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April 2009

Meet Zoeth Knowles

Zoeth_knowles_cropped_higher_res_12Among the people visitors met in “Remember Me:  Highlights from the National Heritage Museum” is a young Civil War soldier, Zoeth Knowles (bn. 1843).

Knowles’ bold gaze, relaxed posture and handsome Zouave uniform do more than suggest youthful confidence--he projects it.  The twenty-one-year-old Knowles may have commissioned this daguerreotype, along with another in the NHM collection, when he joined the war effort in 1864.  With these images, his parents and five siblings would have something to remember him by during his absence or if he did not return home to Boston.

A member of the Signal Corps, Knowles sent messages between armed forces personnel using flags and codes. Standing on towers or other high points waving flags, signalmen were particularly vulnerable to sniper fire. 

In spite of his work, Knowles survived his sixteen months of service.  Afterward, he returned to the Boston area where he was a cabinetmaker for many years.

Please find a 2012 revision to this blog post here!

Zoeth Knowles, Gift of the Cloues Family, 96.045.4

The Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur

A2002_89_1_front_web Chances are, when you hear the name "Ben-Hur," you think of Charlton Heston starring as Judah Ben-Hur in the 1959 film. But did you know that the novel that inspired the 1959 film also inspired the creation of a fraternal organization?

Published in 1880, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, was written by Lew Wallace, who lived in Crawfordsville, Indiana. By the 1890s, Wallace had become a celebrity due to the huge popularity of his book. Although perhaps difficult to imagine today, Ben-Hur was one of most widely read and commercially successful of all nineteenth-century novels.

Thirteen years after the publication of the book, David Washington Gerard, Wallace's neighbor, approached Wallace asking if he would approve of a plan to start a fraternal organization based on the characters in his popular novel. Wallace consented and the organization - a mutual benefit society which provided insurance to its members - was founded. The objectives of the order were to provide life insurance benefits, to improve members socially, to provide entertainment, to aid in business and secure employment, to care for the sick, and to bury the dead. Like some other mutual benefit societies of the time, they also accepted both women and men equally as members of the organization. They were, in short, like many other mutual benefit societies that had been formed in the late 19th century. What was quite different was their ritual.

The 1914 ritual contains a preface that includes "General Directions to Officers of Court," that explicitly states the connection of the ritual to the 1880 book. Under a prefatory listing of six important points that should be "faithfully observed" in order to properly carry out the ritual, the top of the list reads:

1. Study the book Ben-Hur. You cannot properly give the work unless you are very familiar with the story, as the Ritual embodies the tragic scenes and incidents in the career of Ben-Hur, his mother and sister, whom the candidates are supposed to represent, and in many passages, the exact language of the book is given.

Although the ritual we have doesn't feature any chariot races (although references to it abound in the ritual, and the official publication of the group was called The Chariot), another memorable part of the Ben-Hur story does feature prominently: Ben-Hur's enslavement as an oarsman on a ship. Indeed, the ritual of the Court Degree even features a collapsible boat, or at least a collapsible bench, serving as the galley of a ship, as part of the ritual. (Yes, some of us have a thing for collapsing fraternal props.) The candidate is told:

 "One day in battle as Ben-Hur was rowing, the vessel received a great shock, the oars were suddenly dashed from his hands, and the rowers from their benches, and for the first time the beating of the gavel was lost in the uproar, and the galley went to pieces." Here the Master of Ceremonies pulls the cord and the collapse comes. The Captain and Guide quickly assist the candidate to his feet...

For many years, the Tribe of Ben-Hur maintained its ties to the novel that inspired it - an increase in membership of the fraternity in the 1920s can likely be traced to the 1925 MGM silent film, a blockbuster of its time (and, incidentally, the second film-version of the novel; the first being in 1907). In 1928, the fraternity released a book called The Boy's Ben-Hur, an abridged version of the novel, published by Harper Brothers.

A2002_89_1_inside_web Pictured here today are two views of a beneficial (i.e. insurance) certificate (FR001.100) issued to Hattie M. Thompson of Manila, Arkansas in 1924. The image above is from the front of the certificate. The image seen here is a detail from the inside of the certificate and the illustrations show three important elements of the Ben-Hur story: the ship on which Ben-Hur was an enslaved oarsman, the chariot race (made especially famous by the 1959 film), and the three wise men, or Magi, of the nativity story of Jesus Christ (Ben-Hur takes place in the early days of the Biblical account of the life of Christ).

