THE WILLIAM MORGAN MYSTERY
Wayne D. Anderson
Mystery, mayhem and murder (or at least suspected murder); these are the ingredients of one of the most dramatic periods of Masonic History. The events took place in the United States in the early nineteenth century and as a result Freemasonry reached its lowest point in that country and remained in a wretchedly weakened state for many a long year. It is a strange story and centered around the disappearance of William Morgan, a resident of Batavia, New York. It caused great antagonism against Freemasonry because it was assumed that the Freemasons were to blame not only for his disappearance but that they had murdered him, although no proof of this was ever forthcoming.
For about a hundred and sixty years the Masonic world has wondered where and when William Morgan of anti-Masonic notoriety, was made a Mason, if at all. The records of scores of lodges in Canada and the United States have been searched without results, and still the question has not been answered to everyone's satisfaction.
The facts relating to his whole life are a mystery, his age, his place of birth, his service in the War of 1812, his later wanderings, his supposed Masonic membership and his part in his own disappearance.
Such was the climate of opinion against Freemasonry that a political party was able to establish itself and even presented a candidate for the Presidency of the United States, all on an anti-Masonic platform.
The political leader in Pennsylvania was Thaddeus Stevens of Gettysburg who made a speech denouncing the Masonic Grand Lodge. The anti-Masons were the very first American party to hold a Presidential nominating convention; that was in Baltimore in 1831. Strangely enough their candidate, William Wirt, was a Mason. In 1832 William Wirt and his anti-Masonic program were victorious in Vermont though eventually his candidate for President failed. To explore this story and the strange events that followed we should go back to the year 1811.
It was in 1811 that David Cade Miller established a weekly publication, The Republican Advocate, in Batavia, New York. In 1826 an announcement appeared in the paper which read "There will be issued from the press in this place, in a short time, a work of rare interest to the uninitiated, being an exposition of Ancient Craft Masonry, by one who has been a member of the Institution for years." The announcement created a sensation in Batavia. David C. Miller announced editorially that he had been threatened with physical violence if he did not suppress the intended exposure. Indeed a crowd gather on September 8th and attempted to set fire to his office but this was frustrated. However, a second attempt forty-eight hours later did set the offices ablaze. The fire was quickly extinguished but the perpetrators were never discovered despite a substantial reward being offered by leading citizens of the community. the work finally appeared in November 1826.
The book was supposedly written by William Morgan who had deposited with the clerk of the Northern District of New York the title Illustrations of Freemasonry by One of the Fraternity. It is possible that the book was actually written by David C. Miller from the information supplied by Morgan, but the registration of the book was in Morgan's name.
Most historians who have discussed the Morgan Episode have fallen into the error of accrediting Morgan with writing the so-called Illustrations. None of them seem to realize that this would be an unusual achievement requiring much training and application. This job of writing out all of the ritualistic work for the Three Degrees was no mean literary task, and, considering the era, an unusual amount of skill, a skill William Morgan did not possess.
William Morgan was an occasional visitor to Lodges yet he, supposedly, produced a literary work with every period, comma and exclamation point repeated perfectly. Edgar Allen Poe produced his best work when drunk; Poe was a literary genius, Morgan was not. He was a stone cutter but lacked ordinary education. It is felt that he obtained a copy of Sam Pritchard's exposure called JACHIN and BOAZ published by Goodall in England.
Who was William Morgan? An examination of numerous histories reveal the fact that there are two stories about Morgan's origin and early life. Frederick Writtlesey, as Chairman of the Committee on the abduction and murder of William Morgan at the U.S. anti-Masonic Convention, Philadelphia, September 11, 1830, said that Morgan was born on August 7, 1774, in Culpepper County, Virginia. This is the earliest definite statement on the subject. This statement was apparently based on one made by E.S. Ferguson of Ohio, said to have been a grand nephew of Morgan, to Robert Morris, the Masonic writer, about 75 years after the event. He may have merely repeated what he had heard and not spoken from knowledge of original sources.
Exhaustive search has also been made in official Virginia State records for corroboration as to his age at the time of marriage — the Clerk's office of the Hustings Court, Richmond; the State Bureau of Vital Statistics, the two oldest Methodist Churches in Richmond, and the records of Culpepper and Wythevill Counties — but the records of the Morgan's birth or marriage cannot be found. In 1819, when Morgan was supposed to have married, Virginia people were not required by law to register their marriages and were often careless about it. It has been ascertained that he did marry one Lucindia Pendleton, daughter of Rev. Joseph Pendleton, a Methodist Minister. No record of their marriage has been found, and the question still remains as to Morgan's age and place of birth.
