A few weeks back I came across a curious collection in our archival storage with a note attached reading “Needs processing.” The canvas-covered wooden box, stamped with the letters K.O.T.M., had been donated some years back by a friend of the historical society, but had never been fully catalogued. I was immediately intrigued and decided that it was high-time for us shed some light on this curious group of objects and documents.
The “K.O.T.M” stood for Knights of the Maccabees, and inside the wooden chest was a nearly complete set of records from the Viola Tent (or chapter) of the group. I had never heard of this fraternal order, whose records indicated a sophisticated organization with a large and national membership. So I did some digging.
The Knights of the Maccabees began in Ontario, Canada in 1878 as a fraternal organization primarily concerned with providing insurance benefits to its members. The original organizers were also members of the Order of the Foresters, and K.O.T.M. was created to care for their fellow laborers. Specifically, membership in a K.O.T.M. tent provided family’s with money to cover the final expenses of a loved one. For this reason, men working in professions deemed exceptionally hazardous, such as coal miners and others who worked with highly explosive materials, were barred from joining. K.O.T.M. reached its zenith in the years before WWI, when it boasted a membership of more than 300,000.
The Viola Tent was established in 1898 and appears to have been active into the mid-1910s. As I processed the archival materials, I was struck by just how much can be learned from the ledgers, correspondences, and official K.O.T.M. publications that had been tucked away for many decades.
There is a ledger containing the minutes from the Viola tent’s very first meeting.
There is a Roll of Membership that tracks the initiation of new members from 1898 to 1904, which includes the initiate’s occupation and designated recipient of death benefits.
There is even a catalogue of “Properties,” from which fraternal organizations could purchase important ritual materials. After perusing the catalogue, I am left wondering just what the initiation was like for a new K.O.T.M. member.
Along with the hundreds of pages of documents, we received a few very interesting objects. The wooden chest is eye-catching by itself, and was accompanied by a gavel, black and white marbles used for secret voting, and a seal press.
There was also a small wooden vessel containing hair. Its use is unclear at this point, but hopefully further investigation will illuminate the purpose of this strange object.
If you are interested in learning more about the Knights of the Maccabees, you could check out these primary documents available online.
Revised laws of the Knights of the Maccabees of the World [microform]: governing the supreme tent, great camps and subordinate tents, adopted May 18, 1895, in force after June 18, 1895 (1895) available http://archive.org/details/cihm_55757
The Maccabees in the World War (1920)available at http://archive.org/details/maccabeesinworld00knig
Or you could stop by the Centennial Annex and sit down with our collection.