By the 1980s, Ben-Hur Life Association (a modernizing name change occurred in the 1930s) was essentially a life insurance company with fraternal roots. In 1988, the association officially disbanded the fraternity, converted to a mutual insurance company and changed its name to the decidedly less romantic-sounding USA Life Insurance Company of Indiana. (In 1990, the name changed slightly again to USA Life One Insurance Company of Indiana, after another company with a similar name objected.) Today, USA Life One Insurance Company of Indiana is still in existence. On their website, you'll see that while they note that they've been in business for over 100 years, Ben-Hur's name, alas, is nowhere to be found.

And one final note: we noticed that the current owners/developers of the Ben Hur Life Building in downtown Crawfordsville are looking for a long-term investment partner.

Interested in learning more about the Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur? We recommend:

Constitution of the Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur
[Crawfordsville, Indiana] : The Ben-Hur Print, 1901.
Call number: HS 1510 .T822 1901

Court Degree Ritual of the Tribe of Ben-Hur
[Crawfordsville, Ind.] : R.H. Gerard, [1914] (photocopy)
Call number: HS 1510 .T822 G46

Iliff, David Gerard, Jr. The Lost Tribe of Ben-Hur.
Indianapolis, Ind.: Fall Creek Review, 1994.
Call number: HS 1510 .T824 I28 1994

Remembering Bertha Hills' Wedding

77_8_22 Wedding dress S cropped The National Heritage Museum collects objects that help its staff tell America’s story, which in turn, helps our visitors understand the lives of people in the past. Sometimes we are lucky enough to receive an object with its complete history, but more often, we receive bits of information and need to fill in the blanks. This was true of the wedding dress recently featured in the exhibition “Remember Me: Highlights from the National Heritage Museum.”

A favorite with visitors, as evidenced by the number of times it was drawn or described on the comment cards in the gallery, the wedding dress came with a donation of objects from its original owner’s family. With it came a note saying that it was Bertha Hills’ wedding dress, made of “India mull” —a soft, delicate, white, imported fabric—and that it had been dry-cleaned in 1964. The note also included the prices for some of the wedding expenses, taken from Bertha’s father, Thomas Hills’, account book:

Dress maker: $92.50
Caterer—wedding supper:  $110.20
Florist—decorations: $29.50
Gift to groom for railroad tickets: $50.00
For bride—a trunk: $10.00

This note gave us a lot of information about Bertha’s wedding. The one thing it didn’t tell us, however, was who Bertha married. Other items in this gift offered some clues. A silk bag contained a note saying, “Ribbon- held by cousins of the bride - (Bertha Hills) to form an 'aisle' as she came down the stairs and into the parlor of her father's (Thomas Hills) home (at 157 K St) South Boston to marry Harold Hershall [?] on Sept 11 1893.”

A little research helped round out the story. The September 21, 1910, obituary for Bertha’s father stated that Mr. Hills, Boston’s City Assessor, was survived by two children, Joseph Lawrence Hills and Bertha Marshall, wife of Rev. Harold Marshall of Melrose. We now had a married name for Bertha, well as her husband’s name and occupation, and a town they likely lived in. Census records told us that Bertha Hills was born in 1868, and that Bertha and Harold had a daughter Elisabeth, born in 1901. By delving into the historic records, we could imagine the wedding and married life of Miss Bertha Hills.

Wedding Dress, 1893. National Heritage Museum, Gift of Alden M. Perkins, 77.8.22a-f. Photo by David Bohl.


"Quite to Connecticut": (Google)mapping the Journey of the Lexington Alarm

Last week, we wrote about the Lexington Alarm letter, which is on view this week in the National Heritage Museum, in celebration of Patriots' Day. Today we're taking a look at the journey that the postrider, Israel Bissel, took as he delivered the alarm from Watertown, Massachusetts to New York City.

 News travels fast today. One of the stories to come out of the so-called "Miracle on the Hudson" a few months back was how quickly the news of the emergency plane landing on the river spread. The speed at which news spreads has always been of interest and concern in the United States. If you've ever traveled on a "post road" (and chances are you probably have, even if you didn't know it), you've driven on roads that were created to insure that the mail - including the newspapers that were delivered by mail - traveled quickly. In 1775, when news needed to be conveyed quickly over far distances, it was often by means of a letter carried by a rider on horseback.

