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.)