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Monday, April 18, 2016

Goat Rituals and Tree-Trunk Gravestones: The Peculiar History of Life Insurance

nce, when I visited my brother, who lives in a small Texas town, he took me down a winding road to a turn-of-the-20th-century cemetery in a forest clearing. There, we found three tall tombstones in the shape of tree trunks, each stamped with an insignia reading “Woodmen of the World.” What were these strange things?
WIMTBA_sitebug2When I got home, I dug into the mystery of these stone stumps, discovering the profoundly insecure time before Americans had Social Security, when anxieties about death and finances ran deep in the American psyche. In response to these fears, the Woodmen of the World order and its progenitor and competitor, the Modern Woodmen of America, made life insurance approachable and fun by packaging it in the familiar fraternal-order culture of the day. The two Woodmen societies succeeded in selling fraternal insurance where others failed, thanks to their innovations, which included offering distinct tombstones, flaunting ax-twirling pageantry, and holding clandestine rituals that involved slapstick pranks and mechanical goat rides. Today, both organizations still exist as insurance companies, but they’ve shed the fraternal antics. It’s hard to imagine their previous incarnations, which resembled a combination of LinkedIn, GoFundMe, and Jackass.
Death was everywhere in 19th-century America: Fatal injuries, disease epidemics, and the Civil War made families acutely aware of mortality. For women and children, the death of a husband and father could tumble them into poverty. Only the wealthiest Americans bought private life insurance. Women were not allowed to take out policies on their husbands, and if the husband bought the policy on himself, the money wouldn’t be protected from creditors.
Top: A Woodmen of the World tombstone for Ben Strickland who died in 1917, found in a country graveyard outside Greenville, Texas. (Photo by Lisa Hix) Above: Members of the Modern Woodmen of America with their axes. (Courtesy of the Phoenixmasonry Museum)
Top: A Woodmen of the World tombstone for Ben Strickland who died in 1917, found in a country graveyard outside Greenville, Texas. (Photo by Lisa Hix) Above: Members of the Modern Woodmen of America with their axes. (Courtesy of the Phoenixmasonry Museum)
And then, grieving families faced another layer of shame. In 19th-century America, taking charity was seen as a sign of weakness: The thinking was, if a lack of industriousness made you destitute, well, then you got what you deserved.
The middle and working classes did, however, have a workaround. Men could join secretive boy’s clubs like the Freemasons and Oddfellows that provided networking, entertainment, and a moral education. If a man proved himself to be hardworking and of good character through his initiation trials, his social standing meant his family could quietly receive financial support from the lodge without the stigma of accepting charity.
After the devastating Civil War, well-established fraternal orders began to formalize their benefits into insurance subsidiaries. New secret societies known as “mutual beneficiary societies,” created with the explicit purpose of offering life insurance policies, sprang up around the United States. Largely excluded from the original fraternal orders, women and African Americans even launched their own aid societies. Still, to join any fraternal order and receive its insurance benefits you had to prove that you were no slouch—a hard worker with high morals such as thrift, self-reliance, discipline, and generosity.
The1930 DeMoulin Bros. & Co. catalog details the Ferris Wheel Coaster Goat: "About the time the candidate has relaxed and has kidded himself into believing he is to enjoy a smooth ride—over he goes right on his head. The firing of a blank cartridge adds to the consternation." (Courtesy of the Phoenixmasonry Museum.)
The 1930 DeMoulin Bros. & Co. catalog details the Ferris Wheel Coaster Goat: “About the time the candidate has relaxed and has kidded himself into believing he is to enjoy a smooth ride—over he goes right on his head. The firing of a blank cartridge adds to the consternation.” (Courtesy of the Phoenixmasonry Museum)
But it wasn’t all about restraint. Before the days of TV, radio, or fantasy football, fraternal lodges offered plays, rituals, and camaraderie and allowed men to let loose, which kept members coming back for more. The clout of being an insider and the endless pursuit of mystical, esoteric knowledge ensured that men would make their insurance payments for decades to come. The payouts were between $1,000 and $2,000, a lot of money at the time.
The Woodmen came late to the party—incorporating in 1883 as the Modern Woodmen of America—but their leaders’ entrepreneurial innovations breathed new life into the fraternal insurance game. Founder Joseph Cullen Root, a businessman in Lyons, Iowa, seized the opportunity to create his own fraternal order when the mutual aid society Knights of Honor, which almost went under because of the 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic, was selling its local lodge.
To avoid the financial pitfall that wrecked the Knights, Root made fitness a requirement to join his order, recruiting rural young men from the “healthiest states,” which meant those outside industrial New England. In the Woodmen, he fused Christian philosophy and pioneer values with ancient agricultural rites. “At that time, Root’s thought was that a cleared conscience and a cleared forest were synonymous,” says Bruce Lee Webb, who co-authored the 2015 book, As Above, So Below: Art of the American Fraternal Society with Lynne Adele, published by the University of Texas Press. “The axe is an instrument that clears the forest but is also useful for constructing buildings and making progress.”
