While the suggestion of a secret fraternal order often brings to mind the Freemasons, there have been and continue to be dozens of other, similar organizations with rules, structures and ceremonies as complex as those of the Scottish Rites.
One of the oldest surviving fraternal organizations is the group known as the Odd Fellows. Now represented by three distinct bodies — the Grand United Order of Oddfellows, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and the Independent Order of Oddfellows Manchester Unity, the Odd Fellows (or Oddfellows) suggest in legend that their society can trace its roots back to first century Rome. Their “odd” traditions and customs gave rise to the name.
Historians note, however, that the group more likely arose during the Middle Ages. While specific groups of trades — for example the silversmiths, blacksmiths and so on — could band together to form a larger guild with more trade leverage, the smaller, more unusual merchants and craftsmen might be left out. These odd leftovers may have banded together for mutual benefit, thus forming the first association of “odd” fellows.
Often referred to as the “Poor Man’s Masons,” the Odd Fellows flourished as a not-so-secret fraternal society in both the U.S. and the U.K. during the 18th and 19th centuries. While their existence was well documented, their ceremonies, laws and rituals were less known to the general public. One of the group’s stated goals, “to bury the dead,” was at first a well-regarded public service in times where proper burials were not a sure thing. As time’s changed, this association with the dead and funereal rites gave the group a certain sinister reputation. Many of the group’s rumored rites included real human skeletons — several of which have been unearthed upon the closing of Odd Fellow lodges or other building — which only served to further shade their legacy.
Today, the Odd Fellows have dimmed over the years, not unlike many other formerly powerful fraternal societies. Still the Independent Order of Odd Fellows alone claims more than 600,000 current members over some 10,000 lodges. In Australia, one branch of IOOF has evolved into a powerful financial services and advisement firm with more than 700,000 customers and more than $100 billion in funds under management, administration, advice and supervision.