By the time Masonic lodges began to appear in what would become the United States, the Catholic church was on the verge of banning the Craft. Protestant evangelical churches, strict and unbending in their belief systems, were following suit. In addition, some colonists began to fear the secretive nature of Masonic lodges and their perceived influence over political and economic affairs was threatening the emerging nation. It was not lost on the populace that the Masonic lodges themselves, whether Ancient or Modern, owed their existence and allegiance to being sanctioned by lodges in England, a country daily waning in popularity with the upstart colonists. This, even though many, if not most, Freemasons went on to support the colonies in the American Revolution.
With other priorities to deal with in the fledgling colonies, anti-Masonry was simmering on the back burner, but nowhere near a boil. In fact, membership in the Craft was still seen as desirable, an honor, and not something everyone could achieve. A notorious incident began to change things.
Daniel Reese was a young apprentice pharmacist working in 1737 at a prominent apothecary in downtown Philadelphia. He was one of those who thought membership in Freemasonry would enhance his career and status in the community. With that, he told his boss, the respected and well-known Dr. Evan Jones, of his desire to join the organization. Dr. Jones also knew about the Freemasons, a group about which he had some doubts. Seeing an opportunity for some mischief, he told Reese he would arrange his admission to the order.
Jones and a few of his friends, none of whom were Masons, planned an elaborate mock "initiation" for the unsuspecting Reese. A few nights later, in the backyard of Jones' home, the group performed the ceremony. John Remington, a Philadelphia attorney, administered an "irreligious and scandalous" oath on the naive Reese, after which he was subjected to "absurd and ridiculous indignities," given a series of "ludicrous" signs, and then congratulated on having received the first degree of Freemasonry.
On a subsequent night, June 13, 1737, Reese presented himself at Dr. Jones' store to receive a "higher degree." The men blindfolded him and escorted him to the cellar. There, the perpetrators forced him to repeat an invocation to Satan, and coerced him into drinking a strong drug, most likely a laxative, "for sport."
The group then lit a pan of brandy and camphor and removed Reese's blindfold. At that, one of the sinister bunch confronted him wearing a cowhide cloak and horns, so Reese would assume he was the devil. The stunt failed to frighten Reese, so Jones threw the flaming liquid onto Reese, severely burning him.1 Three days later, Reese died.2
Remarkably, a coroner's inquest acquitted the Masonic impostors, although it severely condemned their actions. However, a grand jury subsequently indicted Jones, Remington and John Tackerbury (an expelled Mason) for murder. Jones and Remington were found guilty of manslaughter with Tackerbury being acquitted. The court granted Remington a pardon due to extenuating circumstances, including the need to provide for his family. Jones' sentence, to have his hand branded3, was carried out immediately.
The Masons came under fire, even though they had absolutely nothing to do with the episode. The Brothers from St. John's Lodge and the Grand Master published a statement condemning the matter.
The proceedings of the trial revealed Benjamin Franklin was aware of the shenanigans. The Court of Common-Pleas had appointed him to settle an affair in which Jones was involved. During one of their meetings Jones told him about the first "initiation" and Franklin admitted to laughing heartily "as my manner is." Having heard about Franklin's reaction Andrew Bradford, Franklin's longtime rival in the printing industry, used that information to attack Franklin, as well as the Freemasons, in his newspaper, the American Weekly Mercury.
Franklin responded in his Pennsylvania Gazette, noting he stopped laughing when Jones told him of the incident with the laxative, and the fact the group made Reese swear to Satan. Bradford shot back with a rebuttal that proved to be the opening volley of what has been characterized as the first anti-Masonic series of articles in a newspaper in colonial America.4
1 Some reports claimed Jones tripped, spilling the liquid.
2 Pennsylvania Gazette, No. 444, June 9 to 16, 1737
3 Hand branding was a common punishment in the US through the early years of the 19th century. Most likely the letter "M," for "Murderer," was branded on Jones hand, an extremely painful and excruciating ordeal which Jones would carry for the rest of his life informing everyone he came into contact with of his crime.
Bro. Steve Harrison, 33° is Past Master of Liberty Lodge #31, Liberty, Missouri. He is also a Fellow and Past Master of the Missouri Lodge of Research. Among his other Masonic memberships is the St. Joseph Missouri Valley of the Scottish Rite, Liberty York Rite bodies, and Moila Shrine. He is also a member and Past Dean of the DeMolay Legion of Honor. Brother Harrison is a regular contributor to the Midnight Freemasons blog as well as several other Masonic publications. Brother Steve was Editor of the Missouri Freemason magazine for a decade and is a regular contributor to the Whence Came You podcast. Born in Indiana, he has a Master's Degree from Indiana University and is retired from a 35-year career in information technology. Steve and his wife Carolyn reside in northwest Missouri. He is the author of dozens of magazine articles and three books: Freemasonry Crosses the Mississippi, Freemasons — Tales From the Craft and Freemasons at Oak Island.