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Masons, Mystery, and Myth Busting: Uncovering the Shrouded 
World of Freemasonry

Apr 14, 2015 03:08PM ● By Cate Reynolds

In January, past Master of Annapolis Lodge No. 89. Ellis E. Tinsley III congratulates new Worshipful Master Matthew H. Ficca at the Installation of Officers. Photos courtesy Annapolis Lodge No. 89.

By Jim Lodico

To the outsider, Freemasonry is often viewed as a world of closely guarded secrets, ritualistic ceremony, mysterious symbols, and historic relics. To some extent, those assumptions are correct. While not a secret society, the Masons do take strides to protect the secrets of the organization. These secrets include the ceremonies a Freemason goes through as they earn the three degrees of Masonry, the symbols used in these ceremonies, and even the detailed minutes of lodge meetings.

But there’s much more to the Masons than romanticized conspiracy theories and mystery. Those who become active members of the Masons say they enjoy the camaraderie and fraternal brotherhood masonry provides. Others are attracted to the values and moral guidance embraced by the Masons. For some, it’s the connection to the history and traditions of the Masons that keeps them active. For most, it’s a combination of factors that makes Masonry such an important part of their lives.

The Dan Brown Effect

It is often the mystery of the Masons that first attracts new members to the group. “There’s this thing called the Dan Brown effect,” says Ellis Tinsley III, past Master of Annapolis Lodge No. 89, referring to the author of The DaVinci Code, The Lost Symbol , and other novels featuring the Masons. “Whenever he puts out a book or a movie, we always get a boost in membership interest. It’s that mystery. People want to know what goes on here.”

Throughout United States history, Masons have the fortune of naming some of the most prominent players in shaping our country as their members. Famously, the list includes George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Paul Revere, John Paul Jones, and both Roosevelts (there are dozens more presidents, military heroes, western pioneers, actors, and artists). There are many Annapolitans among the historic ranks as well, including mayors, state delegates, Navy personnel, and colonial figures (see sidebar for list). And it’s this long history of Freemasonry intertwined with the founding of the United States that drives the overall mysterious perception of the organization in pop culture.

Modern Masons, however, aren’t nearly as secretive as their pop culture counterparts would make you believe. However, some of their secrets form an important aspect of being a Mason. According to Matt Ficca, new Worshipful Master of Annapolis Lodge No. 89, there are two reasons the Masons keep their secrets. “One is tradition. There aren’t many secrets that we keep other than the ritual and the degree work. Those are the things that only a Mason should know. These are the traditions of the organization.”

Ficca says that the second reason Masons keep secrets isn’t so much the actual secret but rather, the fact that you are willing to keep it. “It shows that you took an obligation among your peers that you wouldn’t reveal that information. It’s not the secret itself but that you can keep a secret. It is a reflection of the man you are.”
According to Ficca, the tradition of secrecy goes back to the days when working masons traveled from country to country throughout Europe seeking employment. A master Mason would use secret handshakes or symbols known only to other masons as a way to be recognized as a master in the trade. Many of the symbols and ceremonies of today’s Masons date back to those early days of masonry.

Most of the mystery stems from the ritual and ceremonies Masons go through as they earn the different levels or “degrees” of Masonry. These ceremonies and the “Temple” room, where all Masonic business is held, are filled with symbols and metaphors. Some are obvious—such as an open Volume of Sacred Law, which in America is typically the Holy Bible, under which all Masonic business is conducted—while others—such as the letter “G” or the Adler Stone, a stone with both rough and smooth edges—only have meaning to those who have earned their Masonic degrees.

Tinsley, whose grandfather is a member of the Annapolis Lodge, spent many days playing in the Annapolis building as a child but says that even though he’d been in the Temple room many times, it wasn’t until he earned his Masonic degrees that he began to understand the meaning of many of the objects.

“I’ve seen all of this stuff dozens and dozens of times and none of it registered. Then, as I was going through the three degrees and each degree dug a little bit deeper, I would look around the room and think, ‘I can’t believe this stuff is out in open daylight.’ I never knew the significant meaning behind it,” Tinsley says.

