Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Suicide Club

The Suicide Club was a secret society in San Francisco that was founded by Gary Warne and three friends - Adrienne Burk, David Warren, and Nancy Prussia. It began in Spring 1977 as a course that Warne taught at the Communiversity in San Francisco, part of the Free School Movement, and it lasted until shortly before Warne's death in 1983. Events generally started and ended in Warne's used paperback bookstore, Circus of the Soul.

The name of the Suicide Club was inspired by three stories written by Robert Louis Stevenson, where men who want to die belong to a club, where each evening one of them is randomly selected for death. The name belied the gentle albeit zany nature of its members, who had a predilection towards light-hearted practical jokes.

Membership in the San Francisco Suicide Club was attained by attending an "initiation" ceremony that took place sporadically. Any member could propose any type of event, and it would be listed along with a writeup in the Club's monthly mailer, sardonically named the "Nooseletter." There were five or so general categories that most events fell into:

  • Street theater, Pranks (30 members riding the San Francisco cable cars naked and making post cards commemorating the event was perhaps the best known)
  • Elaborate games in odd locales (cemeteries, sewer tunnels, the financial district late at night are a few of the places used)
  • Explorations—Urban and otherwise (abandoned industrial buildings, sewer and other tunnels, waterways, bridges, etc.)
  • Infiltrations (the Unification Church and the American Nazi Party were the two most daring and involved)
  • Sometimes, types of events were conjoined, such as the "infiltration" of the National Speleological Society undertaken in 1979. Club members converged on the NSS monthly confab at the Palo Alto Grotto, wanting to join. NSS members soon determined something was a bit odd about the new recruits. The two groups ended up working together on several extreme expedition caving trips, the most prominent being a two week trip to Sótano de las Golondrinas in Central Mexico, the deepest free pit cave in the world.

The Suicide Club was probably best known at the time for its daring bridge climbing exploits. The Club, though very secretive during its brief five year lifespan, influenced many future cultural and artistic endeavors. The Billboard Liberation Front began as a Suicide Club event hosted by Gary Warne in 1977. Author Don Herron's Dashiell Hammett Walking Tour, the longest lived literary tour in America began in the Suicide Club in 1977. The Chinese New Years Treasure Hunt was created by Gary Warne in 1977 and continues (albeit in a very different form) to this day. John Gilmore, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation was a Suicide Club member. The Cacophony Society was founded by ex Suicide Clubbers in 1986. There are now Cacophony Societies throughout the world. The Burning Man Festival was influenced by Cacophony and many former Suicide Club members were crucial organizers in the early days of the desert event. The "leave no trace" mantra of Burning Man was borrowed from the Suicide Club and the philosophy of Gary Warne.