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The decline of Odd Fellows membership throughout much of the 20th century led to the problem of abandoned ceremonial coffins and unidentified human remains.
The Odd Fellows, like many fraternal organizations, are shrouded in secrecy and steeped in esoteric symbolism. Though they were a charitable staple of many communities throughout America for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, whose purpose was to “visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan,” little was known about what was happening behind closed doors.
The first Odd Fellows lodges were documented in London in 1730. The fraternity spread to America when the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) was founded in Baltimore in 1819. Industrialism after the Civil War brought with it the “Golden Age of Fraternalism” when as many as 40% of the adult population in America belonged to a fraternal order. The Great Depression and other contributing factors eventually put an end to that, though, when membership was no longer a luxury many could afford. Years of declining memberships saw many Odd Fellows chapters across the country closing their doors.
That’s when people started finding skeletons in closets, attics, and beneath floorboards of defunct lodges, cryptically emblazoned with the letters FLT inside three interlocking rings. Were these the remains of members who didn’t pay their dues? Were the Odd Fellows robbing graves? Was it ritual human sacrifice?
An Odd Fellows member from the 1800s who donated his remains for lodge rituals, “George” resides at the historic Odd Fellows Home in Liberty, MO, now home to the Belvoir Winery.
From the Knights Templar, formed around 1119 AD, to modern day Freemasons and other fraternal orders, their philosophies and practices have always been closely guarded. Images of beehives, peculiar handshakes, the all-seeing Eye of Providence, and various macabre reminders of our ephemeral nature such as skulls and coffins adorn their walls and regalia. Rumors abound of rituals involving bizarre pageantry performed by none other than upstanding and respected citizens, business owners, and politicians, though few have ever actually witnessed them. Members pledged to “forever conceal, and never reveal.”
But the secrets and obscure imagery weren’t intended to be frightening and sinister. They represented various principals and teachings that, in the early days, were used to protect the order’s resources from outsiders who might try to take advantage of them.
Initiation into the Odd Fellows, the “poor man’s Masonry,” involved a ceremony in which the pledge would come face-to-face with a skeleton in a candle-lit room to contemplate their mortality. Modern ceremonies use paper mache skeletons, but in the early days they used real human remains. As lodges closed throughout much of the 20th century, these skeletons were often abandoned and forgotten in the buildings where they had served in candle-lit induction rites for decades. The result is a bizarre and ongoing phenomenon of unsuspecting (and sometimes horrified) people unearthing human skeletons from dark crannies of old buildings around the country.
Like everything else needed to operate a lodge, complete skeletons could be ordered from a catalog. Who the bones belonged to or where they came from, however, remains a mystery. Some skeletons have been found with cleanly sawed craniums and articulated with wire, suggesting they underwent autopsy and were then medically prepared for educational purposes. Some lodges have legends about a member donating his remains to the order. Anthropologists are typically called in to determine age, race, and gender. Once authorities are confident it’s just another dusty old Odd Fellows skeleton rather than, say, some long forgotten cold case, then comes the next dilemma: What to do with 150-year-old unidentified human remains?
Digging Up Odd Fellows Skeletons
Some states have laws governing the possession of human remains, so undocumented bones must be confiscated. In some cases, they are donated to local funeral homes where they are stored indefinitely. Other times, the community may choose to bury them, display them, or they end up in private collections and Halloween displays.
When an Odd Fellows skeleton turns up, the search to unravel its mysterious origins tends to uncover some fascinating bits of history. For those who ended up spending their afterlife in the closet of an Odd Fellows lodge, their stories continue long after their death.
Saint Clair, PA, 1976
Odd Fellows skeleton found beneath the floorboards in Saint Clair, PA
Pharmacist David Buchanan purchased the former Odd Fellows lodge beside his shop. During renovations contractors found a mahogany coffin beneath a false floor in a closet on the second level. The coffin had the tell-tale three links metal insignia. Inside, they found an articulated human skeleton with its jaw and fingers wired so they could move.
Buchanan displayed the skeleton in his shop for a while, but what happened to it after that? According to this page, it remained there for many years, tucked away in an upstairs closet.
Pittsburgh, PA, 1982
Scene from Dawn of the Dead, 1978. via Halloween Love
Marilyn Wick, owner of a chain of Costume World shops, purchased the inventory of Pittsburgh-based Maier’s in the early 1980s. Among the costumes and various Halloween props workers found a glass-topped coffin. They called Wick up, fearful, explaining that it contained a real corpse. They refused to touch it. The body appeared to be mummified, with dried, tattered skin. Despite its grotesque appearance, a doctor in the family assured Wick it was fake.
The day she put it in the window for rent, it caught the attention of an off-duty police officer who was a bit more apprehensive. He had it removed for examination, and the Allegheny County coroner made an unusual discovery: The skin was fake, but beneath it were real bones belonging to a woman in her 30s who died about 100 years prior.
The owner of Maier’s, a man named Larry Wintersteller, had purchased the skeleton about 10 years earlier. He was told it was used in an Odd Fellows lodge for initiation rituals before the chapter folded. When George Romero was filming Dawn of the Dead in Pittsburgh in 1977, special effects master Tom Savini rented the skeleton from Wintersteller believing it was a medical teaching tool. He covered it in a layer of fake skin using latex, cotton, and Rice Krispies for use as a background corpse on set.
