The Morgan Affair and the Baltimore Convention of 1843: The Evolution of Freemasonry in the United States of America

This composition is a historical article to address the matter of the Morgan Affair and the Baltimore Convention of 1843, and the impact of these events upon the evolution of Freemasonry in United States of America. Of these topics, the Morgan Affair has been one of the most pivotal events in American Freemasonry. The actual events that took place over the course of the Morgan Affair are uncertain. Various factions within Freemasonry and the Anti-Masonic movement have obscured the facts. In addition, there were few moderate and impartial witnesses during the course of this incident, and there is negligible evidence to reconstruct the events, with any degree of accuracy, which transpired over the course of the Morgan Affair (Dafoe, 2009). As such, this composition will discuss the various storylines related to William Morgan, Morgan’s disappearance, and the lasting impact that influenced the Baltimore Convention of 1843 that has shaped Freemasonry in the United States, as we know it today.

Freemasonry flourished in the United States following the American Revolution and the War of 1812. American men sought membership in the Masonic institution that had cultivated such great leaders as Brother George Washington, Brother Benjamin Franklin, and several of the other Founding Fathers. Most freemasons were leaders in their respective communities; their ranks included prominent business owners, military leaders, civil officials, clergy, and some even occupied positions of great prominence throughout the fledgling United States. By 1826, such prominent Masons included the Governor of New York, Brother DeWitt Clinton (Past Grand Master of New York, 1806-1819), as well as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Brother John Marshall (Past Grand Master of Virginia, 1794-1795). Freemasonry was a household topic. Most communities regularly observed freemasons conducting public ceremonies such as the laying of cornerstones, Masonic funerals, and parades.  Moreover, most families had at least one relative that was a Mason. Notwithstanding that generation’s exposure to the Masonic fraternity, there was an uneasy speculation about the motives, power, and secretive nature of the fraternity (Tabbert, 2005).

The passing of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on July 4, 1826, heralded the end of an era in the United States of America.  With the passing of Jefferson and Adams, so passed the last of the Founding Fathers. This was a new era for the fledgling United States. This was the period of the Second Great Awakening. A stagnant, agrarian economy and Christian Fundamentalism became the order of the day. Whereas, the American Revolution had been a secular affair, where the Founding Fathers engineered a constitutional federal republic with an emphasis on the separation of Church and State. The Revivalist movement of the Second Great Awakening first sought to establish congregations, and later, to advance the interests of the Church within the framework of American politics. Sensationalist journalism also provided the people with relief from their daily routines, and fueled their fears; Freemasonry and the Illuminati were popular topics. Our fledgling republic had an uncertain future, with few means of relief for its citizens, except for westward expansion and beginning of the industrial revolution (Tabbert, 2005).

William Morgan was one of these struggling Americans. Morgan was born in Virginia in 1774, and was a poor brick mason accustomed to travelling between towns for work. At the age of 45, Morgan married the daughter of a minister, when she was sixteen years of age. The girl’s father was against the marriage. A few stories abound as to the true nature of the marriage.  Some say that Morgan stole the girl from her father in the middle of the night, and others state that the marriage was consensual but with considerable objection from the father of the bride. In the latter instance, the father disowned his daughter, William Morgan’s wife. It was not long after the marriage that Morgan and his new wife moved to New York and later, to Canada, in search of work and a better life. It was in Canada that Morgan found employment first on a farm and later with a brewery. Working at the brewery provided Morgan with an opportunity to escape from the hard labor of his usual vocation, or working as a migrant farmworker. However, this employment was short-lived; Morgan had been terminated not long after acquiring the job. Morgan and his wife returned to New York in 1822, eventually settling in the town of Batavia by 1824. Morgan quickly gained a reputation for being down on his luck, short on funds, and being a common fixture at the local taverns (Dafoe, 2009).

It was in Western New York that Morgan began presenting himself as a Freemason. Morgan claimed to have been made a Mason in Canada, in the City of York. It seemed that he had earned the trust of a brother that would vouch for him, and he soon became a regular fixture at degree conferrals and special events. This being said, there is no record of William Morgan ever being raised or having been a member of a Lodge. It is commonly believed that Morgan eavesdropped to learn enough to pass himself off as a Mason, and was then vouched for by the aforementioned brother. However, on May 31, 1825, Morgan did receive the Royal Arch degree from Western Star Chapter No. 33 of LeRoy, New York (Masonic Service Association [MSA], 1933). Freemasonry became a means for Morgan to improve his situation. First, Morgan enjoyed attending Masonic festivities and degrees especially since these events provided plenty of food and drink, and he was not required him to pay. Back then, the candidate for the degree was obligated to provide the food and drink following the degree conferral; and, William Morgan was well known for being one of the last to leave the bar. Second, Morgan relied heavily upon the charity of his Masonic brothers to cover his debts and provide for him and his family. Lastly, Morgan sought recognition as a “Bright Mason” in order to enjoy the privileges and make a living as a Masonic lecturer. Morgan was well known for his willingness to assist in Lodge functions, degree work, and regularly made Masonic speeches (Dafoe, 2009). However, the brethren in Western New York soon started to question Morgan’s regularity as a Freemason.

