The Straight Dope - Do U.S. leaders perform satanic rituals at Bohemian Grove?

A friend recently told me about something called the Bohemian Grove where supposedly the leaders of our country meet annually to hold bizarre satanic rituals including burning things in front of a 40-foot statue of an owl. As proof, she had me examine a dollar bill where in the corner there appears to be a tiny owl. She went on to explain that if you look at the U.S. Capitol and grounds it looks like an owl. For the piece de resistance she sent me links to videos on YouTube "proving" all this is true. What in the world is going on?
— Bill Leahy

The claim is that U.S. leaders hold bizarre satanic rituals, and the proof is that there’s an owl on the dollar bill? Call me picky, but that doesn’t strike me as ironclad logic. Nonetheless, this isn’t a story somebody just made up. In fact, if you replace “satanic” with “sophomoric,” you’ve got a reasonably accurate description of what evidently goes on. Yes, big shots have been known to participate. Yes, there are robes, candles, and incantations. Yes, featured prominently is a grisly rite in which a victim is brutally sacrificed, then rises from the dead ... oh, wait, that’s not the Bohemian Grove, that’s Easter. Well, you know how easy it is to get these cults mixed up.

The secrecy surrounding the Bohemian Grove hasn’t been what you would call impenetrable. Truth is, short of rigging up webcams in the toilet stalls, we’ve extracted virtually every fact of interest about this shadowy establishment. The basic setup is: old white guys drinking around a bonfire. Not doing much for you? Let’s see if we can goose it up: old white guys drinking around a bonfire plus costumes and mumbo jumbo. Hmm, now it sounds like summer camp with the Shriners. One more time: rich old white guys drinking around a bonfire plus costumes and mumbo jumbo they don't want anybody to see. Ah, now we’ve got the basis of a first-class conspiracy theory.

The Bohemian Club, a men’s club for artists and journalists, was formed in San Francisco in 1872. The group first headed north to the redwood forest camp now known as Bohemian Grove in 1878. They liked it so much they bought a 160-acre piece in 1899; this has now grown into a 2,712-acre retreat with more than 100 swank semiprivate campgrounds. The latest information I could find indicates the club has about 2,400 members, most of them well-heeled.

The club's mascot is the owl, symbol of wisdom. Into frat-house theatrics from the start, members constructed the notorious 40-foot concrete owl and its accompanying shrine in the 1920s. This is the scene of an annual ceremony called the "Cremation of Care," where a “foul and pestilential demon” (apparently sometimes a human effigy) is exorcised with fire by “the avenging power of goodness and light.” This was captured on video by an intrepid infiltrator; my assistant Una watched the footage on YouTube. Her review: "High on stilted symbolism, low on human sacrifice, and less threatening than the last time I saw Kiss in concert.” However, once you realize those in attendance are largely Republicans, you can see where the timid might get the creeps.

As to the other claims:

The club is a cabal of the rich and powerful. True, or at least truish. A 1991 study of members found 13 percent were on the boards of major companies. Several U.S. presidents have been either members or guests, as have Supreme Court justices, California officials, Henry Kissinger, and other heavy hitters. Richard Nixon belonged but was caught on tape in 1971 saying, “The Bohemian Grove, which I attend from time to time ... it is the most faggy goddamned thing you could ever imagine.” Bill Clinton once said of the Grove, “That’s where all those rich Republicans go up and stand naked against redwood trees, right?”

The club engages in drunken debauchery. We know they drink. And the Grove is near San Francisco. So I’m marking this one down as true, too.

Owls hidden on the dollar bill and around the U.S. Capitol prove the club’s influence. What's supposedly a microscopic owl is perched on the scroll framing the numeral 1 in the upper right corner of the bill’s obverse — google “dollar bill Bohemian Grove” for an enlarged view. The streets and paths surrounding the Capitol, meanwhile, form an arguably owl-like pattern when seen from above. Cynics point out that the grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1874, a scant two years after the club’s founding.

But let’s not get sidetracked. If you follow the news you know that any time the rich and powerful get together, chances are they’ll be up to no good. And who knows, maybe the Bohemian Grove is one of the places where they hatch their nefarious schemes. But don’t forget, to get any really serious dirty work done they have to fly back to D.C.

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