual for the order never saw printed page—only hand written notebooks.  It probably no longer exists.  In fact, I’ve never seen a single artifact that I could connect in any way to the SPK—and I’ve looked.

William Kennedy, the historian, seems to suggest that a ritual for the Endowment Rank, likewise written by Rathbone, somewhat resembled the SPK ritual.  The ER wasn’t under siege so it ought to be a fairly simple matter to find some ER ritual and compare it to the AOKMC, right?  Wrong.  The Endowment Rank was an insurance plan and it didn’t really need a ritual and dropped it entirely after a couple of years.   Somewhere in an old Pythian hall there may yet exist a copy of that long forgotten ritual but I doubt it will be found in my lifetime—if ever.

But if somebody does find it, kindly send me a copy.  If you find any trace of the SPK, send original.—Snarf]

The convention of 1872 was a surprise to Samuel Read in that contrary to his expectations, he was not re-elected to Supreme Chancellor and Henry Clay Berry was installed in his place.  The SPK/OBN disaster had left an awful lot of people unhappy and they retired Samuel Read.  It was during this convention that ranks replaced degrees and changes were made to the third rank.

The Supreme Lodge convention of 1873 was notable for the absence of Clarence W. Barton, Supreme Recording and Corresponding Scribe.  He did submit a letter for the assembly:

“I respectfully present this my resignation of the office of Supreme Recording and Corresponding Scribe.  I am unable to straighten my accounts at the present time, and ask that the resignation be accepted and I be allowed until the 1st day of September, 1873 to make a full and complete settlement with the Supreme Lodge.”

Also absent was $7,962.31, the entire treasury of the Supreme lodge.  It would eventually be realized that the Supreme Lodge had been left with debts approaching $17,000. This was a very large sum in 1873 and in contemporary dollars would  equal something in excess of $200,000.  Kennedy repeats the belief commonly held in his time that Barton absconded with the money but there may be a simpler explanation.  In 1872, the country was hit with a massive depression and a great deal of money vanished as a result. Chances are that the Pythian money was among the causalities of that crash.  Barton was never prosecuted.  In examining this possibility, it was discovered that the Articles of Incorporation of the Supreme Lodge were so badly written that the Supreme Chancellor quite possibly held his position without the authority of law.  Given the frightening possibility that the entire Supreme Lodge structure might be overturned in court, the matter was quietly dropped.  Barton headed West and entered politics.  He would eventually be expelled from the Order.

Supreme Chancellor Berry certainly inherited his share of problems in 1873.  In addition to bankruptcy, there was the problem of the Pennsylvania Grand Lodge which was in full revolt against the authority of the Supreme Lodge.  This was allegedly over a previous change in ritual but one has to wonder; Pennsylvania was at the forefront of the SPK movement and though that issue had allegedly been settled, some resentment undoubtedly remained.  Philadelphia had been the first lodge founded outside of Washington D. C. and the Order had thrived in the Keystone State.  Kennedy notes that there were more Pythians in Pennsylvania than in all the other states combined.  For a time, the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania was placed in suspension.  Somehow, this issue was finally resolved–at least for the time being.  It was not the last to be heard from Pennsylvania Pythians.

Still remaining was the problem of the newly bankrupted Supreme Lodge.  Several schemes including a failed bond issue were floated and it was finally decided that the Supreme Lodge should manufacture and sell officer and Knight jewels to the Grand and Subordinate Lodges.  These were finally introduced in 1874 under the administration of Supreme Chancellor Stillman S. Davis and to this day are still inscribed “Copyright 1874 S.S. Davis S.C.”.  This introduced a stream of revenue that sustained the Supreme Lodge for years to come.  In 1874, the Order also got a new–and obviously much needed–constitution.  William D. Kennedy played a significant role in writing it.

Pythian Jewels are not known for their beauty and on their introduction were derided by the membership as “coffin plates”.  Their design reflects not artistic merit but rather the prevailing politics of the time.  A superior design had actually been submitted from  Massachusetts but Massachusetts had voted against Pennsylvania in that recent controversy and Pennsylvania and its allies retaliated by voting for the opposing–and inferior–design.  Thus was the Order saddled with an unattractive design which, except for a reduction in size, has remained virtually unchanged to this day.

Though the official Supreme Lodge records are silent on the subject, Justus H. Rathbone was re-admitted to the Supreme lodge in 1876.  Rathbone’s account of this, reported by Carnahan, reads like Theater of the Absurd:

[page 283, 1889 ed.]

…when did you again return to the Supreme Lodge?

At the Centennial Session, in 1876, at Philadelphia, Pa.

Was there any opposition to your return to the Supreme Lodge?

There was; and, as I have been informed, by those who were present within that room, an almost unanimous feeling that I should not be admitted.

In what capacity did you return to the Supreme Lodge?

