Our blog turns three years old this month and, in keeping with years past, it seems like a fine time to return to the subject of Masonic impostors. If you need to get caught up on the subject of Masonic impostors, be sure to check out our three previous posts on the subject.
Pictured here, from the Album of Masonic Impostors, is Hubert Boothby, a Mason who, according the 1900 Proceedings of the Grand Lodge of Montana was expelled from Butte Lodge No. 22. The caption below Boothby's photo in the Album is a sort of novel in miniature (or, perhaps, a business card waiting to be made): Sea Captain, Bigamist, Forger, Confidence-Man, Thief.
The subject of Masonic impostors lends itself to over-the-top descriptions of con artists like Hubert Boothby. But at its heart, the story of Masonic impostors is really a story of Masonic charity.
Without the goodwill of Masons helping others, there would be no target for the imposition of those fraudulently posing as Masons. In the Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives collection, we have a number of different types of material produced by Masonic Relief Boards. These Boards were often located in big cities and existed to help the down-on-his-luck Mason (or wife or children) by way of centralizing relief. In most cases, the relief board would give relief (cash, meals, a place to stay, etc.) and then get reimbursed by the Masonic lodge that the recipient belonged to. The Masonic Board of Relief in Syracuse, NY published a small annual report that described various different cases brought to them during the year. These ranged from "Worthy Cases Reimbursed" (i.e. legitimate cases in which they assisted Masons and were reimbursed by the Mason's home lodge) to "Worthy Cases Not Reimbursed (i.e. the same as above, but not yet reimbursed by the home lodge). A read through some of the "Fraud" cases, while occasionally amusing, suggests that many of these cases may have involved men who were alcoholics. Both the "Worthy" and "Fraud" cases are oftentimes touching vignettes of hard times. In other cases, like that of Barnet Lebner (below), we get a glimpse at what is more likely the case of a classic con man, spinning tales.
Below are a few examples of both "Worthy Cases" and "Frauds." In an attempt to expose those found to be making fraudulent claims, the Relief Board published their names, while those found "Worthy" were kept anonymous, presumably to guard against any embarrassment or shame that might be felt by those seeking relief.
No. 612. Widow of member of King Solomon's Lodge, No. 91, Troy, N.Y. Husband died in 1896. Is ill and lives with daughter, who works for a hotel, and they were about to be ejected for non-payment of rent from their home, and we became responsible. Also belonged to Apollo Commandery. The Commandery assisted $50 through us.
(From "Worthy Cases Reimbursed" in the Twenty-Fourth Annual Report of the Masonic Board of Relief of Syracuse, N.Y., 1917.)
No. 478. Member of Central City Lodge here. We paid funeral expenses of $89 by authority of the Lodge.
No. 504. Member of Central City Lodge here. By authority of Lodge we paid one month's rent.
(Both from "Worthy Cases Reimbursed" in the Twenty-First Annual Report of the Masonic Board of Relief of Syracuse, N.Y., 1914)
F.E. Lanphere, a fraud of the first water, or rather whiskey without water, applied for relief claiming to be starving. He was furnished a meal in a restaurant at expense of fifty cents, but tried in our absence to trade the meal for intoxicating liquor, and when refused, left without eating, and never came back to our protecting arms.
(From "Frauds" in the First, Second, and Third Annual Report of the Masonic Board of Relief of Syracuse, N.Y., 1894, 1895, and 1896)
No. 512. George Barnes, Golden Fleece Lodge, Lynn, Mass. Age 42; machinist and book agent; resides here; was drunk; had no papers; wanted $1. The Secretary [i.e. of Golden Fleece Lodge] wired that he was not known there.
(From "Frauds" in the Twenty-Second Annual Report of the Masonic Board of Relief of Syracuse, N.Y., 1915)
No. 387. Barnet Lebner, Monroe Lodge, No. 242, Berlin, Germany. First claimed also to be a Shriner, Chapter, Knight Templar, but later admitted that he was only a third degree member. Wanted to go to Chicago and then to Worcester, Mass. Told one member of the Board that he had a position in Worcester if he could get there next morning at 11 A.M. Claimed to be a rabbi. When questioned sent to the Jervis House for his trunk and left town.
(From "Frauds" in the Nineteenth Annual Report of the Masonic Board of Relief of Syracuse, N.Y., 1912)
Suggestions for Further Reading
General Masonic Relief Association of the United States and Canada. Album of Masonic Impostors. New York : Press of Eclipse Printing Co., 1903.
Call number: 19.78 .A345 1903
Croteau, Jeffrey. "Brotherly Deception." Cabinet, Spring 2009 (Issue 33). Brooklyn NY: Immaterial, Inc., 2009.
Halleran, Michael. "Be on the Qui Vive—Cowans, Swindlers, and Con Men, Then and Now." Scottish Rite Journal, May/June 2009. Washington, DC: Supreme Council, 33°, Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry of the Southern Jurisdiction, 2009.
In addition, the Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives also has many issues of the Annual Report of the Masonic Board of Relief of Syracuse, N.Y. Call number: 43 .S995 1894-.