Smuggling Masonic Books to Mexico: A Philadelphia Publisher and the Inquisition

Paul Rich, 32º, Guillermo De Los Reyes, and Antonio Lara

ENT WALGREN PUBLISHED HIS IMPORTANT BIBLIOGRAPHY OF EARLY American Scottish Rite imprints in the Heredom volumes for 1994 and 1995.1 At the time, S. Brent Morris rightly remarked that this was a "major advancement in Scottish Rite research" and asked that readers share any additional information that the list might elicit.2 In May of 1998, at an antiquarian bookdealer's in Mexico City, we purchased a volume containing No. 53 on the Walgren non-Louisiana list, a Spanish translation of Thomas Webb's The Freemason's Monitor. (Published as El Monitor de los Masones Libres: ó, Illustraciones sobre la Masonería, por Thomas Smith Webb, Gran Maestro Pasado de la Gran Logia de Rhode Island. Taducido del ingles al español.) Surprisingly, the book was published in Philadelphia by H.C. Carey and I. Lea, successor firm of Mathew Carey & Co. one of the best known publishing houses of the post-Revolutionary period. Why would a Philadelphia publisher produce a Masonic book in Spanish?3 Pursuing that question and as a result of the Walgren list and the providential purchase of the Mexico City copy, we were led to a remarkable and hitherto unpublished and uncited series of letters relating to Masonry in Mexico in 1822.

Walgren listed the Philadelphia Grand Lodge Library as having two copies of the book. On an initial visit there, we discovered that the library actually owned four copies, changing the number on the Walgren list of early Scottish Rite imprints held by Philadelphia from 43 to 45. (Our personal copy is the only one bound with another Masonic book, ostensibly printed in Spain but which the staff at the Library Company of Philadelphia suggested, on the basis of the title page's use of certain type faces, might also have been printed in Philadelphia. This is yet another mystery to pursue.)

We were accumulating far more questions than answers. Because the Library Company and Pennsylvania Historical Society archives, both of which are near the Grand Lodge, would take time to explore, we returned for a whole week in May of 1998. The Historical Society has a large collection of letter and account books of the Carey concern, whose interest in Mexico is illustrated by a series of letters in 1820-1821 from William D. Robinson about his book on the Mexican Revolution. Despite Robinson's high hopes (1,500 copies were printed) and efforts at promotion, the venture did not succeed. An unhappy Robinson excuses his tardy payments to Carey and relates his troubles with debts, his attempts to get a government job in Florida, his plans to go to Haiti, and his fears about possibly going to jail.4

Another series of letters in the Carey collection proved to be of great Masonic interest. There is a file of eighteen letters and statements of account, beginning August 18,1822 and evidently ending in early 1823, and sent to Carey by F.W. Robeson, who was acting as their agent in Mexico. Robeson on arriving in Mexico meets Don M. Reyes, a representative of the Emperor Iturbide, the shortreigned monarch of the newly independent state who had come to the throne in May and would be exiled the next year: "I tried him by the Square and Compass but (had) no answer. I then put to him certain interrogations which he answered much to my satisfaction."5 The letters are extraordinary, not only for many Masonic references but because of the cloak-and-dagger problems of smuggling Masonic books into Mexico. On August 23,1822, Robeson writes to Philadelphia that, "I must close by observing to you not to mention to the Captain of the Mexicana anything concerning what was in the trunks as he is too much afraid of his owner to do any business for us of that nature."6 The Spanish Webb published by Carey entered Mexico on at least one occasion hidden in a consignment of cook books! Suffice it to say that the entire correspondence deserves and will get publication.

The Walgren list indicates that the same year as the Philadelphia book was published, another translation of Webb into Spanish was published in New York and appeared as a second edition in 1825. A very rare if not problematic third edition was produced by the same New York firm in the same year. We determined from the Philadelphia copies that the New York text represented a completely different translation and was different in other respects from the Carey edition. Because the Philadelphia Grand Lodge Library has a fine run of Webb imprints7 we also were able to compare the Spanish translation of the Carey edition against a procession of Webb editions and tentatively concluded that the translator used the Salem, Massachusetts edition printed by Cushing and Appleton in 1821, listed by Walgren as No. 518 Carey and Lea published a two-volume novel by Valentin Llanor Gutierrez, Sandoval, or, The Freemasons: A Spanish Tale, in 1826. That was translated by Eduardo Barry, an English Freemason. Whether Barry also translated the 1822 book awaits further inquiry. We came across a number of other Sapnish-language books published in Philadelphia in the same period.

In trying to determine why a Philadelphia publisher was issuing Masonic books in Spanish, the fact that the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania has a number of original letters relating to the activities of Masonic lodges in Mexico during the 1820S seemed more than coincidental, suggesting that individuals in Philadelphia at this time had an interest in Mexican Freemasonry. To our knowledge this correspondence has not been cited accurately in print and the chartering of lodges in Mexico by American grand lodges has been a confused subject. We certainly plan to deal at length with this problem in the future.9

Among the Grand Lodge papers is a letter from the town of Alvarado in Mexico dated February 28, 1824, requesting that the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania charter a lodge with a Brother Franciso de Paula López to be first master. (This is the same town to which in 1822 Robeson directed Carey to send shipments.) There is a copy of a reply dated March 20, 1824, signed by John Gibson of the Grand Lodge, to Eugene Cortez as a Past Master, indicating a willingness to do so. A letter from Mexico dated July 16,1824, reports that Cortez constituted the lodge on July 15,1824.11

The Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania Library also has material about the first American ambassador to Mexico, Joel R. Poinsett, a highly controversial Mason " who became involved in the Mexican struggle for independence.12 (The Robeson letters mention Poinsett.) On April 15,1826, the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania meeting was told that Poinsett had written to the Grand Lodge to announce that he had established a "Grand Lodge of Ancient York Masons." Originally he had written to the Grand Lodge of New York about charters for five lodges but had had no reply.13 The Right Worshipful Grand Master of Pennsylvania empowered Poinsett to issue dispensations.14 However, it is by no means certain that the lodges were not finally chartered by New York.15 Poinsett's papers, and a number of other collections bearing on Freemasonry are in the collections of the Historical Society.16

Freemasonry in Mexico during the 1820S is of immense interest to Latin Americanist scholars, as it played a significant role in the struggle for independence and the forming of modern Mexico. The appearance of Spanish versions of Webb, in two distinct translations, along with a number of other Spanish Masonic titles published in Philadelphia in the next few years, raises many questions. Not the least of these is about Brother F.W. Robeson, how he got to Mexico, and what happened to him .


1 Kent Walgren, "A Bibliography of Pre-l851 American Scottish Rite Imprints (non-Louisiana), Heredom, vol. 3 (1994), pp. 55-120. Kent Walgren, "A Bibliography of Pre851 Louisiana Scottish Rite Imprints" Heredom, vol. 4 (1995), pp. 189 206.

2. S. Brent Morris, "From the Editor" Heredom, vol. 3 (1994), p. 6.

3. Initially we were puzzled why Mathew Carey was involved with Masonry, since he was a Catholic who had published religious books, and who in his youth had fled to the United States after protesting British rule in Ireland. It turned out the Carey had turned over control of the publishing house to his son the same year that the Spanish edition appeared, and that the son had become an Episcopalian! Isaac Lea was Carey's son-in-law and he had joined the firm in 1821. Although Catholic, the elder Carey seems to have had the respect of the Grand Lodge as they donated to the poor committee he headed: "Ten dollars was given to Mr. M. Cary, chairman of the Committee, to give to the Public committee for the relief of the poor." Norris S. Barnatt and Julius F. Sachse, Freemasonry in Pennsylvania, 1727yo7, vol. ITI, 1813-155 (Philadelphia: New Era, 1919).

4. Pennsylvania Historical Society, Collection No. z27 B, Lea and Febiger, Carey Papers, vol. 1, folder 279, card catalogued under William D. Robinson.

5. EW. Robeson to Carey and Lea, Aug. 18,1822, Pennsylvania Historical Society, Collection No. 22 op. cit. But it is unclear whether these questions satisfied Robeson as to the Don's Masonic bona fides or as to certain commercial affairs.

6. EW. Robeson to Carey and Lea, Aug. 18,1822, Pennsylvania Historical Society, Collection No. 22.

7. See Thomas Smith Webb, The Freemason's Monitor or Illustrations of Masonry in Two Parts, A facsimile reprint of the first edition, published at Albany, New York, by Spencer and Webb in 1797, with a foreword by Allen E. Roberts. Vol. 27 of the publications of The Masonic Book Club (Bloomington, 111.:1996).

8. The Carey version in translation has the same contents in the main text as the Salem edition but no notes. The New York version has a partially different main text when compared with the Salem text but the same notes as the Salem edition.

9. Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, Library, Individual Lodge Folders Series, No. 191-1824.

10. G.L.R, Individual Lodge Folders Series, No. 191.

1l. Poinsett's great enthusiasm was for Capitular Masonry, and he was Deputy Grand High Priest of the General Grand Chapter of the United States in 1829,1832, and 1835. Election noted at respectively the New York, Baltimore, and Washington meetings. Proceedings of the 17th Triennial Convention of the General Grand Chapter (New Orleans: 859), p. 65.

12. G.L.R Folder, "Joel R. Poinsett, 1775-1851." The Pennsylvania Grand Lodge has a striking portrait of Poinsett whose provenance has been (in our view) unsuccessfully challenged.

13.”Before the Grand Lodge of Mexico was installed five subordinate lodges which had existed here for some time requested me to write to the Grand Lodge of New York for Charters. I did so but those applications have been neglected. If the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania will extend its protection and continuance to the growing Masonry of Mexico, I will cheerfully act as their Deputy.... I need not dwell on the advantages to be derived to our country by theses measures and I trust you will return me a speedy answer.... " Poinsett to the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, April 15, 826, G.L.R Poinsett folder.

14. See Joshua L. Lyte compiler, Reprint of the Minutes of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Pennsylvania, vol. v, 1822 to 1827 (Philadelphia: Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, 1900) p. 386.

15. Papers relating to Poinsett and Mexico which we have sought that were listed as being in the Library of the Grand Lodge of New York in the 19305 are no longer there. William Moore, the librarian, believes there is a chance they may have survived in material stored on the grounds of the Masonic home at Utica, New York.

16. See Susan Stitt, et al., eds. Guide to the Manuscript Collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: 1991). Also Grace E. Heilman and Bernard S. Levin eds., Calendar of Joel R. Poinsett Papers in The Henry D. Gilpin Collection (Philadelphia: The Gilpin Library of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1941).

Published in: S. Brent Morris (Ed.), Heredom - The Transition of The Scottish Rite Research Society, Vol. 6, The Scottish Rite Research Society, Washington D.C., 1997.

Contact: Dr. Paul Rich