Melvin M. Johnson's 1949 South American Diary

South American Diary original coverAt the 1948 Annual Meeting of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction's Supreme Council, the Committee on Foreign Relations recommended that then-Sovereign Grand Commander Melvin M. Johnson (1871–1957) "consider making at trip of visitation into South and Central America to study at first hand Masonic conditions there and to report his findings to the Supreme Council..."

Commander Johnson took up the recommendation of the Committee and, on February 25, 1949, Johnson, accompanied by Ralph Sleeper, boarded the S.S. Uruguay in New York City for an official Masonic visit to Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. The trip took nearly ten weeks and is well documented by a diary that Johnson kept of the journey.

South American Diary published coverThe Supreme Council published a transcription of Johnson's diary in the form of a 66 page booklet (pictured at right). In it, Johnson records his observations both on board ship and while on land. He makes mention of the many Masonic dignitaries he met with and also gives his impressions of the various cities and countries he visited.

In addition to the published diary, the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library also has the original diary (above left). The original diary is typescript in a three-ring binder, with some corrections and annotations made in Johnson's hand. To call it a diary doesn't quite do it justice since it's part diary and part scrapbook, containing quite a bit of ephemera that Johnson collected or produced while on the trip. The binder contains photographs, event programs, Masonic certificates, and other material that all help give a much fuller picture of his trip.

Below are two photos from the original diary, which document Johnson visiting the Grand Orient of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro on March 18, 1949.

Johnson champagne toast

In the diary, Johnson describes the reception he received at the Grand Orient:

"When we arrived at the Masonic Temple, a band in the courtyard was playing our National anthem. We were escorted upstairs where we were most formally received by the Grand Master, Joaquim Rodrigues Neves, the other officers and guests. Our National anthem was again played. Then the Grand Master and I toasted each other with champagne and then broke the glasses. Next, the glove ceremony was enacted. This comes from the old English custom which required the initiate to present a pair of gloves to each member of the Lodge. The Temple was packed with brethren, probably 250 to 300. There was pomp and ceremony ad infinitum!...There were lavish floral decorations everywhere. Address after address was made, each being translated from Portuguese into English....Following my response to the numerous addresses, each brother was served champagne and we toasted each other. I have never before experienced such an elaborate reception. Photographs galore were taken throughout the evening; and it must have been 100° in the lodge room. However, I was grateful that I had the strength to go through with it."

Johnson in Masters Chair


Captions (top to bottom):

Diary of Melvin M. Johnson - Trip to Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina (February 25 - May 3, 1949), MM017.

Melvin Maynard Johnson. A South American Diary, February 25 - May 3, 1949. [Boston: Supreme Council, NMJ, 1950(?)]
Call number: 17.980 .J65 1949

Photograph of champagne toast between Melvin M. Johnson and Joaquim Rodrigues Neves, 1949.

Photograph of Melvin M. Johnson (seated) and members and visitors of Grand Orient of Brazil, 1949.

Florence Flieler: Grand Chief of the Pythian Sisters

A2010_9_1DSIn the spring of 2010, we were offered by a manuscript dealer in Canada, the personal diary of Mrs. Florence M. Flieler.  But who was Mrs. Flieler?  Why would we collect her diary?

Florence was born in Kansas in about 1885. She moved to Oakland, California in the 1920s according to the United States Federal Census. At this point she was married to Henry R. Flieler, an accountant in a bank, and lived in a household with his parents, Richard and Catherine. Florence was about 35 years old at this time.

Florence's great passion was participating in the Pythian Sisters. On May 22, 1925, Florence was installed as Grand Chief of the Pythian Sisters of California. Her diary (as seen above) shows this enthusiasm in her description her first five months in office after her installation. The diary includes descriptions of social and official visits with other Pythian Sisters in various towns in California including Sacramento, Chico, Arcata, Ferndale,Redding,and Eureka. Florence comments candidly in her diary, noting, for example, when ritual work was done well and when it was not. She usually stayed with other Sisters in the order when traveling. 

But who are the Pythian Sisters?

The Pythian Sisters is the female counterpart to the Knights of Pythias. This fraternal organization is similar to Order of the Eastern Star and the Rebekah Assembly in its relationship to its male  organizations. In 1888, the Supreme Lodge of the Knights of Pythias approved Joseph Addison Hill's ritual for a women's order. Hill was the primary organizer of the Pythian Sisters in Warsaw, Indiana.  Another group of Pythian Sisters from New Hampshire, with different ritual, merged with Hill's group in 1907. In the 1920s Florence Flieler would have been using and inspecting Hill's ritual in various temples in the Oakland area.

Like Order of Eastern Star and the Rebekah Assembly, a woman had to be the wife, sister, half-sister, sister-in-law, daughter, mother, stepmother, or mother-in-law, or grandmother of a Pythian Knight in good standing. Henry Flieler, or some other male relative, must have been a member of the Knights of Pythias, which would have made Florence eligible to join the Pythian Sisters. It is quite possible that the answer to this question lies waiting to be found in Florence Flieler's diary.

Image Caption:

Diary of Florence M. Flieler, 1925-1926.  Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, A2010/9/1.