Edgar Allan Poe's Perverse Masonic Degree: The Cask of Amontillado
by Midnight Freemason Contributor
WB Darin A. Lahners
In Edgar Allan Poe's Short story, "The Cask of Amontillado", published in 1846, revenge is the motive for a gruesome murder that takes place in an underground vault. There is no evidence that Poe was a Freemason. Many authors have gone out of their way to argue that the short story is an anti-Masonic work and that Poe had publicly mocked the Freemasons, especially in his essay: "The Unparalled Adventure of One Hans Pfall" prior to his writing of: "The Cask of Amontillado". Compiling to this is an idea that Edgar's strained relationship with his wealthy foster Father, John Allan, was a Freemason, and this led Poe to cast him in the role of Fortunado. I find it difficult to fathom that Poe would have held onto a grudge 13 years after his Foster father's death.
In a column by E.J. Edwards in the "Washington (D.C.) Herald", published on December 2, 1913, entitled "Capt. Wagner's Recollections of Edgar Allan Poe", There is an odd recollection given by Capt. Fredrick C. Wagner. Capt. Wagner had an association with Sarah Helen Whitman, Poe's one-time fiance' whom Poe had met in 1845, so this would have been the earliest time when he may have met him. Wagner was also apparently a Freemason, although I could not confirm this.
“I presume that very few persons are now living who ever saw, certainly very few who ever talked with, Edgar A. Poe." said Capt. Frederick C. Wagner to me. "In his day he was a very prominent citizen of New York and was well known to the Masonic fraternity of the United States by his prominent identification with the establishment of the great Masonic home at Utica, N.Y. I am fortunate enough to be able to recall many meetings of Poe and several interesting conversations which I had with him at one time or another,” he went on.
If Poe was anti-Masonic, why would he support the building of the Masonic home in Utica, New York? Perhaps Capt. Wagner was confused, as he states: "My recollections of Edgar Allen [sic] Poe are among the most pleasant of any of those of my young manhood in New York City." I find it difficult to believe that Poe would have been able to give financially to the Masonic Home building fund. However, I do think that Poe not have had issues with individual Freemasons, but with the institution itself. In any case, there is enough evidence presented in: "The Cask of Amontillado" to state that Poe was familiar with Freemasonry. Many authors also state that Poe and others of that time would have had an idea of Freemasonry and its workings due to the Morgan Affair in 1826, however, I believe that Poe had knowledge of some of the higher degrees of Freemasonry, either through the various exposes that came forward at his time or through associations with Freemasons like Wagner.
In any case, an argument can and has been made for what occurs to the characters in "The Cask of Amontillado" as being a reenactment of a Masonic Degree, however, I want to postulate something different. It is my argument that if you view the masonic elements in reverse, they reenact the second section of the Fellowcraft degree. First, let's discuss the story and the Masonic elements contained therein.
The story begins with the protagonist, Montresor, confessing his dark deed to some unknown person. He regales the story of how he has suffered a thousand insults at the hand of his nemesis, Fortunato. He says that Fortunato has one weakness, which is that he is a connoisseur of wine. Montresor encounters his nemesis at Carnevale and informs him that he has a pipe (a measurement of cask sizes) of Amontillado in his possession, but he doubts it. Motresor, quite cleverly, states that he can engage another expert, Luchesi, to look at the cask, as he does not want to occupy Fortunato's time. Using Fortunato's ego against him, because Fortunato doubts Luchesi's ability to correctly identify the wine, Montresor is able to convince Fortunato to look at this cask.
Montresor continues to try to persuade Fortunato to not come with him, telling him about the dampness of his vaults, and worrying about Fortunato's coughing, but nothing dissuades him from his mission. They continue into the vaults after grabbing two torches and descending a long winding staircase. Once in the vaults of the Montresor palazzo, Montresor plies Fortunato with alcohol, first a bottle of Medoc, followed by a flask of De Grave. At this point, Poe gives the following description:
"I broke and reached him a flagon of De Grave. He emptied it at a breath. His eyes flashed with a fierce light. He laughed and threw the bottle upwards with a gesticulation I did not understand. I looked at him in surprise. He repeated the movement—a grotesque one. "You do not comprehend?" he said. "Not I," I replied. "Then you are not of the brotherhood." "How?" "You are not of the masons." "Yes, yes," I said; "yes, yes." "You? Impossible! A mason?" "A mason," I replied. "A sign," he said, "a sign." "It is this," I answered, producing a trowel from beneath the folds of my roquelaire. "You jest," he exclaimed, recoiling a few paces. "But let us proceed to the Amontillado." "Be it so," I said, replacing the tool beneath the cloak and again offering him my arm. He leaned upon it heavily. We continued our route in search of the Amontillado. We passed through a range of low arches, descended, passed on, and descending again, arrived at a deep crypt, in which the foulness of the air caused our flambeaux rather to glow than flame."
