William Morgan: The Disappearance of an Anti-Mason

William Morgan was a resident of Batavia, New York. He was also a bricklayer and stonemason and had a wife and two children. In addition, Morgan was friends with David C. Miller, a local newspaper publisher, who was attempting to keep his paper afloat. Because Morgan was indigent, he hit on a plan to write a book that he would publish through Miller. Morgan plotted to expose the secrets of Freemasonry, a fraternal society that had become influential in the United States after some of the earliest known lodges were established in Pennsylvania in 1715.

William Morgan

William Morgan (although this may be a fictitious image of him). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Freemasonry was popular in the eighteenth century and grew dramatically by the 1800s. Many well-known people became Freemasons. For instance, in France people such as the Duke d’Orléans, his wife, and his sister-in-law, the Princesse de Lamballe, joined. It was the same in America where three of the most famous Freemasons of the eighteenth century were George Washington, Paul Revere, and Benjamin Franklin.

Unlike those who wanted to be Freemasons, Morgan joined under false pretenses so that he could gain access to the society’s secret ceremonies and rituals. In 1826, he then threatened to expose these secrets by publishing a book through Miller. Once word leaked out about what he planned to do, it “excited great commotion” among Freemason members. Supposedly, members living in and around Batavia were particularly upset and “consultations were had among them, respecting the means which should be adopted to prevent the publication of the contemplated work.”[1]

Initiation into Freemasonry. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It was initially reported that Freemason members decided to try and persuade William Morgan to abandon the idea of the book. When that didn’t work advice was given to him in the hopes that he would change his mind. That didn’t work either, which then supposedly resulted in a dishonorable plan by Freemasons:

“Arrangements were made for the assembling, at Batavia, on the night of the eighth of September, of members of the fraternity from different and distant places. It is distinctly proved that a party of fifteen or twenty persons from Buffalo and its vicinity, assembled at a tavern about four miles west of Batavia, in the afternoon and evening of that day; they remained there until eight or nine o’clock in the evening, when they went toward Batavia. At the same time a party came to Batavia from Lockport and its vicinity. It is in proof that this party was composed of persons, some of whom had been selected for the express purpose … to assist in measures to suppress the book, and to separate William Morgan from the individual who was printing it, voluntarily if possible; forcibly in necessary.”[2]

Allegedly, it was not just the suppression of Morgan’s work that was being contemplated by the Freemasons. It seems Morgan had borrowed a shirt and cravat from Ebenezer C. Kingsley, who then filed a charge on 10 September claiming that Morgan had “taken away” those items. Kingsley’s allegation resulted in a warrant being issued for Morgan, who was arrested in Batavia, put on a stagecoach, and taken to Canandaigua, about 50 miles east of Batavia.

Morgan then went before a Canandaiguan judge but was discharged. Another warrant was then applied for by Nicholas G. Chesebro against Morgan for a debt of about two dollars related to a tavern bill that he had contracted with Aaron Ackley, which Chesebro alleged had since been assigned to him. A judgement of $2.69 was then brought against Morgan and he was returned to the jail at Canandaigua that same evening on 11 September 1826. He remained in jail until the next evening.

Headstone of Nicholas G. Chesebro. Courtesy of Find a Grave.

On that night, according to the jailor’s wife, a Mrs. Hall, her husband (Israel R. Hall) was absent when after dark Loton Lawson, a Mason, arrived at the jail. He asked if William Morgan was there and after being told that he was, Lawson said he wanted to pay Morgan’s debt and “take him away.” Mrs. Hall claimed she gave Lawson some excuse that she couldn’t release him. So, Lawson asked to speak with Morgan in his cell and she walked with him there. Lawson then asked Morgan if he would leave with him if he paid the debt and Morgan said yes.

Lawson then tried to get Mrs. Hall to take the money, but she refused. Lawson left to find her husband. However, being unable to find him and Lawson returned with a man who called himself Foster, but who was really John Sheldon. Lawson told Mrs. Hall that he had $3.00, more than the amount owed. He tried to pay Mrs. Hall but once against she refused to accept the money. He and Sheldon went away.