Long after the anti-Masonic excitement had died away, Rob Morris, a Masonic writer, wrote in his book William Morgan, or Political anti-Masonry, published by Robert Macoy in 1883, now long since out of print. After three pages on the question of Morgan's character, Morris says: "Upon the whole I incline to the belief that Morgan was not a Virginian, or even American by birth, but rather English, and this was the belief of Whitney, Cheseboro, Folloett, Ebeneze Mix and others who knew him personally."
Those who remembered him stated that he was 5 ft. 6 in. tall, squarely built and with a dark complexion. It is said that his general manner did not inspire confidence. In 1819 he married Lucinda Pendelton (Later in life she was married to Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons, who strangely enough also met a violent death.)
According to his wife she and Morgan settled in Batavia, New York in 1823. As to his character, this is more difficult to establish as there are conflicting opinions expressed in the various accounts that have been written about him. Naturally in the light of ensuing events a great deal of prejudice existed and it is difficult to arrive at a true image. Those who have written about him have had their point of view coloured by consideration of whether they were for or against Freemasonry.
Samuel Greene, who was an anti-Masonic writer, says that William Morgan was his neighbour and he knew him well. He describes Morgan as being of fine appearance and having remarkable conversational powers. He was an ex-soldier having served under General Jackson at New Orleans and he had risen to the rank of Captain. This opinion conflicts with that expressed by J. Ross Robertson, who was Past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Canada, who says that Morgan's name has never been found on any army roll.
Greene continues that Morgan was a convivial man and at times would drink freely. "I, myself, have seen him," says Green, "when he has drunk more than was good for him but he was not what is known as a drunkard."
Rob Morris said that he interviewed more than a hundred people in 1846 to ascertain the truth and spoke to friend and foe of Freemasonry alike. He denies that Morgan was a man of good character and says that men who knew him stated that during his stay in Batavia no respectable person kept company with him or his wife. Thus we are left with these conflicting opinions.
It is strange that no record has ever been found to indicate where Morgan was initiated into Freemasonry. through the influence of a former employer, a Mr. Warren of Rochester, New York, he visited Wells Lodge No. 282, Batavia, and at that time he stated that he had been made a Mason while living in Canada. It would seem as if they could not have examined him very thoroughly.
Possibly the Batavia Masons were not altogether blameworthy for their apparent carelessness, for in that day it was not necessary for one to present membership credentials. There were no cards of identification required showing that the visitor was in good standing in some other Lodge. All that was necessary for a visitor to gain admission to a strange Lodge was to prove by examination that he was a "Bright Mason". This Morgan had done to the satisfaction of the examining committee and although members of the Lodge were deeply mortified by Morgan's presence in their community and in their Lodge room, they were compelled, after a fashion, to accept him.
About sixty years ago some evidence was discovered in the archives of the Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia which would shed new light on this mystery. These archives contain thousands of documents, charters, minute books, returns, correspondence and certificates; the records of the history of scores of lodges warranted in the Maritime Provinces and outside its borders, during the period 1750 to 1866, when the Present Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia was formed.
Among the lodges established by the Provincial Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia was one known as Eastern Star Lodge No. 37 warranted August 29, 1814, at St. Andrews, New Brunswick.
In the records of Eastern Star Lodge No. 37, we find the record of initiation in 1815 of a William Morgan, described as a "branch pilot", meaning a district or local area pilot, initiated October 23, 1815, passed on the same date (not an unusual occurrence) and raised November —, 1815. Could this be the notorious William Morgan whose disclosure of the Masonic ritual precipitated disastrous anti-Masonic agitation which all but wrecked the Order in Canada and the United States?
In the records of the War of 1812-15, in the public Archives at Ottawa there was found a list of 13 seamen engaged at the Quartermaster General's Office, Quebec, for Service on the Lakes in Canada. Between 6th and 8th December 1813, the record states that William Morgan, born Melford, Suffolk was 32 years of age and able bodied.
