Human bones help lay bare oddity of lodges: Skeletons linked to initiation
rites of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows are turning up nationwide
WARRENTON, Va. - Paul Wallace was alone, repairing overloaded circuits in the old red-brick building, when he discovered a tiny door to a dark recess between two walls.
Inside was a black wooden box. Curious, Wallace tugged it from its dark resting place. A white shroud appeared. Then leathery ribs. Then white candles.
"It was like a Dracula movie," Wallace said. "The top of the skull was covered, but you could see the rib cage and the sinew."
For a good 20 minutes, Wallace sat frozen. Finally, he returned the skeleton to its home between the walls of the Warrenton lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
When police learned of Wallace's macabre discovery, they rushed to get a search warrant and seized the remains. State medical examiners are studying the bones. Around town, neighbors speculate about who the corpse was and why she was there. But perhaps the strangest thing about the mini-drama captivating Warrenton is that strikingly similar mysteries have played out across the country.
It turns out that skeletons similar to "Jane Doe Odd Fellow," as one officer calls her, reside in closets, drawers, attics and crawl spaces in Odd Fellows lodges nationwide. To members of the age-old fraternal order, the skeleton is a symbol of mortality, a treasured relic used in one of their most solemn and secret rituals: initiation.
But for many residents in the towns where the bones are found, the whole thing is just plain odd.
"A lot of people thought it was weird," Wallace said. "They were like, 'What if it were my daughter?"
As with many fraternal orders that compete, with today's fast-paced lifestyles, interest in the Odd Fellows has waned, and many lodges have closed. More and more of the skeletons are emerging from their hiding places, often to the shock of the souls who come upon them. In recent years, the discovery of Odd Fellows skeletons has sparked police investigations in Missouri, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Nebraska. In Oklahoma, the remains prompted a work crew to flee in terror.
Last year, Jim Leuschke, a Missouri accountant active in theater, was offered two free caskets by a disbanding Odd Fellows lodge. Always on the lookout for interesting props, he picked up the ornate wooden coffins and pried one open to find a partial plaster skeleton.
Leuschke was unloading the coffins into his garage when the top of the second one jarred loose. What he saw wasn't plaster.
Lisa Stone, a Chicago historian who has studied fraternal organizations, said one surprising part of the rituals is that the group has kept them secret for so long. The rituals are "not a booga-booga scary thing," but out of context, the skeletons are "frighteningly powerful objects," she said. She noted that many fraternal orders, including the Masons, use similar images.
Even the Warrenton police haven't been able to get the Odd Fellows to betray their order. Lt. Kerry White said members have cooperated, but with one caveat. "They specifically asked us not to divulge what they told us," he said.
Odd Fellows Virginia Grand Lodge Secretary Jack Gibson Jr. bristles at the description of the organization's rituals. "I don't like the word 'secret,' Gibson said. "It is a ceremony that is confined to the members, and if you're not a member, you don't discuss it."
Why so hush-hush? "It makes you different," Gibson said.
The Odd Fellows skeletons have popped up in costume shops and as decorations in bars. One made its way into a display on serial killers in a New Orleans art gallery. Another made an appearance in "Dawn of the Dead," the cult classic horror film.
The Independent Order of the Odd Fellows dates to 17th-century England as a charitable organization that worked to help families in need and buried their dead. The first American lodge opened in 1819 in Baltimore.
Present-day Odd Fellows support a professorship of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University, and they contribute to the Arthritis Foundation and American Heart Association. The organization's symbol - three interlocking rings - represents friendship, love, and truth.
The skeletons likely were purchased from scientific or fraternal supply companies. One catalog from the early 1900s advertised a "genuine, full-size selected specimen, set up and wired, fairly deodorized."
"Every one has a different story," said Randall Kremer, a spokesman at the Smithsonian Institution. "The companies would obtain skeletons from anywhere possible. They could be indigents. Or often people, especially at the higher levels of society, were anxious to donate their remains for scientific study."