WARRENTON, Va. - Paul Wallace was alone, repairing overloaded circuits in the old red-brick building that housed the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, when he discovered a tiny door to a dark recess between two walls.
Inside was a black wooden box. Curious, Wallace tugged it from its resting place. A white shroud appeared. Then leathery ribs. Then white candles.
"It was like a Dracula movie," Wallace said. "The top of the skull was covered, but you could see the rib cage and the sinew."
When police learned of Wallace's macabre discovery, they rushed to get a search warrant and seized the remains. State medical examiners are studying the bones. Around town, neighbors speculate about who the corpse was and why she was there. But perhaps the strangest thing about the mini-drama captivating this small town is that strikingly similar mysteries have played out across the country.
It turns out that skeletons like "Jane Doe Odd Fellow" reside in closets, drawers, attics and crawl spaces in Odd Fellows lodges nationwide. To members of the age-old fraternal order, the skeleton is a symbol of mortality, a treasured relic used in one of their most solemn and secret rituals: initiation.
In recent years, the discovery of Odd Fellows skeletons has sparked police investigations in Missouri, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Nebraska. In Oklahoma, the remains prompted a work crew to flee in terror.
Lisa Stone, a Chicago historian who has studied fraternal organizations, said she is surprised the Odd Fellows have kept the skeletons secret for so long. The rituals are "not a booga-booga scary thing," but out of context, the skeletons are "frighteningly powerful objects," she said.
Even the Warrenton police haven't been able to get the Odd Fellows to betray their order. Lt. Kerry White said members have cooperated - but with one caveat. "They specifically asked us not to divulge what they told us," he said.
Odd Fellows Virginia Grand Lodge Secretary Jack Gibson Jr. bristles at the description of the organization's rituals. "I don't like the word 'secret,' " Gibson said.
"It is a ceremony that is confined to the members, and if you're not a member, you don't discuss it."
Why so hush-hush? "It makes you different," Gibson said.
Wayne Colegrove, a longtime Odd Fellow from New York, still remembers his initiation more than 50 years ago. "The words they say are something like, 'You're here, and pretty soon you're gone, and there's a hereafter,' " Colegrove said. "It's a lesson in life."
The Independent Order of the Odd Fellows dates to 17th-century England as a charitable organization that worked to help families in need and buried their dead. The first American lodge opened in Baltimore in 1819.
Present-day Odd Fellows support a professorship of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University and contribute to the Arthritis Foundation and American Heart Association.
The skeletons likely were purchased from scientific or fraternal supply companies. One catalog from the early 1900s advertised a "genuine, full-size selected specimen, set up and wired, fairly deodorized."
"Every one has a different story," said Randall Kremer, a spokesman at the Smithsonian Institution. "The companies would obtain skeletons from anywhere possible."
So far, authorities have learned that the Warrenton remains are those of a Caucasian woman. Her arms, feet and lower jaw are missing.
She could have died from 10 to 150 years ago. Medical examiners studying the bones are consulting with anthropologists at the Smithsonian, police said.