According to the Ottawa Archives, Morgan later became sick and was optioned out of service at Kingston, Ontario. Then he may have drifted to St. Andrews, N.B., where he was licensed as a Branch Pilot. He was initiated on October 23, 1815. His name, however, disappears from the returns to Grand Lodge for 1816, and it would seem probable that he had left St. Andrews as there is no report of his suspension or expulsion from the Lodge.
This data helps Morgan's own claim to have served in the War of 1812, to have some claim to the title of Captain, not in the army, as has been supposed by most writers, but as a courtesy title sometimes given pilots; and to the statement of contemporaries that he had been made a Mason "In Canada or some foreign country".
As to William Morgan's trade or occupation, it is claimed that he served as an apprentice in stone-cutting in Hap Hazard Mills, Madison County, Virginia, later as a Clerk in the Orange County Court House, then he moved to Richmond, Virginia about 1796. there is a 24 year gap and Morgan claims that he had served in the War of 1812-15 as "a private soldier", and again as a "Captain in a militia regiment and that he was present at the Battle of New Orleans." None of these statements are supported by records of any kind, including the records of the United States War Department. If he served it was not on the side of the U.S.A.
Morgan and his young bride made their way to New York and sojourned there and in 1821 made their way north to York in Upper Canada and secured employment on the Humberstone farm on Young Street, what is today downtown Toronto, it is reported that he had the sum of $3,000.00 and with this money he set up a Brewery in Richmond Hill. Morgan continued to drink and spent all that he made from the brewery, then disaster struck, the brewery burnt to the ground and the Morgan's were left destitute. To save himself from debtor's prison he disposed of their personal belongings, and without funds and credit Morgan moved to Rochester, New York.
Morgan's name cannot be found in the records of any Lodge in York, either as a visitor or member, between 1817 and 1822. He was not known as a Mason when he lived in York where in early days the farmers of that area were nearly all Masons.
It seems fairly well established that about 1822 or 1823 Morgan left York and went to Rochester, New York, where he found employment as a Stone Mason. There he met one David C. Miller, a printer from Batavia, New York, in a tap room. In a drunken stupor Morgan confided to Miller that he was a Master Mason; Miller replied that he had been initiated in a Lodge at Albany, but had gone no further, and had been rejected by the Lodge at Batavia. No record has ever been found of his initiation.
Morgan's own statement in his alleged application for a copyright of his book on August 14, 1826 (a month before his disappearance) that he had "devoted thirty years to the subject" bears on its face the marks of a prevaricator. This takes us back to 1796, when he was an itinerant stone mason in Lexington, Kentucky, and a man who in 1823 had been unable to gain admission to a Craft Lodge.
Morgan and Miller became close companions and the entire Morgan family moved to Batavia where Morgan again plied his trade of stone cutter, but his small earnings all went for whisky and rum. He attend Olive Branch Lodge No. 39 at LeRoy, six miles from Batavia, sponsored by his employer. He received his Royal Arch Degrees at Western Star Royal Arch Chapter. When a Royal Arch Chapter was to be established at Batavia his name was omitted from the petition to form a Chapter, because of his habit of drinking and talking about Freemasonry in the village tap room.
This infuriated Morgan and he and Miller (also denied advancement in Freemasonry) conspired "to get even with those damned Masons" by compiling an exposition of the Masonic ritual and printing it. The first indication that a revelation on Freemasonry was going to appear was in The Republican Advocate of 1826. But Miller still lacked the final pages of the book. The Masons of the town sent John Whitney, Master of a Lodge at Rochester, to interview Morgan where Morgan confessed his duplicity, as well as his poverty, and his desire to get away from Miller. It is said that he denied that he had ever been a Mason, a statement which is not surprising in the face of the jeopardy he was in at that moment. On Monday, 11th September 1826, Morgan was arrested by the constable of Candaigua, New York. He was charged with the theft of a shirt and a cravat taken some five months earlier. He was taken to Candaigua, which was some forty miles away, but after examination he was released and acquitted of the charge of petty larceny. He as then immediately re-arrested upon the execution of a debt of two dollars and sixty-five cents, and jailed for want of security. On 12th September someone paid his debt and he was released in the evening and departed in a carriage with a party of people. He was later traced to Fort Niagara but there all traces of him end. Many and varied are the stories that abound about where he had gone but amongst all these stories it was asserted that he had been thrown into the Niagara and drowned.
