The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library owns over a thousand photographs. A number of these photographs feature unidentified men and women in mystery locales, performing unidentifiable group rituals, or at unknown meetings and events. We are starting a series called “Fraternal Mysteries” in order to crowd source potential information about photographs that are difficult to identify. The museum staff conducts extensive research on our collection but is sometimes left stumped when the only potential clues about a photograph or artifact are a few illegible handwritten notes on the back of the object, a small sign, or an element of clothing. We hope to get these and other images in our collection in front of as many history enthusiasts and fraternal members as possible in order to help us build richer and more accurate stories about our collection objects.
Recently the collections team made some progress in identifying one of these mystery photographs. In 1988, the Museum & Library purchased the Grant B. Romer Fraternal Photographic Collection. Grant B. Romer was the conservator of photographs at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, N.Y., for many years. The collection numbered over 180 items and included a wide variety of ambrotypes, ferrotypes, daguerreotypes
and silver gelatin prints of members of fraternal organizations. Fraternal organizations represented in the collection include, the Improved Order of Red Men, Ancient Order of Hibernians, Loyal Orange Institution, Odd Fellows, Knights Templar and Knights of Pythias.
There are three photographs in this collection identified as a “Knights of Pythias lodge degree team.” These photographs feature a group of about thirty men dressed in demon costumes in a rural outdoor setting. In the above photo they are posed in a group photo and in the other two they are standing in what appears to be a cross and circle formation. A handwritten note in pencil identifies the location as “Parkersburg, W.VA.” Typed notes included with the photographs state that this Knights of Pythias degree team photo is “showing Mephistopheles costumes (Mephisto suits) used in the Amplified T----- Rank for the character PL.” Part of the name is redacted.
The photos are highly intriguing. The collections team wanted to verify the group as the Knights of Pythias and determine the ritual or event in the image. After some research in our own library and archives we found two references that seemed to describe the depicted ritual and match the typed notes on file. In an 1872 Knights of Pythias ritual book titled Amplified version of the Knight degree, a character named Pluto is mentioned and seems like a plausible match for the "character PL." The character Pluto was also referenced in relation to the Amplified Rank degree. In an 1882 M. C. Lilley regalia catalog titled Lodge paraphernalia for all three ranks including the Amplified Third we found a ritual name and costume descriptions matching the information in the file. Advertisements for related ritual paraphernalia included Mephisto costumes, facial hair, and masks for PL (again probably for the character of Pluto). The catalog marketed the paraphernalia to Knights of Pythias lodges “working the amplified third rank degree” because it seems apparent that not all Pythian lodges practiced it.
The Knights of Pythias Phoenix Lodge No. 72 in Mill Valley, California, mentions the 1930 authorization of a new degree called the "Pluto Degree" on the history section of their website. They write "it is likely the Pluto Degree was a reintroduction of the 1872 amplified version of the Knight Degree." We could not find reference to the Amplified Third degree in later ritual books from our collection and it is unclear when the degree stopped being practiced.
As of now, based on the information we have found, we believe these photographs depict a Knights of Pythias degree team practicing the Amplified Third Rank degree for the character Pluto sometime in the 1890s.
There are quite a few uncertainties; why are they practicing the ritual outside? Do these images really correspond with the information from the previous owner?
Do these images or men look familiar to you? Do you have any information about this Knights of Pythias degree ritual? Please write a comment below or contact Ymelda Rivera Laxton, Assistant Curator at firstname.lastname@example.org with information or if you have any questions.
To see these photographs and more from our Knights of Pythias collection, visit our Flickr page at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/digitalsrmml/
Want to help us identify or research more mystery photos in our collection? Stay tuned for our Fraternal Mystery Flickr album launching in January 2016.
Ritual of the Knights of Pythias, containing the forms for opening and closing, and the ceremonies of the different ranks, together with other forms of ceremonial work by order of the Supreme Lodge, S.l. : the Supreme Lodge, Knights of Pythias, 1882