Location: Lancaster, Erie, New York, United States
Mutual Benevolent Societies of Lancaster, New York
by Michael Nuwer
1882: Lancaster has two fire companies; a Benevolent society of 155 members; an IOOF lodge; AOUW Lodge; a glass-blower’s league; a CMBA branch; besides a church society and an excellent Literary society.1
During the Gilded Age in America (1870-1900), politics came in two varieties: the male-dominated partisanship of voters, political operatives, and officeholders; and the voluntarism of those who put cause above party, including labor organizations, farmers’ groups, women’s organizations, and benevolent societies.
There were essentially three types of benevolent societies in nineteenth century America. The first type, and the type that comes to mind for many of us in the twenty-first century, was the society with general humanitarian or charitable aims. After the American Revolution there was a rapid increase in the number of these societies. One example is the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVP). The SVP was an organization in the Catholic Church founded in 1833 to help impoverished people living in the slums of Paris, France. The Society is interesting to us because, in 1845, Father John Timon brought the Society to the United States and established it in St. Louis, Missouri. This was the same Father Timon who, in 1847, was appointed the first Bishop of Buffalo.
In the mid-1890s a chapter of the Society of King’s Daughters was organized in Lancaster. Its membership was drawn from the Episcopal, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches. The King’s Daughters operated a clothing exchange in Lancaster where used cloths were sold. The Society also engaged in charity work such as providing groceries to families in need.2
The second type of benevolent society was the national evangelical societies. These organization were founded to promote a Christian lifestyle all over the nation. The vast majority of American Protestants sought to remove “moral corruption” from America by creating an evangelical consciousness (or repentance of sin) within society. An example that impacted Lancaster was The American Temperance Society formed in 1826 in Baston, Massachusetts. By the 1880s, the Sons of Temperance and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union had a presence in Lancaster. Temperance was a controversial issue that shaped nineteenth century Lancaster.3
The third type of benevolent society was the mutual benefit societies. These organizations brought benefits to members who were unable to work. They represented a private, voluntaristic form of social insurance. Many labor unions had their roots in this type of organization. The Brotherhood of Locomotives Engineers, for example, was founded in 1863 as a mutual benefit society which created accident, death, burial, and other insurance programs for its members.
The current essay will focus on mutual benefit societies and specifically organizations created in Lancaster, New York. In particular, it will look at four organizations which had a presence in the town of Lancaster. The essay explores why these societies developed and became popular in the second half of the nineteenth century. It also explores the activities of these societies.
Exploring mutual benefit societies provides some insight into America’s transition from predominately rural-agricultural communities into urban-industrial communities. In an agricultural setting the family farm provided food for family members while the family’s ownership of farmland meant that the loss of a household head due to sickness, disability or death would not take away the family’s means of subsistence. With the growth of wage-work many men worked at a factory, an office or a store, and their family’s means of subsistence was dependent on their income from this employment. A sickness, disability or death of the wageworker therefore threatened the entire family’s means of subsistence. Mutual benefit societies addressed a specific set of needs arising from this new world of work.
The characteristics of mutual benefit societies were not merely a by-product of industrialization and urbanization. These organizations were also an important avenue for civic involvement and cultural expression. They were fraternal orders that championed thrift, self-reliance, mutual aid, good moral character, and other traits, which helped their members improve themselves and their communities. Mutual benefit societies offered their members an identity rooted, not in market individualism, but in fraternal values during the period of transition from agrarian life to urban life.
Lancaster Mutual Benefit Societies
|Name of Society||Date Established|| Sickness &
|Death Benefit|| Secret
|Lancaster Benevolent Association (LBA)||30 Oct 1868||Yes||No|
|Ancient Order of United Workmen (AOUW)||22 Feb 1877||Yes||Yes|
|Catholic Mutual Benefit Association (CMBA)||6 Jun 1878||Yes||No|
|Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF)||3 Jul 1879||Yes||Yes|
The Need for Mutual Benefit Societies
In the years following the U.S. Civil War a mutual benefit society was organized in the village of Lancaster. It was founded on October 30, 1868 and was given the name The Lancaster Benevolent Association. The purpose of this association was for “mutual relief and death benefits.” These were the words used to describe the replacement of lost income due to sickness (sickness insurance) and a payment to subsidize funeral costs at the time of death. Member of the Association also paraded on the streets of Lancaster for more than 30 years at the annual Fourth of July picnic, an event sponsored and organized by the Association.
The Lancaster Times printed an article in 1898 commemorating thirty years of the Association’s activities. The article noted that the organization “has expended for relief in 30 years $20,500 and has paid to widows and orphans $10,400.” There had been 362 members initiated during this thirty-year period. “However, as in all other associations and orders, the loss by death during said time of 52 brothers, and other losses by resignations, etc., has narrowed the membership down to the present time to only 176 members in good standing.”4
During the second half of the nineteenth century, many working-class families found themselves in a precarious financial position. They typically had little or no savings to use when employment income was lost. Further they were unable to turn to commercial insurance companies for protection, nor could they rely on a social safety net provided by the government. Commercial insurance was scarce and expensive while public insurance was non-existent. Yet the need for insurance was quite large. As a result, many workers turned to mutual benefit societies to find financial protection in what could be a cold and uncaring world.