A meeting was held in Batavia on 25th September 1826 to determine what had become of Morgan and a further meeting was held on 4th October. Feelings were rising and accusations were made that the Freemasons had abducted and murdered Morgan and the officers of the law were urged to use all efforts to apprehend the offenders and to prevent further outrages. Rewards of up to a thousand dollars were offered and a free pardon was also offered if someone would come forward, even an accomplice or co-operator, so that a full discovery could be made of the offenders.
It is difficult to sift through the various stories that claim to be the true facts of the matter. The story of Morgan's arrest and subsequent release from prison and his journey to Niagara seem to be fair and accurate but what has not been said is that Morgan seems to have been a willing party to all of this. Apparently some Masonic brethren had persuaded Morgan to allow himself to be separated from David C. Miller so that the publication would not occur. He was supposed to have given a pledge to go to Canada and never to return. There his wife was to be reunited with him and in recognition of this he was to receive five hundred dollars to establish himself. One of the drivers of the coach confirmed that Morgan went of his own free will and accord and was looking forward to starting life anew amongst old friends in Canada.
It was discovered that the deportation was conducted by John Whitney, Nicholas Cheseboro, Edward Sawyer, Loton Lawson and John Sheldon. Excepting for Whitney they were tried in January 1827 for conspiracy to seize and to carry William Morgan from jail to foreign parts and there to secrete and imprison him. They pleaded "guilty". Chesboro said in mitigation that he was anxious to get Morgan away from Miller and thus avoid the degradation that would be brought upon the Masonic Institution. Cheseboro was sentenced to one year's imprisonment which he served. Sawyer's sentence was one month; Lawson received two years and Sheldon three months. Many others were indicted and fined for participation in the abduction including Eli Bruce, Sheriff of Niagara County, New York. He was an ardent Mason. He admitted taking Morgan to Canada but said that when they got there they found that the Canadian Brethren who were to receive and escort him further were not ready so they returned with Morgan to Fort Niagara and housed him in the Magazine, which was made comfortable for him. He said that Morgan was a willing party to this. After he left Morgan at Fort Niagara he said he never saw him again nor did he know what happened to him. Bruce was charged with abduction and received a sentence of 28 months and was stripped of his office of sheriff.
There remains one further shadowy figure in this drama. Where he first enters on to the scene is difficult to define but when Morgan was housed in the Magazine the only person who ever had communication with him was a certain Col. King. If Morgan was put to death then it seems that either Col. King, Whitney or Chubbuck, or perhaps all three, were the ones who would have had knowledge of what occurred, for it is alleged that they afterwards carried with some difficulty a "parcel" weighted by chains to a boat and deposited it in the river.
Many years later Thurlow Weed, the journalist and politician who became leader of the anti-Masonic party in 1828, wrote a letter and in this he spoke of a meeting he had in his house in 1831 where John Whitney was present and, according to the letter, Whitney confessed to the happenings of that fateful night when, at the suggestion of Col. King, he (John Whitney) and Samuel Chubbuck drove down to the Fort, went to the Magazine, told Morgan that they had completed the arrangements for settling him in Canada, took him in a boat and threw him overboard in the centre of the river just as it empties into the lake. When Whitney had finished Col. King, who was present, said, "Weed can hang now." Whitney replied, "I know, but, he won't." It was agreed that the confession should be reserved for history.
Meantime, great anti-Masonic feeling had been aroused and a convention was held in Seneca, New York, which was speedily followed by others in the State. Churches participated in the general feeling against the fraternity by disbarring Masons from their pulpits and branding and condemning the irreligious tendencies of the Institution. A convention of Baptist Churches was held on 12th September 1827 at Milton, New York, and denounced and opposed Freemasonry.
On 7th October the body of a drowned man was found on the beach at Oak Orchard Harbour, New York, about 40 miles from Niagara and caused new excitement, and was the basis on which the new political party was founded. The published inquest of the coroner's jury giving a verdict of accidental death brought a party of Batavians on the scene. The body was disinterred and a second inquest was held on 15th October 1827. Mrs. Lucinda Morgan was called and expressed the opinion that the corpse was her husband.
