The Yellow Briar
"Well do I remember the peculiar moment in which I was received into the Trueman householdpoor and penniless, neither naked nor clothed, barefoot nor shod." [p. 80]
The festival of St. John the Baptist arrived. Young Jack confided to me there would be great goings-on at the Trueman place that night. Himself and Mr. William Cassidy him that kept the gaol were forming a secret society; and the first meeting would be held in the front room upstairs. Some Mr. Grand Lodge in Dublin had written letting them do it. I was impressed with the awful and horrible nature of this business. They would have John McLaughlin at the door to keep anyone from spying on them. They wrote their names in blood, so Jack told me. They drank each other's blood. It was enough to make a fellow's hair stand on end.
If ever a thorough job of house-cleaning was done, the Trueman women did it that day. I went around in the evening to look the situation over. The street door of the tap-room was closed. There were Scots and other strangers about the place, all in their Sunday clothes and wearing little pinnies. Everyone of them looked as handsome as the knave of hearts.
Yes, something seemed to be going on in the front room over the bar.
I sneaked upstairs to have a look, but Mrs. Trueman saw me. She said I had better be slipping away home.
I asked Mr. Michael O'Hogan, our landlord, about the affair. He had a drop of drink taken.
'Arrah, my boy!' he exclaimed. 'Beware of them cursed Masons.'
He shifted his seat on the bench with the slow, clumsy, angular motions of an Irishman whose feelings are aroused.
'Whist lad! they're a crew of black-hearted, murthering scoundrels!
Three or four cronies were with him; and, in their secretive-like way, they had been calavering together. Your Celt makes a secret even of his old clay dolley. It is hidden in the hand and smoked furtively from the side of the mouth. He smokes as if nursing a sore left jaw. We Irish are not very trustful; and sometimes that fact makes us not very trustworthy.
There were slow, knowing, Celtic nods in the room as face solemnly answered to face.
'Purgatory is not for the likes of them,' declared Mr. O'Hogan, marking the mournful occasion by filling his pipe with borrowed tobacco.
'St. Peter - God bless him - claps every Mason into hell to be boiled in oil.'
A long silence set in.
'Aye, the devil keeps a hot flail hanging on the corner-beam of hell for the likes of them.'
Mrs. O'Hogan planted herself in the doorway. She wore a dirty short skirt, and her arms were akimbo.
One of the men present observed her condition.
'It is swelled up you are, Bridget,' he told her, as he twisted his neck and spat on the floor. 'It is buttermilk you have been drinking?'
'It be,' said Mrs. O'Hogan.
'If it be a boy,' observed Mr. O'Hogan, 'Holy Jasus be praised!'
Around the corner from their lodge meeting, the Masons got a thorough going over that night. The liquor Mr. O'Hogan and his friends had drunk ran hot in their veins, and their emotions were on fire. The murder of poor William Morgan was canvassed in all its gruesome details.
'I mind well the said William Morgan,' declared Mr. O'Hogan, after the story had been talked out. 'He worked at John Doel's brewery, not a block away from where you are sitting.'
It was a creepy tale of plotted murder they told. Of course, I do not remember the details as given that evening. But I know the story well enough. How could it be otherwise? For fifty years, the fate of William Morgan was discussed, on and off and pro and con, before every fireside in Upper Canada.1
Morgan, it appeared, claimed to be a Free Mason from Canada, and a lodge at Rochester was careless and let him in. He proposed to get out a book divulging the secrets of the craft. A hot story was promised the gullible public.
The local craftsmen at Rochester were greatly disturbed. They took immediate action, and, as Masonry had great influence in New York State, Morgan was arrested on a trumped-up charge of petty larceny and bundled off to an outside town. The charge fell down; but Morgan was kept in gaol because he could not put up a bond for $2.65.
On the night of Tuesday, September 26, 1826, someone paid the debt for him and he was released. Directly in front of the gaol, he was gagged and thrown into a closed carriage. He was afterwards locked up in the stone block-house facing the parade ground of the American fort at Niagara. He lay in an underground apartment used for storing ammunition. Colonel William McKay, a Knight Templar, had him in charge.
At a meeting of Masons, held in Lewiston, it was resolved to discipline Morgan. The meeting was informed the assistance of two brethren would be required. The result of the balloting would remain secret; but the two men who drew marked ballots would be met by another craftsman at ten o'clock on a certain evening on the plain near Fort Niagara. The password would be 'Thomson - Johnson.
Two men met at the time and place appointed. The third man joined them. Johnson was directed to fetch a row-boat. The other two repaired to the basement of the old stone fort.