Quite_to_Connecticut_detail Just before dawn on April 19, 1775, John Parker and 77 local militiamen gathered on the green in Lexington as a large number of British soldiers approached from the direction of Boston, where they had left during the night of April 18. Realizing that they were outnumbered, Parker ordered his men to disperse. Amid the confusion, a shot rang out. Who fired first has never been conclusively determined, but by the time the skirmish was over, eight men were killed and nine were injured. The British troops then left Lexington and marched on toward Concord where they intended to seize munitions that were stored there. The alarm - or news of the battle on the Lexington Common - was spreading quickly, however. By the time the British reached the Old North Bridge in Concord, they were met by 3,500 militiamen.

But news of the Battle of Lexington spread far beyond the immediate vicinity. It's not by accident that the news of the battle was able to be spread quickly and across a large geographic area. Committees of Correspondence were already set up throughout the colonies, insuring that an infrastructure was in place to facilitate the efficient spread of important news. In the second half of 1774, an alarm system had been set up, and British troops were being closely watched. The colonists were prepared to set into motion a pre-orchestrated plan that would quickly disseminate important news through local networks that spread the news. The spread of information in 1775 was a very physical act.

News of the Lexington alarm was not entrusted to just anyone: it was put in the capable hands of Israel Bissel (sometimes spelled Bissell). Bissel was a 23-year-old professional postrider from East Windsor, Connecticut, who knew the roads he was traveling very well, by virtue of having traveled them many times before delivering express letters. Bissel traveled along the network of post roads in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York, spreading news of the battle of Lexington as he went. The news traveled fairly quickly: by noon on the 21st, the news had traveled to New York City, approximately 225 miles south - a sustained speed of around 5-7 miles per hour. That might seem quaint today, but to someone traveling by horseback on unlit roads, this is fairly remarkable.

In the letter that Bissel was carrying (which you can read about in our previous post), he was "Charged to alarm the Country quite to Connecticut," something that he accomplished by carrying a series of letters along a predetermined route. In each town where he stopped, a member of the local Committee of Correspondence would keep Bissel's letter and hand-copy it. The copy would be given to Bissel, who would bring it to the next town. Each new copy contained information about who had already received the letter, as well as when it had been received. To make a contemporary analogy, the letters can be seen as carrying information similar to a forwarded e-mail, including the list of previous recipients, and the date and timestamp that they received the message.

Using Google Maps, we've put together a map of Bissel's journey, along with the times that he arrived at each location (you can find a larger version of the map here, which is a bit easier to work with than the one below) Bissel's journey is well-documented, and, as mentioned above, the dates and times that he arrived at each location on his journey were noted on the copies of the letters that he carried with him.  Using this information, and keeping with the theme of the spread of information, here's a 21st-century look at an 18th-century journey:

View Larger Map

Two great resources on the Lexington alarm (also mentioned in our previous post) are:

John H. Scheide. "The Lexington Alarm." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society. Volume 50, Part 1 (1940) pp. 49-79.

David Hackett Fischer. Paul Revere's Ride. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
 Call number: F69 .R43 F57 1994




"For the Defense of the Lives, Liberties and Properties”: Celebrating Patriot’s Day

One of the joys of living in Massachusetts is the local holidays and history-based celebrations.  This is state that takes the Revolutionary era seriously. 

On April 20, 2009, we will mark Patriot’s Day, a holiday originally established in 1894, to commemorate the history-making battles at Lexington and Concord.  The National Heritage Museum’s exhibition, “Sowing the Seeds of Liberty:  Lexington and the American Revolution,” tells the story of the day through the eyes and voices of the people who helped shape our nation's struggle for independence, not only on the day of the battle but in the years and decades before.  Seeds_Entrance1

This year, through the generosity of the Lexington Historical Society, we have special short-term addition the exhibition—one of the drums thought to have been purchased by the town of Lexington in the uncertain months before April 1775.

In 1774, with the Boston harbor closed, General Gage appointed governor and a growing number of British troops in the city, many New Englanders feared an armed confrontation with the soldiers. Lexingtonians began to prepare.  Like other New England towns, in the mid-1750s, Lexington established a militia both to defend itself and to provide trained troops to fight in the French and Indian Wars. In the years after that conflict, the militia continued. 

