The Masonic Murder That Inspired the First Third Party in American Politics

Public outcry over whistleblower William Morgan’s disappearance gave rise to the Anti-Masonic Party, which nominated a candidate for president in 1832

An illustration of the abduction of William Morgan
An illustration of William Morgan's abduction Cassell's History of the United States via the Internet Archive

Samuel D. Greene came to Batavia, New York, in the 1820s to open a tavern. As he got to know the town, Greene realized that both his deacon and his doctor were Freemasons, and soon enough, a friend invited him to join the secretive fraternal organization. “Little did I dream,” Greene would later recall in his 1870 memoir, The Broken Seal; Or, Personal Reminiscences of the Morgan Abduction and Murder, that only months after joining up, he would witness events “which would fill the whole land with intense excitement, moral and political, and would bring the institution itself of Masonry almost to the verge of destruction.” Indeed, it’s not a stretch to say that in the fall of 1826, Freemason Lodge 433 changed the course of American history entirely.

Freemasonry was established early in the Thirteen Colonies and soon became an integral part of American upper-class society. Though the colonists rejected the British system of aristocracy that valued inheritance over merit, men of stature still sought a means of displaying their wealth and influence. Masonry, with its secret oaths and public pageantry, offered them an avenue to do that: Not only were Masonic lodges open only to the connected, but their members also proudly displayed their status through elaborate parades, marching in white gloves, finely embroidered aprons and other status symbols.

Under the Eye of Power: How Fear of Secret Societies Shapes American Democracy

From a beloved cultural historian and the acclaimed author of Ghostland comes a history of America's obsession with secret societies and the conspiracies of hidden power.

But a secret society—with its own laws and norms, answerable solely to its own members—can’t exist in a democracy for long if those norms aren’t in line with the rest of the country’s. By 1826, membership in the Masons had exploded, and lodges had sprung up everywhere. Increasingly, they were no longer composed of men from the same class, bound together in maintaining their power. Masons were now a much more loosely connected, diverse and dynamic bunch. Something was needed to keep them together.

Enter Thomas Smith Webb. The son of a mechanic, Webb was a bookbinder who rose through the ranks of New England society, establishing himself as a self-made gentleman. But his more lasting impact was his role in formalizing a series of rituals for use in Masonic lodges. Webb thought the most important aspect of Masonry was its rituals, which would bind brothers together in the strongest manner possible. The more esoteric, the more taboo and the more difficult these rites were, he reasoned, the more tightly those who participated in them would be bound.

The Royal Arch ritual that Webb devised involved members banging on pots and pans while pushing and shoving the initiate. Another ritual he invented, the Knights Templar degree, required the candidate to drink wine from a human skull. Like modern-day fraternity hazing, these were tribulations meant to push the candidate through suffering toward a connection with his brothers. Webb’s rites were a success: His 1797 Freemason’s Monitor; Or, Illustrations of Masonry went through eight editions in around a decade and sold 16,000 copies—not bad for a secret manual the public wasn’t permitted to touch.

Illustration of a Masonic initiation in Paris in 1754
Illustration of a Masonic initiation in Paris in 1754 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Masonry of Benjamin Franklin’s era had called upon brothers to embody an exalted, dispassionate rationality by which they might assume the mantle of civic leaders for a new democracy. Webb, on the other hand, wanted to stir and excite one’s emotions and passions, all to cement a fervent loyalty among brothers. Many of Webb’s new rites contained language that was not much more than incoherent babble. Transmuted through the alchemy of the secret ceremony, however, they took on momentous importance. Masonry of the 1820s was thus more dependent on its secrets than previous generations had been, which helps explain why the men of Batavia’s Lodge 433 managed to whip themselves into a frenzy over one of their fellow brothers, a man named William Morgan.

Morgan was reportedly a veteran of the War of 1812, a bricklayer from Virginia who’d settled in Batavia. Generally a well-liked, outgoing member of the community, he’d been actively involved in Masonry. Indeed, it was Morgan who’d helped instruct Greene in the rites as the tavern owner was preparing to take his oaths. But Morgan had become disillusioned with the fraternity in New York, largely because of the tight grip it maintained in local politics, and he’d resolved to do the unthinkable: publish an exposé of the group that would reveal its secret traditions. He’d lined up a publisher, David Miller, and was working on exposing the Masons’ secrets for the whole world to see. And the men of Lodge 433 were resolved to prevent this from happening by any means necessary.

As Greene would later explain, a curious air of detached conspiracy settled over the lodge in the summer of 1826. It was clear to everyone that something needed to be done about Morgan’s threatened revelations, yet no one could say outright what that something might be. Accordingly, Greene noticed, conversations became increasingly “roundabout and half-enigmatical.” The brothers would denounce Morgan as a “wicked and perjured wretch,” and then someone would chime in and say something like, “all honest Masons would see” that appropriate penalties had to be “executed.” But the threats remained vague, and no one would come out and say what they specifically planned to do.

