Written Mnemonics - Deciphering a Controversial Ritual

Written_Mnemonics_webMost Masonic ritual, if it is not printed in plain English, is written in a cipher that works as a prompt for a script that has already been memorized. In other words, it is not a cipher that requires a key to read. Instead, the key to reading it is, almost counter-intuitively, previous knowledge of the text. Ritual books are what a Mason uses to learn his part. Here’s an example of how you might be able to read a similar kind of cipher to a text you already know:

I pldg allgnce t Ћ flg oЋ Un St o Am & t Ћ repblc fr wh i stnds, 1 ntn undr Gd…

The cipher pictured above was published in 1860, and is titled Written Mnemonics: Illustrated by Copious Examples from Moral Philosophy, Science and Religion. It is an example of a Masonic ritual cipher that was encrypted – that is, a text which can be read if one has the key to decrypt it (see our post on the Ast Ritual, for another example of an encrypted cipher ritual). Written Mnenomics is currently on view in Secret Scripts: Masonic and Fraternal Ritual Books in the Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library.

A group known as “The Conservators,” led by Freemason Rob Morris, published this book, which is an unusual-looking cipher containing the Craft degrees. The Conservator movement was short-lived, only lasting from 1860 until 1865. Their goal was to disseminate a standard Craft ritual for the United States, at a time when (as today) Masonic ritual was not uniform from state to state. The Conservators tried to recruit prominent Masons who were either in influential positions within their Grand Lodge or who were noted for their ritualistic ability. In the end, around three thousand Masons joined the Conservators.

While it may be hard to imagine that such an impenetrable looking cipher could have provoked strong opinions, Written Mnemonics had vocal detractors. The objection was two-fold: the first was about the accuracy of the ritual and the second was about whether Morris had violated his Masonic oath.

In trying to create a uniform ritual, Morris used the ritual and lectures popularized by Thomas Smith Webb (1771-1819), who himself built on the work of Wiliam Preston (1742-1818). Morris claimed that Written Mnemonics contained the true “Preston-Webb” work. Many detractors doubted the authenticity and accuracy of Morris’s ritual, a criticism that Morris refuted in the pages of the movement’s official magazine, The Conservator.

But the largest part of the objections made against Written Mnemonics centered around Morris’s Masonic obligations. Many Masons objected to this book’s publication, claiming that, because the book could be read by anyone who had the key, its publication violated Morris’s Masonic oath. The objectors’ main concern was that the publication included – albeit in code – the tokens, grips, and signs that all Masons promised not to reveal.

For those wondering how complicated decryption of the text is, Ray V. Denslow, in his book about the Conservator movement described the encryption of Written Mnemonics this way:

"The inside [i.e. of Written Mnemonics] contained little but a jumble of figures and letters arranged in eighteen columns and twenty-five rows. But the book, itself, was not complete; to be able to read the volume required the "spelling book" and an additional page of instructions. The latter told where to begin; sometimes the searcher for authentic ritual would read up, at other times down; and again, cross-wise. To be a Conservator, and a student of Mnemonics required an exercise of those truly Masonic and Conservator virtues of Time, Patience and Perserverance.

If you are interested in reading more about Written Mnemonics and the Conservator movement, look no further than Ray V. Denslow's book, The Masonic Conservators (Grand Lodge of Missouri, 1931). It is the definitive work on the topic. (Denslow's book can be read online through a digitized copy on the HathiTrust Digital Library website.)


Rob Morris, Written Mnemonics: Illustrated by Copious Examples from Moral Philosophy, Science and Religion, 1860, Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives Collection, RARE 14 .W7 1860.

Masonic Ritual Cipher: A Personal Object

Arthur_Pearson_cipher_webAs we've written about previously, Masonic ritual ciphers are books that serve as memory aids for Masons memorizing various portions of Freemasonry's first three initiation ceremonies. These cipher books are, in many cases, more than just the sum of the text they contain. They are, in many instances, personal objects and show evidence of previous owners.

Pictured above is a cipher book once owned by Arthur A. Pearson (1904-1997) of Portland, Maine. On the title page (below, right), Pearson recorded the dates of all the important Masonic degrees that he had participated in or witnessed. Pearson joined many Masonic organizations - the list that starts on the title page continues onto the reverse of the title page. This book is currently on view in the Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives reading room exhibition, Secret Scripts: Masonic and Fraternal Ritual Books, at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library.

Pearson's cipher book fits neatly into what David Pearson, in Books As History, has called "the importance of books beyond their texts." Although the book flap that keeps the cover closed has Pearson's name nicely embossed on the inside of it, the book offers more than just provenance (i.e. history of ownership). It is a record of Pearson's Masonic participation.

