Diaflogue: Charles Schneider – exclusive Q&A about Catalog No. 439

This interview originally appeared on Flog! The Fantagraphics Blog. It was conducted by Comics Journal editorial intern Christine Texeira and proofread by TCJ's Kristy Valenti and myself. Thanks to all! –Ed.

Catalog No. 439: Burlesque Paraphernalia and Side Degree Specialties and Costumes

Christine Texeira: This catalog is a reprinting of an original DeMoulin Bros. catalog from 1930, but there were other DeMoulin Bros. catalogs and earlier catalogs from competing companies (Pettibone, etc.) — why this catalog in particular?

Charles Schneider: Catalog #439 cannot be topped. It has nearly all of the devices ever created by the company. All of the stops were pulled out and the kitchen sink was thrown in. It is the best and final edition of this sort of thing and it's likes will never be seen again. It was, as historian John Goldsmith has stated, the "Christmas wishbook" of the DeMoulin Brothers. They put the most insane and ultimately super-wackiest things in it after YEARS of MADCAP creating. This was their final bid at creating lovingly crafted, truly inventive, deliciously surreal, nasty and often diabolically cruel works of art that were both appealed to the highest and lowest of aesthetics all at once. Often decadent dandies make the most merciless pranksters.

CT: Can you define exactly what "burlesque paraphernalia" and "side-degree specialties" are?

CS: They are props, devices, gags and gadgets designed to assist fraternal orders on creating dramatic, pseudo-esoteric initiation (or hazing) dramas.

CT: Can you give us a little history of pranks and fraternal organizations?

CS: Fraternal organizations discovered that they could gain members by increasing the fun and outrageous drama of the initiation "rituals." It is fun to be part of a "secret" club. And after going through a humiliating prank initiation, it was all the more fun to anticipate a friend's face — when he goes through the same gauntlet of goats and shocks!

CT: Specifically: fraternal organizations, like the Freemasons, never took part in any of these pranks — who did? How were they affiliated to established fraternal organizations, like the Freemasons?

CS: Groups such as The Modern Woodmen of America, the Knights of the Maccabees, The Woodmen of the World, the Knights of Pythias, The Improved Order of Redmen, The Elks, the Odd Fellows were just SOME of the groups that used the DeMoulin Bros. creations. Often, men would be members of multiple groups. Some people are just "joiners," and collect membership cards like badges. The[re] might be a member of the quite serious Freemasons, as well as groups which focus more on social interaction and networking.

CT: How were masks, wigs, beards, costumes, etc. used in "side-degree" initiations vs. traditional initiations?

CS: The wigs, costumes and beards etc. were used in the initiation skits. In fact, there are suggestions given for various costumes to be worn in connection with specific devices. Such as — wearing a donkey or tramp or "yellow kid" head while leading a man to his potential spiked and electrified doom.


CT: There is mention within the catalog, among the testimonies especially, that having contraptions from this catalog can really lead to a successful and popular fraternal organization. Is this a marketing technique … or do you think these pranks really stimulated attendance and success?

CS: It simulated attendance and membership greatly. Numbers skyrocketed in the beginning. This took "hazing" to such a stellar and sophisticated new degree. Nothing like it had been seen before. It was like a terrifying form of sadistic vaudeville on steroids.

CT: Did the DeMoulin Bros. actually receive patents for all of these pranks? Do you know what became of these patents?

CS: Yes, they patented everything. I located several and we have reprinted them in the back of the book. A demented woodworker might try to make his own object of destruction. The patent blueprints are works of art in their own right. When I showed my friend, cartoonist Daniel Clowes, a certain DeMoulin patent blueprint drawing he exclaimed,"that's the most beautiful thing I ever saw … !"

CT: Did the DeMoulin Bros. have any significant competition in the realm of "burlesque and side-degree paraphernalia"?

CS: There were other companies that made similar goats and spanking paddles, but none came close to the Rube Goldberg-like machines of mayhem which DeMoulin cranked out so artistically. Competition for costumes and outfits was considerably greater. Others merely copied the DeMoulin machines.

CT: Do you know if there were ever any serious or fatal injuries reported or suspected from using any of these contraptions?

CS: I have only one heard grim, vague whispered rumor of a man — fifty years ago — having a heart attack after being dumped onto an electrified carpet and getting jolted — but this could be apocryphal. I certainly would expect that there were dozens, and probably HUNDREDS of horrible injuries and events that followed the ordering of these potentially lethal super-gags. There were lawsuits. There is no proof of a death — as yet. John Goldsmith says, "People were tougher back then. They were hardier and could endure the pain."

Charles Schneider
[Charles Schneider photographed at the DeMoulin Museum in Greenville, IL]

CT: The contraptions in and of themselves are amazing and strange, but the descriptions in this catalog are fantastic. There are all sorts of literary references and hilarious witticisms (Kipling quote, Shakespeare reference). Do you know who wrote these descriptions?

CS: I am sure it was the DeMoulin Brothers, most likely Ed, the businessman and his brother U.S. In later years as they became less involved, other office folks probably penned the latter creations. Clearly, a distinctive, brilliant voice is the author — a man who knows how to sell you things by entertaining you. The great Johnson-Smith catalog has a similar "first person chattiness" as a means of appealing to the would-be-prankster.

CT: Are you aware of whether potential initiates were actually fooled by these pranks? Do you think people believed they were in submarines or eating raw meat?

