"To preserve the reputation of the Fraternity unsullied must be your constant care."


Monday, October 22, 2018

The Morgan Affair of 1826 and Anti-Masonic Politics

As an election season is again upon us, it's worth repeating the story of the founding of the first third-party in America, the Anti-Masonic Party. If you're a Mason and don't know about the Morgan Affair of 1826, with the subsequent anti-Masonic mania that followed it across America throughout the 1830s, there is an excellent summary article in yesterday's Washington Post. Have a look at How an abduction by the mysterious Freemasons led to a third political party — the nation’s first by  Robert Mitchell.

William Morgan
In September 1826, the disappearance of a man in a remote corner of upstate New York set off 25 years of anti-Masonic hysteria. In the little town of Batavia, a disgruntled and down-on-his-luck purported Freemason named William Morgan announced his intentions to write a book exposing all the “secrets” of the Masons. A group of local Masons decided that Morgan was something of a scoundrel and, by exposing the rituals of the lodge, he was breaking his Masonic vows. They abducted Morgan and carried him off to Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario, along the Canadian border. The conspirators claimed they paid Morgan $500, gave him a horse, pointed him north, and told him never to come back. Whatever the truth may have been, Morgan was never seen again, and some evidence suggested that the men might very well have drowned him in the lake. Allegations quickly arose that the Freemasons had executed Morgan for breaking his Masonic obligation using bloody penalties of Masonic ritual.

It's entirely arguable that the enthusiasm to rapidly expand Masonic membership into the American frontier without any serious oversight between the period of the Revolution through the 1820s undoubtedly produced Masons ignorant of the aim, purpose, and heritage of the Craft. 

Fifty-four men were indicted in connection with his disappearance, but only thirty-nine were ever tried, and none were convicted on murder charges. It was discovered that the prosecutor and many of the jurors were Freemasons, and the trial resulted in very lenient sentences. The result was a firestorm of protest that quickly spread across New York, and then the country. 

The public believed that the Masons had killed Morgan “according to Masonic ritual” and then cheated justice by receiving short sentences from their Masonic friends who controlled the courts and the government, including Governor and Freemason Dewitt Clinton. What began as a small-town crime became a nationwide outrage, and it certainly sold lots of newspapers. It remains the only authentic case in history of Freemasons seriously accused of murdering a member who had broken his Masonic vows.

In his outstanding book Island Freemasonry, author John Bizzack writes:
"Batavia Lodge 433, chartered by the Grand Lodge of New York, was a new lodge chartered only thirteen months before Morgan’s abduction. Batavia is located more than three hundred miles from the grand lodge, and as roads at the time were far less accommodating of travel, its creation suggests a repeat of what occurred in 1788 when the Grand Lodge of Virginia chartered Lexington Lodge 25, more than 250 miles from the nearest existing lodge in that state. That is, it could be presumed that there would be little to no assurance of appropriate Masonic instruction or regular oversight to better assure adherence to practices. From 1773 through 1826, New York admitted an average of 1,754 new Masons each year.  It is impracticable to accept that all members in those 432 lodges, particularly those in the far reaches of the state, were properly instructed, much less acculturated to have a strict adherence to rules and regulations during that period...
Batavia Lodge 433, the newest of the twenty-seven lodges chartered in that region from 1812 to 1825—is an example of the rapid expansion in just one county over a thirteen-year period. By 1830, thirteen of the twenty-seven had ceased operations suggesting that many warrants were likely not needed in the first place.
There was disharmony in the new Batavia lodge well before Morgan was kidnapped. While records of the depth of those tensions do not exist, there are enough details available to offer new insight into the discord present in the lodge from its inception.
In 1830, after twenty grand jury hearings, fifty-four Freemasons were indicted for the offense. Fifteen trials of thirty-nine Freemasons ensued, resulting in ten convictions for the abduction, but no convictions for murder, as Morgan’s body was never found.  The multiple trials saw some of the leading attorneys of the state defending the accused. As Michael A. Davis writes, “Given the evidence of jury tampering, the light sentences, and the repeatedly blocked investigations, it was reasonable for anti- Masons to see something deeply amiss with the Masonic narrative of Morgan’s vanishing.”

William Morgan’s Masonic ritual exposé was published after his death, and it was an instant bestseller. Over one hundred anti-Masonry meetings were held in New York in 1827. On St. John’s Day that year, 3,000 protesters marched to the lodge in Batavia, attacked the Masons inside, and looted the building. The next year, a statewide anti-Masonic convention was held in Utica, and over the next five years, the anti-Masonic movement went national.

By 1829, over 100 anti-Masonic newspapers were being published, mostly in the north. Almost as quickly, anti-Masonic political parties formed in several states, and in 1831, the Anti-Masonic Party became the first third-party movement in the United States, running former Freemason William Wirt for president, carrying the state of Vermont, and receiving 8% of the national vote. The party elected governors in Pennsylvania and Vermont, as well as a number of U.S. congressmen. Their platform was simple: Masonry was antidemocratic and anti-American, and it opposed Christianity. Therefore, Masonry must be driven out of the country. One of the party's most high-profile supporters was was President John Quincy Adams, who was had been defeated for re-election in 1828 by Andrew Jackson, Past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Tennessee.
Another supporter was future Secretary of State William H. Seward. The Anti-Masonic Party holds the distinction of being the first political party in the U.S. to hold a national convention.

Anti-Masonic hysteria was so bad that for nearly two decades, a toddler couldn’t get sick in the United States without someone claiming the Masons had poisoned the kid’s porridge. Lodges went underground or closed all over the country as men renounced their membership, and several Grand Lodges shut down as well. Nationwide, Masonic membership dropped from 100,000 in 1827 to less than 40,000 ten years later. It would be the mid-1840s before American Freemasonry would begin to recover.

In  the decades that followed, there was an enormous amount of misinformation – both pro and con – that was circulated about William Morgan and the disastrous period following it. One of the very best modern books available to understand the Morgan Affair and its after effects is Stephen Dafoe's definitive Morgan: The Scandal That Shook Freemasonry (2009). Highly recommended whether you think you are familiar with it, or if you are new to the story. Stephen's book tackles the topic with the benefit of 190 years of distance and modern research methods. Plus, it is written in a partially novelistic manner that avoids the textbook dryness that 19th century authors favored. Read this one first.

Dafoe put it best when he wrote, 
"It is the story of how a handful of young, impetuous members of the Masonic fraternity took matters into their own hands to prevent its publication and how their plans took a deadly fork in the road, nearly exterminating the very organization they sought to protect."

1 comment:

  1. A very revealing book, even a surprising study about the Morgan Affair is Lee Tilotson's Anti-Masonry and the Murder of Morgan, available from Amazon:


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