Whatever happened to William Morgan? Nobody knows for sure, and Frank Karwowski and Phil Arony, two members of St. George’s Masonic Lodge in Schenectady, aren’t going to lose any sleep over him.
The disappearance of Morgan, a disgruntled Freemason who planned to publish a book detailing the group’s secrets, in 1826 sparked an Anti-Masonic Movement and a political party bound and determined to expose the Freemasons as an elitist group with clandestine designs on international rule. Both the movement and the party had fizzled out by 1840, but the Masons continue to thrive. These days, at least among clear-thinking people, they are free of any of the negativity that was once associated with the group.
“I don’t believe we have any secrets, and we certainly have nothing to hide,” said Karwowski, a member since 1978, a former master of St. George’s Lodge and the group’s historian since 1983. “There will always be people who will believe that we’re not who we say we are, but it’s all there on the Internet, all the secret handshakes and signs, for anyone who wants to look it up.”
Arony, a member since 1989, agreed.
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“There are always going to be people on the fringe who will take issue with Masonry and try to find something evil or nefarious,” said Arony, who is also a former master. “But they’re just misinformed, and locally I haven’t seen any of that kind of negativity. The reason we exist is to help each other and others. That’s it.”
Yates began Lodge
St. George’s Lodge, officially St. George’s Lodge No. 6 F. & A.M., is one of the oldest in the country, having been formed in 1774 when Schenectady patriot leader Christopher Yates and a few friends met at Clench’s Tavern. Yates had earlier become a member of St. Patrick’s Lodge in Johnstown in 1769 due to the influence of Sir William Johnson, one of the most powerful men in the Mohawk Valley and a staunch supporter of the British king.
Masons had powerful political enemies in 1830s
What was it men like John Quincy Adams and William Seward didn’t like about the Freemasons?
The long and rich history of St. George’s Masonic Lodge might have been a lot shorter and much more inglorious had Seward and Adams had their way during the fourth decade of the 19th century.
The Anti-Masonic Party and entire Anti-Masonic Movement stemmed from an incident in Batavia, near Buffalo, when a Freemason named William Morgan disappeared after threatening to publish some of the secrets of the fraternal organization in 1826.
“Apparently this guy got fed up with some of his fellow masons, and what he planned to do was publish some of the secret masonic rituals and distribute them,” said Frank Taormina, former president of the Schenectady County Historical Society. “Well, the guy just vanished and there was a good deal of publicity about it. People got the sense that he had violated some Masonic code and had been kidnapped and murdered because of it. The body was never found and nothing was certain, but on the heels of all that publicity the Anti-Masonic Movement started.”
Seward, who would go on to become a governor, senator, a presidential candidate and Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state during the Civil War, got elected to the state Legislature in New York as a member of the Anti-Masonic Party.
“In that same time period in the same part of western New York, a mason had been elected to public office as sheriff, and again there was this sense that the masons were a secret organization that were making decisions for the entire community,” said Taormina, who is not a Freemason himself. “Seward was one of the guiding lights of the party, and that’s how he got into state politics when he was a very young man.”
Adams, meanwhile, ended his one-term presidency in 1829 and joined the Anti-Mason Party in 1834, running unsuccessfully for governor of Massachusetts.
Although the party and the movement fizzled out in the 1840s, it had an impact on local lodges. In Schenectady, St. George’s No. 6 saw its membership sink to just nine members.
“It was Giles Fonda Yates that kept it alive,” said Frank Karwowski of Schenectady, the historian for the St. George’s Masonic Lodge. “Without him, it probably would have died. He ran the show.”
As for Morgan, Karwowski is skeptical of the story, and likes to point out that even if any part of his disappearance is true, it was a singular case that happened nearly two centuries ago.
“Nobody today knows the real story, and there were reports about him being seen in Canada, so who knows,” said Karwowski. “Some people are going to think and believe what they want to.”
The two men had become close friends during the French and Indian War a decade earlier, and with Johnson’s death in 1774 on the eve of the Revolutionary War, one can only speculate how they would have handled their differences about American independence from Great Britain. One thing is certain, however. They wouldn’t have discussed it at a Masonic lodge meeting.
“You’re going to have divergent opinion within the lodge, but once you walk into the meeting hall you leave your political and religious feelings at the door,” said Arony, a Charlton resident. “Harmony prevails. That’s a rule and everybody abides by it. We had Masons fighting on each side of the Civil War who went right on fighting for their respective sides. But when it was over they came home and went back to attending meetings, and I think that’s one of the reasons why members enjoy it so much. All the outside stuff is forgotten. When you’re in here, it’s like a sanctuary.”
