Caliphs of Bagdad
July 10, 2012
Regular readers of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library blog may remember my previous post about the mystery of the green Caliphs of Bagdad fez (read it here and see one of the fezzes below). I couldn't find any information about the group's history or location. But, recently, another clue came my way. A friend of the Museum called my attention to the membership card (pictured at left), which was offered for sale on ebay. Imagine my surprise and delight to see that it seems to have a direct relationship to the same group as the two green fezzes now in our collection! I was very excited to be able to add the card to our Archives collection.
I still have many questions about the Caliphs of Bagdad, but I'm pretty firmly convinced that the group was active in Pennsylvania in the early to mid-1920s. Both of the fezzes donated to the Museum came from Pennsylvania and this card originated from Court No. 1 in New Castle, Pennsylvania. I find it intriguing that the Caliphs may have been open to both men and women. The card is for a James A. McKnight, but the "Chief M.C." at the bottom was a Judy Sypher.
What do you think? Does this jog anyone's memory about the Caliphs of Bagdad? Did you know James McKnight or Judy Sypher? Have you seen any other documents or objects associated with this group? Leave us a comment below.
Membership Card, 1910-1950, unidentified maker, Pennsylvania, gift of Ron and Judy McKnight, 2012.
Fez, early 1900s, gift of Stanley A. McCollough, 2009.022. Photograph by David Bohl.
The Caliphs of Bagdad, New Castle, Pennsylvania
By Betty Hoover DiRisio, [email protected]
Board Member, Lawrence County Historical Society
In December 1922 a group of male congregants from the First Presbyterian Church in New Castle, PA and apparent members of the Gridiron Club, held a Gridiron Banquet, the third of its kind at the church. The group prepared an evening of entertainment for a couple hundred men in attendance. Inspired by Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat poem, the one act “drammer” entitled “The Caliph of Bagdad,” was headed by the “Caliph” Howard B. Richards and MC’d by musician Julius “Judy” V. Sypher. With them were a group of what was described as the funniest performers who ever smoked a Turkish cigarette. The act consisted of “passing out some of the lustiest knocks imaginable, clothed with the garnish garb of satire. No one was spared. Doctor, lawyer, Indian Chief, all of them got theirs and the gales of laughter that greeted each sally hid the confusion of the fellow attacked. Seated on their divans about the illustrious Caliph they reveled in sarcasm, in song, story and told of the foibles, follies and fallacies of some of the better known citizenry and put on the cleverest entertainment they have yet had, even for a Gridiron dinner.”
This sparked the founding of the Order of the Caliphs of Bagdad which was born here in 1924. The Caliphs of Bagdad were organized by the same Mr. Richards who was a lifelong member of the Order of the Craft and was actively involved in raising funds for the building of the Scottish Rite Cathedral in New Castle. The foundation order of the Caliphs, the Order of the Yellow Dogs, was also founded by Richards. Judy Sypher was also a member of the organization.
The Caliphs was an organization primarily local, but extended into the surrounding districts of Western PA. Members of the Caliphs organization were marked by a green fez. In 1929 2,500 persons from various points in Western Pennsylvania gathered for the annual spring ceremonial of the Caliphs of Bagdad at the Masonic Cathedral. Most arrived by auto from Ellwood City, Franklin, Butler, Enon Valley, Emlenton, Sharon, Greenville and elsewhere in Western Pennsylvania. It was one of the most rapidly growing organizations in the history of the city, ceremonials being held at stated periods, at which hundreds of candidates were taken in and given the opportunity to enter into the mysteries of the order. It was during this time that the organization was at its peak. In 1930 it had some 2,000 members including some from Eastern Ohio as far away as Cleveland.
The last mention of the group was found in January 1947 where reports were submitted by the committee of Past Commanders on arrangements for taking charge of the Caliphs of Bagdad at the meeting of the Legion of Honor of the Valley of New Castle Consistory.
Posted by: Elizabeth DiRisio | November 07, 2021 at 02:25 PM
Thank you for your note. It is always great to learn about other fezzes out there that belonged to the Caliphs of Bagdad. We always welcome a photo of the fez and information about wore it for our files. You can email us at [email protected] if you are interested.
Ymelda Laxton, Assistant Curator
Posted by: Ymelda Laxton | March 16, 2021 at 10:47 AM
I just sold my grandfathers hat on eBay that looked just like this. It’s from the new castle pa group for sure. 1920-1930 probably. I didn’t realize how rare it was. I know nothing about the Freemasons.
Posted by: Jennifer | March 13, 2021 at 06:48 PM
Hello Seth: Thanks so much for reading our blog and commenting. I'm very excited to check out this link! I'm glad that we've solved part of the mystery of our green fezzes. I hope that other readers might join in if they know more.
Aimee Newell, Director of Collections
Posted by: Aimee Newell | July 17, 2012 at 02:45 PM
My name is Seth Anthony and I'm the curator of the Virtual Museum of Fezology. I'm also a native Pennsylvanian, having grown up in the Erie area.
I have uncovered some more information for you... check out these old news clippings!
I used to have a membership to this site, but it has lapsed. Thankfully, New Castle was a small town and it appears that there are several references to the Caliph in this sites database. Please keep me updated on what you find!
Posted by: Seth Anthony | July 10, 2012 at 01:28 PM