Arthur_Pearson_cipher_title_page_webCorrect Work for Maine does not contain any publication information within the book, so it is unclear who published it. We know, however, that it was not the Grand Lodge of Maine  Around the time that Pearson became a Master Mason in Corner Stone Lodge No. 216 in Portland in 1940, the Grand Lodge appointed a special committee to deliberate on whether Masons should be allowed to use ciphers, which were neither published nor approved by the Grand Lodge. According to its published Proceedings, at a 1941 meeting of the Grand Lodge of Maine, the committee appointed to investigate the topic of ciphers was agnostic on the matter: 

"Your Committee on Masonic Cipher has carefully considered the matter referred to it. Ciphers are not approved by the Grand Lodge. Neither is their use forbidden. The present practice appears to satisfy the need. Your Committee, therefore, recommends that no legislation on this subject by Grand Lodge is expedient at this time."

The Committee had been appointed in response to a report of Charles E. Crossland, the Grand Lodge's Grand Lecturer in 1940. The Grand Lecturer, among other duties, travels to the subordinate lodges in the state, inspecting the ritual work of the lodges and insuring that it is well done. Crossland noted that, in four years as Grand Lecturer, "not a dissenting voice" had been heard in terms of Maine Masons using ciphers. Yet he also noted that the Grand Lodge did not officially approve of them either. He continued "Has not the time come when the Grand Lodge shall face this issue squarely? If we are to tacitly consent to the use of these 'Ciphers' should we not supervise their preparation and handle their sale? Before action is taken, it is possible that a committee should study the full significance of such action and what might be involved if it seems wise to adopt such a plan."

In the years that followed, the Grand Lodge of Maine - like many other Grand Lodges during this period and earlier - revisited the topic of how to officially respond to the use of unofficial ciphers in subordinate lodges. In 1949, the Grand Lodge responded by publishing an official cipher - prepared, drafted, and sold by the Grand Lodge of Maine and declared all other rituals and ciphers to be unauthorized.


Correct Work for Maine, Revised Edition 1941, Van Gorden Williams Library & Archives Collection, 14.246 .D1-3 ME.

Rural Conversations of the Merry Midshipman (A Royal Arch Cipher)

Rural_conversations_webIt is no surprise that here at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library we have a large and interesting collection of rituals. In the past, we've written about a couple of Masonic ritual cipher books that have deliberately misleading title pages: Magicians' Magic Movements and Ceremonies and Hindoo Theology for the Use of Missionaries. These books are part of a subset of Masonic ritual books, mostly written in cipher, and often containing an intentionally misleading title page. They are often bound with a flap that closes over the opening and snaps shut, much like a diary. The use of cipher, the false title page, and the clasp binding all serve one purpose: to insure that, should the book fall into hands of a non-member, that person would not be able to make heads or tails of the contents.

Our readers may be familiar with perhaps the two best known examples of these cipher books: Ecce Orienti: An Epitome of the History of the Ancient Essenes, Their Rites and Ceremonies and King Solomon and His Followers: A Valuable Aid to the Memory, Strictly in Accordance with the Latest Authors. Both are Masonic ciphers for the Symbolic (also known as Craft or Blue Lodge) degrees.

The title page seen here is yet another example in this rather whimsical tradition of creating false title pages. It is, compared to the others mentioned above, decidedly more absurd:

Rural Conversations of the Merry Midshipman, Pompous Manes, Monkish Epicurean Mantchoo, and Rollicking Ambling Moufflon

What in the world...? you might be thinking. This title, of course, reveals little about the book's contents. The true title of the book is:

Ritual Ceremonies of the Mark Master, Past Master, Most Excellent Master, and Royal Arch Mason

As you can see, the misleading title uses the first letter of every word in the real title, but substitutes them with outlandish phrases.

So what is this book? It is a cipher ritual for the Royal Arch degrees for the state of Kentucky. The 1949 edition pictured here contains a helpful page that precedes the title page, which states that it was "Printed and Published by Order of the Grand Royal Arch Chapter of Kentucky, Royal Arch Masons." The book is a mix of plain English and cipher and would have been used by members of local Royal Arch Chapters in Kentucky for memorizing the four degrees that are conferred in a Royal Arch Chapter.

Although the edition being discussed here was published in 1949, the first edition of Rural Conversations was published by the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons of Kentucky in 1887. The organization's Annual Proceedings of that year devote many pages to it.


