Today I’m going to tell you a remarkable story involving Benjamin Franklin.
This story includes the the accidental death of a man, human branding, murder charges, public fights in the newspaper, and a whole lot of questionable behavior. It’s a story about a serious attack on Benjamin Franklin & Masonry’s integrity, and how they responded.
It’s a crazy story, and it’s 100% true. Let’s go.
There’s a doctor named Evan Jones in Philadelphia. He’s a pharmacist, and he works with an apprentice named Daniel Rees. Now Daniel is not a smart man. Daniel has been wanting to become a Freemason.
Dr. Jones figures he can turn this situation into a practical joke, and so he gets a few friends (John Tackerbury and John Remingon) and cooks up a fake initiation ceremony, that includes an oath of allegiance to Satan. And they really went for it in faking the ritual: obscene hand signs, a pledge of loyalty to the Prince of Darkness, and even fooling him into drinking from a cup that contained a laxative. At the end, one of them dropped their pants and presented his ass to kiss as a book to swear on.
Pretty extreme stuff. But we’re only getting started. At this point in the story, Jones & Remington had so much fun doing this to poor Rees that they’re repeating the story around town, including to Benjamin Franklin. Franklin laughed at the story and liked it so much he asked for a copy of the oath of allegiance to Satan and showed it to friends.
Context on Benjamin Franklin
At this time, Franklin was 32 and living in Philadelphia. He had a very rapid rise in Masonry though; initiated in 1731, Grand Master in 1734. He reprinted Anderson’s Constitutions for the first time in America that same year, and was the sitting Secretary of St. John’s Lodge in Philadelphia at the time of these events. He was not yet involved in any form of government. The portraits we know of him are all as an older man, but we need to keep in mind where he was in his life.
The Second Degree
They had too much fun doing this, and apparently Rees bought the whole thing. As a modern reader at this point I’m dumfounded; if Jones & Remington were repeating the story around town, I wonder if Rees may have had special needs or otherwise been mentally compromised and not just “simple” to keep playing along. But he still did.
On June 13th, Rees went to the cellar of Jones’ house to “receive another degree”. A man named Sullivan impersonated the devil. They lit a flaming bowl of brandy for lighting in the cellar, and the whole thing looked pretty scary. So scary, in fact, that Rees was taking it so seriously the others weren’t having any fun at the joke.
Why flaming bowls of brandy? Well, there’s a game dating back to the 16th century called Snap-Dragon that involves flaming brandy producing eerie blue flames. Everyone would have heard of this game, and the men had taken that idea and adapted it to fake ritual.
Jones wanted to spice things up, so he picked up the flaming bowl and approached Rees.
Now at this point, I want you to imagine a flaming bowl of brandy with eerie blue light, under a person’s chin in a dark cellar. The steam or smoke coming off of it, wafting up directly into your eyes, while you walk around the cellar. You want to light your face from the bottom to make it look scarier, just like kids do with flashlights today.
As Jones approached Daniel Rees, he trips, and throws flaming brandy all over him. Rees doesn’t die immediately, but takes serious burns, and dies two days later. Those would have been a pretty grim final two days.
Naturally this news gets around. Masons immediately distanced themselves from it. And of course they should have! None of this had anything to do with Freemasonry. A coroner looked into things, and a grand jury was convened. Benjamin Franklin told the authorities what he knew, and Remington & Tackerbury were indicted for murder. Evan Jones was brought up on manslaughter charges.
Franklin appeared in court for the prosecution’s in January 1738. Jones (who had started this whole mess) was found guilty and branded, referred to as “burned in the hand”. In those days, branding could be a punishment as it was extremely painful, and meant that for the rest of your life, others could see that you had received the penalty. Remington was found guilty, but granted a limited pardon. Finally Tackerbury was acquitted. The attorney general was not pleased, thinking that these men were all guilty of murder.
Attacking Benjamin Franklin
Remember, Franklin was already a prominent Mason, and his tangential involvement in all of this drew a lot negative attention. On February 14th, 1738, a commenter in the American Weekly Mercury paper took Franklin to task, claiming that Franklin had played along so much, that he had even greeted Rees as Brother, given the false signs, and so on.
Franklin wrote a long response in his defense in the Gazette on February 15th; remember this would have been about a month after he had testified for the prosecution. Again keep in mind the context: there was plenty of anti-Masonic sentiment running around, and 2 of the participants had just been let of with little or no consequences. And a former Grand Master of Masons had been heard laughing about the incident, after the fake “initiation” but before Rees’ death.
Franklin’s defense? Well, let’s start with when he was told about the events that happened to Rees. The day he was told, he was with two other men (Danby and Alrihs) on some business. This is a rough sketch of Franklin’s account.
- It’s true, I laughed heartily, that’s just in my nature! But only at the beginning of the story. I grew serious when they got to the part of the story about the oath to Satan.
- Danbury said that they would have been prosecuted in England for doing the same thing, and Franklin thought that Rees would never forgive them when he found out the whole thing was a sham.
- After discussing the upcoming plans for the “next degree”, Rees himself came into the room. Doctor Jones told Rees to greet us with signs. I was made uncomfortable by this entire situation and looked away, and did not see whether Rees made a sign or not, and claims not to have “greeted him as a Brother” or given tokens at all.
- I knew Rees’ father and pitied him in his situation. I wanted to follow him out of the house and tell him what had really happened, but Rees had disappeared and I wasn’t able to catch him. By the following Monday night he had died.
- I did receive the written “oath” from the “initiation” and found it remarkable, and did show it to others. When still others heard, many came to my house to see it. I eventually gave it to the Mayor to be rid of it so people would stop coming by.
- I have always detested these events
There were other men with Franklin at the time. John Danby corroborated Franklin’s account and said that Franklin did speak against it, and did not approve of what had already been done or want to be present for the second degree. Mr. Harmanus Alrihs, the second man who was there that day, signed the same statement.
Andrew Bradford and Anti-Masonry
In the middle of all of this mess, at the time Franklin was the publisher of a paper in Philadelphia called the Gazette, and was rivals with a man named Andrew Bradford, who ran a paper called the American Weekly Mercury. In the story we just told, Franklin was being attacked in the Mercury, and was responding in the Gazette. This makes perfect sense, and was part of a larger publishing fight.
Bradford was an anti-Mason as well, and published actual Masonic oaths in his paper after Rees’ death, prior to the trial, doing so to “expose and demystify Masonry, so that gullible men like Rees might not be so gullible in the future”.
What isn’t clear from the record is whether Andrew Bradford had it out for Franklin specifically, or if he was a useful foil as both a rival publisher and a leading Freemason.
- “A Defense of Conduct, 15 February 1738,” Founders Online, National Archives, [Original source: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 2, January 1, 1735, through December 31, 1744, ed. Leonard W. Labaree. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961, pp. 198–202.]
- Benjamin Franklin’s Time in Philadelphia
- New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century by Jill Lapore