There are three broad categories of risk faced by nineteenth century working-class families. First, the loss of income from layoffs and illness. Sporadic work schedules were very common in the nineteenth century and very few working families earned enough money to save funds for use during periods of short-term unemployment. The loss of income due to short-term sickness was a similar threat to a family’s wellbeing. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, sickness was the leading cause of lost time on the job. There was, thus, a strong economic demand for insurance to cover both unemployment and sickness. The Lancaster Benevolent Association (LBA) was created to address the loss of income due to sickness. Ten years later, on July 3, 1879, a lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) was established in Lancaster, which was a second mutual benefit society focusing on sickness insurance.5
The second risk category faced by working-class families was the loss of income due to the death of its breadwinner. The economic value of a wage worker lay in his ability to earn an hourly income. In the nineteenth century, mortality was a significant concern for families with a single income earner, especially when there were several young children to look after. Life insurance was intended to replace some part of this income if the family breadwinner died. Fraternal societies established in Lancaster that provided a life insurance benefit included a “lodge” of the Ancient Order of United Workmen (AOUW) created in Lancaster on February 22, 1877 and a “branch” of the Catholic Mutual Benefit Association (CMBA) created the next year on June 6, 1878.
The third risk category faced by a wage worker was the loss of income due to retirement resulting from an age-related infirmity or from a job-related disability. In the nineteenth century, disability insurance and pension programs were rare. Lancaster did not establish a fraternal society addressing these risks.
The loss of income due to unemployment, sickness, disability, old age, and death was a phenomenon of industrialization. In an agricultural community, these types of insurance were built into the structure of the family farm. First, on the family farm there was no single breadwinner. All members of the family contributed to production. Second, a farm family often owned the land they farmed. The sickness or death of the household head did not end the ability of the land to grow food. A wife and children could provide the labor to grow crops, raise animals, and run the dairy.
Case studies of the Nuwer family in Lancaster and Alden highlight the ways in which farm families were able to self-insure against sickness, old-age, and death. Theresia Nuwer married Joseph Gundy in 1869. After the wedding, Joseph Gundy became the owner of his father’s farm on Westwood Road in Alden consisting of 66 acres of land. Theresia Nuwer and Joseph Gundy had two sons, John was born in 1872 and Joseph was born in 1873. In October of 1873 Joseph Gundy, Sr. died at the age of only 26. Theresia had been married only four years and became a widow with two young boys. Importantly, she retained ownership of the farm and when she remarried in 1874, William Jehle was able to farm the land which supported Theresia and her children.
Thersia Nuwer’s sister, Christine Nuwer, was the youngest of John Nuwer and Catherine Kieffer’s children. She was 22 years old in 1884 when she married Bernhard Pautler. Her new husband had inherited his father’s 103-acre farm in Alden Center. Bernhard Pautler and Christine Nuwer had seven children between 1886 and 1902. In 1903 Bernhard Pautler died at the age of 43. He left Christine Nuwer a widow with seven children ranging in age between 1 and 17 years old. However, he also left her with the farm at Alden Center. Christine and her children lived there another ten years. With the help of her children, the family was able to carry on the farming operation.6 In about 1913 Christine Nuwer and her family moved to the village of Lancaster and were able to purchase a house with funds they obtained from selling the Alden Center farm.
Rose Kieffer, a daughter of John Kieffer and Celestine Nuwer, faced a similar situation. She married Michael Pautler (Bernhard’s brother) in 1879 and together they had nine children between 1881 and 1899. Michael Pautler died in 1900 at the age of 48. From his father, Michael Pautler had inherited a 100-acre farm on Westwood Road, and after his death, Rose Kieffer and her children used the property to support their economic needs. The land performed this function for the next 21 years.
Yet another instance from the Nuwer family was Anthony Nuwer (a son of Henry Nuwer and Elizabeth Nichter) and Rose Laubacher. They were married in 1903 and had five children between 1904 and 1913. Anthony Nuwer died in 1915 at age 38, leaving Rose Laubacher with five young children and a farm on Broadway in Alden. Following Anthony’s death, Rose moved to Lancaster and used the farm to generate rental income until 1928, at which time the Alden farm was liquated. The funds generated from this sale enabled Rose Laubacher and her children to acquire the Lancaster property, which remained their home until Rose died in 1960.
In each of these four cases, the family farm was, in effect, the widow’s “life insurance benefit.” The land could be used to produce food, rental income, and/or capital for the family. In a similar way, the family farm was an insurance policy against sickness.
