It was there on the news web page I choose for my early morning reading: "Shooting in Masonic Lodge". As the story spread during the day, messages came in - almost all from Masons - asking "What in the heck is this all about? Are guns used ANYWHERE in Masonry?" Several messages also included the exact same comment: "The Antis are going to have a field day with this one!" ~ and indeed, that seems to be the case. Some sites (here's an example) seemed to greet the situation with great glee, even compiling the dozens of news stories in order to denigrate Freemasons so that they themselves might look better.
News stories were written primarily by those totally unfamiliar with Freemasonry. They all began, it seemed, with the tired cliché that it's a secret society. Sorting through these stories, along with information from New York brethren, the following information emerged: Southside Masonic Lodge in New York State, USA, had a 'Fellowcraft Club'. While some news stories said that this involved the Second Degree of Freemasonry (called the Fellowcraft Degree), that reporting was totally incorrect. The UK's BBC reported that the victim was ".... apparently being sworn into a select group within his lodge...." but in reality, it was 'just another local side group', titillating references notwithstanding.
Throughout the United States, in fact, there are many such 'clubs' composed of lodge members. Their primary purpose is to provide a casual, friendly and cooperative environment within the lodge building and they're generally involved with things like building maintenance and/or lunchtime opportunities. They go under a variety of names: "Square & Compass Club", "Lunchtime Club", "Fellowcraft Club", or sometimes they pick a name specifically related to something local: the "Abanaki Club" in Augusta, Maine comes to mind. There are some clubs named after the lodge which occupies the building such as the Blazing Star Club.
In the 1950s and 1960s, such clubs were extremely popular owing to the desire of men to find a place where they might enjoy friendly company either during the day or on an evening when there was no lodge work being done. Not wanting to frequent a bar, they could go to the Masonic lodge building and enjoy a hearty game of cribbage (a true Masonic favorite!) and a non-alcoholic drink. Such clubs were especially attractive to widowers as they provided a friendly social environment to talk about most anything without fear of getting into a fight with a stranger. Most also raised funds for the Masonic Hall through card games with wives present, cribbage tournaments amongst the men, and more. To marginalize such clubs as 'outside' of Freemasonry is not truly accurate; neither were they part of it since they were local and unrecognized as a part of the 'Masonic Family'.
Members of the lodges that met in the building joined these lodges knowing that their minimal dues contribution also helped keep the lodge building funds in better shape. Often, the club members were the men who assumed responsibility for meals in the lodge building and these 'Masonic chefs' were among their most ardent supporters when the club assumed such duties. Membership in the Masonic club had nothing at all to do with one's actual Masonic membership but with some, it provided a benefit of offering a key to the building and thus there was some possible benefit by being able to come and go at one's choosing. Planning to go directly to lodge after work but not wanting to sit in your car for an hour? Join the fraternal club and get a key to the building so you can go in and read or perhaps watch the news on TV. Want to stay after a lodge meeting to plan the upcoming dinner-dance? Now there was no need to make the lodge Secretary or Master pace around waiting for you to finish. It was 'handy'....
Most clubs had NO initiation ceremony whatsoever: you gave their secretary your name and address along with your dues (almost always in the $3-10 range although maybe as high as $15 in the 1970s and 1980s) and you were a member. A man who moved often might belong to several (possibly a couple of dozen) different clubs during his Masonic career. They were especially popular in some overseas locations where a small amount of membership dues from a large transient military population helped to provide the friendship and fellowship that a traveling Freemason sought. Japan and the Philippines, for example, had dozens upon dozens of such clubs and the fraternity traveling Masons found in them was such that many continued payment of their annual dues long, long after they'd moved on. Often you will find items relating to Masonic clubs on the online auction: lighters, ash trays, or other memorabilia, created to raise funds and remind those passing through that Freemasonry was found around the world.
