Four years ago, our very first blog post was on the topic of Masonic impostors. Each May since then, we've follow up with another post on the same topic. Our earlier posts looked at Masonic impostors in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but today we're going further back in time and looking at the subject of Masonic impostors in 1859.
The Prudence Book of Freemasonry for 1859 was compiled and published by Rob Morris (1818-1888), a well-known Masonic author and book publisher based in Louisville, Kentucky. Morris was a high-profile Mason who wrote extensively and served in many high Masonic offices. Indeed, he was Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Kentucky when The Prudence Book was published.
Although rather mundanely titled and brief (64 page), Morris's booklet was ambitious. It sought to become a tool that could be used to identify non-Masons intent on imposing upon the good will and charity of Masonic lodges by posing as Masons in need of financial assistance. Morris gives many examples of Masonic impostors on the back inside cover (below, right) of The Prudence Book, including this colorful description: "Mr. A.G. Jones has committed depredations upon the fraternity in Decatur county, Ga. and other places. He is badly pock-marked, and quite loquacious. Beware of him."
At first glance, The Prudence Book seems like an odd title, but it alludes to a line from Freemasonry's "Ancient Charges," quoted by Morris on the cover of the booklet (pictured above, left):
"You are cautiously to examine a strange brother in such a manner as PRUDENCE shall direct you, that you may not be imposed upon by an ignorant, false pretender, whom you are to reject with contempt and derision, and beware of giving him any hints of knowledge."
This issue of Morris's Prudence Book was the first of what he planned to be six separate 64-page booklets, which collectively would do one simple thing: list every Mason in the United States (and British provinces).
Morris's hope was that the Secretary of every lodge in the United States would purchase these booklets so that they would have a current - or current as possible - list of every Mason in the U.S., listed alphabetically by last name within each state. According to an advertisement in the December 15, 1859 issue of The Voice of Masonry and Tidings from the Craft - the Masonic newspaper for which Morris was editor-in-chief - five issues of The Prudence Book had been published. (The ad also indicates that there would be eight issues, rather than the six Morris had originally predicted. Our library only owns the first issue.)
Morris's preface to The Prudence Book succinctly lays out his vision of the need for such a resource and how it would benefit the fraternity:
"But few remarks of a prefatory character are needed. The general call for a publication of this sort has become urgent, clamorous, irresistible. The Masonic periodicals all confirm it. Proceedings of Grand Lodges everywhere confirm it. My correspondence is filled with evidence of it.
Hereafter, when a visitor calls upon you, it will be a matter of course to look for his name in the PRUDENCE BOOK. If not there, a satisfactory explanation of the omission will be expected of him.
Hereafter, when an applicant for relief makes known his wants, you have something in the PRUDENCE BOOK which will strengthen or invalidate his claims; and if you are imposed upon in spite of this aid, you have the means at command to discover the fact, and avoid a second loss. Heretofore, you have had neither.
And, by means of the PRUDENCE BOOK, you can trace out distant acquaintances, refresh your mind with the grand array of our noble Institution, far and near, watch its progress and career; and, when preparing to sojourn to other countries, carry with you, in a single volume, a Roll of the workmen nearly as large as that of King Solomon."
Although, in this first issue, Morris states that he intends to continue to update The Prudence Book every year, the whole enterprise still raises the question that dogged later Masonic organizations who tried to stay ahead of traveling Masonic impostors: can the information about who is and who isn't a Mason travel faster than the Masonic impostors themselves?
Rob Morris. The Prudence Book of Freemasonry for 1859: Being a Catalogue from the Latest Official Data, of the Grand Lodges, Subordinate Lodges, and Individual Masons, Members of the Lodges in the United States and British Provinces, with the Seal of Each Grand Lodge: The Whole Affording a Means of Recognition and a Test to Try Impostors. Louisville, KY: Rob Morris, 1859.
Call number: RARE 01.M877 1859