Joseph Cerneau

The Persistence of "Cerneauism": The 1950s

Donnell_letterIn the late 1800s, the Supreme Councils for the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction (NMJ) and the Southern Jurisdiction (SJ) began using the wonderfully peculiar word "Cerneauism" to describe the "clandestine" Scottish Rite bodies that persisted after the Union of 1867 had merged two previously competing Supreme Councils in the northeast to form the present-day NMJ. Cerneauism referred to Joseph Cerneau [pdf]and to the fact that these bodies traced their organizational roots (sometimes aspirationally) back to organizations formed by Joseph Cerneau in the early nineteenth century.

Until recently, historians have assumed that Cerneauism ended within the first two decades of the twentieth century. In their 2008 book, Committed to the Flames: The History and Rituals of a Secret Masonic Rite, Arturo De Hoyos and S. Brent Morris wrote that "the Cerneau movement ended in 1919 when M.W. Bayliss [the Sovereign Grand Commander for the Thompson-Folger Supreme Council] died." I was under the same impression as well until the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library recently received a small gift of material related to the Thompson-Folger Supreme Council. This material shows that the Supreme Council was active as late as 1951. 

The Thompson-Folger Supreme Council was formed in 1881 when Hopkins Thompson and Robert B. Folger, both members of the NMJ's Supreme Council "revived" Cerneau's Supreme Council, Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite for the United States of America, Their Territories and Dependencies. Both men withdrew their membership in the NMJ's Supreme Council and were subsequently expelled by the NMJ in 1882.

The material we received mostly consists of pamphlets published by this Supreme Council. In one - A Brief History of the U.S. Jurisdiction - the author lists the Sovereign Grand Commanders from 1881 until 1951, including the starting year of their term after their names:
"Those serving as Sovereign Grand Commander since Ill. Bro. [Hopkins] Thompson have been Ill. Edward W. Atwood, 1883; Ill. John B. Harris, 1885, Ill. John Haigh, 1886; Ill. John J. Gorman, 1887; Ill. William A. Hershisher, 1895, Ill. Major W. Bayliss, 1897; Ill. Dr. Thomas G. Waller, 1916; Ill. Charles S. Webster, 1934; Ill. Leon W. Van Deusen, 1935, and Ill. Andrew F. Donnell, 1944, now serving."

Pictured above is the one letter that came with the collection. It is dated March 12, 1949 and addressed to Frank B. Spengler (1881-1957) from Andrew F. Donnell (1878-1967). Donnell, a newspaper reporter based in Melrose, Massachusetts, served as Sovereign Grand Commander of the group from 1944 until at least 1951. Spengler, a medical doctor based in Baldwinsville, New York, was his Lieutenant Grand Commander. (The content of the letter is itself interesting, but beyond the scope of this post.)

Both men were active in their local lodges - Donnell with the Lodge of Eleusis and Fourth Estate Lodge, Spengler with Ark Lodge No. 33. These lodges were recognized subordinate lodges of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts and the Grand Lodge of New York, respectively. Membership inquiries to both Grand Lodges show - perhaps suprisingly - that both men died as members in good standing. Donnell was even Master of his lodge (the Lodge of Eleusis) in 1942, just two years before taking over the helm for the Cerneau Supreme Council.

Grand Lodges, although outside of the Scottish Rite system, often reminded their members not to participate in unrecognized appendant bodies and sometimes expelled members who continued to participate. At this point there is not enough other evidence to know why both men continued to enjoy their blue lodge membership despite their participation in a clandestine Scottish Rite body. It is possible that, for example, some time between 1951 (the latest info we have on these two men's participation with this Supreme Council) and the death of Spengler in 1957, that they may have been asked to choose between maintaining their blue lodge membership or their participation in an unrecognized Scottish Rite organization and may have chosen the former. It is also possible that, with only two subordinate bodies, the much-diminished Supreme Council may have passed below the radar of both Grand Lodges. It is difficult to imagine a third possibility in which these two Grand Lodges would have simply tolerated Donnell's and Spengler's continued leadership of the Cerneau Council.

If you have any information about the activities of this Supreme Council during the 1940s and 1950s, we'd love to hear from you!

Collection of Cerneau Material (Thompson-Folger Supreme Council), 1891-1951. SC 161. Gift of St. John's Lodge, No. 1 A.Y.M., New York, NY.

New to the Collection: A Cerneau Consistory Apron

2011_032DP1DBEven in the context of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library’s collection there is something so tempting about the forbidden. At least, that’s the feeling I had when a prospective donor offered this Masonic apron to us recently. I do have a soft spot for Masonic aprons in general, and then I learned that this one was supposedly worn by a member of the Cerneau Scottish Rite Consistory in Lenox, Massachusetts, during the 1890s. That did it – I was intrigued and immediately agreed that it should be added to our collection.

But, some of you may be wondering who – or what – is Cerneau, while others are grimacing in disgust. For those that don’t know, Joseph Cerneau (1765-1848) was a French Freemason who lived in San Domingo and then Cuba before moving to New York City in 1806. While in Cuba, Cerneau joined a Scottish Rite group and was given the authority of a Deputy Inspector General. This allowed him to confer several degrees on other prospective Scottish Rite members in Cuba, but the jurisdictional restriction does not seem to stopped Cerneau from conferring the degrees once he reached New York. Debate has raged ever since over whether he acted out of confusion or greed (since he would receive a fee from each man who received the degrees).

