Dr. Sigismond Bacstrom and Alexander Tilloch

Scientific Explorers of the Twilight Zone between Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry

Marsha Keith Schuchard, Ph.D.

A revised edition of this paper will appear in Heredom Volume 31 (2023), published by the Scottish Rite Research Society. Details to follow.

In 1797, while controversies raged about the alleged role of Freemasonry in fomenting the French revolution, a secret but important initiation took place in London on April 5. In the ceremony, Alexander Tilloch, a Scottish scientist and publisher, took a solemn vow to become a member of the Fratres Roseae Crucis, which “more than two centuries ago, did separate themselves from the Freemasons.”1 His initiator was Sigismund Bacstrom, a Swedish physician and alchemist, who replicated the fourteen rules of his own admission on September 12, 1794, by the Comte de Chazal in Mauritius. The certificate takes an apolitical stand, with a vow to never enable men “to revolt against their government”: “I will leave public affairs and arrangements to the Government of God, who will bring about the events foretold in the Revelations of St. John, which are fast accomplishing. I will not interfere with the affairs of government.”2 However, “I will not give a Salary to a Priest or Churchman as such to make him more proud and indolent than he is already.” As we shall see, these supposedly non-political but anti-clerical vows glossed over the reformist and heterodox beliefs of Tilloch and Bacstrom. Moreover, their relationship with Freemasonry was more complex and nuanced than their vow suggests.

Our two Rosicrucians described themselves as “Investigators of Divine, Spiritual and Natural Truth,” but their pragmatic and objective devotion to natural history and experimental science was unusual. They saw no contradiction between ancient alchemy and modern chemistry, and they believed that scientists should include both in their research. Thus, their widespread reading of early alchemical texts was coupled with lab experiments that followed the rigorous standards of contemporary scientists. By examining their backgrounds and association with both liberal and conservative Freemasons, as well as their secretive Rosicrucianism, we can gain a perspective on the survival of esoteric science within a culture devoted to exoteric science.

Let us begin with the cosmopolitan Dr. Bacstrom (1750-1809?), who was of Swedish descent but never lived in Sweden.3 After earning a medical degree in France, he worked as a ship’s surgeon and served in 1772-75 as a secretary to Sir Joseph Banks, a Freemason and leading figure in the Royal Society of Sciences.4 In the 1780s, Banks employed him to collect specimens and illustrate them during his travels around the world. His drawings and notes were produced with scrupulous scientific accuracy.5 It seems likely that Bacstrom, like Banks, took advantage of Masonic connections during their expeditions.

One such connection that Bacstrom hoped Banks would make for him was on June 28, 1786, when he was in desperate financial need. At that time, the controversial Italian Freemason, Alessandro Cagliostro (Joseph Balsamo), was in London trying to recruit Swedenborgians to his special Masonic “Egyptian Rite.”6 Bacstrom wrote Banks that “he has reason to believe that Count Cagliostro might assist him,” and he begged Banks to procure an introduction:

I heard from a Gentleman of Credit from Strasbourg that Count Cagliostro, when in that City, was very kind and charitable to such as were most in need . . . from what I have heard, the Count is a man of great learning . . . I think if I could get access to the Count, he might perhaps take me into his service, as he does not understand the English language . . . He is a man of immense fortune they say . . . .7

Bacstrom’s reference to Cagliostro in Strasbourg is curious, for it was there that the magus referred to his relationship with Dr. Samuel Jacob Falk, the famous Kabbalist and Baal-Shem of London. In April 1780, the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great, expelled Cagliostro from the country, giving as her reason:

“M. Cagliostro . . . has arrived at a moment very favorable to him, a moment when several lodges of Free-Masons, infatuated with the principles of Swedenborg, want desperately to see spirits; they have therefore run to Cagliostro, whom they say is in possession of all the secrets of Dr. Falk. 8

She satirized their relationship in the portmanteau character of “Kalifalkerston.” In September, Cagliostro arrived in Strasbourg, where the Masons gave him a royal welcome. To one admirer he expressed his admiration for Swedenborg who had been unfairly persecuted, but “the greatest man in Europe is the celebrated Dr. Falk at London. There are in that capitol 5 or 6 Masons who have the knowledge, but they lack the key.”9

In 1786, it was apparently a Mason in Strasbourg who provided Bacstrom with the unusual praise of Cagliostro, who had recently fled France to England, after his arrest for involvement in the Diamond Necklace scandal, which threatened the throne of France. Joseph Banks was well informed about that sensational affair, but it is unknown if he arranged a meeting between Bacstrom and the colorful faux Count.10 General Charles Rainsford, friend of Bacstrom and cousin of Banks, had known Falk, but after the death of the Baal Shem in 1782, he lamented that some secret Masonic project was “upset by the unexpected death of Dr. Falk . . . I have found nothing certain relating to that Rabbi, whether he is genuine or a knave.”11 Rainsford was aware that the controversial Cagliostro was a protégé of the late Falk. No wonder that Bacstrom warned Banks that Rainsford should not be called upon for a recommendation to meet Cagliostro in 1786.

