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The Morgan Affair

Perhaps the most romantic story of Freemasonry, the fuel which the
alleged abduction and murder of William Morgan supplied to the
anti-Masonic hysteria of a hundred years ago, and the gradual
emergence of the Ancient Craft from the cloud which threatened to
extinguish it, is a tale which all Freemasons may ponder to their
William Morgan, a brickmason, lived in Batavia, New York, from I824
to 1826. Accounts of him differ widely, as they do of any
notorious person. Few are so wicked as to be without friends few
are so good they have not their detractors. from the estimates of
both enemies and friends, the years have brought an evaluation of
Morgan which shows him as a shiftless rolling stone uneducated but
shrewd careless of financial obligations: often arrested for debt
idle and improvident frequently the beneficiary of Masonic
That he was really a Mason is doubtful no record of his raising or
Lodge membership exists, but it is certain he received the Royal
Arch in Western Star Chapter R. A. M. No. 33 of LeRoy, New York.
It is supposed that he was an "eavesdropper" and lied his way into
a Lodge in Rochester by imposing on a friend and employer, who was
led to vouch for him in Wells Lodge No. 282 at Batavia. Judge
Ebenzer Mix, of Batavia, a Mason of unquestioned reputation, wrote
of this alleged Masonic membership: "There must have been a most
reprehensible laxity among the Masons both of Rochester and LeRoy
for there was no evidence educed, then or afterwards, that he ever
received any Masonic degree save the Royal Arch, on May 31, 1825,
at LeRoy."
At any rate, he visited Lodges, was willing to assist, made Masonic
speeches, took part in degrees. When Companions of Batavia asked
for a Royal Arch Chapter, he was among those who signed the
petition. But suspicion of his regularity began to grow, and his
name was omitted as a member when the Charter was granted.
Just how much this incident inspired the enmity he developed for
the Fraternity is only a guess doubtless it had much to do with
it. Enemy he became, and it became known that he had applied for a
copyright on a book which was to "expose' Masonic ritual, secrets
and procedure. In spite of the deep resentment which this proposed
expose created, Morgan entered into a contract (March 13, 1826)
with three men for the publication of this work. These were: David
C. Miller, an Entered Apprentice of twenty years standing, stopped
from advancement for cause, who thus held a grudge against the
Fraternity John Davids, Morgan's landlord and Russel Dyer, of
whom little is known. These three entered into a penal bond of half
a million dollars to pay Morgan one fourth of the profits of the
book. Morgan boasted in bars and on the street of his progress in
writing this book. The more he bragged, the higher the feeling
against him ran, and the greater the determination engendered that
the expose should never appear. Brethren were deeply angered.
fearful that were the "secrets" of Freemasonry "exposed", the Order
would die out. Feeling ran high.
Matters came to a head in September, 1826. Morgan was arrested for
the theft of a shirt and tie. Of this he was acquitted, but
immediately rearrested for failure to pay a debt of $2.68, and
jailed. After one day behind bars, some one paid the debt. When he
was released he left in a coach with several men, apparently not of
his own free will. He was taken to Ft. Niagara and there confined
in an unused magazine. Then Morgan disappeared!
What happened to William Morgan? Enemies of the Craft said
Freemasons had kidnapped and murdered him, to prevent the
publication of his expose. Freemasons, of course, indignantly
denied the charge. As time went on and Morgan was not found,
members of the Craft disavowed any approval of any such act, if it
had been committed. Governor Clinton, Past Grand Master, issued
proclamation after proclamation, the last one offering two thousand
dollars reward "that, if living, Morgan might be returned to his
family if murdered, that the perpetrators might be brought to con
dign punishment."
It was not too difficult to discover that Masons were concerned in
Morgan's hundred and twenty five mile journey to Ft. Niagara. Three
members of the CraftChesebro, Lawson and Sawyerpleaded guilty
to conspiracy to "seize and secrete" Morgan, and, together with Eli
Bruce, Sheriff, and one John Whitney, all served terms in prison
for the offense.
But murder could not be proved for no body was found.
In October, 1827, a body was washed ashore forty miles below Ft.
