One day in early February 1868, some members of a New York City drinking club called the Jolly Corks wandered into Barnum's American Museum, looking for inspiration. They had recently decided their group should aspire to a higher purpose, and that they needed a more dignified name, something like the Order of the Buffaloes in England.
As they filed past the museum's taxidermy exhibits, they considered, and rejected, one animal after another. Bears: too violent. Beavers: too destructive. Foxes: too devious. Finally they came upon a strong-looking creature with proud, spreading antlers, about whom no negative qualities sprang to mind. When they brought the idea to a vote, on February 16, 1868, the majority agreed: the erstwhile Jolly Corks would from then on be known as the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.
The Elks can actually trace their history a few months farther back, to November 15, 1867, the day Charles Vivian, 25 years old, debarked from a British trading vessel in New York to try to make his fortune on the stage. With no possessions but the suit he was wearing, Vivian found his way to a downtown bar. Impromptu entertainment was customary back then, and that night the proprietor asked if any of the customers cared to perform a song. Vivian, outgoing and confident, volunteered. His comic performance of "Jimmy Riddle" and his own composition, "Who Stole the Donkey" (whose rousing chorus went, "W-H-O with a who S-T-O-L-E with a stole,/ With a who stole. T-H-E with a who stole the/ D-O-N with a don, with a who stole the don,/ K-E-Y with a key, who stole the donkey?"), so impressed a theater manager in the audience that he offered Vivian a week's booking on the spot.
Vivian's weeklong engagement was such a success it was extended to two months. With his fine voice and charm, he was soon earning both rave reviews and a crowd of boisterous friends. Their one complaint was that New York had a law closing all the bars on Sunday, an actor's one day off. But rather than go 24 hours without drinking, Vivian began to concoct a plan.
He had already imposed some organization on his gang by teaching them the tricks of the English Jolly Corks. Really just the perpetrators of an elaborate inside joke, the Jolly Corks always carried champagne corks in their pockets. Their leader, the Imperial Cork (a role Vivian assumed in New York), would toss a cork to a new mark in a pub and issue a challenge. Everyone would place their corks on the bar, and when the Imperial Cork gave a signal, the last person to pick his up would have to buy the next round. At the signal, the insiders would leave their corks on the bar, making the dupe the only one to pick his up-and thus the last. But it was all in good fun, and after he paid for the round, the new man was part of the gang. Any Cork ever caught without his cork in public--one member even was even made to produce his at his wedding--was liable for the next gathering's libations.
But now, with their Sunday alcohol supply cut off, Vivian began to think more broadly. Why not make the Jolly Corks into a formal club, with dues that could be used to buy kegs for Sunday parties? The others loved the idea, and the original 15 Corks--among them clerks, photographers, comedians, a pianist, an orchestra leader, an actor, a minstrel, and a wood turner--held their first "meeting" in mid-December in the attic of the boarding house where Vivian was staying. Between bites of sandwiches and drafts of free-flowing beer, they conducted mock trials for pretend offenses, with the guilty fined to add to next week's beer fund. Those who sang badly were fined, as were those who sang well. By the end of the evening, the coffers overflowed.
The first meeting was such a success that the next week many Corks brought along friends, filling the boarding house with such a din that the landlady banned any future parties. The following week the Corks met in a room over a saloon, but with about 20 members, they had already begun to see the need for a more permanent arrangement.
Just before Christmas one of the Corks died, and as his theater colleagues gathered in mourning to contemplate the blunt brutality of life, they talked about using the group to help one another in times of hardship. As the Elk Charles Ellis later wrote, "the devotees of burnt cork, double clogs and melodies were scattered around the world, having nothing in common, and knowing no existing ties of brotherhood, and when overtaken by misfortune were exposed to the cold charities of the world, with none to cool a fevered lip or replenish a depleted purse." In January 1868 one of the Jolly Corks, George MacDonald, moved that "we resolve ourselves into a benevolent order," and the rest unanimously agreed.
