The talk these days is about caliphates and demagogues whose aspiration is to stage a bizarre rerun of the Crusades. My book An Infinite Deal of Nothing, coming out in August, is the untold story about two of the most outrageous attempts at international financial fraud across the 19th century. Stick with me here, this is not just a shameless puff for the book — did I mention the title, An Infinite Deal of Nothing? — and there is a connection with wanting to rule the world. One of the men involved was almost certainly a founder member of the San Francisco ‘castle’ of a secret society with a grotesque agenda of domination known as the Knights of the Golden Circle. Like ISIS, the Knights wanted to remodel the world so that they would be no longer the losers.
A note to putative tyrants though. If you are going to pitch for world domination, really think hard about the tailoring. Black works; armour over pinstripes does not. It could not have been easy, turning up to one of their secret meetings to be greeted by your chums perspiring lightly in a costume for the male chorus in a Gilbert and Sullivan opera that G&S always meant to write.
The garb made a baggy trousered, be-sashed Zuoave infantryman look underdressed. It involved medieval breastplate, fishscale chainmail and a helmet. And what a helmet… From the top of the helmet crest was a wide triangular spear point and welded to the front was a crescent moon in an impossibly horizontal pose. Delete G&S, insert the imperial guard of Ming the Merciless
On a more serious note, here’s an excerpt from the book…
“The KGC had been conceived in Ohio and inaugurated in the slave state of Kentucky. The KGC’s grandiose aims were to build a greater white reich, a slave-owning cotton confederacy taking in the Caribbean islands including Cuba, Mexico, countries in Central America and on the Northern coast of South America, hence the ‘circle’. Put those newly captured territories together with the slave south and the KGC would have a near world monopoly in sugar, tobacco and cotton too. So, like the oil states and their OPEC cartel from the 1970s until very recently, the world would have to get along with the Golden Circle if they wanted those commodities.
The founder and its commander in chief of the Knights was a self-aggrandising swindler named “general” George Washington Lafayette Bickley. To enhance his military background Bickley claimed to have been a cadet at West Point, before “turning his attention to medicine”. For good measure he added in ‘teacher’ and ‘editor’ to his résumé.
Like much about Bickley, his English medical qualifications turned out to be phoney. In 1860 he was run out of New Orleans upon discovery that Bickley had pocketed some $40,000 in ‘initiation fees’ from gullible young men across the south. Many of those young men were soon to be losing a great deal more than money in the war of 1861 to 1865.
In the swirling subtleties and realignments of American politics before the Civil War, the Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC) was an open secret or semi-secret society at best and oftentimes not taken seriously. A Raleigh, North Carolina newspaper called the organisation “mystic, invisible and, we suspect half mythical”. On the eve of the first shots at Fort Sumter, the Knights of the Golden Circle was taken more seriously in Washington. Now it was regarded as a “dangerous secret order”, a vicious and treasonable order” in the east.
Like many 19th century groups, from charities to trade unions, The KGC borrowed much from a Masonic model. Masonic fervour had swept America and on both sides of the blue and the grey secret societies became more than drinking clubs. Their politicisation was not limited to the pro-slavery camp. Abolitionist John Brown was an ardent mason all his life.
Like the masons, the KGC had a plethora of grips, handshakes, code words and tokens to gain entry to the ‘castles’, as its branches were called. The parlour games of the KGC may have appeared harmless and unthreateningly public for a secret society before the war.
It became recognised as a more malign force when its secret rituals, along with its numeric code book were revealed at outset of the war in 1861. The documents surfaced in Louisville, Kentucky and were published by a local newspaper editor, George D Prentice, himself no slouch in hate speech, for he was acknowledged as an anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-German No Nothing bigot. Prentice was nevertheless at least a more than half-hearted unionist and abolitionist as he drew the line at domestic slaveholding. The secret papers he revealed proved that the KGC was targeting Mexico and was offering volunteer soldiers in its cause hundreds of acres of land if they would subdue the country and turn it over to a slavery regime.
This is the wording of the KGC oath, complete with its deciphered number code, to which initiates swore:
‘I will advocate the establishment of a Government, which shall place the power in the hands of the most educated and moral, and oppose the recognition of any 87 (Negro, Mulatto, Indian or mixed blood) to citizenship. I will sustain the effort to reduce the 88 (the peon system) to 89 (perpetual slavery).To prevent the entrance of any 68 (Abolitionists) into 2 (Mexico) I will sustain a passport system, and any and every 78 (Stranger or Traveller) shall go before the Customs officer at the port of his entry, and there take an oath, stating whether he intends to become a citizen, and if so, that he will sustain and support the Government then in existence, and that he will not interfere with the system of 89 (Perpetual slavery).'”
An Infinite Deal of Nothing; is a full-length book unravelling the intertwined stories of the Emma Mine Scandal and the Great Diamond Hoax. It is published in August.