William Morgan (anti-Mason)
Illustration of Morgan. A. Cooley, The Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon.
Near Youngstown, New York (probable)
|Known for||Anti-Masonic writings|
|Children||Lucinda Wesley Morgan
Thomas Jefferson Morgan
William Morgan (1774–1826?) was a resident of Batavia, New York, whose disappearance and presumed murder in 1826 ignited a powerful movement against the Freemasons, a fraternal society that had become influential in the United States. After Morgan announced his intention to publish a book exposing Freemasonry's secrets, he was arrested on trumped-up charges. He disappeared soon after, and is believed to have been kidnapped and killed by some Masons.
The allegations surrounding Morgan's disappearance and presumed death sparked a public outcry and inspired Thurlow Weed and others to harness the discontent by founding the new Anti-Masonic Party in opposition to President Andrew Jackson's Democrats. It ran a presidential candidate in 1832 but was nearly defunct by 1835.
Early life and education
Morgan was born in Culpeper, Virginia, in 1774. His birth date is sometimes given as August 7, but no definite source for this is cited. He worked as a bricklayer and stone cutter, and later used his savings to open a store in Richmond.
Morgan claimed to have served with distinction as a captain during the War of 1812, and his friends in upstate New York appear to have accepted this claim. Several men named William Morgan appear in the Virginia militia rolls for this period, but none held the rank of captain, and whether Morgan actually served in the war has not been determined with certainty.
Marriage and family
In October 1819, when he was in his mid 40s, Morgan married 19-year-old Lucinda Pendleton in Richmond, Virginia. They had two children: Lucinda Wesley Morgan and Thomas Jefferson Morgan. Two years after his marriage, Morgan moved his family to York, Upper Canada, where he operated a brewery. When his business was destroyed in a fire, Morgan was reduced to poverty.
He returned with his family to the United States, settling first at Rochester, New York, and later in Batavia, where he again worked as a bricklayer and stonecutter. Nineteenth-century local histories described Morgan as a heavy drinker and a gambler, characterizations disputed by Morgan's friends and supporters.
Book on Freemasonry
Morgan claimed to have been made a member of the Masons while living in Canada, and he appears to have briefly attended a lodge in Rochester. In 1825 Morgan received the Royal Arch degree at Le Roy's Western Star Chapter #33, having declared under oath that he had previously received the six degrees which preceded it. Whether he actually received these degrees and if so from where has not been determined for certain. Morgan then attempted unsuccessfully to help establish or visit lodges and chapters in Batavia, but was denied participation in Batavia's Masonic activities by members who were uncertain about Morgan's character and claims to Masonic membership. Angered by the rejection, Morgan announced that he was going to publish an exposé titled Illustrations of Masonry, critical of the Freemasons and describing their secret degree work in great detail.
He said that a local newspaper publisher, David Cade Miller, had given him a sizable advance for the work. Miller is said to have received the entered apprentice degree (the first degree of Freemasonry), but had been stopped from advancement by the objection of one or more of the Batavia lodge members. Morgan was promised one-fourth of the profits of the book, and the financial backers of the venture—Miller, John Davids (Morgan's landlord), and Russel Dyer—entered into a $500,000 penal bond with Morgan to guarantee publication.
Some members of the Batavia lodge published an advertisement denouncing Morgan. Unknown individuals were reported to have tried to set fire to Miller's newspaper office and print shop. A group of individuals, some allegedly Freemasons, gathered at Morgan's house claiming that he owed them money. On September 11, 1826, Morgan was arrested for nonpayment of a loan which the creditor claimed he had not repaid, and for supposedly stealing a shirt and a tie, charges that were probably fabricated; according to the law, he could be held in debtors' prison until the amount owed was paid, making it more difficult to publish his book. He was jailed in Canandaigua, and when Miller learned of this, he went to the jail to pay the debt and secure Morgan's release. The two men went to a waiting carriage, which arrived the next day at Fort Niagara.
There are conflicting accounts about what followed. The most common version is that Morgan was taken in a boat to the middle of the Niagara River and drowned, as he was never seen again. In 1848 Henry L. Valance allegedly confessed to his part in the murder on his deathbed, a story recounted in chapter two of Reverend C. G. Finney's book The Character, Claims, and Practical Workings of Freemasonry (1869).
In October 1827, a badly decomposed body washed up on the shores of Lake Ontario. Many presumed it to be Morgan, and the remains were buried under that identification, but the clothing was positively identified by his wife as that of missing Canadian Timothy Monroe (or Munro). One group of Freemasons denied that Morgan was killed, saying they had paid him $500 to leave the country. Contemporary reports included sighting of Morgan in other countries, but none were confirmed. Eli Bruce, the Sheriff of Niagara County and a Mason, was removed from office, tried, convicted, and served 28 months in prison. Three other Masons, Loton Lawon, Nicholas Chesebro and Edward Sawyer, were charged with, convicted and served sentences for the kidnapping of Morgan. Several other Masons were acquitted at their trials. Jasper Ridley indicates that Morgan was probably killed by Freemasons, all other scenarios being highly improbable, and Henry Paul Jeffers also indicates that this is the more credible scenario. C.T. Congdon, in Reminiscences of a Journalist, mentions a third-hand account "that Morgan was murdered by certain very zealous Freemasons," and that the resultant anti-Mason sentiment caused many elections to go to non-Masons for years after.