There were two instances of long-term disability found in the Nuwer family history. First, Alexander Kieffer, a son of Jean Kieffer and brother of Catherine Kieffer Nuwer. Jean Kieffer’s Last Will gave his farm to John Nuwer provided Alexander was cared for. Alexander lived with his brother-in-law and sister until his death in 1871 and John Nuwer did not take legal title to the land until after that date.
A second disability was found in the Peter Stephan family, whose son, Jacob Stephan, was married to Felicitas Nuwer. Peter Stephan’s son, Bernard Stephan, was disabled and Peter’s estate used his farm to provide for Bernard’s material needs. Bernards share of the farm was deeded to his two brothers (Jacob Stephan and John Stephan) and two brothers-in-law (Michael Lutz and Michael Anstett) as “guardians for said Bernard Stephan.” The four guardians were “empowered and authorized to use, improve, lease, mortgage, or sell the above premises or a part thereof for the benefit or support of said Bernard Stephan and every expense or outlay made by them in good faith for his benefit or support shall be a lien upon said premises and if one or more of the said guardians refuse to act as such the others or other shall have the same power and authority as if all acted combined.”7
A family farm also provided a retirement pension. John Nuwer retired from farming in 1881. He and Catherine Kieffer Nuwer had accumulated sufficient savings to purchase a house in the village of Lancaster. Although Catherine died in November 1882, John Nuwer lived at the house in retirement for 16 years. He used his land assets to generate money that funded this retirement.
Frank Nuwer died in 1888 at the age of 64 and had not retired from farming. At the time of his death, his youngest child was 20 years old. His wife, Catherine Bach Nuwer, inherited the family farm and that land, along with help from her children (her sons, Frank, Jr., Eli and Jacob remained on the farm), provided for her economic needs another 19 years, until her death in March 1907.
Celestine Nuwer Kieffer had died in 1892 leaving John Kieffer a widower. He remained on his farm until his death in April 1905. His son, Henry J. Kieffer, also lived on the farm. Henry had married in 1888 and he and his family worked the farm and supported his farther. Similarly, Henry Nuwer and Elizabeth Nichter were supported in their advancing years by their sons Fank J and Edward W Nuwer, both of whom remained on the family’s Erie Road farm. John Nuwer, Jr. was supported by his son Joseph who remained a member of his father’s household and worked their Elma farm.
The ownership of land, along with the multiple generation household, were important elements in providing for a farmer’s retirement. Catherine Bach Nuwer, John Kieffer, Henry Nuwer, and John Nuwer, Jr. owned land that was, in effect, an income generating asset, on which their adult children performed the labor. This pattern relied on a three-generation family system, in which at least one of the retiree’s children lived with them in the family home, and that child’s spouse moves into the home. In this situation the younger couple’s children are raised in the home of their grandparents.8 This strategy depended on the willingness of the adult children to subordinate their individual interests to those of the family strategy.
Industrialization encouraged individuals to move off the family farms and into urban centers. The structure of the farm family was correspondingly transformed into a breadwinner structure in which the family became reliant on the income from the male household head. With this transformation of work organization an economic demand for insurance against loosing that income also arose.
Mutual benefit societies, however, were not insurance companies that supplied a product (i.e., an insurance policy) to a customer. The nineteenth century organizations were not purely, nor even essentially, economic organizations providing products through market exchanges. These nineteenth century organizations were overwhelmingly mutual benefit societies. At root they were fraternal organizations, based not on servicing customers but rather treating people like brothers. As one historian put it:
In a time … when a wide swath of American families were unable to meet their insurance needs commercially, the result was not only the creation of benefit societies but of mutual benefit societies that genuinely were based on principles of brotherly love and communal assistance.9
Members of mutual benefit societies took care of each other in ways similar to the way extended families cared for each other. Examples included helping maintain a brother’s home when he became ill, taking care of a member’s orphaned children, and providing small loans to cover a family emergency.
Fraternalism of this kind became a source of identity for members during a period of transition from agrarian life to industrial work in large towns or cities. Newspaper obituaries regularly listed the societies to which the deceased was a member. Fraternalism was also a means for preserving enduring family values of trust, cooperation, care, and equality. Joseph Nuwer, a son of John Nuwer and Catherine Kieffer, made this transition from his father’s farm at Town Line to the village of Lancaster in the late 1870s and exemplified the principles of communal assistance within an urban setting.10
When Joseph Nuwer married Celestine Demangeot in 1874, he moved to the village of Lancaster and joined in partnership with his father-in-law to run the Demangeot & Nuwer Brewery. In addition to running the brewery, Joseph Nuwer was one of the founding members of the Rescue Hook and Ladder company, Lancaster’s first volunteer fire company.11 Joseph Nuwer was also a member of the Lancaster Benevolent Association and a founding member of the Lancaster branch of the Catholic Mutual Benefit Association. He served as the CMBA Recording Secretary in 1880 and as Treasurer in 1882. When Joseph moved to Buffalo in the late 1880s, his CMBA membership was transferred to the branch at St. Nicholas’ Catholic Church.
