Current Affairs

Hurricane Gavel

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Gavel, ca. 1939. Massachusetts. Loaned by the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts, GL2004.2657.

High in the Taurus Mountains of Turkey, there is a grove of Cedars of Lebanon (Cedrus libani). In the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts collection cared for at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, there is a gavel made from the wood of one of these trees. The story of this gavel – from seeds to storage – brings together natural science and Masonic ingenuity.

In the early 1900s, Charles Sargent (1841-1927), the first Director of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, wanted to add examples of Cedrus libani to the collection of trees and shrubs at the site. However, these trees – which are mentioned in the Bible – grew primarily in the warmer climate of Lebanon and did not seem suited for New England weather. With the help of German naturalist Walter Siehe (1859-1928), Sargent was able to locate a forest of Cedars of Lebanon in the Taurus Mountains in Turkey. These trees grew further north and at higher altitudes and the two men thought they might also grow in Massachusetts.

In early 1902, Siehe shipped a number of cedar cones to Sargent and the trees were propagated in the greenhouses at the Arboretum. They started well and were planted on the grounds. By 1930, the Turkish Cedars of Lebanon were growing well and producing their own seed cones. The experiment was a success.

Then came the Hurricane of 1938, one of the most severe storms in New England history. The storm devastated the forests of the Northeast, destroying an estimated two billion trees in New York and New England. In the Arboretum, at least five of the Turkish cedars fell victim to the storm. (Happily, in 2022, eight of the original trees still survive on site.) As for the hurricane-damaged ones, a group of local Masons “grasped the opportunity to perpetuate these trees Masonically,” as one of them later said.

William Judd (1888-1946) was a member of Eliot Lodge in Dorchester and a gardener at Arnold Arboretum. During the clean-up after the hurricane, he and Welby McCollum (1887-1952) of West Roxbury Lodge decided to use some of the cedar wood to make a gavel. Given that McCollum worked as a builder, he may have crafted the piece.

After the gavel was completed, it was given to West Roxbury Lodge’s Past Master, Alexander McKechnie (1887-1965). He wrote out the story of the gavel on two typewritten pages – kept with the item – as a draft of his planned speech for a January 1940 presentation to West Roxbury Lodge. McKechnie mentioned in a handwritten addendum that he intended to present the gavel to the lodge and thence to the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts if desired. His note is addressed to Joseph Earl Perry (1884-1983), then-Grand Master of the Grand Lodge, and ends, “If you decide to put this gavel in the Museum you can pick out the important points in the above for a small card.” This small piece of material culture made of wood more than one-hundred-twenty years old still has a big story to tell.

Reference and Further Reading:

Anthony S. Aiello and Michael S. Dosmann. “The Quest for the Hardy Cedar-of-Lebanon,” Arnoldia, Volume 65, Issue 1 (2007).

Beginning the Next 200 Years

Repro Charter SGCs Actives ResizedIf you read our post yesterday, you know that August 5th, 2013, marked the 200th anniversary of the Scottish Rite Northern Masonic Jurisdiction,  To commemorate that event and to begin the next 200 years, the Supreme Council celebrated in New York City at the Grand Lodge of New York.  Sovereign Grand Commander John William McNaughton welcomed his counterpart from the Southern Jurisdiction, Sovereign Grand Commander Ronald Seale, as well as the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of New York (see the photo below), and many of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction's Actives and Deputies to New York City.  During a short ceremony,Grand Master of NY with Dignitaries Resized Commander Seale presented Commander McNaughton with a reproduction of the 1813 charter (seen in the photo above).  The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library looks forward to continuing to collect material related to the past, present and future of the fraternity.


Elizabeth Cole Sheehan, Creator of the Prayer-Rag-Flag Honoring the American Soldier, at the Museum on Veterans Day, November 11

Rag_Flag_CloseUp Elizabeth Cole Sheehan, creator of the Prayer-Rag-Flag honoring the American soldier, will be at the Museum on Veterans Day, Wednesday, November 11, from 1-4 pm. She will discuss her inspiration for the project, its construction, and answer visitor questions. Through the Prayer-Rag-Flag, Sheehan seeks express hope for peace in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to honor the fallen. She was inspired by Japanese prayer rags and Tibetan prayer flags. Both of these traditions involve tying fabric outdoors, allowing the prayers they hold to go out into the world on the wind.

In honor of Veterans Day, and to commemorate the 5,189 soldiers whose names appear on the flag today, Museum is displaying the Prayer-Rag-Flag in its lobby throughout the month of November.

Photo by Larry Cotton.

Conspiracy Theories, Scapegoating, & Demonization are Toxic to Democracy, by Chip Berlet

Chip Berlet, a Senior Analyst with Political Research Associates, will be speaking at the Museum on Saturday, October 24th, 2009, at 2 p.m. in the Farr Conference Center. His talk is in conjunction with "Freemasonry Unmasked! Anti-Masonic Collections at Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives", on view through May 15, 2010. To learn more about this free public lecture generously funded by the Lowell Institute, click here.


The man accused of killing a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., warned of a conspiracy of Jews and Freemasons to control the world and keep White Christians subjugated while at the same time elevating Blacks to under-served positions of power.


How could such a bizarre and bigoted claim make any sense?


The alleged shooter, James W. von Brunn, wrote a book that was like a catalog of historic conspiracy theories, including references to the infamous antisemitic hoax document, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. His website included links to White Supremacist and Holocaust denial sites. According to von Brunn, between 1881 and 1914 a series of political assassinations were “traceable to Bolshevism, Freemasonry … and other ILLUMINATI sponsored terror groups.” Czar Alexander II of Russia, King Humbert of Italy, U.S. President McKinley, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, and others were killed in order to provoke World War I.



