In 1971 a member of the Order of the Eastern Star, Mrs. H. Heinze, wrote to an officer at the Grand Lodge of Wisconsin about six antique documents that had been discovered in her late uncle’s effects. Though her uncle, Arthur H. Spoerer (1893-1971), had not been a Freemason, these documents—dating from 1849 to 1875—had to do with Freemasonry, in particular with the Masonic career of a man named Adolphe Minski, unrelated to the uncle. The documents are now in the archives collection at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library.
Born in Poland, Minski (1819-1886) immigrated to the United States around 1850. With him he brought a certificate (illustrated at left) attesting he had been made a Mason at Prudente Amitié, a lodge in Lons-le-Saunier, France, in 1849. Freemasonry played an important role in his life in America. Minski joined Masonic organizations in many of the towns where he resided while earning a living as a hairdresser. Putting together pieces of information from Minski’s preserved Masonic documents and other records, a picture of Minski’s life emerges.
For over twenty years Minski collected inked demits (declarations that he left a lodge in good standing) and notes related to Masonic lodges he visited on the back of his 1849 certificate. For example, as recounted on his certificate, in 1850 he demitted from L’Union Francaise, a French-speaking lodge, in New York City. The same year a census taker counted him as a resident of New Jersey. Records of land purchases, as well as the Iowa state census, put him in Dubuque, Iowa, in the mid-1850s. He did not stay there for long. In 1856 the lodge secretary of Dubuque Lodge No. 3 certified that “Bro. Adolphe Minski was permitted to demit and the Secretary authorized…the same…” on the back of his 1849 certificate.
By 1858 Minski had moved to Tyler, Texas, where he joined Tyler Chapter No. 24. His certificate, issued by the group, survives (illustrated at lower left). Two years later a census worker noted that Minski lived at a hotel in Tyler. Ten years later, Minski had relocated to Omaha, Nebraska, where he advertised in a city directory as a “French Hair Dresser,” barber and wig maker. A census worker recorded he was an American citizen in 1870. He applied for a U. S. passport the following year.
In 1876 a directory publisher listed Minski as a Milwaukee resident. Around the same time, he became involved with the Freie Gemeinde of Milwaukee. The Freie Gemeinde, or free thinkers, was a progressive group with German roots whose members explored philosophy, science, music and education. Though the group shared some elements with mainstream religions, such as holding ceremonies and meeting in congregations, it privileged a person’s right to seek his or her own truth.
Minski's connection with the the Freie Gemeinde continued for the rest of his life. His will, written about a month before his death in Milwaukee in 1886, offers insight into what Minski valued as he outlined his wishes for the division of his estate and his funeral arrangements. Minski stated he had’ “no near kin or relation of blood in this country…. Consequently I am at liberty to dispose of my earthly possessions according to the dictates of my own better convictions….” Among his will's provisions, Minski forgave an 1872 mortgage owed to him by the Scottish Rite Masonic Bodies in Lyons, Iowa, noting that he was a Scottish Rite member and deisred to give “material aid to [the group] to carry out and practice the lofty philosophical teachings and charity of the beloved order….” He left the majority of his estate—just over $13,000—to the Freie Gemeinde of Milwaukee. He earmarked the bequest for “the dissemination of liberal views, scientific lectures and the education of the younger elements belonging to the congregation in a progressive and enlightened spirit.”
Minski specified his funeral arrangements in his will, noting that he wanted to be cremated and have his ashes housed at the Freie Gemeinde of Milwaukee in an urn bearing this inscription: “A-Minski of the City of Milwaukee, who—although born in superstition—lived and died a free man.” At the time, cremation was a relatively new and uncommon burial practice. Minski’s remains were transported to Buffalo, New York, home of one of the few crematories in the United States. Perhaps because of the novelty of process, Minski’s cremation was reported in the New York Times on July 28th. A reporter recounted this detail, “Fifty minutes were consumed in reducing the body to ashes." The reporter added information about the deceased, relaying that "Mr. Minski was a prominent Free Thinker and a delegation of three men and three women representing the society…came here with the body…. The reporter concluded his article with this statement: "The cremation was perfectly successful.”
Nearly a hundred years after Minski’s death, his Masonic certificates had been preserved by Arthur Spoerer and his neice, Mrs. Heinze. The link between Mrs. Heinze's uncle and Minski was through the Spoerer's work. For many years Spoerer had worked as a custodian at Jefferson Hall in Milwaukee—the former home of the Freie Gemeinde of Milwaukee. Why he saved the certificates is not known, but we are grateful that he did for a glimpse they offer of Adolphe Minski's intriguing life. Three of the certificates are on display in the exhibition, “Signed and Sealed: Masonic Certificates” through December, 2018.
Many thanks to Kamel Oussayef, Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library; Larissa Watkins, Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, SJ, USA; Debbie Galli, Grand Lodge of Nebraska and Erika Miller, Grand Lodge of Wisconsin.
Berenice Cooper, “Die Freien Gemeinden in Wisconsin,” Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, vol. 53, 1964, 53-65.