At this point, they arrive at the Montresor family crypt, wherein there is discovered a recess that is four feet in depth, three feet in width, and six to seven feet in height in between two colossal supports for the roof of that catacombs. Montressor exclaims that the cask is therein and when Fortunato investigates, the trap is sprung. Montresor chains Fortunato to the wall by wrapping the chain around his waist and padlocking it. Montresor then begins to lay bricks and walls up the recess entombing Fortunato alive.
Many authors have tried to describe the journey that Fortunato and Montresor take as being a Masonic Degree. They point to the description of the Winding Staircase, the dialogue above, and the description of the two colossal supports as evidence of this. The problem with this is that it makes no sense chronologically to what happens in the Fellowcraft degree, which is the only degree that features the winding staircase. However, when you reverse the chronological timing, a more complete picture comes into shape. The candidate at the end of the first section of the Fellowcraft degree is told the following: "In accordance with an ancient custom adopted in every regular and well-governed lodge, it will be necessary that you make a regular advance through a porch, by a flight of winding stairs consisting of three, five and seven steps to a place representing the Middle Chamber of King Solomon's Temple, where you will find the Worshipful Master who will give you instruction relative to the wages and jewels of a Fellowcraft."
What happens in the second section? Allow me to explain with the aid of what Fortunato and Montressor do in parenthesis. The candidate emerges from the anteroom (Fortunato in the recess), proceeds through the two brazen pillars (Fortunato is led by Montresor into the crypt), to a winding staircase (Fortunato and Montressor descend the staircase into the vaults under Montresor's palazzo), to a place representing the Middle Chamber of King Solomons temple (Montressor and Fortunato while they are above ground), where you will find the Worshipful Master who will give you instruction relative the wages and jewels of a Fellowcraft. (Montresor's initial meeting with Fortunato. Wages (Coin) and Jewels in a classical sense would make up a treasure, and Montresor's name means: "My Treasure".) There are many jurisdictions that have within their lodge rooms a physical representation of the pillars, along with the flight of winding stairs, which takes them to a room overlooking the lodge room that represents the middle chamber of King Solomon's Temple. (see the picture below)
Did Poe mean to do this? We'll never know. There's more than enough evidence to suggest that Poe had knowledge of this degree and incorporated it into his work. So where does that leave us? With a mystery, the way Poe intended it. I will say that Poe was, towards the end of his life, when this story was published, thinking about the nature of God and our universe. His Lengthy: "Eureka: A Prose Poem" published in 1848 gives us deep insight into his beliefs, and I would say echoes some themes discussed in Freemasonic philosophy. Even the title of this work should be familiar to every Freemason, even if it is attributed incorrectly to Pythagoras instead of Archimedes. However, there is no evidence that Poe was a Freemason. However, I do not believe that he was anti-Masonic. I think that he was critical of the institution of Freemasonry, but also perhaps intrigued by its mysteries.
Darin Lahners is our Managing Editor. He is a host and producer of the "Meet, Act and Part" podcast as well as a co-host of an all-things-paranormal podcast, "Beyond the 4th Veil." He is currently serving the Grand Lodge of Illinois Ancient Free and Accepted Masons as a member of the Committee on Masonic Education He is a Past Master of St. Joseph Lodge No.970 in St. Joseph. He is also a plural member of Homer Lodge No. 199 (IL), where he is also a Past Master. He’s also a member of the Scottish Rite Valley of Danville, a charter member of Illinois Royal Arch Chapter, Admiration Chapter No. 282, Salt Fork Shrine Club under the Ansar Shrine, and a grade one (Zelator) in the S.C.R.I.F. Prairieland College in Illinois. He is also a Fellow of the Illinois Lodge of Research. He was presented with the Torok Award from the Illinois Lodge of Research in 2021.