Aftermath: the Anti-Masonic movement
Soon after Morgan disappeared, Miller published Morgan's book, which became a bestseller because of the notoriety of the events. Miller did not say that Morgan had been murdered but that he had been "carried away". Accounts circulated of Morgan's having assumed a new identity and settled in Albany, in Canada, or the Cayman Islands, where he was said to have been hanged as a pirate. New York governor DeWitt Clinton, also a Mason, offered a $1,000 reward for information about Morgan's whereabouts, but it was never claimed.
The circumstances of Morgan's disappearance and the minimal punishment received by his kidnappers caused public outrage. He became a symbol of the rights of free speech and free press. Protests against Freemasons took place in New York and the neighboring states. Masonic officials disavowed the actions of the kidnappers, but all Masons came under a cloud. Thurlow Weed, a New York politician, formed an Anti-Masonic movement, gathering discontented opponents of President Andrew Jackson, a Mason, into the Anti-Masonic Party. It ran a candidate for the presidency in 1828 and gained the support of such notable politicians as William H. Seward.
In the 1828 campaign other Jackson rivals, including John Quincy Adams, joined in denouncing the Masons. In 1832, the Anti-Masonic Party fielded William Wirt as its presidential candidate, but he received only seven electoral votes. By 1835, the party had become moribund everywhere but Pennsylvania, as other issues, such as slavery, became the focus of national attention. In 1847 Adams published a widely distributed book titled Letters on the Masonic Institution that criticized the Masons' secret society.
In 1830 Morgan's widow, Lucinda Pendleton Morgan, married George W. Harris of Batavia, a silversmith who was 20 years older. After they moved to the Midwest, they became Mormons. By 1837, some historians believe that Lucinda Pendleton Morgan Harris had become one of the plural wives of Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter Day Saint movement. She continued to live with her older husband, George Harris. After Smith was murdered in 1844, she was "sealed" to him for eternity in a rite of the church.
Members of Freemasonry criticized the Mormons for their alleged adoption of Masonic rituals and regalia. In 1841 the Mormons announced their vicarious baptism of William Morgan after his death, as one of the first under their new rite to posthumously offer people entrance into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
By 1850 the Harrises had separated. When George Harris died in 1860, he had been excommunicated from the Mormons after ceasing to practice with them. That year Lucinda Morgan Harris was reported to have joined the Catholic Sisters of Charity in Memphis, Tennessee, where she worked at the Leah Asylum. She had been widowed three times.
In June, 1881 a grave was discovered in a quarry two miles south of the Indian reservation in Pembroke, New York. In it were bones and a metal tobacco box. Other items found included a ring with the inscribed initials "W. M." The box contained a crumpled paper; its few legible words seemed to suggest that the remains might have been Morgan's. There were also critics who suggested that the alleged discovery of the bones and other artifacts was coincidentally timed to coincide with the effort to construct a memorial to Morgan, and might have been an effort to generate publicity for the monument, which was in fact dedicated in 1882.
Monument to Morgan
On September 13, 1882, the National Christian Association, a group opposed to secret societies, commissioned and erected a statue in memoriam to Morgan in the Batavia Cemetery. The ceremony was witnessed by 1,000 people, including representatives from local Masonic lodges.
The monument reads:
Sacred to the memory of Wm. Morgan, a native of Virginia, a Capt. in the War of 1812, a respectable citizen of Batavia, and a martyr to the freedom of writing, printing and speaking the truth. He was abducted from near this spot in the year 1826, by Freemasons and murdered for revealing the secrets of their order. The court records of Genesee County and the files of the Batavia Advocate, kept in the Recorders office contain the history of the events that caused the erection of this monument.
Representation in other media
The pharmacist John Uri Lloyd based part of the background story of his popular scientific allegorical novel Etidorhpa (1895), on the kidnapping of William Morgan and the start of the Anti-Masonry movement. In the novel, the speaker is kidnapped by members of a secret society, because he and a publication are suspected to threaten the society's secrecy. Identifying as "I-Am-The-Man" and "The-Man-Who-Did-It," he is taken to a cave in Kentucky. He is led on a long, subterranean journey by a cavern dweller, an inner journey of the spirit as well as a physical one. Although the secret society is not named, the narrator is made to take an oath by raising his hand and repeating after a man who acts as his guide, "To all this I most solemnly and sincerely promise and swear, with a firm and steadfast resolution to keep and perform my oath, without the least equivocation, mental reservation, or self-evasion whatever," reminiscent of initiatory oaths of multiple degrees in Masonry. And a man the narrator encounters around the end of the novel says "The future is operative and speculative," reminiscent of "operative" and "speculative" Freemasonry and the "speculative science and the operative art" in Freemasonry.
In his novel The Craft: Freemasons, Secret Agents, and William Morgan (2010), the author Thomas Talbot presents a fictional version of the William Morgan kidnapping. He portrays him as a British spy, includes rogue British Masons, and has presidential agents thwart an assassination plot.
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- Works by William Morgan at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about William Morgan at Internet Archive
- A detailed account from a Canadian Grand Lodge
- Downloadable summary of Morgan Affair from Historic Lewiston, NY