Last Sunday, the Boston Globe ran Katherine A. Powers’s review of The Hell-Fire Clubs: Sex, Satanism, and Secret Societies, by Evelyn Lord. The original Hell-Fire Clubs (something happened to the hyphen on the book jacket) were formed in the 1720s. Later that name was slapped onto a group active in the 1750s and early 1760s, led by Sir Francis Dashwood and the fourth Earl of Sandwich; apparently they preferred to call themselves the Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe, and other lofty and parodic names.
The violation of virgins and summoning of the devil were not on the agenda, though the Enlightenment's elevation of happiness as a virtue and its questioning of traditional religion encouraged a modicum of sex of one sort or another, as well as the drinking of vast quantities of booze out of obscene glasses, and a good deal of heterodox theologizing.Apparently enough people in Britain’s elite could recognize members of the club in that novel, perhaps having heard the same tales in the form of gossip, that Chrysal was successfully embarrassing.
Lord runs through the influences, varieties, and members of various Hell-Fire Clubs and their increasingly louche predecessors. The most notorious of the latter was the Medmenham Friars, or Knights of St. Francis, often erroneously considered the original Hell-Fire Club. Its motto was “Fay ce que vouldras” (“Do what you will”), and its members’...pursuits were far more priapic.
Still, the Friars’ reputation for obscene and diabolical rituals is, according to Lord, exaggerated, not only because of the public’s prurient speculations about a club so secret and top-drawer, but because of John Wilkes’s vendetta against it.
Crusader for freedom of the press and the rights of American colonists, Wilkes was also a confirmed libertine and enthusiastic participant in club activities. But he fell out with his fellow members over politics and turned on the club, bringing tales of sordid goings-on to Charles Johnstone, who incorporated embellished versions of them into his novel Chrysal: Or, the Adventures of a Guinea.
One of the more curious political alliances of the 1760s was that between Wilkes and the Boston Whigs. They were all on the same side as far as democratic political reform within the British Empire. But the descendants of Puritans on this side of the Atlantic would have been aghast at the details of Wilkes’s private life.
TOMORROW: Samuel Adams’s message for John Wilkes—about John Hancock.