Monday, May 04, 2009

Federal Probe of Jesters Expands


The Royal Order of Jesters just can't seem to get out of hot water. Former State Supreme Court Justice Ronald Tills and two other members of the ROJ have plead guilty in Buffalo, New York in connection with organizing prostitution parties for Jesters meetings, and are awaiting sentencing. Another chapter in Big Sandy, Kentucky has been placed on probation by the national organization, and is being looked into by the feds.

A lengthy article appeared today in the Buffalo News, after reporter Dan Herbeck spent weeks seeking interviews. Many of those interviewed (myself included) echo similar sentiments—that the Jesters need to clean up their act. Officials, including Jesters' president Gary N. Martin, say that gatherings with hookers and other illegal activities are, to his knowledge, "extremely isolated," and is engaged in by "a small fraction" of their 22,000 members.

From the article:

But sources close to the investigation and former Jesters from other parts of the country tell a different story, one of bizarre activities — including routinely hiring prostitutes for gatherings, sex competitions and degrading initiation rites for new members — at many Jesters outings, with off-duty police hired to keep nonmembers away.

“I quit the Jesters more than 20 years ago, and this kind of thing has been going on at least 40 or 50 years,” said Malcolm “Mutt” Herring, 90, of Montgomery, Ala. “I quit because I don’t drink, and I don’t mess around with other women, other than my wife. Going to one of their events was like going to a whorehouse.”


None of this would be notable as far as Masonry is concerned if the Jesters were not connected to the Shrine, and the Shrine to Freemasonry. Face it. For over a hundred years, the Shrine has been the playground of Masonry, and has reveled in, and encouraged, its public image as a bunch of big-drinking, stripper-slapping, fez-wearing party animals, who engage in such behavior for the good cause of the hospitals. AND THAT'S FINE. The Shrine is what it is. But to tell a man, on the one hand, that the Shrine is one more logical step for a Freemason to take, and then, on the other hand, to bring on the hookers, absolutely flies in the face of Masonic obligations. To fill the Blue Lodge with lofty lectures of morality and virtue, then to guard the door of the Shrine with off-duty cops and tell new candidates, "What happens here stays here," is the worst kind of hypocrisy. It throws mud on Freemasonry.

Judge Tills, who faces prison time now at the age of 75, once prided himself as being one of the toughest sentencing judges in western New York state. I'd be curious how many prostitution cases came before him on the bench, and how he sentenced them. His actions—hauling hookers across state lines, and even into Canada, not once, but at least on six occasions—belies the claim that such practices within the Jesters are not widespread. The FBI has been involved since last year. And this is in addition to the story from last May about Jesters' "fishing trips" to Brazil that involved at least 19 members and hookers as young as 13.

So why haven't the Shrine's national leadership thrown the Jesters under the bus and severed ties with them? Why haven't state grand masters put the Jesters on notice, or yanked dues cards of the most offensive individuals?

No, I do not believe that 22,000 members of the Jesters condone this behavior. It may very well be that the overwhelming majority of them don't. I have known many brethren who are Jesters who would never in a million years engage in this type of behavior. But to claim that the ROJ doesn't know about this stuff on a widespread basis is sheer nonsense. They certainly look the other way. And if they didn't care about anything else, just from a mercenary point of view, they are risking their non-profit status.

I once had a friend who asked the question, "What good is it being a member of a secret society if you can't get out of traffic tickets or get serviced by a hooker with a cop watching the door for you?" If that's what a man is looking for, then the Jesters need to split from the Shrine and just go be a sex club. And if the Shrine condones it, perhaps the Shrine needs to split from Freemasonry, as well. I say that as a member of the Shrine, an organization I joined because of the work they do with their hospitals. I have noticed in the last year, my dues card no longer says I'm a member of the Ancient Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (the initials of which were rearranged to spell A MASON), but now of Shrine International. There have been calls for years to split from the Masonic fraternity. The Jesters are one more reason to head that direction.