The members of Woodmen of the World lodge posing with their axes and their goat mascot.  (Courtesy of the Phoenixmasonry Museum)
The members of Woodmen of the World lodge posing with their axes and their goat mascot. (Courtesy of the Phoenixmasonry Museum)
Wielding aluminum-headed axes, members of Modern Woodmen lodges formed marching units known as the Foresters that performed precision drill routines in military-like uniforms. Eventually, there were roughly 10,000 drill teams nationwide. Dave Lettelier, curator of the Phoenixmasonry Masonic Museum and Library in Havana, Florida, says that such pageantry appealed to young men who’d grown up in awe of Civil War heroes. The fraternal beneficiary societies made signing up for insurance seem glamorous.
“When an initiate had to ‘ride the goat,’ everybody else would sit around the lodge room and have a big belly laugh.”
After an internal dispute with the other Modern Woodmen of America leaders, Root left the organization in 1890 and moved to Omaha to form a nearly identical “speculative woodcraft” order: the Woodmen of the World. One of his innovations was to provide free tombstones—Root believed passionately that no member of his order should be buried in an unmarked grave. So for 10 years, the Woodmen gave its members grave markers in the shape of tree stumps, inspired by the Victorian Rustic movement. (For another two decades, the members put down $100 apiece to reserve theirs.)
At a Woodman’s funeral, his personalized tombstone would be revealed in an elaborate ritual. The 4- or 5-foot-tall tree stump would be marked with the motto “Dum Tacet Clamet” (“Though Silent, He Speaks”) and rest on a stack of logs, each log symbolizing one of the deceased’s children. The local stone carver, who might alter the pattern, would add embellishments reflecting the Woodman’s personality, such as axes and doves.
A Modern Woodmen of American parade banner, circa 1900. (Courtesy of the Webb Collection/University of Texas Press)
A Modern Woodmen of American parade banner, circa 1900. (Courtesy of the Webb Collection/University of Texas Press)
The Woodmen tweaked another feature of the fraternal orders, most of which had solemn initiation rituals, loosely based on old Masonic ceremonies that symbolically forced recruits to confront their own mortality. Most societies had some macabre obstacle courses that ended with the young man facing a human skeleton lit by candles. According to As Above, So Below, in an early Woodmen of the World initiation, the blindfolded candidate wore weights symbolizing the “selfishness,” “hatred,” and “prejudice” he had to shed as he navigated a “dangerous path,” which involved wood boards on rollers, before he was allowed to see “the light of Woodcraft.”
The Modern Woodmen took such rites to new levels. They’d challenge recruits to put their hands in (fake) molten lead. Others were subjected to spanking machines and collapsing chairs. The Ferris Wheel Coaster Goat, patented and sold by a company co-owned by Modern Woodman member Ed DeMoulin, would flip the unsuspecting rider upside down and fire blanks from its rear.
What did a slapstick goat gag have to do with selling insurance? Everything. Besides reminding recruits that death was always at the door, the Woodmen “had to come up with all kinds of gimmicks to get people to join,” Lettelier explained. “When an initiate had to ‘ride the goat,’ everybody else would sit around the lodge room and have a big belly laugh. … If you ‘rode the goat,’ then you were in with the clique. Then that new member would bring in his buddies so the Woodmen could prank them. What it did was help build their insurance company.”
A Woodmen of the World gathering in 1911 in Mineral Wells, Texas. (Courtesy of the Webb Collection/University of Texas Press)
A Woodmen of the World gathering in 1911 in Mineral Wells, Texas. (Courtesy of the Webb Collection/University of Texas Press)
Thanks to pranks like these—soon adopted by other societies—fraternal-order membership reached its peak or “golden age” in the United States between 1890 and 1930, with as many as one-third of American men belonging to at least one secret society. While that’s impressive, it still means about two-thirds of American families did without such a safety net.
Another Woodmen tombstone. (Photo by Lisa Hix)
Another Woodmen tombstone. (Photo by Lisa Hix)
The Great Depression killed the fraternal insurance business in two ways. First, many men were unable to make their payments. Secondly, FDR’s New Deal created Social Security in 1935, filling the need aid societies once met. Radio, movies, and TV supplied the entertainment that the orders once provided. Woodmen of the World embraced these new media in Omaha, establishing a radio channel and a TV station—which launched the career of a local comedian named Johnny Carson—before both were sold to Meredith Corporation in 1958.
Today, the Woodmen groups have become all-inclusive not-for-profit insurance companies: WoodmenLife in Omaha and Modern Woodmen Fraternal Financial in Rock Island, Illinois. Unlike for-profit insurance companies, they put profits back into their members’ communities with programs for senior citizens, people with disabilities, and orphans.
“We still have an active Woodmen of the World lodge here in Waxahachie, Texas,” Webb says. “I’ve talked to them, and they said that they no longer do the different degrees. They meet once a month for a little banquet where they discuss their insurance premiums.” The goats, the costumes, and the rituals are long gone.
A detail from a 1917 Woodmen of the World beneficiary certificate. Click on the image to see a larger version. (Courtesy of the Phoenixmasonry Museum)
A detail from a 1917 Woodmen of the World beneficiary certificate. Click on the image to see a larger version. (Courtesy of the Phoenixmasonry Museum)

Wizards, Warriors, and the Quest for LARP Insurance

Liability policies are making adventuring safer and helping players defeat red tape.

