Vol. XXVIII No. 7 — July 1950

Three Famous Masonic Charlatans

Authorities are: Albert Gallatin Mackey (Cagliostro); Henry Ridgely Evans and A. F. Calvert (d’Eon); and The Thomson Masonic Fraud by Isaac Blair Evans.

Freemasonry is known for its charity, its good works, the great men who have led it and been proud of membership therein.

But it has also contributed to history a few who have abused, debased and mocked the Craft and tried to make of it a personal gold mine, or who have been the means of others injuring it.

Those here considered may not be the most infamous, but (in spite of the sordidness of the tales) their stories are of romance and adventure, and two at least rode high horses when the world was debonnaire and unafraid.

The Chevalier d’Eon for many years was the talk of London and the subject of newspaper cartoons. He is of interest to psychologists and was a Mason who is a puzzle to the Fraternity.

From early manhood this extraordinary person had the career of a man and until forty-nine, he protested against all aspersions upon his sex. Then he donned skirts, asserted he was a woman, and for the last thirty-nine years of his life played the part of the sex he had assumed. After his death at the age of eighty-two it was proved that he was a man.

His Masonic record was undistinguished but the fact that he had been admitted to the Fraternity brought obloquy upon the Craft and gave the “Antients” a weapon with which their grand secretary delivered a shrewd blow at the "Modern” grand lodge.

The Chevalier d’Eon had a slender figure, delicate features, and a face almost beardless. During his early career as a soldier and a diplomat no one dared openly to call him a woman, for he was a famous swordsman and quick to resent an insult.

Charles-Genevieve-Louis-Auguste-Andre-Tomothie-d’Eon de Beaumont was born in Burgundy, October 5, 1728. His people were of the minor French nobility. He was educated at the College Mazarin, in Paris, and became doctor in civil law, doctor in canon law, and advocate.

When he confessed that he was a female, he was presented to Louis XVI as the Chevaliere d’Eon. Society welcomed him with open arms; and his old military comrades feasted and toasted him as a heroine! When the American War of the Revolution broke out he offered his services to fight for the American colonists against England, but his offer was not accepted. In 1785 he returned to England and remained there for the rest of his days.

Contemporary prints show the Chevalier in skirts and clothed with apron and symbols of the Craft. He was admitted a Freemason in the lodge Immortality of the order, at the Crown and Anchor in the Strand. He served as junior warden in 1769-70. At this time he was so alarmed at the prospect of being kidnapped by insurance brokers or policy holders who had wagered on his sex that he disappeared and found sanctuary with Earl Ferrers at Staunton Harold, near Ashby-de-la-Zouch.

It is extraordinary that any lodge should have admitted d’Eon to membership when the betting was seven to one that he was a female. The “Antients” used the chance to attack the “Modern” grand lodge, quoting the Book of Constitutions which states “persons admitted to a lodge must be good and true men, freeborn and of mature and discreet age, no bondsmen, no women, no immoral or scandalous men, but of good report.” They scoffed at the “Modern” lodge which initiated a person who was a public jest, reported immoral, or actually a woman! Laurence Dermott in the edition of Ahiman Rezon, in 1778, emphasized the physical requirements of candidates with the following: “This is still the law of Ancient Masons though disregarded by our brethren (I mean sisters), the Modern-Masons, who it appeared, admitted a woman named Madam d’E——.” d’Eon is now long ago and far away. The harm that “admitting a woman” did is forgotten. d’Eon remains only as a queer story, an unexplained character, a colorful chapter in Masonic history. And to do him justice, d’Eon did not intend harm to a Fraternity which, his diary showed, he valued.

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Joseph, Count Cagliostro, son of Peter Balsamo and Felicia Braconieri, both of humble extraction, was born June 8, 1743, in Palermo. After his father’s death, his maternal uncles caused him to be schooled in religion by which he profited so little that he several times ran away from the Seminary of St. Roch, near Palermo.

At the age of thirteen he assumed the habit of a novice of the Convent of the Good Brotherhood at Castiglione. Next, an apothecary taught him the principles of chemistry and medicine. He violated many convent rules before he returned to Palermo to continue his lawless life and was frequently imprisoned. When he cheated a goldsmith of a large amount of gold, he had to flee from his country.

In London in 1776, Cagliostro received the degrees in Esperance Lodge No. 289, which then met at the King’s Head Tavern. Soon he began to use the Craft to advance his personal interests. In 1777 he began the imposture of “Egyptian Freemasonry” which made him famous as the greatest charlatan of his age.

London provided a fertile field and many Englishmen became his dupes. Ambitious and anxious for greater income, he went to the Continent where he had great success in the propagation of "Egyptian Freemasonry.” It was his vocation for the rest of his life, and by which for many years he defrauded thousands of credulous persons.

He sold his spurious degrees in Savoy, Sardinia, and other places in the south of Europe, and in 1789 proceeded to Rome, where he organized an “Egyptian lodge” in the shadow of the Vatican. This proved a mistake. On the festival of St. John the Evangelist, to whom he had dedicated his lodges, the Holy Inquisition imprisoned him in the castle of San Angelo after a trial which convicted him of having formed "societies and conventicles of Freemasonry.” His manuscript “Maconnerie Egyptienne” was burned by the public executioner, and he was condemned to death; a sentence subsequently commuted to life imprisonment.

Lewis Spence wrote of him:

It is not easy to learn the truth or to form just estimate of Cagliostro’s true character. He was vain, pompous, fond of theatrical mystery, and of the popular side of occultism. He liked popularity and probably he was a little mad. A born adventurer, not a very good rogue, as his lack of shrewdness proved. The various Masonic lodges which he founded, patronized by men of ample means, provided him with extensive funds. He was subsidized by some extremely wealthy men who were easily duped.