With that, they became part of an increasingly popular phenomenon. By 1900 an estimated 40 percent of adult American men would belong to fraternal organizations. As the demands of a new economy in the 1800s took many fathers from homes and farms to workplaces in courts, stores, factories, and clerks' offices, it fell to mothers to inculcate children with religious and moral rectitude. And as men grew up and joined the Victorian workforce, many of them feared their mothers' rearing had made them too soft. Ritualistic societies gave them a way not only to socialize with their bosses and colleagues outside the stressful work environment but also to reframe their religious and social ideas in a more manly atmosphere.
Moreover, even if theater professionals like Vivian were not traditionally so constricted by prevailing notions of masculinity, they were still drawn by ritual. In London actors made up almost the entire rosters of some Masonic lodges, and music-hall performers had their own society, the Order of the Water Rat (whose ranks included King Rat, Scribe Rat, Bank Rat, and Musical Rat). Vivian himself had belonged to the Royal Antediluvian Order of the Buffalo, which claimed members from Queen Elizabeth and William the Conqueror to Noah.
Vivian suggested naming the new order the Buffaloes, but the other Corks preferred something original and American. As the Elks' Grand Exalted Ruler Meade D. Detweiler explained in his earnestly florid 1898 history of the order, the Corks' zoological research turned up that "the elk of the animal kingdom stands out in direct opposition to those fierce scourges that leave, wherever they move, a trail of suffering; those inert and useless creatures whose life is a prolonged reign of sloth, and those whose habits are obnoxious to refined sensibilities." The elk in addition took "extreme care in regard to cleanliness and neatness of appearance . . . secured by frequent and copious ablutions," and would "avoid all combat except in fighting for the female and in defense of the young, the helpless, and the weak."
On February 16, 1868, they put it to a ballot. Vivian still favored Buffaloes, but he was outvoted. On that day "the undersigned members of the Theatrical, Minstrel, Musical, Equestrian and Literary Professions" who approved the new 15-article Constitution became the founding members of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, bound "to promote, protect, and enhance the welfare and happiness of each other."
Most of the appended 21 rules codified the duties of the officers and the procedure for admitting new members; they also set initiation fees at $2 and dues at 25 cents a week, and made divulging lodge secrets punishable by expulsion. The Jolly Corks had had no rituals aside from boyish pranks, but for the Elks Vivian pinched wholesale from the Buffaloes, right down to the rank titles. He was Right Honorable Primo, and below him served several layers of Deputy Primos. Once formally adopted in May, the new rituals involved regalia, Grand Exalted Rulers, long call-and-response prayers, and passwords.
By December, membership in the lodge had grown to 76, and the Elks had thrown their first charity ball. The Elks spread the word about the order on their business travels, and at the end of 1870 a group in Philadelphia inquired about forming its own lodge. On March 10, 1871, the New York State legislature approved the incorporation of a Grand Lodge with the authority to grant charters to new lodges around the country. The Philadelphia group got its charter two days later, while the original lodge was renamed New York Lodge No. 1. By 1898, 30 years after the Elks' founding, there were 425 lodges with more than 45,000 members. Today 2,100 lodges count Franklin D. Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Mickey Mantle, and Clint Eastwood among their present and past members.
Vivian, however, did not get to see his organization grow. In fact he presided over only two meetings after February 16, 1868. In March he went to Philadelphia on business, and when he returned in June a jealous and power-hungry George MacDonald tried to expel him. Tempers ran so high that the meeting was adjourned before the members reached a conclusion, but Vivian never returned to the order he had founded. He died of pneumonia at only 34 in 1880, in Leadville, Colorado.
When the Boston lodge discovered that a slab of wood with Vivian's name scratched on it was all that marked his grave, they reinterred him at Boston's Mount Hope cemetery, in a section called Elk's Rest. In doing so, the Boston lodge was merely fulfilling the Elks' original mission to look out for one another and the world at large. As Detweiler wrote, "It is enough for the Elk that he has met with woe that he can assuage . . . so effectively that the gushing tears of thankfulness replace the moans of misery, so unostentatiously that only the clear light of the hereafter will reveal the good which has been performed without the knowledge of the ebbing world around."
--Christine Gibson is a former editor at American Heritage magazine.