Unable to obtain financial support in London, Bacstrom took on jobs from 1786 to 1794 as ship’s surgeon and scientific collector, which led to his global travels and eventually to his six months’ residence in the French colony of Mauritius, off the coast of East Africa. His landing there began unhappily, after his French shipmates rebelled against their British captain and claimed the ship as a French prize of war. Kept in loose confinement, he met with a French Freemason, the physician Phillipe Petit-Radel, who had fled France after he was conscripted to fight against the royalist forces.12 Bacstrom, who had continued his private studies in alchemy, evidently informed Radel about his interests, which led the Frenchman to introduce him to the “Comte de Chazal.” There is some confusion about the Count’s forenames, for he is called Louis by English authors (Waite and Hamilton-Jones) but always François in Chazal family reports and Mauritian histories.13

For all his eccentricities and neediness, Bacstrom had a reputation for honesty and objectivity. Moreover, historical accounts of François de Chazal de la Genesté describe him as a learned natural scientist and botanist, who was also a student of Mesmerism, magnetic healing, and alchemy. Bacstrom’s account is accurate for his Hermetic interests but is hazy on his dates. François was born in 1731 and died in 1795, at age 64 not 97 (as Bacstrom recorded). The claim that the “Comte de Chazal” was initiated into Rosicrucianism in Paris in 1740 by the Comte de Saint-Germain was purely speculative; moreover, François was only nine years old at that time.14 In an important letter to Alexander Tilloch (16 March 1804), Bacstrom claimed that Chazal allowed him to “perform a transmutation under Chazal’s guidance,” and that his mentor also possessed clairvoyance and healing powers.15

Christophe Chabbert implies that that François was a Freemason and passed on “ses secrets maçonniques et alchimiques” to his nephew, Toussaint Antoine de Chazal.16 Pascal Bajou notes that the Chazal family was implicated in the continuing diffusion of Freemasonry in Mauritius.17 A descendant claimed that François was also “a notable Swedenborgian and held classes of mystical philosophy.”18 It is suggestive that the Chazal family maintained Swedenborgian beliefs, affiliated with Freemasonry, throughout the nineteenth century.19 However, In the 1790s, Freemasonry in the colony was torn between its Écossais high-degree traditions, with their strong Jacobite-Hermetic themes, and the Jacobin-secular agenda of other lodges. That is possibly the reason for Chazal’s statement in 1794 that the Rosicrucians had separated from the Freemasons in 1490. The anti-clericalism in Bacstrom’s certificate was apparently influenced by François’s quarrels with his orthodox, ecclesiastic Catholic brothers and uncle, who deplored his interest in the “knavish trickery” and “charlatanry” of Mesmer’s animal magnetism.20

Many scholars have commented on the statement in Bacstrom’s certificate that women would be welcome as members of the Rosicrucian society:

And, as there is no distinction of sexes in the Spiritual World, neither among Blessed Angels, nor among the rational immortal Spirits of the human race . . . our whole Art, is granted to the female sex as well as to the male, our Society does not exclude a worthy woman from being initiated, God himself not having excluded women from partaking of every spiritual felicity in the next life.21

This supposedly further distanced the Rosicrucians from the Freemasons, since “regular” British Freemasonry did not allow women to be initiated.22 However, in France, women were welcome in “androgynous” lodges and in an “irregular,” French-influenced lodge in London.23 Dr. Benedict Chastanier, a French Swedenborgian resident in England, invited women to join his “illuminated” rite.24

In the 1804 letter, Bacstrom described in detail his relation with Chazal, who begged him to stay with him, offered him substantial funding, and wept bitterly when his Rosicrucian “son” had to leave because of contractual obligations. After a hazardous and difficult time in his travels as ship’s surgeon, Bacstrom finally arrived back in London in 1796. On November 18, he wrote to Joseph Banks, recounting his misadventures and appealed to him to solicit subscribers to his treatise (in manuscript) that drew on his eight years of Hebrew and Kabbalistic studies, which led to new interpretations of the “curious Scientific Allegories in the Old Testament.”25 He recognized that the general contents “do not concern your favorite Studies,” i.e., natural history.

Despite his earlier disappointment in Rainsford, the General did read the manuscript and agreed to subscribe. Rainsford was a Swedenborgian Freemason and an erudite student and collector of Hermetic, Kabbalistic, and Magnetic documents.26 In 1782, he revealed to a friend that while in Algiers, he found some “curious manuscripts in Hebrew relating to the Society of Rosicrucians, which exists at present under another name with the same forms. I hope, moreover, to be admitted to their true knowledge.”27 It is unknown if he then joined a Rosicrucian group in England, but in 1794 he identified himself as a Rosicrucian.

Bacstrom recognized that Rainsford and Banks were government loyalists, though moderate in politics, and he assured Banks that there is nothing in the treatise “that is against God, against Morality, against Nature, against Government nor against commons sense.” 28 He then revealed a significant personal step in his letter to Banks in November 1796: “I have already 13 subscribers. I was lately received a member at the Ancient Lodge No. 10, with a view to get Subscribers at the Lodges.” Unfortunately, there is no reference to Bacstrom in the surviving lodge minutes for 1796.29 He apparently understood Chazal’s 1794 assertion of the separation from Freemasonry in 1490 as not binding in 1796. He also revealed his current residence at 18, Kennington Road, Lambeth, where he lived about a five-minutes’ walk from the radical artist, William Blake, who resided at 13 Hercules Building, Lambeth.30

While Bacstrom was living in Blake’s vicinity, the artist was a supporter and allegedly a friend of Alexander Tilloch, the Scottish scientist and publisher, who was initiated by Bacstrom, evidently in Lambeth, on April 5, 1797. Keri Davies argues that Tilloch (1759-1825) was a model for the zany scientist Tilly Lally in Blake’s satire, “An Island in the Moon,” and that he probably met Blake in 1787, soon after he moved from Glasgow to London.31 Davies suggests that Blake’s interest in Tilloch’s method of engraving probably began in the late 1780s, and he demonstrates how close his technique of relief etching was to Tilloch’s invention.32 Provocatively, on April 5, 1797, the same day as Tilloch’s Rosicrucian initiation, Blake signed a testimonial for the Scotsman’s invention of a device for engraving that would prevent banknote forgeries.33 But what was it about Tilloch, well-known for his practical inventions and secular journalism, that would interest the visionary Blake and his “illuminated “ Swedenborgian and Masonic friends in Lambeth?