Niagara. Morgan's widow "identified" the body, although it was
dressed in other clothes than her husband had worn alive was
bearded, although Morgan was clean shaven had a full head of hair,
although Morgan was bald ! Thurlow Weed, Rochester Editor, was
accused of having the corpse shaved and of adding long white hairs
to ears and nostrils, to simulate the appearance of Morgan. The
first inquest decided that this was, indeed, the body of William
Three inquests were held in all. The third decided, on the
unimpeachable evidence of Mrs. Sara Monroe, who minutely described
the body, its marks, and the clothes it wore, that the corpse was
not William Morgan, but Timothy Monroe, of Clark, Canada, her
Commonplace and unexciting truth seldom catches up with scandalous,
electrifying, remarkable falsehood! William Morgan had disappeared.
Freemasons had been convicted of abducting him. A body had been
found and identified as Morgan. That better evidence and a less
excited jury had later reversed this identification was
anti-climatic. The stories of Morgan's "murder" persisted. Thurlow
Weed, whom history shows as an unscrupulous opportunist, no matter
what the exact truth of his activities with the body may have been,
added fuel to the flames.
Weed died in 1882, On his death bed he stated that in 1860
(twenty-two years before) John Whitney, who had been convicted in
the conspiracy charge, confessed to him the full details of the
murder of Morgan. According to this alleged confession, Whitney and
four others carried the abducted Morgan in a boat to the center of
the river, bound him with chains, and dumped him overboard. Weed
statedand here his memory failed himthat Whitney had promised
to dictate and sign this confession, but died before he could do
But Whitney died in 1869 nine years after!
Whitney did indeed tell a storynot to Thurlow Weed, who was his
accuser in the conspiracy case and whom he hatedbut to Robert
Morris. This story is both the most probable and the best attested
of any we have, as to the true fate of William Morgan.
Whitney told Morris that he had consulted with Governor Clinton at
Albany, relative to what could be done to prevent Morgan executing
his plans to print the expose. Clinton sternly forbade any illegal
moves, but suggested the purchase of the Morgan manuscript, for
enough money to enable Morgan to move beyond the reach of the
influence and probable enmity of his associates in the publishing
enterprise. From some source (Masons? Governor Clinton ?) Whitney
was assured of any amount needed, up to a thousand dollars, which
was a great sum in those days.
In Batavia Whitney summoned Morgan to a conference in which the
bribe was temptingly held forth. On the one hand, the enmity of
all, persecution, continual dangerit is not improbable that
threats were mingled with the bribe! On the other hand, money,
safety, freedom from a plan to publish which held much of danger.
If Morgan would take five hundred dollars, go to Canada,
"disappear", his family would be provided for, and later sent to
Morgan agreed. He was to be arrested and "kidnapped", to make it
easy to get away from Miller and his associates. Whitney feared
that without some such spectacular escape, Morgan might at the last
moment decline to go through with the plan, fearing reprisals from
his friends in the publishing venture.
Whitney told Morris that two Canadian Masons received Morgan from
the hands of his "kidnappers" at Ft. Niagara, traveled with him a
day and a night to a place near Hamilton, Ontario, where they paid
him the five hundred dollars, receiving his receipt and signed
agreement never to return without permission of Captain William
King, Sheriff Bruce, or Whitney.
Later there were two other "confessions" of complicity in the
"murder" of Morgan neither consistent with the facts. Doubtless
they were of the same hysterical origin which leads so many
notoriety seekers to confess crimes which by no possibility they
could have committed.
Did William Morgan choose the easier way, disappear with five
hundred dollars from a dangerous situation, eliminating from his
responsibilities a wife and family suddenly burdensome, and, in a
new freedom, ship on a vessel from Montreal and out into the world,
there to come to an unknown end ?
Or was he basely murdered by Masons who thought the crime less than
the evil results to follow on the publication of Morgan's Book.
No man knows. No incontestable evidence can be adducedor was ever
adduceddefinitely to prove either solution. All that is undoubted
is that William Morgan was apparently kidnapped and did disappear.
It is difficult, a hundred years after, to understand the extent
and power of the widespread excitement and passions this incident
created. For the fame and infamy of the Morgan affair spread over
an immense territory. It was the beginning of an anti-Masonic
sentiment which grew and spread like wild fire. meetings were held,
the Order was denounced by press and pulpit. An anti-Masonic paper
was startedwith Thurlow Weed as Editor soon joined by the
Anti-Masonic Review, in New York City. The many groups in
Pennsylvania, already opposed to any oath bound society (Quakers,
Lutherans, Mennonites, Dunkards, Moravians, Schwenkfelders, German
Reformed Church) were aroused to a high pitch of feeling against
the alleged "murderers" and "kidnappers"the Freemasons.
