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Freemasonry Watch

Batavia News: Masons, Morgan and Dan Brown

The Morgan Monument

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The Daily News - 'Serving Genessee, Wyoming, Orleans (NY) Counties'

BLOG: Masons, Morgan and Dan Brown

Posted: Monday, October 26, 2009 | Updated: Thu Jul 15, 2010

By Ben Beagle

The Daily News Onlines

The Morgan Monument, Batavia Cemetery, Freemasons, Freemasonry
The Morgan Monument is seen among other grave markers in the southwest corner of historic Batavia Cemetery on Harvester Avenue, Batavia. (Rocco Laurienzo/Daily News)

William Morgan, Freemasons, Freemasonry
William Morgan. (Photo courtesy of Holland Land Office Museum)
Dan Brown is well on his way to another blockbuster novel about secret societies, signs and puzzles. “The Lost Symbol,” which finds Harvard professor Robert Langdon unraveling the mysterious brotherhood of the Masons, has held the top of best-seller lists since its release about a month ago.

Area libraries report interest is high in Brown’s first novel since “The Da Vinci Code.” The Nioga library system, which serves Genesee, Orleans and Niagara counties, had more than 140 holds, or reserves, on “The Lost Symbol” a week after the book hit library shelves.

“In the year and a half I’ve worked in a Nioga system library, this is one of the longest hold lists I’ve seen,” said Emily Cebula, director of Yates Community Library, Lyndonville.

Burlingham Books in Perry sold more than a dozen copies of "Lost Symbol" in its first few days of release and owner Ann Burlingham reports increased interest in his earlier books and occasional inquiries about Freemasonry.

“Definitely, the Freemasons angle is of interest to readers who want to see how he treats this subject,” said Leslie DeLooze, reference and community services librarian at Richmond Memorial Library, Batavia.

In “The Lost Symbol,” Brown’s protagonist Robert Langdon, a symbolist, is on a mission to find a Masonic pyramid containing a code that unlocks an ancient secret to “unfathomable power.” It’s a story of hidden history in the nation’s capitol, with Masons — whose members have included Mozart, George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt — the greatest puzzle of all.

Brown’s new book opens with a page labeled “FACT:” in which the author explains that a document with cryptic text is real. He states that the organizations in the novel, including the Freemason, and “all rituals, science, artwork and monuments” in the novel are real.

But Brown doesn’t explicitly state that his story is a work of fiction — though that disclaimer can be found in small type on the copyright page.

That may be where Brown gets himself in trouble among those who have taken issue with his stories. His successful writing formula is based so much on fact that readers may find it easy to believe that the adventure is real.

But you don’t need Brown to find an intriguing Mason mystery. Western New York has one of its own, and it’s as good as any best-selling novelist could devise.

William Morgan, a Virginia native, who found his way to Batavia (and lived for a time in Le Roy), disappeared while trying to publish the ritual of the secretive Free and Accepted Masons.

According to historical accounts culled from The New York Times, the Holland Land Office Museum (which ranks Morgan at No. 3 on its list of "25 Things that Made Genesee County Famous"), and our own archives, here‘s what‘s generally accepted as fact: Morgan was forcibly abducted in 1826 and presumed murdered for attempting to reveal the order’s secrets.

His disappearance came to be known as “The Morgan Affair,” a mystery that encompasses several counties in Western New York (Morgan’s ghost is said to visit Marjim Manor, a winery on the shores of Lake Ontario, looking for the rock that his body was allegedly tied to before being dumped into Lake Ontario or the Niagara River).

The story is also remembered by a monument in historic Batavia cemetery. The 37-foot high obelisk, in the southwest corner of the cemetery, features a solitary figure with a scroll in his hand standing high in the air. It can be found in the southwest corner of the cemetery along Harvester Avenue. The monument often draws tourists looking for the Morgan statue, according to Catherine Roth.

“This is one of the coolest stories ever to come out of Western New York,” Patrick Weissend, former director of the Holland Land Office Museum in Batavia, has said.

Morgan’s story has been retold countless times in works both fictional and non-fictional, most recently in Robert Berry’s self-published “The Bright Mason: An American Mystery,” in which Berry says he uses primary source material and modern academic analysis to offer a detailed account of Morgan’s disappearance and the origin of the Antimasonry party.

