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March 2022

New to the Collection: Portrait of Thomas Lownds (1762-1825)

2021_002DP1FG Thomas Lownds cropped
Thomas Lownds, 1800-1825. Probably New York, New York. Museum Purchase in Memory of Charles Gordon Lambert and through the Generosity of the Augusta Masonic Bodies, 2021.002. Photograph by Frank E. Graham.

The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library recently added this wonderful portrait to its collection. The subject of the portrait is New York City native Thomas Lownds (1762-1825), an intriguing character and a Masonic mover and shaker.

By profession Lownds (also spelled Lowndes) was a grocer and a baker. In middle age he left this trade to become superintendent of the alms house in New York City and of St. John’s Hall, a meeting place for many Masonic lodges in the city. Later he owned a boarding house and was, at the end of his life, in charge of running the city’s debtors’ prison. He also earned money serving as a Tyler for several Masonic groups. A history of Washington Lodge No. 21 notes that Lownds, who took his degrees at the lodge and served as its Master in 1808 and 1814, was “energetic, jovial, a good leader, and evidently popular among his companions” as well as “a restless, ambitious man, possessed of wonderful organizing ability.”

The same author described Lownds as “…inexhaustible in his enthusiasm for Masonry….” Lownds’ Masonic record supports this account. Lownds played key roles in several Masonic groups established in New York City in the early 1800s. He held the offices of Deputy High Priest and Grand Visitor of the Grand Chapter of New York in the 1810s. A charter member of the Aurora Grata Lodge of Perfection in 1808, Lownds later worked the Scottish Rite degrees with Joseph Cerneau, whose Rite was in competition with the Scottish Rite’s Northern Masonic Jurisdiction for many years. Additionally, Lownds held leadership roles in the at Columbian Commandery No. 1 and at the Knights Templar Grand Encampment in the 1810s. Lownds helped establish Cryptic Masonry in the United States, serving as Grand Master of the Grand Council when it was organized in 1823. From 1802 through the early 1820s, Lownds participated in almost all the forms of Freemasonry that were active in New York. When he died at the age of 63, the newspapers noted simply that Lownds was, “…an old and respectable inhabitant of this city.”

This undated portrait depicts Lownds as a vibrant man in middle age. In the image Lownds sits on a dark upholstered chair, with red drapery behind him. The understated background and his black clothing provide a contrast to Lownds’ expressive face, crisp neckwear, and the light-colored cane he holds in his right hand. This portrait is not signed, but its unknown artist left a compelling visual record of a strong personality who helped establish and sustain several Masonic organizations in their formative years.

 

References:

Robert W. Reid, Washington Lodge No. 21, F. & A. M. and Some of Its Members (New York, NY: Washington Lodge, 1911), 184-186.

“Died,” Statesman, New York, NY, December 16, 1825, p. 3.


The Plight of Italian Freemasonry in the Post-War Years

Today, we highlight a document from the Scottish Rite Masonic & Library’s archives. President Harry S. Truman wrote this letter to the Scottish Rite Northern Masonic Jurisdiction’s Sovereign Grand Commander Melvin Maynard Johnson in 1948.

2019_001_016DS1Letter from President Harry S. Truman to Melvin M. Johnson, 1948 August 3.
 

August 3, 1948

I am grateful to you for forwarding with your letter of July thirteenth, copy of a document – CIVIL TRIBUNAL OF ROME – CITATION ACT.

I had been hopeful that we could arrive at an amicable adjustment regarding the Masonic property in Italy. I was, however, apprehensive after receiving Ambassador Dunn’s report, copy of which I forwarded to you.

The Citation Act, text of which you sent, particularly paragraph eight, page eighteen, is most informative. With legal complications going back more than twenty years when Mussolini ordered the dissolution of the Masonic Lodges and seized their property, I fear court action now pending will be a long drawn out process. However, I shall continue to do everything possible to bring about restoration. I know you will keep me informed of any developments which come to your attention.

Sincerely yours,

Harry Truman

Honorable Melvin M. Johnson,
1117 Statler Building,
Boston 16, Massachusetts.

As Commander Johnson noted in his 1950 Allocution, Freemasonry had “led a precarious existence” in Italy since its inception in the early eighteenth century. However, since the rise of the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini starting in 1922, matters had only grown worse for Italy’s brethren. Throughout late 1923 and into early 1924, Fascist troops victimized Masonic lodges. Among the many losses were the temples of Lodge Giuseppe Mazzoni in Prato and Lodge Ferruccio in Pistoria, which were demolished, and the great Masonic library of Lodge Ernesto Nathan in Termoli, which was destroyed. Tensions in Italy during this period between its Freemasons and the government had risen to a boil, and The Builder reported in its September 1927 edition that a “nation-wide persecution was launched” against the supposed enemies of the state, Italy’s Freemasons and socialists.

These events and many others culminated in the passage of Mussolini’s anti-Masonic bill, Law No. 2029/1925, on May 19, 1925, which essentially banned the fraternity in Italy. Six months later, Fascist police occupied Palazzo Giustiniani, the grand sixteenth-century Renaissance building and seat of the Grand Orient of Italy in Rome. A few months later, on January 29, 1926, the ministry of public instruction declared the Grand Orient’s 1911 purchase agreement for the building null and void.

As President Truman noted in his letter to Johnson, the process to return Masonic property was a “long drawn out process" after the war. The matter was finally settled in 1960 in an out of court settlement mediated by American ambassador James David Zellerbach. Starting that year, the Grand Orient of Italy regained use of a wing in the Palazzo Giustiniani. Twenty-five years later, in 1985, the organization moved to its current location, the Villa del Vascello on the Janiculan, a hill in western Rome.

As for Truman and Johnson, these two Freemasons, along with many other American and European Freemasons, helped European Freemasonry rise from the ashes after the war.  

 


Captions

Letter from President Harry S. Truman to Melvin M. Johnson, 1948 August 3. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, SC 069.

 


References

“Freemasonry and Fascism in Italy.” The Builder 8, no. 8 (1927) : 244-248. Accessed: 11 March 2022. http://www.phoenixmasonry.org/the_builder_1927_august.htm

“Freemasonry and Fascism in Italy.” The Builder 8, no. 9 (1927) : 257-264. Accessed: 11 March 2022. http://www.phoenixmasonry.org/the_builder_1927_september.htm

“Grande Oriente d'Italia,” n.d. Accessed: 11 March 2022. https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grande_Oriente_d%27Italia

Johnson, Melvin M. Advance copy of the allocution of the M. P. Sovereign Grand Commander Melvin M. Johnson, 33° : to be delivered at the one hundred thirty-eight Annual Meeting of the Supreme Council, 33° : Philadelphia, Pennsylvania : September 26, 1950. [Boston, Mass.] : Supreme Council 33°, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, U.S.A., 1950.