In the late 18th Century, Sir Francis Dashwood organized an elite group of English Lords and other elites for drink and debauchery in the English countryside. Sir Francis’s club was never originally known as a Hellfire Club; it was given this name much later.
His club used a number of other names, such as the Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe, Order of Knights of West Wycombe, The Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe and later, after moving their meetings to Medmenham Abbey, they became the Monks or Friars of Medmenham.
The first meeting at Sir Francis’s family home in West Wycombe was held on Walpurgisnacht, an important day for occultists. In 1751, Dashwood leased Medmenham Abbey on the Thames River.
Underneath the Abbey, Dashwood had an intricate series of caves carved out from the soft chalk hill. At night, disguised revelers journeyed by boat up the Thames to the Hellfire caverns.
The Club was decorated with mythological themes, phallic symbols and other items of a sexual nature. The motto “fait ce que voudras, or “do what thou wilt” was placed above a doorway in stained glass.
A modern “Hellfire Club” exists in the United States, called the Bohemian Club. Located in San Francisco, California, the club convenes an annual all-male gathering in the Bohemian Grove redwoods of Sonoma County, located north of San Francisco. Drunkenness and debauchery similar to the 18th Century Hellfire Clubs take place there for two weeks every year.
The Bohemian Club was originally formed in April 1872 by and for journalists who wished to promote a fraternal connection among men who enjoyed the arts. Michael Henry de Young, proprietor of the San Francisco Chronicle, provided this description of its formation in a 1915 interview:
The Bohemian Club was organized in the Chronicle office by Tommy Newcombe, Sutherland, Dan O’Connell, Harry Dam and others who were members of the staff. The boys wanted a place where they could get together after work, and they took a room on Sacramento street below Kearny. That was the start of the Bohemian Club, and it was not an unmixed blessing for the Chronicle because the boys would go there sometimes when they should have reported at the office. Very often when Dan O’Connell sat down to a good dinner there he would forget that he had a pocketful of notes for an important story.
The Bohemian Club was an elite social club from the start, and was so considered by the San Franciscans of the day. The club soon had several hundred members who enjoyed taking part in the many dramas, musicals, and comedies sponsored by the club.
Some of the richest men in San Francisco enjoyed membership. While not considered as high status as the Pacific Union Club, it was listed in the Elite Directory (1879), the San FranciscoBlue Book (1888), Our Society Blue Book (1894-95), and other social registers of that era. By 1879 one in every seven members of the very exclusive Pacific Union Club was also a member of the Bohemian Club, with the figure climbing to one in five by 1894 and one in four by 1906. In 1907, the first year for which the California Historical Society in San Francisco has copies of the yearly San Francisco Social Register, 31% of the regular local Bohemian Club members were listed in its pages.
The patron saint of the gathering is St. John of Nepomuk who was reputedly thrown into a river and drowned because he would not reveal the secret confessions of his parishioners to the Bohemian queen. A prominent statue of the Eastern European saint is located in Prague
Every year the Bohemian Club holds a two-week-long gathering at their private forest in Sonoma County, Bohemian Grove. The camp reunites members from around the world to participate in male bonding, unabashed bacchanalia, and debauchery such as relieving themselves on the surrounding redwood trees in a “display of man’s power over nature.” The half-sanctimonious Cremation of Cares opens the festivities, in which members figuratively (and sometimes literally) burn away the responsibilities of their outside lives.
An old Nat Geo photo of the cremation of care.
President Herbert Hoover once called it “the greatest men’s party on Earth.”
Richard Nixon on the White House tapes was less kind. “The Bohemian Grove—which I attend from time to time—is the most faggy g– d— thing you could even imagine, with that San Francisco crowd. I can’t shake hands with anybody from San Francisco.””
The present corps are understood to include George Bush (the elder), Henry Kissinger, board members from Halliburton, Bank of America, and international members of the so-called “oiligarchy.” The Bohemian Club’s roster can read like a complete list of modern day hegemony, replete with powerful, conservative white men. To this day, very few Jews and even fewer black members have been granted admission to the elite circle. Every Republican President since Herbert Hoover has belonged.
2,500 of America’s richest, most conservative men, including Bechtels, Basses, and Rockefellers have been visitors/members. Kissinger is a perennial favorite. His speech nine years ago, “Do We Need a Foreign Policy?,” was music to the ears of the Bush administration. In 1942, Edward Teller is said to have planned the Manhattan Project here.
“Weaving Spiders Come Not Here” is the motto of San Francisco’s Bohemian Club. The motto is supposed to represent the club’s edict against doing business during its annual Bohemian Grove retreat, which commences on 2,700 acres 75 miles north of the city. As club spokesman and member Sam Singer explained, “It’s a group of gentlemen who are really genuinely interested in arts, theater, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll.” The retreat gives members a chance to “get away from work. It’s forbidden to talk about or solicit business at the club or grove.”
There is only one entrance on the north side of the compound, which is a paved road, appropriately named “Bohemian Avenue.” A low barbed-wire fence surrounds the entire perimeter of the club, but the fence doesn’t matter because there is only one place where the hills come together, leaving an opening traversable by foot or car. Simply stated, the Bohemian Grove is a walled city.
For extremely large parties, testimonial dinners, and dances, there are a reception room and a banquet room in the basement. These rooms, along with the large art gallery on that floor, are sometimes rented by members for private parties and wedding celebrations. The subbasement of the clubhouse is a large theater (seating capacity: 611) where the biggest performances of the regular year are held. The theater also is in constant use for rehearsals for plays that will be given at the Grove, and for orchestra and band practice. Right behind the theater there is a shop for making stage sets, as well as costume rooms and makeup rooms.
The top two floors of the clubhouse contain small meeting rooms, rehearsal rooms, and several small apartments and rooms, which usually are rented to older resident members or out-of-town members temporarily located in San Francisco. There is a glass-covered sun deck on the roof.
The Bohemian Club “is on very solid financial footing,” Mr. Singer said. It reported $10.8 million in revenue last year, compared with $12.6 million in 2009, according to required tax filings.
There is a 40 foot owl in the woods along with an altar.