Lawson then returned and was even more insistent that she let Morgan go. She again refused, so Lawson went away, and this time came back with a Col. Edward Sawyer, who advised her to take the money and let Morgan go. But she still refused.

Lawson then sought out and found Chesebro. After the two conversed, Chesebro approached Mrs. Hall and told her that Lawson was anxious to liberate Morgan and that she should let him go. She therefore agreed, got the keys, and went to Morgan’s cell freeing him. The men then left in a “friendly manner,” but she reported that “before she could get the door of Morgan’s room locked, she heard the cry of ‘Murder’”[3] and rushed to the front door. According to the Middlebury Free Press she then observed the following:

“Lawson, Morgan, and … [Sheldon], on the side, a short distance from the stepts [sic] of the jail, going to the east; Morgan was in the middle, and evidently struggling to get free; his hat was off and he was struggling to get away … the other two had hold of him by his arms and to all appearance were dragging him along. While they were passing on to the east, she heard a rap on the curb of the well, and about the same time heard the cry of murder once or twice.”[4]

Detail showing the alleged abduction of William Morgan. Author’s collection.

After learning that William Morgan had left jail, attempts were made to find him, but he never turned up anywhere. His disappearance therefore ignited a firestorm and his name was soon on everyone’s lip. Moreover, it created such worry in Batavia that “public meetings were called, inquiries instituted, and measure adopted to ascertain the actors in the scene of apparent and deep iniquity.”[5]

Eventually authorities charged four men with “conspiracy to seize and carry William Morgan from the gaol in Canandaigua.”[6] They were Lawson, Sheldon, Sawyer, and Chesebro. A trial was set but before it could begin, the excitement in the local area was great. The overwhelming interest in the case was noted by the Fayetteville Weekly Observer that reported:

“The taverns are crowded to excess, with counsel, witnesses, and those whom curiosity has drawn hither. A number of persons whose presence is necessary to the despatch of business, have yet to arrive; but, unless they obtain accommodation in private families, they are not likely to be very pleasantly situated. From the hotel where this is written (Blossom’s) about seventy applicants were turned away since Sunday – the house being crowded to overflowing. Hence you may guess what a host of sojourners the business of the court has attracted.”[7]

Canandaigua within the state of New York. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When the trial opened there were numerous witnesses that testified. However, it was William Morgan’s wife who opened the trial. She stated that she had not seen her 52-year-old husband since he left the Canandaigua jail.

Richard Wells, a local man, testified that he was in the area when Morgan was being led away. He claimed that he was about 110 yards west of the jail when he heard a cry for help. When he stopped to listen closer, he heard a second cry but by the time he arrived at the jail there was no noise. He then saw Chesebro and mentioned that he heard a man cry. Chesebro claimed that the man had been released but had reason to be arrested again and that was why he cried out.

Wyllis Turner, who lived in the Canandaiguan area, also reported seeing several men with a struggling man (William Morgan). Turner recounted one of the men cried “murder” three times. He also noted that he saw a scuffle happen between the men and that Morgan’s hat fell off. Turner also reported that he witnessed Chesebro put a handkerchief over Morgan’s mouth, saw a two-horse carriage stop, observed Morgan forcibly put into the carriage along with several men, and watched as the carriage drove off.

Hiram Hubbard, who a Mason and the driver of the carriage seen by Turner, claimed he had been asked to drive a party to Rochester. He testified that about five men got into his carriage when he stopped to pick them up near the jail. He then drove to Rochester where he watered his horses while the men took refreshments. He eventually let his passengers out in the road near Ridge Road and the woods. He reported that nothing passed between him and his passengers, he saw nothing suspicious, and that Chesebro paid him some months later for the carriage ride.

