Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Wild Bill Hickok


For eight seasons back in the 1950s kids were captivated by The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, a shoot-'em-up western starring the dashing Guy Madison. The show brought Hickok, already a wild-west legend, to life as a buckskin-and-white-hat-clad US Marshall, fighting for law and order in the dusty untamed Midwest. The opening of every episode showed his 300-pound comic-relief sidekick Jingles, played by Andy Devine, riding his galloping horse far behind Bill screaming, "Hey, Wild Bill, wait for me." Ahead of him Hickok rode his trusty snow-white steed full-tilt as he fired his six-shooter repeatedly at an unknown target ahead of him. What kid could turn the TV off after seeing action like that?

The production almost certainly did more to shape our perceptions of Hickok than any history book. Like so many of the westerns back then – Wyatt Earp, Kit Carson, Bat Masterson and others – the show didn't exactly portray an accurate depiction of its real-life legendary hero.

James Butler Hickok was born May 27, 1837, in Homer, Illinois, to William Alonzo Hickok, and his wife, Polly Butler. "Wild Bill" was one of his many nicknames and most likely has its derivation from his father's name. The TV series was accurate in that he did, in fact, serve as deputy US Marshall in Hayes, Kansas and eventually city Marshall there and in Abilene. He also served as Sheriff of Ellis County, Kansas for a few months in 1869.

In addition to his career as a lawman, Hickok at various times was a soldier, a scout, a wagon master, and a professional gambler. He put together his own wild west show and later teamed up with Buffalo Bill Cody. He even tried his hand at acting but… well… the reviews were not good.

His exploits as a lawman contrasted with his TV persona and were not exactly squeaky clean. While in office he reportedly killed Bill Mulvey, Samuel Strawhun, John Kyle, Phil Coe and others, all under suspicious circumstances hardly construed as self-defense. When, in 1871, he accidentally killed Abilene Special Deputy Marshal Mike Williams the town summarily fired him.

His reputation as a gunfighter was part of the reason he became a frontier legend and folk hero. The details of his gun fighting exploits are sketchy but Hickok claimed dozens of victories. In contrast, one of his biographers pointed out, "Wild Bill may have only killed six or seven men in gunfights." Even that number would be enough to convince anyone he was a legitimate gunfighter.

On August 1, 1876 he played in a poker game in Deadwood, South Dakota, where a drunken Jack McCall suffered heavy losses. Hickok encouraged him to leave the game and gave him money for breakfast. McCall took the money, but considered Hickok's offer an insult.

The following day Hickok joined another game. As a gunfighter it was his custom to sit with his back to a wall where he could see the room, but only a chair facing away from the room was available. During the game McCall walked in, shouted, "take that," and shot him in the head, killing him instantly. When onlookers checked his cards they reportedly found him to be holding two aces and two eights, now infamously known as "the dead man's hand." McCall was hanged for the crime and, when his body was moved in 1881, the noose was found to be still around his neck.

Hickok's murder and McCall's capture are reenacted annually at the Deadwood Masonic Temple. So was Wild Bill Hickok a Freemason? It would not be out of the question to think the wild west legend, folk hero and lawman would have been a member of the fraternity. A check of Denslow's 10,000 Famous Freemasons, however, comes up empty. With the amount of time Hickok spent in Eastern Kansas and Western Missouri, it would be unlikely Denslow would overlook his membership. Also, no other records exist to indicate he ever joined or even petitioned for membership. So, perhaps even regrettably, we would have to conclude James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok was not a Freemason.

For the Whence Came You podcast, this is… uh… uh oh… wait a minute. I forgot to tell you something.

There is a simple chair encased in plexiglass in the Masonic Museum in Columbia, Missouri. It has a tan wicker seat, a basic wooden frame and three slats running across its back. Except for the seat, the chair is painted black. Presented by the Brothers of Savannah Lodge 71, it is said to be one of the chairs Wild Bill Hickok may have sat in during one of the frequent times he attended Lodge meetings there.

Imagine that.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Mordecai Brown


You may never have heard of this Brother but he is ranked among the greats. He stands beside the likes of Sandy Kofax, Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Lefty Grove, Roger Clemens and a handful of others whose skill at throwing a baseball seemed to be supernatural. He was so good, the annual Cy Young Award for the best pitcher in baseball might well have been named the Mordecai Brown Award.