In 1813, the Scottish Rite Supreme Council in Charleston, South Carolina, sent a member to investigate Cerneau, as well as two additional groups claiming to have jurisdiction in New York. After Cerneau refused the member's request to inspect his records, he was denounced “as an imposter of the first magnitude, and whom we have expelled from Masonic Asylum within our Jurisdiction.” Cerneau was not daunted by the pronouncement and continued to confer degrees.  He oversaw his own Supreme Council until 1827, when he left New York to return to France. Despite Cerneau’s departure from the United States, his name continued to serve as an umbrella term for spurious and irregular Masonic groups, like the one associated with this apron.

Information provided with the apron when it was donated suggests that it was worn by George Washington Ferguson (1865-1936), an ice dealer in Lenox who joined nearby Evening Star Lodge in 1891. At the time, many men who belonged to their local lodge found that they wanted to learn more about Masonic symbolism and philosophy.  Joining additional Masonic groups allowed them to do this, as well as to increase their social circle. The Scottish Rite, with twenty-nine additional degrees, is often called “the University of Freemasonry,” because of the allegorical lessons that its degrees teach. However, in 1891, the nearest recognized Scottish Rite Consistory to Lenox was in Worcester, almost ninety miles away. But, in April 1891, the Cerneau Supreme Council formed Berkshire Consistory No. 56 in Lenox and, according to the information with the apron, Ferguson joined this group. Records of Berkshire Consistory’s founding state that there were thirty-six charter members.

Berkshire Consistory No. 56 continued to meet throughout the 1890s, even hosting the Grand Sovereign Consistory’s “annual rendezvous,” or meeting, in 1895. In response, the Supreme Council of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, which had denounced Cerneau and his group back in 1813, established the Onota Lodge of Perfection in nearby Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Relations between the two groups proved to be difficult over the next several years.

Questions remain unanswered about George Ferguson and Berkshire Consistory No. 56. Did he ever switch to the recognized Onota Lodge of Perfection? How long did Berkshire Consistory No. 56 remain functional? Please write a comment below if you know more about the story, or have additional questions.  This year, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, saluting its longevity.  This apron is a scarce reminder of the competing Berkshire Consistory No. 56 and its story.

Cerneau Scottish Rite Apron, ca. 1891, American. Gift of Pittsfield Masonic Association, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, 2011.032. Photograph by David Bohl.

Healing a Cerneau Mason: The Story of Nathan Hammett Gould

A98_038_01_Cerneau healing certificate_Web versionNathan Hammett Gould (1817-1895) was born in Newport, Rhode Island on April 23, 1817.  He resided in Newport most of his life and was a merchant by profession, having an office at 30 Touro St.  He was also manager of Gould and Bull's American Law and Claim Agency, which was located opposite City Hall.  He married Emily J. Rogers on September 29, 1845 in Boston, Massachusetts.  

He was made a Master Mason in St. John's Lodge No.1 of Newport in 1846 and served as its Master from 1857 until 1858.  

In January of 1849, Gould received the Scottish Rite degrees from the Grand Council of Sublime Princes of the Royal Secret for the State of Rhode Island, obtaining all 32 degrees. This Scottish Rite body was organized by Joseph Cerneau in 1813.  Later in 1849, eleven members of the Newport Scottish Rite decided to petition the J. J. J. Gourgas-led Supreme Council and  pledge their allegience to this to this group.  While they had formerly been under the allegience of a Supreme Council formed by Joseph Cerneau, this group had lost influence by the 1840s (they would again gain more influence later in the nineteenth century). 

On August 10, Gould was Masonically "healed" through a process of receiving a certificate (shown at the left) signed by Killian Van Rensselaer and Giles F. Yates, becoming a "Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret", or 32nd degree Scottish Rite Mason in the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction of the United States.  By September 16, 1849, a resolution was adopted by the Supreme Council of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction in which they agreed to charter the four Scottish Rite bodies in Newport.  

Joseph Cerneau (ca. 1764-1840) was considered by Emanuel DeLaMotta(1761-1821) , John James Joseph Gourgas (1777-1865), Giles Fonda Yates,(1796-1859), Killian Henry Van Rensselaer (1799-1881), and others, to be a Scottish Rite impostor and his Masonic work clandestine in every way.  Historians are still debating these claims. 

Van Rensselaer and Yates signed this "Certificate of Healing" (as shown below), which "healed", or "regularized" a Cerneau Scottish Rite Mason.  This certificate proclaimed that Nathan H. Gould and the other eleven Newport Scottish Rite Masons were made 32nd degree Masons, or "Sublime Princes of the Royal Secret."  In the eyes of the Supreme Council, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, they wereA98_038_01_Cerneau healing certificate_page 2_Web version now considered legitimate. 

Nathan H. Gould participated in Scottish Rite activities in both Newport and at the state level as Deputy for Rhode Island to the Supreme Council, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction from 1861 through 1867.  Again he served as Deputy for Rhode Island to the Supreme Council from 1867 until 1876.  The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library holds the letters of credence giving him this authority.

In 1876, Gould moved to San Antonio, Texas where he retired.  He died in 1895 and was buried in Texas. 

It is interesting to note that in 1998, that the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library purchased the documents relating to Gould's Masonic "healing" and his rise through the ranks in Scottish Rite from Robert B. Morris, Jr. of Forth Worth, Texas.


Certificate of Healing of Cerneau Masons, signed by K. H. Van Rensselaer and G. F. Yates, 1849.  Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, Lexington, MA, Museum purchase, A98/038/01 (recto and verso).


Baynard, Samuel Harrison.  History of The Supreme Council, 33º, Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry and Its Antecedents, Boston, MA: The Supreme Council, 1938.

Massachusetts, Town Vital Collections, 1620-1988.  

Rugg, Henry W. History of Freemasonry in Rhode Island, Providence, RI:  E. L. Freeman & Son, 1895.