Joseph Nuwer had grownup within a moral community that surrounded the agricultural region in which his father’s farm was apart. His adult life took place in the emerging industrial village of Lancaster. Nevertheless, the institutions of the village offered their own elements of a moral community which included mutual benefit societies, other forms of voluntarism like the Rescue Hook and Ladder company, and St. Mary’s Church.
No evidence was found that John Nuwer, nor Joseph’s three brothers, Henry, John, Jr., and Anthony were members of a mutual benefit society. This does not mean that Joseph had more of a voluntaristic spirit than his father and brothers. Instead, they were farmers who had rights to land, and that land was their insurance policy.
Nineteenth century fraternalism brought with it a level of concern and humane care that differed both from formal charity and governmental programs. These organizations provided needed assistance without the destruction of independence and individuality. The historian, David T. Beito suggests that fraternal benefit societies were expressions of mutual assistance at a time when receiving charity was highly humiliating for the recipient and commercial insurance protection could not be obtained.12 Benefit societies did more than merely provide their members with insurance. For the historian David Beito, their greater importance was in the mutualism and individual responsibility they fostered. To put it differently, they enriched the giver without humiliating the receiver.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the largest fraternal organization in the United States was the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF). It was followed closely by the Freemasons. Membership in Odd Fellow lodges tended to be more common among the lower middle class and skilled workers while membership in the Masonic lodges was proportionally more white-collar workers and professionals.
As an organization, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows aims to provide a framework that promotes personal and social development. Lodge activities were aimed at extending sympathy and aid to those in need, making their burdens lighter and relieving their despair. The local lodges also fought against vice in every form and endeavored to be a great moral power for the good of humanity.
The men who joined were voluntarily contributing to a sick fund and promised to visit and watch lodge members who were sick. An essential goal of membership was the morality of the givers, which was seen as an important counterweight to the “pursuit of wealth and interest in self” of the “larger society.” The lodge member was to uplift himself morally by “giving of himself,” as a contemporary leaflet stated, to “visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead, and protect the widow and orphan.”13
Lancaster Benevolent Societies
The Lancaster Benevolent Association, which was founded in 1868, provided sickness insurance (“mutual relief”) and a burial stipend (“death benefit”) for its members. Membership entailed an initiation fee ranging between five dollars and twenty dollars depending on one’s age, and an annual dues of three dollar per year. In 1885 the Association paid a relief benefit of five dollars per week. The Lancaster Times wrote,
Now is the time to secure weekly benefits of five dollars per week, at only a cost of three dollars for dues per year by joining the Association. The initiation fees are as follows, according to age: Twenty-one to thirty-five years, five dollars; thirty-five to forty-five years, ten dollars; forty-five to fifty years, fifteen dollars; fifty to fifty-five years, twenty dollars.14
The newspaper rightly reminded readers in 1883 that “the society is merely a local institution; without any brunches or, higher dignitaries to govern it; Its members reside in this town, with the exception of a few here and there.” The newspaper went on to report that, “Last year it paid for the relief of its sick members some seven hundred dollars, and in spite of its low assessments there remains quite a surplus.”15
Membership in the Association included C.F. Tabor, a lawyers and Attorney General of New York State, Nathan B. Gatchell, the owner of the Lancaster Glass Works, and John Leininger, a Lancaster merchant and notary. But “the majority” of the members “are hard workingmen.”16
About a decade after the formation of the Lancaster Benefit Association three more benevolent societies were organized in Lancaster.
Ancient Order of United Workmen
Before the Civil War, fraternal societies focused on the payment of sickness benefits and individual lodges paid funeral benefits, with the amounts rarely exceeded $150. The Lancaster Benevolent Association was such an organization, focusing on the payment of sick benefits and a small death benefit.
The formation of the Ancient Order of United Workmen (AOUW) in Meadville, Pennsylvania on October 27, 1868 signaled the onset of a new phase in American fraternal development. The AOUW was the first major national life insurance order. The AOUW’s life insurance plan guaranteed a death benefit of $2,000 which was funded through a $1.00 per capita assessment. That is, upon the death of a member in good standing, each member of the Order was charged a $1.00 fee to pay the benefit.
It would have been beyond the capacity of a single local society, like the Lancaster Benevolent Association, to pay this kind of money because no individual lodge had the necessary membership base. The LBA had a membership ranging from 150 to 200. A one-dollar assessment on a group of this size generated only $150 to $200. The AOUW dealt with the problem by spreading the burden of funding the death benefit across a statewide organization, and later in the century a national organization pooled and dispersed the funds upon a member’s death.