Faced with growing tensions and increased British military presence, in the spring of 1774, Lexington formed a committee to manage its stock of ammunition. This committee soon purchased 6 half-barrels of gunpowder, over 100 pounds of bullets and “a Pair of Drums for the use of the Military Company in Town.” The new Massachusetts Provincial Congress, which colonists established in response to the closing of the General Court in 1774, started seriously organizing the colony’s military resources in the fall. Colony leaders asked each town to send an accounting of militia members and a description of its equipment and ammunition stock.

By February, British General Gage knew that the colony was preparing for a fight. His intelligence agents told him that all together, Massachusetts towns could field 15,000 armed and well-trained men. In 1774 Lexington residents elected John Parker captain of the militia. He trained 141 men on the green in front of the meetinghouse throughout the warm fall and winter. William Diamond, a sixteen-year-old wheelwright’s apprentice, was the militia’s drummer. For months, the rhythms he beat on his drum communicated Captain Parker’s commands when the company practiced drilling. Seeds with drum

Neighboring towns began stockpiling their ammunition and supplies in a central location: Concord. A progressively more alarmed General Gage received reports that 10 tons of musket balls and 35 half-barrels of powder, along with a large stock of medical supplies and several cannons had been brought together in Concord. While Gage considered what to do about this flagrant and dangerous preparation for military action, Captain Parker received an order from the Provincial Congress in March. He was to assemble his militia whenever General Gage’s soldiers marched out of Boston.  In the early hours of April 19, 1775, his drum called the militia to assemble outside Buckman Tavern.

To learn more about April 19, 1775, come see “Sowing the Seeds of Liberty:  Lexington and the American Revolution.”  You can also catch a preview of the exhibition online.

Get Your Tickets Today for "Teddy Roosevelt: Mind, Body and Spirit," April 22 at 7:30 pm

Teddy_flag  One man. One hour. One unforgettable show. The  Museum is please to present Teddy Roosevelt: Mind, Body and Spirit, an evening of living history with actor/author/educator Ted Zalewski, Wednesday, April 22 at 7:30 pm. Zalewski brings to life one of America’s greatest presidents through history, drama and fun as he gives voice to many of Roosevelt’s own words, writing, and beliefs. Cowboy, soldier, naturalist, historian, Mason, father, statesman and winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, Theodore Roosevelt lived a life that inspires us still.

This program is one in a series created by the National Heritage Museum, Minuteman National Historical Park, and the Massachusetts Historical Society to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Park. Admission is $12/adult, $6/child; discount for Museum members. Tickets can be purchased through the Museum’s web site or at the door. For more information, please call 781-861-6559.

The Lexington Alarm Letter


Late on April 18, 1775, British soldiers marched from Boston, toward Concord, to seize munitions that were stockpiled there. Around dawn on April 19, they were met by 77 militiamen on Lexington Common. A shot rang out, and the British opened fire. Eight patriots were dead and nine wounded.

At around 10 a.m. on the morning of April 19, 1775, just hours after the battle on the Lexington green, Joseph Palmer, a member of the Committee of Safety in Watertown, Massachusetts, composed a letter describing the events of that morning. Palmer then gave his letter to the Committee's messenger, Israel Bissel (sometimes spelled Bissell), who galloped out of Watertown on horseback and rode to Worcester. In Worcester, the text was then transcribed by Nathan Balding. Balding's copy of Palmer's letter was given to Bissel, who carried the letter on to Brooklyn, Connecticut, where he arrived on April 20.

The alarm letter seen here, which is in our collection, was copied out in Brooklyn, Connecticut during the late morning of April 20, by Daniel Tyler, Jr., son-in-law to General Israel Putnam. Tyler copied the text from the letter Bissel had brought from Worcester, and sent this letter on to Norwich, Connecticut where Bissel and the letter arrived around 4 o'clock in the afternoon of the 20th.

Bissel delivered the letter to Christopher Leffingwell, who was the proprietor of a tavern in Norwich and a row of shops known as "Leffingwell Row," all located in the center of town. Governor Jonathan Trumbull was in Norwich on the day that Bissel and the alarm letter arrived; historians have speculated that it's likely that Trumbull got news of the Lexington alarm while he was in Norwich. 

