Order of Owls

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The Order of Owls is a secret fraternal order founded in 1904 in South Bend, Indiana by John W. Talbot.[1] According to its literature, the purposes of the society is "to assist each other in business, to help each other in obtaining employment, to assist the widows and orphans of our brothers, to give aid to our brother in any way that they may need, and assemble for mutual pleasure and entertainment."[2] Its "catechism" said "Owls do good, speak kindly, shake hands warmly, and respect and honor their women".[3]


The order originated among a group of men who engaged in different businesses and periodically met for mutual assistance. This group included John W. Talbot, Joseph E. Talbot, George D. Beroth, J. Lott Losey, John J.Johnson, John D. Burke, William Weaver and Frank Dunbar. They got around to discussing the teachings and methods of different fraternal orders and decided to create a new one, named after the owl. After several months of planning by "the best constitutional lawyers in the Middle West", the constitution was adopted and the order was founded at the law offices of Talbot and Talbot on Nov. 20, 1904 in South Bend, Indiana.[4]


The local units of the Order are called "Nests" and include officers such an "Invocator" who served as chaplain.[5] The central organization was evidently the "Home Nest" in the early twentieth century,[6] but it was reportedly called the "Supreme Nest" in 1979. The head of the organization was the Supreme President.[7]

The headquarters are called the "Supreme Offices"[8] as late as the 1920s, but had moved to Hartford, Connecticut by the 1930s.[9]


Membership was open to men regardless of their religion.[10] At least as late as 1979, though, membership was limited to white males.[11]

In 1911 the Order claimed over 300,000 members in the US, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Australia, South Africa and elsewhere.[12] In 1924 the Order had 643,748 members in 2,148 lodges.[13] It had approximately 100,000 members and 1,500 Nests in 1951,[14] In 1957 the Order claimed a membership of 202,000.[15] In 1970 it had 40,000 members[11] and 5,000 in 1989.[16]


The Order of Owls worked four degrees[17] and had a secret ritual, signs, grips and passwords. The initiate was required to recite a lengthy obligation, before he could join the order.[18] An Owls circular in the early 1920s stated that "We have a beautiful ritual, but no religious observances. Nothing in the ritual is offensive to any man's religion or irreligion."[10]

In 1912, it was reported[19] that the Owls' motto, penned by Frank Dunbar at the initial 1904 meeting, was:

There's so much bad in the best of us
And so much good in the worst of us
It hardly behooves any of us
To speak ill of the rest of us.

The same article goes on to state:

The Owls in their mottoes have gone the Hoo-Hoos one better in the rescue of a good old but sadly abused Latin derivative. Out of deference to non-members we will use the customary dash in the one quoted, which is offered in evidence of fact that the Owls, while going about in a serious way to sandpaper the splinters of the helter-skelter of life, are firm believers in the play spirit. The motto is DON'T TAKE YOURSELVES TOO SERIOUSLY.[19]

Religious controversies[edit]

The ritual of the Order of the Owls stated, "We advocate no creed. We know there are so many gods, so many creeds, so many paths that wind and wind. We believe that the art of kindness is all this old world needs." [20] They elsewhere stated that their Order was "a secret society of good fellows, who believe in love, laughter and the Kingdom of Heaven ON EARTH.[21] It does not believe in postponing ones enjoyments until after death"[22] Other Owls literature stated claimed they were "the only great secret fraternity which does not claim in any manner to be a religious body."[2]

After being attacked by the Catholic weekly Newark Monitor in 1907, Supreme President Talbot replied that the order was founded by "sober men of Catholic education" and reported that 4 of its supreme officers were Catholics, 2 others were married to Catholics in the church and four out of seven of the trustees were Catholics. Furthermore, he claimed that the Owls was the only secret order in which there was nothing objectionable to Catholics other than the Ancient Order of Hibernians which Talbot claimed he had joined twenty years prior.[6]

Later, when a Catholic pastor had warned his congregation against the Owls, Talbot wrote him back on Dec. 13, 1910 saying that it had come to his attention that he had a copy of the ritual and was making parts of it known; Talbot protested that the ritual was property of the Home Nest, which was the supreme organization of the order, and "amply protected in a legal manner" and threatened legal action, but nothing came of the matter.[23] p. 358-9

The Order of Owls refused to respond from inquires from the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod's Commission on Fraternal Orders in 1947, 1957, 1960, or 1961.[24]

Afro-American Order of Owls[edit]

A group called the "Afro-American Order of Owls" was founded in Maryland in 1911. They were sued by the Order of the Owls over the use of the name. In 1914 the Maryland Court of Appeals issued a split decision allowing the Afro-American Order of Owls to continue using the name, but not the initials "A.A.O.O.O." symbol, as it was too close to the white organizations "O.O.O." symbol.[25]

More controversy and splits[edit]

On August 9, 1912, the Grand Rapids "Local Nest" seceded to form the Order of Ancient Oaks, saying, "The Order of Owls is governed by one John W. Talbot and four associates, at South Bend, Ind. who run things to suit themselves and give no account of the moneys received. The Order has no legal standing anywhere in the U.S. and is careless in admitting new members." This had all come out in an investigation by the Grand Rapids Nest and several other dissatisfied Nests. According to the Grand Rapids Herald the Owls had suffered no less than 40 secessions, the revolters taking various names.[26] On May 27, 1921, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that 200 members had left the Order of the Owls to form the Supreme Order of the White Rabbits. Lodges of the White Rabbits were located in Missouri, Kansas, Illinois and Ohio.[27]

A Loyal American League was founded circa 1912 in Des Moines, Iowa by William. B. Jarvis, a former organizer of the Owls to "combat Puritan intolerance." The group didn't seem to last long.[28]

In 1921 Supreme President John W. Talbot was convicted under the Mann Act.[29][30] He was sentenced to five years in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary and a $5,000 fine.[31] This was his second offense.[29]

Many chapters have been disbanded, but as of the early 21st century, some continued to operate in such places as Duluth, Minnesota,[32] Perkasie, Pennsylvania[33] and Parkersburg, West Virginia.[34] One recently organized Nest in Baltimore, Maryland was raided in 2005 as "an illegal poker tournament."[35]


  1. ^ Preuss, Arthur A Dictionary of Secret and other Societies St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co. 1924; republished Detroit: Gale Reference Company 1966; p.356
  2. ^ a b Preuss p.357, quoting the Constitution and Bylaws of Nest #1482 in Maryville, Missouri
  3. ^ Whalen p.129
  4. ^ Christian Cynosure Vol. XLVIII #8 Dec. 1915 p.237, quoting an undated issue of the Orders "official publication" Vol. II #15
  5. ^ Whalen, William J. Handbook of Secret Organization Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co. 1966; Second printing 1967 p.129
  6. ^ a b Preuss p.358
  7. ^ Alvin J. Schmidt Fraternal Orders (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press), 1980, p. 251
  8. ^ Preuss p.356 quotes a circular issued "some years ago" by the Supreme Offices located in South Bend, Indiana
  9. ^ http://www.ebay.com/itm/Order-of-Owls-Illustrated-Advertising-Pennsylvania-flag-cancel-1930-/112049685363
  10. ^ a b Preuss p.357
  11. ^ a b Schmidt p.250
  12. ^ Fortnightly Review Vol. XVIII #22 1911 p.657
  13. ^ Preuss p.356
  14. ^ Order Of Owls v. Owls Club Of Mckees Rocks District Court Of United States, Western District Of Pennsylvania; July 27, 1951
  15. ^ Whalen p.130
  16. ^ Alan Axelrod International Encyclopedia of Secret Societies and Fraternal Orders New York; Facts on File, inc 1997 p.192
  17. ^ Preuss p.356, quoting an early 1920s circular
  18. ^ Preuss p.358, reproduces the complete obligation verbatim from p.17 of the ritual
  19. ^ a b Frank L. Nelson. "The Secret Society 'Zoo'." Hampton's Magazine 28.3, April 1912. (Google Books)
  20. ^ Quoted in Preuss p.358. Preuss notes that the quote is from p.9 of the ritual
  21. ^ Preuss p.356 quoting a circular issued "several years ago" emphasis in original
  22. ^ Whalen, pp.128-9. Whalen is evidently quoting the same source, but he includes the latter sentence.
  23. ^ Preuss pp.358-9
  24. ^ Whalen p.128. They also refused to respond to Whalen
  25. ^ Theda Skocpol; Ariane Liazos; Marshall Ganz What a mighty power we can be: African American fraternal groups and the struggle for racial equality Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2006 p.45 The legal case's title and number is The Afro-American Order of Owls, Nest Number One a Body Corporate vs. John W. Talbot, George D. Beroth, Chester B. Crumpacker Court of Appeals of Maryland, 123 MD.465 91 A 570; 1914 Md. LEXIS 138, Skocpol et al. p.236 N.80
  26. ^ Fortnightly Review Vol. XIX #17 Sept. 1, 1912 p.482
  27. ^ Fortnightly Review Vol. XXVIII #19 Oct. 1, 1921 p.360
  28. ^ Preuss p.253
  29. ^ a b Whalen pp. 129–130
  30. ^ "Plea Not Guilty; National Chief of Owls Denies Topeka Girl Charges; Arraigned Today — Date of Trial Is Deferred." Topeka State Journal, 1921-03-07. (Library of Congress)

    John W. Talbot, of South Bend, national president of the order of Owls, pleaded not guilty today when arraigned before United States Judge A.B. Anderson on the charge of violating the Mann act. Pearl Spangler, head nurse of the Owl hospital in South Bend, indicted with Talbot on the Mann act charge, also pleaded not guilty. Judge Anderson deferred setting the date for their trial.

    The complaining witness in the case against Talbot and Pearl Spangler is Pearl Bagley, 40, of Topeka. She told the grand jury, which indicted Talbot recently at Indianapolis, that she was held virtually a prisoner by the Owl president but at last escaped and sought the protection of the South Bend police. She declared that Talbot, for whom her father, William F. Bagley, formerly did organization work in Kansas, wrote and asked her to come to South Bend on her vacation. She says she complied and upon her arrival was placed in charge of Mrs. Spangler and forcibly detained until she escaped to the police. [...]

  31. ^ "Jail the Owl Chief; Five Years and $5,000 Penalty for Talbot; Convicted Under Mann Act on Topeka Girl's Charge." Topeka State Journal, 1921-11-30. (Library of Congress)
  32. ^ Lebens, Alicia. "Duluth Owls Club last of its kind in St. Louis County". LakeVoice April 30, 2011
  33. ^ "Info & Links" Perkasie Owls Nest 1224 website
  34. ^ "Information" Fraternal Order Of Owls, Citysearch.com
  35. ^ Anderson, Lynn. "Owners charged in illegal gambling" The Baltimore Sun December, 2005

Further reading[edit]

  • Mason, Mrs. Leona The character and life of John W. Talbot, Supreme President Order of Owls, Exposed by One of his Victims South Bend, Indiana 1908