CS: I bet they did. There was a time when cowboys shot back at the screen in rustic tented traveling cinemas. There was a time when hand-tinted flames in a silent film THRILLED more surely than our currently numbing state of the art CGI. If the other members of the fraternity did their parts well, why would it not seem real? It was a more naive time. Folks were a bit more gullible, yet it is hard to comprehend the mind-set back then. Plus, these things often worked off of the other senses. The smell of gunpowder … the shock of electricity. PLUS — a hoodwink or blindfold can do wonders for the imagination. DeMoulin spared no expense in creating a brand new industry, complete with coaching and tips. It took itself quite seriously. It was kind of a mail order University of Super Scary Torture Pranks.

CT: Do you know what the most popular items were?

CS: The basic goats, spankers, hoodwinks and ballot boxes. The LUNG TESTER was a big seller. The smaller, more inexpensive items sold well. Most lodges probably acquired up to half-a-dozen gauntlet devices to put a guy through. Any more — he would have realized that something funny was up — a theatrical descent into papier-mache hell.

CT: Were the DeMoulin Bros. products primarily made to order or mass-produced?

CS: The basic, some popular items were mass produced, but many of the items waited to be ordered — before being built. There are ultra-ludicrous (such as the incredible "Flying machine" not in catalogue #439 but reprinted in my introduction) objects that may have NEVER been actually built, after being dreamed up and listed.

Also — MANY items were Made to Order. You could order the Judgment Stand with or without a fancy fringe.

CT: Were any of the DeMoulin brothers members of any fraternal organizations? If so, do you feel that greatly influenced their work?

CS: They all belonged to several fraternal lodges. It allowed the brothers to get to know the customers and how the lodges worked. They were very involved with the a Modern Woodsman of the World from the start of their business…

CT: Did anyone else, other than Ed DeMoulin and perhaps his brothers, have a hand in creating these pranks?

CS: No — the Brothers were the ones. Their names show up on the patents. Within DeMoulin the brothers did most of the inventing. Sure, some shop-workers probably assisted but the brothers created it all.

CT: Did the "lessons" of these pranks ever come close to pulling a focus away from traditional initiations?

CS: The lodges that did this stuff were more tongue in cheek about the entire process…

CT: Are you aware of any organizations that still take part in pranks of this sort?

CS: Doubtful … except whatever watered down haziness are happening on college campuses. Oh, and The Ancient and Sacred Order of the Seven … OOOOOPS … forget I said that.

CT: I wonder if there is anything you want to say about what this catalog might show about violence and the psychology or state of the American (and/or French) man between wars.

CS: Men do seem to need their macho games and blood-thrills between wars. It can take the form of Grand Guignol theatre, torture porn, becoming childishly unified over soccer games — or an increase in lodge membership. Vets needed a place to make friends and get financial help if needed.

CT: You included a poem, "When Father rode the Goat." I was wondering where that was from and what you think it says about the initiation experience.

CS: It is from an amazing book called The Lodge Goat and Goat Rides (1902) by James Pettibone. A useful website called Phoenix Masonry states that, "the humorous idea that riding the goat constitutes a part of the ceremonies of initiation in a Masonic lodge is just a joke and has its real origin in the superstition of antiquity. … the lodge goat and goat rides book above plays on the joke of riding the goat and plays on the humorous side of lodge life."

CT: Can you briefly describe the "fun in the lodge room" section at the back of the catalog?

CS: This was a very useful series of theatrical scripts, intended to be used in conjunction with the devices. These included characters, actions and other clever and hilariously dark ideas to maximize the initiates terror … and enhance the believability of the nightmarish event.

CT: How likely is it that a fraternal organization would adopt one of these scripts (from "fun in the lodge room")?

CS: Very likely they were well-used. You ordered the stuff and it came with a whole script to make your event more intense. How could you lose?

CT: Moore's essay mentions that the DeMoulin Bros. led the way in burlesque paraphernalia because they invented all sorts of new forms. Do you know, or can you point out any examples of this in the catalog? (Things that would perhaps not turn up in the Pettibone catalog, for instance.)

CS: Most any device is unique to the DeMoulin Brothers … the more extravagant and crazy things that really push it beyond … are certainly uniquely theirs. Spanking Paddles existed before DeMoulin but they pushed these and other creations to a new art form. Their paddles were green and blue velvet covered!

CT: Which items are your personal favorites?

CS: I truly love the Pledge Altar where the skeleton pops out as you kneel to humbly pray reminding you of your mortality while spitting water in your face from his grinning and dead paper mache teeth! John Goldsmith loves the Invisible Paddle machine. It paddles yer rear-end while simultaneously firing a blank and shooting water at you. It's premise is A Strength Testing Machine ….

CT: Which items have you interacted with?

CS: I was helping John Goldsmith, at his DeMoulin Museum in Greenville, Illinois, moved the museum's lifting spraying machine — and he shouted "Be careful, Charles!!!" I almost triggered the spring-loaded board. It would have knocked me HARD … an[d] onto my ass I imagine. I also stuck my head in the guillotine … which was a hair-raising experience for unrelated and gruesome reasons best not mentioned here. Heh.

CT: Is there anything else you would like to add?

CS: Buy the book in triplicate — but don't try recreating any of this at home, or the local fraternal hall! And when near St. Louis, be sure to visit quaint Greenville, Illinois visit the DeMoulin Museum. (618) 664-4115. 110 W. Main, Greenville, IL. 62246. They have some of these outrageous things on display there.

Charles Schneider
[Charles Schneider photographed at the DeMoulin Museum in Greenville, IL]