Romancing the Cornerstone

Craig Shirley

4/2/2008 5:38:46 PM - Craig Shirley

It was a beautiful day as accounts noted. September 18, 1793, found President George Washington decked out in his ceremonial Masonic apron festooned with the universal Masonic square and compass symbols.

That day, in a Masonic ritual, the president laid the cornerstone to the U.S. Capitol along with a dedicatory silver plate.

In a mysterious turn of events sometime thereafter, the priceless plate and cornerstone disappeared. Eluded by investigators and searches and clouded by false claims of discovery throughout the decades, the issue remains a puzzlement. Further complicating the matter is bureaucratic incompetence and a cover-up by the office of the Architect of the Capitol.

The disappearance of the silver plate and cornerstone is but one of many mysteries surrounding Washington’s beloved Masonry. Perhaps long ago these artifacts were taken covertly by the Masons in order to protect them from people bent on destroying them and their legacy. 

Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown’s next book will delve into the secrets of Masonry in the nation’s capital. But it is almost certain he is unaware of a recent and crucial discovery: A piece of the long-missing cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol has been found.

Covered in a veil of secrecy and abstruseness, the Masonic order is known as The Craft, The Brotherhood, Freemasonry but, most commonly, Masonry. A philanthropic fraternity, the organization has been dogged by rumors of devil worship and occult practices. Some around-the-bend conspiracy theorists have charged that Masons orchestrated the assassination of JFK, but even Oliver Stone did not go there.

Masonry is an organization whose origins are shrouded in mystery and ancient secrets. Their rituals and meetings were and are furtive, which led to a long-forgotten national scandal and alleged murder of an out-of-favor Mason, William Morgan, which just might have a direct bearing on the missing cornerstone.

The “Morgan Affair” as it became know exploded across American in the early 1800’s and drove Masonry deep into the shadows of American society.

It is not known when the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol was discovered missing. In fact, its precise and initial location continues to be the subject of some dispute to this day.

In spite of developing extensive cornerstone laying rituals  the Masons had not in their earlier years included a regularization of precisely where to put a building’s cornerstone. In fact, it wasn’t until the 18th century that Masons would begin to perform their rituals in the northeast corner of a structure.     

The hunt for the treasured cornerstone and silver plate became a national challenge. One of the first organized searches started with the 100 year anniversary of the US Capitol, but neither the stone nor the plate were found. Again an attempt was made in the 1950’s and again, nothing.

In 1985, yet another attempt to find the long lost cornerstone failed.

In 1991, scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey were drafted in an effort to find the long-missing plate and cornerstone. But they failed. Once again neither was found even with the advantage of technology.

But two years later, in 1993, then-Capitol Architect, George M. White, felt the immense political pressures of the Capitol’s nearing bicentennial closing in on him.

Suddenly and remarkably, the Washington cornerstone was announced “found” in the face of all previous failed attempts. It was claimed to be composed of gray granite.

Miraculously…and suspiciously after missing for 200 years… the Washington cornerstone was  “discovered” just weeks before the celebration of the U.S. Capitol’s 200-year anniversary, in which President Clinton participated.

Great detail was given to the description of the newly found cornerstone. Then-U.S. Capitol Historian, William Allen, pronounced to The Associated Press that the stone was, “well cut, its edges are square … it shows a promising level of finesse.”  The Architect’s office also produced a lengthy report in October 1993 detailing the discovery of the long-lost stone.

Written at the time, “The Architect of the Capitol believes it is in fact the ‘missing’ stone,” in a book, The Search for the Capitol Cornerstone.

That was then when a stone was needed for the 200th anniversary.

Today, according to spokeswoman Kristen Wandell, the official position of the Architect’s office regarding the whereabouts of the appearing-disappearing-reappearing cornerstone is that it is missing … again.

Also, as photos of the 1993 stone are studied, Capitol Historian Allen’s description of a smooth and well-cut stone are demonstrably false. The photos are nothing like that described by Allen.

The Architect’s office also contradicted itself, at first describing the stone as gray granite, and then later saying it was “Meta-greywacke,” a type of metamorphic sandstone that is nothing close to the granite White claimed. Sandstone is to granite what a wheelbarrow is to a Formula One race car.

In every painting and drawing (and there are many) of President Washington laying the cornerstone, the stone portrayed was highly polished with sharp edges. Some representations show the year “1793” chiseled on one side.

Referring to the 1793 laying ceremony, David Ovason wrote in his book The Secret Architecture of Our Nation’s Capital, “The occasion has been recorded in many works of art…”

Not one painting or etching depicts an irregular and, yes, ugly cornerstone as the one photographed in 1993.All accounts of Washington’s ceremony clearly show a handsome gray stone, worthy of such a momentous event.