Before William Morgan gained Nation-wide notoriety, he became a bit of an infamous character amongst the Masons in Western New York. It was common knowledge among the brothers that Morgan was having a difficult time finding and maintaining employment, supporting his wife and children, and that he had a habit of frequenting the taverns. He was known for drinking too much, talking too much, and for his debts. Masonic charity carried William Morgan and his family for a while, but it soon became common for the brothers to joke about covering Morgan’s bar tab, his rent, and his groceries. Before too long, some of the brothers began to question whether Morgan was actually a Mason. Inquiries were made amongst the Canadian Masons, and none could vouch for Morgan or provide any documentation that he was a member. Masons in Western New York began to wean themselves from covering Morgan’s debts (Dafoe, 2009). When a new Chapter of Royal Arch Masons was proposed in Batavia Morgan was eagerly signed the petition to charter this new chapter. However, several of the Masons, doubting Morgan’s regularity, objected to the inclusion of Morgan as a charter member of the new chapter. The original petition was destroyed and a new petition was drafted with Morgan being omitted. Morgan was deeply incensed by this turn of events; he no longer enjoyed the benefit of Masonic charity, he was not welcome at the meetings, and he ultimately failed to achieve his goal of becoming a “Bright Mason”. By March of 1826, William Morgan devised a plan to ease his resentment against Freemasonry that would also lift him from his tumultuous financial situation (MSA, 1933).

On March 13, 1826, Morgan entered into a contract to publish a book to expose the secrets of Freemasonry, with three men. These men were David Miller, a publisher and an Entered Apprentice Mason, John Davids, Morgan’s landlord, and Russel Dyer. Miller had been an Entered Apprentice for some twenty years. Masonic records indicate he was stopped for advancement for cause (MSA, 1933), whereas Miller’s own testimony states that he at one time was going to publish the secrets of Freemasonry but had been initiated as an Entered Apprentice against his own free will. These three men became Morgan’s benefactors while Morgan wrote his expose on Freemasonry. It was not long before Morgan was back in the taverns, drinking into the late night hours, and boasting about the fortune he was destined to earn from exposing the secrets of Freemasonry. Word spread quickly around the State of New York and into surrounding regions of Morgan’s betrayal. Morgan was arrested several time over the next few months for outstanding debts. By keeping Morgan jailed, he could not write his book. However, his business partners covered his bonds so he could continue his writing. Various attempts were made to appeal to Morgan to cease his activities. By September 1826, Morgan was arrested for the theft of a shirt and tie from a hotel owner in a nearby town.  Morgan was taken to that town to stand trial. This case was dropped, but immediately following he was rearrested for a debt of $2.68. The night after Morgan was rearrested, his debt was paid by a Mason and Morgan was taken by carriage and never seen in public again (Dafoe, 2009).

There is much speculation and misinformation about what happened William Morgan. Masonic accounts state that Morgan left willing with Masons from Western New York and he was delivered to Canada with a sum of money to start a new life. Other Masonic accounts say that he was delivered to Canada and impressed aboard a British vessel. Anti-Masonic accounts state that Morgan was not received by the Canadians and that the Masons ultimately murdered Morgan and disposed of the body. In October 1827, a body washed ashore forty miles South of Fort Niagara. Morgan’s widow first did not identify the body as that of her husband’s, but later said it was the body of William Morgan. This same body was identified as by a Canadian widow as being the body of her lost husband (Dafoe, 2009). Morgan’s disappearance has never been solved. The scandal sent shockwaves through the United States. The Anti-Masonic movement had begun. Eager politicians, journalists, clergy, and even Masons jumped on the bandwagon of the Morgan murder to smear Freemasonry. For the first time in American history, a third viable political party rose to prominence, the Anti-Masonic Party. Several ex-Masons and Anti-Masons drafted the “Declaration of Independence from the Masonic Institution” and engaged in a campaign to purge Masonry from the United States. Masonic Lodges in the Northeastern United States were broken into, vandalized, and records and charters destroyed. In 1826, New York had 480 Masonic Lodges and 20,000 members, but by 1835 there were only 49 Lodges. Massachusetts and Connecticut lost nearly half of their Lodges, and Marine nearly lost all of Lodges (only one Lodge attended the annual communication in 1837 and none in 1842). New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont fared even worse; Masonry all but disappeared until the 1840’s. Maryland had a low point with only 13 Lodges, with only one Lodge (Concordia No. 13) continuing to work through the entire anti-Masonic period. In the South, one-third of Alabama’s Lodges surrendered their charters (Brownback, 1995).

