Pittsfield Masonic Association

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.

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.