Secret Societies, organizations that in some form or other have existed in all ages of the world's history. The Freemasons and the Odd Fellows are perhaps the best known of the secret societies in the United States. Speculative Freemasonry does not go further back than the 18th century; its objects are philanthropic and moral. There are associations similar in character to it in Tahiti and others of the Pacific Islands, and among the Foulah and the Negroes of Sierra Leone and the adjacent parts of Africa. There have been numerous associations of a secret kind formed for criminal purposes, and for mutual assistance against and in defiance of the laws of the land; the Assassins in Persia and Syria, the Thugs in India, the Camorra, the Mafia, and the Decisi (1815) in Italy and Sardinia, may be instanced.
There are perhaps no people in the world who favor secret societies more than the Chinese and the inhabitants of the United States. But while the objects of these associations in the former country are mostly political, in the latter they are predominantly social. The most powerful organization of this nature in China -- indeed its ramifications extend to all parts of the world where Chinamen are allowed to settle -- is the Tien-ti Hwuy (Union of Heaven and Earth), and presents many features analogous to Freemasonry, such as secret signs, solemn initiation ceremonies, peculiar observances, and so forth. Secret societies of all kinds, and for nearly all conceivable purposes, are found in the United States, from the Vigilance Committee, formed in the Western States for the preservation of public order, to the associations in the colleges and universities.
Entry from Everybody's Cyclopedia, 1912.