Only a few years after writing an anti-slavery novel in 1853, Cincinnatian George W. L. Bickley created a pro-slavery secret society that later became a model for the Ku Klux Klan.
The goal of the Knights of the Golden Circle was to use paramilitary force to create a slave-holding empire, including the southern United States, Mexico, the Caribbean and parts of Central America. Havana, Cuba, the geographical center of this vast “golden circle,” would become its capital.
Bickley, a native Virginian who moved to Cincinnati in 1851, created this extraordinary scheme at a time when the city, bordering a slave state, contained strong anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces.
But Bickley’s motive for founding the pro-slavery Knights of the Golden Circle in the late 1850s wasn’t rooted in racism or anti-Union convictions. He simply viewed it as a way to make a lot of money. The same was true for his anti-slavery novel, which he wrote hoping to capitalize on the commercial success of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published two years before his.
An itinerant printer by trade who secured a position as a lecturer at the non-traditional Eclectic Medical Institute in Cincinnati by falsely claiming to be a physician, Bickley believed Southern slave owners would pay huge sums to finance his Golden Circle plan.
Although Bickley’s group received a lot of publicity and attracted many followers in Texas, the Knights of the Golden Circle fizzled out shortly after two failed attempts to organize an invasion of Mexico in 1860. In fact, the New Orleans faction expelled Bickley when he and the thousands of other Knights he said he would bring for the first invasion failed to show up.
“He was essentially a great con man,” said Mark Lause, a University of Cincinnati assistant professor of history who has written a book called “A Secret Society History of the Civil War” that will be published this fall by the University of Illinois Press.
“I don’t think he believed in anything. He was entirely market-driven.”
Bickley’s obsession with money-making ventures may have grown from his difficult early years in Virginia.
Bickley’s father died in 1830 of cholera, when the younger Bickley was only 7 years old. At the time of his death, his father had either recently completed or was close to completing his medical training under a physician in Petersburg, Va.
With his mother struggling financially, George left home at age 12 and traveled south. In a letter he wrote in 1863, Bickley said that “at an early age, I was thrown on the world penniless and friendless,” according to a 1972 article by James Hagy in a periodical, “Historical Sketches of Southwest Virginia.”
Bickley claimed to have had medical training and to have studied in England, Scotland and France. But historians say there’s no evidence that he ever studied medicine or went to Europe.
In 1850, Bickley’s wife of two years died, and he placed their son with another family. Seeking a new life, he moved from Virginia to Cincinnati in 1851. He found a publisher for his book, “History of Settlement and Indian Wars of Tazewell County, Virginia,” and hoodwinked the Eclectic Medical Institute into hiring him to teach physiology.
During his years at the institute, the irrepressible Bickley continued his literary efforts.
In 1853, he wrote an anti-slavery novel, “Adalaska; or The Strange and Mysterious Family of the Cave of Genreva.” The plot was designed to imitate “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which Stowe based largely upon what she learned about slavery during her 18 years in Cincinnati.
Her book was published in 1852 and enjoyed spectacular commercial success. But the similarities between her novel and Bickley’s ended with the plot outlines. Bickley’s book was a literary and commercial failure.
Bickley married a widow in Cincinnati and used her money to help finance his various schemes, according to Frank L. Klement’s “Ohio and the Knights of the Golden Circle: The Evolution of a Civil War Myth,” in the Cincinnati Historical Society Bulletin’s Spring-Summer 1974 issue.
Some of his unsuccessful ventures included a literary magazine called “Western American Review,” a conservative newspaper in New York City and land speculation. Bickley’s wife booted him off her farm in Scioto County after he tried to transfer her property to his name.
Another Bickley project was the creation of a military drill team that would perform exhibitions all over the world. He bought military uniforms from various nations for his team. But, like his many other ideas, this enterprise quickly died.
That led to the hatching of his most audacious scheme of all: the Knights of the Golden Circle. This gave Bickley a way to use the military uniforms he had collected for the drill team.
He envisioned establishing Knights of the Golden Circle chapters, or “castles,” as he called them, in cities all over the United States. He appointed himself “president” and “general” of this organization and wrote a 63-page manual detailing the organization’s mission, structure, secret rituals and an oath of secrecy.
“His target market was the Southern slave-holders,” Lause said. “He would offer to put his group at their disposal for a price.”
Money problems plagued Bickley. He tried to escape his many creditors in Cincinnati by wearing false whiskers and registering in a downtown hotel under the name “General Baez.” But several angry creditors recognized him in the disguise and demanded repayment of their loans.
Bickley promised them he would give them the money the next morning. But around midnight, he fled the city.
He traveled mostly to Southern cities in an effort to recruit supporters for his Golden Circle. But the two later failed attempts at invading Mexico as well as the onset of the Civil War destroyed what little existed of this secret society.
Yet the Knights of the Golden Circle continued to live on in Confederate conspiracy rumors in the North. Some Northern Republicans tried to smear their Democratic opponents by accusing them of being members of the Knights of the Golden Circle, much like McCarthyites of the 1950s used the Communism scare for political purposes.
In early 1863, the Confederacy ordered Bickley to report to Gen. Braxton Bragg’s regiment as a surgeon. Bickley deserted in June to live in the backwoods of Tennessee with a woman who had born his child. On July 18, he was arrested in Indiana as a Confederate spy and spent the rest of the war in prison without a trial.
Bickley’s health broke down while he was in prison. He died on Aug. 10, 1867, in Virginia at the age of 44.
Part of Bickley’s dubious legacy is the Ku Klux Klan. His Knights of the Golden Circle served as a forerunner of the far more dangerous and deadly Klan, Lause said.
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