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

If you’ve ever attended a Masonic funeral, you know how important those rites are to the club members. So it shouldn’t surprise you to know that the modern idea of life insurance grew out of secret societies, where fraternity extended beyond death. In the 19th century, death could leave one’s family destitute, even unable to pay for a gravestone, and the peace of mind insurance brought was an important consideration. Eventually, societies based around the idea of life insurance cropped up. One of the more long-lasting was the Woodmen of the World, and later Modern Woodmen. They offered activities and camaraderie in addition to insurance, but you had to go through initiation rituals to be considered worthy.

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.”

Woodman of the World insurance is still available, although not with the trappings of a secret society it once had. Read about the Woodmen and other mutual benefit societies that made life insurance common at Collectors Weekly.


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