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May 2024

The Memorable Engagement

The Memorable Engagement of Capt. Pearson of the Serapis, December 12, 1780. Daniel Lepinière & James Fittler; John Boydell; Richard Paton, London, England. Special Acquisitions Fund, 78.74.12.

In this 1780 print in the collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, engravers Daniel Lepinière (ca. 1740–1785) and James Fittler (1758–1835) portrayed an American victory during the Revolutionary War, based on a work by painter Richard Paton (1717–1791). The print presents a moonlit ocean scene off the coast of England, with multiple warships entangled in fiery conflict. Published just over a year after the depicted conflict occurred, this engraving illustrates the Battle of Flamborough Head in vivid detail. The inscription on the bottom edge of the print conveys the English perspective on this historic event.

The two ships at the left of the engraving are the American Bonhomme Richard, commanded by Captain John Paul Jones (1747-1792), and the English Serapis, commanded by Captain Richard Pearson (1731–1806). Jones’ 1776 and 1777 privateering successes along the British coast combined with the 1778 Franco-American Alliance led to Jones’ appointment as captain of the French vessel Duc de Duras in 1779. Jones renamed the ship the Bonhomme Richard to show his respect for Benjamin Franklin, whose Maxims of Poor Richard was wildly popular in Paris at the time.

In August 1779, Jones and the crew of the Bonhomme Richard left Lorient, France, and headed towards England intending to harass English warships and to capture them as prizes if possible. As his squadron, consisting of the flagship and six other vessels, neared the English coast, local citizens prepared for the arrival of the man they considered a swashbuckling pirate. The Northumberland militia was called out and the whole coastline was alarmed.

By fall, Jones’ squadron was off the coast of Yorkshire. On September 23, 1779, battle was engaged between Jones’ group and a forty-one-ship squadron of English warships known as the Baltic fleet, led by the Serapis. Off Flamborough Head, a peninsula near Scarborough, the vastly-outnumbered Americans struck first. As it was a clear night, thousands of onlookers observed the battle from the shore. The majority of the Baltic fleet intentionally steered clear of the conflict, but the Countess of Scarborough was taken as a prize by the American ship Pallas. Eventually, the most bitter and drawn-out fight was between the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis, the two flagships.

Jones maneuvered his vessel alongside the Serapis and lashed the ships together, rendering their larger guns useless and forcing close combat using smaller arms. When Captain Pearson asked Captain Jones to surrender, the latter uttered his famous retort, “I have not yet begun to fight.” Despite his bravado, Jones later stated that “the scene was dreadful beyond the range of language.”

After more than three hours of vicious fighting, Captain Pearson eventually yielded, striking his flag and sending his sword to Captain Jones. With the Bonhomme Richard sinking beneath them, Jones and his crew boarded Serapis and took her as a prize. On December 27, Jones gave the Serapis to the French Navy as a prize ship. The naval victory was a boost to American morale and a victory for the Franco-American Alliance.

For the British public, the loss was significant. Jones and his squadron had again brought the war to their doorstep. The dedication at the bottom of the print, from painter Richard Paton, may have been an attempt to downplay the American victory: “To Sir Richard Pearson, whose bravery & conduct saved the Baltic Fleet under his Convoy though obliged to submit to a much superior force . . .” While the chaos of combat helped the other ships in the Baltic fleet escape, the loss of many sailors and two large warships was hardly anything to celebrate.

Despite the defeat, Pearson was hailed as a hero in England and received a knighthood. The Scottish-born Jones continued to be reviled in England and celebrated in the American colonies.


Further Reading:

Imposing Upon Masons, the Grand Army of the Republic, and Odd Fellows in 1898

A2022_202_001DS1The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library's blog started sixteen years ago this month, with a post about Masonic impostors. Nearly every May since then, we have returned to the topic of Masonic impostors. This year, we are doing it once again.

Although we often write about Masonic impostors, Masons were not the only fraternal group that found themselves imposed upon by people pretending to be members in order to elicit charity. Because fraternal organizations supported their members who were in need, they also became targets of either con men or those in desperate situations, who would pretend to be members and impose upon a fraternity’s inclination to be charitable.

The circular pictured here was issued in 1898 by John W. Laflin, the Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Wisconsin. The notice was likely sent to local Masonic lodges throughout the state and warns of a potential impostor – E.L. Martin, a.k.a. David C. Morgan – who claimed to be a Mason from Missouri, and may have made his way from South Dakota to Wisconsin. Laflin also notes that, in addition to pretending to be a Mason, Martin was also pretending to be a member of the Grand Army of the Republic and the Odd Fellows. In all three cases, Martin apparently presented himself to these three fraternal organizations for charity under false pretenses.

Notices like these were intended to warn others to be aware that they might encounter someone claiming to be a member and imposing upon a lodge’s charity. Because of this, names, lodge affiliations, and a physical description were often key to providing useful, identifiable information. While no photograph accompanies the notice, Laflin paints a vivid portrait of the Martin:

About sixty years of age, about six feet in height, slightly stooped, iron-gray beard, wart on inside corner left eye, eyes blood-shot and bulge slightly, smooth talker. Some teeth are gone causing lips to be slightly sunken.

If you want to learn more about Masonic impostors, including an answer to the question why would someone impersonate a Freemason?, be sure to check out our previous posts on Masonic imposters.


Imposter announcement from Grand Secretary John W. Laflin, 1898 June 3. Museum purchase, A2022/202/001.