As the world’s oldest secret society, the Freemasons have had several hundred years to influence history, build an impressive membership roster, and inspire a body of legend and speculation that ranges from the probably true to the demonstrably ridiculous. While most of the conspiracy theories surrounding the organization are, to put it mildly, bizarre—we’re pretty sure lizard people aren’t pulling their strings—you don’t have to venture to the fringe to find fascinating, sometimes-strange stories about Freemasons and their complicated legacy. From being on the receiving end of a papal ban that has lasted almost 300 years to forever changing the face of American politics, here are 11 things you should know about the Freemasons.
Conventional wisdom dates the foundation of Freemasonry to 1717, when the first Grand Lodge was established in England—but that lodge was founded to govern Masonic lodges that were already in operation. The roots of the order go back at least to the late 16th century when a prominent Scottish stonemason named William Schaw, who oversaw the construction of the country’s palaces and other royal buildings, issued the first of a series of professional and personal guidelines for stonemasons, including a call to “be true to one another and live charitably together as becometh sworn brethren and companions of the Craft.” His guidelines, known as the Schaw Statutes, inspired the organizational structure and code of conduct that would come to define the Freemasons. The oldest existing Masonic lodge (that we know about) was established in Edinburgh around the turn of the century, with minutes dating back to January 1599.
Symbols have long been crucial to Freemasonry. They’re used to codify and communicate important Masonic ideas and values, and some, like the Eye of Providence—a disembodied eye enclosed in a triangle, meant to represent the always-watchful eye of the Supreme Being—are pretty on-the-nose. Others, though, are a bit more esoteric.
Freemasonry’s most recognizable symbol comes with a built-in mystery that even Freemasons aren’t sure about. (And if they are, they’re not telling us.) Many renditions of the Masonic square and compasses—a set of joined compasses arranged on top of a builder’s square, representing self-restraint and moral rectitude, respectively—come with a letter G inscribed in the center, and that’s where the uncertainty lies. According to some sources, it stands for God, whom Masons consider the Great Architect of the Universe. Others think it’s a reference to geometry, a branch of mathematics that would have been important to the original Masons, who were builders and stoneworkers, and that holds symbolic significance for modern-day Masons.
As with most things Masonic, there are plenty of popular myths surrounding the group’s symbols, including the widespread belief that the Eye of Providence on the U.S. dollar bill is a reference to Masonry. According to National Geographic, Benjamin Franklin was the only known Mason on the committee responsible for the seal’s design, and his proposed (and rejected) design didn’t include the eye.
Freemasonry came to Massachusetts in 1733, when St. John’s Grand Lodge was established in Boston. According to the Paul Revere Memorial Association, St. Andrew’s Lodge was chartered 23 years later, in 1756, and in 1764, St. Andrew’s bought the Green Dragon Tavern to use as a meeting place. While the Freemasons conducted their business on the pub’s first floor, another group—the Sons of Liberty—is thought to have met in the basement. The Sons of Liberty are best known for dramatic political protests, including one that would alter the course of world history.
A contemporary watercolor sketch of the Green Dragon by Boston-born painter John Johnston bears the caption “Where we met to Plan the Consignment of a few Shiploads of Tea, Dec 16, 1773.” If you know your American history, that date should be familiar: It’s the night that several dozen colonists disguised themselves as Native Americans and dumped more than 92,000 pounds of British tea into Boston Harbor.
There’s good reason to believe Freemasons did more than provide a meeting place for the Sons of Liberty. The St. Andrew’s Lodge meeting on the night of December 16, 1773, was called off due to poor attendance. Presumably, they were too busy chucking tea into Boston Harbor to bother with whatever Masonic business was on the agenda for the evening.
It might be hard to believe, but there was a time when American politics was fueled by hysteria over a supposed shadow government controlled by powerful elites who would happily murder anyone who dared to expose their secrets.
As far as we know, Freemasonry officially came to America in the 1730s when Grand Lodges were established in Philadelphia and Boston. By 1826, the group’s membership included such powerful political figures as New York Governor DeWitt Clinton. (According to Andrew Burt, author of American Hysteria: The Untold Story of Mass Political Extremism in the United States, 13 of the Constitution’s signers, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, had been Masons.) There was a rising tide of suspicion about the secretive sect, and it crested in 1826, when a man named William Morgan was abducted from a western New York jail, ushered into a carriage, and never seen again. Morgan had supposedly infiltrated Masonic meetings and, together with a newspaper publisher named David C. Miller, was planning to release a book exposing the inner workings of Freemasonry.
Masons were not amused, and Morgan and Miller found themselves on the receiving end of what appears to be a campaign to shut them up. Masons supposedly set fire to Miller’s print shop, and Morgan was hauled into jail on exaggerated charges of petty larceny and outstanding debt. (The local sheriff was supposedly in cahoots with the Masons.) Finally, on the night of September 11, 1826, Morgan was bailed out of jail by some Masons. Then he disappeared.