William Morgan
William Morgan Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

First, the Masons tried harassment. They besieged Miller, Morgan’s would-be publisher, with frivolous lawsuits. On Saturday, August 19, they had Morgan arrested on trumped-up charges involving a stolen shirt and tie, and they kept him in jail through the following Monday. While Morgan was imprisoned, Masons ransacked his lodgings, looking for his manuscript. But Morgan and Miller were unbowed, so on September 10, arsonists attempted to set fire to Miller’s printing office. The fires were quickly extinguished, but by then, there was no going back.

The morning after the fire, Morgan was arrested once again, this time on a phony charge of a $2 debt. Taken to Canandaigua, some 45 miles east of Batavia, he was held overnight until a man he had never seen before arrived to pay his bail and have him released. Morgan’s initial relief quickly turned to terror: As he was being led away from the jail, he saw a carriage waiting for him and began screaming, “Murder! Murder!” as he was shoved roughly inside. The incident marked the last time anyone saw Morgan alive.

Was Morgan murdered? It’s hard to say for sure. But his body was never recovered, and no one ever heard from him again. In 1827, several men—Loton Lawson, Nicholas Chesebro and Edward Sawyer—were convicted of kidnapping him. They would later hint that they had driven Morgan first to Rochester and then west to the empty Fort Niagara. Some Masons maintained that he had been taken to the Canadian border and told never to return to the United States, but most privately agreed that he had been killed. Greene, who continued to attend lodge meetings, saw that it was “well understood by the members of our lodge that Morgan was dead,” as evidenced by the amount of “rough joking” by his brothers. (“Morgan was taken out in a boat,” one supposedly claimed, “a stone was fastened to him, and the wind blew, and the unfortunate wretch was blown overboard and sunk.”) But no one confessed to the murder itself. With no body and no confession, there could be no trial for murder, no final justice for Morgan. Shortly after Morgan’s disappearance, Miller published the exposé the whistleblower had likely been killed for writing.

An Anti-Masonic apron
An Anti-Masonic apron Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Above all, for Greene and the others aghast at what had happened, the greatest horror was that the murder wasn’t the act of a random mob. Instead, as Greene would later write in his memoir, “these men, who were the leaders in this plot against Morgan and Miller, were men of standing and character. They were at the time holding the most important offices in church and state.” The Masons who had allegedly brought down Morgan were judges and justices, sheriffs and constables, military officers of high standing, religious leaders and politicians. “Everything had been considered and determined upon by the very highest authorities in the Masonic councils,” Greene wrote.

The absence of a corpse ended up whetting the public’s appetite for an answer to the mystery. Newly formed societies of amateur sleuths tried to discover what had happened to Morgan. Groups of concerned citizens met in various towns along the alleged route of the abduction. These groups, which came to be called Morgan Committees, were initially only interested in recovering Morgan—or at least his corpse. But well-placed Masons in law enforcement and public office continually frustrated their attempts, and committee members began to see that the problem was wider than just one man’s disappearance. Masons had so thoroughly infiltrated American government—at least at the local level—that they held an effective monopoly on power, preventing the usual mechanism of justice from working.

Amid this structural corruption, opponents began to speak out more openly against Masonry in general. Over the coming decades, in newspapers and speeches, they began to denounce the fraternity as a cult that wielded undue influence. Hidden behind the scenes, pulling the strings, the Masons were wreaking havoc on American democracy and had to be stopped. Apostates like Greene broke their silence, giving public lectures about the dangers of Masonry and secret societies. On July 4, 1828, the citizens of Le Roy, New York, published their “Declaration of Independence From the Masonic Institution.” The anti-Masonic movement had grown far beyond Morgan’s fate. At stake now was nothing less than the question of democracy itself. Could a secret group be allowed to replace the U.S. justice system with its own?

This question is how America’s first genuine third party—the Anti-Masonic Party—was born.

An 1882 Puck magazine cover poking fun at the Masons
An 1882 Puck magazine cover poking fun at the Masons Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The early years of the republic had seen the rise and fall of the Federalists, and, later, the division of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party into Andrew Jackson’s Democrats and the opposition Whig Party. But the Anti-Masonic Party was the first sustained third party, the first organized political movement that spontaneously grew out of a frustration with the two major parties—Democrats and Whigs—and their failure to bring the Masons to heel. Historians Ronald P. Formisano and Kathleen Smith Kutolowski have referred to the Morgan episode as the era’s Watergate.