On February 22, 1877, a lodge of the Ancient Order of United Workmen (AOUW) was established at Lancaster. The list of charter members included 20 names. Among those were Charles W. Fuller, James H. Atwood, and William H. Kurtz. The first head of the local organization was Julius Wenz.17 Over the next year the membership of the Lancaster Lodge increased to 33. Among those who joined in the first year were Nathan B. Gatchell, H. J. Hurd, Fredrick Hummell, Jr., John Zurbrick, and Richard. R. Kurtz.18
Independent Order of Odd Fellows
The Independent Order of Odd Fellows was another American fraternal society with a lodge at Lancaster. The Order was founded in 1819 in Baltimore, Maryland. It initiated the use of a clear schedule of guaranteed benefits, avoiding haphazard grants that previous societies made. Each member when taken sick could claim a regular stipend per week to compensate for working days lost (usually $3.00 to $6.00). In addition, the Odd Fellows helped to revise the language of American fraternalism. Most earlier societies had favored the words “charity” and “relief” to describe their aid, but the Odd Fellows preferred “benefit” and “right.” Hence, as one member declared, money was “not paid or received as charity, it is every Brother’s right, and paid to every one when sick, whether he be high or low, rich or poor.”19
A Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows was created in Lancaster before the Civil War, however, “through lack of proper support it gradually faded out of existence.” The Lancaster Lodge was reorganized in the spring of 1879.
Messrs, E. Oehm, J. Fedder, J. Hoffman, and P. Guetlich, who are all members of the Order, began agitating the question as to whether a lodge could be supported here. The offshot of their work has the calling of a meeting of several persons who were interested in the matter, and as sufficient interest was manifested subsequent meetings were called and a paper prepared to be signed by persons wishing to become members. In a short time the list began to grow rapidly, and on the night of the installation there were forty-eight names on the list.20
Many who joined the Odd Fellows were also members of AOUW. A few, like James H. Atwood, Charles W. Fuller, and Franklin Hummell, Jr. took on leadership roles in both organizations.
Englehard Oehm was elected the first lodge president, or “Noble Grand” as the organization called the position. He had been a member of the Fellowship since the 1850s and it was largely through his efforts in 1877 that the Lancaster lodge was organized.
Englehard Oehm was born in Germany and came to America when he was a young boy. His father and mother settled in Sandasky, Ohio. Englehard Oehm went to California in the early 1850s (during the “gold fever”) where he stayed for about 8 years. He became a member of the IOOF at that time. While living in California he met Catherine Kolb of Cheektowaga and in 1864 they were married at San Francisco. Shortly after the wedding they moved to Lancaster where they lived the remainder of their lives.
In 1866 Englehard Oehm went into the planning-mill business with Joseph Knauber. The partners separated in the 1870s, after which both continued with their own mill. Englehard Oehm operated a mill on Holland Avenue, and he also contracted as a builder. Englehard Oehm served as the Lancaster Town Supervisor in 1883, 1884, 1886, and 1887. In 1892 the Lancaster Times commented that “our lumbermen, Messrs. John Leininger, Joseph Knauber and Engelhard Oehm are doing a tremendous business. It is not uncommon to have them receive 15 to 20 cars of lumber at a time.”21
In addition to being one of the organizers of the Oddfellow’s Triumph Lodge at Lancaster, Englehard Oehm also belonged to the Lancaster Benevolent Association. It was common for residents to be members of multiple benefit societies. Charles Kurtz was born in Bavaria, in 1823 and came to Lancaster in 1830. He worked as a blacksmith and was a member of Lutheran church of Lancaster. Charles Kurtz, who died in 1892, was a member of both the Lancaster Odd Fellows lodge and of the Lancaster Benevolent Association. He was also a member of a Buffalo Freemason lodge.22 John H. Ziegler was another “old and respected citizen of Lancaster.” He was a “soldier in the late rebellion and was always fond of speaking about the war and his experience in it.” When John Ziegler died in 1883, he was a member of both the Lancaster Benevolent Association and the Lancaster lodge of the Odd Fellows.23 Charles J. Soemann was yet another Lancaster resident who was a member of multiple benefit societies. He was born in Bavaria and worked as a brewer in Lancaster. When he died in 1891, his memberships included the Lancaster Benevolent Association, the Odd Fellows lodge, and another society called the Knights of Pythias.24
Catholic Mutual Benefit Association
The Catholic Church, both in America and in Europe, objected to many fraternal organizations. Not because they offered various forms of insurance, but because the Church saw them as religious cults. Those fraternal organizations that included some kind of ritual, moral codes, and oath-bound secrecy were deemed religious organizations and Catholics were forbidden from joining them.
Catholic Church opposition to secret societies dates to at least the eighteenth century. Pope Clement XII condemned Freemasonry in 1738 maintaining that Masons taught a naturalistic deistic religion which conflicted with Church doctrine. Pope Leo XIII reasserted the claim in 1884, stating that Freemason philosophical ideas and moral conceptions were rooted in a rationalistic naturalism. Both Popes prohibited Catholics from joining the Freemasons. In the nineteenth century many other fraternal organizations were associated with the kind of secret societies condemned by the Church.