As a Past Supreme Chancellor and a member in good standing in my Subordinate Lodge in the District of Columbia.

What was the objection?

It came first from the Committee on Credentials, as there was nothing to show that I was a member in good standing in the Order, except a communication from the vice Grand Chancellor , acting as Grand Chancellor of the District of Columbia. The information was telegraphed for, and they refused to receive me on a telegram.  A strong speech was made in my behalf by J. Rufus Smith, S.R. from W. Va., and permission was finally given for me to enter.  Immediately upon my entrance, Supreme Representatives Foxwell and Caldwell, of the District of Columbia, presented to the Supreme Lodge a picture of the Founder  and the four original members, and a small pamphlet, giving the history of the Order, and a brief biographical sketch of the original members.  Objection to it was immediately interposed.  A motion was then made that a committee of three be appointed to look into the matter, and ascertain, if possible, if the statements contained in the papers presented were the facts, and if I really was the Founder of the Order.  The Committee was appointed and consisted of three members known at the time to be perhaps the most inimical to the man to be investigated, of any in the Supreme Lodge.  The Committee met, were shown the original affidavit, together with the “Sketch” that had been presented to the Supreme Lodge.   Brother J.T.K. Plant, being in the city, was sent for by the committee and appeared on the scene.  He there saw for the first time the documents, and immediately, without any hesitation, stated that the contents were true to the best of his knowledge and belief, and that he would go further, and, if necessary, announce the fact on the floor of the Supreme Lodge.  He further stated that he had never claimed to be Founder or Assistant Founder and did not hold himself responsible for what others had claimed for him.  After reading the documents, the question was asked by the Chairman: “Brother Plant, your name is mentioned in this; what have you to say?” “simply and only,” was his reply, “that it is correct in every particular.  That man [pointing to me] is the sole and only Founder of the Knights of Pythias, and, if necessary, I will go into the Supreme Lodge and announce it.  I never claimed I was the founder; the claim was made for me but I never fathered it.”  The committee returned and made their report to the Supreme Lodge, which, in brief, was that they found the “History as to the Founder of the Order of Knights of Pythias” correct, and that I was entitled to the honor of being the Founder of the Order.  A recess was taken for a few minutes and I was warmly congratulated and greeted by the officers and representatives.

At the end of the interview, Carnahan ask Rathbone about the other founding members:

What has become of the original members of the order?

Robert Allen Champion died in the city of Edinburgh, Scotland, September 25th, 1873.  David L. Burnett is at present occupying a prominent position in the Sixth Auditor’s Office.  Wm. H. Burnett still retains the position that he has held for years in the Quartermaster-General’s Office.  Dr. E. S. Kimball is engaged in the profession of music and is justly conceded a leading musician; and all reside in Washington D. C.  I reside in Alexandria, Virginia.

Are the living ones yet connected to the order?

They are not; and it has been the one great desire of my life that they should be; they ought, in my opinion, to be recognized and made life members of the Order for it was through the assistance rendered me by them, that the Order was organized.   Their time and money were cheerfully and unstintedly given to the work, and you will pardon me if I here state that I believe them to have been most shamefully treated from the first.

[Author’s note:  Rathbone moved to Alexandria in 1888 and died a little more than a year later.  The four people named here are also named by Rathbone as founding–or early–members of the SPK.  Like Rathbone, they had been essentially forced from the Order during the Read/Barton/Berry years.

William Kennedy was at the Supreme Lodge of 1876 and devotes only a single paragraph to Rathbone:

While the printed record failed to state the fact, yet it was well understood, by all there, that at this convention, held in the year commemorative of the independence of the nation, Brother Justus H. Rathbone, the Founder, was to be received and welcomed back into the Supreme Lodge and into active association in the Order.  Owing to the bitterness which had grown out of the SPK controversy and many other personal differences, Brother Rathbone had not entered the Supreme Lodge since the meeting at Richmond, March 9, 1869–indeed, he had for some time been out of the Order.  However, on the morning of the second day of this convention he was admitted.

[The author rants:  Kennedy says it was a cake walk and Rathbone says they were out to get him.  Welcome to the wonderful world of Pythian Mythology.  The Supreme Lodge of 1876 is the stuff of Pythian Legend.  It is a well established fact that Rathbone returned to the Supreme Lodge that year but it is not quite clear just how he returned.  Numerous stories abound including one which states that the Outer Guard simply had no idea who Rathbone was–or refused to believe he was who he said he was!  The fact that “the record failed to state the fact” does seem a bit curious in that the Supreme Lodge could fail to at least acknowledge the homecoming of the Founder, especially if it was all sweetness and light as envisioned by Kennedy.  And the fact that they didn’t let him in until the next day suggests it may have been something like Rathbone says it was.  If it were anything at all like Rathbone’s account, it becomes fairly obvious why it might have been edited from the minutes.  It was, after all, hardly the Order’s proudest moment.