Bissel carried subsequent copies of the Lexington Alarm letter on to New York. Other riders took the message down further down the East Coast; by mid-May, news had reached as far as Charleston, S.C. - about 1,000 miles away.

Below is a transcription of our Lexington Alarm letter. The verso of the letter (not shown here) reads: "To Christopher Leffingwell Esq. or either the Committee of Correspondence Norwich." 

Watertown Wednesday Morning near 10 o'Clock

To all the Friends of American Liberty, be it known that this Morning before breake of Day a Brigade consisting of about 1000 or 1200 Men landed at Phip’s Farm at Cambridge & marched to Lexington where they found a Company of our Colony Militia in Arms, upon Whom they fired without any Provocation and killed 6 Men and Wounded 4 others. By an Express from Boston this Moment, we find another Brigade are now upon their march from Boston supposed to be about 1000. The Bearer Mr. Israel Bissel is charged to alarm the Country quite to Connecticut and all Persons are desired to furnish him with Fresh Horses as they may be needed. I have spoken with Several Persons who have seen the Dead & Wounded. Pray let the Delegates from this Colony to Connecticut see this they know.

J. Palmer, one of the
Committee of S-----y [i.e. Safety].

Col. Foster of Brookfield one of the Delegates. A True Coppy taken from the original p[er] order of Committee of Correspondence for Worcester. Attest. Nathan Balding T[own] Clerk
Worcester April 19th 1775.

Brooklyne Thursday 11 o'Clock - The above is a true Coppy as rec[eived] here p[er] Express forwarded from Worcester - [at]Test. Daniel Tyler, Jr.

The Lexington Alarm letter will be on view in the lobby of the National Heritage Museum from April 18-26, as part of the festivities surrounding Patriots Day, a Massachusetts holiday that commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

If you're interested in the full story of the Lexington Alarm and exactly how the news spread after the letter above arrived in Norwich, Connecticut, we recommend the following article, which is available in our library:

John H. Scheide. "The Lexington Alarm." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society. Volume 50, Part 1 (1940) pp. 49-79.

Another great resource for learning more about the events surrounding April 19, 1775, as well as a great explanation about the establishment of the "alarm" network employed by the colonies can be found in:

David Hackett Fischer. Paul Revere's Ride. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Call number:F69 .R43 F57 1994

Next week: More about Israel Bissel - including a map of his ride from Massachusetts to New York.

Use Our 'Learning Blog' in the Classroom to Bring Patriots' Day to Life

Patriots' Day is a special holiday in Massachusetts. Because it is marked by public celebrations unique to each Massachusetts town, children grow up eagerly attending or even participating in parades and historic reenactments that commemorate the beginnings of the American Revolution. Through these, they become familiar with events and people that are tied to landscapes right outside their front doors. The Museum’s other blog, "Learning at the National Heritage Museum", highlights primary sources and provides lessons that can be used in the classroom or at home to help learners of all ages gain a deeper understanding of the familiar historic events that we celebrate on Patriots' Day.

Doolittle battle With the material on the 'Learning Blog', rooted in the "Sowing the Seeds of Liberty: Lexington and the American Revolution" exhibition, visitors can reconstruct the feelings and experiences that must have flooded the thoughts of the citizens of Lexington as Regular troops equal in number to the 800 people who lived in Lexington  marched up to the Common in the early morning of April 19th. Why did seventy-seven members of Lexington's militia decide to assemble and confront the King's troops? Click on the links that follow to access the Learning Blog and find out.

The Massachusetts provincial court archives provide us with a window to glimpse what kind of community Lexington was before 1775. The town seems to have been an

unlikely home for revolutionaries, with very little crime of any kind. In this peaceable community, however, provincial politics filled the meetinghouse, both at town meeting and through the sermons of Jonas Clarke. One vivid example is the Lexington Tea Party of Dec. 13, 1773. Three days before the Boston Tea Party, Lexington's selectmen resolved to boycott imported tea, newly taxed by Parliamentary Act, and, in reaction to the King's policy, "be ready to Sacrifice our Estate, and everything dear in life, yea and Life itself, in Support of the common cause." These strong words reveal the passion and resolve that took symbolic form in a winter bonfire on the town common, onto which the people of Lexington threw all their tea. This act of protest was reported on approvingly by the widely-read Worcester newspaper, The Massachusetts Spy.