BerletBlog_collage-2 copy The library at
Political Research Associates, where I work, has shelves full of books making the same false conspiracy claims in elaborate detail. These conspiracist tracts and volumes trace back to the late 1700s. Now many of these false claims are posted on the Internet and available worldwide. The exhibit "Freemasonry Unmasked!", now at the National Heritage Museum traces how these conspiracist allegations often include the demonization of Freemasonry.


The current political environment is awash with seemingly absurd, but nonetheless influential, conspiracy theories, hyperbolic claims and demonized targets. The political right blames sinister plots on a vast conspiracy supposedly run by liberal secular humanists and Democrats, portrayed as running a covert network of subversives. Scratch the surface of these stories and commonly scapegoated groups emerge: Jewish bankers, Freemasons, civil rights activists, labor union leaders, community organizers.


On the political left, conspiracy theories portray conservatives, neoconservatives, and Republicans as staging the terror attacks on 9/11 as part of an elaborate scheme to justify war in the Middle East and the erosion of civil liberties at home.


These are not legitimate criticisms of public policy or the institutions of power in our society; they are populist anger and anxiety exploited by demagogues to undermine the democratic process. Democracy requires informed consent. When conspiracy theories enter public debates, they are toxic to democracy.


Conspiracy theorists use the same four “tools of fear." These are: 1) dualism (the division of the world into a good "Us" vs. a bad "Them"); 2) scapegoating; 3) demonization; and 4) apocalyptic aggression. The basic dynamics remain the same, no matter the ideological leanings of the demonizers or the identity of their targets.


Meanwhile, our ability to resolve disputes through civic debate and compromise is hobbled. It is the combination of demagogic demonization and widespread scapegoating that is so dangerous. Some angry people already believe conspiracy theories in which scapegoated groups are targeted as subversive, destructive, or evil. Add in aggressive apocalyptic ideas that suggest time is running out and quick action is mandatory and you have the conditions for a perfect storm of mobilized resentment threatening to rain bigotry and violence across the United States. Historically, the violent attacks target marginalized groups, especially people of color, immigrants, and Jewish institutions. In the last decade, the list has expanded to include Muslims, Arabs, and people in the gay community.


We can stop this. Law enforcement needs to enforce laws against criminal behavior. Vicious bigoted speech, however, is often protected by the First Amendment. We do not need new laws or to encourage government agencies to further erode civil liberties. We need to stand up as moral people and speak out against the spread of bigoted conspiracy theories. That's not a police problem, that's our problem as people responsible for defending and expanding democracy and building a free and just society.

The Question We Cannot Answer - How Much Is This Worth?

GL2004_1869T National Heritage Museum staff answer hundreds of questions each year – and we love doing it.  Except for one question – the question we cannot answer.  It is one of the top questions we are asked – “How much is this [book / Masonic apron / certificate, etc.] worth?”

We’re a Museum, Library and Archives, right?  We have thousands of antique objects, books and documents.  We follow the market and even purchase examples from time to time, so we should know, right?  Just like the experts on the Antiques Roadshow, our curator, librarian and archivist should be able to assess antiques and suggest a value. 

Not quite.

Believe us, it’s hard not to be able to answer a question for an interested inquirer.  But if we answer that particular question, we are being unethical.  For one thing, while we are trained museum and library professionals, with many years of experience, we are not trained appraisers.  Appraising antiques takes curatorial knowledge, but also a sense of the market on a much wider scale than we have time to cultivate.  We simply do not have the knowledge to confidently suggest the value of an antique object in terms of what it might bring on the open market or in the event of an insurance settlement.  While we do follow the antiques market, we spend the bulk of our time researching the history of objects we already own and interpreting their use and function for our visitors, rather than how much they might be worth to a collector 200 years after they were made.

But the real danger in this situation is a conflict of interest.  Say you come into the Museum with a wonderful silver ladle that was used by a Boston Masonic lodge during the 1790s.  You are considering donating it to the Museum because you know it’s interesting and has some history, but you don’t think it’s worth much from a monetary viewpoint.  You ask us what we think.  As we’re looking at it together, the museum curator notices that it has the mark of Paul Revere’s shop on the bottom; obviously something that would add significantly to its financial value.  But the curator worries that if she mentions this, you will no longer want to donate it.  Instead, you’ll want to sell it to us, or put it up for auction.  So she doesn’t let on and tells you it’s only worth $500 and you make the gift.  Flash forward a year when the Museum puts it on exhibit with a label about Paul Revere’s silversmith shop.  How do you feel?  This kind of conflict of interest is why we can’t answer the value question.  The American Association of Museums is quite clear on this point.  Even more importantly, so is the IRS, which requires third-party appraisals when a donor wants to write off a gift like the one described here.

So when you ask this question, not just of National Heritage Museum staff, but staff at any Museum or Library, understand that we’ll politely explain that it’s a conflict of interest.  We may give you an alphabetical list of appraisers in the area, being careful to let you know that we do not recommend one over the others, nor do we imply any kind of recommendation of any of the names on the list – which can also be a conflict of interest.  There are several national professional associations for appraisers; all maintain lists of their members and, unlike museum staff, are not prohibited from helping you to find an appraiser in your area.  So, if you find an antique of your own and are wondering about its value, try contacting one of the following:
American Society of Appraisers, 800-272-8258
Appraisers Association of America, 212-889-5404
International Society of Appraisers, 312.224.2567
National Institute of Appraisers, 800-676-2148

Ladle, ca. 1765, Paul Revere (1734-1818), Boston, Massachusetts, Loaned by the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts, GL2004.1869, photograph by David Bohl.