Freemasonry, Theft, and Lawsuits on the Missouri Frontier

In 1825, in the small frontier town of Greenville in southeast Missouri, a quarrel erupted over a book.  The quarrel led to no fewer than four lawsuits, which nearly tore the county apart.  David Logan, who admitted having stolen and concealed the book, knowing it belonged to Elijah Bettis, sued Bettis for slander for calling Logan a “damn’d thief.”  Three years later, he won.  He was awarded the large sum of $600.

The book was a copy of the “Constitutions of Freemasonry,” which laid out the rules, rituals and philosophy of 18th and 19th century Masonry, and its contents were supposed to be kept secret from the uninitiated. The Logans and the Bettises were the two leading families of Wayne County, of which Greenville was the county seat.  After finding the book amid the debris left behind by an Osage raid, Logan concealed it in a hollow log for six or seven years.  When Elijah Bettis was campaigning for re-election to the state House of Representatives, Logan attempted to embarrass or discredit him with a public reading from the book.  What was going on here?

American Freemasonry in 1825 was at the peak of its power and prestige. Grand new Masonic halls were being erected, their sumptuous furnishings proclaiming both the dignity of the fraternity and its increasing claims to quasi-religious significance.  Americans generally accepted the Masons’ self-image as a corps of enlightened civic leaders, working for the good of all.

That consensus, however, was beginning to unravel.  The fraternity was overreaching. More and more of its charitable efforts were directed towards fellow Masons, and its rules required Masons to give preference to their own members in all hiring and business transactions.  As a result of the increasing concentration of power and resources within the fraternity, a combustible layer of suspicion and resentment was beginning to form among the general public.

A year after Logan’s public mockery of  Bettis, a faraway spark set this tinder aflame.  William Morgan, a renegade New York Mason, had been threatening to reveal the jealously guarded secrets of the fraternity.  Local Masons procured his arrest on a trumped-up charge, then kidnapped him from the jail as he shouted “Murder! Murder!”  He was never seen again.

The scandal was aggravated by a brazen series of cover-ups on the part of powerful local Masons, resulting in a wildfire of public anger that led to the formation of the Antimasonic party, the first national single-issue party, about a year before the verdict in the first Logan-Bettis lawsuit. The bizarre events of that lawsuit give us a peek into the gathering antimasonic sentiment that fueled that anger, a catastrophe from which the fraternity did not recover until the 1840’s.

For further reading: Steven C. Bullock, Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730-1840.

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