In the early morning hours of September 12, 1826, a Batavia, New York stoneworker named William Morgan went missing from the local jail. Morgan was not a man of importance. In fact, he was known as a bit of a drunk—a drifter who, according to historian and author of American Hysteria: The Untold Story of Mass Political Extremism in the United States Andrew Burt,“had moved his family relentlessly throughout the countryside, hauling his wife, Lucinda, and two young children from one failed venture to the next.”
But Morgan was more than the vagabond he appeared to be. He had also managed to infiltrate the secret society of freemasons and was threatening to publish a book exposing the powerful organization’s tactics. As a result of his plan, the local Masons began harassing Morgan, hoping to stop the publication of the exposé.
After being held in prison on trumped up charges, Morgan was bailed out by a group of Masons and carried away, never to be seen again. The conspiracy surrounding his disappearance fueled local anti-Mason sentiment, which in turn led to a national anti-Mason movement that shook to the core one of history’s most influential secret societies and changed American politics forever.
Long before the Freemasons became a flashpoint in early 19th century politics, the order was a humble stoneworkers organization, believed to have been formed in England and Scotland in the 1500s. The organization soon took on a more philosophical air, using the principles of stonemasonry as a guiding metaphor in order to secretly assist its members in other areas of business and society.
The first Masonic lodges began showing up in the colonies in the early 18th century, and swiftly gained power and influence. Members of the Freemasons eventually played a pivotal role in the formation of the United States—13 of the 39 signatures on the U.S. Constitution belonged to Masons—and, by the time Morgan disappeared in the 1820s, it had representatives entrenched at every level of the country’s social, economic and political hierarchies. Nowhere was this more true than in New York.
To Morgan, and his friend David C. Miller, a local newspaper publisher struggling to keep his publication afloat, the successful Freemasons presented a daily reminder of wealth that seemed, for them, simply unattainable. As A.P. Bentley wrote in his 1874 book History of the Abduction of William Morgan and the Anti-Masonic Excitement of 1826-30, The two men “entered into partnership to print a book which the public was to be told disclosed the secrets of masonry, in hopes to make a fortune out of the gaping curiosity of the vulgar.”
Under the false pretenses of being a Mason himself, Morgan gained access to the local lodge and documented several of the organization’s cryptic ceremonies and induction rituals. Once Morgan had these veiled details down on paper, Miller began teasing their very public release. In August of 1826, Miller hinted at the incendiary nature of the upcoming exposé, saying he had discovered the “strongest evidence of rottenness” in the centuries-old institution.
Miller and Morgan’s threat to reveal the innermost secrets of the Masons spread quickly. In every neighboring county, Masonic chapters were soon gripped with panic, fear and outrage at what the two men might disclose. Imagining the worst, committees were organized to assess the potential fallout from Morgan and Miller’s proposed story. As the publish date approached, the Masons began a targeted campaign of harassment against the two would-be book publishers.
Law enforcement officers loyal to the Freemasons arrested and jailed Morgan and Miller for outstanding debts. Miller’s offices became a target as well. On September 8, a posse of drunken Masons tried to destroy his print shop, and it was damaged by a small fire two days later.
On September 11, a gang of Masons showed up at Morgan’s house with an arrest warrant for petty larceny. It seems he had borrowed a shirt and tie from the owner of the local tavern and never returned it. Soon after he arrived at the police station, the charges were dropped, but Morgan was immediately arrested for another petty debt of $2.65. Late in the evening, he was bailed out by group of Masons led by Loton Lawson—the mastermind of the kidnapping, according to Light on Masonry, a 19th century compilation of documents about freemasonry.
He was escorted hurriedly into a carriage and taken away, never to be seen again. The last word anyone heard Morgan utter was, allegedly, “Murder!”
The rumors of Morgan’s disappearance spread throughout New York. With each new county that heard the news, it seemed the brutality and drama of the kidnapping grew exponentially, while the desire to portray it accurately diminished at a similar rate. The “insular, secretive, powerful” Masons, as Burt described them, soon became a popular symbol of everything that was wrong with the country.
The men accused of Morgan’s disappearance were put on trial, but in January of 1827, they were handed relatively lenient sentences. Although they had been involved in a potential murder, the four defendants—Loton Lawson, Eli Bruce, Col. Edward Sawyer and Nicholas G. Chesebro—received prison terms ranging from one month to two years in jail, convicted, as Burt put it, of “forcibly moving Morgan from one place to another against his will.” The all-powerful Masons had, in the eyes of those who opposed them, gotten away with murder.
“Everybody loves a good conspiracy story,” says Burt. “And that was the initial spark—headlines, outrage, crimes, a murder. It didn’t take long before a movement was borne.” The outrage led to calls for political action. Citizens from all over New York state met and declared their intent to stop voting for candidates with Masonic ties. If New Yorkers didn’t want to be ruled by the Masons, their most immediate course of action was to vote them out. That sentiment extended to the media as well, as Mason-owned newspapers were boycotted.
The fervor in New York slowly made its way around the nation. As early as the next elections in 1828, anti-Masonic candidates were winning offices all over the country. Even the sitting president, John Quincy Adams, declared that he had never been, and would never be, a Mason. The Anti-Masonic party—considered America’s first “third party’—had officially gone national. In 1830, they became the first political party to hold a presidential nominating convention, a custom eventually adopted by all major American political parties.
Unfortunately, the party’s first national convention would be its last. Infighting over who to nominate, and how to expand the party’s core platform to other issues other than hating the Masons, led to its ultimate demise. Says Burt about the death of the movement: “Ultimately, there wasn’t enough substance to the movement to allow it to endure, and it simply collapsed under its own weight.”
That’s not to say that the movement was a complete failure. Because of the Morgan Affair, and the ant-Masonic sentiment that followed, memberships dwindled and Masonic influence diminished all over the country. Although it still exists, the organization is a shadow of its former self.
Shortly after Morgan’s disappearance, Miller published Illustrations of Masonry with a scathing introduction that was written “in the absence of the author... who was kidnapped and carried away from the village of Batavia, on the 11th day of September, 1826, by a number of Freemasons.” In it, Miller stated:
“When we now see the gaudy show in a lodge-room, and a train of nominal officers with their distinction and badges, it may give us some faint idea of scenes that are past, and may gratify an idle curiosity, but produces no substantial good under heaven.”
Although the book itself was tame compared to a political tell-all you might read today—Morgan gave a word-for-word account of a rather dull lodge opening ceremony, for example—it still contained some gasp-inducing juicy moments for early 19th century readers. Morgan revealed that prospective members had to sign and declare an oath of loyalty to the Masons, and to keeping shrouded the organization’s darkest secrets, all under punishments of torture and death.
According to Morgan, one of the exchanges he witnessed involved the Senior Deacon of the lodge poking the exposed chest of a newly appointed member with the tip of a compass and issuing the following threat: “As this is a torture to your flesh, so may it ever be to your mind and conscience if ever you should attempt to reveal the secrets of Masonry Unlawfully.”
The public’s morbid curiosity about the Masons, combined with the outrage over Morgan’s notorious disappearance, helped make the book a bestseller. Unfortunately, Morgan wasn’t around to enjoy any of it. Despite many wild theories—had Morgan assumed a new identity and fled to Canada, or was he perhaps executed as a pirate in the Cayman Islands?—the mystery of what exactly happened to William Morgan has never been solved.
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