Ficca says that most of the rituals are allegorical ceremonies that impart “moral truths” and that their roots can be traced back to the early days of masonry as an apprenticed trade. “We still use the same lessons they used back then but it’s all allegorical now. We use the stone masons’ tools attaching moral lessons to them saying, ‘This is what this means and this is how you are going to apply it in your life.’”

Part of the mystery comes from the personal interpretation each Mason brings to the ceremonies and symbols of masonry. “If you ask five different Masons the same question about a symbol or metaphor, they will give you five different answers. All are correct,” Ficca imparts. “They all mean different things to the individual. What it means for one person may mean something different to another, but the basis of Freemasonry lies under it all.”

Although these symbols and the mystery romanticized in the The DaVinci Code and other Dan Brown novels often provide a first contact with Freemasonry, it’s usually not what keeps them in the lodge. According to Tinsley, for those who become Masons, it’s the call to higher moral living, the social elements of the lodge, and the community service that leads them to become active members in the lodge.

A Long History

From their building on Conduit Street to the ancient traditions of Freemasonry, the Annapolis Masons are steeped in history. The first Annapolis Masonic Lodge dates back to the 1740s. During the next 50 years or so, Masonic Lodges form and dissolve in Annapolis for reasons ranging from financial difficulties to a wave of anti-masonic sentiment, which swept the country in the late 1820s, ending the last of the early Annapolis Masonic organizations in 1829.

In 1848, members from the lodge that disbanded in 1829 formed Annapolis Lodge No. 89, which continues to this day.
The current Masonic building in Annapolis is a historic artifact itself. Once a tavern that played host to George Washington, the building is a treasure trove of memorabilia and items tracing the Masons since the mid-1800s. These items include everything from a wall cabinet with photos of past members (including a Civil War soldier) to Masonic Aprons and ceremonial items; even a corn cob pipe from an event in 1929. Some of the artifacts are just as mysterious as the Masons themselves. For example, there’s a panoramic photo from the early 1900s of a group of people posed on the deck of a ship. Problem is, the key to the cabinet housing the photo appears to be lost to the ages. Until they find a way to open the case, the story of the photo is lost also.

When he served as Worshipful Master of Annapolis Lodge No. 89 last year, Tinsley made it his mission to document this history and restore the museum located on the first floor of the Annapolis Masonic building. He also appointed Wiker as lodge historian to help with the project.

The items aren’t limited to the museum though. As you wander through the building you get a sense of the history and members who have gone before. Masons have met in this building since the 1880s, renting the space at first and purchasing it outright for $2,000 in 1900.

“There’s a lot of treasures in this building,” Tinsley says. “You could spend months exploring and not find it all.”

During a recent renovation, lodge members even found an old closet which had been covered over by a wall sometime in the mid-1900s. As they pulled down the wall, they realized that the contents of the closet were never removed. Inside they found an 18th century birth certificate, old bibles, minutes of lodge proceedings, and a stack of 1950s Time magazines.

These items document not just the history of the Annapolis Masons, but provide a unique look at the events and society of the times. One such treasure is buried in a closet deep in the basement of the Annapolis Masonic building. At first glance, they appear as little more than forgotten books aging on a dusty shelf. Dig in a little deeper and you’ll find lodge minutes dating back to the last days of the previous Annapolis Masonic Lodge, which disbanded in 1829.

Tinsley says that he has spent countless hours perusing the old minutes, amazed at both the beauty of the handwritten text and the events they document. “This is where it all begins,” he says. “This is the way things were.”

From the mundane day-to-day accounting to the feeling of loss expressed as members of the first Annapolis Masonic lodge face the decision to disband, there is one page in particular which stands out to Tinsley. “It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve found here,” Tinsley says, as he pulls down a book and opens to a page dated April 25, 1863. On this page, written only 11 days after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the Masons express the sorrow felt not only by their group but of an entire nation as they mourned.

