18th century Hellfire Clubs are a bit of a mystery by design. Hellfire Club membership was maintained by the elite in England and Ireland - and guests of the club included some famous founding fathers, too. Although never actually a member, Ben Franklin and the Hellfire Club have prompted a lot of rumors and speculation that persist to this day, only shrouding the institutions in deeper mystery.
Thought to have been havens of black magic, Satanism, and debauchery of various kinds, the activities of the Hellfire Clubs were as unique as those carried out by Aleister Crowley in the 20th century. But what were some of those fascinating and mysterious Hellfire Club rituals? Let's find out.
Anyone who was anyone during the 18th century in England joined a club. Clubs were political, cultural, religious, and almost always included only men who were looking to demonstrate their status and their intellect. The Freemasons were an incredibly popular institution that had a great deal of stoic influence, but clubs and societies could be about raucous pleasure as well. The secrecy of these types of clubs created rumors, mystery, and an immense popularity. Rakes, or hellraisers who liked to gamble and womanize, were particularly interested in gentlemen's clubs.
The earliest Hellfire Clubs are associated with Duke Philip Wharton. Born in 1698, Wharton married young and had a child but when the boy died in childhood, he lost all interest in his wife and continuing in a family way. Around 1719 or 1720, he founded the first of the so-called "Hellfire Clubs" in London, became a well-known libertine, and was Grand Master of the London freemasons in 1722.
There were supposedly three clubs but it's unclear how many societies there were meeting in them. "In London, either there were three societies—the Hell-Fire Club and two others like it—or one, but they met at three houses, one in Westminster, one in Conduit Street near Hanover Square and one at Somerset House. The total membership amounted to forty-odd."
In 1721, King George issued an order declaring that the clubs were to be closed for "immorality and profaneness" but it was more for blasphemy than anything else. Members "revered figures from the Bible, or saints, and played them for laughs. They staged mock rituals making fun of Christian dogmas such as the Trinity."
Wharton ran another club in 1723 where sexual activities were much more common, started a subversive newspaper that same year, and was broke by the time he left England in 1725.
Wharton was incredibly wealthy but prone to excess, as many of his contemporaries were. His finances were tied up in the South Sea Company and the South Sea Bubble, the following economic collapse where he lost much of his money during the 1720s. He eventually left England and went to Austria where he stole money and food to survive. He moved from Austria to Spain and openly demonstrated that he was a Jacobite and opposed to the English king. When he sold his dukedom back to King George to fight for the Jacobite cause, he was charged with treason. He was outlawed because he never appeared to answer the charges and died of alcoholism in 1731 in France.
The earliest Hellfire Clubs in London resembled other notable violent gangs that were all over the city, namely the Mohocks. The Mohocks were similarly feared and mysterious as they attacked and disfigured and sexually assaulted women. Mohocks were elite, Protestant Englishmen looking to create chaos in England and were comparable to the Anglo-Protestant counterparts in Ireland. The violence tied to the Hellfire Clubs in Dublin and Limerick, both established by 1735, was similar to that of the Mohock gangs and the blasphemous behavior in London. The early clubs in Ireland and Scotland were thought to be in cahoots with the Devil, to take part in bizarre drinking rituals, orgies, and black magic.