Now a further incident arose which added to the mystery and confusion. On 24th September 1827 Timothy Munroe from the Canadian district of Newcastle had left for the American side by rowing-boat and upon his return trip the boat capsized and he was drowned. Publicity relative to the discovery of the body at Oak Orchard Harbour brought Mrs. Munroe to the scene of the original inquest. Her story and detailed description of the body and clothing of the corpse made a third inquest necessary. On 29th October 1827 a coroner's jury brought in a verdict that "the body is that of Timothy Munroe who was drowned in the Niagara river on 26th September 1827."
Despite this, the campaign against Freemasons continued. Teachers and clerics lost their positions and children of Freemasons were excluded from schools and their fathers from church congregations. Many lodges closed down of their own accord and the Grand Lodge of New York which in 1827 consisted of 227 lodges could count only 41 in 1835.
From Maine to Illinois and from Upper Canada to Louisiana, the anti-Masonic fever raged. Hundreds of Lodges became dormant, others ceased work altogether. In New York State the membership decreased from 20,000 in 1826 to 3,000 in 1836. In Vermont, not a single Lodge was left on the roll, and the Grand Lodge suspended activity until 1845. In New Jersey all but six Lodges gave up the ghost. The Grand Lodge of Maine did not meet for several years.
In Canada, Lodges everywhere were affected, in both Upper and Lower Canada. In Nova Scotia and New Brunswick only four or five Lodges kept the Light burning. The total membership of St. Andrews Lodge, Halifax, dwindled to eleven, and that was as much as the other two lodges had together outside of the Digby Lodge. Freemasonry was all but dead everywhere in what we now call Canada.
The Anti-Masonic movement did permanent damage to the Craft, particularly in the United States, and resulted in many books being published attacking the Order. The Lutheran Church Synod excommunicated Masonic members who refused to foreswear Freemasonry (they still publish anti-Masonic books today). In 1882 a huge monument was erected in Batavia on which the inscription appears that "Morgan was murdered by the Masons". (Still stands today and is known as the Marble Lie). This was erected by the National Christian Association.
Freemasonry suffered bitterly from the actions of a few misguided people. However, reason and common sense together with second thoughts gradually gained the upper hand and people came to understand that the campaign against Freemasonry concealed a political objective.
At the election it was President Jackson, a great advocate of Freemasonry, who received 219 electoral votes and triumphed over Wirt, the anti-Masonic candidate, who received only 7 and those seven were all cast by Vermont, the only State in the Union giving the anti-Masonic party any votes. It is interesting to note that during the campaign when President Jackson was taxed with being a Freemason, not only did he not attempt to deny it but wrote, "Freemasonry is an institution whose object is the welfare of mankind and I am convinced that it will flourish in the future."
Three million members of the Masonic Fraternity will swear upon their oaths and their honour that there has been no change in Masonic principles since the time of Morgan and that now as at that time their first concern for an erring brother is to see to it that first of all his family is taken care of; secondly that the error of his ways be pointed out to him, and thirdly, an honest effort made to bring about his reform. This was all the Masons did and exactly what we would do today.
Eventually Freemasonry emerged from this fiery persecution stronger and sounder than it was before. Men of high standing who could never be accused of murder or treason identified themselves with the Order. The public saw through the hollow sham of self-seeking politicians and put their trust in the honest men of unflinching fidelity, who could not be bought or sold.
The Monument that stands in Batavia is an ever-present reminder that while it was in Western New York that Masonry was crucified and almost died, it was in the same district where the resurrection took place. A proclamation to the World that no matter how you may attack the truth, no matter how it may be abused, no matter how hopelessly it may seem lost in the maze of untruths and fanaticism, ultimately the truth will prevail. So Mote It Be.
Grand Lodge of Scotland Year Book: Article by Brother Raymond L. Karter
Canadian Masonic Research Association: Article by Brother R.V. Harris
Low Twelve: Masonic Stories by W. Bro. Edward S. Ellis, PM Trenton Lodge #5, N.J.
Light on Freemasonry (Anti-Masonic) by Elder David Bernard, Lutheran Synod
The Strange Disappearance of William Morgan by W. Bro. Thomas A. Knight, G.L. Ohio
For encouragement and information thanks to: M.W. Bro. Ian S. Robb, R.W. Bro. Robert Martens and R.W. Bro. Robert Amon.
This paper was prepared by Bro. Wayne D. Anderson of Markland Lodge No. 99, Kingston, Nova Scotia, and was donated to the Board of Masonic Education by Bro. Anderson.