Although people might have hoped that the trial would help determine what happened to Morgan, it did not. In fact, the trial some ways it more confusing because there were conflicting accounts about what happened next. The most accepted version is that William Morgan was taken in a boat to the middle of the Niagara River, thrown overboard, and presumably drowned as he was never seen again. A second version is that Morgan was paid a large sum to give up the publication of his Freemason book and “disappeared” into some foreign land. Both of these suggestions were also noted in the Fayette Weekly Observer:

“The trial of the Masons for the abduction of Morgan is progressing … The fate of Morgan is yet a matter of profound and deeply interesting mystery. The better opinion is, that he was delivered into the hands of a party of traders, near Niagara, in Canada, and by them carried to the Northwest; yet serious fears are entertained that he has been murdered.”[8]

Masonic Square and Compass. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The scandal of Morgan’s disappearance and the trial created such an uproar some people quit Freemasonry, which then resulted in about 2,000 lodges closing. It also inspired Thurlow Weed, a New York newspaper publisher and politician, and others to harness the discontent against the Freemasons with the founding of a new political party, the Anti-Masonic Party. In addition, Anti-Masons were of course critical of the trial and the Masons who testified during it:

“It is with unmingled emotions of shame and disgust, that we peruse the testimony given in this trial. … Most of the witnesses were Masons, who felt the cable tow of their masonic oaths, pressing hard against their throats at every word they uttered; and every fact that was drawn from them, came out like a tooth, painfully and reluctantly, qualified with and ‘I don’t know,’ ‘can’t recollect distinctly.’ ‘I suppose it might be so; didn’t exactly see such things, &c.’”[9]

After the jury returned from their deliberations, they found the accused guilty but sentenced them to rather lenient punishments. These light sentences were noted by the Buffalo Emporium and General Advertise:

‘Loton Lawson was sentenced to two years imprisonment – Nicholas G. Chesebro to one years imprisonment – John Sheldon to three months imprisonment, and Edward Sawyer to one months imprisonment – all in the country jail.”[10]

The lenient punishment caused public outrage and as there was no conclusive evidence as to what happened to William Morgan, on 15 April 1828 a legislative act was passed to allow the New York Governor to institute inquiries by establishing a special counsel to investigate Morgan’s abduction. A special prosecutor was also appointed to bring the perpetrators to justice, and, in 1830, a report by the special counsel was provided that outlined their findings.

The special counsel also reported on the attempts made by the Freemasons to stop Morgan from publishing his book and they mentioned the allegations brought by Kingsley and Chesebro against Morgan. In addition, Eli Bruce, the sheriff of Niagara County and a Mason, had a deputy named Hiram B. Hopkins. He testified that Bruce told him that William Morgan was to be taken from Batavia and sent away. “It was thought then, that he would be sent to Niagara through Lockport, and Bruce desired him to prepare a cell in the jail for the reception of Morgan, which was prepared accordingly.”[11]

Soon after Morgan’s disappearance his friend Miller published his book detailing the secrets of Freemasonry. It became a bestseller because of all the hype surrounding the missing Morgan. Miller also maintained that Morgan had been “carried away,” which of course increased the speculation as to where Morgan might be or exactly what happened to him.

Despite Miller’s allegations, one group of Freemason claimed Morgan was not dead and that they had paid him $500 to leave. In addition, there were reports that Morgan was later seen in other countries, although none of these reports were ever confirmed. Interest surrounding Morgan remained relatively high and that eventually inspired New York governor DeWitt Clinton, who served between 1 January 1825 and 11 February 1828 and was also a Mason, to offer a $1,000 reward for information about Morgan’s whereabouts. The reward was never claimed.

William Morgan - Governor Dewitt Clinton

Governor Dewitt Clinton. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In October 1827, a badly decomposed corpse washed up on the shores of Lake Ontario. Many people believed it had to be Morgan’s body and therefore it was buried as his. However, a Canadian named Timothy Monroe (or Munro) was also missing about this same time and his wife identified the clothing on the body as the same as what her husband had been wearing prior to his disappearance.

In the meantime, many people remained suspicious about what happened to Morgan and rumors circulated that Bruce had been involved in his disappearance. Thus, Bruce was removed from office as sheriff and then tried for being involved in Morgan’s disappearance. Around June of 1829 Bruce was found guilty of kidnapping and holding Morgan against his will and sentenced to 28 months in prison.

