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April 2023

New to the Collection: A Desk with Secrets

The Scottish Rite Masoni2022_037a-bDP1MC overallc Museum & Library recently received this handsome nineteenth-century desk decorated with inlaid Masonic symbols as a generous gift to the collection. Masons are oath bound to keep specific information about Freemasonry, such as ritual, passwords, and recognition signs, to themselves, causing many observers to describe the organization as a secret society or as a society with secrets. This desk fits right in—it has secrets of its own.

Constructed, in part, of southern beech, this desk came to the museum with a history of having been used in Arkansas and, later, in Utica, New York. Who owned and used it is not known. With several drawers, multiple shelves, and a writing surface, this form of desk falls into the category of secretary or desk-secretary—a piece of furniture that meant business. Only people with a serious amount of papers, objects, and books to organize would need a desk like this one.

Six and a half feet tall at its highest point, the largest portion of this desk is a glass-fronted cabinet with shelves, enough to contain—and  2022_037a-bDP2MC document cubbies display—a small library of books. A cornice with an elaborate pediment tops the section with a glass door. The design of the cornice offers a nod to the Renaissance Revival style popular in the United States in the 1860s and 1870s. At the very center of the pediment is an inlaid square, compasses, and letter G—a combination of Masonic symbols found on lodge buildings, in lodge rooms, and on many objects related  to the fraternity. The smaller connected cabinet has a solid door.  When opened, it reveals pigeonholes, vertical shelves with curved dividers designed to house and organize tall ledgers, and small horizontal shelves with shaped dividers likely used to store correspondence, along with two small drawers, and several cubbies. The drawers could accommodate pocket-sized articles, such as pens, coins, currency, or valuable trinkets best kept under lock and key. 

At the lower inside corner of the cabinet is a cubbyhole with an arch-shaped opening decorated with 2022_037a-bDP6MC removable prospectMasonic symbols—a checkered pavement, a keystone, stars, and a panoply formed of a square, plumb, and level.  In Freemasonry, the square, plumb, and level together are the working tools of the second degree. They served to remind Masons of the value of equality and to act morally and fairly. Though it looks like integrated part of the desk, this decorated cubbyhole is actually a box that can be removed from the cabinet. Behind it, hidden to anyone who does not know the secret of how to access them, are two small drawers with ring pulls (the drawers are visible just behind the removed section). These tiny drawers are not protected by a lock, but their secret location in the desk would have helped keep their contents secure.

The upper portions of the desk rest on a slightly sloped writing surface. Now stained black, this 2022_037a-bDP4MC hidden drawersurface may have, at one time, covered with felt or leather. Supporting the surface on one side is a column of four drawers, on the other side are two turned legs. The long single knee-hole drawer is fit with two levels of compartments divided to accommodate writing implements and small objects. At first glance, the lockable drawers with white knobs appear to be run-of-the-mill. They, in fact, offer several secret hiding places to stow documents and objects. Each of the four drawers at the side are shorter than the overall length of the desk. Behind each of them is a second drawer with a leather pull that lays flat. The bottom of the lower-most drawer in the column conceals a drawer accessible by pulling the back of the drawer up to reveal a wooden knob and a shallow hidden compartment perfect for concealing documents. Altogether, six different keys are needed to access the drawers and cabinets in this desk. 2022_037a-bDP5MC hidden document drawer

With so many secret compartments incorporated into its design, this beguiling desk offers more questions than answers.  The most  compelling of these questions may be, what important objects and papers did the original owner of the this desk want to keep secure or hidden? Though we may never know the answer to this question, the decoration, form, and function of this desk are clues that it was a tool used by someone who valued his association with Freemasonry who engaged in work that required he retain and organize different kinds of records and objects. This desk suggests that he had intriguing secrets to keep.


Photography credit:

Details, Desk, 1860-1880. United States. Gift of Peter J. Samiec, 2022.037. Photograph by Michael Cardinali.





The Lexington Alarm letter - on view and online in 2023!

A1995_011_DS1_webEach year during the celebration of Patriots’ Day, a Massachusetts state holiday, the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library proudly displays an original copy of the Lexington Alarm letter—one of several letters created by the colonists to inform other colonies about the Battle of Lexington and the outbreak of war with England. It gives contemporary viewers a close-up look at the beginning of the American Revolution.