Tinsley said that he is not only moved by the emotions expressed in the resolution, but by the prophecy conveyed only days after the assassination when it states, “...we doubt not in the future history of the nation the name of Lincoln will be handed down from generation to generation side by side with that of Washington.”

“This was written in 1865 and it became true. It’s some of the most beautiful stuff I’ve ever read,” Tinsley says.

Brotherhood, Community Service, and a Higher Standard of Living

Ficca says that while the general public may have ideas about modern masonry, most of the stereotypes don’t hold true. “One of the perceptions of Masonry is that we are a bunch of old guys who get together at meetings and nobody really knows what we do. Today’s Masonry is very different than that,” he says. “We want to be out in the open and we want people to know who we are.” He adds that doing good things, whether it be through your actions and who you are as a Mason or through community and public service is a big part of being a Mason.

Recent community service projects include partnerships with Maryland Therapeutic Riding and the Maryland Chapter of Cystic Fibrosis. Ficca says that along with raising money and providing financial contributions, hands-on service is an important part of the work they do. “It’s easy to write a check,” Ficca says. “Getting out in the community helps us make connections and let people know that we are an active group.”

Visibility in the community also helps when attracting new members. Traditionally, there is no active recruiting in the Masons. When it comes to finding new members, Ficca says that it is somewhat unethical for a Mason to ask someone to join the group. Masons feel that those interested in membership should be interested enough that they come to them.

“We have people who join whose fathers were members and they wonder why their fathers never asked them to join. Once they get involved they understand that a Mason can’t ask them to join. You are supposed to ask the Masons,” Ficca says.
When people do ask to become a Mason, Ficca says that they must meet certain requirements to ensure that the Masons are bringing in good individuals. Honesty is an important criteria and although members don’t need to follow any particular religion, they must believe in a supreme being. The only religion that they won’t accept is Atheism.

“When people come to us to join we ask, ‘Who are you, who were you, and more importantly, who do you want to be?” Ficca says. “It’s about finding good men wanting to do a little more.”

This interest in finding “good men” continues within the degrees of Masonry and the ideals that Masons try to reach in their everyday life. According to Tinsley, most of the symbols and ceremonies of Masonry are built around living life to a certain set of morals and working toward self-improvement. “We come into the world rough, just like the rough stone pulled from the quarry. You are taken from the quarry in that state,” Tinsley says. “By the end of your life you should strive to be as perfect as possible. There is no such thing as perfect but it is something for which you should strive. That’s one of the many lessons we teach in Masonry.”

Ficca adds that this dedication to self-improvement and a certain set of moral values builds bonds between Masons even if they have never met before. “Because Masonry is so vast, as you travel around people will see your Masonry ring or pin and say, ‘Oh, you’re a Mason’ and instantly there is a level of respect because you know what they stand for,” Ficca says. “You’re no longer a stranger anymore because you know who they are and what they stand for without even knowing them. There is a shared experience. People recognize it and you instantly have a friend.”

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Prominent Annapolitan Masons in History

Jonas Green was a member of the early Annapolis Lodge that was chartered by Thomas Oxnard from Massachussetts. He was the provincial printer of the Maryland Gazette from 1745 to 1767. His apprenticeship was under famous U.S. founding father and Freemason Benjamin Franklin.

Alexander Hamilton (not the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury) was one of the first Worshipful Masters of the early colonial Annapolis Lodge. He started the Tuesday Club in Annapolis, which included several members of the Annapolis Lodge. Hamilton was married to Margaret Dulany, the half-sister of… 

Lloyd Dulany, who once owned the property where the Annapolis Lodge No. 89 Temple resides.

Joseph Clark was the Worshipful Master of Amanda Lodge No. 12 in Annapolis. He was an architect and builder that designed and built the current Annapolis State House Dome. He also served as the Grand Master Pro Tem. of Maryland at the U.S. Capitol building cornerstone laying ceremony.

William Pinckney was the first Senior Warden of Amanda Lodge No. 12 in Annapolis. He served as the U.S. Commissioner at London, was the U.S. Attorney General, a U.S. Congressman, Minister to Russia and Naples, and a U.S. Senator.

