In early United States history, before Slavery became the really hot issue of the day, forcing everyone to take sides in the heated atmosphere that boiled over into our American Civil War, newspaper headlines and American heads of state were deeply embroiled in another issue: the secret society as old as the Middle Ages: the Freemasons.

Freemasonry was not a minor side-issue: major political players came to prominence as Anti-Mason party candidates, including William Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, who survived the assassination plot against the U.S. on the same day Lincoln was murdered. Seward, who many thought would become president in 1860, was a prominent anti-slavery and prison-reform activist, and is probably most famous for purchasing Alaska from Russia under president Andrew Johnson.

Thurlow Weed, a leading anti-Masonist, was the most powerful Whig/Republican party boss of his day, a key backer of the presidential nominations of William Henry Harrison (1840), Henry Clay (1844), Zachary Taylor (1848), Winfield Scott (1852), John Charles Frémont (1856) and Abraham Lincoln (1860).

John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, published an anti-Masonic work,  Letters on the Masonic Institution, in 1847.  In a letter written in 1831, Adams, wrote: “All that my father knew of masonry in 1798, was that it was favorable to the support of civil authority; and this he inferred from the characters of intimate friends of his, and excellent men who had been members of the Society.  To speak of the Masonic Institution as favorable to the support of civil authority at this day, and in this country, would be a mockery of the common sense and sensibility of mankind.”

Masonry may have been part of America’s founding, but after the William Morgan murder case broke in 1826, anti-Masonic feelings ran high in the U.S, and the founders of the Whig party—which became Lincoln’s Republican party—were swept along by outspoken anti-Masonic fervor.

John Quincy Adams, again: “It has therefore been in my opinion, ever since the disclosure of the Morgan-murder crimes, and of the Masonic oaths and penalties by which they were instigated, the indispensible duty of the Masonic order in the United States, either to dissolve itself, or to discard forever from its constitution and laws all oaths, all penalties, all secrets, and as ridiculous appendages to them, all mysteries and pageants.”

What makes all this deliciously interesting in terms of Letters, is that the famous poet Edgar Allan Poe was quietly connected to these anti-Masonic Whig forces, during the now forgotten time in our history when Masonry, more than Slavery, was the divisive issue of the day. 

John P. Kennedy (1795-1870) was novelist, long-time Maryland congressman and secretary of the Navy overseeing Perry’s trip to Japan and other missions, including one to explore the Amazon.  Kennedy helped found the Whig party—and Kennedy got Poe his first job—at the Southern Literary Messenger.  Kennedy also shared Poe’s publisher, Matthew Carey; Carey was a Benjamin Franklin and General Lafayette associate, and Carey, Poe’s publisher, was also an important ally of the above-mentioned John Quincy Adams.

“Conspiracy nuts,” as they’re justly called, make much ado about the evils of freemasonry, and how nearly every important person is overtly, or secretly, a freemason; we don’t wish to get involved in this wild goose chase, though obviously facts, here and there, can be devilishly thrilling.  We refuse to choose sides or make accusations, and we understand the whole issue is immensely complex; just witness John Quincy Adams attacking the society, while acknowledging his father and many great men belonged to it.  We admit the case of Grand Master of the Rite and Confederate general Albert Pike is a fascinating one, and, who knows, perhaps Masons killed both Poe and Lincoln.  But again, all this is far more than we could possibly look into, at present, much less prove.

What we do find interesting is something we discovered when reading how Jesuit followers of Loyola attempted to stamp out Freemasonry in the mid-15th century; apparently  in 1512, an anti-Masonic society called The Trowel was formed in Florence, and the Society of the Trowel was suppressed by clergy during Spain’s Inquistion.  Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” takes place during the Inquisition, but look at this passage from “The Cask of Amontillado and recall that Poe sets his story in Italy, where the Society of the Trowel was born:”

I looked at him in surprise. He repeated the movement — a grotesque one.

“You do not comprehend?” he said.

“Not I,” I replied.

“Then you are not of the brotherhood.”


“You are not of the masons.”

“Yes, yes,” I said; “yes, yes.”

“You? Impossible! A mason?”

“A mason,” I replied.

“A sign,” he said.

“It is this,” I answered, producing a trowel from beneath the folds of my roquelaire.

“You jest,” he exclaimed, recoiling a few paces. “But let us proceed to the Amontillado.”

The Cask of Amontillado, Edgar Poe

When Freemasonry took root in France, and influenced the French revolution, initiations took place in a grotto, strewn with human bones.

One more rather interesting tidbit: Masonic literature may have given Poe his idea for the differently colored apartments in his Masque of the Red Death.  From a description of the symbolism of degrees in the Rite: “There are four apartments, first hung with black, lit up by a solitary lamp of triangular form from a vaulted ceiling…then white, then blue, then red…”  Poe’s character, Prince Prospero, who attempts to hide, with a clique of friends, walled off from the rest of the world, is brought down by the Red Death.  Poe seems to be saying: Death to secretive elites, who would cut themselves off from the world!   Like the great diplomat and president John Quincy Adams, Poe disliked oaths, pageants and secrecy; and championed science and code-breaking in everything he wrote.

Poe’s friend, the author and congressman, the previously-mentioned John P. Kennedy, introduced a bill which guaranteed federal funding for the artist and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse’s telegraph.

There is speculation that Poe’s mysterious friend in Poe’s “Letter To B__” is none other than Samuel F.B. Morse, himself.

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