The problem with Rathbone, of course, is that he is a playwright and you have to wonder if he is being creative here.    J.T.K. Plant just happening to be in town seems just a little too convenient.  Why wasn’t he at the convention–as Past Supreme Chancellor he certainly had a place there.  Yet Kennedy verifies Plant’s presence and testimony and identifies the three members of the committee as Samuel Read, George W. Lindsey, and Hugh Lathem.  As for their alleged animosity toward Rathbone, there can be no doubt that Read was largely responsible for Rathbone leaving the Supreme Lodge (and Order) in the first place and Lathem was the principal author of the notorious O.B.N.  Lindsey didn’t enter the Supreme Lodge until 1875 but he was from Maryland which had been a SPK hotbed (and had had its Grand Lodge suspended for it).  Lindsey may have been one of the “Loyalists” who supported Read and the Supreme Lodge against Rathbone. It would appear that the Supreme Lodge did include elements that were hostile to Rathbone’s return but they probably were not in the majority as Rathbone claimed.  After all, they did not manage to keep him out–though they apparently did manage to delay his entry until the next day.  And it is entirely possible that there were a good many people present at that convention who had never met Rathbone and possibly even some who were not altogether certain just who had founded the order in the first place.  Rathbone had been largely absent for five years and the order had grown considerably in that time.

It would appear that Rathbone and the Supreme Lodge had finally made peace.  In 1877 they would authorize and present him with a Founder’s Jewel and send him out as Lecturer for the Order.  He would attend the Supreme Lodges in 1878, 1880, 1882, 1884, 1886, and 1888.  Rathbone was on the road on a lecture tour in Lima, Ohio, when he died on December 9, 1889 at the age of fifty.  The cause of death appears to be cancer.  He was buried in Utica, N. Y.   Rathbone had never been wealthy and it appears that he died virtually penniless.  He had fallen on especially hard times in 1884 and the Supreme Lodge had raised some five thousand dollars for payment of his debts and to provide living expenses.  The Supreme Lodge of 1890 saw fit to allocate $700 to be paid yearly to Rathbone’s orphaned daughters–his wife had died in 1887–and this was to continue until 1900.  In 1893, more than three years after his death, it was noted that his grave had no marker and appeared to be neglected.  The Grand Lodge of New York allocated $1000 to be paid for the perpetual care of the gravesite and a movement began in the Supreme Lodge to erect a monument.  This was done in 1899.

Though the order had been nearly torn apart over the question of new degrees, it managed to acquire two new degrees–by then, ranks–in 1877 and 1878.  Though neither were to last, both were very much in keeping with the fraternal spirit of the times.  The Endowment Rank (ER) was quite simply a life insurance plan.  Following the Civil War, there had been founded hundreds of Fraternal Benefit Societies starting with the Ancient Order of United Workmen in 1868.  Their primary purpose was to provide affordable life insurance at a time when there was absolutely no social safety net and life insurance was generally available only to the very well off.  Though the Pythians were not a fraternal benefit society, the idea obviously appealed to a large number of members and was first introduced at the convention of 1876.  The committee appointed to study the matter denounced all “Insurance Schemes” as appealing to the worse nature of man and in opposition to true Pythian Brotherhood.  Yet in 1877, in a hundred eighty degree turn-around, the ER was approved.  The Committee to write the ritual was headed by Justus H. Rathbone and–if we are to believe Kennedy–the end result somewhat resembled the defunct SPK ritual.  The ER was a truly separate Rank with its own ritual, oaths, obligations, and passwords.  But by 1879 the ritual had become optional and after 1880 had been dropped entirely.

Unfortunately, even the professionals did not have a very good grasp of the science of life insurance in the late 1800’s–the complex actuarial mathematics had not yet been worked out–and there were numerous bankruptcies even among commercial insurance companies.  The major problem faced by the Pythians was more money going out than was coming in.  It would take quite a few years–and quite a lot of money–before the problems were finally worked out.  A special Supreme Lodge convention was called in 1901 when it was discovered that the Endowment Rank had “unadjudicated death losses amounting to $425,600…[and] that there were no immediately available funds.”  At that Lodge, assessments for the ER were increased 45%.  In time, an Insurance Department would evolve and the ER would quietly go away.  It is possible and even likely that the formulation of the Pythian insurance plan as a separate rank complete with ritual etc. was simply done as a courtesy to Rathbone.  It certainly did not take long to realize that fraternal sentiment and the hard nosed realities of the life insurance business were hardly compatible.

The Uniformed Rank (UR) came into being in 1878.  A great many Pythians were Civil War Veterans and some lodges formed their own military drill teams.  This would in time evolve into the Uniformed Ranks, not just for the Pythians but for quite a number of  other fraternal orders as well.  The Pythian UR was sometimes known as the Army of the Lily.