While in Glasgow, Tilloch became interested in the natural sciences and re-invented stereotyping in 1781-82. In partnership with the printer Andrew Foulis the Younger, from a strongly nationalist Jacobite family, he published a number of books by the revived method. Foulis was evidently a Freemason, and in 1739 he and his brother Robert collaborated in France with Chevalier Andrew Michael Ramsay, the leading proponent of Écossais Freemasonry.34 Foulis would later publish Ramsay’s posthumous master work, The Philosophical Principles of Natural and Revealed Religion, Unfolded in a Geometrical Order (Edinburgh, 1748-49). Though it is unknown if Tilloch shared Foulis’s interest in high-degree French Masonry, he did show knowledge about international Masonry in his later publications.

After Tilloch’s move to London in 1789, he purchased a newspaper, The Star, which he edited until 1821. He was a very hands-on editor who closely controlled what was published in The Star, while making his own contributions. He continued working on his inventions, and in 1790 he was “forcibly struck by the number of executions for forgery in London,” so he devised a technical method to prevent the crime, which he presented to the government but was ignored.35 Two years later, he took the plan to Paris, where it was welcomed by the revolutionary regime. Throughout the 1790s, Tilloch published objective accounts of the political developments in France and sympathetic accounts of the Scottish reformers who were persecuted and arrested by the English government.

Though he privately maintained his studies in alchemy, astrology, and animal magnetism, he did not publish on those subjects. He did report extensively on the activities of Swedish “illuminist” Freemasons and Swedenborgians, which seemed to draw on inside information from Swedenborgians who visited London.36 On 23 September 1793, he referred to the new posting of General Rainsford (now a friend and alchemical collaborator) to Gibraltar, where he defended the British colony against the French. In the meantime, the usually cautious Tilloch was so deeply disturbed by the prosecutions of pro-French Scottish radicals that he boldly published on November 26, 1793, a tribute to the bravery of the French republican troops, who showed “an astonishing instance of obstinance and devotion.” When one hundred fifty troops were trapped on the Rhine, the men refused to submit and say “Vive le Roi”; instead, they fought to the death, shouting “Vive la Republique.”37 Tilloch knew that this was risky, for on July 30 he had published a warning about the proliferation of government informers:

Every honest Englishman that conceives he has a right to speak his mind in a coffee-house, ought previously to recollect Mr. Foote’s lines: “But stay, before I speak aloud,/ Is there no fly informer in the crowd,/ With art laconic marking all that’s said,/ Malice at heart, indictment in his head?

Mouchard is the French word for an Informer, which comes from the word Mouche, a fly in the same language, because this insect will buzz around you, sip your glass, feed off your plate, sting you, and suck your blood at the first opportunity.38

In the 1790s, several taverns in Lambeth hosted meetings of radicals, both local and foreign, who attempted to rouse and organize opposition to Pitt’s repressive government.39 The meetings were under constant surveillance by government agents, and a bevy of spies sent reports (both accurate and fabricated) to the ministry. Blake confessed to his “nervous fear,” as loyalist neighbors could see through his tall front window the printing press where he produced his “illuminated prophecies.”40 For Bacstrom, who followed the practice of the late Chazal (d. 1795) to instruct students in Rosicrucian “mystical philosophy,” it was important that he maintain secrecy and not politically offend Banks or Rainsford (the latter returned to London in late 1795). In 1796, Bacstrom was definitely collaborating with Tilloch in collecting Hermetic texts and experimenting in his lab.41

Thus, by April 5, 1797, when he initiated Tilloch into his Rosicrucian Society, using the rules he got from Chazal, he seemed to be firmly established as the leader of a very secret alchemical network in London. Besides Tilloch and Rainsford, there was William Bryan, who had joined the Illuminés in Avignon; Richard Ford from Dublin; and then a series of otherwise little-known members (Hand, Belisario, Hawkins, Alefson, Shute, Pritzler, Wagstaff, Graham, etc.). One wonders if Bacstrom and Tilloch had any connection with the wealthy Swedenborgian, John Augustus Tulk, who was a patron of Blake and collaborator with the Swedish alchemist and Freemason, Augustus Nordenskjöld, who earlier visited Tulk in London.42

In the months after his initiation, Tilloch published many articles in The Star, which expressed his concern at the on-going persecution of reformers in Scotland and Ireland. On July 29, he reported on plans of the government to repress a scheduled meeting on July 31 of the London Corresponding Society, which included many “irregular” Masons. On August 10, he scorned an anti-Jacobin mob that assaulted a group of dissidents, which was provoked by “spies and informers who exploit the conviviality of a gathering to report unguarded remarks.” On August 28, he condemned those in Ireland who pursued wicked works of dividing the people “under the pretext of religious differences.” On August 29, he reported the disturbances in Scotland, where “the voice of the people” was “decidedly and unanimously against the Scots militia act,” and where some magistrates and politicians took an oath not to enforce the law. In the many reports of arrests and trials for petty crimes and dissidence, The Star in the first half of 1797 painted Britain as a virtual police state.