By 1848, Morgan’s disappearance still had never been satisfactorily explained and people continued to demand answers. That is when Henry L. Valance, a Mason, allegedly confessed on his deathbed that he took part in Morgan’s “murder.” He confessed to Dr. John L. Emery, who recorded it and who accordingly reported that “Morgan met a watery grave when he was dumped into the rapids of the Niagara River and swept over the falls.”[12] Details of exactly what happened were provided by Valance in his confession. He stated that Morgan had meekly accepted his fate:

“He made no remonstrances, nor offered any resistance, his demeanor and acts being in all respects those of a man who has nerved himself boldly to meet a certain doom. We bound his hands behind him, and placed a gag in his mouth. One of our number marched a few yards in advance, and was followed by myself and the other associate, between whom walked Morgan. We each had a hold of one of his arms, above the elbow. A short time brought us where the boat had been placed … The night was pitch dark, and we could scarcely see … Having arrived at a place sufficiently removed from the land the rowers ceased … In the bottom of the boat lay a number of heavy weights, all tied together by a strong cord … This cord I took in my hand, and fastened it around the body of Morgan … Then in a whisper, I bade the unhappy man to stand up, and, after a momentary hesitation, … Morgan was standing with his back toward me, and apparently looking into the water, I approached him, and gave him a strong push … He fell forward, carrying the weights with him, and the waters closed over the mass.”[13]

Although some people may have believed Morgan died in the Niagara River, in June 1881 a grave was discovered on land in a quarry two miles south of an Indian Reservation in Pembroke, New York. The discovery resulted in numerous declarations that the remains did not belong to some “Indian” and that at last William Morgan’s body had been found. The Times reported:

“Certain bones have been discovered which apparently bear a striking resemblance to the bones which William Morgan may have possessed. … The bones were found in the town of Pembroke, which is situated eleven miles west of Batavia. … William Morgan lived in Batavia and the people who are supposed to have spirited him away also lived in Batavia. … With them was a silver ring marked ‘W.M.’ … no trinkets were buried with it and Indians do not wear such silver rings … A tobacco box was discovered and under its rust-eaten cover was found a letter, scarcely legible, but these startling words were deciphered with the aid of a microscope: ‘Masons,’ ‘Liar,’ ‘Prison,’ ‘Kill,’ and the name ‘Henry Brown,’ Henry Brown being the name of a lawyer who defended the Masons.”[14]

However, critics claimed that the discovery was too coincidental and that the bones were found at a time when efforts were being expended to erect a memorial to Morgan. Critics maintained that the find of the bones had been staged to generate publicity for the monument. They may have been right because on 13 September 1882 in memory of William Morgan a monument was erected by the National Christian Association, who opposed secret societies. The inscription read:

“Sacred to the memory of Wm. Morgan, a native of Virginia, a Capt. in the War of 1812, a respectable citizen of Batavia, and a martyr to the freedom of writing, printing and speaking the truth. He was abducted from near this spot in the year 1826, by Freemasons and murdered for revealing the secrets of their order. The court records of Genesse County and the files of the Batavia Advocate, kept in the Recorders office contain the history of the events that caused the erection of this monument.

William Morgan monument. Author’s collection.


  • [1] Middlebury Free Press, “From the Anti-Masonic Recorder,” February 18, 1830, p. 1.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 2.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] The Vermont Courier, “The Constitutionalists,” July 15, 1831, p. 1.
  • [6] Buffalo Emporium and General Advertiser, “The Emporium,” January 11, 1827, p. 2.
  • [7] Fayetteville Weekly Observer, “From a New York Paper,” January 24, 1827, p. 2.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] North Star, “Anti-Masonic,” September 23, 1828, p. 1.
  • [10] Buffalo Emporium and General Advertiser, p. 2.
  • [11] Middlebury Free Press, p. 1.
  • [12] M. Benson, Inside Secret Societies: What They Don’t Want You to Know (New York: Kensington Publishing Corporation, 2005), p. 57.
  • [13] Murderous Character of Freemasonry: Freemasonry Exposed by Captain Wm. Morgan, History of His Abduction and Murder, Confession of His Murder by Valance, Bernard’s Reminiscences of Morgan Times, Oaths and Penalties of Thirty-three Masonic Degrees (Chicago: E.A. Cook & Company, 1882), p. 24–25.
  • [14] The Times, “Another Good Enough Morgan,” June 23, 1881, p. 2.

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