Thursday, September 11, 2014

Thursday in History: Coincidence and Conspiracy

With the recent Sherlock craze sweeping the world, a while back Amazon offered a free kindle version of all of Arthur Conan Doyle’s works on Holmes. I’m sure I was one of many who snapped up the opportunity, but I’m not sure how many actually got through them all. I’m not saying that they’re not well written or interesting, it’s just that there are certain times when ACD kind of just… starts telling a different story. Right in the middle of the one you were interested in. He would usually bring it back around and link it to the story he’d already been telling, but occasionally it was like “um… why should I care about this?”
For instance, in A Study in Scarlet (that’s A Study in Pink for you BBC Cumberbatch/Freeman lovers), Holmes cunningly catches the bad guy, and promises to explain everything, after which the story suddenly becomes a novella about how a group of Mormons rescues a pair of travelers who had no hope for their own survival. And the reader is like, “uh… what does this have to do with anything?!” Eventually it has everything to do with it, but leaves you going, “dude, I think that may have been too much back story.”
In Valley of Fear, Holmes focuses on draining the moat (yes, a moat) around the home of a brutally murdered man, only to have the man himself come forward to confess that the corpse was that of the attempted murderer, and that he had reacted in self defense, which included dressing his attacker in his own clothes to deter any further attempts. When the question of why the murder was attempted in the first place is asked, the reader is then treated to a novel-length interruption about a young man who moves into a new area and joins a guild that he had been a member of in another town. (ACD, who was a Freemason himself, changed the name of the guild to “Freemen,” presumably so he wouldn’t be sued or maybe killed by fellow guild members.) Another character tries to warn him, “dude, those guys are bad news in these here parts,” but he doesn’t listen. In fact, he doesn’t seem to mind. He joins in their bullying of various people in the surrounding area, eventually becoming one of the highest ranking members. When the guildmaster begins to hear rumors about investigation, the young man swears he’ll get to the bottom of it. After gathering all the guild’s heavy hitters in his apartment to spring a trap on the investigator and police, he springs another: he was a mole, and it was his job to make sure that he had enough evidence to send all the men he had gathered to jail. As a result, the other members of the guild (and the men who were eventually released from jail) had been chasing him ever since (which was presumably why he’d ended up buying a house with a moat).
On this day in history in 1826 a Freemason by the name of William Morgan was arrested for “debt.” He had actually trained as a stone worker and had joined the Masons in Rochester, New York.
See, guilds in ancient times were unions. You could refuse to pay one bricklayer his decent wage, but when a screaming mob of them demanded fair compensation, there wasn't much you could do but give it to them.
Another role that guilds filled was an after-work club: just dudes, sitting around when their work was finished, griping about it. Like a gathering of Starbucks baristas complaining about picky customers.
Morgan had moved his family to Batavia, New York and attempted to join the local Freemasons, and went off the handle a little when they denied him. “I’m totally going to write a book about all the Freemason secrets,” he boasted, “and I’ve already got a publisher and everything and we’re gonna make tons of money and high five each other, and then you’ll be sorry you didn’t let me in!”
The Freemasons in Batavia must have had some pretty dark secrets, because things got a little nuts. Somebody put up an anti-Morgan advertisement. There were reports that certain individuals attempted to burn down his publisher’s office. And then, Morgan was arrested. His publisher went to bail him out, and after that… Morgan disappeared. Morgan's widow married again and moved west with her new husband, where they joined the Church of the Latter Day Saints.
There are many theories about Morgan’s disappearance. Was he killed? (The body that washed up on the shore of Lake Ontario a year later was buried under his name, but the distraught widow of another man claimed that the clothes belonged to her husband.) Did he flee the country? (The Cayman Islands were nice in those days, as long as they weren’t hanging you for piracy.) Did the Freemasons drop $500 just so that Morgan would get himself out of the picture?
If they did, they wasted their cash; Morgan's publisher made tons after the book Morgan wrote became a bestseller. It was even one of the factors that sparked the creation of the Anti-Mason Party, who ran a presidential candidate against Andrew Jackson in 1832.
What really happened to William Morgan? Was his story fabricated as a tool for the anti-Masonic movement? Did he live out his life in foreign parts under a false name? Or was he killed by some angry Masons who hoped to silence him? Perhaps the whole thing was merely a conspiracy.
Nearly a century later, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about similar circumstances. And today, there’s a television show based on his works, starring an actor whose last name is Freeman.
Coincidence? Or… conspiracy?

No comments:

Post a Comment