Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Irregular Secret Society Blogging - The Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur

"The Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur" sounds like it might be quite an interesting and racy organisation - perhaps one of the Jewish-American crime syndicates that caused so much trouble in turn-of-the-century New York, or the paramilitary wing of "Jews for Jesus" or something. In fact, while fascinating in its own way, the STB-H was rather more prosaic in nature; it was basically a life assurance company.

It was founded in 1880, which was close to the high point of the fraternal society boom in the USA. It's interesting to me because it was actually a spin-off deal; the novel "Ben-Hur" by Lew Wallace had recently become a hit, and although the licensing industry was in its infancy, American capitalism was already far enough advanced for a couple of promoters to buy the secret society rights to the novel from its author.

Weird huh? It's one of the little ephemera of 19th century finance that there were such things as "secret society promoters" in the USA at this time. Recall that there was no Social Security at the time, and certainly no welfare state. The USA had also not really developed any equivalent of the Equitable Life Assurance Society or the Scottish mutual societies. There were a few life assurance firms, but they did not have much presence in the West and tended to be quite up-market in terms of the clientele they served.

Instead, life assurance for the working man was typically provided by fraternal organisations. The Odd Fellows (descendants of the journeymen's organisations which succeeded the medieval guilds early in the development of capitalism) were the biggest fraternal benefit society, but there were lots of others, often organised on industry or similar lines - the Elks, Eagles, etc.

These fraternal organisations provided benefits to their members - basically, everyone paid a monthly subscription and the society then paid sickness and death benefits on behalf of all. They tended to founder somewhat because they didn't make sufficient use of actuarial science to calibrate the benefits (and of course, they were terribly vulnerable to the effects of an aging membership, which is why so many of them no longer exist), but in their early days at least, they provided a useful service.

The secret society aspect came in partly in order to exclude non-members from gaining benefits, and partly because this sort of thing was very fashionable in the USA at the time. There was a general fascination with rituals and secret societies, and a really well-written set of initiation rites, or a unique selling point like an association with a popular novel, could really give a boost to a fraternal benefit organisation. Going into the twentieth century, many of them set up proper life assurance companies to handle the financial side, but kept the secret society aspect going alongside. (here's a description of the initiation ritual of what was by then called the "Ben Hur Life Association". Note the number of patriotic loyalty oaths - these were also very standard for American secret societies of the period)

And so it was that the Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur came into being - they were strongest in Indiana, which was one of the most secret-society-joining states of the Union (at one point, 25% of all adult males in Indiana were members of the Ku Klux Klan!). They never really made much of a mark on history, other than in the Supreme Court case of STB-H vs Cauble, which established an important point about federal jurisdiction in class action lawsuits, and a rather nice building in Crawfordsville, Indiana. The society struggled on and might still be in existence today, though its life company changed its name to "USA Life Insurance" in 1988 and became a commercial company. But they never did anyone any harm as far as I can see and I have something of an affection for their slightly odd story.

Secret Society Trivia Quiz!: Whose ancient mystic secrets did the "Ancient Mystic Order of the Bagmen of Bagdad" swear to preserve, and why is it so hilarious that they vowed to never defile the chastity of womanhood?
10 comments this item posted by the management 2/28/2007 06:42:00 AM

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