Title page of Rural Conversations of the Merry Midshipman, Pompous Manes, Monkish Epicurean Mantchoo, and Rollicking Ambling Moufflon. 8th ed. (Grand Royal Arch Chapter of Kentucky, Royal Arch Masons, 1949)

Hindoo Theology for the Use of Missionaries (A Masonic Cipher)

Hindoo_Theology_for_Missionaries_webWhen I first came across a small 74-page book in our collection called Hindoo Theology for the Use of Missionaries, I knew that I couldn't take the title page at face value.

First of all, the publication information on the title page indicated that it was printed in Rome in 1814. As a librarian who has seen a lot of books printed in the early 19th century, I was sure that this book was not printed that early - and pretty sure it probably wasn't printed in Rome, either. It looked to me like it was more likely to have been printed in the late 19th or early 20th century. Secondly, the book was quite clearly some kind of fraternal ritual cipher book. We have many cipher books in our collection and a few of them - like Magicians' Magic Movements and Ceremonies - have deliberately misleading titles. I suspected that Hindoo Theology was another case of Masons having some fun at disguising ritual books.

It was while I was in touch with Arturo de Hoyos, Grand Archivist of the Scottish Rite's Southern Jurisdiction about another book when he mentioned Hindoo Theology for the Use of Missionaries in passing. He stated that it was a cipher for the rituals of the Royal Arch Chapter for the State of New Jersey. And yet I wanted to know more about this book - and about its odd title.

After sleuthing around a bit more I was able to find a definitive printed source that talked about this little book. In the 1950 Proceedings of the Grand Royal Arch Chapter of the State of New Jersey, there's a report of the Grand Historian, Harold V.B. Voorhis, entitled "The 'Manual' and The 'Hindoo.'" Voorhis was a top-notch Masonic scholar, so I knew that I had found a good resource. Voorhis writes:

Let us now look into the advent and adventure of that Masonic oddity known as the "Hindoo." We have no authentic data concerning the author or authors of the "Hindoo" or when it first saw the light of day. However, it is substantially certain that it appeared shortly after the 1864 Gould "Guide to the Chapter" and was published by [James L.] Gould in Connecticut. Consequently, it is not without normal surmise that Gould was responsible for its production. It is doubtful if the name has any significance - "Hindoo Theology for the Use of Missionaries -- Rome -- 1814." It must have been that he compiled it at the instigation of Companion John Sheville, with whom he collaborated in producing the Manual, because, so far as is known, the "Hindoo" was only used in New Jersey, where Companion Sheville had been Grand High Priest.

Although Voorhis concluded that "Hindoo" was only used in New Jersey, there are clear indications that it was also used in Iowa, as well. The 1896 Proceedings of the Grand Royal Arch Chapter for the District of Columbia, for example, state that "We observe that in Iowa the Grand Chapter issues and uses the 'Hindoo ritual.'" Looking at various Proceedings of the Grand Chapter of Iowa in the 1890s in our library collection indeed turns up numerous uses of the phrases "Hindoo Theology" and "Hindoo ritual." In the 1893 Grand Chapter of Iowa Proceedings it is also noted that the Grand Chapter of Nevada used the ritual and that "some few years ago we supplied the Grand Chapter of Kansas with copies of our Hindoo Theology."

As to why "Hindoo" theology, I'm still not sure. It's possible that this is simply a case of the West exoticizing an unfamiliar Eastern religion - the same kind of Orientalism that gave rise to the Shriners and other Masonic and fraternal groups and degrees that present Eastern cultures and religions through the prism of 19th-century Western viewpoints. If any of our readers have thoughts on other cultural references that may have made "Hindoo Theology" an unsurprising choice of title, we'd love to hear your thoughts.

Hindoo Theology for the Use of Missionaries.
Rome [i.e. Paterson, New Jersey] : [Printed by Mackay Printing Company,] 1814 [i.e. ca. 1890-1902]
Call number: RARE 14.3 .H662


Rare "Ast Ritual" Given to Library

Ast_Ritual_web The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library recently acquired two copies of a uniquely American Masonic ritual - the Reverend Daniel Parker's Masonic Tablet (New York, ca. 1822), which was the first published American cipher ritual. The Masonic Tablet was published with no title page and is often referred to as the “Ast Ritual,” a reference to the first word on the first line of the book (shown here).

Both copies were a gift of the Pittsfield Masonic Association of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The gift includes one complete copy of the 28 page book and a second copy of the same edition, but lacking the last four pages. As well, we received a separately printed four-page glossary of cipher words (also originally printed ca. 1822) with their translations, printed in two columns. The Masonic Tablet contains Craft and/or Chapter ritual in cipher and was printed around 1822 in both a 28 page version and a 44 page edition. The only other known copy of the 28 page edition is in a private library. This gift to the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library triples the number of known copies of the 28 page book and makes the Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives the only Masonic library in the world to hold two copies of this important, early Masonic ritual.