Father Peter Rosen, a Catholic priest, documented the Church’s case against fraternal organizations in The Catholic Church and Secret Societies, published in 1902. Rosen assembled evidence against many fraternal organizations, including the Freemasons, Odd Fellows, and Knights of Pythias. In the case against the Odd Fellows, he found that the local organizations had chaplains, altars, high-priests, ritual, order of worship, and funeral ceremonies. He concluded: “Surely it is evident that Odd-Fellowship is a religious organization.”25
Father Rosen’s general argument was the following.
There are thousands of excellent, moral and intellectual men, devoid of all prejudice, who join these secret societies for no other purpose than to get the insurance, or for mere social and political purposes. But surely the pursuit of these objects does not need any sacred rite, traditions and ceremonies, grip, pass word, symbolic sign or oath.
Can it be otherwise to human nature than that all these things will have an influence on belief and will? Again and again do the higher officials call attention to the strict observant of the ceremonial part of the lodge work. All these rites and ceremonies have a deep, very deep, religious meaning and are based on old and new paganism and naturalism.26
Spokesmen for the fraternal societies maintained that “the secrecy of lodge affairs allowed a distressed brother to receive help without public humiliation.”27 Furthermore, these spokesmen insisted that their teachings were moral rather than religious. Nevertheless, American bishops saw that they used cult-like practices. The bishops particularly objected to the oath-bound secrecy of these associations and their emphasis on a purely natural morality as the one requirement for human perfection.
In Lancaster, few members of St. Mary’s Catholic parish were found among the membership lists of the AOUW or the IOOF. Instead, Lancaster’s Catholics established a branch of the denominational Catholic Mutual Benefit Association (CMBA). The CMBA was a national organization, but it began within the Diocese of Buffalo. The Association was organized at Niagara Falls, NY, July 3, 1876. As announced in the Buffalo Courier: “The Association is not only a life insurance guaranteeing $2,000 at the death of a member, but an organization for the protection of Catholic interests.”28
The new benevolent society recently organized at this place under the name and title of “The Catholic Mutual Benefit Association” is, as indicated, denominational in its character, and embraces in general those beneficiary and benevolent principles that constitute the foundation of all charitable enterprises.
It is especially similar in theory to the character of the Ancient Order of Unted Workmen, and is intended to insure much the same for Catholics as the A.O.U.W. does for its members. Catholics are by church authority forbidden to join any secret society, to which class of organizations the A.O.U.W. belongs, hence the opportunity which the C.M.B.A. proposes to improve.29
In an address to the Association’s 1880 convention, Stephen V. Ryan, the Bishop of Buffalo, said: “As Catholics, we are forced to form Catholic associations and they must of necessity be based on the principles of our religion.” Since the CMBA was a lay institution not run by Catholic clergy, Bishop Ryan offered conditional approval: “We believe it to be a good and worthy institution and it always will be so long as it adheres to its original principles.”30
The Lancaster branch of the Catholic Mutual Benefit Association was formed on June 6, 1878.31 The first president of Branch 26, CMBA, the organization at Lancaster, was Joseph Knauber. He was active in the local branch until his death in 1902. He was Lancaster’s delegate to the national convention (called the Grand Council) several times. According to the Lancaster newspaper, “often did his voice ring out in those meetings in the interest of the C.M.B.A., denouncing any scheme that might injure the association.”32
Joseph Knauber was born in Lancaster in 1831, the same year his father and mother immigrated to Western New York. In 1856 he started “a planning mill on a small scale, and by close and steady application of business, by energy and diligence, he forced its growth to its present size.”33 The mill was one of the larger enterprises in Lancaster. Over the years Joseph Knauber had entered into partnerships first with Engelhard Oehm and later with John Leininger. But after December 1880, each of the three lumbermen operated their own businesses.
Joseph Knauber “always took an active interest in the welfare of the village and served it for some years as one of its trustees. Other offices were offered him, but he preferred to devote his time to his family and his private business, in which he took great delight.”34
Joseph Knauber was also a member in good standing in the Lancaster Benevolent Association. Since there were many Catholics who were members of this local Association, we presume it was not considered a “secret society” by the Catholic Church. Thus, the Catholics of Lancaster could obtain sickness insurance from the LBA and life insurance from the CMBA.
Since the Catholic Mutual Benefit Association was not a secret society, its practices and procedures were publicly available. This is an advantage for the historian. The CMBA was promoted as an arrangement that enabled “a poor man to bequeath to his dependent family the benefits of a life insurance by paying a small initiation fee, monthly dues, and the beneficiary assessments required without being compelled to contribute toward defraying the costly expenses attending the management of ordinary life insurance companies.”35
Commercial insurance in the nineteenth century was expensive in part because of large overhead costs. The benefit societies were much cheaper. CMBA spokesmen claimed it was only one-third the cost of an ordinary life insurance companies. This was because “there are no salaried officers to be paid from its Treasury, each branch society manages its own affairs, subject only to the Grand Council, thereby saving for its members all commission, salaries, advertisements, rents, and other incidental expenses of ordinary life insurance organizations.” The small initiation fee and other amounts made the CMBA benefit accessible to many who could not otherwise afford the more expensive private life insurance policy.