In October, The Star reacted to the September publication of Professor John Robison’s Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe (London, 1797-98), by providing expansive coverage of Masonic news and publications.43 In his best-selling book, Robison claimed that a vast international network of radical and heretical Freemasons had fomented the French Revolution, but he cleared “regular,” Grand-Lodge approved Masonry in Britain of the charges.44 Despite Robison’s sensationalist narrative, he gave a relatively accurate account of high-degree Écossais Masonry on the Continent, where he had earlier visited lodges on his way to Russia: “I saw it much disturbed by the mystical whims of J. Behmen and Swedenborg—by the fanatical and knavish doctrines of the modern Rosicrucians—by Magicians—Magnetisers—Exorcists, etc.”45 The book went through many new editions, and Tilloch published notices of each one.

For Tilloch and Bacstrom, Robison’s book was a wake-up call, and they went even more underground with their Rosicrucian activities. Though Tilloch continued to publish sympathetic accounts of the Scottish and Irish reformers, he must have worried about Robison’s encouragement of government surveillance over Iluminés, especially those Scots who had connections with frères in Sweden. In mid-January 1798, Robison wrote to Robert Dundas, the loyalist Lord Advocate of Scotland, about the danger of the Scottish-Swedish connection. He described a letter, engraved with Masonic hieroglyphs, sent from “the Grand or Royal Lodge” of Berlin, which practiced the Swedish Rite, to their confrères in Scotland:

It was conceived as particularly addressed to the most advanced order of masonry . . . This is supposed to be what they call the Royal Order of St. Andrew, professing what they call the masonry of Rose Croix. I saw the letter and it was a lodge professing the same masonry. The simplicity of the fraternity in this country has made us indifferent as to all the parties on the continent, but of late we are also seized with the desire of innovation and becoming fond of the high degrees of foreign masonry. But we are quite ignorant of the use made of them abroad. I know that this system was contrived by the Swedes and the Duke of Sourdermaine [sic] had a great hand in it. Under the most inoffensive exterior I know that the cosmopolitan doctrines are most zealously taught, and that the whole of this order is engaged with schemes of illuminatism. I firmly believe that this invitation to a correspondence is with a view to make proselytes.46

In his letter, Robison included a report he received from John Robertson, a Scottish priest, who when in Germany was informed that the Illuminatists maintained a correspondence with Masons in Scotland, who solicit recruits by promising them that giving the Masonic sign will protect them from French soldiers who are also Masons. At their frequent and numerous meetings, “they scruple at nobody, however worthless, which shews no good sign.”47

In further correspondence with government officials, Robison revealed his determination to scotch the Illuminatist snake. In the 4th revised edition of Proofs of a Conspiracy, (1798), he warned that lodges “of this system” are at this moment “endeavouring to unite themselves with the National Lodge of Scotland . . . Their system, as it is offered, will bear a very innocent interpretation. So will the Masonry of the Rose Croix, which is almost the same.”48 On 25 May 1798, The Star published a notice of publication of the 4th edition, while it also continued to cover sympathetically the victims of government surveillance and prosecution (especially the United Irishmen, United Scotsmen, and London Corresponding Society).

The charges made by Robison and Barruel were disturbing for Bacstrom and the Rosicrucian network in London, especially since the accusations worried Rainsford and his Swedenborgian-Masonic friend, Hugh Percy, 2nd Duke of Northumberland. Back in 1786, Bacstrom wrote Banks that he had solicited the support of Northumberland, who “is a lover of Chemical Philosophy,” but the illness of the 1st Duke prevented his heir from dealing with Bacstrom at that time.49 Over the next years, Rainsford worked closely with the 2nd Duke, as he developed his outstanding alchemical library, probably with purchases from Bacstrom.50 On April 30, 1798, the politically-moderate Northumberland earned the ire of The Anti-Jacobin Review for his supposedly Jacobin views. On January 19, 1799, he described his reaction to Barruel in a letter to Rainsford. He promised to return “the Manuscripts and Books” loaned to him by the General, and he defended the basic three degrees of “the old Masonry”:

they are only a Ground Work to all the Wickedness and Blasphemy of the Higher Degrees, and by the time you have arrived at the Head of Degrees, Atheism, Rebellion and every other smaller crime is taught and practiced, but . . . veremos, if you will trust me with your manuscripts of the higher Orders.51

Rainsford must have been relieved when his friend wrote, “I confess I see no grounds for his [Barruel’s] assertions, but apparent Injustice.” Northumberland also hoped that Rainsford would revive his plan for “a secret and friendly Order,” perhaps a reference to the General’s earlier project with Dr. Falk or his present one with Bacstrom.