A few months back, I purchased a collection of Jesters' pins off of Ebay. I didn't do it because I particularly wanted them in my home. I did it because these pins, which were created each year for the annual Jesters' national meetings, depicted the grinning Jesters' cartoon mascot, Billiken, engaged in a variety of unsavory activities—sexual, and worse, racially violent. Activities that would land Billiken into a cartoon jail. I bought the pins because I didn't want the pictures of them to show up all over the internet. I care passionately about the fraternity of Freemasonry, and when individuals throw dirt on it with their actions, they throw dirt on me too. The website of the Royal Order of Jesters proudly proclaims its connection to Masonry (In fact, the page's title says "Royal Order of Jesters - Masons, Shriners, Freemasons, Masonic Lodges, Grand Lodges"). The reporter from Buffalo called me, because he wanted to know how I felt about my brother Masons engaging in this activity. 22,000 out of 1.5 million US Masons is a small percentage, and of those 22,000 Jesters, I suspect a much smaller number of them are taking part in the "mirth." But it only takes one or two to make the national news.

I'm no prude, and I have no desire to be played by Margaret Hamilton in the movie. Frankly, I am a big proponent of making the Masonic lodge and its activities more fun, including relaxing Indiana's tintype prohibition of alcohol in Masonic buildings. A Mason shouldn't be made to feel that his lodge is some monastic cloister and that the only place he can behave like an adult and enjoy himself is the Shrine. But the Jesters are the image of the worst kind of excess, and their members either need to clean it up, or go their own way and sever the Masonic connection.

The New York case is connected to an FBI probe in human trafficking—in particular, a Chinese massage parlor that has young women kept as sex slaves. Such establishments are notorious for asking, "You want happy ending?"

Yes, I do. I want a happy ending to this whole sordid episode.

(BTW, I am quoted in the article as saying "The Masons are about family, community and faith-oriented activities that make good men better.” Mr. Herback paraphrased me. I've never in my life used the term "faith-oriented activities," and I loathe the catch phrase "we make good men better." But being misquoted goes with the territory, I suppose. And since when did I become a "co-author" of Freemasons For Dummies? Feh.)

10 comments:

Masonic Traveler said...

Chris, maybe I'm reading into it, but this sounds like it was hard to write.

My only disagreement is that that the work of these "few" does not just throw mud on the fraternity. In denigrates it beyond words.

I really hope that this is only something that happens in isolated pockets, but some how, I don't know if that is the case.

Chris Hodapp said...

Yes it was.

Yes it does.

Neither do I.

Chris said...

I have noticed in the last year, my dues card no longer says I'm a member of the Ancient Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (the initials of which were rearranged to spell A MASON), but now of Shrine International.Bro Chris:

I think that the reason that it has become "Shrine International" is that it is actually spreading to countries here in Europe. A branch of the Shrine is now (according to a brother from the Operatives) active in the UK and is taking applications. I am interested (purely for the philanthropic angle) as my brother in Massachusetts is a Shriner.

ComacineMaster said...

I have said for several years that I have no interest in becoming the Masonic Police. Therefore, the Shrine needs to become (or must be convinced to become) a separate - meaning unconnected entity.

My belief is that this is what all concerned most desire - both the Shrine International leadership, as well as a large number of Grand Lodges' leadership.

This sticking point is, of course, property. A good case-in-point is the Episcopal Church U.S.A., and several diocese across the U.S. Although these particular dioceses have already announced their splits from the mother church, and their new affiliations with African or South American bodies, the question of property ownership is just now beginning to hit the courts.

So with the Shrine temples...

If these temples were built with money (dues, contributions, etc.) from Masons, there are those who believe that Grand Lodges have some claim to the value of these properties - at least a portion.

Personally, I believe that Grand Lodges, and Masons in general, will be best served by simply giving up any and all claims to these properties, and separating amicably, in the manner of true Masons.

That way the Shrine can become an organization like Lions, Kiwanis, Rotary, Elk, etc., which draws from the general community without the requirement to become a Freemason. That is what Shrine International really wants.

Then there is the question of many, many Grand Masters requiring Master Masons to take a dimit (or demit) from the Shrine - the day of the inevitable split. That will be a catastrophic day for Shrine membership. I know it, Shrine International knows it...

The questions then become; 1) How many Grand Masters will take that step? 2) How many Master Masons will then re-join the Shrine? 3) how many will stay dimitted? and finally, 4) How long would it take to replace the membership of Master Masons with members from the community?

I, too have been a member of the Shrine from the first year I was a Master Mason, even though I have never been active - at all. I have continued to pay my annual dues, just because I still hold out hope for the greater mission of the Shriners Hospitals.