Vachel Stevens was a member of Amanda Lodge No. 12 in Annapolis and the Senior Deacon of Annapolis Lodge No. 36. He served as the Western Shore Examiner in Maryland.

Allen B. Duckett was the Worshipful Master of Annapolis Lodge No. 36 and served in the Maryland House of Delegates. He was the assistant clerk of the House of Delegates.

John Johnson was the Senior Warden of Annapolis Lodge No. 36. He served in both houses of the Maryland General Assembly, as Mayor of Annapolis, as the Attorney General of Maryland, as a judge on the Court of Appeals, and as Chancellor of Maryland.

Burton Whetcroft was the Treasurer of Annapolis Lodge No. 36 and served as Mayor of Annapolis from 1808 to 1809. He also served as the Clerk for the Maryland Court of Appeals.

John Gassaway was a member of Annapolis Lodge No. 36 and was the Register of Wills for Anne Arundel County. His great-nephew, L. Dorsey Gassaway, was a member of Annapolis Lodge No. 89 and is on the deed to the current Temple. The back addition to the Temple is named the “Gassaway” room.

Robert Welch was a member of Annapolis Lodge No. 36 and a member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

Edward Lloyd was a member of Annapolis Lodge No. 36. He was the Governor of Maryland from 1809 to 1811. He also served as a U.S. Congressman and Senator.

John Kilty was a member of Annapolis Lodge No. 36. He served as the Maryland Adjutants General and the Mayor of Annapolis.

John Ball was a Rear Admiral and member of Annapolis Lodge No. 89.

Kenmore M. McManes was a Rear Admiral and member of Annapolis Lodge No. 89.

Ricahrd Randal Goodwin, ESQ was a founding member of Annapolis Lodge No. 89 and served as Alderman and Mayor three times in Annapolis.

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Minutes After

Shortly after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, members of the Annapolis Masons felt that a lodge resolution expressing their feelings on the assassination was needed. A committee was formed and within two weeks of the assassination, the statement below was entered into the lodge minutes. The publishing of the Resolution also sets something of a historical precedent as this is the first time any Masonic Lodge in Maryland has made private, historic documents publicly available. Ellis Tinsley, past Master of Annapolis Lodge No.89, felt strongly enough about the content in the document that he appealed to the Grand Lodge of Maryland for special permission to publish the resolution as it was originally penned. Although there was some reservation over concerns of setting a national precedent, permission was granted by Most Worshipful Grand Master of Masons in Maryland, Gerald Piepiora. Tinsley says that he feels the document is an Annapolis treasure for all to see.

See original scan on the right. Transcribed text as follows.

The committee appointed at the last meeting to prepare resolution of the sense of the members of the Lodge, in relation to the assassination of President Lincoln, beg leave respectfully to submit the following preamble and resolutions:

Whereas Almighty God in his all wise Providence has permitted the hand of the assassin, to strike down our late venerated and beloved President Abraham Lincoln therefore be it

Resolved, That the members of Annapolis Lodge No.89 A.F. & A.M. do hereby declare their utter abhorrence of the atrocious crime, by which a wise and good ruler has fallen in the full tide of a career of usefulness, giving promise of most beneficent and happy results in the future history of our beloved country.

We remember that masonry teaches us to be quiet and peaceful citizens true to our government, and just to our country and with this remembrance we are assured the great woe that has come upon the nation has fallen nowhere more heavily than on the masons heart.

Resolved, That while we mourn the untimely death of him whose kindness of heart had won even the affection of the more noble of his enemies, we have yet as a consolation the memory of his greatness and goodness left as a precious legacy to his bereaved and bleeding country and we doubt not in the future history of the nation the name of Lincoln will be handed down from generation to generation side by side with that of Washington.

Resolved, That we will humbly and devoutly pray that He, with whom is the destiny of nations, may overrule this afflicting and terrible event to the good of this land; that law and order may be restored, peace return and overshadow us with her white wings, and lawlessness be forever subdued.