And with these fraternal clubs, if you failed to send in your dues because you had moved away or were no longer interested, your membership was simply dropped. Membership (or non-membership) was irrelevant to your Masonic status as there would be, for example, if a Mason was to stop paying lodge dues. Membership accorded a Mason no additional benefits within the fraternity and those who chose not to belong were treated no differently than anyone else.
As Masonry's membership dropped in the 1970s and 1980s, the majority of these clubs seemed to fade away. The older members who had been their backbone were no longer able to get out in the evening and the comfort of home versus an aging, musty, and often cold and dark hollow building failed to hold any appeal for newer Masons. Widowers were fewer in number and the lure of television caused most such fraternal clubs to continue in name only, if at all.
However, with membership in Freemasonry on the upswing in many places during the late 1990s and into the 2000s, some of these relics from an earlier time were seeing a revival and finding a new 'lease on life'. Buildings were being made more inviting and they provided a convenient location for the 'quick meeting' that is often needed when various Masonic groups are planning events and activities. For older fellows experiencing the 'empty nest' syndrome following the departure of their grown children, the club membership provided - as it had in the past - the comfort of familiarity and friendship at times when the lodge was not in session. For younger members, it was an opportunity to mix and mingle outside the lodge with some of the older members. Freemasonry provides a very unique opportunity for friendship amongst those who might have otherwise remained at a perpetual distance and so the renewed interest in such clubs offered a chance for a younger member to bond with 'grandfather' figures who might have been absent in his earlier life.
It is within this context that Mason William James, 47, who had become a member of South Side Lodge #493 in Patchogue, New York was elected to join the club which had existed at that building reportedly for some 70 years - although it may be that date actually reflects the Lodge's and/or building age rather than that of the actual club! From news reports, this "Fellowcraft Club" had an initiation ceremony which involved a "lesson of trust". In Freemasonry, a member learns to trust the words and actions of a Masonic Brother knowing that no harm will ever befall him. Following on that theme, it appears that the club had a ceremony which involved firing a pistol with blanks at a couple of tin cans on a shelf. When the shots were fired, the cans (complete with pebbles in them to make noise upon hitting the floor) were knocked down by someone standing nearby. As the story is reported, on March 8, 2004 when James was about to undergo the ceremony and it came time for the fake gun to be fired, Mason Albert Eid, a 76 year old Mason who was also a Past Master of the Lodge, reached into the WRONG POCKET and fired HIS OWN GUN rather than the 'prop' gun at the candidate - killing him instantly.
Sadly, in the US and particularly in some urban areas, it is not uncommon for older persons to carry loaded firearms for their own safety and protection. It was not a matter of someone bringing a gun to lodge: it was, instead, an elderly man carrying a gun for his own protection and coming to a group's meeting at the lodge hall. It is reported, in fact, that he held a permit to carry a gun since 1951! Many will fail to understand why ANYONE would feel the need to have a firearm with them when traveling in their home area: they have never lived in fear of their lives each and every day in an 'urban jungle'. There is, likely, more to this story and the reason this man carried a gun for such a long period of time will likely be reported at some future time.
In hindsight, the errors here are enormous and writ large:
Does it come as a surprise that some, seeing such violence all around, choose to arm themselves before going out - ANYWHERE???) There is no way to 'explain' it all though. A tragic and horrid thing with no justification....
Because this incident has brought such shame and dishonor to the Fraternity, the Grand Master of New York ordered the Lodge's charter immediately removed, thus suspending all of the lodge's members. As time sorts out the details, they'll be added here.