Morgan begged for mercy - but he cried in vain. His body was then placed in a gunny sack, which, being weighted with a chain, made a heavy burden for two men to carry. The boat was rowed out into the river. There was a splash. The boat returned to shore. The three separated without a further word being spoken.
'The dirty heretics!' observed Bridget O'Hogan, calmly. 'And it is the likes of them look down on the likes of us.'
What seemed to disturb Mr. O'Hogan's mind, in connection with the story, was not the fact that the poor man had been murdered by the Masons - he expected nothing better of them. He was wrathy because Masonry was so powerful that the State did not bring the murderers to justice.
'Oh, yes!' he told us, as he sucked his cutty, 'we had midnight burnings and horrible murders in Ireland; but, if one peeked through the window, he saw the soldiery leading off the miserable creatures in irons to trial and to death.'
The story of William Morgan brought disrepute to the Masonic Order, and an element of distrust to the minds of the neighbours of every member of the craft. I mention it, now, merely because it is a fair example of the unbridled prejudices of the times, which charged against every great body of men the reckless acts of its individual members. Every child knows, nowadays, that the Free Masons have a beautiful system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols. In their retreats of friendship and brotherly love, may God be with them. May the rays of heaven shed their benign influences upon them, and enlighten them in the paths of virtue and of science.
But I feel that way toward them, not because of the secret mysteries they hele, ever conceal and never reveal and which are very suitable for Sunday-school instruction but because they form a harmless and respectable body of my fellow countrymen. There is no unkindly feeling in my old Catholic heart toward any of the secret fraternal, racial, or religious societies that infest this young country. It is only nature for birds of a feather to flock together. Such societies may all have some uses toward a common good; but there is a savour of snobbery at the basis of them all. They tend also to keep asunder Canadians who otherwise might more freely break the bread of patriotism at a common board and offer up to, a land of freedom the full measure of their united and sincere devotion. Religious and lodge influences in public affairs have been a blighting curse in Canada. To get anywhere in my day, the aspirant had to be a bigot or a joiner; and, even today, there are poor prospects for any respectable loose fish.
There never was any question as to the kidnapping of Morgan. In January 1827, Edward Sawyer and two other members of the craft pleaded guilty in New York State 'to conspiring to seize and carry William Morgan from gaol to foreign parts and there continually to secrete and imprison him'. Sawyer was given a month in gaol.
The other side of the story was that Morgan had been helped to run away to Canada to avoid his creditors.
'But,' as Mr. O'Hogan exclaimed, 'if the said William Morgan was alive, why did they not produce the man and save their ugly faces?'
The next morning early I slipped around to see what had happened at the Tavern Tyrone. Himself was about, as usual, giving orders. His daughter Violet was making up a feather bed in the double-bedded room upstairs over the bar. No sign saw I of ought untoward. The first meeting of King Solomon's Lodge, No. 22, G.R.C., had evidently passed off without anyone being hurted.
Young Jack Trueman may have heard more of that lodge meeting than was intended for his ears; or perhaps he had the gift of a powerful imagination. He claimed to have hidden under the bed in the back bedroom, upstairs, with his ear to the partition. In any event, the matter was much on his mind; and, in the afternoon, he herded a dozen youngsters into the Trueman stable to hold a lodge meeting of his own. I was in charge of the door; and Jack had a hammer and an empty beer-barrel.
He gave the barrel three smart knocks; and we all came to attention.
'What now, brethren, is our first care?' he demanded the heavy burr that reminds one of St. Andrews.
I had my instructions.
'To see that the lodge is properly tyled, worshipful sir,' said I.
'Direct that duty to be done,' commanded Trueman, Jr.
So I hammered three times on the inside of the stable door, and a little negro boy, posted outside, hammered back three times to tell us everything was in order.
But young Jack refused to believe his ears. Over and over, he insisted that we holler at him:
'The door is properly tyled, worshipful sir!'
So I went out to make dead sure about it; and then I quietly stole away on more interesting business of my own.
1. Considering its brevity, the account which the late Mr. Slater gives of Morgan's murder seems fairly accurate. Doubting minds are referred to the History of Free Masonry in Canada by the late J. Ross Robertson, Past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Canada (1899), Vol. 2, pages 121-40.
John Wendell Mitchell (1880/04/01 - 1951/10/18), The Yellow Briar A story of the Irish on the Canadian countryside by Patrick Slater [pseud.] with an account of the author by Dorothy Bishop. Toronto : MacMillan of Canada, 196pp. pp. 61-66.
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