In the meantime, with suspected Rosicrucians and the radical societies in Lambeth under intensifying political suspicion, Tilloch in June 1798 decided to start a new journal, with a confident cover-page title: The Philosophical Magazine: Comprehending the Various Branches of Science, the Liberal Art and Fine Arts, Agriculture, Manufactures, and Commerce. By Alexander Tilloch, Member of the London Philosophical Society, etc., etc. While the new journal would cautiously avoid politics and focus on purely scientific publications, he provided an opportunity for Bacstrom to publish a non-esoteric, non-political account of his journey to Spitzbergen (Greenland) in 1780. Bacstrom made clear that he was an early and steady reader of the journal. Though he opened with a criticism of those ship captains who were “unsociable” and selfish, often depriving their crews of any comfort and damaging their health, he then produced a rather bland but objective description of the northern voyage.52 Thus, at a time when Rosicrucians were lumped in with seditious radicals, he projected a public image of a sane, common-sensical physician and scientist.

Nevertheless, Tilloch managed to include in the same issue a brief tribute to the ancient alchemists, whose works should be studied by modern chemists. In an article, “On the apparent Conversion of Silver into Gold,” by Professor Hildebrant of Erlangen, a warning was given against ignoring such research:

If the transmutation of metals were therefore possible, the conversion of silver into gold would be very improbable. We must, however consider nothing impossible in nature, the impossibility of which cannot be demonstrated à priori . . . I entertain no dread then of being ridiculed by the prejudiced philosopher, if I call to the attention of chemists a phenomenon in which silver appears to be converted into gold.53

Hildebrant gave a detailed account of the practical process, which was further expanded by A.N. Scherer, who concluded with advice to modern chemists:

Some very important results, in regard to this subject, might be obtained by examining the works of the ancient alchemists, as all their assertions respecting real transmutation might be explained by mere separation, without allowing them so much as some have done.54

Though Bacstrom recruited enough paying students to acquire many rare alchemical manuscripts and texts, by early 1798 the political situation in his Lambeth neighborhood was becoming tumultuous, with gatherings of anti-government dissidents from the United brotherhoods meeting in local taverns. Many protests took place on Kennington Common, near Bacstrom’s residence. What increased his vulnerability was the fact that General Rainsford, his main patron, occasionally reported to the government what he perceived to be seditious activity.55 Moreover, the Swedenborgian Manoah Sibley took down in shorthand the treason trials of various artisans.56 He was the brother of Ebenezer Sibley, an astrologer and Freemason, who was a student of Bacstrom. In The Star, Tilloch reported steadily on these political upheavals. Thus, it is no surprise that by March 31, 1798, Bacstrom had moved to No. 2, Paradise Row, Marylebone. Blake, who had signed Tilloch’s petition on the same day as the Scotsman’s Rosicrucian initiation, soon sensed that he was in real danger while the government instructed Lambeth citizens to spy on their neighbors and turn in suspected “traitors.”57 After Blake left Lambeth in September 1800, he wrote: “Rending the manacles of Londons Dungeon Dark/ I have rent the black net & escaped.”58

With Robison’s charges against “irregular” Freemasons (including Rosicrucians and Swedenborgians) circulating widely, Bacstrom evidently sensed that he needed to distance his secret order from the high-degree systems of the fraternity. In a treatise on the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, he wrote:

The word Free Mason is derived from the Hebrew [Hebrew letters] phri, and [Hebrew letters], and indicates /: says our great Welling :/ that their Society originated from a motive to hide or protect themselves against the persecution of gold greedy acquaintances who suspected that some them (the Rose Crucians) knew the use of Chiram or the universal fire of nature.

The Rose Crucians separated themselves about that time from the Free Masons, and left them nothing but the shadow of their primitive valuable knowledge.

They are in no danger in our days of being persecuted for the knowledge of their ancestors, having totally lost it.59

Though the Rosicucians “in our days” were in no danger because of their alchemical knowledge, they certainly were if they had any connections with “irregular,” high-degree Masonry. On April 2, 1799, The Star published a critical article about the Report from the Secret Committee, which accused members of societies which support “Plots and Meetings of Traitors.” Thus, all societies should be banned where “oaths or obligations of secrecy are imposed.” Given the Rosicrucian vow of secrecy undertaken by Bacstrom and Tilloch, this was rather threatening. In The Star (April 6), it was probably Tilloch who wrote on the effort of the Lord Advocate of Scotland to make “firmer laws on suspected or seditious persons,” because “there has gone abroad among the deluded persons who were disaffected from the government . . . a system of secrecy, where persons bound themselves by the solemnity of an oath,” and therefore “pre-trial detention” has been imposed in Scotland.

To counter this repressive measure, which targeted “irregular” Masons, The Star (April 1799) reported positively on a Concert for the Freemasons’ Charity, “under the auspices of the Prince of Wales,” where “the Hall was very full of fashionable company.” The Prince, a dissident Whig who despised his father, George III, was the titular Grand Master of Grand Lodge Masonry, with the Anglo-Irish 2nd Earl of Moira, as acting Grand Master. In many articles in The Star throughout 1797, Tilloch had expressed his admiration of Moira for his protests about England’s repressive policies in Ireland, but Moira subsequently rejected the efforts of the United Irishmen and nationalist Masons and colluded with the government loyalists.60

By 1801, after the passage of the Secret Societies act, which banned “irregular” Freemasonry but not “regular” lodges affiliated with the Grand Lodge, Tilloch and Bacstrom distanced themselves from Masonry and became even more secretive about their Rosicrucian work. In June, Tilloch wrote and published in The Philosophical Magazine a positive account of Professor Robison, whose lectures he had attended in Glasgow in 1780-81. He greatly admired Robison’s scientific learning and character, but he presented a rather nuanced account of his relationship with Freemasonry: “He had become in Scotland a Freemason; and his connexion with that fraternity introduced him, with advantage, to many respectable persons who were enthusiasts for freemasonry in Russia.” He later became concerned about developments within international Masonry:

Having been led to think that the combination of the FREEMASONS might, in this revolutionary age, be abused to dangerous purposes, he broke off, some years since, his connexion with that fraternity: and wrote an eloquent book to explain the ground of his fears, and the reasons of his secession. We presume not judge between him and his opponents in this matter: but it will be fortunate if the Freemasons shall, with one accord, conspire to prove that he has misrepresented them, by the loyalty and peaceable patriotic rectitude of their conduct, in every part of the world.61

Tilloch’s article provoked an angry protest from George Gleig, a Scottish acquaintance from an old Jacobite family, who had become an arch-conservative opponent of Jacobinism and high-degree Masonry.62 Gleig contributed his criticism to The Anti-Jacobin Review, and then sent it on to Tilloch, who graciously re-published it in The Philosophical Magazine in 1802. Tilloch’s courtesy was to a fellow countryman, despite their current political differences: “We are happy to lay before our readers a more correct life, written by a gentleman of distinguished literary abilities, and, who from his intimacy with the professor, must be perfectly acquainted with the subject.”63

After giving a detailed positive account of Robison’s scientific career, Gleig announced that “it would be unpardonable to conclude it without noticing his connection with the Free-masons, and his attack on their higher mysteries”: “As I was privy to the composition of his Proofs of a Conspiracy, etc., I have his own authority to say that he never was in a mason lodge in Great Brittain.”64 He then contradicted himself by revealing that a youthful Robison was tricked into joining a lodge “in a frolic,” in which his friends, after “some mummeries,” exacted his oath of secrecy. “The whole appeared so silly that he believed that they were playing a trick on him.” It was only during his travels on the Continent that he again joined many lodges. In the wake of the government crackdown on “irregular” Masons and oath-bound societies, Gleig distanced Robison from their heretical and seditious views:

I never heard him once insinuate that there is anything immoral in the simple system of British masonry; and he certainly has not accused that system of immorality in his book. Yet I have heard British masons apply to themselves all that he hath said of the French degrees, and even proof of the order of the Illuminati, and represent his Proofs of a Conspiracy as a collection of calumnies . . . he considers their mysteries as extremely frivolous, though not criminal.65

Gleig’s comments reflect the views of the Anti-Jacobin Review, which after years of attacking the Freemasons had to admit that the “regular,” Grand Lodge system was not a threat.66

From this point on, there are no references to Freemasonry by Tilloch or Bacstrom, while they secretly carried on and even expanded their secret Rosicrucian activities. In the early 1800s, Bacstrom almost disappeared from public view, but he recruited enough students to continue his collection and transcriptions of rare alchemical works and to provide Rosicrucian instruction and practical experimentation to his (oath-bound?) initiates.67 In 1804, he proudly wrote to Tilloch details of his relationship with his Rosicrucian master, the Comte de Chazal. And in one of his last writings in 1808, he vehemently defended alchemy from a critic, who warned in January that the current revival of alchemy will lead to many calamities:

He is an ignorant fool who obstinately strives and barks against thousands of facts and respectable witnesses, such as the Bible . . . Virgil, Ovid, Homer . . . Hermes . . . Flamel . . . Lullius . . . the Emperors Rudolphus and Ferdinandus, all of them possessors of the blessed Stone and Elixir of the Philosophers.

In spite of Hell and all the Devils in it and all the Barkers and Deriders, the Truth of the Blessed Stone of the earliest antiquity will stand firm like a Rock, as long as the Earth will endure, until its Consummation by Fire.68

Like Bacstrom, his loyal Rosicrucian brother Tilloch became more apocalyptic. Though the Scotsman, now a Sandemanian preacher, continued to publish his scientific journals, he turned increasingly to Hebrew and Greek studies and his erudite but eccentric interpretations of the Book of Revelations, which he published serially in The Star in 1808-09.69 In their initiation vows in 1794 and 1797, they had predicted that God “will bring about the events foretold in the Revelations of St. John, which are fast accomplishing.”70 Now, in 1808, they expressed an even stronger belief in that prophecy, which allowed them to emerge from the twilight zone between contemporary, real-world Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry into--what became for them--the clear light of an other-world, intense religious faith.

  1. Adam McLean, “Bacstrom’s Rosicrucian Society,” Hermetic Journal, 6 (1979), on-line p. 3. Statements on the initiation certificate, which is given in full.↩︎

  2. Ibid., 5-6.↩︎

  3. The death date of 1805 which is usually given is inaccurate; Bacstrom’s manuscripts include dates through November 1808.↩︎

  4. For Banks’s Masonic career, see Nigel Wade, “Sir Joseph Banks, the Botanical Freemason,” The Square (March 2022). He maintained his affiliation from 1768 to 1820.↩︎

  5. Douglas Cole, “Sigismund Bacstrom’s Northwest Coast Drawings and an Account of his Curious Career,” BC Studies Journal (Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, Summer 1980)..↩︎

  6. For his overtures to the Swedenborgians, see Marsha Keith Schuchard, “William Blake and the Promiscuous Baboons: A Cagliostroan Séance Gone Awry,” British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 18 (1993), 185-200.↩︎