Born in 1876 in Nyesville, Indiana, a small town about 40 miles west of Indianapolis, Brown was a member of Edward Dobbins Lodge No. 164, in Lawrenceville, Illinois. He was a standout Chicago Cubs pitcher who won 20 or more games for six straight seasons. In 1908 as a fielding pitcher he did not commit a single error and pitched a record four shutout games in a row. Against the great Christy Matthewson, considered by some to be the best pitcher in baseball, he won 13 games out of the 24 times they met. Overall he won 239 games against 130 losses and struck out 1,375 batters. His spectacular 2.06 earned run average today remains the best of any pitcher who won over 200 games.

There is more to his story as a Freemason. There was a time in the Craft in some jurisdictions when a physical deformity disqualified a man from becoming a member. As a young man, Brown lost the index finger on his right hand in a farming accident. While still healing from that injury he fell and broke several bones in his remaining fingers. Doctors reset his middle finger improperly further mangling his hand. When he petitioned to become a Freemason, he was rejected due to his mutilated hand. Only the intervention of a District Deputy Grand Master won him dispensation and allowed him to join.

Brown's disfigured pitching hand forced him to grip a baseball in an unorthodox way. There has never been any doubt that his grip made the ball travel in a way that made his pitches extremely difficult to hit, and contributed to his success as a pitcher, earning him the name by which he became famous, Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown.

He won games on two World-Series winning teams in 1907 and 1908 – the last time the Cubs won the Series for over a century. He retired from the majors in 1916 and moved to Terre Haute, Indiana, where he continued to play and coach in minor league games. In 1928, a friend asked him to play in an exhibition game as a favor. It was the last time he played and in that game the 51-year-old Brown pitched three innings, striking out all nine batters he faced.

I personally share something in common with Brother Mordecai: just before becoming a Freemason, I suffered a similar injury. I didn't lose any fingers, but the little finger on my right hand was permanently disfigured. Most people don't notice but, let's put it this way… I'll never be a hand model.

Brown passed away in 1948 at the age of 71. A year later he was posthumously elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. If it were not for the fact that Freemasonry gave up on its barbaric, backward, Neanderthal practice of rejecting men with deformities as members, the great Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown would never have become a Freemason, along with others like him, including myself.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Peggy Sue and the Freemasons

 In the 1986 movie Peggy Sue Got Married, Kathleen Turner plays an adult who attends her high school reunion, suffers from a major case of the vapors, and is transported back in time. She lands back in 1960, when she was a high school senior, with a chance to start anew, correct old mistakes, and perhaps make a few new ones.

 During the ensuing do-wop-laced couple of hours, Peggy Sue reassesses her early relationship with her boyfriend-become-husband/ex-husband Charlie, played by Nicholas Cage. She forms a friendship with an ostracized high school geek and plants his turbocharged brain with coming attractions like the moon landing and gizmos such as microwave ovens, pocket calculators, and digital watches he could invent to become rich and famous. Then, as an inspired young inventor herself, she manufactures the world's first pair of pantyhose.

After her requisite fling with a laconic motorcycle-riding rebel-with-a-cause-poet, she runs off to visit her time-warp resurrected grandparents. There, she comes clean about her time-traveling escapade. The understanding Gram and Gramps believe her. Sort of. She confesses she misses her children and wants to go back.

So, what's a gal to do in order to time-hop back to the future without a DeLorean? I'm glad you asked. Grandpa has the solution. He'll hustle her off to his Lodge where they have just the ceremony for that.

They arrive at the Lodge building which on the outside is a conical structure resembling a Crazy Cup Ice Cream stand, but on the inside is almost certainly a genuine Masonic Lodge, replete with dozens of grayscale portraits of real-life Past Masters… just like the ones in your Lodge.

"What does Grandma think you do at these meetings," asks the wide-eyed Peggy Sue.

"Stag parties and poker games," quips Gramps. Well, there goes one of our secrets.

The Brothers are suited in royal-purple robes with gold-colored fringe and embroidery. Accessories include a cornucopia of hats. What appear to be more lower-ranking Brothers wear black drooping Renaissance hats while others have elaborate royal-purple pyramid shaped headgear. Gramps, probably being something like a Past Poo-Bah, has a purple rectangular block-shaped headpiece with what appear to be four doorknobs on the top corners.

Peggy Sue gasps, "Grandpa, do you have to wear that hat?"

Gramps adjusts the hat moving it to the perfect position, "Wouldn't be a Lodge without hats." Another secret revealed.

Inside the Lodge room, the head Muckety-Muck sits in a familiar setting behind a podium elevated to a level three steps up. Opposite him, we see the customary sight of two columns. Not surprisingly, an altar stands in the center of the room.