The coroner deemed the use of the skeleton for display and entertainment improper, and ordered the remains to be cremated. Wick filed a suit to get them a proper burial. She eventually won, and the remains were laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Mount Lebanon Cemetery on March 19, 1983.
In 2014, filmmaker William Sanders uncovered the story while working on his film Road Trip of the Dead. Sanders dubbed the unknown woman “Dawn Doe” and located the unmarked grave. He then set out to raise money for a marker. Word spread quickly, and when Wick heard about it, she personally donated the remaining amount to the cause.
Bellevue, Idaho, 1999
An Odd Fellows skeleton was found in the drawer of a built-in wardrobe of the Bellevue lodge’s second floor. Locals said the Odd Fellows used to hang the skeleton in the window during Halloween. A 92-year-old member of the Bellevue chapter confirmed a story that the skeleton belonged to a Chinese man who drowned in the nearby Big Wood River. The bones were picked clean by birds, and eventually sold or given to the lodge.
Warrenton, VA, 2001
An electrician was working on an old Odd Fellows lodge when he discovered a box containing human remains in a space between two walls. “Jane Doe Odd Fellow,” as the skeleton was called, was covered in a white shroud. It had “leathery ribs” and was stored with ceremonial white candles. Police got a warrant and seized the remains to be studied by state medical examiners.
Houston, MO, 2003
When a children’s competitive cheerleading team needed a place to practice, parents rented a defunct Odd Fellows lodge downtown. They found three coffins inside. One contained a plastic skeleton, another a “ceramic-like” torso painted to look like an embalmed corpse. But the third, a child-sized coffin, contained a white cloth mask and real bones held together with black twine.
The county coroner was called in to take a look. Dentition, or lack thereof, as well as other factors, indicated the bones were elderly. There were no signs of trauma, so he ruled out foul play. Ethnicity was difficult to establish, but ingrained dirt meant this skeleton, unlike those ordered from medical supply companies, had once been buried.
Canandaigua, NY, 2003
One Halloween night an officer walking his beat was checking to make sure shop keepers of downtown Canandaigua had locked up for the night. When he reached an Odd Fellows lodge then being used as a bingo hall, the door opened to his touch. He and another officer went inside to investigate, where they found a skeleton in a white coffin in a storage closet among Halloween decorations. Since it was Halloween, they thought nothing of it. 6 years later the same officer responded to an anonymous report of human remains, finding himself inside that same closet. Examining the bones closer this time around, he noted it didn’t seem to be wired together like the typical medical specimen. He described the remains, known by lodge members as “Hector,” as still having tendons and arteries intact. A four month investigation determined the 1800s skeleton was not the result of foul play.
It was stored by a funeral home for five years until a local nurse decided to use her economic stimulus check in 2008 to give the remains a proper burial with a headstone that read “Known only to God.” Recent bans on smoking in public buildings had drastically impacted attendance at the bingo hall, so the Odd Fellows were unable to contribute to the burial.
Scio, OR, 2011
While cleaning out a closet full of old log books and ceremonial robes in an old lodge, the 16-year-old daughter of a Rebekahs Lodge member discovered a black coffin with a pile of yellowed human bones inside. The skull had been bisected, indicating that an autopsy had been performed and it was likely donated to science.
Believing that the bones may have been Native American, the sheriff would not allow them to be photographed until the medical examiner and another forensic expert could determine their origin.
Warrensburg, NY, 2013
After years in storage at a local funeral home, the bones of two adult males found in a Warrensburg lodge closed in 1987 were given a proper burial as part of the town’s bicentennial celebrations to honor the historical significance of the Odd Fellows.
Council Bluffs, IA, 2013
Authorities questioned a man, a fifth-generation Odd Fellow, when they spotted a Craigslist ad asking $12,000 for a late 1800s or early 1900s oak coffin with a skeleton inside from his local lodge. He was trying to sell it to cover property taxes on the building which could no longer be supported by their dwindling membership.
The bones were donated by a doctor to a local Odd Fellows chapter in the 1880s.
It is not legal to sell human remains in Iowa without proper identification papers.
LeFlore County, OK, 2015
Sometime after moving into their new home, a family discovered an articulated skeleton in a coffin in their barn. The original owner of the property informed authorities it was one of two skeletons he found in a Poteau, OK lodge that closed in the 1960s. He put one skeleton in the barn and forgot about it, while the other had been given to a friend many years earlier for a Halloween prank and was never seen again.
The state crime lab identified the remains as a Japanese man who was 30-45 years old when he died.
West Plains, MO, 2016
A skeleton and 74 other artifacts found in the West Plains IOOF lodge, including ceremonial robes with skull and crossbones, medallions, sashes, and another human skull, were auctioned off in October 2016.
Have you made any usual discoveries inside a defunct Odd Fellows lodge? Do you have Odd Fellows memorabilia in your collection?
Tell us about it! Share your story in the comments below.