St. Augustine and The Fraternal Orders
Part six of a series
Legends of Freemasonry
By Geoff Dobson
Notwithstanding that it has been well-said that if a secret is known by more than one person, it is no longer a secret, the so-called “secret societies” go to great length to keep their proceedings secret.
Secrecy begets rumors of plots and conspiracies. It is, in reality, a matter that the organizations are private and if they choose to do their business without spreading their business all over town that is their privilege.
Based, on alleged Masonic symbols, fanciful tales have arisen connecting Freemasonry, the lost Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, the Mystery Pit on Oak Island off of Nova Scotia, and Rosslyn Chapel. But those are tales for a later time.
There is, however, one more recent claim which reflects on the actual history of Masonry, the story of the rescue of Grand Marshal Ney, Napoleon’s “Bravest of the Brave,” from the firing squad. It has been said that membership in Masonry should be used only as a shield, never as a sword and certainly the story of Ney is that of loyalty to one’s brothers and the necessity at one time of keeping a secret.
At the conclusion of the American Revolution, Florida was exchanged by the British for the Bahamas and the tacit recognition by Spain of British title to Gibraltar. Masonic lodges within the East and West Florida moved further north. One of the areas in which Florida Masons moved was to South Carolina. The first Masonic Lodge in South Carolina had already been formed in 1735 and the Grand Lodge of South Carolina was chartered in 1737.
With the end of the American Revolution, and the troubles in France, there also came an influx of French speaking immigrants. South Carolina was attractive to those leaving France. There was already a large French-speaking population as a result immigration by French Huguenots who began settlement in the Low Country about 1685.
Those original Huguenots spread over what is now the southeastern United States. Indeed several families in St. Augustine claim descent from those settlers. Although north of the City Gates is the “Huguenot Cemetery,” it is not related to those early settlers. Instead, in northern Flagler County lies a small cemetery in which are interred descendents of some of those early French settlers of South Carolina.
Additional influxes of French-speaking settlers to the Southeast occurred as a result of the expulsion of French settlers from Acadia.
By 1799, there were two French-speaking Masonic Lodges in Charleston, Loge La Candeur formed primarily by Roman Catholics in 1795 and Loge La Reunion Francaise formed in 1799.
Even today that part of Charleston between the Cooper River on the east, Meeting Street on the west, Broad Street on the south and Market Street on the north is referred to as the French Quarter.
The end of the Napoleonic Wars brought yet another wave of French settlers. Many of the supporters of Napoleon, including many of his generals and, indeed, his four brothers were Masons. Thus, by the end of the Napoleonic Wars, South Carolina was well populated with French-speaking Masons.
Those fleeing from the wrath of the Bourbon royalists would fit in without being noticed. One of those who fled to South Carolina and thence to St. Augustine was Prince Achille Murat, a Mason, whose house still sits on South St. George Street.
In 1815, Napoleon had escaped from Elba and landed with a few men in the South of France. Louis XVIII, had been placed on the throne of France by the allies. King Louis, however, had to rely on the existing French army all of whom has previously served under Napoleon. Units of the French army, under the command of Grand Marshal Michel Ney were delegated the duty to stop Napoleon.
The entire command, including Marshal Ney, deserted over to Napoleon and King Louis fled to Belgium. At the end of 100 days, the Duke of Wellington again defeated Napoleon. By having surrendered to the Royal Navy, Napoleon escaped King Louis’ revenge.
Ney, however, left for the country estate of a relative and ultimately was arrested, tried for treason and sentenced to the firing squad. Several members, including Charles Talleyrand-Perigord, of the Nine Sisters Masonic Lodge of which Ney was a member approached Wellington, himself a Mason from an Irish lodge, and requested that he stop the execution.
Wellington approached King Louis with the request. The king figuratively and literally turned his royal derriere on Wellington. It was une grande insulte, the ultimate arrogance toward Wellington and to the British Empire and her allies. Wellington stormed out of the Palace telling some of the King’s aides, “You forget that I commanded the armies which put your king on his throne.”
In the early morning hours of December 7, 1815, Marshal Ney was taken from his dungeon cell, placed in a carriage to be taken to the place set for the execution, the Plain of Grenelle where thousands awaited the spectacle.
Instead, the carriage stopped in a dark alley behind the Luxembourg Gardens where there were only several witnesses, one of whom, Quintin Dick, later served in the British House of Commons.
There were several things which were peculiar about the execution: all of the firing squad were former members of Ney’s command; the firing squad loaded their own weapons; Ney, after refusing a blindfold, gave the order to fire himself; he fell forward rather than backward against the alley wall as might have been expected; and no one inspected the body.
Contrary to the official report given to King Louis, according to Quintin Dick the body was immediately covered, placed on a stretcher and carried away in the carriage, rather than being left in place fifteen minutes as required by military practice.
According to M. Claveau, Sr. of the Paris police, immediately after the execution, an English gentleman suddenly appeared, inspected the scene, gathered some items from the ground and then disappeared.
In late January, 1816, a mysterious gentleman going by the name of Peter Stuart Ney arrived in Charleston from Bordeaux. On the voyage, a fellow passenger recognized P. S. Ney as Marshal Ney. Ney denied the identification, telling the passenger that Marshal Ney had been executed two weeks before. P. S. Ney later proved to be well educated, fluent in classical languages, experienced at fencing, a well trained horseman, and upon learning of the death of Napoleon reduced to tears.
Peter Ney died on November 15, 1846. Allegedly on his death bed Peter Ney admitted to what most of those about him suspected; that he was Marshal Ney. Ney’s escape, however, generally remained a secret until 1895 and the publication of James A. Weston’s “Historic Doubts as to the Execution of Marshal Nay”.
In 1895, the world’s foremost handwriting expert, David N. Caravalho, provided confirmation that Peter Ney was in fact Marshal Ney. Caravlho later provided the proof that documents used to convict Alfred Dreyfus in L’Affaire Drefus were forged and that Drefus had been wrongfully convicted.
But, why, after Ney escaped, was the fact kept a secret? Because, Ney told a friend, there were those in France who would have faced severe penalties for helping in the escape. But nevertheless, Masonry and the Iron Duke protected their own and proved that they could keep a secret.
Next article: the Odd Fellows.
Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 33 years, is a western and Florida history writer and was former General Counsel for the Florida Department of Transportation. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org