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The Morgan Affair

Today in Masonic History we discuss The Morgan Affair.

The Morgan affair begins with William Morgan. Morgan was a captain during the War of 1812. After the war, Morgan, who was in his 40's, married 19 year old Lucinda Pendelton in Richmond, Virginia. The couple had two children.

After the birth of his children, Morgan moved his family to York, Upper Canada where he started a brewery. When the brewery burned down, Morgan, and his family, were left in poverty.

After the fire, Morgan moved his family first to Rochester, New York. There Morgan allegedly became a member of the local Masonic Lodge, Wells Lodge No. 282. It is important to note there is no written evidence of Morgan being raised in the lodge, in fact it is questioned whether Morgan ever really went through the three degrees of Freemasonry. There is written documentation he received the Royal Arch Degrees (York Rite), and joined Western Star Chapter R.A.M. No. 33 of LeRoy, New York. To receive the Royal Arch degrees a person must have received the first three degrees of Freemasonry. It is believed Morgan convinced a friend and employer to vouch for him rather than to go through the proper process of verifying Morgan's membership in a masonic lodge.

After receiving the Royal Arch Degrees in 1825, Morgan became well known in New York Freemasonry. He gave speeches about the craft, volunteered to help in degree work and helped start several Royal Arch Chapters. One of them was in Batavia, New York. By the time he arrived there, questions were growing about whether he was truly a Freemason. Because of this, his name was left off the documents for chartering showing him as a founding member. On top of this the members of the local Batavia lodge, where Morgan lived with his family, denied him admission into the lodge.

Morgan became angry at the fraternity for the disrespect he experienced. He threatened to write a book called Illustrations of Masonry revealing all of the secrets of the Masonic Degrees. There were three backers of the book, one being David C. Miller a local newspaper publisher who had a grudge against the fraternity. Miller had progressed through the 1st degree of masonry and was prevented from continuing for 20 years, his progression was stopped "due to cause." Records indicate one or more members of the Batavia lodge objected to his continuing in the fraternity.

Miller and the two other backers of Morgan's book entered into a bond with Morgan for $500,000.00. Morgan was offered one quarter of the profits of the book once published.

It's important to remember Morgan was about 100 years too late on revealing the ritual of Freemasonry in his book, the first rituals of the Grand Lodge of England were published in the London Times by a reporter shortly after the forming of the Grand Lodge England.

At the time there were accusations unknown individuals tried to burn Miller's newspaper down. Several Masons regularly went to Morgans house and protested stating Morgan owed them money and finally he was accused of stealing a shirt and tie, leading to his arrest. He was acquitted of stealing the tie, instead he was locked up in debtors prison until a debt of just over $2.00 was repaid.

It is here the details of the story become vague and shrouded. Some accounts have a group of unknown men showing up at the prison, paying his debt and spiriting him into the darkness never to be seen again. Others have Miller arriving to pay his debt and the two men disappearing into the night. One commonality among the stories was Morgan ended up at Fort Niagara on the Niagara River bordering Canada.

Again the details of what happened here are unclear and many statements, some conflicting, have been made. Here are just a few of the theories which have been put forth:

  •  Morgan was taken to an unused building at Fort Niagara and after a few days drowned in the river. Some credence was given to this story when a body washed up on the shore of Lake Ontario. The body was initially identified as Morgan, although there were large discrepancies about the appearance of the body which called it into question. It was later identified by Mrs. Sarah Monroe as her husband. The widow Monroe was able to identify various birthmarks and scars on the body before seeing the body. There was also an accusation Thurlow Reed, a newspaper publisher, had the body altered to better resemble Morgan. As examples, the body which washed up on shore was bearded, with a full head of hair. Morgan had no facial hair and was bald.
  • A similar account claims Morgan's captors took him across the Niagara River to Canada to ask Canadian Masons to deal with him. The Canadian Masons refused and on the trip back across the river, Morgan was dumped over the side of the boat. Again the above account of the body washing up in Lake Ontario gave fuel to this concept, although the body was clearly not Morgan based on testimonies from the Widow Monroe.
  • The Masons themselves claimed $500.00 was given to Morgan and he was told to leave the country. There were contemporary reports Morgan had been spotted in other countries. One report said he was seen in the southern part of the United States after his alleged murder.

Regardless of which story is true, the media at the time ran with the story of murder and secret plots. At the time in the United States Masonry was very popular among politicians and even then there was talk of conspiracies of the Freemasons secretly running the country. For those who were opposed to Masonry this was the opportunity they needed.

Three of the men were tried in Batavia for the alleged murder of Morgan. In the initial trial they were all acquitted. This sent a wave of outrage through the country, again claiming a Masonic Conspiracy had set the men free. It was not helped by the fact the first judge in the case was himself a Freemason. Due to public outrage across the country, the three men and the sheriff (also a mason) in Batavia were retried. This time the men plead guilty to conspiracy to kidnap Morgan and stuck to their story Morgan was alive and had merely been encouraged to leave town. The men were convicted of murdering Morgan.

Those who opposed Freemasonry, generally now called Anti-Masons, saw this as another opportunity. They formed the first national third party, the Anti-Masonic Party. They nominated a candidate in the 1828 and 1832 Presidential elections. After the second Presidential election, interest in the party began to wane as other more important national issues were raised, like slavery. The Anti-Masonic party was quietly absorbed into the Whig party.

For Freemasonry in the United States the decades after the Morgan Affair are referred to as a Dark Time for Freemasonry. Public sentiment regarding the fraternity caused many lodges to close or to go "underground" meeting in members homes or not meeting at all to avoid the backlash which started because of the alleged murder of Morgan.

Morgan's widow moved west with a new husband, also significantly older than she was. The couple became Mormons and some accounts have Morgan's widow becoming one of the plural wives of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. In fact Morgan himself was given a vicarious baptism into the Mormon church in 1841, adding some fuel to a conflict between Mormon's of the time and the masonic fraternity.

Dewitt Clinton, the Governor of New York, and a Freemason, during the Morgan affair offered a $1,000 reward for information regarding Morgan's whereabouts. No one ever claimed the reward.

Note: writer's opinion is represented below

Like Freemasonry itself, the idea of the Morgan affair continues to give new fuel to conspiracy theories since there are so few facts available after Morgan's disappearance. No body has ever been positively identified as Morgan's. On some level, the Morgan Affair was the first pop culture trial in the United States, with people eagerly awaiting news out of Batavia. Salivating over every salacious detail of the trial. Often a person's view point on the Morgan affair, including my own, is colored by what the person thinks of the Masonic Fraternity and not the facts of the case.

This article provided by Brother Eric C. Steele.