by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the 19th century, fraternal orders were very popular and highly common in American society. They were heavily influenced by the masonic orders, of which William Workman and F.P.F. Temple, for example, were active members in Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley.
The fraternities, masonic or otherwise, based their organizations on similar notions of brotherhood that included mutual aid as a core component along with, in many cases, charitable work. While the orders were strictly male, many had female auxiliaries, and the general idea was that they focused on notions of brotherhood that were free from social class distinctions. Most were populated by whites and were exclusive, while some were ethnic-specific in membership, including orders organized and supported by blacks and Jews.
To our modern thinking, fraternal orders can seem strange and sometimes comic, especially when it came to some of the names and rituals. Some of these orders included fanciful monikers like Woodmen of the World, the Odd Fellows, the Improved Order of Red Men, the Knights of Pythias, the Elks, the Eagles. Many of them had esoteric beliefs, secret meetings, special handshakes, unusual titles bestowed on leaders, and often outlandish costumes. What were considered essential elements of brotherhood that tied these men together often looks bizarre and silly to a society today less inclined to join clubs and organizations generally.
It is notable, however, that not all groups had these external components that stood out and many had more practical operational standards, whether this be mutual aid, charity work, and other forms of social assistance or political activism.
Still, one source in 1897 claimed that, out of a national population of 19 million men, nearly 30% of them, or roughly 5 1/2 million of them were members of fraternal societies. The most popular at the time was the International Order of Odd Fellows, which had over 800,000 members. The various masonic groups totaled about 750,000, and the Knights of Pythias numbered about 475,000. In following decades, the popularity of fraternal societies began to diminish, but they remained popular through the 1920s.
One manifestation of this in Los Angeles were national conferences that could draw tens of thousands of members attending proceedings, going on tours, and holding large-scale parades. For example, the Elks had a major convention in Los Angeles in 1909 and 1929. The Shriners, a masonic group, also had a large national gathering in 1925. These events not only were national platforms for the organizations, but could provide significant economic benefit for the city and region.
Today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a letter (with an envelope) from the Los Angeles Lodge of the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith, now known as B’nai B’rith International, a Jewish fraternal society for men launched in New York in 1843, as the Jewish population of the country began to experience its first of many major waves of growth.
A dozen German Jewish founders gathered at a cafe in that city to deal with “the deplorable condition of Jews in this, our adopted country” to form B’nai B’rith, defined as “children of the covenant.” This was two years after the first Jew to live in Los Angeles, Jacob Frankfort, came to the Mexican-era pueblo after traveling from New Mexico with the Rowland and Workman Expedition.
The practical nature of the order was that its first major initiative was one commonly utilized by fraternal societies of the era: to institute an insurance plan that would provide widows of members $30 to defray the cost of funerals; offer a $1 a week stipend for these women and each child in the family; and guarantee that each male child would be taught a trade.
B’nai B’rith built the first Jewish community center in the country in 1851, followed the next year by the first Jewish library in the nation. It also opened an early orphanage, shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War. Funds for disaster relief and other charitable endeavors also marked the early years of the organization, while later years saw an increasing emphasis on broader human rights, strong support for the the Jewish nation of Israel, a push for more senior housing, and other causes.
The letter, dated 17 November 1924, was from the local lodge #487 of the order and from Dr. Maurice Smith, president, and L.A. Rose, secretary, to all officers and members of the lodges of the order. The accompanying envelope is addressed to the Ahaveth Sholem Lodge #160 in Corry, Pennsylvania, which is southeast of Erie.
The missive noted that John Schwartz, a member of the Los Angeles lodge, was asking for help in finding his brother, Henry, described as being 27 years old, standing 5’4″, weighing about 125 pounds and having black hair and a dark complexion. It was also stated that his last known address was in Los Angeles five years before and that he’d previously lived in Portland, Oregon. A photograph of Henry was also provided.
Any information about Henry Schwartz’ whereabouts were to be sent to John at an address at 1st and Alameda streets in Los Angeles or to their father Morris, who lived at 117 Avenue A in the East Village area of Manhattan in New York.
A brief search located a Henry Schwartz, a 23 year-old native of Hungary who came to America in 1905, in the 1920 census and living with his wife Rae in south Los Angeles and working as a millinery store salesman. In October 1918, he married Rae Lenchner in Seattle and was listed as a resident of Portland, Oregon. His World War I registration card from that June showed him as born on 6 May 1897 in “Austria Hungary”, as residing in a Portland hotel and working in another hostelry in the city. Notably, the name of his nearest relative was a “Mis” Schwartz, residing at 117 Avenue A in New York. He was listed as of short stature and with black hair and brown eyes.
In addition, there was a John Schwartz, residing in 1920 in Boyle Heights, who was also from Hungary (born in a town bordering Ukraine), ten years older than Henry and a migrant of 1903. Ten years before, he resided in Manhattan and appears to have moved to Los Angeles about 1915 where he worked at a cafe before becoming a furniture dealer. In his World War I registration, he was described as being of medium height, slender build, and with black hair and brown eyes.
So, while Henry Schwartz can be found in the late 1910s and up through the 1920 census, there is no known record of him after that date, corresponding with what was in the B’nai B’rith order letter, and his fate remains a mystery.