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Captain William Morgan's Biography (Books)

William Morgan (1774-1826?) was a resident of Batavia, New York, whose disappearance and presumed murder in 1826 ignited a powerful movement against the Freemasons, a fraternal society that had become influential in the United States. After Morgan announced his intention to publish a book exposing Freemasonry's secrets, he was arrested on trumped-up charges. He disappeared soon after, and is believed to have been kidnapped and killed by some Masons.

The allegations surrounding Morgan's disappearance and presumed death sparked a public outcry and inspired Thurlow Weed and others to harness the discontent by founding the new Anti-Masonic Party in opposition to President Andrew Jackson's Democrats. It ran a presidential candidate in 1832 but was nearly defunct by 1835.

Morgan told friends and acquaintances that he had served with distinction as a captain during the War of 1812, and his associates in upstate New York appear to have accepted this claim. Several men named William Morgan appear in the Virginia militia rolls for this period, but none held the rank of captain, and whether Morgan actually served in the war has not been determined with certainty.

Morgan claimed to have been made a member of the Masons while living in Canada, and he appears to have briefly attended a lodge in Rochester. In 1825 Morgan received the Royal Arch degree at Le Roy's Western Star Chapter #33, having declared under oath that he had previously received the six degrees which preceded it. Whether he actually received these degrees and if so from where has not been determined for certain. Morgan then attempted unsuccessfully to help establish or visit lodges and chapters in Batavia, but was denied participation in Batavia's Masonic activities by members who were uncertain about Morgan's character and claims to Masonic membership. Morgan announced that he was going to publish an expose titled Illustrations of Masonry, critical of the Freemasons and describing their secret degree work in great detail.

He said that a local newspaper publisher, David Cade Miller, had given him a sizable advance for the work. Miller is said to have received the entered apprentice degree (the first degree of Freemasonry), but had been stopped from advancement by the objection of one or more of the Batavia lodge members. Morgan was promised one-fourth of the profits of the book, and the financial backers of the venture--Miller, John Davids (Morgan's landlord), and Russel Dyer--entered into a $500,000 penal bond with Morgan to guarantee publication.

In October 1827, a badly decomposed body washed up on the shores of Lake Ontario. Many presumed it to be Morgan, and the remains were buried under that identification, but the clothing was positively identified by his wife as that of missing Canadian Timothy Monroe (or Munro). One group of Freemasons denied that Morgan was killed, saying they had paid him $500 to leave the country. Contemporary reports included sighting of Morgan in other countries, but none were confirmed. Eli Bruce, the Sheriff of Niagara County and a Mason, was removed from office, tried, convicted, and served 28 months in prison. Three other Masons, Loton Lawon, Nicholas Chesebro and Edward Sawyer, were charged with, convicted and served sentences for the kidnapping of Morgan. Several other Masons were acquitted at their trials. Author Jasper Ridley indicates that Morgan was probably killed by Freemasons, all other scenarios being highly improbable, and historian H. Paul Jeffers also indicates that this is the more credible scenario. C.T. Congdon, in Reminiscences of a Journalist, mentions a third-hand account "that Morgan was murdered by certain very zealous Freemasons," and that the resultant anti-Mason sentiment caused many elections to go to non-Masons for years after.

The circumstances of Morgan's disappearance and the minimal punishment received by his kidnappers caused public outrage. He became a symbol of the rights of free speech and free press. Protests against Freemasons took place in New York and the neighboring states. Masonic officials disavowed the actions of the kidnappers, but all Masons came under a cloud. Thurlow Weed, a New York politician, formed an Anti-Masonic movement, gathering discontented opponents of President Andrew Jackson, a Mason, into the Anti-Masonic Party, which gained the support of such notable politicians as William H. Seward and Millard Fillmore.