In 1805 the New York Mason Society issued a certificate to Ezekiel Thorp proving his membership in the organization. This document, signed by the group’s secretary and president, is an engraving executed by artist Archibald Robertson (1765-1835) and engraver William Rollinson (1762-1842). The images on the certificate help tell the story of the Society's purpose and work.
Divided into three vignettes, each scene on this certificate speaks to one of the group’s activities. On the far right, glimpsed behind a drape, the artist created a scene of men constructing a building. On the ground, climbing a ladder, and on scaffolding, the figures are engaged in preparing and carrying mortar and laying bricks. On the left-hand side, a man in a top hat brings items to a group of three people, a man, woman, and child—the man is in bed, his weeping family members are next to him. With an open stance, the man in the hat gestures toward the group, appearing to offer them the coins in his right hand and the sack in his left. At the center of the image, columns and an arch define the space that contains the text, red wax seal, and officers' signatures. Below the text, two men shake hands. Above them is a selection of mason’s tools: a hammer, two kinds of trowels, and a mallet on either side of a large level. Though some of the tools depicted in the center panel are used as symbols in Freemasonry, the New York Mason Society was not a group for Freemasons. In spite of having the word "Mason" in its name and featuring tools on its certificate, the New York Mason Society was an organization for men who earned their livings in specific building trades.
As yet, nothing is known of the owner of the certificate, New York Mason Society member Ezekiel Thorp. The president of the group who signed Thorp's certificate, Michael Norris, was a mason listed in several New York City directories in the early 1800s. He died in 1818 at age 45. Also listed in New York City directories as a mason, is Samuel Ludlum, who signed as secretary of the organization. In addition to working as a mason, Ludlum advertised as the co-owner of a plaster-of-Paris factory in 1811. He, like Norris, died at a young age—just 34 years—of consumption, in 1813.
In commissioning a certificate for members, the New York Mason Society worked with an artist Archibald Robertson, and engraver, William Rollinson. The pair worked on other projects together, most notably an engraved portrait of Alexander Hamilton (1755 or 1757-1804), published soon after Hamilton died suddenly from wounds sustained in a duel. Rollinson, an active Freemason, also engraved certificates for several Masonic lodges and the Grand Lodge of New York (you can see examples of some of this work in the collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library here).
Two years after Ezekiel Thorp received this certificate, the New York state legislature passed an act incorporating the New-York Masons’ Society. This act outlined that this group, drawing members from masons, bricklayers, and plasterers, sought to promote sociability among members, to offer charity to members “in distress,” and to encourage members to become “more perfect in their respective callings.” These goals and activities are reflected in the images that Robertson and Rollison created for this certificate. The act also noted that the organization’s first president was Samuel Ludlum, one of the men who signed this document over two hundred years ago.
Laws of the State of New York, Vol. 5, (Albany, New York: Websters and Skinner), 1809, 8-10.
"For Sale," Public Advertiser (New York, NY), June 14, 1811, 1.
"Died," Mercantile Advertiser (New York, NY), March 3, 1818