Patrick Healy, in the NYT (April 4, 2004):
The Masons trace their roots to the stoneworkers' guilds that built Gothic cathedrals during the Middle Ages. Over the years, they have been accused of cronyism, secrecy and conspiring to take over the world's governments. One infamous charge was that in 1826 the Masons supposedly killed a man in upstate New York who threatened to reveal Masonic secrets in a book. Jasper Ridley, in a history of the group, tells of his fate:
They took him out on to the River Niagara in a boat, fastened metal weights to his feet and threw him into the river, where he drowned.
The Masons have long been prohibited from talking about their secret handshakes and shibboleths, and until the 18th century were forbidden to talk about the society's very existence, writes John J. Robinson in "Born in Blood," a 1989 history of the Masons. Back then, applicants were often left in the dark:
In Secret Times he would have been watched, evaluated, discussed, perhaps surreptitiously interviewed, and then very carefully made aware of the existence of the secret fraternity a bit at a time, until it was deemed absolutely safe to invite him in.
Times change. Today, there is no national Masonic organization, and Masons follow the edicts and decisions of their state's Grand Lodge. In New York, the Grand Lodge held a one-day membership drive last May. They advertised the event, sent out press releases and set up an 800 number. Carl Hitje, the grand master of the State of New York, explained why in a letter to his followers:
Our goal is to raise 5,000 new members on that day, but let's not stop there; if we go beyond that number it will be a true bonus for our Fraternity.
Think of all of the fresh faces, innovative ideas and financial improvement these new Brothers will bring to your Lodge and the Craft. But more importantly, think of how this class will open Freemasonry to the public, resulting in increased interest and a continued stream of new members....
Centuries ago, a Mason had to be a "free man born of a free mother," and the doors were closed to "stupid atheists" and those in their "nonage and dotage," according to Mr. Robinson's history. And that's not all:
The mentally deficient are prohibited Masonic membership by the Old Charges, which is understandable. Not so clear is the reason for the prohibition of membership to any man who is not in full possession of all of his limbs.
Today's requirements, as laid out in a pamphlet from the New York Grand Lodge, are a bit looser:
Become a Master Mason in One Day
Become a member of the world's oldest and largest men's fraternity in just one day. Membership appeals to men of every race, religion, sect or opinion, who meet three basic qualifications:
*A belief in God
*Residency in New York (unless specially waived)
*Good Moral and Social Character