Iron John In The Gilded Age


The character of American Freemasonry changed after 1826. That year William Morgan, who had joined a Masonic lodge in Rochester, New York, moved to Batavia, New York, but was denied admission to the lodge there. Disdaining his oath of secrecy, Morgan announced plans to publish the Masonic signs and lectures. Several weeks later some mysterious strangers showed up, told Morgan that he was under arrest for unpaid debts, and took him to Fort Niagara. Then he disappeared, never to be seen again. Rumors abounded that he had been tossed into the rapids by Freemasons; members of the order suggested that Morgan had fled town and changed his name to avoid creditors.

What happened next is beyond dispute: Two dozen Masons were indicted for conspiring to abduct Morgan, conspiracy being the most serious charge that could be lodged in the absence of a body. Though the evidence against the defendants was damning, only a handful were convicted, and their sentences were brief. But a public tumult ensued when it was learned that Gov. De Witt Clinton, as well as some of the prosecutors, judges, and jurors were members of the order. Ministers raged against Freemasonry. Politicians, insisting that both political parties had been tainted by the order, founded the nation’s first third party, the Anti-Masonic party.

Tens of thousands of Masons withdrew from the order, many lodges ceased meeting, and some officials closed their doors for what they assumed would be the final time. But the Morgan debacle indirectly reinvigorated the fraternal movement by turning it over to an emerging middle class of businessmen, clerks, lawyers, and doctors. Many exFreemasons flocked to the Odd Fellows, formerly a working-class club, and took control of it. They sold the punch bowls and banned alcohol, they investigated the morals of prospective initiates and hauled wayward members before lodge tribunals, and they ceased passing the hat for needy members and established an insurance system based on fixed weekly assessments. These, however, were simply the means to promote the order’s chief new purpose: initiation.

Victorian men retreated on lodge nights into a mystic wonderland inhabited by gods and heroes.

The ceremonies were drafted by a special committee on ritual, which included several former Freemasons. They wrote an hour-long pageant based loosely on the story of Genesis, with the initiate playing Adam. Because Adam was naked, the initiate’s shirt was removed. “Thou art dust,” he was told, and chains were wound around his body to symbolize his “guilty soul.” He was led blindfolded around the lodge room four or five times as officers lectured on mortality, God, and the meaning of life. Suddenly the blindfolds were snatched away. A skeleton loomed in the torchlight. “Contemplate that dismal, ghastly emblem of what thou art sure to be, and what thou mayst soon become,” an officer intoned.

Odd Fellows found this ritual inspiring and craved more like it. But English officials, who had chartered the first American lodges, were dumbfounded. To them the lodge was a place for workers to unwind, perhaps over a tankard of beer, and to help one another when times were bad. Workers needed tangible assistance and support, not long-winded lectures on morality and religion. Relations between American and English branches smoldered as droves of bibulous English emigrants knocked on the doors of the American lodges, took seats in awe-inspiring “temples,” and stared in disbelief as lamps were extinguished, torches lit, and robes, altars, and skeletons prepared. As speakers droned on, with no one stirring to prepare libations, the Englishmen’s wonder turned to anger. During the 184Os English officials demanded that the Americans abandon the new rituals on pain of having their charters revoked. The Americans refused, explaining that Odd Fellowship had grown in America only after it had discarded “conviviality” and instituted religious rituals. “Our career affords an example not unworthy of your imitation,” American officials noted pointedly.


In 1844 the Americans broke loose and established the “Independent” Order of Odd Fellows. Free to develop on its own terms, American Odd Fellowship created a sequence of nine elaborate rituals, most of them derived from the Old Testament. In one, for example, the initiate became Isaac, the son of Abraham, who journeyed across a desert wilderness to Mount Moriah (several blindfolded circuits of the lodge room). Then he was tied up and placed upon an altar. Firewood was piled beneath it, a torch was lit, and the Twenty-third Psalm read. After explaining that Isaac was to be sacrificed, Abraham struck a match and leaned toward the wood. Then a gong sounded. God, Abraham announced, had decided to save Isaac and had commanded that he be admitted as a patriarch of Abraham’s family. Odd Fellows reported that such a rite “fully satisfied” their “desire” and elevated their order “almost to the dignity of a religion.” The Odd Fellows grew from some thirty thousand members in 1843, just prior to the new rituals, to two hundred thousand by 1860 and nearly a million by 1900.