But he was a picturesque character and now, as is too often the case, has more fame for his infamy than many a good man has had for his probity!

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The American Masonic world of thirty some years ago was shocked at the revelations made at the trial and conviction in the Federal Court at Salt Lake City, Utah, on May 15, 1922, of Matthew McBlain Thomson, Thomas Perrot and Dominic Bergera, for using the mails to defraud. They were sentenced to jail for two years, and fined $5,000 as a culmination of efforts of the Government, begun in 1915, to punish the perpetrators of a most daring and spectacular Masonic imposture.

Matthew McBlain Thomson, the central figure in this tale of fraud and deception, was born in Ayr, Scotland. He was a paperhanger and painter and a saloonkeeper. In 1881 he came to the United States and settled in Montpelier, Idaho. In 1882 he met Robert S. Spence, a country lawyer, who afterwards was secretary of Thomson’s spurious Masonic organizations.

Later Thomson returned to Scotland and stayed there until 1898, when he again returned to Montpelier. According to his own story he was made a Mason in 1874, at Glasgow, Scotland, in a lodge he describes as “Glasgow Melrose St. John, a pendicle of the ancient lodge of St. John of Melrose, Scotland (the last of the Ancient Scottish lodges to give adhesion to the grand lodge), afterwards affiliating into another, Newton-on-Ayr St. James No. 125, on the registry of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, and Patna Bonnie Doon No. 565 on the same registry.”

Not contented with honest money-making, Thomson conceived a scheme to sell Masonic degrees and for a time was very successful, defrauding hundreds of dupes of many thousands of dollars.

For successful operation, Thomson needed a confederate in Scotland to make a show of Masonic authority and thus furnish proof that the “Grand Council of Rites” was genuine. One Robert Jamieson of Kilmarnock, Scotland, readily signed documents, diplomas, and charters which "proved” the validity of Thomson’s claims.

Thomson claimed the right to confer all the degrees in a dozen orders, including the Shrine, which were supposedly “within the bosom of the Scottish Grand Council of Rites.” He said he had all there was or ever had been in Masonry! To make his own degrees "genuine,” Thomson challenged the regularity of all other degrees so all regular Masonic bodies were branded as irregular!

He obtained his followers by solicitation among the humbler classes. He sent out paid organizers loaded down with charters, diplomas, certificates of appointment and agency contracts. An organizer would advertise in newspapers for men interested in receiving the degrees of Masonry. Those who responded were shown credentials, as well as publications of “The American Masonic Federation,” and informed of the advantages of membership. The organizer would explain the origin and source of authority of Thomson’s organizations and offer membership at a “reduced rate,” provided the dupes would get a number of friends to join. When enough candidates assembled, the organizer would communicate a modicum of information, and pronounce them Masons in good standing in the “American Masonic Federation!”

How much injury have these men done? What is the effect on the members of the Craft, on the non-Masonic public, on the enemies of Freemasonry?

At the time, the effect was great and the results sometimes sad if not sickening. William Morgan, whose alleged “murder” by Masons brought into existence the Anti-Masonic Party of 1826, for almost twenty years nearly wrecked the Fraternity in America. But who remembers William Morgan now, or thinks of Masons as murderers? d'Eon brought ridicule upon the “Moderns” — which was the old, the original Mother Grand Lodge of the world. Doubtless at the time some men were thus turned towards the “Ancients” and the “Moderns” suffered. Perhaps less men applied for the degrees after reading of the d’Eon affair. But the “Ancients” and the "Moderns” became one grand lodge in 1813, peace and harmony prevailed in the English Craft — what harm can now be said to lie at d’Eon’s door?

Cagliostro is a case of slightly different caliber — in an odd left-handed way many Freemasons are shamefacedly proud of the fact that the great charlatan, adventurer, magician, occultist, alchemist and faker was a Mason! Of course he defrauded his thousands — but they are now one with their fathers. Cagliostro is a name to conjure within the circles of conjurers; he is worthy of a couple of paragraphs in an encyclopedia; he is now a legend, a fairy story. But the storm he once raised in Masonry is now a dead clam.

McBlain Thomson was a sordid rascal; perhaps the term is harsher for the newer defrauder of his brethren. But if he “made” many a man a spurious Mason for money, he also brought tremendous advertising to the Fraternity which does not advertise. The proceedings in the Utah court were followed breathlessly by millions not Masons — for what Thomson had done to Masonry another might do to another fraternal order. The case brought out volumes of testimony and the world at large learned more of Masonry than it had ever known before.

Hundreds of his dupes became Masons regularly after being shown that they had not been defrauded by Masons but by an adventurer.

It is not possible now to say that any permanent harm came from Thomson’s activities.

There is, of course, no argument about the fact that malefactors must be suppressed, that rascals must be jailed, that imposters must be exposed and evil-doers punished. But the great lesson which is here, in the lives of these, seems to be less that evil and deception bring woe in the end, than that truth cannot be permanently suppressed, and that these, the greatest in their lines, the finest crooks the world has known to work their ills on Masonry, have had no real power to injure the ancient Craft.

The truth will out. Truth is stronger than lies. The enemies of Freemasonry could not permanently harm her. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "Truth is tough. It will not break, like a bubble, at a touch; you may kick it about all day, like a football, and it will be round and full at evening.” Woodrow Wilson quoted Holmes as saying, “You needn’t fear to handle truth roughly; she is no invalid.” Then Wilson added, “The truth is the most robust and indestructible and formidable thing in the world.”

If only by contrast, d’Eon and Cagliostro and Thomson made the truthful light of Masonry to shine!

The Masonic Service Association of North America