Thus, the Association was able to pay $2,000 on the death of a member. The cost to a member was an initiatory fee of $2, a monthly assessment of twenty-five cents, and a beneficiary assessment of $1.10 on the death of a member. The details for how this money was used were explained in the newspaper.
On the death of a member, the treasury of each branch transmitted to the Grand Council one dollar for each branch member plus an additional fifty cents. In this way the benefit payment was made immediately to the deceased member’s family, “for there is always one assessment ahead in the treasury of each branch available for this purpose.” Within three weeks from the date of this payment, each branch member was required to pay the Financial Secretary of their local branch one dollar and ten cents, to be kept in waiting for the next assessment.
The subordinate branch retains the ten cents in its own treasury to cover incidental expenses, like the extra fifty cents on each beneficiary remittance to the Grand Council, the money order or draft, postage, etc. The fees for membership also remained in the local branch treasury. The first one dollar of the initiatory fee was used to cover the banked assessment. The second dollar and the monthly dues constituted local funds for the payment of the branch expenses, such as rent, fuel, etc. as well as local charity approved by the branch.
As the organization’s membership grew, the amount transferred by the branches to the Grand Council upon a death, also grew. The organization’s rules accounted for this. “You will notice if our membership was four thousand, we would only be assessed once for every two deaths, if ten thousand, only once for every fifth death, and so on. The branches would be notified of every death, but only assessed when necessary.”
Like other nineteenth century mutual benefit societies, the CMBA adopted the language of “benefit” and “right.” The beneficiary fund of two thousand dollars was “not a charity, but a right in fact, a debt due the representations of a deceased member.” The member during his lifetime paid for his insurance, and the person he named was “legally entitled to it.” Furthermore, the Association was individually and collectively bound to the payment of the beneficiary assessment.
Like other nineteenth century mutual benefit societies, the CMBA also had “in theory and practice” a “distinctive social character,” and united its members in “genial and friendly bonds.” The CMBA pledged itself to the mutual encouragement and assistance of a member and his family “in every earthly misfortune.” Members of a local branch officiated at the bedside of a sick member. They watched over orphans and saw that they were cared for, educated, and learned a trade or profession. The CMBA maintained this distinctive social character, and united “the members in one common bond of sympathy and fraternal allegiance.”
During the fifteen years after the Civil War, four mutual benefit societies were established in the village of Lancaster. The present essay focused on these four societies, but there were others. For example, the Lancaster Widower Benevolent Association was formed in 1881. This organization was “composed only from members of the Lancaster Benevolent Association.” Its purpose was “the payment of a certain sum to each member upon the loss of his wife by death.”36 In August 1885 a local lodge of the Knights of Pythias was established. This society offered its members both a sickness benefit and a life insurance benefit. A branch of the Emerald Benevolent Association was formed in Lancaster in October 1887. It had 44 members but disbanded in August 1890.37
A chapter of the Ladies’ Catholic Benevolent Association was established in 1901, eleven years after the national organization was formed. Similar to the Catholic Mutual Benefit Association, this organization was a life insurance society as well as engaging in social and charitable activities. It was different from the CMBA in that the Ladies’ Society was operated by women and only women received the insurance benefits. Magdalena Knauber was president of the Lancaster branch for many years. Anna Soemann, Bertha Schwartz, Carrie Balthasar, Mary Braun, Barbara Staebell, and many others were involved with the society during the opening decade of the twentieth century.
These mutual benefit societies filled an immediate economic need among urban workers and middle-class professionals by providing inexpensive health and welfare benefits. In addition to their economic function as insurance providers, these societies offered their members opportunities to socialize at bi-monthly meetings, picnics, dances, other similar events. The Lancaster Benevolent Association sponsored the annual Fourth of July picnic as well as other summer picnics. They sponsored an annual Anniversary ball38 and a ball on Easter Monday evening.39 The Lancaster Benevolent Association also organized “a singing society among its members.”40
Mutual benefit societies appealed to and reinforced the values their members held or aspired to. For example, “only men of good moral character and of a good constitution physically,” were admitted to the Lancaster Benevolent Association.41 By championing mutual aid, good moral character, brotherly love, communal assistance and other traits, these fraternal orders helped their members enrich themselves and improve their communities.42
But mutual benefit societies were more than just insurance providers and social clubs. Historians have noted that these organizations were also a vital part of civic life in nineteenth century America. Many of the organizations linked local chapters with state and national networks, which thereby facilitated local involvement in statewide and national affairs. Through newsletters and magazines as well as frequent state and national meetings, members were invited to look beyond their local concerns to those of the wider world. Thus, members were engaged not only in social activities and community service but also in discussing national issues and expressing their views on those issues.43
1 Lancaster Times, January 19, 1882.
2 Lancaster Times, February 20, 1902.
3 Michael Nuwer, “The Failed Assimilation of German Immigrants in Lancaster,” https://drive.google.com/file/d/1E1wRQ9tXd9GEJ1qZmAVZo1qVvhdELNXx; Michael Nuwer, “Temperance in Lancaster, New York,” https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Space:Temperance_Activities_in_Lancaster
4 Lancaster Times, November 3, 1898.
5 Brian J. Glenn, “Understanding Mutual Benefit Societies, 1860-1960,” Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law. vol. 26, No. 3. June 2001.
