Cheerleading practice can be grueling, but rarely does it involve the discovery of human remains.
That changed in 2004, when the young women of the ShowMe Spirit All-Stars in Houston, Texas, were set to converge on a century-old building they had rented to use as practice space with the letters IOOF written above the door. Walking through the property, squad coaches Tabbi Ireland and Sheri Wade found a primitive security system with door buzzers and peepholes. They also discovered old robes, ancient ledgers, and books that seemed to hint at a mysterious history. The spine of one volume read: IOOF Working Rituals.
Then there were the coffins—three of them in total. Two contained fake skeletons, but the third seemed suspiciously authentic and quickly became the talk of the practices. One of the girls’ mothers asked local authorities to examine them, and their suspicions were confirmed: The specimen and its dirt-encrusted surface was the genuine article, a skeleton that would eventually prove to be of indeterminable gender and ancestry. All anyone knew of the remains was that they belonged to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a centuries-old fraternal organization.
Owing to the dirt, they also knew the skeleton was likely not acquired through conventional means. The dirt hinted it may have once been buried, and someone had then dug it up. The ShowMe Spirit All-Stars had uncovered evidence of a ritual that still exists in some form today, one that has resulted in multiple instances of skeletons making dramatic reappearances during renovations.
But why did the Odd Fellows need them in the first place?
Though their numbers have waned in recent years thanks to the advent of the internet, fraternal organizations were once a prominent part of American life. Freemasonry, Moose Lodges, and the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks opened chapters across the country and espoused a values system normally based around charitable acts and loyalty while bonding through arcane rituals, languages, and attire. By one estimate, 10.5 million Americans were a member of over 500 “secret societies” in 1907.
The Independent Order of Odd Fellows was one such society. The group formed in 17th century England before arriving in America in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1819, and its name has a few potential origins: It might refer to the fact that early members were tradesmen who wanted to form a trade group but had too few peers in their specialty and had to band together. Others believe it refers to the “odd” nature of assembling in an effort to be charitable, which is something the Odd Fellows pride themselves on. Helping orphans and assisting people in burying their dead were early tenets. Today, the group sponsors a professorship at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and supports the Arthritis Foundation, among other pursuits. Their symbol of three interlocking rings represents Friendship, Love, and Truth. In the early 20th century, it may have had as many as 3.4 million members.
“The IOOF or Odd Fellows is an inclusive co-ed fraternal organization with over 200 years of history that serves as the original social network and provides members a multi-faceted experience depending on what they are looking for,” Ainslie Heilich, a spokesperson for the Sovereign Grand Lodge for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, tells Mental Floss. “Lodges provide socializing with a purpose to help improve our communities while improving ourselves. Members come together to become a better version of ourselves and leave behind the frustrations of daily life while participating in meetings, socials, fundraisers, volunteering, initiations, and degree rituals. It’s a great way to learn new social, business, and life skills as well.
“One of my Lodge friends aptly describes the experience as being like scouting but for grownups. I think it’s a little like slipping into a real life Wes Anderson movie. It’s something I didn’t realize I was looking for until I found it.”
While good intentions were and are abundant, both the Odd Fellows and other organizations tended to have a taste for the macabre, using ritualized behaviors to indoctrinate members and cement a sense of solidarity and discretion.
Not all were harmless. In 1913, a Loyal Order of Moose ritual turned deadly when two candidates in Birmingham, Alabama, perished. Fooled into thinking that senior members were really branding them with a hot iron—the iron was cool, but a battery connection sent a sensation up their bodies—the men had heart attacks and died. A Knights of Tablor ceremony in Texas in 1916 nearly ended fatally when a member tripped and fell on a sword. He survived and sued the Knights in an act of decidedly non-fraternal litigation.
While the injuries incurred during such practices invite publicity, other organizations have gone years—perhaps centuries—without disclosing what goes on behind closed doors. That was true of the Odd Fellows until the 1990s and early 2000s, when disbanded lodges and vacant locations began to be occupied by comparatively normal fellows.
In 2001, an electrician in Warrenton, Virginia, named Paul Wallace was repairing circuits in an old building previously occupied by Odd Fellows when he came across a space between two walls. Tugging on the contents, he discovered a black box. Inside was a skeleton covered in a white shroud—“like a Dracula movie,” Wallace would later recall—and alerted authorities.
