Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of George William Curtis > Text of Secret Societies

An essay by George William Curtis

Secret Societies

Title:     Secret Societies
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

The melancholy death of young Mr. Leggett, a student at the Cornell University, has undoubtedly occasioned a great deal of thought in every college in the country upon secret societies. Professor Wilder, of Cornell, has written a very careful and serious letter, in which he strongly opposes them, plainly stating their great disadvantages, and citing the order of Jesuits as the most powerful and thoroughly organized of all secret associations, and therefore the one in which their character and tendency may best be observed. The debate recalls the history of the Antimasonic excitement in this country, which is, however, seldom mentioned in recent years, so that the facts may not be familiar to the reader.

In the year 1826 William Morgan, living in Batavia, in the western part of New York, near Buffalo, was supposed to intend the publication of a book which would reveal the secrets of Masonry. The Masons in the vicinity were angry, and resolved to prevent the publication, and made several forcible but ineffective attempts for that purpose. On the 11th of September, 1826, a party of persons from Canandaigua came to Batavia and procured the arrest of Morgan upon a criminal charge, and he was carried to Canandaigua for examination. He was acquitted, but was immediately arrested upon a civil process, upon which an execution was issued, and he was imprisoned in the jail at Canandaigua. The next evening he was discharged at the instance of those who had caused his arrest, and was taken from the jail after nine o'clock in the evening. Those who had obtained the discharge instantly seized him, gagged and bound him, and throwing him into a carriage, hurried off to Rochester. By relays of horses and by different hands he was borne along, until he was lodged in the magazine of Fort Niagara, at the mouth of the Niagara River.

The circumstances of his arrest, and those that had preceded it, had aroused and inflamed the minds of the people in Batavia and the neighborhood. A committee was appointed at a public meeting to ascertain all the facts, and to bring to justice any criminals that might be found. They could discover only that Morgan had been seized upon his discharge in Canandaigua and hurried off towards Rochester; but beyond that, nothing. The excitement deepened and spread. A great crime had apparently been committed, and it was hidden in absolute secrecy. Other meetings were held in other towns, and other committees were appointed, and both meetings and committees were composed of men of both political parties. Investigation showed that Masons only were implicated in the crime, and that scarcely a Mason aided the inquiry; that many Masons ridiculed and even justified the offence; that the committees were taunted with their inability to procure the punishment of the offenders in courts where judges, sheriffs, juries, and witnesses were Masons; that witnesses disappeared; that the committees were reviled; and gradually Masonry itself was held responsible for the mysterious doom of Morgan.

The excitement became a frenzy. The Masons were hated and denounced as the Irish were in London after the "Irish night," or the Roman Catholics during the Titus Oates fury. In January, 1827, some of those who had been arrested were tried, and it was hoped that the evidence at their trials would clear the mystery. But they pleaded guilty, and this hope was baffled. Meanwhile a body of delegates from the various committees met at Lewiston to ascertain the fate of Morgan, and they discovered that in or near the magazine in which he had been confined he had been put to death. His book, with its revelations, had been published, and what was not told was, of course, declared to be infinitely worse than the actual disclosures. The excitement now became political. It was alleged that Masonry held itself superior to the laws, and that Masons were more loyal to their Masonic oaths than to their duty as citizens. Masonry, therefore, was held to be a fatal foe to the government and to the country, which must be destroyed; and in several town-meetings in Genesee and Monroe counties, in the spring of 1827, Masons, as such, were excluded from office. At the next general election the Antimasons nominated a separate ticket, and they carried the counties of Genesee, Monroe, Livingston, Orleans, and Niagara against both the great parties. A State organization followed, and in the election of 1830 the Antimasonic candidate, Francis Granger, was adopted by the National Republicans, and received one hundred and twenty thousand votes, against one hundred and twenty-eight thousand for Mr. Throop. From a State organization the Antimasons became a national party, and in 1832 nominated William Wirt for the presidency. The Antimasonic electoral ticket was adopted by the National Republicans, and the union became the Whig party, which, in 1838, elected Mr. Seward Governor of New York, and in 1840 General Harrison President of the United States.

