Brief History of American Arcane Societies and the Return of the American Arcanum
Written by Randolph Winthrop Aldrich of The American Arcanum
To understand the various arcane societies of the United States, one must first understand the Arcanum, the vaunted precursor to our formerly disparate groups, returned once more after falling for the better part of a century. The records of the Arcanum begin with Jamestown.
Before the intrusion of the British into Tsenacommacah lands in the early 1600s, it is unknown whether American magicians organized in ways beyond the political lines of their mundane families. There are records among the libraries of the Theosophical Society that when Wahunsunacawah, the leader of the Powhatan Confederacy, attempted to absorb the colony of Jamestown as yet another tributary tribe, he had particular interest in the specifics of British sorcerous practices. However, as in history, any alliance between European arcanists and the indigenous tribes fell apart as their people warred and the forceful colonization of America by Europeans began in earnest.
The need for a broad magical alliance among European mages began in 1620, when word spread that the Pilgrims were planning to establish a colony near the Hudson River later that year. There was widespread fear of the Pilgrims in European magical societies, as they were known to harbor an enigmatic group of supernatural hunters called the Sentinels. The disparate cabals of sorcerers who had crossed the Atlantic for their own individual reasons formed a coalition called the Arcanum, modeled after various European magical societies like the Atlantean Accord in England.
As European expansion grew over the next century and the colonies transitioned into states, the Arcanum became an overarching ruling body of European descended magicians. Although it has not been recorded whether or not the Arcanum magicians assisted in the decimation of the indigenous people and their hedge mages, it can be presumed that they did as so few native sorcerers were known to have joined the Arcanum in that first century.
Membership in the Arcanum within its own territories was not mandatory, at first. There were occasional recluses and hermits who did not wish the oversight of a magical government, but those loners also did not enjoy the Arcanum’s protections. Religious fervor and witch hunts being what they were at the time, those that stood apart were likely to suddenly disappear, the lidless eye and cross of the Sentinels speaking clearly as to their ultimate fates. By the time of the death of Alse Young, the first American publicly executed for witchcraft in the colonies, the majority of sorcerers in the New World had joined the Arcanum. After only a single generation the Arcanum became a pervasive fixture in the lives of American arcanists, as much for the benefits of its growing support structures as for the necessity of mutual survival.
The only powerful group to refuse Arcanum control was the Order of Cernunnos, a family of Irish druids who joined the Pennsylvania colony in some association with the Penn family. They refused all envoys from the Arcanum and denied any outside control over their territory. These refusals lead to several known disputes, but if there was any open conflict in the 1700s, the records of such are lost to history.
It was the American Revolution that sundered the Arcanum, though its dissolution was not over internal differences of opinion about the war. The ruling council at that time (Annie Southby, John Burnham, Betty Key, and Innocent Nash) were all Patriots, and if there was a strong Loyalist contingent among their number, it was stricken from the recorded histories. It is unclear if any direct magical intervention during the war was provided to the nascent American government, but then the Arcanum was always careful about recording any overt actions to influence the mundane world.
The specifics of what destroyed the Arcanum are sketchy, at best. We know that, at some point in the years following the American Revolution, a powerful curse was placed upon the leaders of the Arcanum, presumably by the Atlantean Accord, though its true source is unknown. The council knew that it had been cursed, and despite their best efforts, they could not reverse its effects nor alter their own behaviors in order to keep things intact. Indeed, their efforts to counteract those magics may even have ultimately been the impetus for their own eventual downfall.
Fractures began to appear in the Arcanum, and every small problem experienced at the ground level became rifts among its leaders and most powerful sorcerers. Every mage killed by a Sentinel, every border dispute with indigenous sorcerers over the Mississippi river or the Order of Cernunnos, created doubt among the Arcanum’s members in the viability of the government. Internal factions started to quarrel amongst each other, and schisms began to form. The council had its last meeting in 1802, when Betty Key slew Innocent Nash in a magical duel over the question of slavery, as Betty, a child of a freed slave, wished to use the Arcanum to force abolition in the new nation. One by one, those on the council died and were not replaced, and when Annie Southby fell to consumption in 1810, the Arcanum officially disbanded. Though, by that point it existed only in name, a pale shadow of its former glory.
In the wake of its destruction, the Arcanum spawned several cabals that have grown into powerful arcane societies, claiming various territories throughout the 19th century. The Theosophical Society of New England, the White Horse Adventurer’s Club, and the Beacon Hill Players all draw their history back to the dissolution of that once great institution. However, while these groups share a joint pedigree, they are seldom of one mind on any issues, be they political, philosophical, or magical. The Society and the Club, in particular, have a long history of rivalry that has occasionally spilled into direct conflict over the last century. That conflict was perhaps prolonged due to the services of Uncle Theo’s Cirque du Freak.
The Cirque arrived on the scene in 1831, and the eponymous Uncle Theo gradually established his services as a go-between, information broker, and spy for the various magical factions in the United States – including working for both sides of any given conflict. The Cirque has been continually touring the country for nearly 70 years, and there are few corners east of the Mississippi with which they are unfamiliar. Their services are too valuable to deny, even though every faction is aware of the Cirque’s mercenary history.
And in the past seventy years, there have been plenty of conflicts among the magical communities. Aside from the Club in the South and the Society in the North being continually at each other’s throats, the Players ruthlessly stymie any attempts to establish influence in their home city of Boston. Similarly, with the Order expanding their nexus of power from Philadelphia, the East Coast can be hostile territory for any unaligned arcanist. A few scattered remnants the ancient tradition of a single master and apprentice studying in secrecy surely remain. After all, such methods are how our kind survived the Inquisitions, and old habits die hard.
The magical landscape changed little in the latter half of the 19th century, even as the country fell into open warfare. The curse that slew the Arcanum rests like a weight in Virginia, and prior to the War Between the States, the factions were known to avoid the US South, especially Virginia, though whether this is superstition or good sense isn’t truly known. This avoidance of the South changed after the Civil War when the Club moved locations from the environs of New England to the ravaged city of Charleston for reasons ultimately known only to them.
The relatively stable setup of the arcane societies in America was disrupted by the arrival of the Esoteric Institute of Louisiana in New Orleans in 1893. Little is known of the scientifically inclined magicians, but with the turn of the century on the horizon, their gadgets, creations, and approach to magic itself may be the future of sorcery in the Western world.
Little has been said in regards to those who are the scourge of American arcanists, but that is because little about them was widely known. The Sentinels may be a recurrent threat, but actual confirmed assaults upon magicians are few and far between. Since they are rarely captured, our knowledge is limited until recently. We know they feel they have the sanction to cull our ranks, and they seem to believe that it is because we are incapable of policing ourselves for magicians who damage humanity. They claim that they only kill those who practice unsavory magics, blood sorcery and the like, but the Eclipsed, detailed below, claim that the Sentinels shoot first and ask questions later. They have claimed to be supported by the Catholic Church, though they themselves are not a Catholic organization. Their secrecy has been maintained by operating in small groups with no central authority, and indeed, only one small branch of the Sentinels, not the entire organization, has opened dialogue with the newly reformed American Arcanum.
Only recently have we discovered that the Eclipsed, often the victims of Sentinel violence, have organized. In magical parlance, the Eclipsed are unfortunates who have had a particularly intense brush with the supernatural, usually to their detriment. Typically, such wretches are unenlightened before their confrontation with the supernatural, and they tend to take the transition into the auspices of the arcane understandably poorly. They seem to not possess many actual arcanists among their number, but we have learned not to doubt their strength over the past year.