The History of the Order of Elks

Reprinted from Massachusetts State Newspaper Fall 2003

The Confederate Army had already surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, bringing and end to the Civil War in 1865. The Union Pacific Railroad began moving westward track at an average of one mile per day. In California Chinese laborers joins the Central Pacific work gangs providing the strength, organization and persistence to break through the mountains. Mark Twain publishes `The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Caleveras County."

In 1866 General Philip H. Sheridan takes command of U.S. forces in the West proposing to bring peace to the plains by exterminating the herds of buffalo that support the Indian's way of life: “Kill the buffalo and you kill the Indians," he said. At that same time Frank and Jesse James, veterans of Quantrill's Raiders, launch their legendary criminal career with a bank robbery at Liberty, Missouri.

1867 was a banner year with Nebraska entering the Union, the United States purchasing Alaska from Russia and the opening of the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Abilene, Kansas. And .... on Friday, November 15th 1867, a young Englishman, barely out of his teens, arrived in New York City.

Charles Algernon Sidney Vivian, born in Exeter, Devonshire County, England in 1846 was the son of a clergyman of the Established Church. After the death of his father, he folIowed his natural talent for the stage. His advancement was phenomenal and while a mere boy, be was well respected as a dramatic and comic actor. On the night of his arrival he dropped into the Star Hotel, a "Free and Easy" kept by John Ireland on Lispenard Street, near Broadway. "In spite of its name 'Free and Easy' was a respected institution specializing in steaks, chop, rarebits and ale where the patrons were entertained during meals with songs and stories by paid or amateur performers.

"Richard R. Steirly, also of English birth, was the piano player at the Star Hotel. Vivian, making his acquaintance, volunteered to sing a few songs. He made such an impression that John Ireland had him sing for Robert Butler, his friend and manager of the American Theatre on Broadway. He was awarded a three weeks run at the American. At closing time at the Star Hotel, Steirly took Vivian to his boarding house at 188 Elm Street, kept by Mrs. Giesman. (In 1939 the two blocks that remained of Elm Street was renamed Elk Street.) There he found a collection of congenial spirits, among them William Boyd Bowron, who had known Matt in England.

"On November 23 , 1867, Dick Steirly went to the American Theatre to take notes for the purpose of orchestrating some of Vivian's songs. After the matinee, Vivian took Steirly over to `Sandy' Spencer's place on Broadway and Fulton Street. There they met Hughey Dougherty, Cool Bridges and Henry Vandemark. The Iatter suggested that the party shake dice for the refreshments.

"Vivian replied that he never handled the cubes, but he would show them a new game.

Calling for three corks he gave one each to Steirly and Vandemark, keeping one for himself. He asked Cool Bridges to be the judge, and Dougherty to count `1-2-3.' They rehearsed the trick of each dropping his cork on the bar and picking it up as rapidly as possible, several times, the idea conveyed to the initiated being that the last man 'to lift his cork was-to buy. Vivian then gave the word of command, Dougherty counted. He and Steirly passed their hands over their corks while Vandemark, eager to lift his cork from the bar, was both first and last to pick it up, and consequently was `Stuck' for the round. This was the first introduction of a delectable form of amusement, which became popular.

Birth of the Jolly Corks

"At about this time the excise law was being strictly enforced, and Sunday in New York was a very dry day. Devotees of cork trick formed a habit of congregating at Mrs. Giesman's on this day to hold social conventions under the inspiring influence of a stock of beer laid in the night before. This little coterie styled itself- `Corks' with Vivian as the `Imperial Cork.' "The revels of the jolly crew meeting at Mrs, Giesman's became disturbing to the other boarders and she finally required them to forego their Sunday gatherings at her house. Quarters were found at 17 Delancey Street, over a saloon kept by one Paul Sommers, where the meetings were continued. The object of the `Corks' at this time was entirely convivial. Its membership was composed of professional and semi-professional entertainers with a sprinkling of legitimate actors. Among the latter were Thomas G. Riggs, George F. McDonald, William Sheppard and George W. Thompson, a theatrical agent. When the cork trick was tried on McDonald, it amused him so that he called the coterie the `Jolly Corks' and such it has gone down upon the pages of history.

"In the latter part of December, just before the holidays, Charles Vivian, Hugh Egan, Hughey Dougherty, Harry Standwood and George Guy, returning from a funeral of a friend, Ted Quinn, of local concert hail fame, dropped into Tony Pastor's. There they found Billy Gray, Tony and `Dody' Pastor, John Fielding and William Sheppard, who became interested in the story of the `Jolly Corks,' and all of them strolled over from Pastor’s to ‘Sandy' Spencer's, where they found George F McDonald and others. After hearing the story of the funeral, McDonald suggested that the organization should become `a protective and benevolent society.'

"At the meeting on February 2nd, 1868, presided over by Charles A. Vivian, George F. McDonald offered a motion to organize "the Jolly Corks' as a lodge along benevolent and fraternal lines and providing that a committee be appointed to formulate rules and regulations for its government, prepare a suitable ritual, and select a new name. Vivian, having in mind an English organization, `The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffalos,' favored the name `Buffalos' for the new organization, but the majority was desirous of bestowing a distinctly American title upon the new organization.

"On February 16, 1868, the committee reported, recommending that the `Jolly Corks' be merged into the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks and the recommendation was adopted by a vote of 8 to 7. It is chronicled by Brother Charles W. Young that the following seven voted for the name Buffalo': Charles A. Vivian, Richard R. Steirly, M. G. Ash, Henry Vandemark, Harry Bosworth, Frank Langhorne, E. W. Platt and the following eight voted for the name of `elk': George F. McDonald, George W. Thompson, Thomas Grattan Riggs, William Carleton, William Speppard, George Guy, Hugh Dougherty, William Lloyd Bowron.

"W. L. Bowron was inclined at first to favor `Buffalo' but changed his mind and became the decisive factor in the final selection of the name `Elk'. Other historians say that the vote was a tie and that Vivian was finally brought around to favor the name `Elk' and cast the deciding vote from the chair."

Submitted by Thomas F. Hogan, Historian Sources of information - "The History of the Order of Elks"


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