Charles A. Vivian is recognized as the founder of the Jolly Corks, the predecessor of our great fraternal organization now known as the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. Charles Vivian was a professional vocalist, actor, and comedian who at the age of 22 arrived in New York City from London England on Friday, November 15, 1867. Being thirsty one of his first stops was a bar, or a “free and easy” as they were called back in those days. Being a friendly sort, Vivian soon befriended the piano player, Richard Steirly, who invited him to sing along and help entertain the guests. There he was introduced to a collection of congenial fellows, later to become friends and associates of the entertainment profession.
Charles and Richard visited Sandy’s, another “Free and Easy” located nearby. At Sandy’s someone suggested they roll dice to see who would buy the round of drinks. Charles Vivian said he wasn’t familiar with the dice game but he would show them a new game involving three corks. This cork trick became a routine the group would play on anyone new. When they played it on a George McDonald he was so amused by it he called the group the “Jolly Corks”. The cork trick consequently became a part of the initiation ritual.
About this time the excise law was being strictly enforced and Sunday in New York was a very dry day. Devotees of the cork trick formed a habit of congregating at a Mrs. Giesman’s boarding house located at 188 Elm St., New York City. Certainly they laid in a stock of alcoholic beverages the night before to be shared on dry Sunday. The small group of 15 members styled itself the “Jolly Corks”, with Charles Vivian as the “Imperial Cork”. Ms. Giesman’s served as a regular meeting place thereafter.
After attending a funeral of an acquaintance together as the “Jolly Corks”, George McDonald suggested that the group become a “fraternal and benevolent society”. Charles agreed and called for a meeting to be held on February 2nd, 1868. At that meeting McDonald offered a motion to organize the “Jolly Corks” as a lodge along benevolent and fraternal lines, as opposed to continuing as solely a social and drinking organization and that a committee be appointed to formulate rules and regulations for it’s government, prepare a suitable ritual, and select a new name. This kind of an organization was not new to Charles. In England he had belonged to the Royal and Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes. They were a fraternal organization along the same lines. Charles offered up the Buffalo name but the group decided they wanted to find their own American name for their new organization.
The committee worked diligently on a charter and by-laws. In their search for a name the committee visited the Cooper Institute Library, where the brothers found an Elk described as an animal fleet of foot, timorous of doing wrong, but ever ready to combat in defense of self or the female of the species. Thus the word Protective. The description appealed to the committee as it contained admirable qualities for emulation by members of a benevolent fraternity and the title “Elk” was incorporated in its report.
That night in a small room in New York City, 15 men gave birth to the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. The BPOE was born. In spite of the new organization, the “Jolly Corks” continued in active existence until 1869, possibly longer, though there appears to be no record of it’s activities after that time.
By Charlie Carroll, PDDGER—Lodge Historian