Weissend counts Morgan’s story and ongoing speculation as one of his favorite stories.

In an interview with The Daily News in June, Weissend recalled meeting people from Honduras who claimed to be Morgan descendants.

“The family claims he jumped on a ship in Lake Ontario, and made his way south to the Caribbean. And that he was shipwrecked and he started a family down there,” Weissend said.

Morgan was a bricklayer who wanted to become a member of the Masonic fraternity. When a Masonic lodge opened in Batavia, Morgan applied for membership, saying her was a member in the Le Roy lodge. It was discovered that Morgan lied about his membership and his application was denied. The book, disclosing the secrets of the society, was believed to be an attempt to get revenge for his denial.

Here's what historians have generally accepted:

In 1826, Morgan wrote “Morgan’s Illustrations of Masonry,” a book said to betray the secrets of the Masons. Upon announcing his intent to publish his book, Morgan was threatened with imprisonment or death if he persisted.

He disappeared Sept. 12, 1826, before the book made public.

History confirms that Morgan was taken from Batavia to Rochester and ended up in a building in Fort Niagara. He had been arrested on “trumped up” charges for stealing a shirt and cravat from a tavern-keeper in Canandaigua and served with a warrant on Sept. 11, 1826, while in Batavia. He was loaded into a wagon and put on trial in Canandaigua. The charge was dismissed, but Morgan was re-arrested immediately for a small debt to another Canandaigua tavern keeper and placed in jail.

Then, the mystery gets interesting.

The New York Times articles report that “Early the next morning, Sept. 12, one Loton Lawson appeared at the jail and paid Morgan’s debt, when he was instantly released. On gaining the open air he found a carriage standing at the door of the jail. Nicholas G. Chesebro, dward Sawyer, John Sheldon and Lawson seized him, and, though he struggled desperately to escape, forced him into the carriage and drove rapidly away toward Rochester.”

From Rochester, Morgan was taken to Fort Niagara and across the Canadian border “and he disappeared forever from human sight,” the Times article said.

Morgan’s body was never found.

In Batavia, many were certain that Morgan was taken by his abductors and killed. About the same time, there was an attempt to burn down a printing office in Batavia where a friend of Morgan’s was helping him with the manuscript.

An anti-Mason crusade spread across the county, the state and eventually the nation. The four men who took Morgan from the Canandaigua jail were arrested and convicted, serving between 30 days and two years in jail.

Some news accounts and books written after the incident suggest Morgan was killed, his body dumped into Lake Ontario or the Niagara River.

But the mystery was only beginning.

In October 1827, a body washed ashore at the mouth of Oak orchard Creek in Orleans County. The badly decomposed body was taken to Batavia where many people came to the conclusion that it was the remains of Morgan and buried in Batavia Cemetery.

But then another woman, whose own husband had drowned at the mouth of the Niagara River, sought for the exhumation of the body believed to be Morgan’s. The clothing, though tattered, on the body matched the description of the woman’s husband. A coroner’s jury then declared that it was not the body of Morgan, though many citizens of Batavia, The Times reported, continued to believe that body was Morgan’s and a movement began in May 1881 to raise money for a monument to Morgan in Batavia Cemetery.

Other stories have speculated:

• Morgan was given money by Freemasons from Canada so he would disappear and start a new life, living out his days on a small farm.

• Morgan traveled on his own to the Caribbean and was later hanged in Cuba.

• Morgan was shipwrecked off the coast of Cuba and lived out his life in the Cayman Islands.

• Morgan disappeared on his own to boost the books sales, or as a way to leave his wfie and children.

• Morgan hid out on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation until his death several years later.

• Morgan was given money by various people from the area to disappear.

Over the years, The Times reports, there were many reports of people claiming to be the famous — or infamous — Morgan, with reports of his death coming from around the globe. In 1881, men digging a quarry in Pembroke, 2 miles south of the Reservation, found bones, a ring with the initials W.M. and a scrap of paper in an old tobacco box. But that, too, would eventually be debunked, Weissend said.

“Nobody knows for sure,” Weissend said, what was Morgan’s ultimate fate.

And isn’t that what makes for a good mystery? Fact, or fiction.


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