  7. Kew, Royal Botanical Gardens: Banks Collection, vol 1, p. 240. Further cited as Kew.↩︎

  8. Jacques Grot, ed., Lettres de Grimm à l’Imperatrice Catherine II, 2nd rev. ed. (St. Petersburg, 1884), vol. 44, pp. 212-13. My translation.↩︎

  9. London, Wellcome Institute: Lalande Collection, MS. 1048. My translation.↩︎

  10. Joseph Banks, The Banks Letters, ed. W.R. Dawson (London: British Museum, 1958), 163.↩︎

  11. Gordon P. Hills, “Notes on the Rainsford Papers in the British Museum.” Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, 26 (1913), 105.↩︎

  12. Alain Bihan, “La Franc-Maçonnerie dans les Colonies Française du XVIII Siècle” Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française (1974), vol. 215: 39-62.↩︎

  13. Christophe Chabbert, “L’énigmatique François de Chazal de la Genesté,” Chroniques d’Histoire Maçonnique, 73 (2014), 73-85 I quote from the on-line text. <https:/www.cairn.info/revue-chroniques-d-histoire-maçonnique-2014-1-page-73.html>. For an informative but skeptical account of Chazal’s alleged Rosicrucianism, see R.L. Jamet, “François de Chazal de la Genesté and the Rosicrucians, Truth or Myth?” on the Chazal Family Website (May 2019), pp. 1-45. <https:/chazfest.com/portolio-itmes/robert-jamet-françois-de-chazal-de-la-geneste/>.↩︎

  14. J.W. Hamilton-Jones, ed., Bacstrom’s Alchemical Anthology (London: J.M. Watkins, 1960), 14.↩︎

  15. Mclean, “Bacstrom’s Rosicrucian Society,” 2.↩︎

  16. Christophe Chabbert, Correspondance de la Famille de Chazal, 1767-1879 (Paris: Harmattan, 2014), 107.↩︎

  17. Bajou, in Introduction to Chabbert, “L’Énigmatique François,” 1-2.↩︎

  18. William Wynn Westcott, The Rosicrucians: Past and Present, at Home and Abroad. An Address to the Soc. Rosic. In Anglia (1915), 3. See also, Charles A. Nussbaum, “Rev. Mr. Nussbaum’s Trip to the Indian Ocean,” New Church Life (Sept. 1915), 617.↩︎

  19. Sandra Danielle Brinda Venkaya-Reichert, „La Franc-maçonnerie à l’Ile Maurice de 1778 à 1915.“ (Thèse de Doctorate en Etudes Anglophone: Bordeaux III, Université Michel de Montaigne, 2017), 20, 69, 413.↩︎

  20. Chabbert, Correspondance, 74, 99-100.↩︎

  21. Waite, Real History, 410-11.↩︎

  22. McLean, “Bacstrom’s Rosicrucian Society,” 3. He comments that Freemasonry “was (and still is) strongly patriarchal and would not allow women as members.” This was true for “regular,” Grand Lodge Masonry in Britain.↩︎

  23. In an inventory of the papers of Lambert de Lintot, head of the Rite of Seven Degrees in London, one finds “Ladys Masonry with the drawing of the Lodges in Three Sections”; see Matthew Cooke, “Masonic Notes and Queries,” Freemason’s Magazine and Masonic Mirror (June 8, 1861), 449.↩︎

  24. [Benedict Chastanier], Journal Novi-Jerusalemite (1787): 149, 165-66, 171; (1788):105-06.↩︎

  25. Kew, Banks Collection: MS. vol. I, ff. 152-53. Bacstrom collected manuscripts on “the Qabbalah”; see Manly P. Hall, An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Cabbalistic, and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy, 12th ed. (Los Angeles: Philosophical Research Society, 1959), CCVI.↩︎

  26. Adam McLean, “General Rainsford: An Alchemical and Rosicrucian Enthusiast,” Hermetic Journal, (1990), 129-34.↩︎

  27. Gordon P. Hills, “Notes on General Charles Rainsford (1728-1809) and his Rosicrucian Studies,” SRIA (1922), 10-11.↩︎

  28. Kew, Banks Collection: MS. 1, ff. 152-53↩︎

  29. John Hawkins and J.W. Sleigh Godding, Westminster and Keystone Lodge No. 10: The History of a London Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons (Devon: Short Run Press, 2021), 39-40. I am grateful to Professor Hawkins for sending me this information.↩︎

  30. I am grateful to Michael Phillips for estimating the distance between the residences of Bacstrom and Blake in Lambeth.↩︎

  31. Keri Davies, “William Blake in Contexts: Family, Friendships, and Some Intellectual Microcultures of Eighteen- and Nineteenth-Century England” (Phd. Dissertation: University of Sussex, 2003), 146-48. Chapter Four, “Alexander Tilloch: the Context of Printing Technology,” has important information on Tilloch.↩︎

  32. Ibid., 154-57.↩︎

  33. G.E. Bentley, Blake Records, 2nd. rev. ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 78↩︎

  34. H.R. Tedder, “Robert Foulis,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).↩︎

  35. “Memoir of Alexander Tilloch,” Imperial Magazine, 7 (March 1825), 211.↩︎

  36. Kew: Banks Collection, MS. Vol. 1, ff. 152-53. For the Swedish Swedenborgians and alchemists, see Marsha Keith Schuchard, “The Secret Masonic History of William Blake’s Swedenborg Society,” Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly, 26 (1992), 40-51.↩︎

