|“The asshole customer yelling at you about something out of your control could be our next president. Or it could be Jeb Bush.” - HAW-HAW-HAW!!! A delightfully sarcastic (albeit by a lefty journo) piece on the Bohemian Grove:|
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The Most Secretive Club in America
There’s a great little kitschy dive bar in Lower Nob Hill in San Francisco called the Owl Tree. From the window seat, you can sip a dirty martini and look across the intersection of Post and Taylor at a looming ivy-clad, red-brick fortress. This is the city clubhouse of the highly exclusive men’s society, The Bohemian Club.
Look closer, and you’ll see an etching of an owl staring right back. But it’s not just any owl, this one looks particularly startled and is surrounded by the words “Weaving Spiders Come Not Here.” This line, from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is the club motto and serves as a warning to leave all outside concerns at the door.
Fifty miles north of the city, in Monte Rio, there’s a forest clearing—a 2,700-acre secured private camp among the ancient redwoods known as Bohemian Grove, where every summer for the last 150 years the club members gather to watch the sacrifice of a human effigy to a large wooden owl, which is then worshipped as fireworks go off and cloaked high priests pray. It’s that kind of club.
The entire operation, along with its annual summer camp, is almost entirely hidden—no website, email contact, no application process, no wait list for membership (it’s invite-only). This all means that it’s hard to glean a lot of information about the place, but over the years, a few people have been able to make contact and even infiltrate the camp.
The club was originally founded by a group of journalists (who referred to themselves as Bohemians) in the San Francisco Examiner offices in 1872. Apparently, they wanted a place in which to celebrate their fraternity and talk shop outside the office, so they rented a room on Sacramento Street before building the clubhouse on Post Street.
In 1878, the growing membership of artists, writers and musicians acquired the land near Monte Rio and hosted their first summer party there, then known as Midsummer High Jinks. While it seems that back then the goal was to celebrate the arts, it was always a little weird. In 1893 member Joseph D. Redding performed a play named Druid Jinks, in which he portrayed Christianity battling and defeating paganism, converting the druids away from bloody sacrifices and other un-Christian acts. They were so keen to warn against human sacrifices, that they, um, started re-creating them every year.
The secret ceremony, known as the Cremation of Care and unchanged since 1923, still kicks off the annual summer camp today, during which a small boat crosses a lake toward a group of hooded figures, including the high priest, who waits by the owl statue to receive the human effigy from the ferryman. He then places it at the foot of the shrine and sets it on fire. Cool, cool—nothing weird about that.
Oh, and the owl has recorded speech and addresses the party, and was once voiced by member Walter Cronkite.
Why owls? They have often been linked to the illuminati and masons; they can see in the dark; and they are very wise. Also, if you wear a tinfoil hat, you may notice that there is a tiny owl in the corner of every dollar bill.
The Ceremony of Care’s purpose is reportedly an allegorical banishing of worldly “dull cares” for the club members. Not sure what worldly cares these wealthy white men are so burdened by that they need a talking house-size bird to help them process.
Any comment from past or current members, or from the organization itself, are, as you would imagine, hard to come by. Very few employees — caterers, valets, etc. — speak publicly about the goings-on at the camp or club. Although the magnitude of historical events that have been sourced back to the grove has meant that a lot has been written about and speculated upon from the outside. There is also a trove of old photos from the summer camp on archive.org.
Every Republican president since Herbert Hoover has visited the summer camp (well, until our current one). In 1942 “the father of the atomic bomb,” J. Robert Oppenheimer, headed the Manhattan project planning meeting in the camp clubhouse resulting in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki three summers later.
Surprisingly, the club started as a liberal artists’ haven. Mark Twain and Jack London were early members, but the clientele soon turned to wealthy business figures from San Francisco and became primarily a gathering of rich, conservative white men. While prominent artists and musicians are still part of the club, their primary role is to entertain powerful political and business leaders. Oscar Wilde once visited the camp and commented, “I never saw so many well-dressed, well-fed, business-looking Bohemians in my life.”
George H. W. Bush was a full member, as is Henry Kissinger and board members from Halliburton and Bank of America. Membership is by invite only, and yearly fees start at $25,000 plus annual dues.
Being the President of the United States doesn’t even guarantee you membership. George W. Bush attended as a guest but was never granted full status. Other known guests have included Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Clint Eastwood and Antonin Scalia. It’s believed, however, that Donald Trump has never even received a guest invite. Even drunk pagan bird worshippers need to draw the line somewhere.
A former caterer at the grove once said, “The asshole customer yelling at you about something out of your control could be our next president. Or it could be Jeb Bush.”
Women have never been allowed full membership at the club. They have, however, recently been allowed to attend as guests but have to leave by 10:00 p.m. The lack of a female presence probably explains all the cross-dressing over the years.
The club banned women from even working at the camp until a 1978 California Supreme Court lawsuit judged the employment practices to be discriminatory. Rumors of the attendance of prostitutes at the camp are just that, but a Redditor who claimed to work as a server at an event suspected those rumors to be true.
Eccentric weirdness aside, there are some really troubling facts about the ceremony.
Here’s a photo from a ceremony in 1909, which appears to show a child tied to table.
Here’s another early photo showing the lynching of what is hopefully a mannequin.
Richard Nixon, who was a member, once described the camp as “the most faggy goddamn thing you could ever imagine.” What a charmer.
His successful 1968 election campaign was launched from Bohemian Grove. Here you can see him and Ronald Reagan at the festival sometime in 1963.
In 1989 journalist Philip Weiss managed to get invited as a guest and wrote about what he saw. “You know you are inside the Bohemian Grove when you come down a trail in the woods and hear piano music from amid a group of tents and then round a bend to see a man with a beer in one hand and his penis in the other, urinating into the bushes.”
While the tawdriness of drinking a gallon of beer and urinating on a majestic redwood seems like just a playful regression into frat-boy behavior, it is informed by the old conservative paradigm that men (particularly, you know, white ones) are far above nature in God’s plan. The powerful gents relieving themselves on the gnarly roots of a redwood (there is reportedly one single pissing tree that gets most of the action) are the same men in Washington today lobbying for drilling for oil in the arctic and showing no concern for man’s role in dangerously changing the temperature of the planet.
While this all feels like an interesting history of a bizarre place, it’s still happening in 2019 and still draws the world’s most powerful people every summer. In 2009 the club controversially acquired state approval for a logging plan allowing it to harvest as much as 1.7 million board feet of redwood timber a year, for 100 years. That’s a lot of Sonoma County virginal sequoias getting chopped down with zero government oversight for another century.
The place is clearly ripe for conspiracy theories. In 2000 everyone’s least favorite barking meatball, Alex Jones, infiltrated the grove, filmed it and made a frankly bonkers documentary. Jones and his cameraman were expecting to find actual child sacrifices at the base of the owl. Instead they just found a bunch of drunk, old rich men pissing on stuff.
As documentarian Jon Ronson described in his series The Secret Rulers of the World, “My lasting impression was of an all-pervading sense of immaturity: the Elvis impersonators, the pseudo-pagan spooky rituals, the heavy drinking. These people might have reached the apex of their professions but emotionally, they seemed trapped in their college years.”
Whether or not the conspiracies of human sacrifices and paganism are true, we know that at the very least, every summer world leaders get shit-faced and pretend to offer a human body in fiery sacrifice to a massive bird in the middle of the woods north of San Francisco. After which they may or may not decide which distant country to bomb or who should be the next president.
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