Ast_Ritual_detail The book’s striking cipher (see detail at right) uses five different methods to conceal the text: letter and number substitution, omission of letters, inclusion of meaningless letters between backward brackets, numbers and punctuation marks, words spelled backwards, and the inclusion of foreign words. This is in stark contrast to the many plain-English (i.e. unencrypted) ritual exposures that followed Parker’s Tablet in the 1820s and 1830s, which clearly aimed to reveal Masonic ritual to non-Masons. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone who wasn’t already familiar with Masonic ritual would have easily deciphered the text of the Ast Ritual. As for the content, according to one Masonic ritual expert the Masonic Tablet likely contains the ritual that lodges in and around New York City in the 1820s would have used. Although the book was printed without publishing information in the book itself, Masonic historian Arturo de Hoyos and bibliographer Kent Walgren, using secondary sources, have reasonably attributed the printing of the book to New York (possibly Kingston) in 1822.

Proceedings of the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons of the State of New York, as well as the Grand Lodge of New York from the early 1820s, contain information about the Masonic trials that took place when it became known that the Reverend Daniel Parker (1774-1835), a Freemason, was advertising and selling a memory aid containing Masonic ritual. In publishing his cipher, Parker raised the ire of both the Grand Lodge and Grand Chapter of New York. It appears that Parker went to great lengths to conceal, rather than reveal, Masonic ritual and likely intended his book as a memory aid for other Freemasons to learn ritual. Despite this, upon hearing about Parker’s book, the Grand Lodge adopted a resolution in 1822 that condemned the use of all books or manuscripts explaining Masonic ritual. Four years later, Parker was expelled by the Grand Chapter of New York. The Grand Chapter got involved because some editions of the Masonic Tablet contained the Capitular (i.e. Royal Arch Chapter) degrees and the Grand Chapter stated that Parker had “rendered himself a dangerous member of our fraternity.” They also claimed that he had “violated one of the most important of our Masonic obligations, by printing or publishing, or causing to be printed and published, a work calculated to expose some of the mysteries which bind together and preserve our fraternity.” Parker was expelled from the Grand Chapter of New York on February 10, 1826. It is not known how many copies of Parker's Masonic Tablet were printed. Today, there are only six known copies of any edition/state of the Ast Ritual. As this gift proves, others may emerge in the future.

The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library is grateful to the Pittsfield Masonic Association for this important gift. If you have something rare and unusual in your lodge's library, why not drop us a line and ask us about it?

If you are interested in learning more about Daniel Parker's Masonic Tablet, the following two sources, which I relied upon for the information above, are invaluable:

Arturo de Hoyos. Light on Masonry: The History and Rituals of America’s Most Important Masonic Exposé. Washington, DC: Scottish Rite Research Society, 2008; pp.27-34.
Call number: 19 .D4 2008

Kent Logan Walgren. Freemasonry, Anti-Masonry and Illuminism in the United States : 1734-1850: A Bibliography. Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 2003; cat. nos. 2038-2041.
Call number: REF 04 .W165 2003

Photo caption:
Daniel Parker. Masonic Tablet/Ast Ritual (New York, ca. 1822). Gift of Pittsfield Masonic Association, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives, RARE 14.9 .P238 1822.

Magicians' Magic Movements and Ceremonies

Magicians_tp_web A book that shows up on our recent acquisitions list, entitled Masonic Mnemonics: Memory Aids for Masonic Rituals, got me thinking about the central role that both memory and aids-to-memory play in Freemasonry. A physical manifestation of this is the ritual, or cipher, book.

When a man (or in some cases, as we've written elsewhere, a woman) joins a local Masonic lodge, he goes through three ritual ceremonies, known as "degrees." Often referred to as the Symbolic Degrees - Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason - these three degrees are thematically joined by the story of the construction of Solomon's Temple. A person going through each of these degrees is known as a candidate, and one thing that the candidate must demonstrate before being allowed to progress to the following degree is that he is "proficient" in the preceding degree. Proficiency, in short, is evidence that he has memorized the candidate's portion of the ritual and, with any luck, understands what he is saying, rather than simply reciting the lines. This proficiency is demonstrated before the members of the lodge he is joining, in the ritual degree ceremonies which involve the participation of the candidate and the officers of the lodge.

Although Masonic ritual is often taught "mouth to ear" through an oral tradition of having an older Mason instructing a new candidate in preparation for his ritual degree ceremony, this learning is often augmented by the use of a ritual or cipher book. We've written about rituals before, but all of the ones we've addressed so far have been printed in plain, easy-to-read English. In American Freemasonry, however, there is a long tradition of Masonic ritual books being published in cipher.