A Brother informs Peggy Sue the Lodge was founded by a time-traveler (as was my own Lodge, but I digress). The ceremony begins with the resident musician playing Beautiful Dreamer on a mandolin. A black-hatted Brother steps to the altar, breaks an egg into a chalice, and completes the concoction with an elixir of red goop. He follows this with the sign of the degree which is thus made: the hands are crossed palm-inward in front of the face with the thumbs touching the nose. The hands are then flapped vigorously with the Brother staring upward, symbolic of a prospective time-traveler flying off to a new epoch. The gesture draws a snicker from Peggy Sue – a reaction we may all have seen from our wives during open ceremonies. Three raps from the symbolic East brings the already standing Brothers to order as he enjoins the "Lord of the Universe, Ruler of Light, King of the Sun" to guide Peggy Sue, clad in a gold robe, forward in time.

Chaos reigns as the scene fills with thunder and lightning. The Lodge goes dark, Peggy Sue disappears and when the light returns a Brother yells, "Let's play cards!"

Any well-educated Mason would recognize the faults in this rendition of the Time Travel Ceremony – something I cannot discuss in this public forum. That would lead the Brother to recognize it would not have worked as presented. Instead, when the Lodge was dark Charlie (remember Charlie?) swept in, grabbed Peggy Sue, and whisked her away.

The adventure culminates with Peggy Sue waking up from her fainting spell, securely returned to 1986. In an "aaaawwwwwwwwww" moment Peggy and her ex-husband reconcile leaving the door open for Charlie… a.k.a. Nick Cage… a.k.a. Benjamin Franklin Gates… to go off on his own quest where he discovers the Freemasons are the stewards of a great National Treasure.

Monday, October 26, 2020

The World's Smallest Presidential Library – A Pictorial


Out in my neck o’ the woods, nestled between two iconic presidential libraries – Truman’s in Independence and Eisenhower’s in Abilene – is a third presidential library you may not be familiar with. It is the world’s smallest presidential library.

As you, the reader, skim through your mental database of American presidents and come up empty, let me suggest you may have overlooked the presidential term and accomplishments of Brother David Rice Atchison. That's right. President David Rice Atchison; the man for whom Atchison, Kansas and the Atchison-Topeka-Santa Fe railroad are named.

The account of his presidency goes like this: In 1849, inauguration day, March 4, fell on a Sunday. President-elect Zachary Taylor refused to be inaugurated on the Lord's day of rest and Vice-President-elect Millard Fillmore followed suit, both delaying their inauguration until Monday, March 5. Constitutionally, this left the presidency vacant on March 4. Back then, second in line of succession fell to the Senate President Pro-Temporary, the position Atchison held. Realizing there was technically no president, North Carolina Senator Willie Magum and a group of Atchison's friends descended on his house and woke him up in the early hours of March 4. Magum administered the oath of office and asked Atchison to name him Secretary of State. With that the crowd left and "President" Atchison went back to bed. Later, Atchison reported he spent the bulk of his presidency napping and reading.

To commemorate this auspicious event, Atchison, Kansas, his namesake, has established the "world's smallest presidential library" in his honor. Located in a former AT&SF terminal, the Atchison Library shares space with another Atchison historical figure, Amelia Earhart. Also featured in the museum are Brothers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who set up a base camp in the area.

Upon entering the museum a visitor first encounters a model of a statue commemorating Lewis and Clark's 1804 Voyage of Discovery. The full-size statue sits on the banks of the Missouri River down in Kansas City.

A little farther in, the visitor can see the Amelia Earhart display featuring pictures and artifacts of the aviatrix' life.

The world's smallest presidential library lies beyond those exhibits. One first encounters the "Hall of Presidents." Over the years the Marx Toy Company has produced a miniature statue of American Presidents in which it has included Atchison, who stands directly in front of George Washington in the display.

A Daily National Intelligencer article from March 10, 1849 told the story of his presidency. The museum has an article from another paper which recaps the Intelligencer account and notes Atchison's Salary for that day was $68.50.

Regrettably, Atchison was a supporter of slavery and, in fact, a slave owner himself. When Kansas came into the Union as a free state, Atchison led a pro-slavery militia into the state and was present at a battle that resulted in the burning of the Free State Hotel. A display in the museum offers both sides of the story speculating on Atchison's role in the uprising, showing conflicting accounts and wondering if he was an instigator or a peacemaker.

