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This story was originally published in the 1994 April/May edition

The Morgan Affair: a kidnapping that changed American politics


William Morgan's threat to reveal the secrets of Freemasonry led to his mysterious disappearance in one of the most notorious crimes in Genesee Country history

by Martin Naparsteck

Anti-Masonic Almanac Cover
The cover of the 1831 Anti-Masonic Almanac purports to depict the initiation of an apprentice Mason, who was said to be threatened with mutilation and death if he revealed the order's secrets. Image courtesy of J. Sheldon Fisher

Morgan was taken, probably bound and gagged, to Rochester where he spent the night.

When a 52-year-old Batavia man borrowed a shirt and piece of neckwear from a Canandaigua innkeeper in 1824, he unknowingly sealed his own fate, changed presidential politics forever, and took the first step in what was to become the most famous murder case in the first half of 19th century America.

William Morgan was in most ways an unremarkable man, 5 feet 6 inches tall, with brown hair and a high forehead. A veteran of the War of 1812, he claimed, inaccurately, that he had received a battlefield commission from Andrew Jackson himself. He called himself Capt. Morgan.

He was, in two ways, a Mason. He made his living­when he worked, which was not often­as a stonemason. The closest he came to fame in that occupation was as the principle mason on the last home owned by Col. Nathaniel Rochester, founder of the Genesee Country's largest city. That home, on the corner of S. Washington and Spring streets, was built by Morgan in 1824 and torn down in 1908 to make room for a larger building.

Morgan was also a member of the Freemasons, a secretive organization that grew out of Europe's stonemason guilds during the Middle Ages. The first freemasonry lodge was organized in 1717 in London; the New World's first Masonic lodge was formed in Philadelphia in 1730. George Washington and a dozen other presidents were freemasons, as were Benjamin Franklin and Rudyard Kipling.

In many ways a fraternal organization, Freemasons mainly introduced members to one another. In those days, they did a lot of drinking, and Morgan did more than most. The Freemasons often enabled members to make useful business contacts, and Morgan obtained jobs for stonemason work in Batavia and LeRoy.

The Freemasons had a secret handshake, a secret organizational structure, and, their most ardent enemies claimed, a secret plan to take over the world. They were a politically cohesive group, and in some towns it was difficult to be elected to local office if the Masons didn't like the candidate.

DeWitt Clinton, governor of New York who a decade earlier had lost a close Presidential election to James Madison, was among the nation's most prominent Freemasons.

Morgan belonged to the LeRoy Masonic Lodge, but he wanted to also join a newly formed lodge in Batavia. The decision on who could join was made by Masonic leaders in Rochester, and they rejected Morgan's application because of his heavy drinking. It was an odd charge, some of Morgan's friends felt, because many Freemasons were known for their drinking.

Morgan was irate; the insult, particularly after a few drinks in a Batavia tavern, was too much to endure. He took his complaint to David Miller, editor of Batavia's, The Republican Advocate.

Miller, once a Mason, had grown to distrust the organization. Miller was about to reprint Jachin and Boaz, an out-of-print book that had exposed some Masonic secrets. Over the centuries, there had been a dozen or more such books, and none of them were much noticed. Morgan offered to write a new one, and Miller arranged for two Batavia residents, Russell Dyer and John Davids, to finance the project.

So in the spring of 1826, partly as an act of revenge for having been snubbed, and partly as a shot at becoming a rich and famous author, Morgan began writing Illustrations of Masonry By One of the Fraternity Who Has Devoted Thirty Years to the Subject.

Two years previously, Morgan's wife, Lucinda, 27 years his junior, had given birth to a boy, and Morgan, staying at a Canandaigua tavern, had accepted an offer from the tavern owner, David Kingsley, to borrow a clean shirt and cravat so that he would be presentable visiting his newborn son. Morgan eventually returned home to Batavia with his wife and son without returning Kingsley's clothing.

Kingsley didn't mind­at least not for two years­but when word of Morgan's book-in-progress spread, he, like hundreds of other Masons in New York, became irate. Rochester Masons, the regional leaders, were so angry they sent Daniel John, a Canadian, to Batavia to spy on Morgan and Miller.

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