  37. Alexander Tilloch, The Star (26 December 1793).↩︎

  38. Ibid., (30 July 1793).↩︎

  39. Michael Phillips, “Blake and the Terror, 1792-93,” The Library, 6th series (1994), 263-97.↩︎

  40. Michale Phillips, “William Blake in Lambeth,” History Today, 50 (November 2000), 18-25.↩︎

  41. Yale University, Mellon Collection on Alchemy and Occult: MS. 134. “Dr. S. Bacstrom, compiler, Alchemical Miscellany (1796), ff. 745-54. Bacstrom recorded “a Thought of Mr. Tilloch, when I read a passage to him in Ali Puli.”↩︎

  42. See Marsha Keith Schuchard, “The Peculiar Alchemical Research of John Flaxman, John Tulk, and Fabian Ekenstam (1776-1818), Heredom: Transactions of the Scottish Rite Research Society, 29 (2021), 96-132.↩︎

  43. The Star . See issues for 15, 19, 31 (October 1797).↩︎

  44. Robison’s publication coincided with that of the Abbé Augustin de Barruel, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, trans. Robert Clifford (London: T. Burton, 1797-98), which made even more sensationalist charges against French and Illuminatist Freemasonry. The two authors were then intrinsically linked by critics and supporters.↩︎

  45. John Robison, Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, 4th rev. ed. (London: Cadell and Davis, 1798), 6.↩︎

  46. Historical Manuscripts Commission: Report on the Laing Manuscripts Preserved in the University of Edinburgh (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1925), II, 641. Conservative authors often inaccurately conflated Illuminés, initiates of the high degrees which included Hermetic and Kabbalistic symbolism, with Illuminati, politically active advocates of radical, secular, anti-clerical Masonry.↩︎

  47. Ibid., II, 642-43.↩︎

  48. Robison, Proofs, 581-82.↩︎

  49. Kew, Banks Collection: MS. Vol. 1, f. 223 (Bacstrom to Banks, 28 June 1786).↩︎

  50. Rainsford (d. 1809) left his great collection of alchemical and occult manuscripts to Northumberland, which in 2015 were transferred from Alnwick Castle to Pennsylvania University. See Mitch Fraas, “An Occult and Alchemical Library,” <https:/uniqueat penn.wordpress.com/2015/01/28-an occult-and-alchemical-library>.↩︎

  51. British Library: Rainsford Papers, Add. MS. 23,668. For the context, see M.K. Schuchard, A Concatenation of Conspiracies: “Irish” William Blake and Illuminist Freemasonry in 1798 (Washington, DC: Plumbstone Academic, 2021), 62-66.↩︎

  52. Sigismund Bacstrom, M.D., “Account of a Voyage to Spitzbergen in the Year 1789 . . . Communicated by the Author,” The Philosophical Magazine, 4 (August 1799), 139-54.↩︎

  53. Ibid., 18.↩︎

  54. Ibid., 23.↩︎

  55. For the voluminous spy reports, see Mary Thale, ed., Selections from the Papers of the London Corresponding Society, 1792-1799 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 44, 252, 305, 419, 426-27.↩︎

  56. Ibid., 231 n.90.↩︎

  57. Phillips, “William Blake,” 24-25.↩︎

  58. Robert Essick and Morton Paley, “Dear Generous Cumberland: A Newly Discovered Letter and Poem by William Blake,” Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly (Summer, 1998), 4-5.↩︎

  59. Los Angeles, Philosophical Research Society: Bacstrom MSS, vol. XVIII: “The Emerald Table [Tabula Smaragdine] Translated from the Chaldee with Remarks.”↩︎

  60. Schuchard, Concatenation of Conspiracies, 55-56.↩︎

  61. [Alexander Tilloch], “Memoirs of the Life of John Robison, LL.D. Professor of Natural Philosophy in the University of Edinburg, etc.”, The Philosophical Magazine, X (June 1800), 351, 353.↩︎

  62. On Gleig, see Emil Lorraine de Montluzin, The Anti-Jacobins, 1798-1800: The Early Contributors to the Anti-Jacobin Review (London: Macmillan, 1988), 97-99.↩︎

  63. [Alexander Tilloch], “Biographical Memoirs of Dr. Robison, of Edinburgh,” The Philosophical Magazine, XIII (1802), 386.↩︎

  64. Ibid., 393.↩︎

  65. Ibid., 394.↩︎

  66. The Anti-Jacobin Review, 4 (December 1799), 316-23.↩︎

  67. Many of the voluminous Bacstrom manuscripts were acquired by the Philosophic Research Society in Los Angeles (now at the Getty Museum), dated through November 1808.↩︎

  68. London, Wellcome Institute: Sigismund Bacstrom. Transcripts on Alchemy. MS. 1031, part 2.↩︎

  69. Publicus, [Alexander Tilloch], Dissertations on the Opening of the Sealed Book; Illustrating the Prophetic Signs used in Daniel and the Revelation. Printed from a Transcript of the Papers Signed BIBLICUS, published in the London Star (Montreal: J.C. Beckett,1848). He considered his masterwork to be Dissertations Introductory to the Study and Right Understanding of the Language, Structure, and Contents of the Apocalypse (London: Printed for the Author, 1823). Tilloch found the Sandemanian church attractive because of its Scottish origins, egalitarianism, and non-materialism.↩︎

  70. McLean, “Bacstrom’s Rosicrucian Society,” 5.↩︎