The day was filled with pomp, music, food, ceremonial corn, wine and oil brought by Washington’s fellow Masons.

It is hard to imagine Washington, who wrote often and fondly about Freemasonry, (“the beautiful path of initiation”) would have allowed the ceremony to go forth without a proper cornerstone. Washington was fussy about such things. He never appeared in public without being dressed in his finest uniform or formal outfit.

Washington and his peers did not know the U.S. Capitol would become one of the best-known buildings in the world, but they knew what they were doing was very important.

The ceremony began with a procession across the Potomac led by Washington. He then met up with other Masons in the District accompanied by bands playing music and crowds cheering. The parade marched onward and made its way up what was then known as Jenkins Hill, now known as “Capitol Hill.”

Once at the site, after several religious observances and speeches, Washington slowly descended into the enormous trench and placed an elaborately engraved silver plate on the ground. As the crowd watched, Washington gradually lowered the cornerstone onto the silver plate. The president then ascended to listen to a patriotic speech, which was punctuated by the firing of artillery.

The engraving on the plate noted the date, location and principal participant; “whose virtues on the civil administration of his country have been conspicuous and beneficial, as his military valor and prudence have been useful in establishing her liberties, and in the year of Masonry 1793, by the Grand Lodge of Maryland, several lodges under its jurisdiction, and Lodge 22 from Alexandria, Virginia.”  

More Masonic prayers and speeches were made and then the real partying started with beer, wine, rum and a barbecued, 500-pound ox. They went late into the night.

The silver plate was never seen again. The cornerstone itself was seen by a few workers after the ceremony. Then the construction of the Capitol commenced in earnest and the cornerstone was eventually forgotten.

Time moved on until the Capitol’s 1893 centennial drew near. But the cornerstone could not be found to mark the occasion.  Then, decades later during the1950s, the Capitol underwent extensive work to create the new East Front Extension. The foundation of the original Capitol was completely exposed and government officials, once again, set about to find the missing original cornerstone and the silver plate. Once again, neither the cornerstone nor the plates were found.

With the whereabouts of the cornerstone now  unknown again, the investigation moved forward to 2000.

That year, the Architect of the Capitol, Alan Hantman, backed away from his office’s earlier strong assertion, telling The Washington Post that the “dog turd” cornerstone in question now was only, “our best guess.”

Mr. Hantman, as well as Mr. Allen, declined to be interviewed for this article despite repeated requests. A spokeswoman, Ms. Eva Malecki, acidulously stonewalled all requests to speak to either of them about the obvious contradictions and the ongoing effort to obscure the questions about the existence of the stone.

After all, the first rule of the bureaucracy is to protect the bureaucracy.

Finally, after being pressured by the office of Congressman Scott Garrett, in the summer of 2006, Hantman’s office reluctantly agreed to cooperate with an investigation to determine once and for all where the stone was … or was not.

Accompanied by Rachel Houston of Garrett’s office and Ms. Wandell, we visited several sites including an unremarkable hallway deep in the bowels of what was part of the original U.S. Capitol.

This is the location of the rush-to-judgment cornerstone of 1993. But there is no plaque, exhibit or commemoration at the site. The site is pathetically and deliberately ignored as evidenced by the worn and bolted-down piece of plywood unceremoniously covering the excavation hole. The Architect was unwilling to pull back the plywood for further inspection.

Clearly embarrassed about the false pronouncements of their 1993 “finding,” it seems U.S. Capitol officials would like the entire matter to simply fade away. Bureaucratic bungling strikes again.

Congressman Garrett has since sent a follow-up letter to the Architect’s office requesting the site be opened for inspection. The AOC has not responded according to Garrett’s Chief of Staff, Michelle Presson. That request was made in the summer of 2006.

In another location, on the Senate side of the Capitol, a plaque that was placed in 1893 to commemorate the building’s centennial claims it is the site of the original cornerstone. But the Senate has long prohibited excavation of the area to determine if this claim is factual.

This location is dubious at best because accounts of the 1793 laying ceremony clearly indicate the southeast corner, the “House side” of the U.S. Capitol, where the original and only cornerstone was placed by Washington.

So the mystery remains, abetted by bureaucratic bungling and obstruction. But the disappearance and suspected murder of William Morgan in 1826 may shed light on strange happenings surrounding the missing stone.

William Morgan, a New Yorker by way of Virginia and Canada, was a ne’er-do-well by every account and finally, at 45, married the 16-year-old daughter of a minister.

Morgan, a Mason with disputed credentials himself, unsuccessfully petitioned to create his own lodge of Royal Arch Masons (part of the York Rite of Masonry). After being turned down, Morgan in a fit of pique threatened to reveal the secrets of Masonry, and he even securing a roman a clef  book contract.