Michigan_lodge_room_web If you're not a Mason, all this talk of rituals, degrees, and ciphers might be a little confusing. An analogy might help: one might think of Masonic degree ritual as a sort of moral play, in which the candidate is the main protagonist. The ceremony usually takes place in the center of a lodge room (two old views of a lodge room in Albion, Michigan are illustrated here), a large, rectangular room with seating around the perimeter, and traditionally located on the second floor of a Masonic temple. The lodge room is a symbolic representation of King Solomon's temple, and the ritual uses aspects of the story of the building of Solomon's temple as the basis for the story it tells.  The cipher is the script of the play, which the candidate and other participants of the lodge use beforehand to memorize their lines. The books are not used during the actual ritual ceremony, in the same way that in a staged play actors do not read from their scripts.

Magicians_cipher_detail_web Ok, but why publish the rituals in cipher (an example of which can be seen here) in the first place? Part of the answer has to do with a candidate's vow not to "write, print, paint, stamp, stain, cut, carve, hew, mark, or engrave" the secrets of Freemasonry and therefore make them easily available to non-Masons. Putting aside the fact that non-cipher Masonic ritual exposures have been around since the 18th century - and that many of the consumers of these exposures were likely Freemasons themselves who were happy to have a written script to help them memorize ritual - a tradition of personal honor linked to not revealing that which you've vowed to keep secret, led, in part, to the use of ciphers. Ciphers are essentially gibberish to those who have not memorized the ritual to begin with, but to those who know (or who have mostly memorized) the ritual, the cues contained in the cipher are an "aid to memory," short-hand prompts that help one remember the words. They contain cues to a script that one has already learned, without printing the full text of the ritual itself. Indeed, the late 19th and early 20th century produced a slew of cipher books, many carrying "A Valuable Aid to the Memory" as part of their subtitle.

In addition to being written in cipher, many ritual books published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also had titles that, arguably, are designed to make non-Masons unaware that the book contained Masonic ritual. Two of the most popular titles from that time period have titles that might easily confuse a non-Mason who stumbles across them: Ecce Orienti: An Epitome of the History of the Ancient Essenes, Their Rites and Ceremonies; and King Solomon and His Followers: A Valuable Aid to the Memory, Strictly in Accordance with the Latest Authors. In addition to perhaps adding to the perceived mysteriousness and secretiveness of Masonic ritual, these books also served the purpose of not revealing any secrets that a Mason promised to keep, on the off chance that a cipher was casually left around the house or accidentally lost. (The use of these books were sometimes silently condoned, but in other cases - as with the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts in 1885 - their use was condemned in "very impressive and forcible language.") That all said, to the uninitiated, a cipher is not going to quickly reveal its contents.

A gem from our collection, that also reveals some of the humor used in creating some of these misleading titles, is a ritual cipher entitled Magicians' Magic Movements and Ceremonies, published in 1915 by Allen Publishing in New York (and shown in both illustrations above). The book is, in actuality, a cipher for the ritual of the Symbolic Degrees as practiced by the Grand Lodge of Michigan. (And here we need to give a big tip of the magician's hat to John M. Karnes, a ritual collector who helped us geographically identify this ritual cipher, something that had us stumped.)

In the past, as well as today, rules and regulations regarding ritual and cipher books vary from state to state. Each state's Grand Lodge has its own rules and regulations for all of the lodges that it oversees in that state. Paul Bessel has an interesting map and chart that illustrates each U.S. Grand Lodge's views regarding the use of printed rituals and/or ciphers in that state's local lodges.

And, finally, if you start searching around the web for Masonic ciphers, you will quickly encounter the "pigpen" cipher, which is also sometimes called the Freemason's cipher. This, indeed, is a cipher code that was once used in Freemasonry, although it is completely different from the type of cipher we're writing about in this post. More on this other cipher perhaps, in a later post.

Image of the lodge room at Albion, MI from:
Conover, Jefferson S. Freemasonry in Michigan: A Comprehensive History of Michigan Masonry from Its Earliest Introduction in 1764. Vol. 1. Coldwater, MI: Conover Engraving and Publishing Co., 1896.
Call number: 17.9764 .C753

Books referred to in this post:

Royal, David. Masonic Mnemonics: Memory Aids for Masonic Rituals. Lewis Masonic, 2008.
Call number: 14 .R6 2008

Magicians' Magic Movements and Ceremonies. New York: Allen Publishing Co., 1915.
Call number: RARE 14.2 .M15 1915