I, too, have been disgusted beyond words at what I know goes on in the Jesters. I know current Jesters who have confirmed to me that this sordid behavior is nearly ubiquitous. Some have dropped out because of that, and others have just gone inactive - I believe out of fear of reprisal, or at least fear of being shunned.

In my opinion, this constitutes the greatest test, or crisis if you will, of Freemasonry, since William Morgan went missing.

Tom Accuosti said...

Having spent a good part of my younger years in pursuit of bizarre sex acts, I can appreciate that these old-timers look forward to their trips.

But I agree with your contention that this activity has no place in Freemasonry or its associated bodies. The Shrine should kick their collective asses to the curb; and while they're at it, the Shrine might also want to take a closer look at some of their own members. I'm just saying.

Chris Hodapp said...

The Shrine is facing what has become a catastrophic shortfall in its foundation that actually finances the Hospitals. It's a double whammy—the downturn in new members, coupled with a huge hit from the economic meltdown. The result has been a $3 billion loss in value over the last year, and Tampa is talking seriously about closing 5 or 6 hospitals as a result. Year after year the subject comes up of divorcing the Shrine from Freemasonry, if for no other reason than the practicality of expanding its membership base beyond just what the Masonic lodges can bring to their door.

Pressure from the Shrine is where one day classes came from. The removal of the Shrine's requirement that a man must be a Blue Lodge Mason, as well as either a Scottish Rite or York Rite Mason put a stake through the heart of those two groups, without, BTW, raising Shrine membership appreciably after the first two years of that policy. Shrine International is not staffed by idiots—they have a massive philanthropy that requires a massive influx of cash each year to keep it running. So they have been preparing for the split between Masonry and the Shrine for well over a decade.

The problem is the 50/50 sentiment of the membership. Half of the members routinely say, "If the Shrine splits, I'll hang up my fez." And there the issue has remained deadlocked. Such a split has to be voted on, and there is no clear majority. Maybe the sobering news of hospital closures will finally convince the membership that they need to expand beyond the Masonic community. We'll see what happens in San Antonio this year.

The Jesters, on the other hand, are a real problem for both Masonry and the Shrine. They are becoming a public relations nightmare, and we all know that when three federal agencies and multiple state law enforcement organizations go sniffing around for misconduct, they are bound to dig up some potential front page news.

Masonic Traveler said...

"The problem is the 50/50 sentiment of the membership. Half of the members routinely say, "If the Shrine splits, I'll hang up my fez.""

I think this issue goes both ways as the craft lodge (Grand Lodges) can make the hard decision for them. The problem is that the GL's are staffed by members of both orders which makes them less than objective in their decision making.

It would be just as easy for the US GL's to make the same decision, to split and part company, especially in light of the Federal investigations.

Let the Shrine do what they need to do, but not when it sullys the name and word of Masonry.

Chris Hodapp said...

Tom, I agree with you. If a bunch of retirees want to try to reclaim their youth by bussing in a cooperative bunch of hotties for the weekend, as long as everybody's consenting, I couldn't care less. Where I draw the line is in wrapping themselves up in the contention that they are some "inner circle" of the Shrine, and that getting invited in to have your clock cleaned is some sort of honorable achievement. The Jesters are NOT the equivalent of the 33rd in the Scottish Rite. Likewise, cloaking themselves in the Shrine to somehow sanctify what they are doing ("Cmon, Harry! Pony up another hundred for this cutie! Remember, we're doing this for the kids!") is, frankly, disgusting.

talmont said...

The Shrine here is taking members and then giving them 90 days to get Blue Lodge. Sorry, what? No. A split is needed for the Blue Lodge. I am not a Shrine Member, and do not intend to be. I have seen and felt the good works of the Shrine, BUT I have heard of their Non-Masonic Like activities since I was a child. And almost didn't become a Mason because I didn't approve of their behavior. I work hard to promote the positive side of the Masons in my area, we are facing negative all the way around, and with factual news stories showing the negatives enmass, well time to sever the cabletow....

Alex Talmont

Chris Hodapp said...

It is reported today that John Trowbridge, the former police captain, was sentenced to two years' probation for taking a prostitute across state lines.