Some might ask: if this were not a part of the Lodge, why punish THEM? The answer is simple: many - if not most - of the members of the Lodge would have known of the format of the club's ceremony. That they allowed it to occur and, perhaps, perpetuated it places them in the position of acting un-Masonically. Because of that, they suffer the penalties of their obligation which include (ONLY) reprimand, suspension, or expulsion. While Masonic jurisprudence differs slightly from Grand Lodge to Grand Lodge, the Grand Master of New York has acted in a way which, to Masons, is extraordinarily meaningful. Removal of a charter from a lodge - even if it is only temporary - is a VERY powerful statement within the fraternity and sends an extremely strong message to those involved. NO action, obviously, will ever right the wrong. This is, though, a wake-up call to all Freemasons that those things which might have been considered 'harmless pranks' of the past need to be reexamined immediately. Suffice it to say: Freemasonry does NOT EVER use guns in its own ceremonies and their only authorized use in Masonically-related groups is decorative (the Heroes of '76, for example, may sometimes carry flintlock muskets as part of their Revolutionary War costuming). That's it!
Our most sincere sympathies are extended to the family of the victim. There is no way the fraternity can ever repay their loss.
One parenthetical comment: Anything which is perceived as 'hazing' in any context is rapidly becoming an anathema in our society and some states have enacted laws that specifically address this with provisions for fines and prison terms for not only those involved but for those who knew or should have known about them. Where once hazing was shrugged off as nothing but 'harmless pranks', today they are seen as causing one to lose self-esteem and perhaps suffer serious injury or death - something which has occurred on a far-too-frequent basis within the college fraternity community. (Here's an Ohio cite on such things, for example.)
When some of the groups related to Freemasonry designed rituals, they were meant to teach some lesson of life. However, in today's culture and without an understanding of the fraternal bonds which exist between Masons, they can be considered both insulting and degrading.
Excesses sometimes lead to enlightenment. The US Navy provides two distinct examples: the famous 'Tailhook scandal' brought to light the culture which permitted women to be treated as objects rather than as persons. Ultimately there was a total rethinking of the role of women in the military. Although there remains much work to be done, the massive changes which ensued raised the consciousness of all in the military service. Less heralded but perhaps even more directly related to the Masonic hall shooting was the change in US Navy Chief Petty Officer initiations. Once an event marked by a week of hazing, drunken revelries, and total excesses, selection for promotion to CPO now involves several weeks of task-oriented leadership education and exercises culminating in a serious and solemn ceremony befitting the change in responsibility being undertaken. Comparing the two types of initiations, it is easy to see which benefits the Navy, the individual, and society most.
On a more related example, the Shrine - long renown for its "pranks" during initiation ceremonies - is now coming to the realization that a goodly number of new candidates have no desire whatsoever to engage in tomfoolery or hazing and be part of what we now recognize as harassment. They have joined the Shrine to help 'the world's largest philanthropy' - a serious business indeed. Accordingly, a completely new initiation ceremony - the Arch Degree, open to the wives of the candidates and members as well - is now gaining widespread acceptance through Shrinedom. A current Potentate (presiding officer) of the local Shrine group suggests that within a very few years, the old initiation format will probably be gone entirely.
Once upon a time, when a child misbehaved, they were given a swift (and sometimes quite hard) spanking - perhaps even including a belt! Hollering and shouting at an unmanageable child was the standard means of 'punishment' not too very long ago. Today, such actions might subject the parent to civil and even criminal penalties including removal of the child from the home! As the Bob Dylan song notes: "... the times, they are a changin'."
Fun is fun but society has changed greatly and Freemasonry's family is changing with it, albeit perhaps found somewhat on the 'lagging edge'. Ways of doing things in the past do not resonate the same way as they once did. It is both hoped and likely that this horrid incident in the Masonic venue will cause a many reevaluations leading to reconsideration and removal of all such vestiges of the past which which might ever cause another such hideous tragedy.
In January 2005, Albert Eid was sentenced to 5 years probation in a sentence that was agreed to by the victim's family. Eid wept openly during the sentencing and according to the chief of the homicide bureau for the district attorney's office, he accepted responsibility and had shown "consistent and sincere remorse" since the accident. Prosecutors also took into account Eid's lack of any prior criminal history and his record of military service in recommending no jail time. This is, certainly, a stain on the fraternity and we all grieve for the victim's wife and children.
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