Demon worship, black masses, unholy baboons, and Benjamin Franklin. What went on during those meetings of the Hellfire Club deep in the caves of West Wycombe?
Devil worship, black masses, unholy baboons, and Benjamin Franklin. What went on during those meetings of the Hellfire Club deep in the caves of West Wycombe?
There is a series of man made tunnels and chambers beneath West Wycomb in England. Known as the Hellfire Caves, it was in these subterranean depths that Sir Francis Dashwood (1708–1781) the 11th Baron le Despencer, convened his secretive meetings of the wealthy elite in the 1700s. It was a highly exclusive gentlemen’s club where members of high society could let loose. What exactly went on down in those caverns is unclear, but the rumors and legends paint a dark picture of their activities.
The group is known today as the Hellfire Club, a name also used for other similar groups around the same time. In its day, Dashwood’s group went by several names, such as the Order of Knights of West Wycombe, The Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe and the Monks of Medmenham, referring to Medmenham Abbey, a 12th century church where meetings were held prior to moving underground into the caves. Membership included notable aristocrats and politicians like Thomas Potter, John Wilkes, the 4th earl of Sandwich John Montegue, and even Benjamin Franklin.
It was during this same period of time that Franklin’s secret basement room in London was filling up with bodies. More on that later.
Another notable member was painter William Hogarth. He wasn’t a wealthy landowner or politician like other members of the group, but he was admitted due to his work for Dashwood. He had painted a portrait of Dashwood as a parody of Renaissance depictions of St. Francis of Assisi. In the portrait, Dashwood’s friend Lord Sandwich looks down over his shoulder from the halo, and the Bible has been swapped for the erotic novel Elegantiae Latini sermonis.
In keeping with the façade of a faux religious order, Hellfire Club members addressed each other as “brother” and the leader as “abbot.” But unlike the strict rules and moral code adhered to by most religious zealots, the Hellfire Club had one tenet: Do what thou wilt.
It was a sentiment that would be echoed by Aleister Crowley, the “wickedest man in the world,” a hundred years later. It was a phrase meant to take a direct confrontational stance against, and a mockery of, the oppressive doctrines (or dogma) of the Catholic church.
Portrait of Sir Francis Dashwood by William Hogarth
Heaven and Hellfire
On the top of West Wycombe Hill near his family’s ancestral estate, Dashwood funded renovations of the St. Lawrence Church and mausoleum which gave the medieval structure a pagan-influenced redesign inspired by the Temple of the Sun in Palmyra, where ancient Mesopotamian gods had been worshiped. The golden ball on top is 8 feet in diameter with seating for six people. It was rumored to have been used by the Hellfire Club. John Wilkes said it was “the best globe tavern” he was ever in.
Local legend says the church was originally to be built at the entrance to the caves. Each night, some unseen force demolished the construction done that day. This went on until eventually a local priest heard a voice that told him to build the church atop the hill where it sits now so it would not be disturbed.
Below the hill’s surface, five years of excavations carved out the numerous rooms and passageways where Dashwood’s blasphemous brotherhood would act out their profane desires.
Dashwood’s inspiration for the unusual design of the caves – featuring demon faces, phallic symbols and mythological imagery – came from the many ancient sites he visited during his Grand Tour of Europe. Notably, Dashwood gained attention during his travels for impersonating the king of Sweden, Charles XII, in the hopes of bedding Tsarina Anne of Russia – a move that got him expelled from the Papal States.
Beginning with the Entrance Hall, the cave winds a quarter of a mile deep into the hill through chambers with names like Lord Sandwich’s Circle, Franklin’s Cave, and the Triangle. The banqueting hall was illuminated by a rose quartz crystal Rosicrucian lamp entwined with a solid gold serpent to represent “eternity.”
Eventually, the narrow tunnels lead to a pool of water that Dashwood named the Styx after the river in Greek mythology that forms the boundary between the living world and the underworld. Here, new members were baptized with unholy water from a “cursing well” and then ferried across the threshold by boat.
