Staten Island Advance
A 'secret' organization says it has nothing to hide
Sunday, March 21, 2004
By JOHN ANNESE
They use a secret handshake, secret words and secret initiation rituals.
But with new attention being paid to the international society after an accidental shooting death during a Long Island ritual, Masons on Staten Island have been downplaying the secrecy associated with the centuries-old group.
Masons worldwide claim that brotherliness, charity and mutual aid are among their basic principals.
"It's not a cult. It's not a secret organization. And everything is pretty much above board," said George MacDonald, deputy grand master of the Richmond district, which oversees Masonic activity here.
That doesn't mean, however, that MacDonald will let an outsider know how to perform a secret handshake, or what goes on when a new member gets inducted.
Anyone with a library card can find out for themselves, he said.
MacDonald, who recently moved to New Jersey from New Dorp, said he spotted many of the same rituals the Masons perform when he attended his son's college fraternity initiation, though he wouldn't describe what he saw.
"I can't tell you that, because that would be telling the secret, but that's the same stuff," he said.
Also, he insists, true Masonic rituals never involve guns.
TRAGEDY ON LONG ISLAND
On March 8, a Mason accidentally shot and killed a fellow Mason in the basement of the South Side Masonic Lodge in Patchogue, according to Suffolk County police.
The shooter had intended to scare William James, 47, of Medford, by pulling a gun loaded with blanks out of his pocket during an initiation ceremony for the Fellowcraft Club, a social group of sorts within the South Side lodge, police said.
He was carrying a second pistol -- loaded with real bullets -- in another pocket, and he grabbed that gun by mistake, shooting James in the face and killing him, police said. Police charged the gunman with second-degree manslaughter.
Since the shooting, state and local Mason officials have been quick to disassociate themselves with the Fellowcraft Club, calling the induction ritual unapproved and unsanctioned, on a night no formal ceremonies should have occurred.
Carl J. Fitje, grand master of the state's Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, said he's suspended the South Side lodge's charter and members until a panel of lawyers completes an investigation into social clubs that use Masonic premises. This panel would issue a report within the next month or two, Fitje wrote in a prepared statement.
"The panel will make recommendations intended to assure such a tragedy never happens again," he wrote. Also, he wrote, the state organization has started a fund for James' family.
NO GUNS ALLOWED
Although a handful of Masons attending a recent Staten Island Mason of the Year dinner balked at questions about the shooting, most responded with nearly identical remarks: They called it an "unfortunate" tragedy, and insisted that guns play no role in any of their ceremonies.
"I knew right away that it was something that was not in the ceremonies we have performed," said Richard Nieves of Bulls Head, a member of the LaGuardia Masonic Lodge.
Modern-day Masonry began with the creation of the English Grand Lodge in London in 1717, although members trace the group's roots back to guilds of stonemasons and cathedral builders in the Middle Ages.
Typically, induction rituals involve disorienting new members, putting them "out of sorts," according to Steven C. Bullock, a history professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.
An initiate might be blindfolded, he said, and might have the point of the Masonic compass pushed against his chest.
"I think fear plays some part in it," said Bullock, who in 1996 wrote "Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order."
"The point is not to humiliate people or to make them feel strange, but to make them better, I guess is the term, to bring them into the family, to create some sort of moral improvement," Bullock said.
He points to one publication, Capt. William Morgan's "Illustrations of Masonry," as an accurate portrayal of the initiation rituals held in the early 1800s.
"The story line's essentially the same," he said.
Morgan's book describes the rituals in detail, including the questions asked of each member, the pointing of the compass, and how to perform the group's handshake -- "a pressing of the knuckles" meant to be performed subtly, but in plain view, Bullock said.
The only other initiation death Bullock said he's heard of involved an unsanctioned ceremony in Benjamin Franklin's era, when an initiate was accidentally burned by oil.
Nieves and Edward R. Stouter, a former district deputy grand master, worried that the shooting, and the subsequent bad press, may overshadow Masons' philanthropic efforts.
"I hope it doesn't. We do a lot of good work," Stouter, an Oakwood resident, said.
On Staten Island, membership in the borough's seven lodges has dropped from more than 3,500 in the 1960s to about 1,100 by last February.
Last year, the state grand lodge started a recruiting drive to bolster the organization's dwindling ranks, and held a class where prospective members -- men, 21 years old or older, who believe in some kind of supreme being -- could join up in a single day.
The recruiting drive brought in about 50 new members to Staten Island lodges, MacDonald said, though he couldn't say how many members the lodges lost to old age.
John Annese is a news reporter for the Advance. He may be reached at [email protected]