The anti-Masonic excitement spreadand fast and far. Gould, in his
History of Free-Masonry, thus epitomizes the spirit of that time:
"This country has seen fierce and bitter political contests, but no
other has approached the bitterness of this campaign against the
Masons. No society, civil, military or religious, escaped its
influence. No relation of family or friends was a barrier to it.
The hatred of Masonry was carried everywhere, and there was no
retreat so sacred that it did not enter. Not only were teachers and
pastors driven from their stations, but the children of Masons were
excluded from the schools, and members from their churches. The
Sacrament was refused to Masons by formal vote of the Church, for
no other offense than their Masonic connection. Families were
divided. Brother was arrayed against brother, father against son,
and even wives against their husbands. Desperate efforts were made
to take away chartered rights from Masonic Corporations and to pass
laws that would prevent Masons from holding their meetings and
performing their ceremonies." Reverend Brother John C. Palmer,
Grand Chaplain of the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia, says
in his little classic of the Craft, Morgan and anti-Masonry (Volume
7 of The Little Masonic Library, published by The MASONIC SERVICE
"The pressure was so strong that withdrawals by individuals and
bodies were numerous. In 1827, two hundred and twenty-seven lodges
were represented in the Grand Lodge of New York. In 1835, the
number had dwindled to forty-one. Every Lodge in the State of
Vermont surrendered its Charter or became dormant and the Grand
Lodge, for several years, ceased to hold its sessions. As in
Vermont, so also in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Massachusetts,
Connecticut and in lesser degrees in several other states. The
Masonic Temple was cleft in twain its brotherhood scattered, its
trestleboard without work its working tools shattered. Thus
Masonry endured the penalty of the mistaken zeal of those fearful
brethren who thought that the revealing of the ritual to profane
eyes would destroy the Order and who hoped to save it by removing
the traitor within the camp."
Space here is not sufficient to retell the interesting, often
exciting, and always varied story of the political campaigns which
were predicated on, and took much of their ammunition from, the
anti-Masonic excitement which followed the Morgan affair. It is not
to be supposed that the abduction and allegednever provedmurder
of Morgan was the sole cause of this outburst, any more than was
the assassination in 1914 the sole cause of the World War. Both
were triggers which set off guns which, in turn, caused other
Suffice it here that a wave of hysteria was seized upon by able
politicians, fanned by demagogues, increased by the righteous
indignation of good men and true who saw not beneath the surface,
helped onward by press and pulpit with the best of intentions but
little understanding, until the whole east flamed with passion and
Freemasons were spit upon in the streets, lodges threw away their
charters, and Freemasonry bowed its head to a storm as unjust and
undeserved as all religious persecutions have always been.
Like any other hysteria, this passed. Passions wore themselves
away. A few sturdy and brave men stood staunchly by, a few Grand
Lodges with high courage and the strength of the right never ceased
to proclaim their allegiance to the principles of the Order. Little
by little, Freemasonry raised its head one by one, lodges took
heart brother by brother, Craftsmen returned to their Altars.
After a period following almost twenty years of more or less
complete eclipse, the sun of Freemasonry shone again, and the world
was treated to a spectacle that has been a heartening lesson to
millions and will be to counted millions yet to be born anew at the
sacred Altar of Freemasonrythe strange sight of an Order many had
thought dead, suffering from uncounted thousands of stabs to the
heart, coming again to life to grow and thrive and attract to it
then. as it had in the historic past, men of the highest character.
It is for this that the Craft of today can offer thanks to the
Great Architect for the Morgan affair. Dreadful as it was to the
men who lived through it, terrible in its consequences to the
brethren who suffered, it demonstrated againand it may be hoped
and believed, once for allthat the underlying faith of
Freemasonry, its Ancient Landmarks, its foundation upon Deity and
the Great Light. together are stronger than any evil, more lasting
than any calumny, more enduring than any human passions.
Forever and forever, So mote it be !
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