We are social creatures and have been meeting in groups for generations. Even the most famous people in history are no exception to this rule. When like-minded people get together behind closed doors, things can get very unusual, especially when there is little chance that anyone will find out. Some of the most odd clubs in history have been started when famous and influential figures decided to come together.
10Club Des Hachichins
Club des Hachichins literally translates in English as “Hashish Club,” so you can guess what its members did. In the early 19th century, most Europeans had never used the drug hashish because it was mostly a Middle Eastern crop, but when Napoleon Bonaparte and his army returned from Egypt in 1801, they brought hashish along with them. Its reputation soon grew throughout France and, more specifically, Paris. It wasn’t long before people began to experiment with it. One famous group of Parisian hash enthusiasts included some of the most iconic writers of all time.
Club des Hachichins was originally started by Dr. Jacques-Joseph Moreau so he could observe the effects of the drug on France’s most brilliant minds. Almost every historic author in mid-18th century Paris could be counted as members: Alexandre Dumas, Charles Baudelaire, and even Victor Hugo. The group met regularly from 1844 to 1849 at the Pimodan House. Wanting to use hashish as authentically as possible, they would dress in traditional Arab garb and drink hashish that was mixed with strong coffee.
The drug quickly quickly gained popularity among Paris’s literary elite. They felt that hashish gave a more “intellectual intoxication” that was preferable to the “ignoble heavy drunkenness” of alcohol. Charles Baudelaire wrote extensively about his experimentation with hashish and said that it was one of the most convenient drugs on Earth along with opium. Those who tried the exotic drug reported mostly positive experiences, and the writers admitted that it heightened their creativity. Baudelaire claimed that while it was a good drug for writing, hashish zapped the user over time and destroyed imagination. His warning was quite reasonable: Use hashish responsibly. By 1849, the club had accomplished its original purpose and Dr. Jacques-Joseph Moreau had gathered enough information to publish a book on hashish and its effects.
9The Hollywood Vampires
The Hollywood Vampires was a group of friends who met regularly and used copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. This wasn’t just any group of friends, as the club was mostly made up of the hardest-partying rock stars in the world. Presided over by rocker Alice Cooper, the club gained a reputation for their hell-raising behavior throughout the 1970s. Eventually, the club broke apart through tragic ways.
According to Cooper, the Hollywood Vampires had a core group of himself, The Who drummer Keith Moon, singer Harry Nielsson, Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees, and John Lennon (when he has in town). Their usual stomping ground was the Rainbow Bar and Grill in West Hollywood, a club with a long history of serving rock stars. There is still a plaque ordaining their walls that claims the establishment as the meeting place of the Hollywood Vampires.
According to Cooper, the name “Hollywood Vampires” came from the group’s ability to stay up all night and crash by sunrise. Moon was known to wear different costumes, including one fashioned after the Queen of England. The guys were reckless, drank heavily, and used any chemical they could get their hands on. This eventually led to the unexpected deaths of many of the members. Jimi Hendrix, who was considered a member, died of an overdose in 1970. Jim Morrison, another member, died in 1971. Both were only 27. The club slowly disbanded after the death of Keith Moon, who was the hardest partier of the group, in 1978. It wasn’t all in vain, as Alice Cooper admitted that many of the deaths inspired him to become sober and clean up his act.
In the 1970s, the Comedy Store in West Hollywood was a breeding ground for new comedians. Some of the comics who honed their skills at the scene were Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, David Letterman, and Jay Leno. Directly above the Comedy Store was a house on a hill that served exclusively as a socializing spot for the comedians. It was called Cresthill, and it became notorious for the raucous antics that went on inside.
Mitzi Shore, the owner of the Comedy Store, bought Cresthill in 1974 so that the comedians could have a place to unwind. In 1979, Argus Hamilton became the first comic to move into Cresthill, and he set the precedent for what went on there. Hamilton was thought of by many as the successor to late-night host Johnny Carson, but his abuse of and addiction to cocaine and alcohol destroyed his career. According to Hamilton, the wild behavior from most of the comedians was due to the huge amount of money they had made playing the American comedy circuit. Some made as much as $100,000 annually, and much of it went “up people’s noses,” as Hamilton put it. Robin Williams and Richard Pryor were known to do drugs together at the house.
By the 1980s, the comedians who traded jokes at Cresthill had either burned out completely, cleaned up their acts, or had tragically died too young. John Belushi, a Cresthill frequenter, infamously died of an overdose in 1982. By the 1990s, the golden years were over and fresh comedians, like Jim Carrey, went there mainly for nostalgia. The days at Cresthill enjoyed by the funniest men in America quietly came to a close.
The Bullingdon Club is one of the most exclusive groups in England. Based from Oxford University, for centuries it has consisted of only the most powerful men in England. Most English readers might recognize the Bullingdon Club as one of the groups that Prime Minister David Cameron belonged to in his youth and where he allegedly engaged in lewd behavior with a pig’s head. The ensuing scandal exposed much of the Bullingdon Club’s notorious behavior.
The Club hasn’t changed much since it was first established. Even its uniform hails from 1850—blue tie, blue coat, brass buttons, buff waistcoat, and blue trousers. While many of its members are students of Oxford, it can no longer associate on campus due to the destruction of 534 windows at Peckwater, a beautiful quad of Christ’s Church, in 1894. But it wasn’t always a group of wild men. It was a cricket club when it first formed in 1780, and it slowly went downhill until it became a gathering group for wealthy, privileged men who engaged in expensive parties. In 1868, receipts from the club showed that a single dinner cost £56, or £8,000 in today’s money.
In 1977, Bartholomew Smith, a son of an MP and member of the Bullingdon Club, committed one of the worst acts in the club’s history when he caused a car crash while driving his Maserati intoxicated. Many people think he got off too easily: He received a driving ban and a fine. In 1909, Winston Churchill criticized the club when he said, “7,000 lads of the poorer classes are sent to gaol every year for offenses which, if the noble Lord had committed them at college, he would not have been subjected to the slightest degree of inconvenience.”
6Piers Gravestone Society
The Piers Gravestone Society was another club that the British Prime Minister David Cameron belonged to, and it was even more exclusive than the Bullingdon Club. It consisted of 12 undergraduates who were the most privileged young men in England. Like the Bullingdon Club, the Piers Gravestone Society has a notorious reputation for what went on behind closed doors.
The club got its name from the alleged male lover of King Edward II, Piers Gravestone. Valentine Guinness, one of the men who founded the club in 1977, said, “[the club] was a conscious effort to say, look, you know, the country may be in a mess but we’re still going to have a good time.” The club holds an annual ball in which each member invites 20 guests . . . preferably women.
It’s a club of cross-dressing, speed-laced jelly, and no rules, according to former members. In 1995, one journalist went to the ball and claimed that it wasn’t as wild as everyone said. He said there were raunchy drag costumes and men dressed in bondage gear. Broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer, who attended the parties from 1989 to 1991, stated, “[They’re] just big, fairly wild parties. Lots of drink, lots of very rich posh kids getting wasted—probably lots of drugs [but not my thing so I wouldn’t know]. They were fun bashes—very hot and sweaty, and very much about getting off with people.”
5The Merry Pranksters
In 1963, the Merry Pranksters sole mission was to spread the word about psychedelic drugs and, most importantly, LSD. Becoming quite wealthy with the publication of his bestseller One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey had used psychedelic drugs for a while and felt that the drugs would benefit society. He decided then that he was going to do something about it.
Kesey’s vision was realized in June 1964 when he made plans to drive across America. He started in California and ended at the World’s Fair in New York City. Carrying several like-minded passengers, the Merry Pranksters’ car was a simple 1939 Harvester school bus that had been colorfully painted. Many icons of the Beat Generation joined Kesey: Neal Cassady (the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road), and later in New York, Allan Ginsberg, Tom Wolfe, and Jack Kerouac himself. Armed with a jar of LSD-laced orange juice, the Merry pranksters set off in the bus, which they named “Further.” Cassady, who was often high on amphetamines, drove the bus. Carolyn Garcia, future wife of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, joined the Pranksters and said “They didn’t know they were starting the ’60s, obviously, but they knew they had a big secret and they were going to exploit it to the full.”
The out-of-this-world journey was chronicled by Tom Wolfe in his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and many consider this the beginning of the psychedelic ’60s. Musicians especially enjoyed the Merry Pranksters because of the supposedly increased creativity. The Pranksters attempted to document their cross-country trip through film but, in the words of Kesey’s son Zane, “they were absolute amateurs and they were high. At best, the footage is hard to wade through.” Kesey would continue his mission until 1966, when he fled to Mexico because law enforcement had begun to crack down on counter-culture figures.
4The Sublime Society Of Beefsteaks
In 1735, Henry Rich (machinist of the Covenant Garden Theater) became famous among the British elite for his delicious meat that was cooked with rare ingredients. Soon, the enthusiasm for “beef stakes” among the elite grew to such a degree that Rich began his own club that would cater to upper class friends. Thus, the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks was born.
It was restricted to 24 members, and those who weren’t among the chosen were forced to wait for membership. No one was exempt from this rule, not even future king George IV. Over the years, members included venerable politicians like radical MP John Wilkes and celebrated artists like William Hogarth. The original club met at the Covent Garden Theater until it burned down in 1808. They then moved to the Bedford Coffee House and later to the Old Lyceum Theater in 1809. That building also burned down, and they went to the Lyceum Tavern on the Strand, then back to the Bedford Coffee House. The group rebuilt Lyceum Theater and finally settled there.