Among the artifacts of his life, the museum displays Atchison's Whitney Navy, six-shot .36 caliber revolver, which he most likely had with him during the Kansas Raid.

A gargantuan Atchison-Topeka-Santa Fe locomotive sits outside the museum.

David Rice Atchison was a member of Platte Lodge 56, now defunct, and his grave marker in Plattsburg proclaims his status as president. Most historians agree Atchison was not President of the United States. Perhaps agreeing he was the ex-officio president can serve as a compromise as to his status.

Or, perhaps, given today's growing sentiment against those who supported the United States' ghastly "original sin" – slavery, it is best to mark Atchison's auspicious day as an interesting story and otherwise let sleeping dogs lie.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Bizarre Story of William Wirt

He was a Fellowcraft and perhaps even a Master Mason; an enigma of a 19th century man whose strange story even spills over into the twenty-first century. Born in 1772, William Wirt became an attorney practicing in Richmond, Virginia. In 1807, President Jefferson appointed him prosecutor in Aaron Burr's treason trial. There, he gained a reputation as a great orator and the high profile event greatly extended his fame. Back in Richmond, his political career began in 1808 as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, and later he served as a district attorney. In 1817 US President James Monroe, a Freemason, appointed him as Attorney General of the United States. He served in that position for over eleven years, into the term of John Quincy Adams, a notorious opponent of the Craft. History credits him with greatly increasing the significance of that office.

The infamous Morgan Affair of 1826 spawned sentiment against Freemasonry that grew to a nationwide level, and in 1832, it led to the formation of the country's first third political party... the Anti-Masonic party. The party approached Brother Henry Clay to be its presidential candidate. Clay turned them down with his famous quote, "I would not denounce or renounce Freemasonry even in order to become President of the United States." With Clay's rejection, the Anti-Masons turned to Wirt, who accepted. Wirt was initiated and passed in 1801 in Richmond's Jerusalem Lodge No. 54. He claimed never to have been raised, but the records of Virginia's Stevensburg Lodge 40 list a William Wirt as a Master Mason in 1803. At the nominating convention, Wirt surprised delegates by refusing to condemn the fraternity, telling them, "I was myself initiated into the mysteries of Freemasonry. I never took the Master's degree, but it proceeded from no suspicion on my part that there was anything criminal in the institution, or anything that placed its members in the slightest degree in collision with their allegiance to their country and its laws. I have thought and repeatedly said that I considered Masonry as having nothing to do with politics, and nothing has surprised me more than to see it blown into consequence..." In other words, at the convention where the Anti-Masonic party nominated him as its presidential candidate, he spoke in defense of Freemasonry.

The incumbent president, Brother Andrew Jackson, won the election, with Wirt winning the state of Vermont and its seven electoral votes.

So in a twist, we learn William Wirt, who ran for president on the Anti-Masonic ticket, was in fact a member of the Fraternity who spoke in defense of his experience as a Mason. That alone is baffling and strange; but Wirt's story isn't over. Before it's all over, the account of William Wirt goes from the strange to the downright bizarre.

* * *

William Wirt… a man who was a Freemason yet not only ran for president on the Anti-Masonic ticket, he also defended the fraternity in his nominating speech; but Wirt's strange and mystifying actions don't tell his full story. Years after his death, the tale of William Wirt becomes downright bizarre.

In December 2003, the phone rang in the office of William Fecke, manager of Washington's Congressional Cemetery. Fecke answered and an unidentified voice asked, "Would you be interested in getting William Wirt's head back?" The man, who has never been identified, explained he was in possession of articles a collector had accumulated over the years. The caller claimed Wirt's family tomb was robbed in the mid-1980s, and that is how he came in possession of the skull. The man called a few more times but never produced the skull. In the meantime, Fecke had Wirt's tomb inspected, found the contents to be in disarray and concluded it had been robbed.

A month later, Fecke received his second mysterious inquiry about the skull with the caller asking a question he had heard before, "Are you missing William Wirt's head?" This time the caller identified himself as DC Council member Jim Graham, who said he had Wirt's skull in his office, "Or, at least," he said, "I have a skull in an old metal box painted with gold letters reading 'The Honorable William Wirt.'" Apparently the anonymous caller had contacted Graham and told him the cemetery might be interested in getting it back or at least in determining if it really was Wirt's skull. It took the cemetery's plodding bureaucracy over a year to investigate but in May 2005, a task force again opened the tomb and inspected the bodies inside.

