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Bohemian Grove: Men’s club for rich dudes, or secretive cabal of the ruling elite?

Some of the most popular, enduring conspiracy theories have to do with who’s ruling the world, who’s actually running things. Perhaps it has something to do with humanity’s overwhelming urge to believe that there’s someone in charge of all the chaos, that, even if they aren’t exactly benevolent, there’s someone with their hand on the steering wheel — the same impulse that leads people to believe in a god or gods above. In the past we’ve looked at conspiracy theories surrounding the Illuminati, lizard people, and more, but this week we turn our gaze to something that appears far, far less sinister.

Unlike the Illuminati or lizard people, the Bohemian Grove is something that — wait for it — actually exists. Crazy, right? In fact, at first glance, the Bohemian Club — the group behind the Grove — seems positively benign, an “art club” based in San Francisco that puts on annual camps for its members. It sounds much more “shirtless drum circle” than it does “scheming cabal,” but that might very well be because we haven’t told you who’s a member yet.

First up, let’s take a quick step back and discuss not just the origins of the club, but the very meaning of the name itself. Due to a belief in 1800s Europe that the wandering Romani people originally came from Bohemia (a region known these days as the Czech Republic), the term “Bohemian” came to be associated with a certain type of traveling, colorful, free-spirited, artsy individual. This led to, among other things, the Italian opera La bohème, which served as the basis for the musical Rent.

The term “Bohemian” crossed the Atlantic and stretched across the North American continent, to San Francisco, where in 1872, a group of self-professed Bohemians — mostly journalists, writers and artists — formed their eponymous club. As so often happens, where the arts go, money eventually follows, and before long, the club started to welcome businessmen, academics and military officers into its ranks.

Though the club was founded in 1872, its first camping session didn’t come until six years later, when around 100 Bohemians got together in the Redwoods as a kind of going away party for one of their founding members. Eventually, as the camps became an annual event, the increasingly wealthy membership began to buy up their campgrounds as well as surrounding parcels of land, so as to secure for themselves a little privacy. And that privacy? It’s been a major contributor to the conspiracy theories that swirl around the club, as well as the grove where their yearly getaways take place.

Much like the Freemasons, the Bohemian Club is loaded to the gills with strange symbolism, much of it indecipherable to outsiders, as well as a series of rituals that, seeing as they are held in primeval forests, don’t require much imagination to seem pagan or even outright nefarious to outsiders. Secrecy is so engrained in the club’s DNA that their patron saint is John of Nepomuk, who is said to have been killed for his refusal to disclose the secrets of his queen.


While the Bohemian Club might not technically be a secret society, it has many similarities to one, including not just the rituals and secrecy mentioned above, but also its exclusive roster and stringent rules on new members, including one massive one: The Bohemian Club is a men-only affair, but while there are no women allowed, the Bohemian Club is chockablock with massively powerful and influential figures.

Past and present members of the Bohemian Club include George HW Bush, Joseph Coors, William Randolph Hearst, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr, Herbert Hoover, Henry Kissinger, Jack London, Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt, Caspar Weinberger, and more. In addition, the Bohemian Grove camp has also welcomed numerous other luminaries, including members of the Manhattan Project, university presidents and wealthy industrialists. With that much political and social might concentrated in once place, perhaps it’s no wonder that conspiracy theories about the group have spread like wildfire.

As a result, there have been many attempts by assorted groups and individuals to sneak into the camp and observe its workings first-hand. But while everyone agrees that members of the Club participate in rituals that seem pagan, gathering around areas including their infamous owl shrine, there’s also something else that the reports corroborate: The whole thing is pretty much a big, goofy party. Drinking, smoking, laughing, participation in absurd, made-up rituals — it all makes the Bohemian Grove seem less like a place for the ruling elite to gather, make plans and pay homage to whatever strange gods they worship, and more like an opportunity for a bunch of dudes to cut loose in the woods for a couple weeks.


Still, while the most damning reliable claims of misbehavior seem to involve smoking cigars in an area of California forest where such behavior is verboten, that has done nothing to stem the tide of conspiracy theories that cling to the Bohemian Club and its annual campout at Bohemian Grove. What do you think? Is the Bohemian Grove just a place for rich dudes to party in the woods once a year, or is there something more nefarious going on? Tell us below in the comments!

Aubrey Sitterson is the creator of the ongoing sword & sorcery serial podcast, SKALD, available on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher & Podomatic. Follow him on Twitter or check out his website for more information.

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