According to author William Preston Vaughn, “The question of Morgan’s Masonic membership has fascinated fraternal historians for generations, but exhaustive research … in the various areas where Morgan lived has failed to unearth any evidence of his ever having taken any … Masonic degrees. Lodge record keeping in those days was casual by today’s standards, and it is conceivable that in the anti-Masonic hysteria that followed Morgan’s death, the minutes of the meeting during which he received these degrees might have been destroyed by embarrassed lodge officials.”

But before Morgan could cash in with his “tell all” book he was abducted one night. The allegation was he was put forcibly into a boat, his body was weighted down and he was pushed overboard to drown in Lake Ontario. The inquest determined that Morgan had indeed been kidnapped.

Yet no one was ever charged in the crime despite eyewitness testimony. Most of the investigating officials were Masons. The sheriff, the judge and most of the jury conducting the investigations also were Masons. It looked to all like the Masons had let one of their own get away with murder.

The public outcry across America was fierce and immediate. Citizen “Morgan Committees” sprung up, attacked the Masons and set fire to their lodges. Editorialists and preachers denounced the retreating Masons and membership shriveled.

Two-thirds in New York alone left the organization. Lodges were shuttered and the Masons went underground as Morgan Committees evolved into the Anti-Masonic Party which won quickly gubernatorial and state as well as congressional elections in several states.

This Anti-Masonic Party sought to purge the American government and culture of all things Masonic. Many believed “America could be saved only by driving Masons out of church and office—and eventually destroying the lodges themselves,” wrote Steven C. Bullock in Revolutionary Brotherhood.

Masons went into hiding. The few closed lodges that were not burned to the ground altered their records to protect their remaining members. They maintained low profiles as many of their most prominent members renounced their ties to Masonry.

After the anti-Masonic fires had been banked, forsaken and forlorn, the once power elite of the Founding Fathers slowly began a public relations campaign to repair their image.

The populist outcry was especially ironic because the Masons had a fundamental role in the creation of America. Masons were quite literally the foundation of this country. The movie National Treasure accurately portrayed Masons’ importance in the founding of the Republic.

Masonry at the time consisted mostly of prosperous and educated men who controlled many of the levers of power in America. But their sometimes boisterous behavior served to feed the paranoia of the eventual movement that set out to destroy them and their organization.

Masons were gregarious and friendly men who enjoyed each other’s company. Masons often drank and celebrated with each other in public taverns and inns, because there were no other meeting rooms in most towns. Their rowdy behavior did not sit well with many.

Masons took their secrets seriously, especially at the turn of the 18th century. There was, however, some protest when Ben Franklin said, “Their secret is there is no secret.”

For the unwashed paranoiacs of the 1800s, this was the equivalent of suggesting the success of conspiracies was proven by the lack of evidence against them. This further inflamed the plebeian American society.

All that was needed was a match to set fire to this dry tinderbox. That would be the infamous “Morgan Affair.” Masons, heroes of the Revolutionary War, were driven underground.

The platform of the Anti-Masonic Party was short and simple: Destroy Freemasonry in America. The party cut deals with the Jacksonian Democrats and the National Republicans, who later became the Whigs. But the mission of the Anti-Masonic Party and its zealots never wavered.

The fledgling culture of America at the time was mostly ignorant, illiterate, and vulnerable to nonsensical nostrums and notions. It was easy to convince this largely uneducated and paranoid country that a secret society of successful men was really running the country. Masons permeated virtually all aspects of upper-American society and, to some extent, they did act as a shadow, though beneficial government.

In the wake of the Morgan affair and the Anti-Masonic Party, the remaining Masons knew they needed to reshape Americans perceptions of their organization. Thereafter their charity work, which had been mostly aimed at fellow Masons and their families, would be redirected to the public at large, manifesting itself in work with children and the elderly.

Masons would also become more middle-class and tolerant of others, hoping to cool the hatred that almost destroyed them.

Masons, for many years, have toiled, volunteered and done astounding charitable work, much of which has gone virtually unnoticed by the rest of the country. Americans only paid attention when, for example, the Shriners (a part of Masonry) drive little cars in parades wearing their trademark fezzes. This earns them the slight, sniffing, sophisticated derision of the upper classes of American culture.

This muted contempt exists despite huge philanthropic donations by Masons. From the more than 50 various Masonic groups, millions of dollars go to American charities each and every day. Some are aware of the Shrine Circus, which raises money for charity. But few are aware of the hospitals the Masons operate; hospitals that house special children’s burn units featuring treatment at no cost to families. This is only one aspect of Masonic charities.

Most modern-day members of Freemasonry are not of the celebrity or noteworthy classes. They do believe in God and are prepared for intense study, known in Masonry as degree work.  They are, for the most part, fairly low-key men. But for American Freemasonry, this wasn’t always so.