6 The 1910 Census reports that Christine Nuwer Pautler was living in Alden along with seven children. The oldest was 24 and the youngest 7 years old. At that time Christine was 48 years old.
7 Michael Nuwer, “Peter Stephan and His Family,” (p.8), https://drive.google.com/file/d/13D0iN1SaKQWY-Hhz8tDcUGGJb9lFmVoi/edit
8 Another example of family land supporting retirement and a three-generation family structure used to work that land is the case of Michael Anstett, Sr. in 1874. See Michael Nuwer, “Michael Anstett and His Family,” https://drive.google.com/file/d/1e6105eHMwYQtuMexcPFmc4nn_sq3ZpO9/edit
9 Brian J. Glenn, op. cit.
10 Joseph Nuwer was born November 5, 1853 and died November 23, 1889 at the age of 36.
11 An example of Joseph Nuwer’s volunteerism was shown in March 1889 when three sons of Joseph Roll were involved in an accident on Cayuga Creek. The ice on which the boys were playing given way and two of the boys drown. The newspaper reported “a sad drowning accident occurred in Cheektowaga, about a mile west of this village, last Friday.” After describing the event, the article noted that “as soon as the news of the accident reached this village, Messers. George Huber, Joseph Nuwer, John Gran and Eugene Gulunan went to the scene of the accident and began cutting the ice away and searching for the bodies.” Lancaster Times, March 21, 1889, https://fultonhistory.com/Newspapers%2023/Lancaster%20NY%20Times/Lancaster%20NY%20Times%201888-1894/Lancaster%20NY%20Times%201888-8%209%201894%205-31_067_2.pdf
12 David T. Beito, From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967, University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
13 George Emery and J. C. Herbert Emery, A Young Man’s Benefit: The Independent Order of Odd Fellows and Sickness Insurance in the United States and Canada, 1860-1929, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999, p. 48
14 Lancaster Times, March 27, 1885.
15 Lancaster Times, Jan 11, 1883.
16 Lancaster Times, July 3, 1885.
17 https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Fuller-5840; https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Atwood-1269; https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Kurtz-540; https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Wenz-40
18 https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Gatchell-98; https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Hummell-52; https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Kurtz-702
19 David T. Beito, From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967, University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
20 Lancaster Times, July 3, 1879.
21 Lancaster Times, “50 Years ago,” July 9, 1942.
22 Lancaster Times, July 21, 1892.
23 Lancaster Times, Sept 20, 1883.
24 Lancaster Times, March 5, 1891.
25 Peter Rosen, The Catholic Church and Secret Societies, published in 1902, p. 159.
26 Ibid., pp. 13-14.
27 George Emery and J. C. Herbert Emery, A Young Man’s Benefit: The Independent Order of Odd Fellows and Sickness Insurance in the United States and Canada, 1860-1929, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999, p. 16.
28 Buffalo Courier, June 23, 1879.
29 The Niagara Falls Gazette, January 10, 1877.
30 Buffalo Daily Courier, Feb 5, 1880. In fact, Bishop Ryan was a member of the Lockport branch of the CMBA.
31 Local organizations of the CMBA were known as branches rather than lodges.
32 Lancaster Times, April 10, 1902.
35 Niagara Falls Gazette, October 31, 1877. The following paragraphs are drawn from this edition of the newspaper.
36 Lancaster Times, March 13, 1885.
37 Lancaster Times, October 20, 1887 and August 28, 1890.
38 For example, “The fourteenth anniversary ball of the Lancaster Benevolent Association was held at J. Leininger’s Hall last Monday night and like those held in the past it was a success. The society had Young’s Brass Band of Buffalo engaged for the occasion and Schlegel’s orchestra who kept the large assemblage present in the best of humor with their sweet stratus. By midnight the prop furnished a sumptuous supper which was relished by all who partook of it. It was five o’clock a.m., when the gathering dispersed and all were pleased with the event.” (Lancaster Times, November 2, 1882)
39 Lancaster Times, April 12, 1878.
40 Lancaster Times, February 27, 1879.
41 Lancaster Times, Jan 11, 1888
42 David T. Beito, From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967, University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
43 Theda Skocpol, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life, University of Oklahoma Press, 2003.