The original alarm letter was written by Joseph Palmer just hours after the Battle of Lexington, which took place around daybreak on April 19, 1775. Palmer, a member of the Committee of Safety in Watertown, Massachusetts, near Lexington, had his letter copied by recipients along the Committee of Safety's network. Using this system, the message was distributed far and wide. While the original alarm letter written by Palmer is thought to be lost, the Museum & Library has in its collection this version of his famous description of what happened, which was copied the day after the Battle of Lexington by Daniel Tyler, Jr., of Connecticut.

The letter will be on view at the Museum from April 10 - 21, 2023. (Check the museum's website for specific days and times that we're open.)

In addition to seeing the letter in person, you can also view our online exhibition, “'To all the Friends of American Liberty': The 1775 Lexington Alarm Letter,” which is available on the Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives Digital Collections website. This exhibition takes a close look at the Lexington Alarm letter that is in the Museum & Library's collection.

Lexington Alarm Letter, [April 20, 1775], Daniel Tyler, Jr. (about 1750–1832), copyist, Brooklyn, Connecticut, Museum purchase, A1995/011/1. 

Heavy Impact: British Cannonball Fired in Lexington on April 19, 1775

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Cannonball (fired in retreat from Lexington), ca. 1775. Gift of Harvey B. Leggee, 75.34a.

Its surface is pitted and its usefulness long gone, but this six-pound iron ball tells an intriguing story of the first military battle of the Revolutionary War and its effect on the town of Lexington, Massachusetts.

According to an accompanying plaque, this cannonball was “fired in 1775 by ‘British regulars’ under command of Captain Earl Perry [sic] during their retreat from Lexington Green.” On April 19th of that year, the first battle of the Revolutionary War was fought in Lexington, now the home of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library.

Tensions had been high between Massachusetts citizens and the British government–represented by its royal troops–since the soldiers had landed in Boston in 1769. This friction had already led to such events as the 1769 Lexington Spinning Protest, the 1770 Boston Massacre, and the 1773 Lexington Tea Burning and Boston Tea Party.

These tensions and other events led to an armed conflict between Lexington’s Training Band and British troops on April 19, 1775. A contingent of British soldiers headquartered in Boston were deployed on an overnight mission to retrieve stolen cannon and ammunition hidden in Concord. After a short engagement at dawn in which eight Lexington men were killed and ten wounded, the British troops continued to Concord where they found themselves in a pitched battle at the Old North Bridge with militia members from Concord and surrounding towns. Eventually, the order to retreat was given and the British soldiers began a long and harrowing march back to Boston.

Local militias reengaged British troops many times along the route back–now called “Battle Road"–but the fighting took a different tone as the troops marched back through Lexington. By this time, relief troops from Boston had positioned two six-pound cannon at a rise east of the town center to provide covering fire for the soldiers on foot.

This bombardment led to cannonballs smashing through both the Lexington meetinghouse on the Green and one of the houses west of the Green on Harrington Road. According to SRMML’s records, the museum's cannonball was excavated in 1956–181 years after the battle–by local Mason Harold L. Worth (1909-1993) from the “south side of Merriam Hill.” This ball was found within the range of the British cannon that day. The location of the find supports the message on the cannonball’s plaque–that it was fired by British soldiers.

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Cannonball (fired in retreat from Lexington), ca. 1775. Gift of Harvey B. Leggee, 75.34a.

To confirm this information, SRMML staff measured the cannonball. The British were using six-pound field pieces that day and a six-pound cannonball is usually around 3.58 inches in diameter. As you can see on the right, this cannonball is 3.52 inches, which is within the expected range for historical examples. Using historical accounts, maps, and munitions specifications, we feel confident that this cannonball was fired during the conflict between Massachusetts citizens and British soldiers.

The cannon and troops are long gone, but the town of Lexington is still deeply tied to the events of April 19, 1775. Its landscape and people were profoundly marked by the attack. Evidence of that impact remains in the military detritus left behind. It is also on display in the reenactments and commemorations of the battle held annually in Lexington. See the links below for more Revolutionary War items in the museum’s collection!


More Revolutionary War items at SRMML: