Lest a woman should offer herself

A while ago I was reading Jachin and Boaz (1) the famous ‘exposure’ from 1762. On the part about the taking of the oath, the text says:

“On which the Person says, “I do.” His Waistcoat is then unbottoned”. The last word is marked with an * referring to a very remarkable note:

“This is done lest a Woman should offer herself. If we believe the Irish, there is a Lady at this Time in Ireland, who has gone through the whole Ceremony, and is as good a Mason as any of them.”

This begs a couple of questions:

  1. “lest a Woman should offer herself” seems to imply that the possibility of women joining lodges is left open. The author could have referred to an accidental initiation of a woman, but there is no need to suggest the same to happen in a future case if that is not an option;
  2. Was author of this text a Freemason (he would probably not have mentioned the above if he was) or was he an opportunist who ‘just’ noted what he has heard?
  3. Does the author refer to the initiation of Elizabeth Aldsworth-Leger?

Let us have a further look at the three questions.

lest a Woman should offer herself

It could be me, but I can think of no other reason to phrase this line this way, if the author did not leave open the possibility of future initiations of women. Also it is mentioned without comment in a neutral tone.

In the 1723 Constitutions (2) women are clearly forbidden to join lodges:

for the learned and magnanimous Queen ELIZABETH, who encourag’d other Arts, discourag’d this ; because, being a Woman, she could not be made a Mason” (p. 36) and “to be good Men and true” (p. 48)

If the author of Jachin and Boaz was a Freemason, the not uncritical note would have been odd, to say the least. Could the source be another than ‘the Freemasonry around Anderson’? We will look at this in a bit.

Was the author a Freemason?

It seems we don’t know who was the author of Jachin and Boaz. I did find an article of Alain Bernheim (3) which does give some interesting information.

The first series of English masonic exposures comes to an end with the publication of Samuel Prichard’s Masonry Dissected in October 1730. The second series starts with the publication of Three Distinct Knocks (April 1760) and of Jachin and Boaz (March 1762)

These three texts have been published together and are thus sometimes all three ascribed to Prichard. Bernheim simply refers to the “compiler”. That is about the information about the author that I can find. Berheim has another article (4) from the same series and published on the same website which states the following:

J&B or An Authentic Key to the Door of Free-Masonry was issued in London (March 1762). Its second ‘Corrected’ edition issued in October 1762 added Both ANTIENT and MODERN to the preceding words of the title-page. Its first degree proceeds from two distinct sources: one is TDK which it reproduces «almost word for word»; the other is the Herault’s pamphlet (December 1737) in its original narrative form and rhythm but with important differences in wording.

“Antient and Modern”, a little side step.

Founded in 1717 by four lodges, the “Grand Lodge of London and Westminster” didn’t organise all of the many lodges that existed in England, Scotland and Ireland from the start. In 1721 royal patronage was secured for the young organisation and this attracted the attention of not only the public, but also from other lodges. The publication of the Constitutions in 1723 of course added to the publicity and more lodges started to join. I can’t immediately find how rapidly this went.

Around 1730 problems started to arise from lodges who were of the opinion that the premier Grand Lodge made too many innovations to the working. Existing lodges had joined (and left) and new lodges were founded (and folded), but in 1751 the “The Grand Lodge of the Most Ancient and Honourable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons” was founded. They called themselves “Ancient” or “Antient” and the ‘innovators’ “Moderns”. Only in 1813 the two merged again into the still existing “United Grand Lodge of England”.

Back to Jachin and Boaz. As we saw “Antient” and “Modern” combined in the ‘corrected’ edition. Simply said, the sources of the text are both English and Irish, which may explain how the author knew about the initiation of an Irish woman.

Also interesting is that Bernheim names two sources for Jachin and Boaz. The reason this is interesting will come back later.

Three Distinct Knocks is from 1760, not long before Jachin and Boaz, but the Herault’s Pamphlet is from 1737, a much earlier source. This Herault’s Pamphlet proves to be a French text named Sceau Rompu.

Having been unable to discern if the author of Jachin and Boaz was a Freemason, we shall continue to the next question.

Does the author refer to Elizabeth Aldsworth–Leger?

The wording in the note is strange: “If we believe the Irish, there is a Lady at this Time in Ireland” (my emphasis). Jachin and Boaz was published in 1762. Elizabeth Aldsworth was initiated “sometime between 1710–1718” (5). That is not quite “at this time”! Even if the source for that statement was the French text, there would be a gap of at least two decades. The “if we believe the Irish” (I’m not 100% it reads this) makes me think this is a reference to a newspaper. You don’t refer to a newspaper of 20 years before, do you?

