"There is a hilariously strange item for sale called "The Human Centipede,(priced at $52.00, squawk attachment included and wired for electric shock) Other items listed in the peculiar DeMoulin catalogs literally shock and explode, but they are innocent tools of the grown-up prankster, free of malice and depravity." - "The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions" Perigee, 2011
An unexpected stop at a farm auction in southern Ohio in 1982 led to my discovery (but sadly, not acquisition) of an extraordinary item. In a limp and dusty cardboard box, among Jell-O recipe pamphlets and tractor repair manuals, was a little catalog with a wild surrealist cover inked in fuchsia, blaze orange and aubergine and packed with wacky illustrations of men engaging in fun yet bizarre deviltry with curious gadgets. I never forgot it.
Two decades later when images from a similar catalog surfaced on the web, I realized what I'd seen were depictions of fraternal lodge initiation pranks. Doing a little research I learned that it and similar catalogs were created by the DeMoulin Bros. Company of Greenville, Illinois, 54 miles east of my hometown of St. Louis, 24 miles south of my grandfather's hometown.
While they come across as arcane now, the DeMoulin Brothers catalogs are an extraordinary spyglass into a little known part of our past. Selected for my book are 100+ of my favorite pages from thirteen DeMoulin prank catalogs printed from 1897 to 1930. News snippets, law notes, statistics, and essays, uprooted from turn-of-the-century digital archives, add to the mix and attempt to answer: What were these oddly-named fraternal clubs? What were typical members like? Just what went on behind the secret handshake? What purpose did the pranks serve?
Because the DeMoulins's products were for secret ritual use, the catalogs were originally meant for the eyes of high-ranking lodge officials only. Now, the genius of Ed, Erastus and Ulysses DeMoulin is for all to see.
Here is a random sampling of their charmingly twisted minds.