Album of Masonic Impostors
May 22, 2008
Why would someone impersonate a Freemason? And why would someone publish a book showing some of the supposedly more nefarious characters who have impersonated Masons?
Pictured here is a page from a book called Album of Masonic Impostors [Call no.: 19.78 .A345 1903], which was published by The Masonic Relief Association of the United States and Canada, an organization which was a sort of clearing house for improving the methods for providing relief by various Masonic organizations, as well as a central organization for disseminating informaton throughout North America about men known to have tried (or, in many cases, succeeded) in defrauding various Masonic relief agencies by claiming membership in various Masonic bodies.
Especially during a time when receiving benefits in the workplace was uncommon, one of the benefits of joining a fraternal organization was just that - receiving benefits. Death benefits and various types of insurance were some of what you received for paying your dues. (In fact, many non-Masonic fraternal organizations went on to primarily become life insurance companies, many of which still keep "fraternal" in their name, although the fraternal aspect of many of these organizations has been de-emphasized, or disappeared altogether.)
Because there was money to be had by members of a fraternity who were genuinely in need, a brisk business grew of con-men who traveled around posing as Masons and trying to get relief (in the form of money) provided by various Masonic organizations in the different towns and cities they visited. The Masonic Relief Association published an "Official Warning Circular" on a regular basis (a number of which we also have in our collection), that warned various Masonic relief organizations about some of the con men that might come their way. The Album of Masonic Impostors is a bit of a rogues' gallery of some of these men.
Call me soft-hearted, but when I see these photos, like the one of C.S. Salisbury above, I wonder what desperate circumstances drove men like him to resort to becoming "Masonic Impostors."
If you want to learn more about the role of Masonic and fraternal organizations in providing "relief" and social services, we've got a number of great resources. A great place to start is:
Beito, David T. From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967. Chapel Hill, N.C. : University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Call number:44 .B423 2000