Green and white teapot 91_025-12a-bT1 The drama of Lexington's political actions unfolded against the backdrop of how the series of taxes levied on vital goods imported from England affected the people of Lexington. Both the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765 made goods that people used virtually every day more expensive . Although the public mood of the town never turned riotous, as it did in Boston, the primary sources and activities on the Learning Blog show how citizens gradually developed the resolve to resist, and finally to rebel.

After more than ten years of buildup, the tensions caused by this fundamental conflict between Massachusetts colonists and their rulers exploded into a bloody confrontation, the Battle of Lexington and Concord. If we can fathom the "Why?" behind the first shots in the American Revolution, it becomes that much more engaging to delve into the "Who?", "What?", "Where?" and "When?" of that day. We can imagine how the chain of events on April 18th and 19th, 1775, might have been experienced by the children of Lexington families. While they watched their fathers and older brothers assemble with the town militia, the towns for miles around were filled with similar scenes of preparation for defense against the King's soldiers. The militiamen of Massachusetts and their families were not the only people anxiously peering at the horizon, straining to see what the day would bring - the Regular troops marching down the road towards Concord and their commanders surely also felt an unsettling sense of foreboding as they traveled further into the hostile countryside. Were any of them aware that the road would take them through the heart of Lexington, a community convinced that the sacrifice of life itself, in support of the common cause, might very well be the culmination of the town's resistance against the long series injustices meted out by the representatives of London?

There is much more to explore on the Learning Blog- we welcome your comments and questions! For information about in-house programs for school groups, please contact the Museum's Education Department (email: croche@monh.org; phone: 781 457-4142).

“The Battle of Lexington,” 1775, Amos Doolittle (1754-1832) - engraver, Ralph Earl (1751-1801) - painter, New Haven, Connecticut

Courtesy of the Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut


Teapot, ca. 1765, England

National Heritage Museum, 91.025.12a-b

Magicians' Magic Movements and Ceremonies

Magicians_tp_web A book that shows up on our recent acquisitions list, entitled Masonic Mnemonics: Memory Aids for Masonic Rituals, got me thinking about the central role that both memory and aids-to-memory play in Freemasonry. A physical manifestation of this is the ritual, or cipher, book.

When a man (or in some cases, as we've written elsewhere, a woman) joins a local Masonic lodge, he goes through three ritual ceremonies, known as "degrees." Often referred to as the Symbolic Degrees - Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason - these three degrees are thematically joined by the story of the construction of Solomon's Temple. A person going through each of these degrees is known as a candidate, and one thing that the candidate must demonstrate before being allowed to progress to the following degree is that he is "proficient" in the preceding degree. Proficiency, in short, is evidence that he has memorized the candidate's portion of the ritual and, with any luck, understands what he is saying, rather than simply reciting the lines. This proficiency is demonstrated before the members of the lodge he is joining, in the ritual degree ceremonies which involve the participation of the candidate and the officers of the lodge.

Although Masonic ritual is often taught "mouth to ear" through an oral tradition of having an older Mason instructing a new candidate in preparation for his ritual degree ceremony, this learning is often augmented by the use of a ritual or cipher book. We've written about rituals before, but all of the ones we've addressed so far have been printed in plain, easy-to-read English. In American Freemasonry, however, there is a long tradition of Masonic ritual books being published in cipher.

Michigan_lodge_room_web If you're not a Mason, all this talk of rituals, degrees, and ciphers might be a little confusing. An analogy might help: one might think of Masonic degree ritual as a sort of moral play, in which the candidate is the main protagonist. The ceremony usually takes place in the center of a lodge room (two old views of a lodge room in Albion, Michigan are illustrated here), a large, rectangular room with seating around the perimeter, and traditionally located on the second floor of a Masonic temple. The lodge room is a symbolic representation of King Solomon's temple, and the ritual uses aspects of the story of the building of Solomon's temple as the basis for the story it tells.  The cipher is the script of the play, which the candidate and other participants of the lodge use beforehand to memorize their lines. The books are not used during the actual ritual ceremony, in the same way that in a staged play actors do not read from their scripts.

