This photograph of the Knights of Pythias (KOP) Lodge No. 70, (Mason, Michigan) is part of the Versile D. Babcock Collection housed by the Archives of Michigan. The lodge was founded on June 10, 1886, with a charter membership of twenty-six. The photograph, which dates from 1913, reflects the years when this secret, philanthropic society was popular in the United States. The garb, worn by the members for this “Lesson of Friendship,” represents the underpinning of the society: the legend of Damon and Pythias.
Here is the photo above, with identifications of the individuals pictured. To read the names, continue clicking on the image until a larger version appears.
The group’s founder, Justice A. Rathbone (1839-1889), was teaching in Eagle Harbor, Michigan (c. 1860), when he and his friends staged the 1821 drama written by Irish dramatist John Banim. The heroes of the play, Damon and Pythias, are two friends who clash with Dionysius I (c. 430-367 BC), the Greek tyrant of Syracuse. Pythias is sentenced to be executed. Damon offers himself as hostage so that Pythias can go home and say farewell to his family. Damon agrees to be executed if Pythias does not return. Being true to his friend, Pythias returns. Dionysus is so moved by this sign of loyalty and honor that he releases both men and begs to be admitted to their friendship. Rathbone took this message of fellowship and self-sacrifice and developed a ritual for the Order of the Knights of Pythias. Rathbone also borrowed practices of other fraternal orders to which he belonged (e.g., the Freemasons and the Improved Order of Red Men).
The Knights of Pythias did not formally organize until February 19, 1864. At that time, Rathbone, who lived in Washington D.C., joined forces with government clerks to organize the Grand Lodge for the District of Columbia (April 1864). Pythian literature points to Rathbone’s view that post-Civil War America would need principles “to rekindle the brotherly sentiment which had been all but stamped out under the merciless heel of human passions.” The Knights’ motto became Friendship, Charity and Benevolence. This benevolence did not extend to African Americans. In 1869, a black lodge from Richmond, Virginia was denied a charter. This Richmond lodge responded by organizing the “The Knights of Pythias of North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa.”
The Eagle Harbor Schoolhouse is preserved as a Pythian shrine. It is listed the State’s Historic Sites (1971) and National Register of Historic Places (1972). For more information, click Rathbone School and Museum.
Webb, Hugh Goold. A history of the Knights of Pythias and its branches and auxiliary; together with an account of the origin of secret societies, the rise and fall of chivalry and historical chapters on the Pythian ritual. Anaheim, Cal.: The Uniform Rank Co-operative Association, 1910. (Hathi-Trust Online Library )