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The Mysteries of the Masons

Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

To this day, nobody knows the true fate of Capt. William Morgan. A failed businessman and citizen of generally low repute, Morgan was abducted from his home, in the town of Batavia, New York, in the early morning of Sept. 11, 1826. He soon found himself in a Canandaigua jail cell, about 50 miles away, imprisoned for a debt of $2.65. The whole ordeal was doubtless confusing to Morgan, a man best known for his drinking. It likely became even more confusing when a stranger paid his bail. But that man had no intention of setting him free. Morgan emerged from the jail only to be forced into a carriage, reportedly screaming out “murder” while he was being dragged away.

What would become of America’s great experiment in democracy without the presence of the founders?

This is the last anyone ever saw of Morgan, about whom little else is certain. Some said that he was not really a military captain, while others claimed that he had earned that title in the War of 1812. Others asserted that both theories were technically true: That he fought the British in 1812 as a pirate seeking plunder and was granted a pardon for his misdeeds by the president after the war. What we do know is that whatever happened to him, trapped inside that northbound carriage and fearing for his life, Morgan never came back.

Over the next few years, the details of Morgan’s abduction would slowly come to light, setting off a political firestorm and giving rise to the first third party in American politics. Evidence suggested that Morgan’s abduction was carried out by members of a secret organization known as the Masons. Americans soon came to believe in the existence of a Masonic plot to overthrow society from within; the country’s very existence, many proclaimed, was now in jeopardy. What began as an obscure crime in upstate New York would spark one of the first episodes of political hysteria in American history, laying the foundation for a long line of political crusades to come.

Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker


The story of Morgan’s disappearance begins in the summer of 1826, when a new era was dawning in the nation’s history. Fifty years after the Declaration of Independence, the last of America’s founding generation was dying off—a turning point highlighted by the deaths of both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on the Fourth of July that year. What would become of America’s “great experiment” in democracy without the presence of the founders?

In upstate New York, then on the outer edges of America’s frontier, two men were occupied with a different question: how to secure personal fame and fortune. The first was David C. Miller, the publisher of Batavia’s Republican Advocate. Miller’s was an opposition paper, pitted against the policies of New York’s governor, DeWitt Clinton. Though he’d run the journal for more than a decade, he was still a struggling newspaperman searching for higher circulation. The second was William Morgan, who had moved his family restlessly throughout the countryside, working first as a brewer, now as a stoneworker, hauling his wife, Lucinda, and two young children from one failed venture to the next. Only two years earlier, Morgan had written of his desperation: “The darkness of my prospects robs my mind, and extreme misery my body.” The two men made an odd pair, but what they lacked in common background they shared in common circumstance—and now in common goals. Over that summer the two hatched a plan to expose to the world the inner workings of the secret society of Freemasons.

How, exactly, the two first came into contact is not known, but neither was held in high esteem by his community. According to one source, Miller was known to be a man “of irreligious character, great laxity of moral principle, and of intemperate habits”; much worse things were said about Morgan. Not surprisingly, both men harbored deep-seated animosity toward Freemasonry, which served as a symbol for the establishment class.

Freemasonry is thought to have originated in England and Scotland sometime in the 1500s as a trade organization made up of local stoneworkers, but it soon took on a philosophical air. The triumph of reason began to be a focal point of the organization, as did dedication to deism, or the Enlightenment belief that the existence of God is apparent through observation and study rather than miracles or revelation. Over the centuries, the fraternity of Masons would expand throughout the world, as would its ceremonies and rituals, which involved strange symbols and oaths—in addition to its more benign emphasis on civic-mindedness, religious tolerance, and communal learning. The group met in secret.

Masons were overwhelmingly men of middle- and upper-class status—doctors, lawyers, and businessmen—who had the time and leisure to join what amounted to a social club for the well-to-do. Many of the founding fathers had been Masons, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin—indeed, 13 of the 39 signers of the Constitution claimed membership in the fraternity. In the years between America’s founding and 1826, Masonry had only grown more powerful, especially in New York. Gov. DeWitt Clinton was not only a Mason but had also been the grand master of the Grand Lodge of New York and the highest-ranking Mason in the country. By one estimate, more than half of all publicly held offices in New York were occupied by Masons.

Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

Miller first hinted at some type of forthcoming revelation in an article published in the Advocate in August 1826. He had discovered the “strongest evidence of rottenness,” he wrote, evidence that compelled him and an unnamed collaborator, “to an act of justice to ourselves and to the public.” This bombshell was a book, to be compiled by Morgan and printed by Miller, detailing Masonic rituals and misdeeds at the highest levels of power. Morgan wasn’t a member of the Masons, but he had convinced other Masons that he was and had been granted access to a neighboring Masonic lodge. Morgan was thus able to witness the Masons’ ceremonies, recording their doings in a manuscript.

News of Miller and Morgan’s impending publication soon began to spread and Masons in neighboring counties began to worry about the disclosures. Reported one Mason at that time: “[I] never saw men so excited in my life.” Committees of Masons were quickly organized to investigate the revelations, and “everything went forward in a kind of frenzy.”

Groups of concerned Masons began harassing Miller and Morgan with prosecutions for petty debt, with the tacit cooperation of the county sheriff, who briefly placed Morgan in jail. Strange men, thought to be Masons from other counties, now began to make suspicious appearances in the villages of Ontario County, putting not just Miller and Morgan on edge but entire towns too.

On Sept. 8 a group of Masons attempted to destroy Miller’s offices. Capping a night of drinking at a local tavern, a group of several dozen men descended onto the print shop. There they found that Miller had convened a posse of his own, equipped with firearms and ready to fight. The Masons retreated, and Miller was safe—for the time being. Two nights later, Miller’s office suddenly erupted into flames, though the fire was detected early and no serious damage was done. Cotton balls dipped in turpentine were reportedly found throughout the print shop.

On Sept. 11 the conflict escalated. A half-dozen Masons showed up at Morgan’s home with an arrest warrant. The charges: petty larceny for stealing a shirt and tie, lent to Morgan by the owner of the town’s tavern, which Morgan had failed to return.

Soon Morgan was being whisked away in a carriage, though reportedly without worry. He apparently thought that testifying that he had simply forgotten to return the items would get him off the hook. He was right. The charges fell through and he was released—only to be immediately arrested again for the outstanding debt of $2.65. This time, the charges stuck.

Morgan spent the following night in jail. The next day, he was forced into the carriage that sped northward out of town, never to be seen again.

The crime had exposed a powerful group, shrouded in secrecy, manipulating the law for its own purposes.

That wasn’t the end of the ordeal: A group of Masons soon came back for Miller. On Sept. 12 roughly 70 armed Masons rallied at a tavern while a constable presented the publisher with a warrant for his arrest on questionable charges and conveyed him to the nearby town of Le Roy. Luckily for Miller, his lawyer and an armed posse from Batavia followed along, carrying him back home when the charges fell through.

As Miller and his crew returned to Batavia, the story of his arrest spread throughout the neighboring villages and towns. It was loose ends like Miller, and the family that Morgan had left behind, that would cause the Masons the most trouble. The fate of Morgan’s wife, Lucinda, for example, would help to stoke up sympathy and support for Morgan’s plight, deepening the public’s anger over the Masons’ crimes. The mother of two small children now no longer had a husband to depend on.

But the Morgan affair wasn’t just about the disappearance of one man. The crime had exposed the existence of a powerful group, shrouded in secrecy, manipulating the law for its own purposes. The story of Morgan’s kidnapping, as it was told and retold throughout the coming weeks, focused on how the elite Masons had turned the public interest into a private one and how the government itself may have been perverted in the process.

Two weeks after the abduction, a series of heavily attended public meetings was held. Though the meetings were initially called to solve the mystery of Morgan’s fate, they were equally about calming the public’s fear. There was no guarantee, after all, that what happened to Morgan could not happen to others.

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