On the other side is the final cave, known as the Inner Temple. This chamber is said to be 300 feet directly below St. Lawrence Church, symbolizing Heaven and Hell.
Only members of the “Twelve Apostles” were permitted to enter here.
A 3D map of the Hellfire Caves created by Hexagon Geosystems. See how this was made right here.
It was here, in Hell, that the meetings took place.
According to rumors and legends, those meetings consisted of “obscene parodies of religious rites,” as one source described it, as well as Satanic rituals, black magic, orgies with female “guests” who the members referred to as “nuns,” and other general debauchery. Some members just wanted to eat, drink, and enjoy “private devotions” with their mistresses.
During black masses, Dashwood was said to administer the sacrament to his pet baboon, or a dog. Another story says the baboon was part of a prank played by Lord Sandwich on John Wilkes, in which the primate jumped out of a large chest dressed as the devil. The joke enraged Wilkes and provoked him to pen an exposé on the group.
The controversy surrounding their potentially nefarious activities eventually brought an end to the club in 1766.
Inside the tunnels of the Hellfire Caves
Poet Paul Whitehead, secretary and steward of the order, burned all incriminating records before his death in 1774. At Whitehead’s request, his heart was cut from his dead chest and given to Dashwood as a show of gratitude. Dashwood placed it in a marble urn, held a three hour funeral for it, and then interred it in a niche in the mausoleum on the hill.
Staff at Dashwood’s home West Wycombe Park began seeing the apparition of Whitehead in 1781. They saw him on the grounds, in the garden, and even in the house, beckoning for them to follow him.
Mausoleum visitors were allowed to view and even touch Whitehead’s heart, but it was stolen in 1829. To this day, tourists still claim to see his ghost wandering through the mausoleum, as well as the caves below, searching for his missing heart.
Another spirit said to haunt the caves is known as The White Lady, or Sukie. Local legend says she was a chambermaid at the George and Dragon tavern in West Wycombe in the the 19th century. When Sukie rejected the advances of three local boys, they lured her into the caves and killed her.
Medmenham Abbey is also said to be haunted by blasphemous monks who engaged in “beastly pleasures and beastly humors” there.
Some claim the entire landscape is haunted by a “homicidal ghost,” said to be the “wraith of the last of the mad monks of Medmenham.”
Entrance to the Hellfire Caves
London Hellfire Club
Dashwood’s group may be the best known, but it wasn’t the only Hellfire Club. It wasn’t even the first. That title goes to the club founded in London in 1718 by Philip, Duke of Wharton.
Wharton’s club was basically intended to be a joke, a satire of contemporary gentlemen’s club where men and women alike to have a good time and blaspheme God.
Members called themselves “devils,” dressed like characters from the Bible, and conducted mock religious ceremonies. Their dinners consisted of dishes with names like “Devil’s Loin,” “Breast of Venus,” “Holy Ghost Pie,” and a drink they called “Hell-fire punch.”
Wharton’s Hellfire Club was shut down for immorality by order of King George I in 1721.
Bones in Benjamin Franklin’s Basement
While it’s likely unconnected to the Hellfire Club’s activities, it’s worth noting that this was during the period of time that Franklin was living in London in the house at 36 Craven Street. It was there in 1998 that conservation work unearthed more than 1200 bones, the bodies of 9 adults and 6 children that had been buried in a secret basement room. Forensic investigators dated the bones to Franklin’s time. The likely explanation, however, is not the tantalizing vision of gruesome Satanic rituals and human sacrifice that this scene conjures. Historians believe Franklin’s friend William Hewson was conducting clandestine anatomy lessons in the house during a time when cutting up the dead for medical research was considered unethical.
Hewson likely paid resurrection men to acquire freshly buried bodies from the grave or those from the gallows down the street. Then, after dissection, he most likely buried the remains in the basement rather than risk getting caught dumping the bodies elsewhere.