During the anti-Masonic period, the atmosphere in the Lodges was bleak. Masons and their families were persecuted. Children of Masons were denied access to schools. Masons were spit on in the streets, and public ceremonies were attacked by profane mobs. Anti-Masons staged mock Masonic rituals in public, and made available the rituals, signs, grips, and words to the profane public. Lodges turned away visitors because they could identify regularity of Masons. Many great ritualists were lost to the craft, dying of old age or forgetting the rituals. Freemasonry’s foundation in the United States had sustained a severe blow.  The anti-Masonic period began to die out in 1840’s and had dissolved by 1845 (Brownback, 1995). However, American Freemasonry began to rebound in the 1840’s.

In December of 1839, the Grand Lodge of Alabama invited the other American Grand Lodges to meet in the City of Washington on March 7, 1842 to reorganize the craft. This meeting was largely unsuccessful because there was not enough participation or time to conduct the work that was needed. It was determined that each Grand Lodge should send a Grand Lecturer, or a representative that was well-versed in Masonic ritual, to meet that next year in Baltimore. The Baltimore Convention of 1843 was held on May 8th through 17th, with sixteen Grand Lodges represented (AL, DC, FL, GA, LA, MA, MD, MO, NC, NH, NY, OH, RI, SC, TN, and VA), and declared two objectives for the convention. First, was “to produce uniformity of Masonic work”. Second, was “to recommend such measures as shall tend to the elevation of this Order it due degree of respect throughout the world at large”. Four committees were established: 1) the work and lectures in conferring degrees, 2) the funeral service, 3) ceremonies of Consecration and Installation, and 4) Masonic Jurisprudence. Many days were spent on a standardized ritual, and the Webb Monitor (with a few changes) was accepted by most of the jurisdictions as the standard blueprint for the work. In the end the Baltimore Convention established the use of dues cards, initiation fees prior to degree conferrals, conducting Lodge business on the Master Mason degree, recognizing Lodge membership as being reserved for Master Masons, suspension for non-payment of dues (NPD), and establishing some uniformity in the work and modes of recognition. Many other items were discussed for the good of American Freemasonry; however, several never came to pass. Triennial conventions were scheduled to follow the Baltimore Convention, but lack of attendance ultimately caused these conventions to adjourn without completing any further business (Chiles, 2010).

The Morgan Affair and the Baltimore Convention of 1843 changed American Freemasonry. William Morgan’s disappearance and the actions of Masons in Western New York cast an ugly blemish upon the fraternity. Lodges had unique cultures, where the officers had the discretion to tailor the work of each degree to enhance their meetings; philosophical and intellectual engagement was the norm. “Bright Masons” had once travelled to Lodges and foreign jurisdictions to present new work, culture, and rituals. American Freemasonry, as we know it today, has been influenced by these events. Prior to William Morgan’s Illustrations of Freemasonry, there previously existed published Masonic rituals. The fervor of anti-Masonry was sown by the careless disregard of members of our fraternity. It is likely that William Morgan met his end by a few impassioned brothers. Morgan’s work was not a bestseller, even after the scandal became Nation-wide news. The Morgan Affair should serve as a cautionary tale for all Freemasons, more especially in the age of electronic media and renewed conspiracy theories. We must ask ourselves, would Freemasonry survive such a scandal today?

M.W.Bro. John D. May, PGM


Brownback, D. P. (1995).  The Morgan affair aftermath.  Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon.  Retrieved from:

Chiles, H. C. (2010).  The Baltimore Convention.  Masonic Bulletin of the Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon, 74(2), 1-4.

Dafoe, S.  (2009).  Morgan: The Scandal That Shook Freemasonry.  New Orleans, LA: Cornerstone Book Publishers.

Masonic Service Association.  (1933).  The Morgan Affair.  Short Talk Bulletin, 11(3).

Tabbert, M. A.  (2005).  American Freemasons: Three Centuries of Building Communities.  New York, NY:  New York University Press.

Leave a Reply

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: