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by Bro. S. BRENT MORRIS 33° G.C.


The adventures of Mr. Sherlock Holmes as related by Dr. John H. Watson provide the reader not only with exciting tales of mystery and detection but also with a delightful glimpse into late-Victorian and early-Edwardian life in England. An important aspect of middle and upper-middle class male sociability of that era was the fraternity of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons. The Freemasons are mentioned briefly in four of the adventures, and their mention gives us some insight to the character of Holmes and Watson (and peripherally into the character of Dr. Watson’s literary agent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).


The Masonic Fraternity

No one is quite sure of where or even when the Freemasons originated. Some have speculated they descended from the mystery religions of the Mediterranean or perhaps from the Roman College of Artificers or perhaps from the crusading Knights Templar. Most historians, however, agree that the modern social fraternity evolved during the seventeenth century from a trade organization of freemasons who met in local organizations called “lodges.” The oldest Masonic document is the Regius Poem or Halliwell Manuscript of ca. 1399 in the British Museum. It is the operating rules for a trade union, with regulations for apprentices and masters, guidance for behavior, and exhortations to the members for charity and mutual support.

The oldest extant minutes of a Masonic lodge are from 1599 and belong to the Lodge of St. Mary’s Chapel in Edinburgh. In those minutes a member of the lodge is reprimanded for hiring a non-Mason, that is, someone who had not gone through an apprenticeship and had been elected a member. This is exactly the behavior you would expect from a trade union. A century later in London the Freemasons are now a social fraternity, composed almost entirely of “speculative” or gentlemen Masons. In that year four of the old lodges came together to form a central authority, a “Grand Lodge,” to govern the fraternity and particularly to restore the custom of the annual “Assembly and Feast.”

In 1717 and before, the Masons had two levels or degrees of membership: Apprentice and Fellow-Master. Apprentices were boys or young men who served a time (usually seven years) with a Master in return for learning the trade. Upon completing an apprenticeship and satisfying a lodge of his skill, a man could be elected as a Fellow-Master in the Freemasons. Within a lodge, all Fellows were equal. A “Master” was a Fellow who was in charge of a job, supervised the work, and hired Fellows and Apprentices. About 1725 the fraternity in London introduced three-levels of membership: Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master. This system was eventually adopted by all lodges and is still in effect around the world today.

The Masons are famous (or possibly notorious) for their “secrets.” There were, of course, the trade secrets learned by apprentices. For example, a union carpenter drives a nail with a grace and fluidity that I cannot approach, and there must have been similar trade secrets with the stonemasons. There is reason to think that some of the inner secrets of the operative masons were the geometric “secrets” of making a right angle. There were also “modes of recognition”—passwords and handshakes (called “grips”) by which they can identify each other. The premier Grand Lodge was formed in 1717, and these secrets were first published in 1723 and have been in continuous print since then. They are secret only from those who do not know how to do a Google search!

These modes of recognition are thought to have originated at a time when working freemasons needed a means to identify themselves as a lodge member when they traveled from one job site to another. Unlike members of other trades—bakers, carpenters, or tailors, for example—freemasons might not always have work in one location. When a town’s bridge or church was completed, there might not be more work for decades within that community. Thus the necessity for masons to travel arose, and soon thereafter came the requirement of some way for a traveling mason to identify himself at a new job site, if the integrity of the trade organization and its training were to be maintained.

This system of symbolic “secret knowledge” has been maintained for centuries, and even today a visiting Mason before gaining admission to a lodge must prove himself knowledgeable in the “secrets of Masonry.” Since the Masons’ secrets have been long-published, one may well ask the question, “What’s the point?” Today the secrets are purely symbolic, a token of a Mason’s integrity and his fidelity to his trust.

After Freemasonry emerged in early eighteenth-century Britain, it migrated around the globe and found fertile soil in most European countries and their colonies. Other countries grafted additional levels of membership or degrees onto the original and universal three from England. A Masonic degree is a brief morality play or ceremony that teaches a lesson such as fidelity, truth, benevolence, and so on. The Scottish Rite, which originated in France, has thirty-three degrees; the York Rite, which originated in America, has twelve degrees; the Rite of Memphis, which originated in Italy, has over ninety degrees; and the Swedish Rite, which originated in Sweden, has eleven degrees.


Freemasonry in Victorian England

When Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, Freemasonry had become part of the accepted social activities for a gentleman. A place to gather with friends where rank and station meant much less than on the outside. The Duke of Sussex was Grand Master of England in 1837, and his participation represented the general approbation given the fraternity. Victoria’s son, Albert Edward, later served as Grand Master when he was Prince of Wales, and when he ascended the throne as Edward VII, he was succeeded as Grand Master by his brother, the Duke of Connaught. As an indication of the wide spread nature of English Freemasonry, the 2,076th English lodge, Quatuor Coronati, was chartered in 1884.

Sir Charles Warren, an explorer and archaeologist, was the first Master of Quatuor Coronati, a lodge devoted to the history of Freemasonry and limited to no more than forty members at any time. Their annual transactions, Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, have been published since 1885 and could be called the Baker Street Journal of Freemasonry. Sir Charles served as Metropolitan Police Commissioner from March 1886 to November 1887 during the Jack the Ripper murders. Stephen Knight latched upon the Masonic membership of Warren and built it into a complex Masonic conspiracy to explain the Ripper murders that was published in Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution. Knight’s fantasy in turn served as the basis of the 1980 pastiche movie, Murder by Decree, in which Sir Charles Warren “is confronted by Sherlock Holmes who claims special knowledge of The Royal Order of Freemasons giving him some strange and curious signs and identifying Sir Charles as a 33rd Degree Mason by the insignia on his ring. (Sir Charles, in fact, only reached the 30th Degree….)”[i]

Other prominent Victorian-era Masons include Sir Arthur S. Sullivan, the composer, Sir William S. Gilbert, the librettist, Anthony Trollope, the author, Rudyard Kipling, the author, Frédéric August Bartholdi, the designer of the Statue of Liberty, Sir Richard Francis Burton, the explorer and translator of The Arabian Nights, Mark Twain, the author, Alphonse Mucha, the Czech artist, Harry Houdini, the magician and anti-spiritualist crusader, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author and spiritualist.


Freemasonry in the Canon

Freemasonry is mentioned briefly in only four adventures, but it is possible to make a few tentative deductions from them. Let us consider each in turn.

A Study in Scarlet. As Sherlock Holmes investigates the murder of Enoch Drebber, he asks Inspector Tobias Gregson, “What did you find in the pockets?” Among the items Gregson listed from Drebber was a “gold ring, with Masonic device.” The device was probably the well known square and compasses, and as Drebber was American, there was most likely a letter “G” in the center of the tools, standing for both geometry and God. British and European Masons usually don’t use the “G.”

Drebber was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a Mormon. The Prophet Joseph Smith was a Mason and helped initiate over 1,000 Mormons in Nauvoo, Illinois, where he was eventually murdered while being held in the Nauvoo jail. His brother Hyrum and Brigham Young were also Masons, so it would not be surprising to find an early Mormon who was a Mason, even though later events soured relations between the LDS Church and Freemasonry for decades.

A Scandal in Bohemia. Sherlock Holmes watched the habits and the house of Miss Irene Adler while disguised as a horse groom. He says to Watson, “There is a wonderful sympathy and freemasonry among horsy men. Be one of them, and you will know all there is to know.” We can deduce little special about Holmes use of the term, which emphasizes the well known closeness and friendliness of the fraternity.

The Adventure of the Retired Colourman. Holmes sends Watson to gather information on Josiah Amberly, a retired manufacturer of artists’ supplies. When Watson reports back, he says that he thinks he was followed by a “tall, dark” man. Holmes adds, before Watson can say so, that the man was mustached, wore dark glasses, and a Masonic tie-pin. This turns out to be Mr. Barker, and nothing else is said about his Masonic jewelry.

The Red-Headed League. When Sherlock Holmes first meets Jabez Wilson, he says, “Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing more.” When Wilson presses him on how he knew he was a Freemason, Holmes says, “I won’t insult your intelligence by telling you how I read that, especially as, rather against the strict rules of your order, you use an arc and compass breast pin.” Because Jabez Wilson was a client and needed a demonstration of Holmes’ techniques, he was identified as a Mason and then politely reprimanded. Mr. Barker, Holmes’ “hated rival upon the Surrey shore,” on the other hand, needed no such demonstration and did not receive a reprimand. In fact, it was Watson who observed the Masonic pin, and Holmes deduced its presence from previous experience with Barker.

Holmes’ statement indicates remarkable knowledge about the customs of the fraternity. Since the late 1700s British and American applicants for Masonic membership must declare in writing that “Unbiased by friends and uninfluenced by mercenary motives, I freely and voluntarily offer myself a candidate for the mysteries of masonry.”[ii] There is no formal rule against English Masons wearing Masonic jewelry, but it has been discouraged within their lodges since the late 1800s. “English Masons are exhorted not to misuse their membership [for personal gain] and the wearing of such jewelry may be misconstrued as a discreet advertisement thereof for improper purposes.”[iii] This is not secret or even private information, but it is certainly something that wouldn’t be known from a casual study of the fraternity.

Wilson wore an “arc and compass breast pin,” not the much more common square and compass. Since 1814 in England, the arc or protractor and compass has been the emblem of a Past Grand Master. The pin is rarely seen since English Grand Masters usually serve for 20–30 years, and they have been selected from the nobility for nearly 300 years. However, in the United States the arc and compass pin is the most common emblem of a Past Master of a lodge. With thousands of lodges generating a new Past Master each year, such a pin is not uncommon.

The mystery then is not how Sherlock Holmes identified the pin, for surely a man who studied cigar ashes would be familiar with the identifying jewelry of all sorts of organizations. Rather, the mystery is how Jabez Wilson came to have such a pin. A quick check of a list of English Past Grand Masters reveals that Jabez Wilson’s name is conspicuous for its absence. Perhaps in his travels he resided long enough in America to affiliate with a lodge and become its Past Master. It is more likely that he came across the pin in a pawn shop for a good price. If Wilson were a casual Mason, one who joined to rub shoulders with those he considered to be above his station, then he might not have appreciated the subtle distinction between the arc and square in the pin, and snatched it up for his personal and incorrect use.

The Adventure of the Norwood Builder. The “unhappy John Hector McFarlane” presents himself to Holmes as a client and is told, “Beyond the obvious facts that you are a bachelor, a solicitor, a Freemason, and an asthmatic, I know nothing whatever about you.” Watson was able to follow these deductions and in particular observed McFarlane’s watch-charm. We are not told which of several Masonic emblems was on the charm, but it gave away his Masonic membership.

Our attention is drawn to the curious incident of the watch-charm on the client. Holmes said nothing to his client about wearing such jewelry as he did to Jabez Wilson. That is the curious incident.

Here again we see Holmes remarkable knowledge of the fraternity. McFarlane’s name indicates Scots descent. Cecil A. Ryder observed in “A Study in Masonry,” that McFarlane “would probably have received his Masonic degrees in Scotland. It is not unusual for Scots Masons, who are not forbidden to do so, to wear the insignia.”[iv]


The Source of Holmes’ Masonic Knowledge

The superficial conclusion is that Sherlock Holmes was a Freemason, given his detailed knowledge of the fraternity. This deduction flies in the face of what we know about Holmes as a social creature. While not lacking in social graces, the great detective did not seek out human companionship or maintain close friendships, except perhaps with Dr. Watson. In contrast a Masonic lodge is a celebration of sociability and friendship, a place where men gather for the purpose of enjoying each other’s company. It would be fair to describe a Masonic lodge as an “Anti-Diogenes Club,” and this does not seem the sort of organization that would be attractive to Sherlock Holmes. Further, recall that Holmes tells Jabez Wilson, that wearing an arc and compass breast pin is “rather against the strict rules of your order.” Had Holmes been a Mason, he would have referred to “our order.”

I believe that the source of Holmes’ familiarity with Masonic customs came from his chronicler, John H. Watson, M.D. As a veteran, Watson would have enjoyed the male-bonding experiences of the army. His outgoing and sociable nature would have fit naturally into a Masonic lodge. In his many discussions with Holmes, it would have been natural and not at all improper to explain the subtleties of Masonic jewelry and the different customs between English and Scots and other Masons.

Now, we must ask, was Watson an active Mason. The absence of any other mention of the fraternity in the Canon would indicate that Watson was very discrete about his membership, perhaps not wanting to use it for personal gain by attracting readers who might not have otherwise been interested in his writing. Watson would have preferred his literary efforts to stand or fall on their own merits. Of course the evidence could also support the contention that Watson was inactive, perhaps because of the pressures of his medical practice or because the fraternity did not meet his needs.

It is illustrative if we compare Watson’s career to a contemporary medical and literary colleague, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Dr. Doyle joined Phoenix Lodge No. 257 in 1887 and withdrew his membership only two years later in 1889. He remained unaffiliated and inactive until 1901 when the Lodge of St. Mary’s Chapel in Edinburgh invited him to a meeting to give a toast to the “Immortal Memory of Queen Victoria,” and they afterwards made him an honorary member. Doyle rejoined Phoenix lodge in 1902, but withdrew again in 1911. There is no evidence that he every participated after that.

Some insight to Doyle’s disaffection with Freemasonry can be found in one of his Professor Challenger stories, The Land of Mist. A character is described as “a pompous ass named Weatherby. He is one of those who wander about on the obscure edges of Masonry, talking with whispers and reverence on mysteries where no mystery is. Spiritualism, with its very real and awful mysteries, is, to him, a vulgar thing because it brought consolation to common folk.”[v]

We can understand the Masonic references lodged in the Canon with the simple insight that John H. Watson was a Freemason. Like his fellow author of that period, Arthur Conan Doyle, Watson apparently found that the fraternity did not satisfy his needs as he had hoped, and so he became inactive. But even if he withdrew his membership from his lodge, I am confident that he never forgot the principal teachings of Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth.

[i] Yasha Beresiner, “Arthur Conan Doyle: Spiritualist and Freemason,” Pietre-Stones Review of Freemasonry, www.freemasons-freemasonry.com/beresiner10.html, accessed March 8, 2006.

[ii] William Preston, Illustrations of Free-Masonry (London: The Author, 1772), pp. 210–11.

[iii] Robert T. Runciman, “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, and Freemasonry,” Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, vol. 104 (1991), pp. 178–87.

[iv] Cecil A. Ryder quoted in Runciman, p. 185.

[v] Beresiner, “Arthur Conan Doyle.”