At the latter part of the 18th century, many gentlemen of importance were Freemasons. Nine signers of the Declaration of Independence and thirteen signers of the Constitution were Masons. Paul Revere was a Mason. Allegedly, Revere was in British custody the night of his ride “to sound the alarm,” but was abruptly released by a British officer and Mason when he discovered Revere’s “faith to the Craft” was determined.

William Clark and Meriwether Lewis as well as Patrick Henry were Masons. So too were Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, the Marquis de Lafayette, and one of the most popular and revered American celebrities of the time, Benjamin Franklin.

But of all the Founding Fathers, George Washington was more steeped in Masonry than anyone else. He actually became a Mason at age 20, ahead of the prescribed age of 21. Washington’s devotion was such that when the cornerstone of the United States Capitol was laid on September 18, 1793, the ceremony was not carried out as an official U.S. government service.

Instead, at Washington’s insistence, he conducted a ceremony drenched in Masonic lore and history, with hundreds present, including Masonic and government officials and the high society of the new Federal City.

How important was Masonry to the Founding Fathers? Some say that during the Revolutionary War, in order to relay military information to General Washington, Masons acted as that war’s covert intelligence operation. Tories and sympathizers of George III were widespread in the colonies and it was not unusual for bad information to be passed along to Washington. Only trusted Masons, through their secret handshake and code words, could relay reliable intelligence to the general.

After the Revolution, much of the religious tolerance written into the Constitution came directly from Masonic law. And the all-seeing eye, an important symbol in Masonry, later became an adornment on the dollar bill. Its placement came via a directive by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935. Yes, FDR was also a Mason.

Furthermore, the planning and execution of the Boston Tea Party can be attributed to Masons. It is known that in 1773, the conspiracists gathered to organize their little outing at the Green Dragon Tavern, an establishment owned and operated by Masons.

The oaths of office for all U.S. government officials, from the president to the vice president to military officials come directly from Masonry. The vice presidential oath is lifted almost verbatim from Masonry.

When Washington became president on April 30, 1789, he took the oath of office with a Masonic Bible and was accompanied by his brother Masons at the ceremony.

Just a short journey down the road in Fredericksburg is Masonic Lodge #4 . It is the original home lodge (though not the original building) where George Washington was “raised up” as a Mason. The current building, a former schoolhouse, was bombarded in the siege of the city during the Civil War.

Located on the third floor in the very old lodge room, in a heavy vault behind thick, bulletproof glass rests a priceless treasure of great historical value. It is part of an answer but also a part of an unanswered question.

Behind the glass is a large chunk of stone declared to be a part of the original cornerstone to the United States Capitol.

Dan Thompson, former master of Lodge #4 knows that the Masons have had the piece of stone for many years, but he does not know when or how it came into their possession.

A hypothesis was posed to Thompson as well as to Dr. S. Brent Morris, Managing Editor of Scottish Rite Journal and author of Cornerstones of Freedom. Thompson nor Morris tend to fall prey to wild speculation and Morris is one of the foremost authorities on American Masonry.

Is it possible that the cornerstone was stolen by a small band of rogue Freemasons during the anti-Masonic era? They certainly would have had access to the building, because the Architect of the Capitol at the time was Charles Bulfinch, also a Mason.

Is it conceivable that Masons, literally on the run in America, had reason to believe the anti-Masonic movement could have reached the cornerstone and destroyed it? And to preserve it, the Mason’s took custody of the stone with the intention to replace it when the fires against them were banked?

The act of removing the cornerstone is not as daunting as one would think, especially to skilled craftsmen. It is simply a process of digging, chiseling mortar, bracing the retaining wall and pulling the stone out with block and tackle.

Both men thought the theory possible. Morris did point out it was also possible that the silver plate might have been stolen the night the stone was laid, with the nascent Capitol likely unguarded.

But having taken the original cornerstone, and years later not knowing what to do with it, did Masons decide to cut chunks out of it and distribute it amongst themselves? And to hold to themselves faithfully yet another secret until someone got around to asking the Masons if they knew of the stone’s whereabouts?

Maybe the bulk of the cornerstone lies undisturbed in some long-forgotten location. The International Time Capsule Society asserts that cornerstones and time capsules alike are usually lost to secrecy, poor planning and thievery.

Thompson makes no attempt to hide the artifact at Lodge #4 unlike the government officials at the US Capitol. In fact I quite accidentally stumbled upon the protected treasure while antiquing in Fredericksburg with my wife, Zorine.

The mystery may be partially solved but the question is, where is the rest of the cornerstone to the United States Capitol?

By the way, one last thing.

The cornerstone to the White House, laid in a Masonic ritual in 1781 … is also missing.