A thorough scientific study eventually determined the skull was in fact that of William Wirt. Graham revealed the names of the man who had given him the skull and the collector, but it was never determined who robbed the tomb or who the original anonymous caller was. Adding to the mystery, the task force discovered the remains of an infant inside the tomb and determined they were placed in there after the 1980s break-in. No one knows the identity of the infant, who put it there or why.

In the very unlikely event he would have been elected president, Wirt would have died in office two years later at the age of 61. The Freemason who ran for president on the Anti-Masonic ticket but defended Freemasonry leaves us with unanswered questions nearly two centuries after his death. But with his skull now returned to its rightful place, he now rests in peace while the rest of us ponder the enigma that is William Wirt.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Clasped Hands

Francis Rawdon Hastings, the 2nd Earl of Moira (1754-1826) was a British soldier and colonial administrator. From 1790 until 1813, he was Acting Grand Master to H.R.H. George, Prince of Wales, who later became King George IV and, in 1806-1807, he served as Grand Master of Scotland. At the end of the eighteenth century, he tirelessly and nearly single-handedly worked to defeat the Unlawful Societies act of 1799, which would have effectively outlawed Freemasonry. Aside from a few provisions which had little effect on the craft, he was successful in his efforts, and in a very real sense, saved Freemasonry in Great Britain.

On July 12, 1804, He married Flora Mure-Campbell, the 6th Countess of Loudoun. Together, from 1806-1812, they had no less than six children, one of whom died in infancy.

In 1813, George III appointed him Governor-General of India. His country calling, he accepted the position, but it was deemed inadvisable for his wife to accompany him with five children ranging in age from one to seven. He made the trip to India alone and served for nearly a decade. He resigned in 1823, and returned home to his family. Then, in 1824 George IV appointed him Governor of Malta, separating him from his family once again.

It is not known how often Hastings and his wife were able to be together after the appointments that took him far from home. However, an unusual request in his will indicates his dedication to her. On a sea voyage in 1826, perhaps returning for a visit home, he fell ill and died. His body was returned to Malta where his grave is located today. The unusual provision in his will, however, was that his right hand be cut from his body and buried with his wife at her death. His wish was granted. Lady Flora died in 1840 and eternally his hand rests clasped in hers, buried in the family vault in the Old Kirk Church of Loudoun.

Friday, October 9, 2020

We Forgive You

 I stood curbside at Chicago's O'Hare Airport waiting for my ride. I was there to speak at a Masonic event and another one of the speakers walked up to me and introduced himself as a Brother from Tennessee. I told him I was from Missouri. As we shook hands he said, "Steve, we forgive you."

I knew exactly what he meant. The story, the Missouri side of it, anyway, had come to me in a sort of bull session I had with the Grand Secretary of Missouri at the time, RWB Ron Miller:

Back about 200 years ago… in fact, exactly 200 years ago, the territory that would soon become the state of Missouri had about 100 Brothers who were members of three Lodges spearheading an effort to form a Grand Lodge. The three Lodges were Missouri Lodge 12, Joachim Lodge 25, and St. Charles Lodge 28, all chartered through the Grand Lodge of Tennessee.

Today, the process of creating a new Grand Lodge might be a formal event accompanied by pomp and circumstance. Back then, however, when communication was a lot slower, things were different. The Brothers from those three Lodges got together, decided the time was right, and, presto chango, declared themselves to be a Grand Lodge. No pomp, no circumstance, no muss, no fuss.

When you stop to think about it, any group today could do the same thing; just get together and announce to the world, "Hey, guys, look at us… we're a new Grand Lodge!" There is one catch. The key to becoming a Grand Lodge is not declaration. It's recognition.

Missouri's uppity declaration did not sit well with the Grand Lodge of Tennessee. It responded to Missouri's claim with a resounding, "Oh, no, you're not a Grand Lodge." It seems the three Lodges combined owed their mother Grand Lodge a total of $17, and it refused to recognize them until the debt was paid. Missouri disputed the claim.

In the meantime, other Grand Lodges granted recognition to Missouri, which ultimately settled the issue and gave Missouri the backing to respond to Tennessee, "Oh, yes we are a Grand Lodge." Subsequent correspondence indicates Missouri did not follow its response with, "Nyah, nyah, na nyah, nyah," but the urge to do so may have been strong.

So at least between me and my new friend from Tennessee this two centuries old dispute now appears to have been settled and the Grand Lodge of Missouri and Grand Lodge of Tennessee can let bygones be bygones.

We're still not paying the $17, though.