Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions: awesomely dangerous pranks from the age of fraternal lodges

By Cory Doctorow

Julia Suits's The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions: The Curious World of the Demoulin Brothers and Their Fraternal Lodge Prank Machines - from Human Centipedes and Revolving Goats to Electric Carpets and Smoking Camels is a history of those long-gone, much lamented days when Americans joined fraternal lodges in great numbers, and when those lodges attracted and retained members by subjecting new initiates to horrible, dangerous, violent pranks that often involved some combination of 35 cal blanks and high-voltage electricity.

You know, the good old days.

The Demoulin Brothers were the top of the fraternal order prank-gadget food-chain, publishing a secretive (but wildly popular) catalog that was distributed to lodge presidents and other mucky-mucks. The catalog featured inventions that could be used to terrorize (and delight) the members by simulating their executions, making them think they were to be horribly burned, and other delights of the simpler era when TV wasn't yet invented and radio was newfangled and untrustworthy.

Suits is a real scholar of those days, and she livens up the many reproductions from the various catalogs with great context-giving notes about the nature of these lodges, reprints from newspapers and magazine articles of the day that give a sense of their prominence and significance, and biographies of the mad geniuses who sold these gadgets for so many years.

From the demented copywriting in the catalogs to the fan-letters written to the company by excited lodge leaders who were delighted with the performance of the prank items, The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions is a time machine that transports readers to that gilded age and its highly specialized notions of fun and fraternity.







Published 6:07 am Tue, Nov 1, 2011

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About the Author

I write books. My latest are: a YA graphic novel called In Real Life (with Jen Wang); a nonfiction book about the arts and the Internet called Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer) and a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.

16 Responses to “Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions: awesomely dangerous pranks from the age of fraternal lodges”

  1. Rasputin says:

    Human Centipede. Ahrm.

  2. Robert Cruickshank says:

    Some jokes never get old. Electric shocks will never be not funny. (if you doubt this, just enter the word “shocking” as a search term on the site of a certain well-known Chinese on-line gadget retailer.  

  3. jeligula says:

    The Human Centipede.  Yes.  Nothing says fraternal lodge initiation like a fertility killing shock to the scrotum.  Quite handy as the lodge gene is not passed on to future generations. I think we can safely say this is the reason why interest in them waned.

  4. pgt says:

    I’m a Mason, and a Past Master of a lodge. I’ve heard of such things, but their use was confined to ‘side degrees'; extra events that a member could partake in, but in which they were certainly not required to participate. None of the items I’ve seen would be relevant in any way in actual Masonic ceremonies, and they’d be considered an odd anachronism even in side degrees today.

    Googling “Demoulin Brothers” shows that there is a collector’s group, and a museum in Greenville, Il.

    The company is still around; now it makes marching band uniforms.

    • Stefan Jones says:

      ” . . . now it makes marching band uniforms.”

      With electric crotches!

    • Thanks for the info, pgt!  I live down the road from Greenville and may check it out.

    • Scott says:

      I’m a Past Master too, and these types of pranks were never used in Masonic Lodges, but they were (and sadly, still occasionally are) used by Square Clubs, or other social clubs that are offshoots of Lodges, but unsanctioned and unaffiliated with any Grand Lodge.

      Still, these types of pranks were far more common in the more socially-oriented fraternal organizations of the 1800s and early 1900s, of which only a few are still around today.

  5. Bobsyeruncle says:

    Good thing nobody had pacemakers back then.  Ouch!

  6. Bob Eckstein says:

    This book looks so cool.

  7. GrumpySteen says:

    I must admit that I was horrified at what the “human centipede” might be after having seen the movie of the same name.  It was a relief to see that it only involved electrical shocks to the groin.

  8. CP-S says:

    I think it would be great to take that camel on wheels and mod it into a bike.

  9. Christ, people are assholes.  

  10. Mark Hewitt says:

    Awesome post :) Not to defend the vicious practical jokes they devolved into, but originally these type of ordeals in fraternal organisations – particularly the simulated execution – had a purpose beyond the amusement of other members. 

    The initiate was taken to the brink of death, to face his own mortality and come back with a revelation about the world and a new purpose. It’s a revelatory practice that goes back to the earliest known spiritual paths, and for many it was their most secret and powerful “magic” . Trying to think of a good source but The Golden Bough is the only one I can think of and it’s pretty heavy going :)

  11. goatmuseumguy says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s comments.  Julia has put alot of time and painstaking research into this project.  For anyone who wants to see the real thing, the DeMoulin Museum in Greenville, IL has 16 lodge initiation devices on display including the Electric Branding Iron (which still works and is occasionally “tested” on visitors).  We also have numerous photos posted on the DeMoulin Museum Facebook page.  It’s difficult for folks of today to understand why grown men at the turn of the century did this stuff…but it was 100 years ago when our society didn’t take itself so seriously, wasn’t as lawsuit happy, and lodges provided the only social/recreational outlet for men (and later women as auxiliary chapters were added.)

  12. Jonathan Moy says:

    I love the electric cane!  Early prototype for the taser.