Vol. XXIX No. 10 — October 1951

Some American Masonic Myths

The dictionary distinguishes between myth, legend, tradition, fable, fairy story. But the distinctions are occasionally fine-drawn and there is often difficulty in classifying a story accurately under any of these headings.

King Arthur is a legend; the chivalry told of in the stories of the Knights of the Round Table has become traditional; Merlin the Magician can be only a myth. We do not believe in the existence now, or ever, of the gods of Greece and Rome — to us they are myths; to the Romans and Greeks they were facts; in what day of what month of what year did fact pass into myth?

Hence the title to these pages might be Masonic Legends, Masonic Traditions, even Masonic Fables, and not be too wide of the mark. All the myths here related had some basis for being believed but the then “evidences” are now known to be without foundations. Therefore “myths” seems the truer title.

Historians agree that Freemasonry existed in Philadelphia in 1730. The famous old book Liber B proves its sufficiently well to pass as conclusive evidence in a court of law.

Undoubtedly there were Freemasons in the Colonies before 1730. The probabilities are that some of them held some sort of meetings. But so far this cannot be proved.

First in the tales of earlier-than-1730-beginning is the now generally accepted as absurd theory of Augustus Le Plongeon, set forth in a book with an awe-inspiring title: Sacred Mysteries among the Mayas and the K'ichés, 11,500 years ago; Their Relation to the Sacred Mysteries of Egypt, Greece, Chaldea and India; Freemasonry in Times Anterior to the Temple of Solomon.

In this book, among many other curious statements, the author said:

I will endeavor to show you that the ancient sacred mysteries, the origin of Freemasonry consequently, date back from a period far more remote than the most sanguine students of its history ever imagined. I will try to trace their origin, step by step, to the continent which we inhabit — to America — from where Maya colonists transported their ancient religious rites and ceremonies, not only to the banks of the Nile, but to those of the Euphrates, and the shores of the Indian Ocean, not less than 11,500 years ago.

Seeking for the origin of the institution of the sacred mysteries, of which Masonry seems to be the great-grandchild, following their vestiges from country to country, we have been brought over the vast expanse of blue sea, to this western continent, to these mysterious “Lands of the West” where the souls of all good men, the Egyptians believed, dwelt among the blessed. It is, therefore, in that country, where Osiris was said to reign supreme, that we may expect to find the true signification of the symbols held sacred by the initiates in all countries, in all times, and which have reached us, through the long vista of ages, still surrounded by the veil, well nigh impenetrable, of mystery woven round them by their inventors. My long researches among the ruins of the ancient temples and palaces of the Mayas, have been rewarded by learning at the fountainhead the esoteric meaning of some at least of the symbols, the interpretation of which has puzzled many a wise head — the origin of the mystification and symbolism of the numbers 3, 5, and 7.

Le Plongeon was a better explorer than he was scientist; it has been conclusively proved by many skilled and reputable archeologists that his dates were greatly in error so that his “11,500 years” were in reality less than 1000. No sensible man believes that because square, point in a circle, eye, lamb, plumbline have been found in all parts of the world and in extreme antiquity, Masonry must have then and there existed because the Craft uses those symbols. Many Egyptian paintings of antiquity of thousands of years, show human figures in positions which are now distinctly Masonic. Such paintings prove nothing; the open extended hand was a symbol of friendship among the earliest known tribes but that does not prove that men in armor (who also used the same sign) or Americans greeting each other were to be found among the aborigines of Africa!

The Nova Scotia Stone seemed at the time, and to many, to prove that Freemasonry had come to this continent as early as 1606.

It was discovered by a Mr. C. T. Jackson, who wrote a friend, Mr. J. W. Thornton, about it is follows:

June 2nd, 1856.

Dear Sir: When Francis Alger and myself made a mineralogical survey of Nova Scotia in 1827, we discovered upon the shore of Goat Island, in Annapolis Basin, a gravestone, partly covered with sand and lying on the shore. It bore the Masonic emblems, square and compass, and had the figures 1606 cut in it. The rock was a flat slab of trap rock, common in the vicinity. The slab, bearing the date 1606, I had brought over by the ferryman to Annapolis, and ordered it to be packed up in a box, To be sent to the O.C. Pilgrim Soc’y (of Plymouth, Mass.); but Judge Haliburton, then Thomas Haliburton, Esq., prevailed on me to abandon it to him, and he now has it carefully preserved. On a late visit to Nova Scotia I found that the Judge had forgotten how he came by it, and so I told him all about it.

Yours truly,
C. T. Jackson.

J. W. Thornton,

The subsequent history of the stone is short and tragic; Judge Haliburton gave the stone to the Canadian Institute, Toronto, to be built into the wall of a new building; a workman stupidly covered it with plaster or cement, and now no one knows where in the walls it may be! Luckily the stone was photographed before this loss.

There are many explanations of the stone — which bears the date 1606 and Masonic symbols which apparently are a square and compasses. But they all fall to the ground under critical examination. Reginald V. Harris, grand secretary and noted Masonic student of Nova Scotia says of it:

Let us summarize our theories: First, the stone was a grave stone; Secondly, it marked the last resting place of a French settler who died in 1606; Thirdly, this settler was probably a workman and may have been an operative mason or stone cutter; Fourthly, speculative Masonry, unknown in France in 1606, was not practiced by the French colonists; lastly, the emblem of square and compasses would seem to be a trade mark or emblem undoubtedly used by operative masons as their emblem, and possibly by carpenters as well. In a word, the stone marked the grave of either a mason or stone cutter or possibly a carpenter who died Nov. 14, 1606, and not that of a speculative Mason.