In many ways, the UR was simply a logical outgrowth of the K of P.  The order, having been founded in the midst of the Civil War and by men working for the government–and effectively enlistees–had always had a military flavor to it.  Its ranks of Page, Esquire, and Knight emulated those of Medieval knighthood.  The UR was seen as sort of an unofficial reserve force, maintaining a military readiness should the Nation need them–its Manual of Drill was that of the US Army.  In reality, the UR was more of a fancy drill team suitable for parades and other official functions.  As Civil War veterans died off in the early 1900’s, the UR went into decline and was effectively defunct around the time of World War Two.  Major General James Carnahan’s hope for an everlasting UR was not to be and it had entirely ceased to exist by the 1950’s.

By 1888, The Pennsylvania Grand Lodge was once again in open revolt.  The alleged issue this time was an attempt on part of the Supreme lodge to modify the Constitutions of all Grand and Subordinate lodges to bring them into agreement with the Supreme Lodge Constitution.  In reality, it seems more like a simple power struggle.  The Pennsylvania Lodge was the most powerful and largest of the Grand lodges.  Like before, the Grand Lodge was suspended.  Like before, it was finally made to comply with the dictates of the Supreme Lodge.  Once again, the Order barely escaped fragmentation.

In the early 1890’s, the Order became seemingly obsessed with the issue of foreign language rituals.  There were a good many German Pythians (a lot in Pennsylvania, of course), and they had quite naturally translated the Pythian Ritual into the German language.  Up until then, the Order had shown a sort of grudging toleration for non-English versions of the ritual but beginning in 1892, the attitude begin to shift and by 1894 the policy was one of English Only.  At one point in time, a large quantity of the German ritual was actually burnt.  Part of the reasoning was undoubtedly economic regarding the cost of translating and distributing multilingual copies of the ritual.  But underlying it all appears to be an attitude that the Knights of Pythias was a uniquely American organization whose ritual ought to be in English–possibly being influenced by the fact that the ritual was based on works of English literature.  This is in marked contrast to most of the other orders of the time who took great pride in being established world-wide in every language.

History repeated itself when the Supreme Lodge of 1894 once again found itself bankrupt.  The person left holding the [empty] bag this time was the Supreme Master of the Exchequer, Stansbury J. Willey.  Losses this time were pegged at $69,476.51, nearly ten times that lost by Barton two decades earlier.  The reasons for the loss were fairly obvious.  Willey had given the Lodge’s money to his brother-in-law, the stockbroker.  1893 had witnessed a major depression which among other things had destroyed some eighteen thousand businesses.  Among them were the companies in which the Pythian funds had been invested.  Once again, the Supreme Lodge would have to watch its pennies.  Once again, it would replenish its funds through the sale of lodge jewelry.

By 1896, the Pythians numbered 456,944 members, third behind the Masons (920,459) and the Odd Fellows (939,307).  The Order actually suffered some losses in this year because of an edict of the Roman Catholic Church forbidding its members from belong to certain “secret orders”, the Knights of Pythias among them.  By 1902, the order had grown to 540,138.

[The author speculates:  From the above numbers, it would appear that the Pythians hit the half million mark sometime in 1899.  From 1896 to 1902, they averaged adding almost fourteen thousand new members a year.  They had gone from five members to five hundred thousand in only thirty five years.  It was a record of fraternal growth unmatched at that time and likely to remain unmatched.  They did it with aggressive recruiting and a new order that offered some refreshing changes from the old.  For one thing, the Pythians are a secular order.  Unlike the Masons and Odd Fellows whose rituals are drenched in religion, the ritual of the Knights of Pythias is based on works of English literature–Rathbone, after all, was a schoolteacher.  The Pythians also tended to be more egalitarian than the established Orders which tended to equate the best of men with the wealthiest of them.  The humble condition of Pythian jewels, most of which are silver plate and brass, speak of hard times and working men.   In this they are more in line with their philosophical brothers, the fraternal benefit societies, than the Masons and Odd Fellows.

But there was something else, perhaps something undefinable, about the Pythians that distinguished them.  Every now and then, there will be created something that unmistakably captures the spirit of its time and soars upon it.  It would almost seem that the country had been waiting for the Pythians to arrive.  This was recognized by Plant who tried to hijack the Order and Read who did.  It was also recognized by the half million who would join the order before the turn of the Twentieth Century.  Kennedy, in speaking of Samuel Read, says that he seemed to fit right into the times.  He might as well have been speaking of the Order itself.

Alternately, they may have been simply lucky.  Taking on the Pennsylvania Grand lodge repeatedly was an act approaching madness.  Had the Pennsylvanians been sufficiently organized to take advantage of their numerical superiority  we might well be discussing the History of the Knights of Damon.