Even in the context of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library’s collection there is something so tempting about the forbidden. At least, that’s the feeling I had when a prospective donor offered this Masonic apron to us recently. I do have a soft spot for Masonic aprons in general, and then I learned that this one was supposedly worn by a member of the Cerneau Scottish Rite Consistory in Lenox, Massachusetts, during the 1890s. That did it – I was intrigued and immediately agreed that it should be added to our collection.
But, some of you may be wondering who – or what – is Cerneau, while others are grimacing in disgust. For those that don’t know, Joseph Cerneau (1765-1848) was a French Freemason who lived in San Domingo and then Cuba before moving to New York City in 1806. While in Cuba, Cerneau joined a Scottish Rite group and was given the authority of a Deputy Inspector General. This allowed him to confer several degrees on other prospective Scottish Rite members in Cuba, but the jurisdictional restriction does not seem to stopped Cerneau from conferring the degrees once he reached New York. Debate has raged ever since over whether he acted out of confusion or greed (since he would receive a fee from each man who received the degrees).
In 1813, the Scottish Rite Supreme Council in Charleston, South Carolina, sent a member to investigate Cerneau, as well as two additional groups claiming to have jurisdiction in New York. After Cerneau refused the member's request to inspect his records, he was denounced “as an imposter of the first magnitude, and whom we have expelled from Masonic Asylum within our Jurisdiction.” Cerneau was not daunted by the pronouncement and continued to confer degrees. He oversaw his own Supreme Council until 1827, when he left New York to return to France. Despite Cerneau’s departure from the United States, his name continued to serve as an umbrella term for spurious and irregular Masonic groups, like the one associated with this apron.
Information provided with the apron when it was donated suggests that it was worn by George Washington Ferguson (1865-1936), an ice dealer in Lenox who joined nearby Evening Star Lodge in 1891. At the time, many men who belonged to their local lodge found that they wanted to learn more about Masonic symbolism and philosophy. Joining additional Masonic groups allowed them to do this, as well as to increase their social circle. The Scottish Rite, with twenty-nine additional degrees, is often called “the University of Freemasonry,” because of the allegorical lessons that its degrees teach. However, in 1891, the nearest recognized Scottish Rite Consistory to Lenox was in Worcester, almost ninety miles away. But, in April 1891, the Cerneau Supreme Council formed Berkshire Consistory No. 56 in Lenox and, according to the information with the apron, Ferguson joined this group. Records of Berkshire Consistory’s founding state that there were thirty-six charter members.
Berkshire Consistory No. 56 continued to meet throughout the 1890s, even hosting the Grand Sovereign Consistory’s “annual rendezvous,” or meeting, in 1895. In response, the Supreme Council of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, which had denounced Cerneau and his group back in 1813, established the Onota Lodge of Perfection in nearby Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Relations between the two groups proved to be difficult over the next several years.
Questions remain unanswered about George Ferguson and Berkshire Consistory No. 56. Did he ever switch to the recognized Onota Lodge of Perfection? How long did Berkshire Consistory No. 56 remain functional? Please write a comment below if you know more about the story, or have additional questions. This year, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, saluting its longevity. This apron is a scarce reminder of the competing Berkshire Consistory No. 56 and its story.
Cerneau Scottish Rite Apron, ca. 1891, American. Gift of Pittsfield Masonic Association, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, 2011.032. Photograph by David Bohl.