Many and various have been the myths which put Freemasons in this country before the formation of the mother grand lodge in 1717. One of the most interesting, persistent and impossible is the tale of Freemasonry in Rhode Island in 1656-58.

William B. Weedens Economic and Social History of New England stated: “It is said that fifteen families came from Holland this year, bringing with their goods and mercantile skill the first three degrees of Freemasonry.” The Reverend F. Peterson wrote a History of Rhode Island and Newport in the Past. This volume gravely sets forth that:

In the spring of 1658, Mordecai Campannail, Moses Packeckoe, Levi and others, in all fifteen families, arrived at Newport from Holland. They brought with them the three first degrees of Masonry and worked them in the house of Campannail, and continue to do so, they and their successors, to the year 1742.

The statement is false by evidence it presents; there were no “Three first degrees of Masonry” or "first three degrees of Masonry” in 1658.

Supposedly this quotation was taken from a document in the hands of a master in Newport, N. H. Gould. But Gould could not produce the “document,” nor could anyone in Newport, in the Fraternity or out of it, be found who had ever seen it. A letter which cannot be found, a quotation given by memory, and no statement as to who the letter was from or to is hardly “evidence” of Freemasonry anywhere, let alone 1656.

About the same time of this myth is the curious story of one John Eliot, the “Apostle to the Indians.” It is stated that Plymouth Colony of New Haven in 1654 received a package consigned to Eliot, accompanied by a letter with a signature which included the square and compasses.

A Massachusetts lodge was named after Eliot. Addressing it Past Grand Master Charles T. Gallagher said in 1916:

The only Masonry connected with our Eliot is a tradition told to myself and others by our grand secretary, Brother Nickerson, that I have been unable to find in any record or published book; his statement was that about 1670 there came to the Apostle Eliot from England a box containing Masonic emblems, to be forwarded to Charleston, Carolina. This information may have come from among the priceless treasures destroyed by the fire of April 6,1864, when our Temple was in the Winthrop House, and until further authenticated, will live only as a tradition.

Another delightful (but impossible) myth puts Freemasonry in South Carolina in 1703.

One Charles E. Meyer managed to get a letter printed in Hughan and Stillson’s History of Freemasonry and Concordant Orders, which reads as follows:

In 1680 there came to South Carolina one John Moore, a native of New England, who before the close of the century removed to Philadelphia, and in 1703, was commissioned by the king as Collector of the Port. In a letter written by him in 1715, he mentions having “spent a few evenings in festivity with my Masonic brethren.” This is the earliest mention we have of their being members of the Craft residing in Pennsylvania or elsewhere.

The letter was supposed to be in the possession of one Horace W. Smith, of Philadelphia. But there are many Smiths in Philadelphia, and none of them, named Horace or any other name, could be found who had, or had ever seen, such a letter. Of it, M.W. Brother Melvin M. Johnson, in his monumental, authoritative and completely documented Beginnings of Freemasonry in America states:

This letter was for a time exploited as evidence of meetings of the Fraternity in Philadelphia during the year. This letter, however, never existed. Careful inquiry discloses repeated but unsuccessful attempts by the acquaintances of Mr. Smith to see the letter. If he ever had such a letter he could have produced it or accounted for its absence, but he never did so. No one among his contemporaries or among those having had the best opportunity to talk with him and to see the document if it existed can be found who believes there ever was such a letter.

Was there — could there have been — a lodge held in King’s Chapel, Boston, as early as 1720? Many Massachusetts Masons would mightily be pleased could it be proved! But the evidence, while clear enough as to statement, comes from an unsupported assertion, made twice, (many years apart) by a reputable and learned Mason, who yet brought forth nothing but his own assertion to prove it.

In the Masonic Mirror and Mechanics Intelligence, Charles W. Moore, Editor, in 1827 stated:

A year or two since, a clergyman of the Church of England, who is probably more conversant with that Church in America than any other individual now living, politely furnished us with a document wherein it appears, that the first regular lodge of Freemasons in America, was holden in King’s Chapel, Boston, by a dispensation from the Grand Lodge of England, somewhere about the year 1720. It produced great excitement at the time, and the brethren considered it prudent to discontinue their meetings, and no other was held in New England, for nearly fifteen years, or until the institution of St. John’s and St. Andrew’s lodges. If this be the fact, and we have no reason to doubt it, but on the contrary, many to confirm our belief, the position may be safely assumed, that the first REGULAR subordinate lodge held in North America, was opened in this city.

In the Freemason's Monthly Magazine, he stated in 1844:

Dispensations and charters were issued by the grand lodge at London for holding lodges in all parts of the world. The first, for this country, was received about the year 1720. It was a Dispensation authorizing the opening of a lodge in this city (Boston). We have the fact from a clergyman of the Church of England, Revelation Mr. Montague, once of Dedham, who found it stated in an old document in the Archives of King’s Chapel (Boston). The lodge was regularly organized but soon after discontinued.

Here are two statements of a credible witness. But there has never been any corroboration from the “Revelation Mr. Montague” nor has any such document as he quotes ever been found in the “archives of King’s Chapel” or anywhere else. For this tale, then, there can be only the Scotch verdict of “not proven.”

So far as evidence which can be held in the hand and seen with the eye is concerned, the earliest known Masonry in America was in Philadelphia, told of in the lodge whose book Liber B is unimpeachable evidence.

The Masonic Service Association of North America