Hellfire Club. There’s a certain sort of extraordinarily rich person who has a ton of time and money on their hands, and not much of an inclination to use those things to benefit society. That’s been true throughout history and in the 18th century some of the richest men in Britain and Ireland decided to fill their nights with activities organized under the guise of a club whose name says it all: the Hellfire Club.
There were a number of “chapters” of the club that sprang up throughout the 1700s, and they were incredibly secretive and according to Abarta Heritage they were born from an upper class that had been enraptured by the Enlightenment Philosophy. What does that mean? It means they were testing the boundaries of society and good taste, turning their backs on what they had been taught about morals, and essentially seeing what they could get away with.
Turns out they could get away with a whole lot. The first Hellfire Club kicked off in 1719, run by Philip, First Duke of Wharton. Others sprang up in the following decades and quickly became known for drunkenness, debauchery, orgies, and just a dash of murder. The secretive nature of their members gave rise to a ton of rumors, but were any of them true? Well, yes.
Playing with the devil
The members of the Hellfire Clubs had a few things in common: They were rich, had no regard for the morals of society, could keep secrets, and had enough privilege that they could get out of pretty much any trouble they happened to get into. That means the common folk were left to tell stories about what they thought went on behind those closed doors, and those stories explain just what people thought of the club and its members.
Hellfire Clubs were commonly linked with tales of Satanic rituals and demonic dealings. Simon Luttrell was the sheriff of Dublin City when he was in the Hellfire Club and there were whispered rumors that he’d sold his soul to the Devil. There’s also a story that involves a card game with an unfortunate player who dropped a card. As he bent down to pick it up, he noticed that one of his fellow players had a cow’s foot. He regained his composure, but after a few hands he revealed what he’d seen. The hoofed player disappeared and the man who’d seen his true foot promptly died.
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction
And that was the case with Irish Hellfire Club member Lord Santry. He was just as much of a rake and a drunkard as the rest of them but he liked a healthy dose of murder with his mayhem.
One story credited to Santry, which says he was attending a Hellfire Club meeting when he forced a man to drink so much brandy it filled his stomach and throat, then lit him on fire. He was never prosecuted for that (he had a tendency to bribe people to keep quiet), but he was arrested for events that happened during a gathering of the Hellfire Club in Palmerstown, Dublin.
When someone laughed at Santry, legend says he drew his sword and stabbed a tavern employee. Bribes worked — for a while — but he was eventually put on trial. He attempted to defend himself by claiming the man died from a rat bite, but he was found guilty. Santry only dodged execution because his wealthy, land-owning uncle threatened to cut off Dublin’s drinking water, and Santry scored a royal pardon.
The bloodthirsty gentlemen gangs
The Hellfire Club was originally established about the same time historians noted that there were several others groups around similarly debauched but going by different names. According to Blasphemers and Blackguards, the Scowrers and the Mohocks were so similar to the Hellfire Club that contemporary writers and historians were fairly certain they were either connected or offshoots of each other.
Take the Mohocks. They were a group of “gentlemen” who terrorized London in 1712, targeting anyone that got in their way but delivering the worst of their violent acts upon women and servants. By the time some of their members were put on trial (and received only minor fines in what was basically a slap on the wrist), they were known for shoving people into barrels and rolling them downhill. They were even developing something of a favorite, almost trademarked piece of violence: slitting open their victims’ noses.
Historian Daniel Statt says the brief but horrible reign of the so-called Mohocks was proof there were very violent, very rich gentlemen roaming the streets doing whatever they liked to whomever they liked. They were virtually untouchable in spite of the moral panic they caused.
Underground tunnels for an underground society
When Sir Francis Dashwood formed his drinking-and-debauchery club in the 1750s, he called it the Knights of Sir Francis of Wycombe. Kerry Ann Williams, who works on the West Wycombe Estate, says the “Hellfire Club” label came later — but it stuck.
She also said that beneath Dashwood’s estate is a series of tunnels. No one really knows why he had them dug, what all the little rooms were used for, or what went on in the Inner Temple. That’s an extra-secret room at the bottom of a series of secret rooms, so off-limits that the highest-ranking members could only access it by boat.
There are some clues as to what went on there. Silverware and drinking vessels have survived, and Williams says wine and women were undoubtedly the most popular things in the caverns. She also says historians were really, really close to having complete documentation of all Hellfire Club activities, as Paul Whitehead acted as the club’s steward and recorded everything that went on, down to what silverware was used. Unfortunately for history, he spent the three days prior to his death burning all club records.
There is a strangely happy footnote to this all, though: Dashwood ordered the caves excavated as a way to provide jobs for locals who were suffering through a series of crop failures.
Sacrifices to Bacchus and Venus
The Rake described Philip Wharton’s original Hellfire Club this way: “His goal was to deride religious faith by publicly presiding over a feast of Christian ritual parody, with plenty of satanic trappings ladled over the top.” But dotted throughout the stories of drunken orgies are mentions of other divine figures: Bacchus, god of wine, and Venus, the goddess of love.
Dashwood was in Italy when he developed his seething hatred of the Roman Catholic Church, and even before his “knights” assembled first in London’s George & Vulture pub, he had a certain fondness for commissioning some of the era’s finest artists to do insanely blasphemous portraits of him — including one where he ogles a statue of Venus. For his club, he “acquired” Medmenham Abbey and inscribed the motto “Fay ce que vouldras,” or “Do what thou wilt” over the door.
City of Sin says Dashwood built a temple dedicated to Bacchus on his estate and became obsessed with the idea his estate encompassed an old pagan site. When he had his labyrinth of caves excavated, he made sure the ancient deities were included. According to the era’s “coffee-house gossips,” part of the rituals that went on there were “sacrifices” to both Bacchus and Venus, “and the nymphs and the hogsheads that were laid in against the festivals of this new church, sufficiently informed the neighbourhood of the complexion of those hermits.”
Those hermits were, of course, Dashwood and his colleagues.