The Anti-Masonic Party was the first major populist crusade, spurred not by politically connected men but in opposition to them. “We are indeed engaged in a fearful warfare, with the wise, the wealthy and the powerful of the earth,” wrote Anti-Mason and future Governor of Pennsylvania Joseph Ritner to political ally Albert H. Tracy in September 1829, “and, I have little doubt, with the Prince of Darkness himself.” Anti-Masonic agitators were sick of an arrangement where the only way to get ahead in America was through backroom networking at a local lodge.

Anti-Masonic Party presidential candidate William Wirt
Anti-Masonic Party presidential candidate William Wirt Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The movement was surprisingly successful. One of the first populist uprisings against entrenched interests in the U.S., Anti-Masonry’s message resonated with the public. Before, no one had given that much thought to the Masons’ power; it was accepted more or less as a way of life. Now, those seeking justice for Morgan had spurred the public to wonder whether the Masons were truly a force for good in the country. What the Anti-Masons successfully called into question was the very notion of a secret organization. Why did one need such a thing when democracy is best conducted out in the open? Men like Franklin had seen the Masons as a perfectly natural, innocuous means of civic engagement—another way of participating in community in the nascent days of the republic, when American identity was still in flux. But what had seemed like second nature to the nation’s founders was now permanently tainted.

Forced to account for themselves to an increasingly skeptical public, the Masons had little to say in their defense. They tried to maintain that their secrecy was mostly harmless and focused on the betterment of humanity, but the actions of Lodge 433 had called all that into sharp question. Whatever secrets they were protecting, outsiders assumed, must be worth killing over. As former Mason Henry Dana Ward wrote in the Anti-Masonic Review and Magazine in 1828:

It is impossible, however, that a society should accumulate funds, build splendid halls, command the precious time of the statesman, hold in subservience the pen of the scholar, try the intellects of the orator, gain the support of the divine and yet be merely frivolous. … There is something earnest in all this, but the object is concealed.

As Anti-Masonry spread, many parishioners refused communion from Masonic clergy or stopped attending services conducted by Masons altogether. Masonic membership plummeted over the course of the 1820s and early 1830s; enrollments were cut nearly in half, and almost no new lodges were opened for a decade. Where it had once been an asset to be a Mason in America, it was now a liability. Within a few years, the Anti-Masonic Party had grown to the point where it ran a candidate for president in the election of 1832. William Wirt didn’t stand a realistic chance of winning the White House against Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay, and he ended up with a mere 8 percent of the popular vote, but his campaign for office marked a major shift in public opinion, proving that such a candidacy could exist at all.

On a day in May, I set out to trace Morgan’s fateful last journey. Not much from 1826 is left standing in this area, so at first, I had little sense of what I was doing, other than driving through a series of small towns in upstate New York. The only destination I had in mind was the Batavia Cemetery.

It was midday by the time I arrived. Hungry, I went first to the Pub Coffee Hub across the street from the old cemetery. My barista, Harley, told me what he could remember of the story. He’d learned it as a Boy Scout, and while he didn’t know all the details about Morgan (“He was a journalist, maybe?”), he indicated that the tale still seems to circulate among locals. We talked about whether the Masons are a shadowy group of conspiracists or just a bunch of old men; Harley was inclined to believe the latter but then said, “I suppose if you have secrets, everyone has to cover for everyone. So I can see how it might get out of hand.”

A pillar dedicated to Morgan at Batavia Cemetery
A pillar dedicated to Morgan at Batavia Cemetery Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Across the street in the cemetery, the graves are old, and the marble is starting to wear smooth. But Masonic symbols are everywhere: the compass, the square, the all-seeing eye. In row after row of graves, I found them by the dozen. Meanwhile, in the southwest corner of the cemetery, a solid square plinth, a few feet to one side and higher than my head, dwarfs the neighboring headstones. Out of its top rises a simple column some 40 feet high, topped with a statue of Morgan. “Sacred to the memory of Wm. Morgan,” one side reads, along with a short biography that calls Morgan “a martyr to the freedom of writing, printing and speaking the truth.” On another face is a quote from Morgan himself: “The bane of our civil institutions is to be found in Masonry, already powerful and daily becoming more so. … I owe my country an exposure of its dangers.”

Because the pillar is so tall, you can’t see the statue itself well from the base; it’s best appreciated from across the street, where you take the full height of it in and get the best view of Morgan’s distant gaze. So I walked back out through the gates and crossed the street. Most striking is that the cenotaph, located on the edge of the cemetery, features Morgan facing outward, away from the other graves. Even in death, it seems, he’s turned his back on the community that betrayed him.

Adapted from Under the Eye of Power: How Fear of Secret Societies Shapes American Democracy by Colin Dickey. Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Ghost Squid LLC. All rights reserved.

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