Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Today’s Ten Minute History Lesson: The origins of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, aka The Elks Club.

I find history fascinating. All sorts of history; relatively recent and very ancient, hugely important events and insignificant tidbits. When I was taking my undergraduate engineering curriculum, most of my electives were about history. I took a great graduate level course about the 25 years in America just preceding the Civil War. I think I graduated before I could take the companion course, which was about the Civil War itself. Too bad, too. I had a great instructor, Professor John Marzalek, who wrote “Assault at West Point, the Court Martial of Johnson Whittaker”, which was later turned into a very good film. It’s rather funny in that, as I came away with a degree in electrical engineering, this course in history was the one that I remember most fondly in my undergraduate work.

However, my experience aside, I think schools, at all levels, do a disservice when they teach history. Teaching history seems to mostly be about details and dates. Who did what to whom when. I imagine that the hardcore graduate level history courses, like the one that I mentioned above, get into more details and probe the meanings of all these happenings that affect where we are now as a civilization. But in grade school and high school, it is just a dull roar of details that you have to memorize for a test. You never get the actual flavor of the times, or a real sense that these were real people who did not know the outcome of all their actions at the time. Everything at that time was still yet to be determined, and could have easily gone the other way! In high school, history class isn’t about real people in real, unfolding events with uncertain outcomes. It is just another subject that you have to get through, one way or another, full of stultifying details and fuzzy black and white pictures of people in funny clothes.

I just find it a very interesting “thought experiment” to try to put myself in the place of the people who I am reading about, what their surroundings were actually like, what they thought, why they did what they did. That’s what’s missing from how history is taught.

Therefore, just because I find it interesting, I am going to start a new feature here at Barking Rabbits, if you can call something I might do now and then whenever the mood strikes me “a feature”, called “The Ten Minute History Lesson”, where I will quickly give the historical background on a subject that I find particularly interesting or amusing. It will be something hopefully interesting and easily digestible. Here’s this week’s/month’s installment, this time about the origins of the Elk’s Club.

(The following is an excerpt from the book by J. Anthony Lucas, entitled “Big Trouble” (Copyright 1997, Simon & Schuster). It is about the real events that took place in Idaho and other points in the Pacific Northwest around 1906 to 1912, mostly centered around the strife between labor vs. mine owners, which many times took the form of outright violence and the unabashed, unapologetic violation of many people’s civil rights. It is a very enjoyable read, although rather long.)

The Elks were born in 1867 when a young Englishman named Charles Vivian, just off the boat from Liverpool, banged through the swinging doors of John Ireland’s Star Chop House on New York’s waterfront and – with a few renditions of “Who Stole the Monkey?” and “Jimmy Riddle, Who Played the Fiddle?” – launched his music hall career. The song-and-dance man owed his success, in no small part, to a game he introduced to the tavern.

Called the Cork Trick, it began when a dupe was brought to the table full of genial men and invited to join “the Jolly Cork Society”. Each member put a cork on the table. The Imperial Cork (Vivian) explained that, when he counted three, the last man to raise his cork bought the next round of drinks. At the sound of three, the dupe instantly brandished his cork above his head. It took a bit of explaining to show him that, though he was first, he was last as well, for none of the others had so much as raised their corks off the table. Grousing under his breath, the new Cork paid up and promptly began plotting revenge on the next sucker.

Before long, the Cork Trick as the rage of New York’s theatrical world and Vivian found himself presiding over an ever-growing organization. But there was a hitch: blue laws kept the city’s theaters and taverns closed on Sunday, thus cheating bibulous show business folk of the one day on which they were free to disport themselves. To evade this regulation, the Jolly Corks found a new meeting place on Delancey Street and formed an appropriately high-sounding body to lease it, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.

At the start, Elks came almost exclusively from “the theatrical, minstrel, musical, equestrian and literary professions,” but gradually the doors opened to doctors, businessmen, even clergymen. And since theater people were incessantly on tour, they carried the order with them across the land. If the Elks began as a way for New York actors to drink on Sunday, it rapidly became a socially acceptable excuse for men of all pursuits to make merry whenever they felt like it. (The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine – better known as the Shriners – had its inception at another New York tavern, the Knickerbocker Cottage, at about the same time, and once more at the behest of an actor. Perhaps it took a theatrical imagination to conceive these fanciful bodies.)

And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. That’s how the Elks Club came about, with their buildings that look like they haven’t really been cleaned or painted in years, with rows and rows of photos of doughy looking old white guys hanging on the wall when you enter. It all started as a rigged game called “the Jolly Cork Society”, whose sole purpose was to enable of bunch of inebriated New York City actors to scam a round of drinks from an unsuspecting rube.

You just don’t get that kind of insight from your basic high school history class.

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