The Dining Circle, 1924. (Bancroft Library/U.C. Berkeley)

Presidents, pagan rituals, and owls: the Bohemian Club’s raucous history

There’s a retreat in the woods of Northern California where members of America’s ruling class gather each summer to listen to lectures, party boisterously, and burn an effigy in front of a 30-foot tall owl statue.

Founded in San Francisco in 1872, the Bohemian Club began as an intellectual haven for creative types. Over time, it morphed into one of the country’s most exclusive clubs. Their summer gathering — happening now — is held within 4 square miles of Sonoma County redwoods known as Bohemian Grove. Attendees have included Jack London, William Randolph Hearst, Charles Schwab, Kevin Starr, and Bob Weir. Presidents Roosevelt, Taft, Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush have all passed through.

Future presidents Ronald Reagan, left, and Richard Nixon, right, listen as Harvey Hancock, a campaign manager for Nixon, spoke at the Bohemian Grove in the 1960s.
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

On opening night, a Druidic ritual sets the tone for the 18-day encampment. During the “Cremation of Care” ceremony, a human effigy representing the “dull cares” of everyday life is ignited before the owl shrine as men in bright robes stand sentry nearby. Walter Cronkite once provided the voice of the owl.

Naturally, it’s all been irresistible grist for conspiracy theorists, who see the club as a shadowy lair for warmongers and archcapitalists to plot the new world order. The fantasy gains credibility in real events, like the planning meeting for the Manhattan Project that was held at the grove in 1942.

Grove attendees in 1908.
Bancroft Library/U.C. Berkeley

Other observers, like journalist Jon Ronson — who once investigated the club — see something else: a glorified frat party. “The Elvis impersonators, the pseudo-pagan spooky rituals, the heavy drinking,” he once wrote. “These people might have reached the apex of their professions but emotionally they seemed trapped in their college years.”

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