The spring of this triumphant political movement was hostility to a secret society. Many of the most distinguished political names of Western New York, including Millard Fillmore, William H. Seward, Thurlow Weed, Francis Granger, James Wadsworth, George W. Patterson, were associated with it. And as the larger portion of the Whig party was merged in the Republican, the dominant party of to-day has a certain lineal descent from the feelings aroused by the abduction of Morgan from the jail at Canandaigua. And as his disappearance and the odium consequent upon it stigmatized Masonry, so that it lay for a long time moribund, and although revived in later years, cannot hope to regain its old importance, so the death of young Leggett is likely to wound fatally the system of college secret societies.

The young man was undergoing initiation into a secret society. He was blind-folded, and two companions were leading him along the edge of a cliff over a deep ravine, when the earth gave way, or they slipped and fell from the precipice, and Leggett was so injured that he died in two hours. There was no allegation or suspicion of blame. There was, indeed, an attempt of some enemies of the Cornell University--a hostility due either to supposed conflict of interests or sectarian jealousy--to stigmatize the institution, but it failed instantly and utterly. Indeed, General Leggett, of the Patent-office in Washington, the father of the unfortunate youth, at once wrote a very noble and touching letter to shield the university and the companions of his son from blame or responsibility. He would not allow his grief to keep him silent when a word could avert injustice, and his modest magnanimity won for his sorrow the tender sympathy of all who read his letter.

Every collegian knows that there is no secrecy whatever in what is called a secret society. Everybody knows, not in particular, but in general, that its object is really "good-fellowship," with the charm of mystery added. Everybody knows--for the details of such societies in all countries are essentially the same--that there are certain practical jokes of initiation--tossings in blankets, layings in coffins, dippings in cold water, stringent catechisms, moral exhortations, with darkness and sudden light and mysterious voices from forms invisible, and then mystic signs and clasps and mottoes, "the whole to conclude" with the best supper that the treasury can afford. Literary brotherhood, philosophic fraternity, intellectual emulation, these are the noble names by which the youth deceive themselves and allure the Freshmen; but the real business of the society is to keep the secret, and to get all the members possible from the entering class.

Each society, of course, gets "the best fellows." Every touter informs the callow Freshman that all men of character and talent hasten to join his society, and impresses the fresh imagination with the names of the famous honorary members. The Freshman, if he be acute--and he is more so every year--naturally wonders how the youth, who are undeniably commonplace in the daily intercourse of college, should become such lofty beings in the hall of a secret society; or, more probably, he thinks of nothing but the sport or the mysterious incentive to a studious and higher life which the society is to furnish. He feels the passionate curiosity of the neophyte. He is smitten with the zeal of the hermetical philosophy. He would learn more than Rosicrucian lore. That is a vision soon dispelled. But the earnest curiosity changes into _esprit du corps_, and the mischief is that the secrecy and the society feeling are likely to take precedence of the really desirable motives in college. There is a hundredfold greater zeal to obtain members than there is generous rivalry among the societies to carry off the true college honors. And if the purpose be admirable, why, as Professor Wilder asks, the secrecy? What more can the secret society do for the intellectual or social training of the student than the open society? Has any secret society in an American college done, or can it do, more for the intelligent and ambitious young man than the Union Debating Society at the English Cambridge University, or the similar club at Oxford? There Macaulay, Gladstone, the Austins, Charles Buller, Tooke, Ellis, and the long illustrious list of noted and able Englishmen were trained, and in the only way that manly minds can be trained, by open, free, generous rivalry and collision. The member of a secret society in college is really confined, socially and intellectually, to its membership, for it is found that the secret gradually supplant the open societies. But that membership depends upon luck, not upon merit, while it has the capital disadvantage of erecting false standards of measurement, so that the _Mu Nu_ man cannot be just to the hero of _Zeta Eta_. The secrecy is a spice that overbears the food. The mystic paraphernalia is a relic of the baby-house, which a generous youth disdains.

There is, indeed, an agreeable sentiment in the veiled friendship of the secret society which every social nature understands. But as students are now becoming more truly "men" as they enter college, because of the higher standard of requirement, it is probable that the glory of the secret society is already waning, and that the allegiance of the older universities to the open arenas of frank and manly intellectual contests, involving no expense, no dissipation, and no perilous temptation, is returning. At least there will now be an urgent question among many of the best men in college whether it ought not to return.

(_January_, 1874)

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Secret Societies