They feasted on exquisite cuisine centered around beefsteaks and large portions of port wine and whiskey. Singing and revelry were integral parts of the club, and no doubt fueled by alcohol. Afterward, the members took their good time to the street. When John Wilkes was issued an arrest and was forced to go to Paris, he wrote to his friends saying he pictured them “visiting the Whore-houses of Covent Garden” after their dinner, and regretted that he couldn’t be there. The club still exists today and meets at the Boisdale in London.
The Hellfire Club is well known to many historians, but it has always been shrouded in mystery and misconception. Rumors about the group have ranged from it being an orgy club to being a meeting place for satanic rituals. To sift through what is true and what was just gossip, many have looked back to what few firsthand accounts and records still exist. All we know is that it wasn’t your average men’s club.
The title “Hellfire Club” has been given to many secretive and exclusive clubs in England. The most famous one was established by Sir Francis Dashwood in 1746 as the Order of the Knight’s of St. Francis. Four years later, Sir Dashwood began leasing the ruined 13th-century abbey Medmenham. He had the Rabelaise quote “Fay ce que voudras“—which translates to “do what thou wilt“—carved above the door. The original Hellfire group had only 12 members, but it quickly grew with its infamy. The most famous person involved with the club was the American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, with other possible members including the painter William Hogarth and MP John Wilkes.
It represented many of the ideas of learned men during the Age of Enlightenment. Particularly, it made a point of mocking religion. Calling themselves the Monks of Medmenham, the club gambled, drank, and kept their mistresses nearby for their own pleasure. The Monks held their mock religious ceremonies in the Hellfire Caves near Medmenham until 1766, when it closed down. The cave remains open today as a tourist attraction, and its sordid reputation lives on.
2The Beggar’s Benison
The Beggar’s Benison was a group of Scottish men who, in spite of Scotland’s pious Presbyterian values, decided to start a club so they could indulge their wildest sexual fantasies. The men who were in the Beggar’s Benison looked back fondly on the early 18th century, when Scotland was still independent. After Britain united with Scotland, the businessmen and Scottish citizens formed a club that soon included aristocrats and intellectuals.
The Beggar’s Benison was devoted to all things sexual. James V of Scotland was a notoriously promiscuous monarch and the first Benison. It started from Anstruther in Fife with activities such as reading erotic texts like The Song of Solomon, Byron’s Don Juan, and the famous pornographic book Fanny Hill. Of course there was heavy drinking and nude women (you could only look, but not touch). There were erotic images, lectures on sex . . . and collective masturbation. They even had “trophies,” including a wig crafted from the pubic hair of Charles II’s mistresses. When that was stolen by a disgruntled ex-member, honorary Benison George IV (then Prince Regent) gave them a replacement—another wig from his own sexual conquests.
A notable fact about the Benison’s was that they were some of the first to look at masturbation positively. In the 18th century, most of Great Britain denounced it as damaging and harmful, but the Benisons said it was a healthy and normal activity. The club’s pinnacle came in 1822 when George IV was crowned king and was greeted by the Earl of Kellie in Edinburgh (head of the Beggar’s Benison). The club died out in 1836, just before the reign of Queen Victoria and the beginning of a time when sexuality became even more repressed.
1The Cannibal Club
In 1863, the Ethnologist Society of London was divided by an unusual issue—are humans inherently monogamous or polygamous? In Victorian England, any “respectable” researcher would say that they were monogamous, since the idea of multiple sexual partners was repulsive at that time. However, two of the most influential men of that era felt differently and started a club that has remained controversial to this day.
Richard Francis Burton and Dr. James Hunt established the Anthropological Society of London with Dr. Hunt as President. Burton started another, more secretive group named The Cannibal Club. Richard Francis Burton was one of the most widely traveled and colorful men in Victorian England. He was an explorer, speaker of over 20 languages, a hard drinker, and a sexual deviant.
The Cannibal Club met in the back room of Bertolini’s Restaurant. They smoked cigars, drank, and discussed topics such as polygamy, bestiality, phallic worship, female circumcision, ritual murder, fetishes, and cannibalism. Living up to his controversial reputation, Burton encouraged members to trade pornography, stories of whipping, and the encounters they had with their sex workers. Algernon Charles Swineburne, an acclaimed poet with a debauched personal life, wrote the blasphemous oath for the group. He went on to become a Nobel Prize nominee. Another member was Charles Bradlaugh, who was an early proponent for birth control and was later elected into Parliament in 1880, only to be briefly imprisoned for refusing to take an oath on the Bible.
These were the most progressive figures of the time, but their ideas were tainted with unashamed racism and wild behavior. After Dr. Hunt died in 1869 and Burton left England on diplomatic missions, the club died out. Many of the members went to join the newly established Royal Anthropological Institute. In 1886, Richard Francis Burton was knighted by Queen Victoria, despite his reputation.
Gordon Gora is a struggling author who is desperately trying to make it. He is working on several projects, but until he finishes one, he will write for Listverse for his bread and butter. You can reach him at [email protected].