Maybe the situation was somewhat different. Let’s have a quick look at Elizabeth.

She was born around 1695, Irish and her father was member of a lodge that sometimes met in his library. Nosy Elizabeth tried to overhear the meeting, was caught and the lodge decided to initiate her so she had to swear secrecy. For many years Elizabeth remained an active member of the lodge.

There is a theory that Elizabeth was initiated around 1725 which could account for her having made the news later, but we are still far from 1734, let alone 1762. Had she indeed been an active member for many years, also after a few decades a woman in a men’s world would of course still have been news.

But back to the sources

Is there a mention of women in either Three Distinct Knocks or Sceau Rompu? Three Distinct Knocks can be found online (6). It is ‘but’ a catechism and has nothing close to the passage in Jachin and Boaz that I started this article with.

Also Sceau Rompu can be found online (7). My French isn’t super, but there seems to be nothing like the passage in Jachin and Boaz. The text does refer to “femmes” (women) though, but in a much different tone:

Je ne doit point oublier de parler ici de deux autres Ouvrages qui ont quelque vogue, mais dont il faut bien se défier. L’un est le Parfait Maçon, pur jeu d’esprit, qui n’a été fait qu’en faveur des femmes, & qui ne peut être qu’à leur usage. L’autre intitulé : La Franche Maçonne, porte avec soi le caractere de sa parfaite inutilité pour la véritable Maçonnerie.

Which in Google translation means:

I should not forget to speak here of two other works which are in vogue, but which we must beware of. One is the Perfect Mason, a pure play of mind, which has only been done in favor of women, and who can only be used by them. The other entitled: La Franche Maçonne, carries with it the character of its complete uselessness for true Masonry.

This can’t be the source for the very neutral mention of women in Freemasonry in Jachin and Boaz either.

If that statement must be seen as an addition to his compilation by the author of Jachin and Boaz, it should refer to events, or at least news, around 1760. In that case, the reference can hardly be to Elizabeth Aldsworth.

A good place to look for other female Irish Freemasons from around 1760 is Karen Kidd’s Haunted Chambers (8). In this book Kidd investigates “the lives of early women Freemasons”.

The first woman described in the book is Aldsworth. The next Hannah Mather Crocker, but this is already in the 1770’ies and in Boston, USA where Crocker seems to have been member of a women-only lodge. This is already too late for the reference in Jachin and Boaz though and not in Ireland either. All later examples are later and not in Ireland either, so let’s focus back on Aldsworth.

In 1811, 36 years after her death, an account of Aldsworth’s life was published with her family’s approval. Kidd says that this is the most accurate and credible account. Later more fanciful versions have been published. The fact that the family was involved in the publication, makes it likely that the events are indeed portrayed with some accuracy. Quoting this account, Kidd writes:

… she lived up to the highest principles of the Order to which she belonged. Possessed of considerable wealth, her purse and influence were always at the command of any Brother in distress and to all appeals she responded with ready sympathy and large-hearted generosity … She was (as far as she went) a most exemplary Mason and headed her Lodge frequently in procession. (p. 47)

This lines up quite well with the line in the note in Jachin and Boaz saying: “and is as good a Mason as any of them”. But if that account is from 1811, the author of Jachin and Boaz couldn’t have known it around 1760. Perhaps Kidd can answer that question too:

There must have been a lively oral tradition about Elizabeth prior to the 1811 account. (p. 42)

In all likelihood “the Irish” referred to in the Jachin and Boaz note are the Irish people, even though I find it strange to first say “the Irish” and them “Ireland” as if that wouldn’t have been clear enough. It does mean that these Irish were talking about events in Ireland and not abroad and since the only case I can find with a woman Freemason “as […] good as any of them” is Elizabeth Aldsworth. This means that her story was so famous that it found its way into an early Masonic expose. With approval even as it seems.

(1) Available online (when I write this) at Archive.org.

(2) The Constitutions of the Free-Masons 1734 version can be found online (accessed 29/1/2021)

(3) Masonic Catechisms and Exposures published in the series Études Maçonniques – Masonic Papers by Alain Bernheim. The published version of the text appears to be from 1993 and can be found online (accessed 29/1/2021).

(4) Three Distinct Knocks – Jachin and Boaz by Alain Bernheim. Can be found online (accessed 29/1/2021)

(5) Wikipedia, accessed 29/1/2021

(6) Three Distinct Knocks, accessed 29/1/2021

(7) Sceau Rompu on Google Books and in plain text. Both accessed 29/1/2021.

(8) Haunted Chambers by Karen Kidd (2009). More about the book here.

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