The scene had been playing out across the country. In 2000, a theater worker in Missouri was offered two free caskets by a consolidating Odd Fellows lodge. One had a plaster skeleton. A second had a real one. In 2008, a man in Wayne Township, Pennsylvania, named David Simmons was helping renovate his grandfather’s home when he saw something unusual in between the floorboards of a crawlspace. Shining his flashlight, he noticed an old clock, a lantern, and some 50 bones. (Some Odd Fellows skeletons are incomplete: The human body has over 200 bones.) Other skeletons cropped up in California, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma, and Virginia, among others.
“As with all fraternal organizations, the number of IOOF members and lodges has been shrinking,” Heilich says. “The second half of the 20th century saw many lodges closing and the Grand Lodges all over the continent couldn’t keep up with clearing out and storing everything so whole lodges full of stuff were just abandoned. These traditionally downtown buildings would then be sold and as the new owners would be doing renovations they would unwittingly discover [the skeletons] long forgotten in a storage cubby.”
Once authorities determined the buildings where these remains were found once belonged to Odd Fellows, the society that cherished its privacy was forced to disclose a portion of its history and detail why so many of their lodges held real skeletons—and what purpose they served.
Though Odd Fellows sometimes asked authorities to be discreet about their ritualized practices, details eventually began to circulate outside their closed circles.
When a prospective Odd Fellow was ready to join the ranks of the society, their initiation would involve donning a hoodwink—goggles with built-in blinds that could be open and shut. Sometimes weighed down with chains, the would-be member would be led into a torch-lit or candlelit room. When the blinds were opened, they would find themselves suddenly and unexpectedly standing face-to-face with a skeleton.
The practice, known as the Lodge of Reflection, is intended to remind members of their own mortality—that no matter a person’s wealth or stature, all wind up the same in the end.
“The skeleton serves as a ritual and symbolic ‘memento mori’ where we all are face mortality by looking the inevitable great equalizer in the eye,” Heilich says.
Heilich says the practice dates back to 1797. Lodges were able to acquire skeletons through medical supply companies or businesses that specialized in supplying the large demand for items useful in fraternal orders. One catalog at the turn of the 20th century advertised real skeletons as “genuine and life-sized” and “fairly deodorized.” Interested parties were prompted to call for a price.
While other elements of Odd Fellows rituals—like riding a goat or donning a ceremonial screen mask—were unusual but largely harmless, their practice of using real human remains gave new occupants and contractors a number of frights decades later. Inevitably, authorities would investigate the findings, determine there was no foul play, and then hand off the bones to forensic anthropologists, universities, or museums. Others received a proper burial. Two skeletons were laid to rest in Warrensburg, New York, in 2013 in a funeral funded by the Alexander Funeral Home and the Chestertown Lodge Odd Fellows chapter. Their coffins still bore the dripping wax of rituals past.
Occasionally, some will come up for sale. Two Odd Fellows skeletons found in Pennsylvania were auctioned off by the Mahoning Valley Fire Company in Mahoning Township on behalf of the Odd Fellows Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania in 2001. That practice has sometimes drawn criticism over the ethical nature of making human skeletons a commodity. There’s also been concern over a possible legal issue with the desecration of human remains, though the bones being decades old means the statute of limitations has expired.
Indeed, not all Odd Fellows bones have gone on to maintain their dignity. One skeleton belonging to the order in Pittsburgh and later sold to a prop dealer made its way into 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, with both the production and the audience unaware that the bones were the genuine article.
The Odd Fellows are still active—and actively recruiting—but sightings of their skeletons have trailed off in recent years. Still, Heilich says that as old lodges continue to be renovated, there is potential for more skeletons to pop up.
As for Houston’s Odd Fellow remains: The bones eventually wound up under the care of curious forensic anthropology students at Southwest Missouri State University. Their origin was never determined, though the dirt pointed to the fact that the skeleton may have been taken by someone—not necessarily an Odd Fellow—directly from the grave.
And what of the initiation? With skeletons literally tumbling out of closets, have the Odd Fellows found a new way of representing mortality without human remains in play?
Heilich is quick to answer. “Who said we stopped?”