Though Morgan’s body was never found, some insisted he’d been murdered and mutilated in a gruesome Masonic ritual. The incident became a cause célèbre for the already-brewing anti-Masonic movement, which soon grew into a full-blown hysteria. Four men were eventually convicted of crimes related to the abduction, including, according to Burt, “forcibly moving Morgan from one place to another against his will,” but they received only light sentences. The true fallout from Morgan’s abduction played out in the political arena instead.
American voters can thank (or blame) Freemasonry for several key components of our electoral process, including nominating conventions, party platforms, and totally unviable third-party candidates. All of those things started in 1828 with the Anti-Masonic Party, the country’s first third party. Prominent Anti-Masonic politicians included future president Millard Fillmore and Abraham Lincoln’s future secretary of state, William Seward.
Largely inspired by the disappearance of William Morgan, the party performed well in local and state elections before holding the country’s first-ever national political convention in the leadup to the 1832 presidential election. It was mostly downhill from there. The Anti-Masonic candidate, William Wirt, managed to win only a single state (Vermont, giving the party a total of seven electoral votes), and most of its members wandered off and became Whigs instead.
In the UK, journalist Martin Short caused a stir with his 1989 book Inside the Brotherhood, which examined links between the Freemasons and the country’s police forces.
Italy had its own, considerably weirder Freemasonry scandal. In 1981, Italian police confiscated the membership roster of a Masonic lodge known as Propaganda Due, or P2. The register held nearly 1000 names, including police and government officials, military officers, judges, journalists, and heads of business. The lodge was eventually implicated in a series of violent and subversive acts ranging from deadly bombings to the murder of prominent banker Roberto Calvi. The lodge’s grandmaster, Licio Gelli (supposedly known to other members as “King Cobra”), was investigated for numerous crimes and indicted on multiple charges over the course of several years, including spying, fraud, and obstruction of justice.
As for P2, the lodge was accused of making a run at “destroying the constitutional order of the country,” according to a government report, and was suspected of involvement in a banking crisis that caused tension between the Italian government and the Vatican. You know the old saying: It’s not paranoia when a secret society really is out to manipulate your financial infrastructure and overthrow your government.
While the Freemasons officially remain a men-only organization, there are auxiliary lodges that accept women. England has two women-only Grand Lodges: the Order of Women Freemasons, established in 1908, and the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons, established in 1913. The women’s lodges subscribe to the same principles and practices as their male counterparts, even referring to members as “Brothers.”
But while all-women lodges are a relatively recent phenomenon, there might have been female Freemasons centuries ago. Elizabeth St. Leger Aldworth, who died in 1773, was allegedly initiated into the ranks of Freemasonry in 1712 after accidently witnessing Masonic proceedings. Kentucky’s Catherine Sweet Babington was inducted under similar conditions sometime around 1831 [PDF]. She was caught spying on a lodge meeting and was quickly determined to know everything a Master Mason would know, so the lodge did the only sensible thing: It made her a Master Mason.
In 1775, a Black abolitionist named Prince Hall, along with 14 other Black men, was inducted into a Masonic lodge mainly associated with British soldiers garrisoned at Boston Harbor. (According to the Medford Historical Society and Museum, they had been turned away by the city’s other, all-white lodges.) When the British Army left the area, Hall and his Brothers were granted only limited rights to continue in the Masonic tradition; they could meet as Masons and conduct Masonic funeral rites, for instance, but were forbidden to perform most other Masonic rituals. They were finally granted a full charter by the Grand Lodge of England in 1784, marking the foundation of America’s first Black Masonic lodge and the birth of Prince Hall Freemasonry. Hall is recognized as Freemasonry’s first Black grand master.
According to The Guardian, Prince Hall Freemasonry has since grown into the world’s largest Black fraternal organization, with more than 4500 lodges around the world. Prominent Prince Hall Masons have included W.E.B. DuBois, Medgar Evers, Thurgood Marshall, Alex Haley, “Sugar” Ray Robinson, and Richard Pryor.
All Freemasons are required to acknowledge their belief in a “Supreme Being” to join the organization—but excluding atheists from its ranks hasn’t won the group any favor with the Catholic Church, which explicitly forbids its members from becoming Freemasons and considers doing so a mortal sin. According to Father William Saunders, pastor of Saint Agnes Catholic Church in Arlington, Virginia, the Church has deemed Freemasonry “a kind of religion unto itself” and takes issue with its rites and rituals, which supposedly “involve the corruption of Christianity.” The Church has held such views at least since 1738 and has formally reminded Catholics that Freemasonry is off-limits at least 21 times since then.
In all fairness, though, there’s no love lost in either direction. In 1886, prominent Freemason Albert Pike called the papacy “the torturer and curse of humanity,” colorfully insisting that, “with its robes wet and reeking with the blood of half a million of human beings, with the grateful odor of roasted human flesh always in its nostrils, it is exulting over the prospect of renewed dominion.”
To become a Third Degree, or Master, Mason, a candidate must undergo a round of intense interrogation by a lodge’s senior members—hence the origins of the phrase give someone the third degree to refer to rigorous questioning, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.
According to the Truman Library, the list of U.S. presidents who were confirmed to be Masons includes George Washington, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman. It’s generally believed, though not historically confirmed, that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were also Freemasons.