Many of Schenectady’s most prominent citizens have been Freemasons, including Joseph Yates, Christopher’s son and the only Schenectadian to become governor of New York (1822). In all, about two-thirds of the entire list of Schenectady mayors have been Freemasons, including a socialist, George Lunn (1912) and a Jew, Mordecai Myers (1851). R.P.G. Wright was the first black man to become a member of St. George’s Lodge, way back in 1844, and only recently Damon Carr, a black man, was master of the lodge prior to the current individual in that position, Edward Mosso.
As for presidents, 14 were Freemasons, including George Washington, Andrew Jackson, both Roosevelts, Harry Truman and most recently Gerald Ford. Abraham Lincoln was reportedly going to join the local Masonic lodge in Springfield, Ill., upon his return home following his presidency.
“Sam Stratton was a member of our lodge when he was in Congress,” said Karwowski, referring to the former mayor of Schenectady who went on to serve for nearly 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. “I was master back in 1982 and he would call and tell me, ‘Frank, I can’t make the meeting tonight.’ We’ve had a lot of politicians who have been members.”
Those interested in joining the group are interviewed by two or three lodge members. The one distinction common to all Freemasons is the spiritual component. No atheists are allowed.
“You have to believe in a supreme being, period,” said Arony, putting some emphasis on the final word. “There are no details, no particulars to figure out. Now, we might go out for a drink or dinner and we’ll talk about those kind of things, but once we’re in the meeting hall, we don’t discuss it.”
There are Masonic lodges all over the world. According to Karwowski, many of them are not based in the Christian faith.
“You go to other places like India or Pakistan, and instead of using a Bible like we do, they’ll use a Koran or whatever volume that individual might use as their sacred law,” he said. “They’ll take their oath on their own particular guiding light. We don’t care.”
Freemasonry is a fraternal organization that began developing throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Membership is estimated worldwide at 5 million, while there are around 2 million members in the U.S. The first Freemasons, according to Karwowski, were actually masons.
“Traditionally, some like to think it goes back to King Solomon, but realistically we know that the guilds started forming when the cathedrals and castles were being built in Europe,” said Karwowski, who lives in Schenectady. “The first Masons were actually stone masons. They were operative masons and we are speculative masons. We don’t actually work with stone like they did.”
Today’s Freemasons use the craft of masonry and the building of King Solomon’s temple as metaphors to help members become better citizens and better people.
“For me, Freemasonry is the belief that everybody has a hidden attribute,” said Karwowski, “and with the use of allegorical dramas to help people refine that attribute, that talent, they can eventually become a more well-rounded human being. It’s about making yourself a better person.”
Sense of community
St. George’s Lodge is one of four in Schenectady County, along with Schenectady Lodge No. 1174, Beukendaal No. 915 and Tuscan Lodge No. 85, an all-black group. The Beukendaal chapter in Scotia has been around since 1913, the Schenectady Lodge No. 1174 was formed in 1995 and is an amalgamation of five earlier lodges, and the Tuscan Lodge No. 85 came together early in the 20th century. While St. George’s has about 180 members, Lodge No. 1174 has about 345 members. Membership of the Beukendaal chapter is around 140, and the Tuscan Lodge numbers around 25.
“A lot of people are not going to church or playing pinochle together anymore, especially some younger gentlemen in their 20s,” said Arony. “But they’re still looking for a sense of community, and they don’t want to be isolated in front of their television or computer screen. They want to have a sense of belonging.”
The primary aim of St. George’s Lodge, and all other Masonic groups, is to raise money for charitable causes.
“Our biggest group is the Shriners Children Hospital, where they take care of children up to 18 absolutely free,” said Karwowski. “But we also make contributions locally, to places like the [Schenectady County] Historical Society and Vale Cemetery. Anything the members would like to take on, we’ll get together and talk about it and donate money for that purpose.”
Even though the two are often linked, St. George’s Lodge has no official connection with St. George’s Episcopal Church in the Stockade. The name, according to Karwowski, more likely refers to St. George, the patron saint of England.
The group meets twice a month on Thursday night at its building on Princetown Road in Rotterdam. The group has met at various places since it left Clench’s Tavern during the American Revolution, including what is now the Schenectady Civic Playhouse (1869-1919) and the large building at the southeast corner of the State Street and Erie Boulevard (1919-1995). Both were built specifically to serve as Masonic lodges.
All members are invited to the meetings, which are conducted by the master along with a senior and junior warden and 13 other officers. Typically, an individual who so desires can become a master of a lodge by simple progression.
“There is very little politicking,” said Arony. “When you go through the whole progression, you learn and understand how a master handles the job. A big part of who is selected as master has a lot to do with who’s willing to put in the time and all the energy.”
Masons are just as likely to be liberal as conservative, Republican or Democrat, and be from any walk of life.
“We have attorneys, we have GE engineers and we have gravediggers,” said Arony. “It doesn’t matter.”
“When Teddy Roosevelt was president, he was a member of the lodge in Oyster Bay,” said Karwowski. “So, when the president of the United States came to the meetings, it was his gardener that was sitting in the master’s chair.”