Magicians_cipher_detail_web Ok, but why publish the rituals in cipher (an example of which can be seen here) in the first place? Part of the answer has to do with a candidate's vow not to "write, print, paint, stamp, stain, cut, carve, hew, mark, or engrave" the secrets of Freemasonry and therefore make them easily available to non-Masons. Putting aside the fact that non-cipher Masonic ritual exposures have been around since the 18th century - and that many of the consumers of these exposures were likely Freemasons themselves who were happy to have a written script to help them memorize ritual - a tradition of personal honor linked to not revealing that which you've vowed to keep secret, led, in part, to the use of ciphers. Ciphers are essentially gibberish to those who have not memorized the ritual to begin with, but to those who know (or who have mostly memorized) the ritual, the cues contained in the cipher are an "aid to memory," short-hand prompts that help one remember the words. They contain cues to a script that one has already learned, without printing the full text of the ritual itself. Indeed, the late 19th and early 20th century produced a slew of cipher books, many carrying "A Valuable Aid to the Memory" as part of their subtitle.

In addition to being written in cipher, many ritual books published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also had titles that, arguably, are designed to make non-Masons unaware that the book contained Masonic ritual. Two of the most popular titles from that time period have titles that might easily confuse a non-Mason who stumbles across them: Ecce Orienti: An Epitome of the History of the Ancient Essenes, Their Rites and Ceremonies; and King Solomon and His Followers: A Valuable Aid to the Memory, Strictly in Accordance with the Latest Authors. In addition to perhaps adding to the perceived mysteriousness and secretiveness of Masonic ritual, these books also served the purpose of not revealing any secrets that a Mason promised to keep, on the off chance that a cipher was casually left around the house or accidentally lost. (The use of these books were sometimes silently condoned, but in other cases - as with the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts in 1885 - their use was condemned in "very impressive and forcible language.") That all said, to the uninitiated, a cipher is not going to quickly reveal its contents.

A gem from our collection, that also reveals some of the humor used in creating some of these misleading titles, is a ritual cipher entitled Magicians' Magic Movements and Ceremonies, published in 1915 by Allen Publishing in New York (and shown in both illustrations above). The book is, in actuality, a cipher for the ritual of the Symbolic Degrees as practiced by the Grand Lodge of Michigan. (And here we need to give a big tip of the magician's hat to John M. Karnes, a ritual collector who helped us geographically identify this ritual cipher, something that had us stumped.)

In the past, as well as today, rules and regulations regarding ritual and cipher books vary from state to state. Each state's Grand Lodge has its own rules and regulations for all of the lodges that it oversees in that state. Paul Bessel has an interesting map and chart that illustrates each U.S. Grand Lodge's views regarding the use of printed rituals and/or ciphers in that state's local lodges.

And, finally, if you start searching around the web for Masonic ciphers, you will quickly encounter the "pigpen" cipher, which is also sometimes called the Freemason's cipher. This, indeed, is a cipher code that was once used in Freemasonry, although it is completely different from the type of cipher we're writing about in this post. More on this other cipher perhaps, in a later post.

Image of the lodge room at Albion, MI from:
Conover, Jefferson S. Freemasonry in Michigan: A Comprehensive History of Michigan Masonry from Its Earliest Introduction in 1764. Vol. 1. Coldwater, MI: Conover Engraving and Publishing Co., 1896.
Call number: 17.9764 .C753

Books referred to in this post:

Royal, David. Masonic Mnemonics: Memory Aids for Masonic Rituals. Lewis Masonic, 2008.
Call number: 14 .R6 2008

Magicians' Magic Movements and Ceremonies. New York: Allen Publishing Co., 1915.
Call number: RARE 14.2 .M15 1915

Spiritualist Jane Haight Webster's Masonic Quilt

86_69t1_webster_quilt An unusual quilt made by Jane D. Haight Webster (1808-1877) during the mid-1800s shows how quilts functioned as educational tools for their makers, well beyond just teaching sewing skills.  Webster’s quilt, and others that incorporated fraternal symbols, provided a means for women to share their interpretation and knowledge of exclusive male groups like Freemasonry.  This quilt shows us that women did have familiarity with the symbols of a closed organization like Freemasonry.  It also offers a telling example of how women used quilts to push against the gender boundaries of their era.