 
LARPers. Fully insured. (Photo: Tom Garnett/CC BY 2.0)
"It's dangerous to go alone!” - Old Man, The Legend of Zelda
"You’re in good hands” – Slogan, Allstate Life Insurance Company
Questing is treacherous business, and no one knows more acutely than the heroes and villains taking part in fantasy live action role playing (LARP) events. Luckily for their fictional personas, there are healing spells and potions in case of injury. But should their real-world selves get hurt during the game, these miracle salves have no effect. Fortunately, the real world has LARP insurance.
Fantasy LARPing has been around since the 1970s. It grew out of the popularity of tabletop games of Dungeons & Dragons, when players began looking to add a deeper level of realism and experience to their adventures. Since then, LARPing has slowly grown in popularity and complexity. Now there are countless games and organizations in America alone, bringing to life worlds of fantasy, horror, and war, in which players risk fictional life with their real limbs.
No matter what system they’re a part of, players will generally decamp to a campground or a rented field, and exit our world for theirs—if only for a weekend at a time. With these increased numbers comes increased liability, and that’s where the insurance companies come in.
“Generally you have two plans. You have to have a liability plan, and then you have to have a health/accident plan,” says Joseph Valenti, owner and ruler of NERO LARP, the most extensive LARPing organization in the U.S.
Careful there, warriors. (Photo: jeager/CC BY 2.0)
With around 50 chapters spread across the country, NERO LARPs host hundreds of simulated battles and adventures each year. Players equip themselves with custom-made foam weaponry (called “boffers”), and wade into (untrained) fantasy combat, creating what seems like a potential litigation nightmare.
“If you have a liability plan, you’re really covering burning down one of the cabins or the main kitchen hall/tavern,” says Valenti. Accident insurance covers any medical costs that might arise from a warrior breaking their ankle, or a ranger falling down. It also makes sure the organizers have representation in case they get sued over such mishaps.
“Most LARPing injuries occur during reenactments of battles," states the website of Westpoint Insurance, which offers a LARP-specific insurance policy. Valenti doesn’t seem to agree. Even with warlocks firing off spells (“We throw spell packets, which are pieces of cloth with bird seed in them, wrapped with a rubber band. About the size of a film canister.”) at orcs, and barbarians working to cleave their enemies in twain (tapping them with boffers), he says that combat is rarely the source of accidents or injury at a LARP. While each LARP system uses its own rules for combat, most have the safety of the players foremost in mind.
Some LARPs use full-contact, heavy touch combat, but NERO’s system encourages light weapon touches that work with a point system to calculate damage. According to Valenti, accidents and injuries during these LARPs are pretty rare. “We don’t have many accidents at NERO at all,” he says. “We’ll run 200 events this year and we’ll have maybe one or two accidents ... We’re typically rated better than a Boy Scout little league baseball group, because they have more accidents than we do.”
Won't someone protect these adventurers? (Photo: RalfHuels/CC BY-SA 4.0)
This is not to say that accidents don’t happen. But when they do, they're usually pretty mundane in contrast to the high fantasy trappings of the events. Valenti recalls Baron Wolf of the Land of Tyrangel, a NERO LARPer in Atlanta, slipping on wet leaves, landing on his arm, and breaking it. In another instance, a player in Connecticut was running down a hill, slipped, and broke his wrist. In both cases, the LARPs were insured.
Generally LARP events have had to be covered by general event insurance contracts, but now that LARPing is a more common practice, some insurance companies, like Westpoint above, have taken to offering policies specifically catering to the game. Most of the policies offered by these companies are a cleverly marketed variation of sports insurance that takes care of equipment—the venue’s stuff—and injury.
Even though the insurance is easier to get, it is still rarely implemented. Anthony Insurance Services, which has offered a LARP insurance program since 2011, said that the company is yet to receive a claim on one of its LARP policies. "I think that because of the rules and guidelines the LARP groups implement, they are proactive in their risk management, which in turn is shown through the little to no loss history (claim history)," an Anthony rep wrote us.
But this coverage wasn’t always so easy to obtain. “There was a time when no one would insure me,” says Valenti. “[Insurance agents] were like, ‘What do you guys do exactly? You hit each other with what?’” Fortunately, the fates have changed, LARP insurance is now fairly easily obtained, and no one has to shell out too much gold should their IRL hit points drop. 

Read More at: http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/wizards-warriors-and-the-quest-for-larp-insurance