Jane D. Haight was born on April 28, 1808 in Westchester County, New York, the daughter of John Haight (b. 1773) and Phebe Williamson (b. 1776).  Her parents were Quakers and she also joined the Society of Friends.  Her family moved to the Rochester, New York area in 1824.  On September 7, 1825 she married Harry Croswell Webster (1804-1885) in Pittsford, New York.  The pioneering couple moved to Indiana in 1835, near South Bend, in the northern part of the state.  Together, they had thirteen children, five sons and eight daughters. 

Around 1850, undoubtedly in response to the Spiritualism movement that started in the Rochester, New York area, Jane became a convert to spiritualism, eventually becoming a “writing medium.”  Spiritualism was a religious movement aimed at proving the immortality of the soul by establishing communication with the spirits of the dead.  Scholars have suggested that Spiritualism’s popularity was a response to the widespread economic, social and cultural changes taking place in America in the mid-1800s.  It offered a sense of order for believers, at a time when their daily lives were increasingly fragmented.

At some point in the 1850s or 1860s, Jane Webster made this quilt.  The quilt is pieced and appliquéd by hand, using plain weave cotton fabrics.  The quilting is extremely well done; quilters out there will admire Webster’s thirteen stitches to the inch!  Quilting designs vary across the top with motifs including cables, feathers, florals, parallel lines and outline stitching.  The single border is an appliquéd floral vine.  The quilt is finished with a thin cotton batting and straight-applied binding.  It is in very good condition and shows few signs of regular use.   

The design of Webster's quilt is linked with her ability as a medium.  Spiritualists considered the trance to be an elevated state that provided access to spirits and to knowledge of the world beyond that was inaccessible to conscious human beings.  According to family history, Jane designed her quilt by going into a trance; she would see an arrangement of symbols, and then stitch that arrangement into her quilt.  Indeed, the quilt is put together with appliqué and embroidery added to the blocks after they were joined, supporting the family story of the quilt’s construction. Picture1

While family history holds that the quilt was a creation aided by Webster’s Spiritualist leanings, visual examination suggests that she may also have been influenced by the various depictions of Masonic symbols that she saw around her.  Jane’s husband, Harry Croswell Webster, was a Mason and belonged to St. Joseph Lodge No. 45 in South Bend.   

The central image on her quilt shows an archway supported by two columns or pillars with a checkered floor and a series of steps at the bottom.  The pillars are known as “Jachin and Boaz” after the Biblical reference to Solomon’s Temple.  Symbolically, they represent strength and stability.  The checkered floor (or mosaic pavement) is usually seen rendered in black and white; it represents good and evil in life.  Under the archway (which represents the “arch of heaven”), the symbols include: the all-seeing eye, a symbol of watchfulness; the letter “G,” signifying geometry or God; a square and compasses, symbolizing reason and faith; and an altar, signaling a place of refuge.  Along the bottom are a coffin and a scythe, symbolizing death.  And, on the sides, there are more easily identified symbols: the 47th problem of Euclid that teaches Masons to be lovers of the arts and sciences; Jacob’s ladder with three rungs, signifying either the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, or the three stages of life (youth, manhood and age); and an anchor signifying hope.  Numerous other symbols are also appliquéd, although some remain a mystery as to what they are and what they symbolize. 

After a brief illness, with “congestion of the lungs,” Jane D. Haight Webster died on March 26, 1877.  Her husband, Harry Webster, died on January 23, 1885.  Both are buried in Bowman Cemetery in South Bend.  When Jane Webster died, Spiritualism had started to wane; it lost strength during the 1870s and 1880s as smaller groups splintered off and as many mediums were exposed as frauds.  In the end, Jane Webster’s arrangement of symbols on her quilt seems to have been influenced by more earthly sources, in addition to her spirit communications.  Her quilt brings together an illuminating combination of personal knowledge and cultural experiences, helping us to learn from it, just as it taught her.  The quilt was treasured in Jane’s family and was passed down until it was presented to the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, Massachusetts in 1986.

To see a selection of quilts in the Museum’s collection visit the Treasures section of our website.

Quilt by Jane Haight Webster, 1850-1870, Indiana, National Heritage Museum, gift of Donald E. Mohn, 86.69, photograph by John M. Miller.

Photograph of Jane Haight Webster, ca. 1870, National Heritage Museum curatorial files.